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Moto Z REVIEW: The mods can’t save this one

by Brandon Russell | July 21, 2016July 21, 2016 6:01 am PST

Some of the best and smartest ideas of the modern smartphone era have come from Motorola. Moto Maker? Genius. Moto Display? Irreplaceable. These are the kind of innovations that have helped the company quietly forge one of the strongest Android lineups of the last few years. Now, the company has come up with another gem: MotoMods.

Instead of piecing a phone together like LEGO, Motorola’s new Moto Z and Moto Z Force—both at 5.5-inches—offer an elegant solution for adding “modular” components. Through a series of rear-facing pins, these mod accessories magnetically snap on, so powering the device off, a problem faced by the LG G5, isn’t necessary. Transforming your phone into a projector has never been so easy.

The MotoMods—there’s a battery, speaker, and projector—are just a small part of the new Moto Z. We’ve seen a lot of fantastic smartphones this year, and we’ll no doubt see more. But they were all so… uninteresting. As much as I loved the HTC 10, it was instantly forgettable the moment I stopped using it. The Moto Z isn’t like that.

Ever since the Moto X launched in 2013, Motorola has navigated an impressive path that prioritizes design and user experience over bloat and excess. With this year’s Moto Z, the Lenovo-owned company has once again found a way to balance this ethos while engineering one of the best smartphones we’ve seen all year. The Moto Z is beautiful, powerful, and immensely satisfying to use.

But, inevitably, there are issues holding it back from being truly great.

For this review, I’ll be talking specifically about the Moto Z. For the Moto Z Force, check out Jon’s video review here.

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We’ve reached a point where not only are smartphones at a technological parity but an aesthetic parity, too. A OnePlus looks like a Xiaomi looks like an HTC looks like an Apple looks like a Samsung, and so on and so forth. Every new smooth, aluminum slab looks like the next smooth, aluminum slab before it. In spite of this, the Moto Z’s design still manages to stand out.

There are so many reasons why the design shouldn’t work, too. It’s a fingerprint nightmare, the camera hump looks obnoxiously large, and the back doesn’t feature a comfortable curve like so many aluminum alternatives. Yet, once you hold the Moto Z in your hand, you won’t be able to resist its willowy 5.1mm frame.

Not since the RAZR has Motorola released such a beautifully designed phone. We’ve seen dozens of gorgeous handsets this year, including the OnePlus 3, Galaxy S7 Edge, and HTC 10. But—and at the risk of hyperbole—the Moto Z looks better than every last one of them. It’s exquisitely engineered, rigid in its construction and impressively assured.

Inside, the Moto Z is pretty similar to every other major flagship on the market, equipped with a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, microSD card support up to 2TB, 13-megapixel camera with OIS, a 2,600mAh battery, and Android Marshmallow. It all makes for a device that’s smooth in its operation, briskly handling games, videos, email, the things it’s made to do.

Like previous Motorola devices, Android is still left mostly untouched, which is a good thing. There is no skin and Motorola still shows plenty of restraint by not bogging the software down with bad ideas. Moto Display, Actions, and Voice are all present, and they make for enjoyable additions to the experience, Display in particular. We’ve said this before, and it remains true: Motorola does Android slightly better than Google. And because Android isn’t skinned beyond recognition, Moto Z users should get prompt software updates, which is good news with Android Nougat on the horizon.

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The bad news is the device gets obliterated by Verizon’s bloat. It’s a shame that carriers continue to stuff Android devices with apps upon apps; it’s offensive. If I want things like Verizon Message+, VZ Protect, VZ Navigator, Cloud, My Verizon, I will download them myself. The device comes with a handful of games pre-installed, too, and none that I have any interest in playing. Bloat has been a problem for years, especially on Verizon, and will likely torment consumers into eternity.

If we ignore the bloat—it’s tough because there are around twenty apps—the best device I can compare the Moto Z to is the Nexus 6P, which has a similar feel in its construction and weight. However, the Moto Z surpasses Huawei’s design thanks to its smaller and more narrow frame.

