Moto Z2 Force

By all accounts, Motorola hasn't exactly taken the high-end smartphone market by storm with its new Moto Z2 Force. Its lukewarm response is partly due to the fact that the competition is so good this year, but primarily due to Motorola's handful of odd decisions that dull the experience of what is mostly a great phone.

I've been using the Moto Z2 Force as my only phone since it was announced on July 25. Here's my take on what Motorola has done right, and missed the mark on, after a couple weeks with its latest flagship.

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Moto Z2 Force

Moto Z2 Force Hardware

If you've used any previous Moto Z, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the Moto Z2 Force. But unlike Daniel Bader, who has been using Moto Z series phones regularly over the last year, I haven't laid hands on one since the original Moto Z and Z Force were announced. Experiencing it as a one-off device, not jaded by the familiarity to previous Moto Zs, as most people will experience this phone, the Z2 Force isn't stale or basic as the narrative among tech pundits would lead you to believe.

If you haven't used a Moto Z phone before, you'll be surprised by this hardware quality.

In typical Motorola fashion the core metal frame of the Z2 Force is extremely strong, befitting of the "Force" name. The same characteristic can be found in the metal back, buttons and USB-C port — nary a flex, wiggle or fraction of a millimeter of intolerance can be found in the materials. It feels like a phone that can handle a drop (or seven) without being functionally damaged. When you pick it up, you understand you're holding a top-end phone.

Good aspects aside, the controversial (maybe that's a bit much?) hardware decisions step in. The first being amazing thinness of the phone; a choice that led to the smallest battery in a flagship phone from the past couple years, and removal of the headphone jack. Even though I completely understand the decision from a marketing perspective, I'm not a fan of it — particularly as it just about mandates that you have a Style Shell on it when not using a larger Moto Mod because it's so thin and slippery. Not having a headphone jack is almost as annoying, even as a vast majority of my listening has moved to Bluetooth.

It achieved amazing thinness without compromising quality ... but there are considerable downsides nonetheless.

The other big decision was to stick with this "ShatterShield" display technology that gives the Force its name. Oh we've come a long way from the original Moto X Force (aka Droid Turbo 2), but there are still major compromises here. The multi-layer screen covering takes up a considerable amount of room inside the already thin body, contributing to the previous compromises I mentioned, but beyond that the experience of interacting with the screen is also diminished.

For as good as this top-layer hard plastic screen protector is, it's still plastic — it feels like plastic, looks like plastic and most importantly it scratches like plastic. After my first Moto Z2 Force evaluation unit was scratched to hell in a matter of hours I had it swapped out (thanks, Motorola!) for a new one that I've been much more careful with — and it's still picked up gouges and scratches. I thought the whole idea of the Moto Z2 Force was that it's strong? This screen covering makes you baby it.

Moto Z2 Force

Moto Z2 Force Software and performance

This is where Motorola continues to shine. Again not having spent much time with Motorola devices in the last year, I had forgotten how great its software experience is. Admittedly coming from a standpoint of preferring a clean, stock-like experience, Motorola absolutely nails it all. From the lock screen to the launcher, notification shade and quick settings, everything is near-identical to using a Pixel XL today. Motorola hasn't messed with the icons, or folders, or rearranged a bunch of settings — it just lets Android be Android.

Motorola's software continues to shine.

Moto Display continues to be the absolute best "ambient" display solution because of its extra functionality that seamlessly transitions from just displaying information to letting you act on it. The Z2 Force's sensors seem a bit too sensitive and activate Moto Display a little too easily — with just a tiny bump of the table it's on — but that's barely a knock on what is a wonderful piece of software. Add in the other "Moto" functions that let you quickly silence the phone, launch the camera or turn on the flashlight, and you get a wonderful "Android with a little bit more" software suite.

That clean interface is paired up with exceptional performance, as you'd find in any modern phone with a Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM. The Z2 Force clearly has no issue handling a QHD resolution display, whether you're toggling between a few different apps or playing a full-demand game. The sole shortcoming in performance, as I'll cover below, is in the camera.

More: Complete Moto Z2 Force specs

Battery life will be fine for average users on average days ... see the problem here?

