To love the Moto Z3 is to embrace every phone that Motorola's made over the past five years, to accept the company's decisions around modular telephony and gesture-friendly software. It's to understand that Motorola doesn't have the influence in the U.S. it once did, and to rationalize the deals it makes with carriers to get its phones on shelves and into people's pockets.

To love the Moto Z3 is to love the best parts of the Moto Z2 Force and the Moto Z3 Play, and to pretend that this phone isn't just a messy mashup of those two devices.

To buy the Moto Z3, however, is a different story.

Moto Z3

Price: $480

Bottom line: The Moto Z3 is a capable phone that, even without its impending 5G bona fides, fits into a strong mid-range lineup at Verizon.

Pros:

  • Awesome battery life
  • Excellent, fluid software
  • Moto Display makes any phone better
  • 5G Mod is very exciting
  • Price is right

Cons:

  • Mediocre camera quality
  • 2017 hardware in 2018 body
  • Power button placement is objectively bad

Moto Z3 The Review

Spec Moto Z3 Specs
Operating system Android 8.1
Moto Display, Voice, Actions
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor
Screen 6.01-inch Full HD (2160x1080) AMOLED
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB (expandable)
Rear camera 12MP
phase-detect, laser autofocus
1.25um pixels
f/2.0 lens
Rear camera 2 12MP black & white
portrait mode
Front camera 8MP
1.12-micron pixels
f/2.0 wide-angle lens
Speaker Single front-facing
Moto Mods support Yes
Water resistance Water-repellent coating
Security Side fingerprint sensor, face unlock
Battery 3000mAh
TurboPower charger (8 hrs battery in 15 min)
Colors Deep Indigo
Dimensions 76.5 x 156.5 x 6.75 mm
Weight 156g

There's something to be said for Motorola's institutional fortitude at being able to Frankenstein together the internals of its 2017 flagship, the Moto Z2 Force, with the body of the more recent Moto Z3 Play and call it a new phone. Because that's exactly what this is: other than the battery size, which is slightly larger, this is by all accounts the same phone as the Z2 Force, down to the camera hardware.

I'd be very wary of giving such a rebadging a pass if it weren't for the phone's $480 price, and the fact that, at Verizon, it fits into an increasingly critical price point for the provider.

If you take a look at Verizon's smartphone offerings, you'll see a widening divide between entry-level devices — the ASUS ZenFone V, Samsung Galaxy J7 V, and LG Stylo 2 V — and the flagships like the Galaxy Note 9 and S9 series, Google's Pixel 2 lineup, and the various iPhones. For newer devices, only Motorola's existing Z2 Play fits into the sub-$500 "budget flagship" category.

So to dismiss the Moto Z3 outright is to miss its purpose in Verizon's lineup, which at $20 a month makes it palatable for price-sensitive customers who want a compromise-free phone. And despite its 2017 spec sheet, this phone is largely free of compromises. The Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM combination makes for speedy operation, especially on Motorola's excellent and lightweight software, and the standard 64GB storage is enough for most people. Plus, there's microSD expansion. The 3,000mAh battery is good enough for a full day's use, and the addition of Moto Mod support allows for quick top-ups if necessary.

The camera is pretty good and gets the job done, but don't expect low light performance.

And while the cameras didn't impress me much last year, they're quite a bit better than those of the similarly-priced Moto Z3 Play, and comparable to, say, the $499 Honor View10. They're fine — the app loads quickly from Motorola's patented (and after five years, still awesome) snap gesture, and outdoor photos are vibrant and sharp. It would have been nice for Motorola to upgrade the lenses — unlike the f/1.7 aperture of the Z3 Play, the Z3 is stuck with Motorola's narrower f/2.0 combination, which lets in considerably less light. To offset this, there's a secondary 12MP monochrome sensor but it doesn't save this phone's low-light shots. It also doesn't save the problematic portrait mode, which is better left idle.

The main issue with the camera is that, because there's no optical stabilization, and the camera's aperture is relatively narrow, it defaults to slow shutter speeds in anything but great light, causing photo-destroying motion blur in the process. This isn't the phone to buy if you want to take lots of photos of kids or dogs.

At the same time, I took plenty of "normal" photos that I'm really happy with. From flowers to sunsets to stationary dogs (well, one stationary dog), I think most people will be very happy with the Z3's cameras. And for those who want things a bit more artsy, the secondary monochrome sensor can pull off some impressive visuals.

Here, compared to the Pixel 2 XL, you can see there isn't as much detail, and colors aren't as vivid, but I'm definitely not going to throw away the Z3's photo — especially since it's of my dog, Zadie. I keep all of her photos 💓.

