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Motorola's newest modular smartphone — the Moto Z2 Play — is a lot of fun

  • The Moto Z2 Play is a great unlocked smartphone that costs $499 without a carrier contract.
  • It will launch this summer and will also be sold through Verizon.
  • It's the latest smartphone from Motorola that supports the company's "mods."

The Moto Z2 Play is a new affordable Android that allows you to attach various magnetic "mods" to add new features to the smartphone.

Mods let you attach a speaker for louder music, a battery pack to give you the charge boost you need and even add new functions, like wireless charging.

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The idea isn't new, but the fact that Motorola is sticking with it shows there's a future in this space. Motorola Mobility (owned by Lenovo) and LG have launched so-called modular smartphones.

Motorola, to its credit, has done a much better job offering a larger choice of modular components that are easier to pop on and off its smartphones. Several are already available, including a Hasselblad camera attachment that allows you to shoot better photos, a speaker, a projector, various battery packs and more.

The Moto Z2 Play is the latest such Motorola phone to support these mods. I've been using it for the past few days, and I really like where Motorola's heading.

Refinements with a focus on battery life

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play 2
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Moto Z2 Play isn't the most powerful Android smartphone on the planet, but it doesn't have to be. Last year's Z Play made its name for great performance and solid battery life, both without requiring the "latest and greatest" Snapdragon chip from Qualcomm. The Moto Z2 Play continues that legacy by offering an easy day-and-a-half or more of battery life on a single charge, making it an especially compelling option for road warriors who forget to charge their smartphones at night.

There's a bright and large display on the Moto Z2 Play, though it isn't as sharp as other options like the Galaxy S8, and it doesn't run from edge to edge, like on more expensive phones. This should mean very little to most folks, but is one reason it doesn't support Google Daydream VR, which is a bummer in my book because I dig what Google is doing in that space.

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play 3
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Motorola made a few other hardware improvements. There's a headphone jack on the bottom of this phone, which I still appreciate as an option. It also added new gesture support to the home button, which doubles as a fingerprint reader. You can swipe across it to move between apps or manage open windows, for example. It makes getting where you want to go a hair faster, but takes some getting used to.

I really like Motorola's dedication to TurboCharging technology. The Moto Z2 Play can provide up to eight hours of usage after just a 15 minute charge, too, which is pretty incredible if you need a quick charge before leaving the office for a dinner meeting.

Finally, Motorola improved the camera over last year's model with a better 12MP sensor. It's fast, which I liked, and seemed to take good pictures during my tests. I have no complaints on that front.

Mods, mods and mods

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play 5
Todd Haselton | CNBC

All of this aside, the mods are what make the Moto Z2 Play the most compelling. I saw a few new ones that I can't talk about yet and a few that I can. Here's what's new.

JBL, which Motorola told me made one of the more popular mods last year, is back with a new JBL SoundBoost 2 speaker mod. It slaps right on the back of the phone and, without any effort of changing of settings, will start playing music and movies much louder and clearer than what you'd get from the phone's speakers. It sounds great, like a portable Bluetooth speaker, and improved my TV-watching and movie-watching experiences. I also love the included kickstand, letting me prop the phone up on my coffee table and kick back.

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Another mod, called the Moto Style Shell, offers a wood-grain texture and helps spice up the otherwise relatively boring look of the Moto Z2 Play. It also serves a purpose. Inside the $40 panel is support for wireless charging. Slap it on the back of the phone and, suddenly, the Moto Z2 Play can be dropped on any Qi or PMA (the two standards) charging pads and juice without any wires. This is the shell I used most of the time, since I keep a wireless charging pad right on my desk.

Yet another mod, the Moto TurboPower Pack, is thin and light and provides another entire day of battery life. It supports TurboCharging, too, which means it can juice up your phone's battery to 50 percent in just 20 minutes. It's thin, but is generally meant to be removed from the device after the power has been transferred over to the phone. It was great in a bind when the phone died before I was set to film a video.

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play 6
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, there's a Moto GamePad that will launch this summer. I saw it but didn't have it available for review. It adds controls to the phone so that you can use it as a portable gaming system. It seems fun enough, but I prefer standalone options like a Nintendo Switch or even an iPad for my portable gaming.

Final thoughts

CNBC Tech: Moto Z2 Play 7
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You're betting on Motorola's Mods if you pick up a Moto Z2 Play, since they're what make phone much more fun to use.

Motorola has been working with partners and even Indiegogo to continue to create mods, and I'm glad to see it's an ecosystem the company is continuing to invest in. They're not for everyone, but for folks who want to add functions that weren't already available, they're the best way to do so. And, thanks to a new modular platform, Motorola says partners will soon be able to create even more affordable options.

The Moto Z2 Play costs $499 and will be available this summer both unlocked (without a carrier contract) or exclusively on Verizon. That's $50 more than last year's model, but I think there's enough here — a thinner design, great battery life, an improved camera — that it's a great option for folks who don't want to spend the roughly $800 for a flagship such as the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7, while also looking for something unique.