It’s been nearly ten years since Apple got wacky with a tiny slab of glass and metal that begged to be touched. Now every phone looks the same, and consequently bores us all to tears. Motorola’s Moto Z, with its array of modules and crazy thin profile, isn’t like the other guys. It’s an audacious attempt at answering the biggest question to phone designers and lovers: What is the next evolution?
If you thought the weirdest thing about the Android-based Moto Z (or Moto Z Droid as it's being called in the US) would be its system of modules, you’d be mistaken. The phone, stripped of its accessories, is an aberration all by itself. It’s thin. Not in a like “yeah, yeah all phones are thin now”. No, I mean really, really thin. At 5.2mm, it’s the thinnest phone ever made and makes the iPhone 6s (7.1mm) look like a monster. That lack of physical matter makes the phone incredibly light. I’ve used the Z for over a week and I still overcorrect when I pick it up because I’m used to something heavier. It’s a feeling of “whoa” that doesn’t recede over time.
But because the phone is so thin, it’s not the most comfortable phone, and to achieve that ultra-thinness, Motorola completely ditched the headphone jack. I know, I know. It sucks! But if the new iPhone follows through on the abundant rumours, which suggest it will do the same, this is the new normal. Adapt or die.
Personally, the whole “no headphone jack” thing doesn’t bother me much, since I’m currently using wireless Bose QuietComfort 35s as my daily head gear. But I switched to a wired headset to test this Brave New Audio world with just one single USB Type-C port, and it can be annoying, especially if you’d like to listen to music while charging your phone. But those frustrating moments are few and far between. I don’t see a serious lack of ports on the Moto Z as a big problem.
The required USB Type-C to audio jack converter.
Its overall design is another story. We tested the black/grey version of the Moto Z (there’s also a white/gold and black/rose gold version). At first I liked what Motorola was trying to do. If you’re going to have a phone as weird as the Moto Z, you might as well go all in and make the design one-of-a-kind as well. The best way I’ve described this phone to friends is that it feels like it belongs in the hands of a sci-fi action hero like Douglas Quaid or Robocop. From its protruding camera, exposed 16-pin connection (for the MotoMods), and the subtly striped backplate, it looks the part for a smartphone hoping to be the beginning of a different mobile future — circa 1990.
But somewhere along the way, Motorola lost sight of the basics; it lost sight of things that most smartphone users have a hard time forgiving in 2016. Like a big camera bump, poorly placed volume buttons, and an obnoxiously large bottom bezel. Look at previous Motorola creations, like the Nexus 6 and the Moto X Pure Edition. For all their faults they packed in a lot of screen in a small amount of space.
The Moto Z ditches that idea to include a fingerprint sensor, that while accurate, doesn’t even act as a home button. So on top of that big bezel you need to deal with software keys. Other reviewers suggest that this extra bezel space is needed to fit guts in such a thin phone. Yet I’d gladly sacrifice a millimetre (or even two!) for a better screen-to-bezel ratio, or a real physical home button.
Motorola squeezes a lot into that minuscule frame, including a Snapdragon 820 processor, a 13-megapixel camera, and an AMOLED Quad HD display. This display is gorgeous, though it does run a bit more saturated than I’d like, and the Snapdragon 820 makes using this thing a breeze. There are around 18 extra apps on here. Some you can delete. Some you can’t. Yuck.
Among the traditional phone accoutrements the camera stands out. Although still not enough to dethrone the S7’s super fast and all around fantastic camera, the Moto Z’s camera is an admirable effort with a 13-megapixel sensor, an f/1.8 aperture lens for better low light, and OIS along with phase detection autofocus. That’s all a big bundle of jargon that boils down to great photos. I also love the Z’s Pro camera controls as a system of slider overlays. It’s all incredibly intuitive. Things get even better if your spring for the Force Droid as it jumps up to 21 megapixels.
I could still see some noise and and loss of sharpness in challenging lighting conditions, but the Moto Z’s low-light compared to the iPhone 6s is objectively better. Take a look at a low-light comparison:
And here’s a few more snaps:
Moto’s also kept its popular software additions to what is otherwise basically stock Android. Moto Display is its most useful as it’s easily the best always-on display out there. But the software is all things we’ve seen from Moto for the last two years. The Z’s inattention to new software is just evidence that this phone is all about hardware and the mods.
A 16-pin connector laid into the back of the phone makes all the Moto Z’s modular madness possible. On an all black phone, these dots are vividly noticeable. In terms of design, you could argue that the connectors are what give the Z its space-age look, but it also makes the phone look incomplete. Like a giant neon sign slapped on the back of your phone that says “Buy MotoMods”.
