The Moto Z is a brilliant execution of an average idea. Through its Moto Mods system, Motorola has turned the idea of a modular smartphone where you can add and remove features on the fly into a simple, easy-to-use accessories. The problem is Moto Mods are fun, but not necessary.
Mods aside, the Moto Z is a striking smartphone that almost feels like it's been ripped out of the future. There's a few quirks that come with "ultra-thin" territory, but the Moto Z is an interesting and innovative challenger device.
Outright Cost: $999
What Is It?
The Moto Z is Motorola's flagship smartphone for 2016. Measuring in at just 5.2mm at its slimmest point, its billed as the "world's thinnest premium smartphone". As such, there's no headphone jack. In terms of other hardware specifications, you've got the usual suspects - a 5.5-inch Quad HD, Snapdragon 820 processor, 64GB of expandable storage - but the big new feature is support for accessories affectionately referred to as "Moto Mods".
Moto Mods are Motorola's alliterative solution for bringing the modular smartphone dream to life. While they can't "upgrade" your phone's internal hardware, Moto Mods are interchangeable back plates capable of expanding the Moto Z's functionality. They clip on magnetically, and interface using an exposed 16-pin connector on phone's back.
Notably, Motorola says Moto Mods are future-proof; its 2017 and 2018 phones will use the same style of Moto Mod connector.
The Moto Z's strikingly thin design is paired with glass and aluminium body that screams "this is the future". While the starved form-factor certainly has a few accompanying quirks (which I'll touch on later), it feels premium. It's been matched with an equally high-end 5.5-inch Quad HD display; viewing angles are great and colours are almost Samsung vibrant. The one caveat is that it doesn't hold up well outside. The Moto Z isn't unusable like the Moto X Force, but doesn't handle bright sunlight as well as the iPhone 7 or the Google Pixel.
As you'd expect from a flagship smartphone, the Moto Z is zippy. It runs a clean version of Android with no modifications (other than a few pre-installed Motorola apps) which certainly doesn't hurt performance. 64GB of internal storage out of the box is a nice bonus, given that most other flagships start at 32GB.
Cameras haven't historically been Motorola's strong point, but the Moto Z's rear shooter is a welcome improvement over last year's Moto X devices. The Moto Z doesn't quite reach the quality the iPhone 7 / Samsung Galaxy S7 / Google Pixel "holy trinity" of smartphone shooters are capable of, but its nonetheless a solid option. You can take fantastic photos during the day, and still get decent shots in lowlight. You'll have trouble with capturing movement as soon as it starts getting dark - even during sunset - but the Moto Z is fairly reliable otherwise.
While the idea of modular smartphone components is certainly attractive, Motorola hasn't succeeded at turning it into a game changer with the Moto Z and Moto Mods. It has however implemented what could have been an alien concept spectacularly.
Mods literally clip onto the back of the Moto Z with magnets. When you're done, you just take it off. There's no need to restart the phone. The magnets are strong enough to keep the Mods firm. It just works. If a modular phone is ever going to go mainstream, this is the kind of implementation that will make it far less confronting.
What's Not So Good?
This might seem like an odd complaint, but the Moto Z almost feels a little too thin. Measuring in at just 5.2mm at its slimmest point, the Moto Z feels like it's missing something when naked. The Moto Z isn't sharp, it doesn't cut, but it doesn't quite sit right either. Exposed Mod connectors give off an industrial vibe, but aren't comfortable against the hand.
The slim size and the camera bump do make more sense when you consider the fact the Moto Z is made to be used with Mods. If the phone were much thicker, it would feel monstrous with a Mod. As it stands, attaching a "Style Cap" (a Moto Mod that doesn't add functionality, but changes the phone's look and texture, as pictured above) makes the Moto Z feel just right - and eliminates the camera bump entirely.
Motorola's razor-thin form-factor also resulted in a few other compromises. The phone's power button and volume rocker sit surprisingly high on the phone's right side, presumably to avoid any "bendgate" style incidents. Reaching them does however takes quite a stretch.
The Moto Z is also part of the new breed of smartphones ditching the headphone jack. Instead, you'll have to use USB Type-C headphones, Bluetooth, or a dongle. While there's a USB Type-C dongle in the box, the Moto Z is bundled with 3.5mm headphones rather than USB Type-C headphones. This means you can still use the free pair with your laptop or tablet, but necessitates carrying the dongle around.
As with the iPhone 7, the headphone jack's removal means you can't listen to music and charge at the same time, unless you've got Bluetooth headphones.
