Moto flagships have offered unique and innovative features, yet in the wider scheme of things, consumers haven’t flocked to them as readily as other phones.
The Moto Z might change that.
Continuing a tradition of hardware experimentation, the Z is heavily marketed alongside Moto Mods. These have taken recent industry interest in modular technology and run with it. Google’s Project Ara got us interested and LG’s G5 came with a few Friends. Moto are a step up – the Mods make LG’s efforts look like toys.
We do need to talk about the Mods; the phone’s marketing and physical design are built around the system. Of course you can, and most likely will, purchase the phone on its own. So we’ll focus on the phone itself first.
First Impressions / Design
It’s mad to think there is a Snapdragon 820, 4GB of RAM, 5.5 QHD display, 2,600 mAh battery and antennae in there.
A couple of caveats however. The camera bulge is very large. You can miniaturise the surrounding electronics all you like but can’t change the laws of physics. Fitting a mobile camera to meet current flagship expectations requires space.
Does the bump need to be this big? Maybe not, yet by doing so the Moto Z does have an instantly recognisable feature. It also doubles a marker for swiftly aligning and fitting the Mods. If this was intentional then it was clever planning.
The second thing is without using the included Style Shield, the phone looks a bit unfinished. For instance gold connector points for the Mods are on display. The phone is usable in this state, but I expect most will want to cover them.
The shield has a pleasant material touch and finishes the phone. The camera becomes flush with the cover and the tapered edge follows the curves of the metal chassis. It’s clear you’re ‘supposed’ to use this and Moto sell different colours and materials.
Sadly adding the cover lessens the immediate wow factor of the super thin construction. Personally I prefer to use the handset naked, even if it does look a little ‘unfinished’ that way.
The fascia is very busy. The top bezel holds a wide-angle 5 MP camera, speaker bar and large flash unit. On the slightly thicker bottom bezel, Moto branding sits above a square fingerprint sensor, itself flanked by two microphones.
If you pick the white model, you also see 3 infrared lamps. Two either side of the fingerprint sensor and one up top. These disappear on the black unit. These allow Moto Display gestures to work, but make the white model pretty ugly to my eyes.
The only port on the Moto Z is the reversible USB Type-C. Type-C headphones are coming, yet right now almost all of us will need to go wireless or use the (easily losable) adaptor.
Moto will have planned to drop the jack long before Apple made headlines. It will however be consumer response to Apple’s decision that encourages others to follow suit or steer clear. If anything, as the iPhone 7 makes headlines, losing the jack is less of a deal for Moto than if the Z was the only mainstream phone to do it.
If this is the future for mobile audio, then Moto can be seen as moving with the times quickly. Early adopters will simply have to learn to get along in this brave new world.
A square sensor sits on the phone’s chin. The inclination is to press this like a home button but it’s just a sensor. Even after a couple of days I still go to push it to go to the home screen. It doesn’t do that.
Annoyingly any print or decent skin contact will lock the screen. Locking quickly without reaching to the power button could be useful, although when you keep doing it by mistake it gets frustrating quickly.
Due to the Z’s modular design, this is the only place for the sensor. It can’t go on the back – Mods would cover it – and the phone is too thin for a side position. You will train yourself out of wanting to push it but Moto missed a trick not making it a button.
Being picky I also think the sensor could do with being a touch higher. I like to use phones one handed and positioning to use it on the bottom edge makes the phone feel top heavy. It’s not; the phone is actually very well balanced.
To be fair the Moto Z is at the limits of one handed operation anyway. For anyone with smaller hands than me two hands will be a necessity.
The sensor is fairly quick to respond and registered very few failures. As is my experience with most of these, my greasy thumb is more likely to blame than the sensor quality!
As a one-handed user I did have to register my thumb in an awkward side on position. Up to 5 prints can be stored so you can provide quick access to other people. Or, if you’re like me, register both thumbs and different fingers so you can access the phone with either hand or holding position.
Currently the sensor only locks and unlocks the screen, alongside Android Pay authentication. By default there’s no securing folders or apps with it.
A hangover from Google’s time in charge, Moto use the stock Google launcher with a few extra apps installed. On the surface you won’t find much difference looking at the screen of a Moto Z or a new Nexus.
Scratch that surface and the Z has a few tricks. Moto Gestures have been around since the original X and continue to provide convenient shortcuts. You don’t have to look in the settings for these. Instead a dedicated Moto app lets you manage the features to turn on.
I’ll never tire of double karate-chopping for the flashlight. A double wrist flick to access the camera – even with the screen locked – is a functional alternative to a dedicated camera button. Waving a hand over the IR sensor like a Jedi to flash the notification screen is also always awesome.
