Motorola’s New Phone Makes a Great Case For Why Modular Phones Shouldn't Exist

By Sam Rutherford on at

Every once and while you run across a gadget that would be perfect if only it wasn’t missing one tiny feature. That sucks, and often there’s nothing you can do about it because there’s no way for multi-billion dollar companies to anticipate your need for a cattle prod or tiny projector that attaches to your phone. But what if there was? What if you could just switch out modules on a phone with a snap and always have the perfect device for the perfect occasion. That’s supposed to be the new Moto Z2 Force’s promise.

A year after releasing its first modular phone, Motorola is now the only company keeping the idea of interchangeable add-ons alive (with the exception of the bizarre new RED Phone), and it’s the only thing going for a phone that’s otherwise simply solid and inoffensive. The problem is most mods aren’t actually that useful. Even with upwards of 20 different mods to choose from, there’s only two or three mods you actually want to buy — which makes the whole proposition of add-ons feel pretty pointless. Particularly when you consider the price. Depending on what network you’re on, the Z2 Force will cost you somewhere between $750 and $810. That’s the same, if not more than a Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7, which is a pretty big ask for a phone that just delivers mods instead of the same level of features.

(Editor's note: UK prices haven't been announced yet, but it's likely to be somewhere between £600 and £800.)

Moto Mods are exceedingly easy to use. Just take the phone and a mod and slap them together like two pieces of bread, and the Z2 Force‘s connector will do the rest. In this case it’s a 360 camera.

Particularly as those mods are all pretty pricey. f you want to add wireless charging, better speakers and a bigger battery to the Z2 Force, you’re looking at two to three mods totalling around $200 ( £150). Then let’s say you toss in a $20 ( £15) Style Shell to spice up its aesthetics and suddenly you’re juggling a handful of mods, slamming them on and off like a thousand hand slap from E. Honda in Street Fighter II. And they’re not even that cool!

The cooler mods, like the Moto 360 Camera or the Moto Gamepad, work as advertised, but are more expensive and feel more limited than a traditional standalone accessory. Moto Mods are really just a big family of add-ons that don’t play nice with other devices. Sure, it’s nice to be able to bang something on the back and instantly have a new gimmick to play with, but is Bluetooth really that hard to use?

The gesture-enabled fingerprint sensor lets you navigate the phone by swiping left to go back, right for Recent Apps and long-pressing to lock the phone. But if you prefer the traditional Android software nav buttons, that’s an option too.

The price of mods also makes the biggest thorn in the Z2 Force’s side its more affordable sibling, the Moto Z2 Play. The £379 Z2 Play doesn’t have dual rear cameras, or a fancy 1440p AMOLED screen or a snappy Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, but you still get full support for the Moto Z2 Force’s most appealing features: namely mods and the gesture-enabled fingerprint reader. You’ll also get an actual headphone jack. That’s twice the value for half the price!

Though it’s not nearly as slim as the Z2 Force. The Z2 Force’s skinny dimensions pose a problem when it comes to battery life. That's because Motorola is sticking with a single model instead of two models as with the original Z—one with a super thin design and one with a thick waist and a bigger battery. Motorola chose thinness over battery capacity. At 2,750 mAh, the Z2 Force’s battery is 10 to 20 percent smaller than batteries in competing phones such as the 3,000 mAh battery in the Galaxy S8 or the 3,300 power pack in the OnePlus 5.

The only port on the whole phone is a single USB-C connection.

Besides a sliced down battery the Z2 Force also axed the headphone jack. Moto does include a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter dongle in the box, but that’ll be a sad consolation to anyone who simply wants to recharge their phone while privately listening to music (and with all those mods you might buy it’s also one more thing to carry around). You don’t get any sort of legitimate waterproofing either. Motorola claims the Z2 Force should be able to survive a spill or two, but drop it in a sink, and it’ll be time to say hello to a new phone. And if you want wireless charging, you’ll need to shell out $40 ( $30) for a special Moto Style Shell or $115 ( £90) for the Incipio offGrid PowerPack, which includes on a 2,200 mAh battery pack in addition to both Qi and PMA inductive charging.

That’s crucial as the similarly prices Samsung S8 has wireless charging built in. It’s also more attractive. Looks wise, the Z2 Force is more Ford Fusion than Ford GT. It’s not what you’d call ugly, but it’s nowhere near the curvy, precision-crafted feel of the S8. There are rough edges where the display meets the phone’s metal frame, an ungainly chin on bottom for the fingerprint sensor and the love-it-or-hate-it appearance of the exposed Moto Mod connector around back.

You can see where the protective film started to peel after I tried to investigate why the edge of the screen felt so rough.

There’s also a rough feeling film across the front of the display. The Z2 Force’s one concession to everyday usability is this “ShatterShield” screen, which, according to Motorola, was designed to withstand the kind of drops and shocks that would otherwise scatter spiderwebs across the front of your phone. This film, over a plastic display panel (instead of the glass panel found in other phones at this price range) makes the Z2 Force’s screen susceptible to being scuffed by your keys or other soft metals. Moto says this film can be replaced at your local carrier or Best Buy, but that just adds to the hassle of keeping your phone looking right. If you’re really that worried about keeping your phone pristine and intact, you’re still going to have to swaddle that shit in a case.

The Z2 Force’s camera module looks like a little face grinning back at you.

Putting a case on the Z2 Force almost feels like it’s defeating the purpose of the mods, but at least you’ll get to still use the Z2 Force’s other big feature: Two new 12-megapixel rear cameras. Like the iPhone 7 Plus and the Huawei Mate 9 and P10, the Z2 Force’s dual rear cams enhance portrait photos through shallow depth of field so you can put sharp focus on faces while potentially distracting elements remain out of focus and blend into the background. The one difference between the Z2 Force and the iPhone 7 Plus is that you don’t get a 2x optical zoom.

Check out this crop I got while using the Z2 Force’s Depth Sensing mode. If you look the little ducky, you can see how the blurred background extends onto parts of its head, making something that should be in focus look unnaturally soft.

The problem with the Z2 Force’s neat camera tricks, is that it doesn’t always work quite right. Sometimes, when using the Z2 Force’s depth mode, the soft blur on details in the background crept into the middle of the frame.

Thankfully, when it comes to standard photography, the Z2 Force delivers great image quality. Though, if I can nitpick (and I will), I did notice that in low light, the Z2 Force’s colours weren’t as accurate as what I saw in pics from the Galaxy S8. I also found that that the Z2 Force’s dynamic range, which is the difference between the brightest spot on the picture and the darkest wasn’t quite as good a S8's, which caused some areas to look blown out.

And those little flaws hurt this phone badly when comparing it to other flagships. It might have the specs and a decent camera, but when you put everything together, this phone still feels far behind phones like the iPhone 7, the Samsung S8. The mods can’t save it either. With the wealth of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connected accessories available today, the argument for modularity is more tenuous than ever before, and without that advantage, there isn’t really anything the Z2 Force can do better than its competition. If you need mods grab the Moto Z2 Play. Otherwise there are bigger and nicer phones you can spend your $800 on.

README

  • Supports lots of mods that are super easy to use, but there only 2 or 3 are actually worth buying.
  • Pictures using the depth sensing dual cameras are hit or miss.
  • Flagship specs but undersized battery.
  • ShatterShield screen is both more and less durable than Gorilla Glass.
  • No headphone jack, water-resistance or wireless charging.
  • Z2 Force will be available unlocked and on all major carriers.