Moto Z review: Motorola proves modular smartphones are the future of mobility

Completely unadorned, Motorola's new flagship phone is a solid performer. But once you add in swappable modules, you can configure the smartphone of your dreams.

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Credit: Florence Ion
At a Glance
  • Moto Z

    Greenbot Rating
    $624.00 MSRP $624.00
    on Motorola

    The Moto Z is the best flagship to come out of Motorola's camp and you'll love the ability to customize it to your liking with additional Moto Mods.

Just as I was getting settled into the idea that Motorola had found a winning formula for its flagship line, Lenovo had to swoop in, buy the company, and rile things up. Indeed, last year’s Moto X Pure Edition was a great phone, but now under Lenovo’s corporate banner, Motorola gives us the Moto Z—and it’s the most sophisticated smartphone I’ve seen from Motorola since the first Android-powered Droid landed in 2009.

Gone are the campy, plasticky Moto X models of the past. This is Motorola with a renewed sense of self.

The Moto Z is as futuristic-looking as it is future-facing. It has much the same level of high-end specs and components as it competitors, but it packs an extra punch. Those Moto Mods you might have heard about? They snap into the back of the Moto Z, and extend the phone’s capabilities with extra battery life, name-brand fashion aesthetics, better sound, and even a portable projector that can display a 70-inch image. In a word: It’s impressive. And the Moto Mods’ mere existence is a great indicator that Motorola can thrive under Lenovo’s wing.

Motorola’s best looking phone

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The Moto Z is a seriously stunning phone. 

The Moto Z is one of the thinnest smartphones available—and this is both a blessing and a curse. The phone is 5.2mm thick, which out-slims both the Nexus 6P and OnePlus 3’s 7.3mm chassis. That said, you might find the Moto Z a bit too slim. However beautiful the design may be, the phone feels a bit flimsy without a Moto Mod snapped on, and it becomes almost scalding hot if it’s charging when you’re playing a game. Sans Moto Mods, it’s not the easiest phone to gab with either, since it isn’t thick enough to comfortably cradle with your shoulder, and it can easily slip out of your hand.

All that said, the Moto Z comes with a free, snap-in Style Shell that adds a bit more girth to the phone, and also helps reduce the amount of heat that reaches your skin.

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The Moto Z completely unadorned. Notice how the glass over the display curves down into the edges. 

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Again, completely sans Moto Mods. The Moto Z’s rear-facing camera lens pops out a bit, but it doesn’t protrude as much with the Style Shell snapped on.

Sure, we have a few quibbles, but this by far the most sophisticated Motorola smartphone we’ve seen. I really like how the glass on top of the display cascades down into the phone’s edges. It’s as if there’s no bezel whatsoever, though that feeling quickly dissipates once you turn on the display.

Speaking of which, the Moto Z’s 5.5-inch Quad HD display is not only gorgeous, but also notably bright. This comes in especially handy when you’re walking around catching Pokémon in broad daylight. And, yes, that’s exactly how I used this review unit during my week of testing.

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The front-facing fingerprint scanner isn’t my favorite implementation of the security technology. 

My least favorite element of the Moto Z’s design is its front-facing fingerprint scanner. It looks like it functions as a Home button, but it doesn’t. Instead, it just takes up space that could have been allocated to the display. For shame. The fingerprint scanner feels like an afterthought, a last-minute addition on Motorola’s part. At the very least, it would be nice if you could long-press this button to turn off the display.

What happened to the headphone jack?

The Moto Z does not feature the standard 3.5mm headphone jack that’s been a staple of every music-playing electronic device since the middle of the 20th century.

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Don’t have a Bluetooth headset? Then get ready to cart around this USB Type-C dongle.

If you’re aching to listen to tunes, you’ll have to either invest in a pair of Bluetooth earphones, or carry around a clunky USB Type-C adapter to plug in your analog earphones (the adapter comes with the phone). If you go the Bluetooth route, you’ll have to be diligent about keeping your earphones charged. If you’re still attached to your old-school analog earphones, you’ll have to always keep tabs on the whereabouts of that dongle. Either way, it’s an annoyance.

