A modular smartphone really is the dream. Although Google’s ambitious Project Ara has been shelved, the concept – well, parts of it – lives on in other smartphones. Earlier this year, LG gave us its take on a modular smartphone with the LG G5, and several months later, Lenovo showcased a modular phone that is (arguably) even more interesting: the Moto Z and its many Moto Mods.
Like any other flagship smartphones released this year, the Moto Z is packed to the brim with the latest hardware; its software experience is also one of the closest to stock Android. However, on its own, the Moto Z isn’t exactly the flagship to beat.
Coupled with its Moto Mods, however, the Moto Z is a very, very interesting smartphone.
Design & First Impressions
When I first got the Moto Z, I was impressed by how ridiculously thin and light it is. Weighing merely 136g and measuring only 5.19mm thin, the Moto Z feels unreal to hold and use. It’s surreal how thin and powerful this flagship smartphone is. In some ways, this phone is somewhat reminiscent of Motorola’s extremely thin – at the time – Razr flip phone.
On the other hand, the chin of the Moto Z is…awfully big. Not only does this make the phone bigger than it should be, it doesn’t look particularly flattering too. With so much space on the bottom part of the device, I was really hoping for front-facing stereo speakers on the Moto Z; the earpiece itself doubles as the device’s mono speaker.
The back design of the Moto Z, on the other hand, isn’t very sleek either. While the middle portion is made out of metal, there are glass panels at the top and bottom. These different materials make for a rather contrasting aesthetic, but it’s the massive camera bump and 16 gold pins at the bottom of the Moto Z that look particularly odd.
But that is simply because Motorola/Lenovo isn’t looking for you to use the Moto Z “naked.” A Style Shell is bundled with every unit of the Moto Z, which effectively eliminates the camera bump while also covering the gold pins. While this allows for user customisation to a certain extent, I found myself using the Moto Z without the Style Shell as it adds extra thickness to the phone, which really takes away the svelte body of the device.
But these pins are integral to the Moto Z’s modularity. The Moto Mods communicate with the device through these very pins, and these different modules are what really set the Moto Z apart from other smartphones in the market. These attachments hold on to the phone – magnetically – pretty tightly too. I’ll detail these different Moto Mods further down this review in their respective sections.
Moving on, the fingerprint sensor of the Moto Z is pretty great too. Even though it’s just one little square pane, it can actually detect my fingerprints accurately most of the time, which surprised me quite a bit. As it should be with flagship smartphones today, the Moto Z’s fingerprint sensor is also quick.
There is a lot to love about the Moto Z, with the main highlights being its lightweight and slim body, which both lend to a pleasant user experience. Of course, this does come at a price: the Moto Z doesn’t have enough room for a headphone jack; a USB Type-C to 3.5mm audio jack dongle is bundled with the phone to make up for this. Regardless, I haven’t even got to the Moto Z’s best qualities yet – and worst.
The Moto Z offers hardware one would expect from a flagship device. It has a vibrant 5.5-inch 1440p AMOLED display, flagship-level performance, as well as a decent 4GB of RAM, all of which offer a smooth and enjoyable user experience. However, I did notice some performance hiccups here and there, which perhaps can be attributed to the underclocked Snapdragon 820 processor. But it’s nothing too major: the Moto Z still feels zippy almost all the time.
However, in order to cut down on the Moto Z’s thickness – aside from the headphone jack – its battery capacity was also compromised: it only has a 2,600mAh battery. Not surprisingly, this makes for rather poor battery life, which I’ll detail further down this review.
Moto devices of late offer a near-stock Android experience, and the same applies to the Moto Z. There are very minimal bloatware, and the no-nonsense software approach of stock Android without the addition of unnecessary features means the software experience is light and responsive. The best part is, the features that did make the cut are genuinely useful.
One of these is the Moto Display, which is activated whenever a new notification comes in or when I hover my hand over the phone (how cool is that?). Once activated, I can press and hold on an app icon to show what the notification is about. Not only is this a very minimalist – and clever – approach to notifications, it is intuitive and does not require me constantly pressing the power button to wake up the phone.
Aside from that, I love the fact that I can lock the Moto Z with a long press of the fingerprint sensor. The slew of gestures to activate different functions of the device proved to be more useful than I thought too. I can “chop” twice with the Moto Z to activate the flashlight, and I can also “twist” the phone twice to launch the camera app, though I usually just double tap the power button instead to accomplish the same task.
The Moto Z combines the clean and functional experience of stock Android with genuinely useful features, which is a balance few phone makers find. Honestly, the software experience of the Moto Z is one of its strongest suites – the Moto Display being the main highlight.
The Moto Z has a very modest 2,600mAh battery, which unsurprisingly provides modest battery life as well. On moderate to heavy usage, I managed to get just shy of four hours of screen on time with the Moto Z, which isn’t very good. The device’s highly capable Snapdragon 820 processor and 1440p display definitely drain quite a bit of battery.
That’s where the Moto Mods come in. Specifically, the Incipio offGRID Power Pack, which packs an additional 2,220mAh cell and a RM499 price tag. With the Power Pack connected to the Moto Z, I managed a whopping seven hours of screen on time. However, this does come at the cost of a significantly thicker – and heavier – phone.
As for the charging time of the Moto Z, 30 minutes of charging only nets 50% of battery life. Taking into account the device’s 2,600mAh battery, this isn’t a very impressive charging speed.
Equipped with a sharp and vibrant 5.5-inch 1440p AMOLED display, the Moto Z has one of the best displays in the business. Colours are punchy, texts and images are crisp, and the display can get really bright too. Let’s not forget one of the most immediate benefits of an AMOLED panel: true black levels. In the case of an AMOLED panel, individual pixels are switched off whenever it is displaying black.
