REVIEW: The latest Moto phone feels like it's fighting you to defend its design ideas


Last month, I reviewed a smart pillow. Apart from being comfortable, it tracked my restlessness during the night, measured my snoring, woke me with its silent alarm, even played music through its built-in speakers. It was cool and different, and I had fun with it.


It was also a smart pillow. I'd have to lose touch with reality to think most people need one today.

moto z

Tech Insider/Jeff Dunn

The Lenovo Moto Z.

The Moto Z is that smart pillow, just in phone form. It's a device I've enjoyed using for the past two weeks. It's gorgeous, powerful, and legitimately inventive. Motorola, along with its parent company Lenovo, is undoubtedly committed to its vision of a premium smartphone that's both modular and strikingly thin. In a way, I admire that.

Then reality sets in, and I realize just how convoluted that vision is when the phone is out of a reviewer's hands, and into the hands of someone who just spent $620 to make it her main device for the next two years.

The Moto Z sells out to achieve its design goals. In doing so, it raises an array of annoyances that can make the phone feel like it's fighting you to defend its ideas. Also, the bezel's too big, and Motorola's fallen off a cliff when it comes to software updates.


Technically, I've used the Verizon-only Moto Z Droid during this period, but aside from some bloatware, that's the same as the unlocked model Motorola plans to release later this summer. (There's also a Moto Z Force, which is larger and pricier, with a stronger camera and a "shatterproof" display.) In any case, here's what I've found.

What's good about the Moto Z

- It feels like a flagship. When I say "strikingly thin," I mean it. The difference between the Moto Z's 0.2-inch frame and Samsung's 0.31-inch Galaxy S7 might not sound like much, but it's tangible when it's in your hand. Combined with the smooth steel back and rounded aluminum edges, the whole package comes off like an $600 device you'd want to show off.

Even though it's light, it's no toy or tool. Yes, the camera bump on the back will be polarizing, but for me, it only added character. It's really between this and the Galaxy S7 edge in the realm of gorgeous Android phones.

Moto Z

Tech Insider/Jeff Dunn

The Lenovo Moto Z.

It's a powerhouse. The Moto Z runs on the usual specs from a 2016 flagship - i.e., a 2.15GHz Snapdragon 820 chip and 4GB of RAM - and it has no issues with power as a result. Apps load quickly, multitasking is a breeze, web browsing is fine, and there's no game you can't play.

If anything, my benchmark tests had the Moto running slightly faster than the Galaxy S7, likely because of its lighter software skin. Either way, you won't have to worry about performance here.


- The display's great! It's a 5.5-inch OLED display with a resolution of 2560 x 1440, which is still plenty sharp enough for any non-VR need. Though its whites are a pinch on the blueish side, it's just as vibrant and deeply colorful as any good OLED display should be. Brightness and viewing angles aren't the best, but they're more than fine. Again, you get what you pay for.

- The camera's good, too. I wouldn't put the 13-megapixel unit here on the level of the Galaxy S7, but it's not terribly far off. It snaps quickly, keeps things stable, and does well to not lose control of brightness or white balance. There's a definite loss of detail when you go from good light to low light, as expected, but even then it's not the worst. The 5-megapixel camera on the front is plenty respectable as well. These aren't things you'd go out of your way for, a la the Galaxy phones, but they're a nice bonus.

- If you buy unlocked, Motorola's take on Android is as user-friendly as it gets. Outside of Verizon's meddling - more in a minute - Motorola continues to do a fantastic job of adding to Android in useful ways without changing the look and feel of it. The "Moto Display" feature, which flashes the time and your notifications whenever you wave your hand over the phone's front, is something every phone should have, and being able to launch the camera just by twisting the device is great.

If you want to ignore all that, you can, and it's more or less the same Android 6.0 Marshmallow you'd find on a Nexus phone. There's nothing really new here, but I'll take that over another Android OEM trying too hard to brand an already good thing.

Moto Z and Moto Mods

Tech Insider/Jeff Dunn

The Lenovo Moto Z and its Moto Mod.

There are no storage problems. The Moto Z comes with either 32 GB or 64 GB by default, and you can add up to 256 GB through a microSD slot on the phone's top. That's plenty of storage. And unlike the Galaxy S7, the phone can treat that extra storage as if it were part of the phone itself, allowing it to work more smoothly with most apps.

- The "Moto Mod" attachments just work. The "modularity" aspect of the Moto Z derives from its Moto Mods, a set of separately sold accessories that are specifically designed to attach to the magnetic set of pins on the phone's back. There's an external speaker from JBL, a handful of battery cases, a few "Style Shell" covers, and, yes, a pocket projector. LG tried something similar with its G5 phone earlier this year, but I cannot stress enough how much better the idea is implemented here. You just grab your thing and pop it on. It takes no more than a second, and after a quick onscreen walkthrough, everything works.

Whenever Google or anyone else takes a stab at this in the future, this pure ease of use will be the standard by which they're judged. Modularity is exciting but it's easy to make overwhelming. Here, it's well done.