Flagship-caliber internal components

Like the rest of the high-end smartphone brood, the Moto Z runs on the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM. In our benchmarks, it easily held its own among the rest of the flagship competition, though there might have been GPU throttling in one particular test.

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In our PCMark tests, the Moto Z ranked the highest—even higher than the OnePlus 3 with 3GB of RAM.

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In 3DMark, the Moto Z proved its abilities as a mobile gaming console. 

Specifically, in 3DMark’s Slingshot 3.0 benchmark, which tests OpenGL ES 3.0 on a Full HD resolution, the Moto Z consistently produced fluctuating results. However, the phone did fare better in Slingshot 3.1, which tests OpenGL ES 3.1 at a 2K resolution, and managed slightly higher numbers than even Samsung’s Galaxy S7.

The Moto Z’s 2600 mAh battery might seem small compared to other phones’ batteries, but it’s efficient. During all my field testing, I managed about two days of light use without needing to plug in the phone. I suspect as long as you keep the display at a low brightness, you’ll likely see similar mileage. Check back later for a full run down of our battery benchmarks to see how long this phone lasts in empirical tests.

Now, about those Moto Mods

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The Moto Mods include (clockwise from top left): Kate Spade Power Pack, JBL SoundBoost speaker, Insta-Share Projector, and Style Shell. 

My favorite parts of the Moto Z story are the Moto Mods, which are all sold separately (save the Style Shell, which comes with the phone). Each mod connects to the Moto Z with strong magnets and connector pins. No power-off/power-on routine is necessary, and the mods activate as soon as they latch on. 

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The Moto Mods all connect easily with strong magnets and metal connectors. 

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The pins are exposed on the back, but aren’t at any risk if you decide to leave the Moto Style Shell at home. 

For this review, I received the Moto Insta-Share Projector, JBL SoundBoost speaker, and Kate Spade Power Pack (there’s also a TUMI-branded Power Pack if you want a less feminine aesthetic). Each mod includes its own built-in battery—1100 mAh for the projector, 1000 mAh for the speaker, and an extra 2220 mAh battery for the Power Pack. What’s more, each battery-powered mod features its own status icon in the notifications shade. This way, you can see how much battery life you have between the Moto Z and its Moto Mod combined.

There’s also a Moto Style Shell inside the Moto Z’s retail box. Mods like the Insta-Share Projector and JBL SoundBoost definitely bulk up the phone, but they each come with their own carrying pouches so you can tow them along separately. 

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The Insta-Share Projector turns your little phone into a full-fledged entertainment device. 

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I was impressed with how big the projection could get while remaining visible. 

The Insta-Share projector was my favorite of all the mods. I thought it would be hokey, but it’s actually pretty neat. It can project up to 70 inches on any flat surface, and features a kickstand, a built-in fan for cooling down the projector, and the extra battery, which grants an estimated extra hour of screen time. Motorola has yet to share a price for the Insta-Share, but given its quality and convenience, it’s worth all the cost of a similarly spec’d pocket projector.

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The Moto clipped on to the JBL SoundBooster. It gets really loud! 

We’ll dig into all the mods in detail in future reviews. For now, we can say that Lenovo, or Motorola, or whoever developed this modular methodology, deserves serious accolades. This is definitely the right way to add modular components to a smartphone (sorry, LG), and by promising “forward compatibility” with future Moto phones, it’s clear that Motorola sees Moto Modding as the next evolution in mobility.

13 capable megapixels

My first few months with the first-gen Moto X were awful. That device was my primary camera phone, and produced some of the worst photos I’ve ever shot. It wasn’t until last year’s Moto X Pure Edition, which boasted a whopping 21-megapixel camera, that we started to see substantially better image quality from Motorola.