And finally, the Moto Z's thin build means its only packing a 2,600mAh battery. While this isn't terrible, it's not amazing either. In practice, the Moto Z could survive a day of heavy usage by the skin of its teeth. I typically found myself with between 5% and 10% to spare.
Oddly, the Moto Z's fingerprint reader doesn't double as a home button, despite being positioned like a home button. You can tap it to wake up and unlock the phone, but tapping it again puts it back to sleep. I've lost track of the number of times I've put the Moto Z to sleep when just trying to close an app. I'm sure you'd get used to this quirk with enough time with the Moto Z, it's far from intuitive.
While I love Motorola's execution of Moto Mods, I'm conflicted about their utility. Take the Moto Instashare Projector, for example. It lets you project the Moto Z's screen as in image up to 70-inches in size. That's kinda cool. But at the same time, the bulb brightness is only rated 50 lumens, which makes it hard to use in all but the darkest of environments. The 480p resolution is also a little underwhelming. The biggest problem with the Instashare Projector is the $429 price tag. I won't deny the appeal of a pocketable projector, but how often do you wish your phone could be used as one? It's probably not enough to justify blowing $429.
The Hasselblad True Zoom camera is another Moto Mod that sounds great in theory, but doesn't quite work as well as you'd hope. Attaching it to your Moto Z gives you a 10x optical zoom camera with physical controls, but it's hard to focus, struggles with mixed lighting, and isn't especially fast when shooting. For the most part, I found the Moto Z's regular camera far more reliable.
Attaching the True Zoom to your Moto Z also makes a little too big to pocket; especially if you wear slim-fitting jeans. As such, you'd probably end up storing the Mod separately (in a bag, for example). If you're not keeping the True Zoom attached to the phone, it reduces the potential for spontaneous photography - the kind of shooting smartphones excel at.
The Incipio "Off Grid" Battery Pack is the most practical out of all the Moto Z's Mods, but at the same time, it's easy to ask "why not just give the phone a bigger internal battery?". Admittedly, the Battery Pack doesn't add too much in terms of weight or thickness; you can still comfortably throw the Moto Z in a pocket with the external juice box attached. In a way, it's a far more elegant solution than a battery case, in terms of practicality and aesthetics. The Battery Pack is almost a happy medium between a battery case and a removable battery.
While the Moto Z runs an almost unmodified version of Android, software and security update availability is still determined by Motorola, rather than by Google. Unfortunately, Motorola parent company Lenovo has said that it won't be releasing monthly security updates for any of the Moto smartphones, and instead opting to bundle up and release a couple of months' worth of updates at a time due to the effort involved. At time of writing, the Moto Z is still on the August 2016 security patch.
When it comes to a $999 flagship smartphone, at the very least, you should be able to expect a monthly security update. Samsung and LG might be a bit slow when it comes to upgrading the software on their phones, but all their recent flagships do however receive monthly security updates.
Who Is It For?
The Moto Z is the kind of device you buy if you don't just want a new phone, but a new kind of phone. It's what you get it you're after something different. Or if you miss removal batteries and want the next best thing.
While Motorola's innovation is admirable, Moto Mods don't feel like they're useful enough to justify the high price-tags. Sure, an attachable projector for your phone is cool. It's just not $429 cool. The Battery Pack is the one key exception, and is an elegant solution for keeping the phone juiced up.
The Moto Z is an interesting device, but it's up against stiff competition. As a standalone phone, it's good. But when up against the likes of Apple, Google, and Samsung, simply being good isn't always enough.
What Else Can I Buy?
LG is the only other mainstream manufacturer building modular smartphones, but its implementation isn't quite as polished. The G5 is a fine device, but it has a lot of quirks that stem from the modular functionality. For one, you need to turn the phone off entirely if you want to change mod. The mods also aren't quite as useful or fun as what you get with the Moto Z.
That being said, LG's confirmed it will go back to a more conventional design for its 2016 flagship smartphones, so the G5 might not be the best purchase if you want to keep using your mods going forward.
Moto Z Play
The Moto Z Play is the Moto Z's cheaper, fatter brother. It's not quite as thin, but as a result, has a headphone jack and a battery said to last up to 48 hours. It's also compatible will all the same Moto Mods as the Moto Z.
If you're mostly interested in the Moto Z due its mostly clean take on Android, the Google Pixel is probably a better buy. It's a little pricier, but at the least, you're getting software and security updates straight from Google, as they come out.