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Moto Z3 review: Verizon's middle child

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.

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

SpecMoto Z3 Specs
Operating systemAndroid 8.1
Moto Display, Voice, Actions
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor
Screen6.01-inch Full HD (2160x1080) AMOLED
RAM4GB
Storage64GB (expandable)
Rear camera12MP
phase-detect, laser autofocus
1.25um pixels
f/2.0 lens
Rear camera 212MP black & white
portrait mode
Front camera8MP
1.12-micron pixels
f/2.0 wide-angle lens
SpeakerSingle front-facing
Moto Mods supportYes
Water resistanceWater-repellent coating
SecuritySide fingerprint sensor, face unlock
Battery3000mAh
TurboPower charger (8 hrs battery in 15 min)
ColorsDeep Indigo
Dimensions76.5 x 156.5 x 6.75 mm
Weight156g

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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab)

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

21 Comments
  • Thanks for mentioning the bad power button placement. I would go further and call the design fail of 2018. The phone is sitting on the power button when using some mods. Therefore you can't use the JBL Sound Boost because whenever you change the volume you send the phone into a boot loop! Same with the Instashare projector. Plus, when you want to turn off the screen while projecting, you simply can't because again the phone sits on the power button and the finger print scanner does not turn off the screen anymore. even worse, once you turned off the screen, the finger print scanner doesn't turn on the screen anymore, if you want to pause the video or so... This is so so stupid and makes me actually mad, because it shows that Motorola just didn't care and did not put any enthusiasm into building a great Moto Z experience. mH P.S. All the above mentioned experiences are based on the Moto Z3 Play.
  • Nice move Lenovorola, where's the battery mod? Where is the z3force with the 845processer? Then you turn around and make this phone a Verizon exclusive. This phone is joke, a battery enabled 5g mod. No mention of the price? With four antennas built into it, it will probably cost as much as the phone. I actually think your shooting blanks this time around!
  • When did moto say they weren't releasing any more mods in 2018? I only recall them mentioning that they wouldn't be releasing any more Moto Z phones in 2018 via Twitter.
  • I have the OG Z Force Droid two years now. So the Battery is dying a slow death. I have a battery mod but it is time to replace that too. I am bummed there is no Force this year and considered finally moving to Pixel but after seeing the leaks, I am not impressed at all. Not an LG or a Sammy guy. So in short I will likely buy the Z3 not for the Mod but at $480 it is an excellent holdover till the next Flagships.
  • You should take a look at the OnePlus 6.
  • Doesn't work on Verizon
  • OnePlus 6 is not on nor does it work on Verizon.
  • It's only $480.
  • $480! $480! $480... In a Verizon lineup that features popular pricey flagships, The Moto z3 gives the customer performance at a budget. This is Motorola's niche now. Mods, great software, and plenty of performance for a custome That wants to keep a little money in their wallet. BTW, the G6 is an incredible value for anyone looking for a smartphone with just basic needs.
  • I will admit the G6 is an incredible value. I'm using one right now because I shattered the front screen of my iPhone X and don't have the money to replace it. Only things I don't like are the slower network speeds (cellular and WiFi) and the lack of NFC for payments.
  • I am highly critical of Moto and Verizon for trying to sell basically last year's phone. Hopefully consumers will see this phone for what it actually is. No wonder Verizon is losing customers.
  • Actually Verizon will sell a ton of these because customers will see the price, and Motorola name, with the mods as a plus. Joe Consumer does not care that it has last year's processor (which still works just fine).
  • Verizon doesn't sell a ton of any Motorola phones at this point. Only time we move them in any type of volume is when there is a specific promo on those that isn't available on other manufacturers.
  • Great review! really objective and well done. This Motorola is made to fill the gap in Verizon Lineup, and as much as haters...hate it, it will succeed at that. Can you confirm or deny that the fingerprint scanner doesn't turn the screen on? I know it doesnt turn it off anymore, but on?
  • Just to be clear here, I am not saying it doesn't turn the phone on in general. Of course it does. But when you use the Instashare projector and you want to turn on the screen the fingerprint scanner does not work. You have to press the power button, where the phone is sitting on, to turn on the screen. For me who is using the phone (in my case the original Moto Z Play at the moment) with the projector or speaker mod a lot, this is just bad design. But the real problem (with the Moto Z3 Play) was, whenever I changed the volume when using these mods, the phone started rebooting. Making it useless for me. (It seems to be the combination of lowering volume and by doing so you automatically push the power button sending the phone to a boot loop) If you don't care about mods, this might not be an issue for you. mH
  • Actually if you wait a little longer you probably will be able to get the LG G7 at $20 a month.
  • It was a sad day when Lenovo bought an icon.
  • This sounds like a great deal of a phone, I would be very happy is Samsung put the internals of last year's Galaxy S as sold it as a new mid-range device. That's exactly what Apple does, they sell their previous generation iPhones as higher mid-range devices.
  • The 5g mod won’t be compatible with other moto phones? That goes against tgeir philosophy
  • Issues with phone:
    1. Screen “auto-rotate” will turn itself off
    2. Volume settings will not stay set independently
    a. Ring tone volume will go up if the notification volume is turned up (this was not the case when I bought the phone)
    b. 3rd party notification volume (like Ring Security System) will be effected when changing the Alarm or Media Volume (this was not the case when I bought the phone)
    3. The phone’s ring tone (I select Digital Phone as my tone) just keeps turning itself off
    4. Vibrate for Calls will just turn itself off
    5. The Power On sound will just sound continuously and randomly
    6. Some sort of Emergency Alert sound will sound randomly without a display of what the sound is while I have these kinds of notifications turned off
    7. Ring Security application stopped making notification sounds on phone
    8. Phone stopped vibrating for notifications when vibration is turned on.
  • The Moto Customer care is awful just as its phones.
    My phone has such a poor reception (calls and WiFi), barely makes phone calls. Screen is way too easily scratches. When I reached out to Moto I was magically connected with somebody far away from Chicago and they sent me the equally broken replacement in some brown-green card-box, and I lost my additional screen protector.
    I really would like to see this trend to reverse as I was a very loyal Moto customer, but now looking to switch to another phone.