Unfortunately, that thin frame ends up coming at a sacrifice. Most high-end Android devices, including the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10, come with 3,000mAh batteries, which typically provide users with a solid day of heavy use, sometimes more. The Moto Z’s battery is only 2,600mAh, which is downright tiny next to its most prominent competitors. During my week of testing, I often got through a full day without needing to charge, but just barely. Put it this way: you can pretty much forget about using the Moto Z for Pokémon GO.

Like 99 percent of the consumer population, I’d much rather own a device that’s moderately thin but still gets excellent battery life—something you get with the Moto Z Force. The Moto Z sacrifices a slightly stockier frame for a small battery, and the device is ultimately worse off for it. I suppose the good news is the Moto Z supports TurboPower charging, providing users with 8 hours of battery after just 15 minutes.

The small battery probably won’t be the only thing people dislike about the Moto Z’s design. We’ve heard a lot about the iPhone 7 ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack, but the Moto Z already beat Apple to the punch. Instead, users are required to use the USB-C connection on the bottom of the phone. Don’t have headphones with a USB-C connector? Motorola includes an adapter. The transition to a single port will no doubt be tough for people who use headphones on a daily basis (unless you have Bluetooth headphone, of course). If you accidentally leave Motorola’s adapter at home, though, your wired headphones will be useless.

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There are no bottom-firing speakers, either. Aesthetically, having no speakers on the bottom of the device looks super clean. But that leaves users with the earpiece as the only speaker, which is just OK. It’s obvious Motorola is relying on people to pick up the MotoMod speaker from JBL, which we’ll talk about a little bit later.

I also found the fingerprint sensor to be a bit of an annoyance; the sensor itself is fast and accurate but for whatever reason it doesn’t double as a capacitive home button. I don’t know how many times I absentmindedly tapped the sensor thinking it was a button; it most definitely is not. The sensor does hide a few new tricks, however. It’ll unlock your device from a sleep state and also lock your device, so you don’t have to fiddle with the power button.

Finally, let’s talk about that huge, massive, gargantuan camera hump; I call it the Moto Z’s cyclops eye. I don’t mind it that much, but it’s easy to understand why people consider it to be such an eyesore. Most phones today feature a camera hump of some sort, but the Moto Z’s is much more pronounced. You can forget about your device sitting flush on a table. That being said, it serves a purpose.

Because a big part of the Moto Z’s pitch is the MotoMods, the camera hump allows these accessories to align better with something when they’re in use. For the Style Shells, for example—an accessory I used during the majority of testing—the hump almost acts as an anchor, holding these mods in place, so they don’t move around when they’re attached.

Once these mods are on, they’re on. I never encountered a scenario where they accidentally came off, and I found them incredibly easy to use and operate. They’re simple enough to take off and snap on with one hand, too, making usability a breeze. And no extra know-how is required to use them, proving that Motorola clearly thought the design through. They’re incredibly well executed, and I’m excited to see what other developers come up with down the road.

Now, whether you’ll want to spend the extra dough on these mods, which can only be used within Motorola’s ecosystem, is a different story.

I used one of the Style Shells—there will be six at launch; I used the Silver Oak—during the majority of testing, which I found to be a perfect fit with the slim Moto Z. Not only does it protect the device’s back from hideous fingerprints, but it adds just enough thickness, so the camera no longer pokes out. The Shells also make holding the Z more comfortable.

The other mods include a speaker made by JBL, a projector made by Motorola, and a Power Pack (there are three; one by Incipio, one by Kate Spade, and one by Tumi), the latter of which adds an extra 2,220mAh battery to the device. The last one is an easy sell, especially if you decide to pick up the Moto Z, but the other two mods are decidedly niche. I mean, there are dozens of affordable Bluetooth speakers on the market, making the JBL speaker a tough prospect when it only works with Motorola’s devices. And I simply have no use for a projector attached to my phone, but that’s just me.