Other features include eye-tracking to keep the display on, flipping the phone over for do not disturb mode and screen shrinking for easier one-handed use.
Moto Display is used in preference to a notification LED. The AMOLED panel fades in and out as notifications arrive. The waving gesture brings them back if you missed any. The smart notification lets you ‘peek’ at the content and decide if you want to open into that app.
Finally Moto Voice can be configured with a personal launch phrase. The grunt work of searches and results is being performed by Google Now. It’s still fun to call your phone to action by shouting a choice phrase.
With top-level internal specs, the Moto Z is definitely no slouch. I’m yet to experience any noticeable lag or slowdown, even when rapidly switching through apps. Jumping from YouTube to one of several open Chrome tabs, then off to Facebook or opening the camera is all seamless.
Of course with an octa-core processor and 4 gigs of RAM, nothing other than buttery smooth interaction would be acceptable.
Keeping the interface fairly close to stock can only help here. There are of course tweaks to the software under the hood, but the iconography, animations and interface are mostly Android’s own. If you opt in to Motorola ID then whatever data they’re collecting doesn’t seem to hamper performance either.
When it comes to games the Snapdragon 820 has you covered. I tried out Asphalt 8, Epic Citadel and Assassin’s Creed Pirates. These showcase some of the most current advanced mobile graphics and all ran smoothly even when minimising and resuming.
It was only here, pushing the processor to its limits, did I feel the phone heat up noticeably. Interestingly it got hotter downloading large (1GB) update files than rendering the games themselves!
There’s not a lot of room for heat to go in a phone this thin. Plus with a metal body you feel the warmth more. This is where the Style Shield is useful –heat dissipates through it so the phone doesn’t feel as warm compared to when it’s naked.
Outside of large downloads and gaming, the Moto Z didn’t heat up noticeably more than say a Galaxy S7. It got through a couple of episodes of Stranger Things on an LTE connection with no worries.
To market the world’s thinnest smartphone you have to sacrifice something. That something was space for more power.
Battery life isn’t terrible, however 2,600 mAh isn’t really enough when powering such a large and high resolution screen. Android improvements and Moto’s screen features help somewhat, however the Z is definitely lacking when compared to the lifespan of its contemporaries.
Moto do include a turbo charger in the box and it’s a good idea to keep that with you. Especially as USB Type-C is still plodding to mainstream adoption. With it you can top up about a quarter of the battery in 15 minutes.
Moto’s camera has finally stepped up a level, although is still a little way off matching the best in mobile. Basics first: this is a 13MP sensor with 1.12 μm pixels. The aperture is a respectable f/1.8 and the module includes laser autofocus and optical image stabilisation. So far so 2016 flagship.
Thankfully, there are improvements to the camera app since the X models. When you grab a top tier smartphone, you now expect to be able to play with white balance, ISO, exposure etc. This is in the app’s ‘Professional’ mode.
Even the basic auto mode lets you lock focus and adjust exposure with a neat slider. HDR can be made explicit or automatic, plus it’s simple to switch between auto, regular video, slo-mo, panorama or pro modes.
Slow motion records at 120fps, capped at 720p. Regular video records in 720, 1080 or 4K at 30fps, with an additional 60fps option for 1080p. HDR video is also available at 30fps on any resolution.
Pretty much all of these features are available to the front camera too, except for 4K video and panorama. So you can send slo-mo video selfies to your friends if the mood strikes. A decent quality flash is also installed on the front of the phone, fast becoming a must-have feature.
Overall the Moto Z does a good job of upgrading both camera hardware and software to a level suitable for a phone priced near the top bands.
Casting an objective eye over the results shows the Z to still be a bit behind the curve. Mostly in low light performance where there is noticeable grain, plus moving subjects prove tough to get right. Whether that’s down to shutter speed or digital processing I can’t be sure. Still this camera can achieve very good results in most conditions and is no longer the lacking feature of the Moto range it used to be.
First of all I’m very impressed by how well put together and thought out the system is. Mods secure to the back of the Z with strong magnets and don’t slip even after a short fall. They stay attached in a tight pocket too.
Yet they remain quick and easy to remove. Each Mod has a groove at the bottom where you slide in a finger and lift. The leverage makes the Mod pop off easily. Aligning the Mod is a piece of cake too. The big camera bump creates a target. Now you just wiggle into place. In the centre of the 16 connector pins is a central nubbin guide you.
I also have to mention how well integrated the software is. As soon as you attach a Mod, the phone vibrates and beeps to signal connection. This is followed by a system pop up to confirm which also lets you know the battery status (if applicable).