What's bad about the Moto Z

- No one should actually buy any of those attachments. There's a big difference between being well designed and being practical. Let's go one by one:

  • Spending $60 on a 2,200mAh battery case that can't fully recharge your phone is dumb when stronger $20 battery packs exist.
  • Spending $80 on a speaker attachment that works with one device and projects sound away from you is dumb when Bluetooth speakers exist.
  • Spending $300 on a projector that washes out images and maxes at a grainy 480p is dumb all the time.
  • The Style Shells are mostly harmless at $20 a pop, but it's not like they add any protection. They, like everything else, also take away from the phone's thinness.

It's worth noting that Motorola's launched a Moto Mods Development Kit, which allows anyone to hack up their own tricks, but it remains to be seen if the Moto Z can drum up enough interest to make that a useful thing for the masses.

Right now, this take on modularity is fun and easy, but also a really expensive way to lock yourself into one ecosystem, with a bunch of devices that aren't good value. The form is sound, but the function needs work.


Moto Z speaker

Tech Insider/Jeff Dunn

The JBL SoundBoost Moto Mod.

There are exactly zero immediate benefits to ditching the headphone jack. I wrote about this at length last week, so I'll spare you yet another angry audiophile rant. All I'll say is that I can at least see why the iPhone might ditch the 3.5mm connector - Apple has a very successful history of vertical integration. Plus, Lightning headphones are already a thing. USB-C headphones, however, are not. Unless you're down with Bluetooth, you're stuck with a dongle, one that I've already misplaced multiple times. This feels every bit like Lenovo jumping on the bandwagon to look forward-thinking, regardless of whether or not there's any substance to the decision. The phone isn't even water-resistant. It's just thinner. It looks great, but aesthetics have a way of fading when they make your life harder.

- Related: Take a guess at what gets cut to make a phone this thin. Yep, it's battery life. You know, the one thing everyone wants more of. That insatiable thirst for slimness cuts the Moto Z's battery down to 2,600mAh - with Android, that means you have to be more conservative than usual to get through a full day. You still can, but if you're on it all the time, it's harder. The phone does charge very quickly over USB-C, but the charger that comes with the device doesn't have a detachable cable, which is horrible. Even worse, the Moto Mod battery pack doesn't have a port for charging separately.

- The fingerprint scanner's kind of a mess. It definitely works, but it's overly sensitive. That's not great when it's on the front of the phone, rather than recessed in a more natural spot on the back.

- It also makes the bottom bezel huge. This wouldn't be as big a deal if the scanner worked as a home button, but it doesn't. Instead, you have a bezel big enough to incorporate that and a Moto logo sitting underneath the usual software buttons. A 5.5-inch display is big enough as it is, so it's safe to say that this phone isn't friendly to use with one hand.

- It can run hot. It's not bad enough to be a major problem, but it did seem to take less effort to raise the Moto Z's temperature than what's typical. Flip on a more involved game, and that steel back will get warm before long.


Moto Z projector

Tech Insider/Jeff Dunn

The Moto Insta-Share Projector.

Verizon. I haven't met another human who's willingly used VZ Navigator. You haven't either. Still, there it is in the Moto Z Droid's app tray, right alongside another dozen or so pieces of bloatware. They're almost all worthless - maybe the NFL Mobile app aside - and a handful of them can't be uninstalled. Again, if you can wait for the unlocked version, do that.

On the plus side, Verizon's coverage is still very strong in the New York area, and aside from a harmless logo on the camera module, it doesn't brand the hardware at all.

- Motorola won't commit to monthly security patches, and it's lost its reputation for timely software updates. Back when Motorola belonged to Google, it earned the adoration of Android nerds everywhere for getting OS updates to its flagship phones long before anyone else. If you had a Moto X, you never felt left behind.

Under Lenovo, that's gone right out the window. The company's been just as slow as any other Android OEM in recent months, even though it barely touches the OS. Now, it's said it can't commit to pushing Google's monthly security updates to the phone right as they're released.

Lenovo isn't the only company to be lax on this, but either way, buying a Moto Z means buying a phone that won't be as secure as it could be for chunks at a time.


So, should I buy it?

This is a weird one. Everything that's good about the Moto Z is awesome. The display is a pleasure, the software is clean, and the Moto Mod setup is ingenious. And while I wouldn't brag about how my phone is thinner than yours out loud, part of me loves having a phone that's meant to evoke pride when I hold it. (Consumerism!)

Conversely, the negatives border on appalling. The battery isn't up to snuff, ditching the headphone jack is aimless, and the Moto Mods themselves are nowhere close to necessary. There's no real way to justify the lack of security updates, either.

Moto Z

Tech Insider/Jeff Dunn

The Lenovo Moto Z's fingerprint scanner.

If you have cash to burn, and you really value design or just having something different, you might be happy with the Moto Z. It's not a bad phone. The decisions made around it, though, force too many sacrifices for comfort - especially when the latest Galaxy phones have no such issues, or when the OnePlus 3 nails all the basics for $220 less.

But hey, at least it's interesting.

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