Moto Z and Moto Z Force review: Smartphone innovation is back

26 pictures

We review the modular Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid, modular smartphones that are just as high-quality and innovative as they are bold(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

View gallery - 26 images

The Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid are the rare smartphones that do something truly different. Read on, as we review Lenovo's new modular – and killer – flagships.

Smartphones haven't innovated much lately. Sure, marketing teams are happy to pitch their latest handsets as the second coming of Ghandi, The Beatles and Muhammad Ali rolled into one, but what's really changed in smartphones since the original iPhone in 2007? They're bigger and faster, thinner and lighter, their software is more advanced and they have much better cameras: all welcome advances, but mostly evolutions on what was already in place nine years ago.

Lenovo is the rare smartphone maker willing to take a calculated risk in this space. And that's not just something framed as "bold" or "innovative" by marketing departments: We're talking about a real, honest-to-goodness we're throwing in all our chips and doing something completely different kind of move.

While the Moto Z and Moto Z Force don't throw out the book on what we expect from a modern-day smartphone, they do add a completely new angle in modularity. And unlike the modular LG G5 we saw earlier this year, this modular phone is simple to use, a piece of cake for anyone to grasp and has loads of potential moving forward.

It works like this: The phones themselves are premium, metallic beauties, not unlike what you'd expect from any other high-end flagship. But their backs have smart sensor coils and strong magnets, which let you attach a Moto Mod of your choice. The mods are accessories that add either a new look or new feature to your smartphone, just by snapping one onto the back. All you do is hold it nearby and let the magnetism pull it perfectly into place.

There are three function-based Moto Mods available at launch. Two out of three are pretty niche, but the third is the best solution we've seen for the persistent, seemingly never-ending problem of smartphone battery life.

These killer Moto Mods we speak of are called Power Packs. Officially called the Incipio OffGrid mod, there is both a standard version (above) and designer variants made by Tumi and Kate Spade (the former is a standard all-black or all-white, while the latter adds a unique design). They work very similarly to one of those bulky battery cases you'd buy for any other phone, only these don't make your handset look like a pocket-busting tank. Since they don't need to double as a case (and also don't have their own separate charging port), the phones stay pretty slim. A bigger battery is always going to add some bulk (the Incipio pack adds 6.2 mm at its thickest point), but as far as extra batteries go, we think this size is very reasonable.

The beauty is you can have the slim and sexy phone when you want it (the standard Moto Z is an insane 5.2 mm thin, while the Moto Z Force measures a thicker 7 mm). But for times when the need for battery life outweighs the need for light and thin (like, say, during a long day at the office or on a business trip), just snap the power pack mod onto the phone's backside. Shazam – you have an instant 85 percent extra battery life for the Moto Z and 63 percent extra for the Moto Z Force.

And it looks and feels integrated into the phone itself, not like a clunky third-party accessory swallowing your phone whole:

Non-modular phones can't do anything like this. None of today's major flagships have what we'd call "awesome" battery life to start with, and if you want to add more juice to those handsets, your only options are either portable batteries or those tank-like battery cases. With the Moto Z, snapping on what's basically a magnetic backpack for your phone strikes us as the most elegant solution yet.

When you need to charge a power pack, just leave it attached to the phone and charge the phone like usual. The phone will juice up first, and then after it hits 100 percent the power pack will fill up. Motorola also added a nice "Efficiency Mode" feature to Android that gives you the option of only turning on the extra juice when the phone's battery is at 80 percent or less (rather than continuing to charge the phone after it's full).

From there, the mods start to get a bit more niche. You may read other reviews that mock Lenovo for launching wacky Moto Mods like a projector and a huge, back-facing speaker for your phone, but we're applauding the company instead: not because we have much use for those things, but because the freedom to go niche and wacky is exactly the point of modular smartphones. Somebody out there is going to want this, and when a phone is modular, they can have it – with no harm to the rest of us who don't need it. There's no need to get nerd-raged up over optional accessories that aren't being forced on anyone.

The projector mod, officially called the Moto Insta-Share Projector, might be handy if you ever want to show off some vacation photos to a group of friends and don't feel like having them rub their grubby mitts all over your US$600+ smartphone. Or maybe you have a presentation and want to use your handset to power it (do people even do that? ... well, they can now anyway).

It works well, displaying a very projectory image onto a wall (it looks best aimed at a light-colored wall or ceiling in a dark room). You can adjust the focus with a wheel on the mod's side and there's an auto-brightness option for the mod in your phone's settings.