From the outside, this is the Moto Z3 Play

If you were expecting a brand new look and feel for Motorola's 2018 flagship, you're missing the point; Motorola's parent, Lenovo, is a ruthless cost cutter, and the company is still not making money from its phone business. Here's how it framed things during its latest quarterly earnings report:

In North America, shipments continued to show strong, year-on-year growth as Lenovo strengthened presence with mainstream models and carrier expansion. North America shipments grew 54% year-on-year for Q4 and gained 1.1pts of market share to 3.8% in Q4 FY2017/18.

Translation: Our strategy is working, so we've got no plans to mess things up.

Expense reduction for the new fiscal year as part of a strategy to reduce loss and focus on strengthening MBG's leading position and profitability in Latin America, North America and Western Europe by simplifying the portfolio, optimizing the cost structure and leveraging shared platforms.

Translation: Cut costs any means necessary.

The Moto Z3 is the result of such a strategy. It looks the same as the Moto Z3 Play because the two were design in tandem.

You can read all about the design in my Z3 Play review, but the tl;dr is this: Motorola did a good job maintaining Moto Mods support while modernizing the phone's design. The taller 18:9 AMOLED display is great, as is the placement of the fingerprint sensor. The only issue is the power button, which is inexplicably on the left side of the phone.

You're also only getting a single speaker, though it is front-facing, along with a USB-C port and no headphone jack. On the back, the camera module protrudes slightly until you put a Mod on it, but the whole thing feels at once solid, dense, and a little too thin. Like all Moto Z devices, the Z3 was designed to be used with one of Motorola's many Mods.

That 5G Mod — and Mods in general

At its launch event in Chicago, Motorola spent less time talking about the Z3 than its upcoming 5G Moto Mod companion, which is set to debut ... sometime in 2019. In its current state, the thing is very much a prototype, and the demoes we saw were controlled and attached to large computers that made sure nothing funky would happen.

But even when the 5G Mod itself is ready, its success depends on Verizon's successful rollout of its 5G network, which will only debut in four cities by the end of 2018, and relies on super-fast signals that won't penetrate walls. In other words, even those few early adopters will only get to experience 5G in very limited capacity.

5G Moto Mod: Everything you need to know

I wouldn't suggest buying the Moto Z3 just so you can wait an undisclosed number of months for its bulky, likely-pricey 5G companion.

But what about the Mods ecosystem in general? At this point, it's pretty stacked, with plenty of batteries to choose from, along with capable speakers, printers, projectors, and many other useful tools. Did I mention there are many batteries?

Motorola only committed to three generations of Moto Mod support, which is up with the release of the Z3. It also said it wouldn't release any more Mods in 2018. While it's unclear whether the 5G Mod will be the company's last, the writing is sort of on the wall. So should you buy the Moto Z3 in anticipation of a Moto Mods fire sale sometime in 2019? Or should you buy it because you already have a bunch of Mods from your first-gen Moto Z? Maybe, but those aren't great reasons to buy a phone.

A matter of taste

The Moto Z3 does most things well and nothing spectacularly. The software is great because Motorola basically copies the best parts of Android and adds a bunch of interesting stuff, including a great ambient display called Moto Display and a bunch of truly useful gestures, like the aforementioned camera twist, that you're going to use a lot.

There are also a lot of preloaded pieces of software, including a bunch of crappy games, that you'll immediately want to get rid of. Verizon's own pre-installed apps are no less intrusive, and I highly recommend disabling as many of those as you can without negatively affecting your experience. Such is the price of a subsidized phone.

Despite the number on the box, the Z3's battery lasts much longer than many phones with bigger cells.

On the battery front, the 3,000mAh cell isn't huge but it lasted me a full day throughout the week that I used the phone. I also relied on my trusty Turbopower Mod to give me a boost whenever I needed it, but that only happened a couple evenings after heavy-use days.

Finally, given that the phone runs last year's Snapdragon 835, it technically supports gigabit speeds, though my experience on Verizon's network in Chicago, while good, didn't quite reach those heights. And as with all Motorola phones, call quality is superb, though sound coming from the single speaker isn't.

Moto Z3 Should you buy it?

This is a more important phone for Verizon than it is for Motorola. While it feels expressly built as a vehicle to promote an upcoming Moto Mod that very few people will actually buy, it also slots in perfectly to the company's stretched phone lineup that, at the moment, has very little between the low-end and the very high-end.

Unlike the Moto Z3 Play, which is quickly becoming an Amazon Prime Exclusive darling, you probably won't be buying the Z3 outright. At $20 a month for two years, the Z3's $480 street price is quite attractive for what you get, even if its most notable feature, the 5G Moto Mod, is months away from release and will likely carry a price tag to rival the phone itself.

3.5 out of 5

The Moto Z3 is a great phone. Really, it is. If you're not keen on a Galaxy, or don't want to spend the extra $10 to $15 per month on a LG G7, or are upgrading from a Moto Z, the Z3 is going to treat you well.

See at Verizon

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