Motorola has an amazing ability, something no other smartphone company has ever accomplished before —to execute on ideas that blow away the competition in ways that frequently takes one full smartphone generation to catch up. Look back at the Moto X, and how long it has taken every other company — including Google — to recreate ideas like Moto Display, an effortless camera launch, and voice commands that can be reliably accessed without turning the display on. Add these unparalleled software experiences to Moto Maker, a platform that let you customize your hardware in more ways than most people customize their software, and it's not hard to see why someone like me has such a soft spot for Motorola.
Motorola has taken the best parts of the Moto X and shifted to a new set of concepts in the form of the Moto Z. This new Moto has gone modular, and with that comes a few new ideas that truly set this phone apart from the pack. After using the Droid Edition of the Moto Z for the last six weeks, here's what I have to say about this new/old Moto and its tiny suitcase of cool ideas.
What have you people done?
Moto Z Hardware
Lets get this out of the way real quick: the body of this phone does not remind me at all of the Moto X. In some ways, that's a good thing. As we learned from the Nexus 6, enlarging a Moto X 2014 and calling it a new phone doesn't necessarily make it better. The Moto Z is something new, with hints of its predecessor sprinkled in. For starters, the metal body of this phone feels amazing. The outer band is smooth to the touch but not slippery, and the glass on the front of the phone curves just enough so your finger can keep sliding to the rest of the phone with no rough edges or interruptions. The optional wood Style Shells, when installed, match this curve, making it so the phone just plain feels well made. A single USB Type-C port on the bottom and an antenna line across top split the phone down the middle visually. The power button is textured so you distinguish it from the volume buttons (which are right above it).
For starters, the metal body of this phone feels amazing.
Oh, right. That backplates are held on with magnets, and when you remove them you find the grand secret to this phone: Moto Mods. The ability to connect a louder speaker, a bigger battery, or even a projector to the back of the phone and enhance the initial experience. You aren't going to want to use the phone with no backplate, as the back edge cuts in dramatically without it and feels harsh to your hand, but damn is this phone thin with nothing on the back. Impressively — some might say uncomfortably — thin when holding it. The fear of dropping this phone without a backplate is real, even though its construction feels no less solid with no cover.
After pulling off the backplate and watching it magnetically re-adhere a few times — I'll be honest, I do this five or six times a day just because — you power the phone on and notice immediately just how much chin this thing has. Between the Moto logo, fingerprint sensor, and software buttons on the display, there's a whole lot of space between the bottom of this phone and the usable parts. Because the phone is so tall, a lot of one-handed functions are compromised, even though the phone is thin and narrow enough to enjoy using with one hand. It's a tough call to make — Motorola couldn't put the fingerprint sensor on the back because of the Moto Mods — but the amount of space consumed is more noticeable here than on any HTC or Samsung phone to date.
Let's talk about those Moto Mods: they are so clearly the star of the Moto Z story
Let's talk about those Mods for a moment, since they are so clearly the star of the Moto Z story. I'm testing a TUMI battery add-on, a JBL SoundBoost speaker, and the Moto Insta-Share pico projector. Right away, these options are vastly superior to accessories for other modular smartphones. Not needing to mess around with Bluetooth settings and just snapping on a big speaker when I'm grilling outside is awesome. Being able to attach a projector to the back of my phone and immediately share what I see is largely impossible on another phone — even the modular LG G5. Not needing an ugly battery case to boost my total capacity appeals directly to how I use my phones. These Mods might as well have been made directly for me, which is awesome.
That said, there's a few things I wish were done differently. For example, the speaker and the projector can't be used together because you can only use one Mod at a time. The battery starts charging the phone as soon as you connect it, which means there's some additional heat generated in the bottom left of the phone — right where it sits in your palm. The battery status on all of these accessories are only accessible with a single blinking light on the Mod unless you have it connected to a phone, which doesn't give you a lot of information. Overall these are tiny concerns, especially compared to what you get with the Mods themselves, but it's clear Moto and their partners have some room to improve here.
Out of the box, there's a lot to love about the Moto Z and its accessories. The designs are solid; using the Mods are effortless and intuitive; and the 3.5mm jack isn't wasting space on the body of the phone. This design wouldn't have been possible with a headphone jack, and I think Motorola made the right choice in removing it. There are plenty of people out there who disagree, and there are other phones out there for those folks. This phone exists to do something other than cater to the past.