Again, this is a Moto Mod I (and probably many others) won't have much need for, especially considering its $300 price tag. But it's part of the versatility and individualization that modular phones can bring to the table. A projector is an option – albeit a wacky, out-of-left-field one – that no other phone gives you.

The JBL Sound Boost mod will have a bit more mainstream appeal than the projector, especially at a much more affordable $80. When snapped onto your phone, it pumps out loud and crisp-sounding audio: If you'd rather snap on a speaker like this than pair over Bluetooth with an external one, its price is similar to portable speakers with inferior audio quality. The JBL mod's big advantage is that it has a built-in battery, so it won't drain your phone's battery while it's playing music or showing a movie (though, unlike the power packs, you can't use it to charge your phone).

The speaker has a kickstand on the back too: That's handy for watching videos, but less ideal if you're pumping out tunes, since it angles the speakers downward, so the vibrations will bounce off of whatever surface the phone is sitting on top of. The audio sounds best with the speakers aimed directly towards your face, but you'll have to either hold it or lean it against something else to do that.

We love the idea and implementation of the Moto Z's modularity. While we're only completely smitten with the power packs and Style Shells at launch, this is a starting point for what could grow into a large collection of accessories for this flagship. And in the meantime, even if you don't have any interest in the speaker or projector, you still have the ultra-useful battery pack, which just about anyone can find use for, along with the cosmetic Style Shells: backings that come in a variety of different materials and colors, so you can customize the phone's look and feel (a natural wooden Style Shell is included with both phones).

We'll eventually see modular phones that let you upgrade the technical stuff, like processor, RAM, storage, internal battery, display panel and so on (see Google's Project Ara). That isn't what the Moto Z is about. But the simplicity, versatility and long-term potential of Lenovo's snap-on approach is a breath of fresh air in a smartphone industry full of minor iterations paired with over-the-top hyperbole. Here's something that's truly different, with at least one incredibly useful accessory.

Those are the Moto Mods, but what about the phones themselves? First, the two are nearly identical, with a few key differences:

The Moto Z is the standard flagship, the one that will launch not just on Verizon, but also in an unlocked version (and likely on other carriers) starting in September, after a period of Big Red exclusivity. It's razor-thin, with a very good camera and good battery life.

Motorola tells us that the Moto Z Force, meanwhile, is going to remain a "Droid Edition" Verizon exclusive throughout its lifespan – though it does ship unlocked, so you could still buy it at full retail price from VZW and pop in a SIM to use it on other carriers. The Z Force also differs in that it's 35 percent thicker and 20 percent heavier than the standard Z, thanks to its 35 percent bigger battery. It also adds a better camera and "shatter-proof" display (like last year's Droid Turbo 2).

Battery life in the Moto Z Force, even without using the Incipio Power Pack, is very good. Today, for example, I've had it off the charger for 12 hours, including some browsing and music streaming, and it's still at 70 percent. That's with pretty light use and plenty of standby time, mind you, but I rarely get those kinds of numbers from other flagships, no matter how light the workload.

Use the Moto Z Force along with the battery pack mod, and you have a phone with a flippin' 5,720 mAh battery. That's 59 percent more capacity than the Galaxy S7 edge, 91 percent more than the HTC 10 and 108 percent more than the iPhone 6s Plus.

Both phones scored well in our standard battery benchmark. Streaming video over Wi-Fi with displays set at an absolute brightness (measured by a lux meter), the Moto Z dropped 10 percent per hour, and the Moto Z Force dropped just 8 percent per hour. For some context, the Moto G4 (and G4 Plus) and LG G5 both matched the Z Force at 8 percent per hour, the Galaxy S7 (and edge) dropped 9 percent per hour and the latest iPhones lost 13 percent per hour.

... and remember those scores are without a power pack attached. The phones on their own already give you some of the best battery life among current flagships; add that extra 2,220 mAh from a battery mod and you have the battery beast so many people say they want.

The phones themselves are beautiful metallic affairs (Motorola says they're made of both stainless steel and aluminum). The standard Moto Z, sans mods, feels incredibly light and thin in hand. The Force still isn't bulky or heavy, but it does lose that so light and thin it almost feels like a toy quality that the standard Z has.

Displays look as eye-popping as you'd expect from a 5.5-inch, QHD AMOLED panel. White balance is good, brightness is solid, colors are rich (and you can choose from both realistic and vibrant modes in settings) and that 1440p resolution has everything looking as crisp as can be.