While we’re on the topic, it’s worth mentioning the RM1,399 Moto Insta-Share Projector here. Once connected to the Moto Z, this Moto Mod allows you to project – obviously – whatever that is shown on the device. While the projector isn’t very bright, it’s more than sufficient for viewing in a dimly lit room – it’s a rather fun party piece too.
Unlike most smartphones today, the Moto Z’s earpiece actually doubles as a mono speaker. Although it’s a front-facing speaker – which is great – the audio quality itself…isn’t very good. It’s not the loudest speaker I’ve heard from a smartphone, and the speaker buzzes at maximum volume too.
Thankfully, the audio quality of the Moto Z improves dramatically with the RM599 JBL SoundBoost Moto Mod. This set of speakers offer stereo audio as well as a 1,000mAh battery – Lenovo claims this delivers up to 10 hours of listening time. In my testing, the SoundBoost speakers can get loud enough to fill up a small- to medium-sized room.
The 13MP camera of the Moto Z is surprisingly a very good shooter. I’m surprised because the shooting experience wasn’t very pleasant. The Moto Z’s camera isn’t as responsive as other smartphone cameras I’ve used, and it gets particularly sluggish in low light conditions.
Oddly enough, however, the final images look really, really good. Despite how sluggish the shooting experience was, the images themselves are actually sharp and detailed. I imagine the optical image stabilisation system of the Moto Z’s camera helped quite a bit here.
When shooting under ideal lighting, the Moto Z performed admirably – as it should be for a flagship smartphone. While the Moto Z has a tendency to oversaturate images, it does make them look more appealing, although some images do look rather unnatural.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the Moto Z’s low light performance. As I’ve mentioned before, the camera is especially sluggish when shooting with limited lighting, but I almost always get good shots regardless. The camera’s large f/1.8 aperture definitely played a vital role here.
Of course, this camera review wouldn’t be complete without one particularly interesting Moto Mod: the Hasselblad True Zoom. I have to be honest, I was excited to take it out for a spin, but after taking a few shots with it and comparing it to the Moto Z’s camera…I was disappointed.
For one, the Hasselblad camera app isn’t as fast as the Moto Z’s; it actually feels even more sluggish. On top of that, this camera module has a small range of aperture from f/3.5 to f/6.5 too, not to mention the lack of HDR. These, in turn, actually result in less flattering images than ones taken with the Moto Z. Judge for yourself:
Moto Z images come up first, followed by ones taken with the Hasselblad True Zoom.
That is not to say the Hasselblad True Zoom doesn’t have its advantages. For one, it stays true to its name by offering 10x optical zoom, which is the 35mm equivalent of 25mm to 250mm; the camera also handles exposure better than the Moto Z. However, considering the fact that the Hasselblad True Zoom retails at RM1,299, these advantages don’t exactly justify its steep asking price.
The most immediate competitor to the Moto Z is definitely the LG G5 – these are both modular phones, after all. In terms of design, the Moto Z’s modular concept is definitely more refined and practical: the Moto Mods are hot-swappable, and changing between different Mods doesn’t require the Moto Z to be switched off. That’s not the case with the LG G5.
As far as specifications go, both smartphones are equally competent: they feature Snapdragon 820 processors, 1440p displays (the Moto Z has an AMOLED display while the G5 packs an IPS LCD panel), 4GB of RAM, as well as microSD card slots. However, the Moto Z has double the storage of the G5 at 64GB, although the latter has a slightly bigger 2,800mAh battery. In terms of retail price, both the Moto Z and LG G5 retail at RM2,699.
If we’re talking about flagship smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge is definitely worth a mention. In comparison to the Moto Z, the S7 edge has a sleeker design, a bigger 3,600mAh battery, a better 12MP dual-pixel camera, IP68-rated body, as well as a unique dual-curved display.
Then again, the Galaxy S7 edge doesn’t offer the Moto Z’s modularity, not to mention the fact that the Moto Z has more internal storage at 64GB as well as a slimmer and lighter body. Of course, the Moto Z is also more affordable at RM2,699; the S7 edge retails at RM3,099 instead, although it can easily be bought for much less now.
On the more affordable side of things, there’s the OnePlus 3, arguably one of the best value for money smartphones released this year. Retailing at only RM1,888, the OnePlus 3 costs RM811 less than the Moto Z. Despite going for so much less, the OnePlus 3 offers a higher clocked Snapdragon 820 processor, more RAM at 6GB, as well as a bigger 3,000mAh battery.
However, the Moto Z has a sharper 1440p display over the OnePlus 3’s 1080p panel, not to mention the fact that the Moto Z offers expandable storage as well, which some consumers may find indispensable in a smartphone.
The Moto Z is a very good flagship device, this much is true. The many Moto Mods add functionalities to the device other smartphones simply do not offer, and its capable camera – although not perfect – and polished software experience make it a very pleasant smartphone to use.
However, on its own, the Moto Z’s average battery life and audio quality are some of its major weaknesses. Let’s not forget the total ownership cost of the Moto Z too; while the Moto Mods can overcome some of the Moto Z’s shortcomings, they also cost a pretty penny.
But as far as modular smartphones go, the Moto Z is the best one yet. Attaching the different Moto Mods is easy, and really, I can’t help but to marvel at how thin and light the Moto Z is. With a few tweaks here and there, I’m hopeful – and almost certain – the next iteration of the Moto Z will be even better.