The Mod is then ready to go. Within seconds. It really is that quick. I was able to put on the Hasselblad, take a picture, swap it for the projector, then display that picture on the wall next to me all in well under a minute. Gold star to Moto on this one.
Incipio offGRID Power Pack
The most inevitable Mods would be battery packs. Adding 2,200 mAh almost doubles the Z’s lifespan. It does the same thing to the phone’s size and weight too. Using it is as easy as putting it on.
The moment it clips it on, power flows and the battery icon on the notification bar display a little ‘+’ symbol. Other manufacturers are due to release battery power Mods too.
Do you like to annoy everyone in the local vicinity by playing loud music in public? Only kidding! There are plenty of occasions to beef up the sound quality on your phone: in the park, down the beach, at a house party without a decent sound system.
The SoundBoost provides two fairly powerful 3W speakers and has an internal 1000 mAh battery to drive them. A kickstand is built in and a deep recess continues to allow use of the Z’s camera. Sound is not just louder but richer and more rounded too.
Seriously though, don’t use this on the bus or we’ll be having words.
Hasselblad True Zoom
If you’re looking to improve on the Moto Z camera, the Hasselblad True Zoom definitely does so. The 12MP CMOS sensor is larger than any you’ll find on a smartphone and also comes with a 10x optical zoom lens. Throw in a Xenon flash, proper two-stage shutter button, and RAW capture and you have a very useful unit.
This is certainly a niche purchase. It only really suits those who don’t already own a dedicated camera, but want something noticeably better than their smartphone. At around £200, the convenience of having one device, plus the instant sharing abilities of the phone, can just about outweigh buying a standalone camera for the same. Once you go beyond this price tag, you get to another tier of photography anyway.
The only real downside to the Hasselblad is that it doesn’t have its own battery. As such extended use will drain the Moto Z quicker than just using the built in camera.
A selection of images taken using the Hasselblad:
My personal favourite, the Insta-Share Projector delivers a 50 lumen image of whatever’s playing on the Moto Z screen. That means your photo gallery, YouTube, Netflix, Sky GO or just the settings menu.
The projector resolution is 480p which is passable for quick sharing. The claims of up to 70” display are also corroborated.
A simple kickstand keeps the projector steady. You can bring everything into focus with a dial. The system can automatically adjust the keystone within a second or two as well. This is useful if the angle of the surface you project on to is changed quickly.
50 lumens isn’t particularly bright, so the projector works best in a dark or dimly-lit environment. The colours are also a touch washed out. Even so, as far as I’m concerned this is gadgetry at its best.
This kind of thing is the reason I love playing with new tech, especially when it works as seamlessly as this. During my time with the Moto Z I didn’t find a single person who wasn’t impressed by the projector.
Moto Z Conclusion
I want to love this phone. Personally I think it’s brilliantly engineered. Not just with the super thin casing, but also the Mods system, which appears to have been developed in tandem with the phone and is in no way an afterthought.
It’s the Mods though that stops this being an instant purchase. To explain: if you don’t buy into the ecosystem, you still have a very good smartphone. However you also have a phone that is constantly reminding you it isn’t complete. This isn’t through notifications or pop-ups but by nature of its design.
Take the back plate off and you have a bulging camera and exposed pins. Put it on and you spoil the effect of the thin phone with a nicely tactile, but still comparatively cheap accessory that is also a bit wobbly.
So… Buy the Mods? Sure but be prepared to pay for them. These are fun gadgets to play with and show off, however they don’t come cheap. Still they are all functional, well engineered and guaranteed to score you ‘gadget-man’ points. You can also buy into these any time down the line.
Part of me wishes there were two Moto Z phones; a Mod ready version and a baseline model with a seamless back panel for those never intending to augment it. Of course I also wish I had an unlimited supply of KFC popcorn chicken. We can’t have everything we want.
You’re committing a lot of trust here too. Anyone spending £400 on a camera and projector for their phone won’t be happy if Moto change the design next year.
I doubt that will occur; the online backlash would probably be heard on the moon. It’s worth keeping in mind though – Moto can’t feasibly keep the same chassis on their phones indefinitely. At some point in the not too distant future these expensive accessories will become obsolete.
As a phone, the Moto Z is powerful and gorgeous to look at in the right angles; easily alongside the S7 range as one of the best looking Android devices. As a system, the Z and Mods are a fun and interesting experiment. As always the market will decide on the fate of the Z and with it, maybe modular devices in general.
Tech writers and think tanks have wanted this kind of thing for a while now. Lenovo have put modular theory into practise, so now it’s up to us to decide if we want to pay for it.