Performance is also just about everything you could ask for, with 4 GB of RAM and Qualcomm's early 2016 high-end chip, the Snapdragon 820, inside. The upcoming Galaxy Note 7 should be a little faster, with the slightly faster (late 2016) Snapdragon 821 rumored to be inside, but the Moto Z's speed is right up there with the Galaxy S7, LG G5 and HTC 10. Expect zippy multitasking and butter-smooth performance throughout.

Both cameras are very good. The Moto Z Force has a higher-res 21 MP sensor, while the standard Moto Z's is 13 MP. Here are some unedited sample shots (with HDR off) to show the minor difference between the two:

Outdoors, direct light

Outdoors, indirect light

Indoors, medium light

Indoors, poor light

Indoors, poor light – with flash

In all of these settings, the standard Moto Z holds its own and only trails slightly – if at all. The Force lights the poorly-lit shot a hair better, and its color reproduction in the flash shot is slightly more accurate. But if camera is the only reason you're considering paying extra for the Force, we think you'll be just fine with the standard Moto Z Droid.

One thing the phones don't have is a standard 3.5-mm headphone port. This is going to be a thing moving forward, with the next iPhones likely joining Motorola, as USB-C (Android) and Lightning (iPhone) can support quality wired audio connections, in addition to wireless Bluetooth. It will be an adjustment for some folks, but at least Motorola includes a USB-C to 3.5 mm (standard) headphone adapter in the box, to help ease the transition.

Even if you pretend the mods don't exist, the Moto Z and Moto Z Force are two of the top flagships of the year. Once you add the modularity, these become easily the most exciting and innovative smartphones we've seen in a while.

We do wish there were more than one killer Moto Mod at launch. Again, the ultra-niche projector and not as niche but still not essential JBL Sound Boost do no harm to anyone who doesn't want them, but it would have been nice to see at least one more mod with a more practical focus: perhaps one that adds Hi-Fi audio and another that somehow enhances the camera (Olloclip-style, perhaps). As it stands now, for all the hype around the Moto Mods, the simplest one – a freakin' battery – is the only one that we recommend without reservation.

We also wish the pricing for the phones was a bit lower. With the arrivals of a budget flagship like the OnePlus 3 and quality mid-ranged handsets like Motorola's own G4 and G4 Plus, it's a bit harder to rationalize spending $624 (full retail) for the Moto Z Droid or $720 for the Moto Z Force Droid. Especially since you'll likely want to spend even more on a battery pack (and perhaps other mods). That's already a $700-800 setup.

Of course many buyers will pay the phone off over the course of two years (with monthly pricing coming out to $26 or $30, respectively), but if Lenovo could have gotten away with selling the Moto Z and Moto Z Force for a more aggressive $550 and $625 full retail, that would have made their case that much more compelling.

If you are willing to pay around what you'd pay for an iPhone or Galaxy flagship, though, the Moto Z gives you customization, versatility and potential for expansion that those rivals don't offer. And again, we can't stress enough how useful the battery pack is: Either of these phones combined with a power pack mod make for today's very best flagship battery life.

On top of delivering one of the best smartphones of the year, we applaud Lenovo/Motorola for delivering the most innovative smartphone we've seen in a long time. It's too early to put this into proper historical context: To be a true game-changer, the phones will need to be popular with customers and copied by rival smartphone-makers. We'll also need to see more useful and creative mods continue to arrive post-launch.

But the potential is there for this to be one of the two or three most innovative smartphones yet – dating all the way back to the original iPhone.

So which one do you buy? We think most people will be fine with the standard Moto Z along with a power pack Moto Mod. You'll get a thinner and lighter phone with nearly as good a camera, and the power pack will give you off-the-charts battery life when you need it. Only buy the Force if you insist on having a maxed-out battery in the phone itself, and don't mind paying more for a bulkier handset with slightly better photo quality.

The bold, premium, creative, versatile and battery-friendly Moto Z and Moto Z Force, along with Moto Mods, are now up for preorder from Motorola, Verizon and Best Buy (just remember they ship unlocked, so you can use them on other carriers). The Moto Z Droid (32 GB) rings up for $624 full retail and the Moto Z Force Droid (also 32 GB) is $720. Both support microSD cards up to 2 TB.

Product page: Motorola

View gallery - 26 images

Top stories

Recommended for you

Latest in Mobile Technology

Latest phone comparisons

Editors Choice