Now the big question everyone keeps asking: how's the battery life? With a 2730mAh cell inside you'd expect it to be horrendous. Well, it's actually not all that gloomy. Surprisingly, Motorola has managed to get some great efficiency out of the Z2 Force and it does make it through a typical ~16 hour day for me, using the phone just as I do any other. Now the real rub here is that it hits that full day of life with the last bit before I head to bed with Battery Saver (automatically switched on at 15%) enabled. Meaning heavier days when I used Android Auto for a long bout of navigation, or had a travel day, or knew I'd be out of the house late into the evening, I absolutely had to charge at some point in the middle of the day.

The average person on an average day will have absolutely no issue getting through a full day with the Moto Z2 Force. But its lack of extra reserve for those heavier days, or people who just use their phones harder, is worrying. The $79 TurboPower Mod is wonderful and will get even the heaviest users through a complete day without a sweat ... but that shouldn't have given Motorola an excuse to put a subpar capacity in the phone itself. It's also a situation that people just don't have to face with any other top-end phone released in 2017.

Moto Z2 Force

Moto Z2 Force Cameras

Moving to a dual camera setup in the Z2 Force was unexpected after Motorola had kept things relatively traditional in its last few phones — but then again, having two lenses is all the rage nowadays. As has been the case with many dual-camera experiences, there are compromises here — in the Z2 Force's case it's a lack of OIS and smaller pixels on both sensors.

Those shortcomings aren't particularly problematic in daylight situations, where I actually really like the photos the Z2 Force can put out. They're colorful without being over-saturated, and have a pretty good amount of sharpness. Auto HDR mode does a good job of choosing the right times to activate, and capture speeds are good as well.

Daylight and black-and-white shots are good ... but this just isn't a complete camera experience.

It's in dark scenes where the Z2 Force just falls flat. Knowing that it doesn't have OIS to keep things bright, the phone obviously relies on higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds, leading to grain, blur and just general blotchiness throughout photos. In dark shots where there's some sort of solid light source photos are just average ... but in primarily dark scenes the photos are easily surpassed by flagships from 2015. It also often took multiple shots to get one that actually turned out well — I could rarely rely on the first shot, which kills any confidence I had in the camera.

The black-and-white secondary camera is a true bright spot for this whole experience. The range of shades it recreates is fantastic and clearly several steps above any black-and-white software post-processing, and it produces amazingly sharp edges without any over-processed noise. I just wish the physical space this second sensor and lens took up didn't detract so much from the main camera.

As mentioned earlier, the most frustrating part about the camera is its general speed of operation in relation to the rest of the phone. The camera is slow to open, slow to show the viewfinder, slow to take its first shot and just as slow to launch the gallery to review photos. It's so weird to have this slow of a camera experience in what is otherwise a lightning-fast phone. It's as if the camera software just isn't finished ... even though the other 95% of the software is pristine.

Many aspects of the Moto Z2 Force that rub people the wrong way are matters of opinion. The camera experience, however, is objectively not good enough for the price Motorola is charging. It feels like something that would be right at home on a $400 phone, not a $700+ flagship.

Moto Z2 Force

Moto Z2 Force A second opinion

It feels like Motorola didn't make many attempts to push the envelope with the Moto Z2 Force, even when factoring in its required hardware compatibility with the existing Moto Mod system. But most of what's on offer here is still really good. The hardware is particularly robust, good looking and rather unique from the rest of the industry — if not from its Moto Z sibilings. The internals (battery aside) are top-notch, performance is great, and Motorola continues to offer one of the best software experiences around. And despite the hand-wringing over scratches, its shatterproof display is a true differentiator in this flagship space.

The Z2 Force doesn't deserve all of the hate it's getting ... but it still doesn't compete with 2017 flagships.

But you can't, of course, look at the Moto Z2 Force in a vacuum. At an MSRP of $720, the Z2 Force is attempting to going toe-to-toe with the Galaxy S8, while also being more expensive than the HTC U11 and LG G6. When you look at the phone through this lens, what originally seem like little poor decisions instead look like big missteps. Offering a smaller battery, an average screen, lower-quality camera and no waterproofing, while also demanding a top-dollar price, is just a bad move from Motorola.

The Moto Z2 Force is a good, solid phone. One with a set of compromises, just like any other phone out there. The problem is that the specific compromises we're talking about here are bigger and in much more noticeable places than the competition. At the same time, Motorola has become one of its own toughest competitors by selling the Moto Z2 Play for nearly $300 less with almost the exact same experience — and in some notable areas like battery life, a better one. Even though the Moto Z2 Force is good, it just isn't nearly good enough.

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