Same same. But different.... but still same
Moto Z Software
As the only Android manufacturer that updates their software separate from a Google-based or hardware release-based cycle, it's easy to pick this phone up and immediately feel familiar with it. This is the same software available on the Moto X and Moto G, which is to say it runs nearly Nexus-like Android software with some subtle enhancements. It's easy to see this and be concerned about stagnation, even though Motorola updates the individual pieces of their software through the Google Play Store fairly frequently.
Moto Display still has no equal
At the same time, it's not like Moto software really has a lot of competition. Moto Display still has no equal. Moto Camera's twisty launcher only recently has functional competition in the form of double-tapping buttons on the hardware of other phones (like double-pressing the home button on the Galaxy S7), and Moto devices remain the only phones I can reliably access from across the room with "Computer, Respond" as a custom voice activator. Why change what works, right? These aren't trivial features to people who use them, and each of these is deeply missed when I move to another phone to use something else. When Moto first launched these features, everyone tried to say these were gimmicks that could be reproduced in software by anybody. Years later, with several half-baked attempts to copy in the Play Store and weak copies of Always On Display on Samsung hardware, Moto phones are still the only phones to offer this experience.
The one big change in the software this year is a direct result of the hardware changes. Moto Mods need some sort of management software on the phone, but that software is all but gone until you connect a Mod. Instead of requiring an awkward app for everything, Moto Mods are integrated into the OS itself. When you connect a Mod, you get a notification letting you know how much battery it has and that it's ready to be used. The projector can be fired up immediately and mirrors whatever is on the screen, but also uses the gyroscope to set the angle of the display. The speaker immediately takes over all of the system sounds. These aren't accessories in the traditional sense. When you connect them, they become a part of the phone. This is exactly the way modular phones need to be done.
Lenovo's disinterest in ensuring your device is consistently protected from exploits is bad, and they should feel bad.
This being a Droid Edition Moto Z, there's some Verizon software onboard. It's you standard complement of far-too-many Verizon apps and associated bloat. Verizon seems to have mostly standardized this setup, including what apps can be uninstalled and what must be disabled. If it's a "Verizon Core" app, you aren't getting rid of it. If it's a game or music app, blow it away and never think twice. This is the standard Verizon experience, like it or not. Considering what we've seen with software from competing carriers, I'd say Verizon's bloat is perfectly tolerable.
But do you want updates to your core OS? The Moto track record is spotty, but we know that Nougat is coming to the phone in the not-so-distant future and security patches will be rolled out in bundles that are not following Google's monthly track. Is it unreasonable to point a finger at Moto and demand timely security updates when so many competitors have yet to consistently deliver the same across more than a small fraction of their products? No, it's not unreasonable. Every manufacturer should be able to build the updates handed to them monthly and release them, especially now that Google has split monthly patches out to make them easier for companies to deliver. Lenovo's disinterest in ensuring your device is consistently protected from exploits is bad, and they should feel bad.
Moto Z Camera
Using Moto software is awesome because it mostly still feels like it did with the original Moto X. The same can not be said of the Moto Camera interface, but the same can be said of the photos that come out of the phone.
Moto Camera finally lives up to the original promise. It's incredible simple, can be used with one hand, and the settings are as minimal as they come. Tap to focus is the default over the drag around exposure ring, and you swipe for previous photo as well as access settings. You have quick toggles for HDR, flash, and a timer. In case it hasn't been mentioned twice already (it has) double-twisting the phone to launch the camera is still awesome. Performing the action in the app flips the camera to the front, where you still have a dedicated flash for those dark selfies. This setup couldn't be more simple and straightforward, and it's something so many other camera apps could learn from.
Until you look at the photos, anyway.
If you're outside in perfect lighting, the Moto Z does an incredible job getting the shot. The camera handles motion well, captures a fantastic amount of detail, and HDR balances well 9 out of 10 times. If you are in any other situation, this camera's success rate drops by a third. The camera has repeat problems focusing when the light isn't perfect, and this auto low-light mode kicks in and frequently takes an extra 1-2 seconds to take the shot. That delay means motion is a problem, and Motorola's "Best Shot" mode that tries to show you a second photo that might look a little better frequently misses the mark. Put simply, this is not a camera capable of competing with Samsung, HTC, or even the latest Nexus phones.
