Subtly better in so many different ways.

Depending on who you ask, modular phones are either the future or a hilariously failed experiment that encapsulates how many people feel about 2016 in general. Few people disagree, however, that of the modular phones we saw this year the Moto Z and Z Force were the best. Snapping on a bigger battery or a projector may not have been worth losing the headphone jack for some, and the Moto camera still lags a little behind the top phones of this year, but there's still a lot to like here.

Despite some early concerns about security and software updates, the Droid Editions of Moto Z and Z Force have received the updated to Android 7.0 with the November 1 security update before most of the competition. As we've learned before, especially with Moto phones, being the first to an update does not always mean a great experience. Here's what we've found after nearly two weeks with this big update.

Striking similarity

Moto Z Nougat

As is almost always the case with Moto phones, there's no big visual changes in Android 7.0 on the Z. Moto software remains very Google-esque, and so what you get with Android 7.0 is quite similar to what you get with Google's Pixel. Since Google is keeping some of Pixel's features to itself right now, there's no Assistant in the home button. Instead you get Screen Search, the new name for Google Now and Now on Tap. Which is cool, Assistant isn't fully baked yet, anyway.

Nougat introduces a lot of small changes that you're unlikely to notice right away unless you've already used a Google Pixel. Multi-window apps, double-tapping the app switch button to jump to the previous app, and in-line notification replies make a huge difference once you integrate them into your day-to-day usage. Nothing about these features stands out, and there's no tutorial to introduce them, but figuring out how to use them based on your needs is a great experience.

Dropping the information density slider from Default to Small is a revelation on this phone, allowing for more content across the entire OS.

Where you will see the most visual changes is in the settings. Here you get Google's new Suggestions system, which is unfortunately entirely focused on Google's services. You're prompted to enable "OK Google" for system-wide actions but no such suggestion exists for Moto Voice. Notification settings will appear in your suggestions, but so far none of those suggestions have been for tweaks to Moto Display. These aren't huge deals, especially with Moto so prominently displayed both in the app drawer and the Settings page itself, but it's clear Motorola either wasn't able to or chose not to highlight Moto-specific features in settings suggestions.

If you aren't a fan of the massive icons Moto uses in its app drawer, you're going to love the 7.0 Display Size feature. Dropping that slider from Default to Small is a revelation on this phone, allowing for better information density and smaller everything across the entire OS. It's a small feature, but so much more convenient than installing a third-party app to only tweak part of your interface to your needs.

Moto Z NougatMoto Z Nougat

Everything Moto on this phone still works the same as it did before, which is to be expected. Moto apps are updated through the Play Store, so when new features are available or settings are tweaked there doesn't need to be a whole system update. We've already seen several small tweaks to Moto Camera and individual Moto Mods over the last couple of months, so the system update focuses on improving the system itself.

Unfortunately, what didn't get fixed was the lower-than-usual notification tone bug that was introduced in a fairly recent security update. Notifications a still a little quieter than they should be as a result, and it's unclear if or when this will be addressed.

None of this sounds particularly interesting, and that's by design. The Moto UI was built to remain familiar to users through updates, and now shock anyone with new interfaces or multiple large changes to features. The really exciting stuff for Moto Z and Z Force users getting their update to Nougat is underneath, more so than just about any other phone.

Performance and Polish

Moto Z Nougat

The Moto Z never felt stuttery or sluggish to me, even after months of use, but on Nougat the phone absolutely screams. It's as though every ounce of performance has been squeezed out of the Snapdragon 820 underneath this glass. Some of that is Nougat optimizations and what happens when you fully wipe a phone before installing a major system update, but everything from checking notifications to launching apps is not only faster but noticeably smoother. Nougat's number one feature is polish, and that is plainly evident on the Moto Z. Folders don't open with the same smooth instant snap you see on the Pixel, and the background is black instead of white, but it's still a slick sensation to see your phone perform better and not just differently.

In many ways, Moto Z is the cure for folks who are frequently anxious about installing updates.

The solid integration is to be expected, and the performance boost is nice, but the added battery life is a real treat. A typical day with the Moto Z would leave me at 15% remaining at around the 14-hour mark, which meant it struggled to get me through a whole day. I regularly found myself either charging for a few minutes somewhere or leaving the house with one of those great battery Mods to make sure I wasn't running out of power. Nougat's Doze on the Go adds a little more than an hour to that battery life with my usage, which meant the phone would regularly get me through a day with 5-6% remaining. That's cutting it a little close, but also means with a battery Mod attached I can just about get through a weekend without needing to charge.

Lenovo made the Moto Z and Z Force the first non-Pixel phones that are Daydream-certified, which means you can now use a Daydream View headset and enjoy higher quality VR than you'd normally get with Google Cardboard. Daydream View was built to handle a Z Force with a battery Mod onboard, which means the Moto Z phones can get you through a full binge-watch session in VR. This is great news for people who travel, or for folks who want to Daydream for a while without needing to recharge shortly after. Moto Z handles Daydream exactly the same as the Pixel in most situations, save for needing to slide the phone down a little so the NFC reader in the camera bump can grab the launch tag for VR.

Still Moto at heart

Moto Z Nougat

Nougat makes the Moto Z feel like a new phone without radically changing anything. What you get after this update is the best experience this hardware has to offer thanks to optimization, and not a new coat of paint. That doesn't happen too often, especially with Android phones. In many ways, the Moto Z is the cure for folks who are frequently anxious about installing updates that change things for the sake of change. That may seem boring to folks who love the newest, shiniest thing, but for a lot of users stability is a feature and that's what you get with this phone.

At the same time, this is still very much the Moto Z that slid out of the box five months ago. The camera is still not the best, the fingerprint sensor is middle-of-the-road, and these phones are still fairly pricey. The update to Nougat, the ability to use Daydream, and news that new Mods are on the way with new features are all fantastic, but Lenovo still has to convince people that modular phones are the future and continue to deliver on that vision.