What’s great, however, is that these mods are insanely simple to use. Just attach the projector and you can start, well, projecting. Same goes with the speaker. They even come packed with their own batteries, so your Moto Z’s battery doesn’t drain in a hurry. Even still, I have a hard time recommending them.

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For one thing, the only way to charge a mod’s battery is to attach it to the Moto Z and connect the device to a charger. There’s no way to charge them individually, which is a bit of a usability conundrum. Even the battery packs need to be attached to the Moto Z to be charged up. Ironic.

The mods also need to be attached to the Moto Z for them to be used. I mean, sure, that’s the whole point of the Moto Z’s approach to modularity, but it forces a design philosophy on its users. The mods only work with Motorola’s devices and only when they’re attached. That seems particularly egregious for the JBL speaker, which for some reason doesn’t have Bluetooth functionality. And it would have been cool to use the projector with the JBL speaker, but that’s just not possible.

While these first generation mods aren’t must-haves, I still feel like the potential of Motorola’s idea surpasses what we saw from LG earlier this year. Being able to attach and detach different accessories—without turning your device off, mind you—will never not be cool, and they complement the Moto Z well. Do you need the mods? No. Are they cool? Mostly, and that’s a good start.

I can handle poor battery life, and I can handle the growing pains of Motorola’s mods. But here’s what I can’t handle: a bad camera. Motorola has a sordid past with camera quality, and the Moto Z doesn’t do much to improve on what we’ve seen from the company before. Motorola says the Moto Z and Z Force come equipped with its most advanced cameras yet, but that’s not saying much.

I didn’t test out the Moto Z Force, so you’ll have to check out Jon’s review for his thoughts on the larger 21-megapixel camera. As for the Moto Z’s 13-megapixel shooter, I expected more.

If it’s not blown-out highlights or muddy details, it’s the software’s over-aggressive digital sharpening. I found exposure to be wonky, too, so I’d often have to retake a shot by tweaking the exposure myself. The camera samples above should speak for themselves—check out the photo of the Sony A6300. (If you want the full resolution samples, you can check them out right here.) In the most ideal conditions you’ll get decent results but nowhere near the quality of a Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6s Plus. Hopefully, a quick software update can fix that right up.

The plus side is that the camera operates quickly; focusing is fast, and there’s no discernible shutter lag. Elsewhere, manual mode is fun to use, and there are a handful of other modes, including panorama, video, and slow motion. But, otherwise, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the camera’s quality. It’s good enough for casual shooting but for a feature that’s become so important to the smartphone experience, and on such a high-end device, I wasn’t particularly impressed.

Rating: Wait

The Moto Z is a fast, gorgeous, exciting phone but the mods are only half-baked at this point.


That’s the biggest issue I have with the Moto Z. Its gorgeous design is betrayed by a mediocre camera and a mod idea that doesn’t quite fulfill its potential (yet). Let’s be honest, nobody is going to drop several hundred dollars on a phone and then drop $300 more on a projector that only works when attached to said phone. That’s just absurd.

If you take the mods out of the equation, where does that leave the Moto Z? Does it stand out enough against competition that’s becoming more powerful and more affordable? The design of the Moto Z is stunning; the screen is beautiful, the construction is sound, and the approach to software can’t be beat. But if you don’t care for the whole mod revolution, you can get the same flagship experience from the OnePlus 3, which retails for $399.

Regardless, I am smitten by the Moto Z’s design, and it operates smoothly during day-to-day use. But with sketchy battery life, a so-so camera, and a cool idea that’s not yet great, this one is a “wait.” If anything, I’d reconsider when the Moto Z is available unlocked later this year. By then, we’ll have seen devices such as the Galaxy Note 7, iPhone 7, and maybe even a new Nexus, and that’s some really, really tough competition.

Disclosure: Verizon provided us with Moto Z and Moto Z Force review units and we tested them for about a week before drafting our reviews.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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