The front camera, on the other hand, is pretty fantastic. Selfies are often much nicer on this camera, especially when the flash is used in low light situations. It take a little getting used to, and it's still real awkward when you blind someone that isn't ready for that flash to go off. It's a great camera for video chat as well, which is especially good with Google Duo now available to the world.
Moto cameras have a long history of being not quite good enough, and it's unfortunate to see that tradition continue with the Moto Z. You can get great shots from this phone if you work at it or are lucky, but that's just not the case with so much of the competition right now.
Had no idea this was what I wanted
Moto Z Battery & Experience
A normal day for me starts at about 5:30am. My phone is where I get news in the morning, how I send video to my television while I get ready for my day, and the remote for all the lights in my house. By 6:30am, when it's time to flip the lights on in the kids' rooms through the Hue app, I'm already down 10%. At this point I have two choices, I can connect the battery pack and know for a fact I'll have at least 45% of my battery left at the end of the day, or I can keep my nice wooden back on and hit up the Turbo Charger before I leave work at the end of the day. It'd be nice if the phone could actually get me through to 10pm on a single charge, but that has yet to happen even on days where I barely use the phone.
I have to make that decision at the beginning of the day, because putting the battery pack on when the phone has reached 20% is a mess. The battery pack will heat the phone up considerably in an attempt to quickly charge the internal battery with the snap-on battery, maybe add 35%, and then be completely spent. If the battery pack is on at the beginning of the day, it will keep the phone topped off at 100% for 8-10 hours and generate far less heat in the process. For me, the battery pack is what I reach for when I know I'm going to go play Pokemon Go or use my phone for GPS over an extended period of time. It's a nice backup, and not thick enough to be uncomfortable when using the phone throughout the day.
The solid, smooth design of this phone is fantastic. The way the Mods clip on and feel like a part of the phone is incredibly well done. The fingerprint sensor has a success rate in line with the S7 and Nexus 6P. The display isn't quite enough to compete with the Sun, but the auto-brightness sensor works well and will get you through most situations. There's a lot to like about the way this phone is put together, and it's nice to see Moto X things like wooden backplates brought over to the Moto Z. It's not quite Moto Maker unique, but this is a phone you can have some fun with when it comes to making it your own and that's an important part of this experience.
I'm a big fan of the speaker Mod. I am not a big fan of feeling like I need the speaker mod because the Moto Z speaker can't compete with a sizzling pan when I'm cooking while listening to a podcast. Adding the speaker makes the phone too big to enjoy having in a pocket, so I'm unlikely to walk around all day with it connected. The same goes for the projector. Both very cool accessories with very specific use cases that make me feel like I need some sort of carrying case that lives in my car or something. This wouldn't be a big deal if I didn't feel like I needed at least one of these things to fully enjoy the phone.
Nice try though
Moto Z The Bottom Line
The Moto Z on its own is a mostly mediocre phone. The software is exactly what I want as a user, but with a unacceptably short battery and a lackluster camera and speaker it fails to deliver the kind of experience expected of a top tier phone. The Mods are what make this phone fun to use, but each comes with their own cost and compromise. The base price for a Moto Z on Verizon is $50 shy of a Galaxy S7, and by the time you drop the extra $80 on a battery Mod you're on the other side of that price point and still have an overall worse experience.
In many ways the Moto experience has remained the same — an amazing software experience with some unique hardware that can't quite compete with the rest of the high-end ecosystem, and that's a shame. Above all else, though, I think Lenovo should push forward with Mods and make them a standard feature with lots of options. That ecosystem has the potential to deliver in ways that no other modular pitch we've seen so far.
Should you buy it? Probably not
If you're a hardcore Moto fan and love the idea of enhancing your phone with Mods, go nuts. You'll love the Moto Z. If you're a road warrior looking for a way to make your presentation tech more compact, a Moto Z and the projector Mod is a great option. If you're looking for the best phone you can buy and were hoping that included the ability to snap things onto the back, this is not the phone you're looking for.