Moto Z review: A modular phone done right


LG’s modular G5 was one of the mobile phone highlights of 2016, but after poor sales and no more news on any new module attachments, it’s fair to say that the highly lauded “do anything” phone hasn’t quite captured the imagination of the average smartphone-buying consumer.

It paints a grim picture for Lenovo and Motorola’s new modular Moto Z family, which consists of the flagship Moto Z on test here and the mid-range Moto Z Play in the UK (the US also has the shatterproof Moto Z Force, which replaces the excellent Moto X Force). Thankfully, the Moto Z range seems to be in much better hands than the ill-fated G5: not only do both phones have better attachments, but their magnetic snap-on, snap-off approach also makes them much easier to switch in and out, demonstrating exactly how modular phones should be done.

Turn the Moto Z over and you’ll see a distinctive set of dimples toward the bottom of the handset. This is where each so-called “Moto Mod” attaches to the back of the phone, allowing you to adapt it to all sorts of different situations in the blink of an eye. The mods work with all Moto Z phones, too, so you can attach them to both the Z and Moto Z Play without any trouble.

You can snap on additional shell cases to customise the look of your phone, or maybe whack JBL’s SoundBoost speaker on the back to turn it into a mini sound system. There’s also the Moto Insta-Share Projector, allowing you to project local or streamed video on a screen up to 70in in size, or perhaps you might fancy the Hasselblad True Zoom, which replaces your phone’s rear camera with a dedicated 12-megapixel sensor and 10x optical zoom.

Pokémon Go addicts, meanwhile, will be eyeing up the 2,220mAh Incipio offGRID Power Pack mod, which Motorola claims can add up to 22 hours of additional battery life to your handset. Even better, Motorola has made a developer kit available to the public, potentially paving the way for hundreds more bespoke mods in the future. And Motorola told me during its IFA press launch that it plans on making these mods compatible with at least two more generations of Moto Z phones, so you won’t need to worry about replacing them come this time next year.

That will come as a big relief, as buying more than one Mod quickly becomes quite the investment. The JBL SoundBoost is a reasonably palatable £70, but the Hasselblad True Zoom is a whopping £200, putting it in the same kind of territory as proper compact cameras. That’s a big ask when you’re already spending £499 on the Moto Z (or £370 on the Moto Z Play), so it’s good to know they’ll have a decent shelf life before the inevitable second generation arrives.

JBL SoundBoost mod review

The JBL SoundBoost is definitely worth a look if you often spend a lot of time at home watching videos on your phone. Costing £70, this chunky stereo speaker is an absolute revelation for mobile Netflix and YouTube fans, and you’ll quickly find it hard to go back once you’ve clapped ears on it.

On its own, for instance, the single speaker located at the top of the Moto Z sounds horribly thin and tinny, with any kind of bass being completely non-existent. Snap on the JBL SoundBoost, however, and audio is transformed. Music not only sounds a lot warmer and wider in scope, but it also brings a welcome sense of bass to proceedings that just isn’t present without it.

It even has a small kickstand on the back so you can prop it up on a table. Admittedly, it’s not exactly very commuter friendly, so it probably won’t be much good if you tend to listen to music via headphones, but if you’re at home or need something to entertain the kids with, it’s a great way to turn your phone into a miniature boom box. It also has plenty of volume to fill a small room, but I found it often started distorting at the highest volume levels, so you may want to rein it in a bit depending on what you’re listening to.

Of course, having music blaring out of the Moto Z will obviously start to take its toll on the phone’s battery life sooner or later, but you’ll be pleased to hear the SoundBoost has its own 1,000mAh battery inside it as well. Motorola claims this can provide an additional 10 hours of battery life on top of what’s already available on your phone, so you should have plenty of juice left even after a lengthy listening session. You can charge it via the Moto Z’s USB-C bundled charger plug, too – just turn the mod over and you’ll find a small USB-C port above its connector pad. 

Design

Mods aside, let’s turn our attention to the Moto Z itself. This is a gorgeously designed smartphone, with its all-metal chassis measuring just 5.2mm thick, making it the world’s thinnest smartphone. Admittedly, that’s somewhat undermined by the pronounced camera bump on the back, but snap on a shell case and you’ll get a nice flush rear. This brings the overall thickness up to around 7.4mm, but that’s still pretty impressive either way.

There’s also a fingerprint sensor on the front for easy unlocking, which can also be used to turn the phone off – handy when the power button on the side is so tiny. It’s very quick to respond too, and, with built-in NFC, the phone is primed and ready to use with Android Pay touch payments.

Of course, part of the reason why the Moto Z is so slender is (yes, you guessed it) because it doesn’t have to cater for a headphone jack. Much like the iPhone 7, you’ll either need to buy a pair of wireless headphones, plump for a pair of USB Type-C powered headphones, or use the bundled USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box to carry on listening to your favourite tunes.

The latter naturally precludes you from charging the phone at the same time – a flaw also present on the iPhone 7 – but here’s where the Moto Z’s modular design really comes into its own, as you can easily avoid this problem by snapping the £60 Incipio pack on the back, giving your phone an instant burst of extra energy without disrupting your music. The JBL SoundBoost speaker also comes with an extra 1,000mAh battery, so at least you’ve got some options when it comes to prolonging the phone’s stamina.

Battery Life

That’s the one downside of having such a slim smartphone, as there’s simply less available space to squeeze in a decent battery. The Moto Z puts up a pretty decent fight; its 2,600mAh battery lasted a respectable 12hrs 21mins in our continuous video-playback test with the screen set to our usual measurement of 170cd/m2.

That’s quite a long way off the 17 hours and longer feats of the Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and OnePlus 3, but it’s better than the LG G5, which only lasted 11hrs 10mins.

The Moto Z also supports fast-charging via its USB Type-C port, with Motorola claiming you can get up to seven hours of use from only 15 minutes attached to the mains. I haven’t had a chance to put these fast-charge claims to the test yet, but I’ll be updating this review with more up-to-date information soon.

Performance

You’re not left wanting for power, either, as the Moto Z comes with one of Qualcomm’s superfast quad-core Snapdragon 820 chips and 4GB of RAM. This is more than enough speed for everyday tasks, as proven by its Geekbench 4 scores of 1,474 in the single-core test and 4,007 in the multi-core test. That’s still a little slower than Samsung’s Galaxy S7 family, but it’s just as quick as Google’s new Pixel phones and it skips ahead of Sony’s recent Xperia XZ.

It’s a shame it doesn’t come with Android 7 Nougat out of the box, but given Motorola is usually pretty quick to roll out over-the-air updates, I’m sure it won’t be long before an upgrade becomes available. Either way, vanilla Android 6 flew along during day-to-day use, and apps opened in no time at all.

Graphics performance was also stellar. In GFXBench GL’s onscreen Manhattan 3 test, for instance, the Moto Z returned a result of 1,645 frames (at an average of 27fps). This brings it level with the Galaxy S7 family, so it should be able to handle almost any game you through at it. Indeed, it handled Hearthstone perfectly well during testing, and simpler games such as Threes ran beautifully, so you should be well catered for in terms of entertainment.

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