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Front and back view of Moto G Play 2023 smartphone
Photograph: Motorola

Review: Motorola Moto G Play (2023)

Don’t take the bait. There’s another smartphone that’s better in every way and costs just $30 more. 
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Motorola Moto G Play 2023
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Rating:

4/10

WIRED
It’s cheap. Decent display. Two-day battery life. Includes headphone jack, fingerprint sensor, and microSD card slot. Three years of security updates. IP52 water repellent. 
TIRED
Dreary looks and slow performance. 32 GB of storage is limiting. No NFC so you can’t create contactless payments. You probably won’t use the camera much. Motorola only promises one OS upgrade (to Android 13). 

In the past week, I've borrowed my fiancée's phone roughly four times. The first few were when we visited The Met Cloisters museum in New York City. I like taking photos, so I borrowed her Pixel phone to snap some pretty scenes. The next time was when we decided to order some delicious buffalo chicken tenders in the middle of a dog walk. I don't carry my wallet when I walk my dog and often pay with my phone, and I couldn't do that with the $170 Moto G Play (that also meant she paid, heh). 

The last time was yesterday when we both went to a Joe Hisaishi Candlelight concert and heard the wonderful Highline String Quartet recreate beautiful Studio Ghibli soundtracks (yes, even the classic “Merry Go Round of Life” from Howl's Moving Castle). I nudged her to give me her phone so I could record a short clip of the last track—the only one everyone was allowed to record.

It's understandable that a sub-$200 smartphone will create compromises, especially with its camera. The Moto G Play is terribly slow, but it's not the worst option on the market, and I was otherwise able to obtain by. But I do feel obligated to say that after I switched to another cheap phone from Samsung, it's hard to recommend. 

Play It Safe
Photograph: Motorola

The Moto G Play is a plasticky phone that looks dreary, like most other budget handsets. At least plastic means the back won't shatter if you drop it. This phone does not support 5G networks, so you're relegated to 4G LTE, but it will work with every major US network. 

Motorola is powering the Play with MediaTek's Helio G37 chipset with 3 gigabytes of RAM, which is the same processor it used in last year's Moto G Power 2022. I detested it when I tried it because it was markedly slower than the prior model, so it's not much of a surprise to see the new Play performing in a similarly frustrating manner. 

It has its moments where it can run just fine, but too often, you will wait several seconds for the keyboard to appear when you want to type something into the search bar. (It also likes to skip the first word I swipe-type with the keyboard, prompting me to begin again.) Switch apps and you'll wonder if the pause means the phone froze, so you'll swipe again, only for it to suddenly register two separate swipes, and now you're in an app you didn't want to open. 

In my benchmark test, it delivered one of the lowest scores I have ever seen in recent memory. Yes, I've been able to read my emails, respond to messages, and browse Reddit in my downtime; just add a dose of lag between most of those tasks and that's the experience.

If you can stand that sluggishness, then you might not find too much fault with the rest of the hardware. The 6.5-inch 720p screen doesn’t look too pixelated and has been fine to stare at for most tasks, though it can be hard to read when it’s bright out. There’s a 90-Hz screen refresh rate, but I’m not even going to annoy counting this as a positive—the phone isn't really powerful enough to consistently deliver the “smooth” experience you’re supposed to obtain with a high refresh rate.   

The 5,000-mAh battery is the standout feature, as I've been able to obtain roughly two days on a single charge with average use (likely a little more if you're even more conservative). It's really nice not having to plug in every night. There's a trustworthy fingerprint sensor on the back and even a headphone jack. It only comes with 32 GB of internal storage, so you'll want to take advantage of the microSD card slot—just after one week of use I'm seeing “storage low” alerts, and that's with a little over 100 apps (including the preinstalled ones). 

It's only IP52 water repellent, so it'll be fine in the rain, but not so much if you drop it in a pool. And there's also no near-field communication sensor, so you can't tap to pay with the Moto G Play. It's not be a dealbreaker, just inconvenient. 

There's a good possibility you won't use the camera much, which was the case for me. There's a 16-megapixel leading camera joined by a 2-megapixel macro camera and a 2-megapixel depth camera for portrait mode photos. Daytime photos are passable, though the cameras can struggle with high-contrast scenes. Anything in low light will be dark, muddy, and almost unusable. 

Playtime's Over

Motorola is only promising one OS update for this phone, and considering it launched with 2021's Android 12, that means it'll only be updated to Android 13. Bleh. The good news is this phone will obtain three years of bimonthly security updates, which is a step up from prior budget Motorola phones. At least your device will be kept up-to-date and secure for that time. 

However, there is a much better solution: Samsung's Galaxy A14 5G. I just switched to this brand-new $200 handset, and it's already a big improvement over the Moto G Play. It's much speedier, so I'm not frustrated every five minutes using it. There's NFC so I can pay at the deli even if I forget my wallet. There's 5G support so loading webpages doesn't feel as sluggish. It has double the storage (plus a microSD card slot) and will obtain two OS upgrades and four years of security updates. It's also running the latest Android 13 out of the box. It quite literally trounces everything about the Motorola phone in every way and costs just $30 more.

You can also try and find an older flagship phone for under $200, though it likely won't have as long of a software shelf life as buying a newer device. Or check out our Best Cheap Phones guide for other alternatives. But really, though, switching to the Galaxy A14 5G after a week with the Moto G Play feels like I was stuck somewhere in limbo. Motorola, stop playing around.