In practice you might be reluctant to buy MotoMods. It’s a big financial investment in products that will last exactly as long as your Moto Z. There is one thing that Motorola and Lenovo get very right with MotoMods — it takes absolutely no effort to use them.
Snap one on, hear the short confirmation chirp, and you’re ready to go. No apps. No weird account signups. No removal of batteries. It just works. If a MotoMod runs out of battery, the phone’s power supply takes over and the Z serves up a quick non-actionable notification. It’s seamless, and the Moto Z Droid succeeds where LG’s own modular phone failed spectacularly because of it.
But that doesn’t mean these mods don’t come with their own problems. Let’s go through them one by one.
This is the most basic MotoMod out there. It’s just a styled piece of plastic that comes with the phone. The biggest problem is that the backplate doesn’t make a complete seal, so you can feel the plate shift slightly in your hand when you apply pressure. It doesn’t make the smartphone unusable, but it’s a hardware slip-up that would be unforgivable on any other smartphone at this price.
This one is the most boring mod, but possibly the most useful. Because of the Z’s small frame, it only fits in a relatively small 2,600 mAh battery. If you have any inclination of playing Pokèmon Go or any other data intensive application, the Z won’t make it through the day on its own. Which means the 2200 mAh Power Pack isn’t a neat accessory, but rather a necessity. Ultimately, it’s not the most elegant solution to a problem a flagship smartphone shouldn’t have in the first place.
I will note that it’s not all bad news on the battery front. While the Moto Z does drain quickly during heavy use, it does a tremendous job conserving battery when idle. I’d only lose a couple of percentage points after a full night’s sleep. So we’re not talking a nightmare scenario if you opt for Mod-less lifestyle. At least if you’re a sporadic phone user.
This is my favourite. JBL created a powerful speaker custom fit for the Moto Z Droid. It gets 10 hours of battery life off its own internal battery (so you’re not sucking your phone’s battery completely dry) and there’s absolutely no comparison between the Z’s measly internal speaker to the booming JBL module. When I went to the park with some friends this past obnoxiously sunny Sunday, I just threw the mod in my bag and snapped it on. The module doesn’t offer the most complex soundscape you’ll hear from a speaker, but it does add a rich sound, especially in the bass, that makes it a pleasure to use. Using this JBL speaker in the park was the one moment during my time with the Moto Z that its module concept revealed its possible potential. Unfortunately it also added a laughable amount of bulk to the phone.
I don’t really understand Lenovo’s impulse to put projectors on everything it makes, but whatever. The Insta-share projector is a cool idea, but an ultimately useless one. With both my phone and the projector module at full charge, I was able to watch a complete 2-hour film (Mad Max: Fury Road) and the module was completely dead and the phone was a 43 per cent battery.
But at 50 lumens and 480p resolution, we’re not talking cinema quality here. I’m also hard-pressed to figure out a situation where’d you get a lot of use of lugging this module around. It feels like it’s good for a “hey gang, check this out” moment. Then it’ll collect cobwebs. Add in the fact this mod costs an extra $300 in the States, and you’ve officially arrive at Nope City.
And that’s a major danger of modular phones. They’re all hype and mega investments with little sense of staying power, and they add extra cost to an already expensive phone. But they are also really cool. Hating the Moto Z is like hating a unicorn. It’s hard to not appreciate its weirdness even though it’d totally skewer you to death if given the chance.
For the sake of being a weird gadget, the Moto Z receives full marks. But as a phone, I’m not quite buying it. Out of the box, the Moto Z feels only partially complete, no doubt because Moto really wants you to buy those mods. It’s even building up a developer community around the idea. Yet for $624 or the Force Droid for $720 (via monthly instalments), and any where from $60 to $300 for extra mods, the future of phones isn’t fully baked enough to justify that price (localised pricing TBC).
- Design is polarising. You either love it or hate it.
- The phone is feels impossibly thin and light. It’s amazing a smartphone this thin can even exist.
- Weatherproofing, but not water resistant. Motorola says to NOT dunk this phone. Bummer.
- MotoMods implementation is well done, even though it’s mostly more trouble than it’s worth.
- Battery won’t likely get you through the day if you’re a medium-to-heavy user. Of course, there’s a MotoMod for that.
- Motorola continues making strides in the camera department. It’s not quite the best of the best, but it doesn’t disappoint.