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The Moto Z’s photos are sharp and heavily contrasted. You might notice some overexposure when shooting on bright days.

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The picture is clear, though the background colors could have been more vibrant and life-like.

Enter the Moto Z, which vastly improves upon the Pure Edition despite having a rear-facing camera with “only” 13 megapixels. The new camera’s aperture is f/1.8, which puts it on par with the G5’s, and helps when shooting in low-light situations. The Moto Z’s camera also boasts laser autofocus and optical image stabilization (OIS), which have become key features for any marquee smartphone.

I wasn’t expecting photo quality this good given my past experiences with Motorola’s cameras, but I’m glad to have been proven wrong. To be sure, the Moto Z’s low-light abilities are substantially better than its predecessor’s. There are still a few issues with overexposure when shooting in bright sunlight, however, and I’m still curious to see how the Moto Z’s camera stacks up to its just-released sibling, the Moto Z Force, which boasts a 21-megapixel camera.

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The Moto Z’s low light performance (right) is substantially better than what last year’s Moto X Pure Edition could muster, despite its 21-megapixel camera.

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Unfortunately, the Moto Z’s 13-megapixel camera shows its limitations when you zoom in. 

The Moto Z’s 5-megapixel front-facing camera is pretty capable, too, and I enjoyed shooting self-reflecting vignettes for Snapchat with the phone. I can see Lenovo’s influence with the automatic beautify feature that’s been added to the camera app, and it’s nice that my phone smooths out my face so I don’t have to. We should all appreciate a little help from the computer once in a while. 

There’s no ditching stock 

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The Moto Z’s Home screen and app drawer.

Like the rest of the Motorola family, the Moto Z is relatively bloat-free. It runs a near-stock version of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, and features a few add-ons like gesture controls and an ambient display, which you can easily adjust from the Moto application.

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Ugh. Verizon bloatware.

However, because the Moto Z is initially sold only through Verizon Wireless, you’ll have to contend with the hoard of apps that Big Red forces upon you. This includes the NFL Mobile app, and a variety of games you’ll likely never play—who’s playing anything but Pokemon Go these days, anyway? And of course, you can’t delete any of the apps to reclaim disk space (though you can disable them).

Should you buy this phone? 

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An impressive flagship from Motorola.

Things are looking good for Motorola under Lenovo’s wing. Its budget line might have taken a weird, unfortunate turn, but it appears that its flagship line has finally received its much-needed makeover.

Let’s be real here: The Moto X was a great line of smartphones, but never particularly exemplary. The Moto Z, on the other hand, is the Lexus to the Moto X’s Toyota: It’s a sturdy, confidence-inspiring device that promises extra bits of luxury. In the Moto Z’s case, those luxury promises are the Moto Mods. Sure, you can opt for basic cosmetic flourishes with Power Packs featuring Kate Spade and TUMI branding, but you can also customize how you use the Moto Z. And that’s the whole point behind the Moto Z’s modularity: To help you to create your perfect smartphone.  

We’re not not fans of Verizon bloatware. We’re also concerned about the Moto Z’s overheating issue, confusing fingerprint scanner, missing earphone jack, and somewhat wispy design when its not attached to a Moto Mod. It’s also possible the higher-spec’d Moto Z Force—which we’ll review soon—will be the Moto you want most. But make no mistake, the Moto Z is a very good phone.

This story, "Moto Z review: Motorola proves modular smartphones are the future of mobility" was originally published by Greenbot.

At a Glance
  • Greenbot Rating
    $624.00 MSRP $624.00
    on Motorola

    The Moto Z is the best flagship to come out of Motorola's camp and you'll love the ability to customize it to your liking with additional Moto Mods.


    • Moto Mods are the coolest and they actually add value to the device
    • 13-megapixel camera is a better low-light performer than its predecessor


    • A bit slippery to hold without its snap-on back cover
    • The lack of a headphone jack could get annoying over time