Oh snap! Hands-on with Lenovo's Moto Z and its modular back plates

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The Lenovo Moto Z is ambitious, and if everything works well, could be the most innovative phone of the year(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Modular phones aren't yet a thing, per se, but that doesn't mean underdog (i.e. not Apple or Samsung) smartphone-makers aren't trying their darnedest to put them on the radar. First it was LG with its hit-and-miss G5, and now Motorola (Lenovo) with the Moto Z and its snap-on, Ashton Kutcher-approved "Moto Mods." If our hands-on time is any indication, this could be the first modular approach that really matters.

Update: You can now read our full review of the Moto Z.

The Moto Z and its nearly identical "shatter-proof" twin, the Moto Z Force, look like they'd be very good high-end handsets even if they didn't have any modules. They each have 5.5-inch QHD (2,560 x 1,440) AMOLED screens that are on par with the quality you'd expect from a 2016 Android flagship, while a Snapdragon 820 processor and 4 GB RAM should put their performance up there with the leading HTC 10 and Galaxy S7. Motorola is quoting up to 30 hours of battery life for the standard model and up to 40 hours for the Force variant (though there's plenty of fine print under those claims). As a bonus, the standard Moto Z is a ridiculous 5.2 mm (0.2 inch) thick – that's 27 percent thinner than an iPhone 6s.

While LG approached the G5's modularity by making you yank the bottom section (chin) of the phone – along with its entire battery – clean out of the handset, Motorola's solution strikes us as more elegant: magnetic back plates that snap onto the core phone. Without a back plate, the phone looks something like a partially finished prototype – a half-dressed phone, if you will (notice the connectors near the bottom):

But snap on a Moto Mod and the same phone takes on an entirely different personality – and, in some cases, purpose.

There are some back plates that are simply cosmetic. Dubbed Style Shells (we're betting Ashton came up with that one), these only add a different color or material to the phone. "Only" is relative, though: if this were the only customization going on there, it would be still be an interesting concept.

The real excitement comes from the Moto Mods that add new functionality via those data transfer connectors.

There's a JBL SoundBoost module that turns your phone into a tiny boom box: in our demo the audio was very loud, and pretty powerful (for a phone), complete with a kickstand that will prop the phone/speaker up while you're jamming out to "Old Time Rock & Roll" in your tighty whities. Unlike LG's audio module, though, this one doesn't improve headphone output (it doesn't add an amp or DAC) so this will make more sense for people who want better audio while watching movies (where that kickstand will also come in handy) than it will for audiophiles looking for hi-res sound on the go.

There's also the Moto Insta-Share projector, which flashes your phone's screen as a 70-inch projection on the wall.

This one is going to have a very niche audience, as the projection looks more like something from a high school history lesson than a UHD TV:

If I'm sharing a video or gallery of photos I shot from a trip, I'd prefer to pass the phone around and see the bright and sharp images in their purest form vs. projecting a semi-transparent image onto a wall. Of course the beauty of modularity, though, is that one size doesn't fit all. It gives OEMs like Lenovorola the freedom to go niche. Even 70-inch projector niche.

The module we're looking most forward to from the demo – sometimes the simplest features are the best – is a battery pack that acts as the equivalent of a battery case, adding up to 22 hours of extra life to your phone. This one adds some bulk (as do all of the modules with fancy tech built-in), but we like the idea of adding battery by snapping something onto the phone that makes it a little thicker, rather than tucking your phone inside a brick-like case. Nearly-ubiquitous battery case maker Mophie is even getting in on the action, partnering with Lenovo for a separate upcoming battery pack Moto Mod.

The best part about the Power Pack module is that it complements the battery inside the phone itself. LG's modules replace the phone's battery, so you have to power down when changing them. No reserve battery means no power when swapping. With the Moto Z, you just snap the power module onto the phone's backside and instantly get the extra juice – no rebooting needed. And there's no reason you couldn't keep more than one Power Pack with you to stagger on top of one another, potentially giving you several days worth of battery life without going near a power outlet.

Things get kookier when you step into Lenovo's concept Moto Mods – these are the modules that may eventually make their way into stores, but haven't been announced yet as consumer products. Here you'll find a mixture of ambition and clunkiness, with some truly innovative ideas that also clearly aren't yet ready for consumers.

Among these were a mod that transforms your Moto Z into a hub that powers a desktop PC – complete with a (somewhat) desktop-ified UI for Android (though you can see the "desktop" is really just three home screens sitting next to each other), along with multi-window support. After snapping on this module, you can hook into a tiny dongle that gives you outputs for HDMI and USB, and built-in support for Bluetooth:

We've heard talk for a while of smartphones eventually playing the role of PC killer, powering the desktops of tomorrow, but Lenovo's concept makes it look like more of a distinct possibility (albeit one that's still years away from being a legit alternative to a Windows PC).

Another concept module (above) projects a touchscreen onto a flat surface in front of the phone. Lenovo reps suggested this could be used for things like taking a smartphone game and projecting it larger (like a tablet's screen) to play on the table in front of the phone, or, similarly, projecting a keyboard.

The rep told us it's responsive enough that it's just like using a touchscreen, but there weren't any live demos of this one, so all we have is their (naturally unbiased and completely verified) word.

More than any other smartphone in recent memory, the Moto Z feels like an entirely new platform. It could lengthen smartphone upgrade cycles: instead of buying a new phone every year or two, just hang onto the same handset for longer and instead upgrade back plates when you want something new. That's still only a halfway-there kind of modularity, as your display, processor and RAM are set in stone for the entire time you'll own the handset. If nothing else, though, the Moto Z looks like the boldest – possibly best – move towards modular smartphones we've seen from any of the big manufacturers.

We do have one major complaint about the phone, though, and it has nothing to do with the phone itself and everything to do with a business move. The Moto Z and Moto Z Force are starting as Verizon exclusives, under the Droid branding. Verizon customers will be able to get the phone this (Northern hemisphere) summer, while anyone using another carrier will have to wait until Fall (Lenovo says an unlocked version will launch in September, with other US carriers presumably launching in that time-frame as well). It's a relief that the Apples and Samsungs of the world have moved past the days of carrier exclusivity, including timed exclusivity, so it's disappointing to see Motorola/Lenovo reverting back to that old trick. I guess when you're trying to catch-up with the Apples and Samsungs, playing ball with one carrier can be your best shot.

There's no word yet on pricing for the phones or their modules – those will be huge pieces in determining how this final puzzle looks – but Lenovo tells us we'll start hearing more on that front in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for our hands-on from Lenovo Tech World with the new Phab2 Pro phone with Project Tango support.

Product page: Motorola

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