One of our most anticipated tech products of the year, the modular Moto Z and Moto Z Force, are now in house – along with a few of their snap-on Moto Mods. We'll be spending much more time with them before running our full review, but our early impressions show not just one of the boldest flagships but possibly – gasp – the second most innovative smartphone yet?
Update: You can now read our full review of the Moto Z and Moto Z Force.
The idea behind the Moto Z is the kind that, once you hear about it, sounds so simple and obvious that it's surprising nobody has done it before (isn't that often the hallmark of a genius idea?). The phone itself is a razor-thin, premium flagship – but on its magnetized back lies a row of connector coils that allow you to customize not just its look, but also its functionality. These snap-on accessories are known as Moto Mods.
Our review package includes several Moto Mods: JBL SoundBoost, which basically turns your phone into a tiny boombox; Moto Insta-Share Projector, that can project the phone's screen on the wall; Incipio OffGrid, a snap-on module that adds 2,220 mAh of battery; and a "Style Shell" (below) that gives the phone a wooden back without adding much bulk.
The customization that this phone allows is second to none. For the last few years, Motorola has perched on the throne of customization, with its Moto X series and Moto Maker website, but never before have we been able to customize a phone after bringing it home (LG tried that earlier this year, but missed a lot and only hit a little). With the Moto Z you can transform your phone every day – or, hell, several times a day – with a new look or feature set.
The Moto Mods are as simple as possible to swap in and out. Starting with the naked phone, just place the Mod near the handset's back and its strong magnets will snap it into place. So far the Mods stay in place perfectly while using them (those magnets have a lot of pull), but when it's time to switch, it's easy to pull them back off. The only caveat is that the Style Shells take a little fingernail digging to get off.
The JBL SoundBoost mod (above) pumps out powerful audio for a speaker that's literally the size of a smartphone (it's a thick Mod with speaker grilles and a kickstand on its backside). The advantage here is that you don't have to pair with a speaker or connect any cords: Just snap on the Mod, turn up the volume and start listening. The output is loud enough to fill a room, and the audio quality is quite good for this size.
The Insta-Share Projector is very cool, but may end up being one of the more niche Moto Mods. Its beamed picture looks like about what you'd expect from a projector, but to get it looking the best you'll need to be in a dark room and aim it at a light-colored ceiling or wall. With that said, it could be fun for quickly group-watching a YouTube video or photo album when there's no handy way to stream it onto a TV, tablet or other larger screen.
Our favorite Mod so far is the Incipio OffGrid Power Pack (above). It nearly doubles the phone's battery capacity: an extra 85 percent added to the Moto Z's 2,600 mAh and an extra 63 percent onto the Moto Z Force's 3,500 mAh. One version also adds wireless charging (you'll be able to buy a slightly cheaper version without wireless charging).
The beauty of the OffGrid Power Pack is that it basically stands in for those thick and bulky battery cases that you can buy for other flagships (think Mophie's gaggle of bulky cases), only it doesn't add nearly as much size and weight since it doesn't need to fully encase the phone and lacks its own charging port.
If you've been fantasizing about a flagship with beastly battery life – and don't mind adding just a little extra bulk and weight – the Moto Z or Z Force with Power Pack is probably going to be your best option anywhere. In other words, don't count on Apple, Samsung or any other major smartphone OEMs shipping a premier flagship with a 4,820 mAh or 5,720 mAh battery anytime soon: They wouldn't dare add that much bulk.
The Moto Z's approach, though, can be the best of both worlds: bulkier with extra-long battery life when you need that, slim and sexy with more typical battery life when you don't.
The wooden Style Shell that ships with the phone (above) is beautiful: This is basically where the Moto Z poses as the old Moto X. The natural shell adds only the tiniest bit of weight and thickness to the ultra-svelte phone, weighing between 25 g and 32 g (0.88 oz to 1.13 oz) and measuring just 2 mm (0.08 inch) thick.
As for the phones themselves, they're exactly what you'd want from a 2016 Android flagship. They have spacious and ultra-sharp 5.5-inch QHD displays (they look terrific), a high-end Snapdragon 820 processor, 4 GB of RAM and Motorola's nearly-stock version of Android Marshmallow.
These are the Droid-branded Verizon versions of the phones, so there is some preinstalled Verizon bloatware onboard. But starting at 32 GB storage with microSD support (as well as Adoptable Storage support), you can hide any apps you don't want to see from your home screen without worrying much about the space they're taking up.
Keep in mind these are just very early impressions. Photo quality looks great so far but we haven't yet had a chance to use the camera in a variety of settings or compare the results to other flagships. We haven't run any battery tests yet either. Motorola has also yet to make any announcements about pricing: With Mods adding to the cost (assuming you want them), it would be nice to see at least a somewhat aggressive price point for the phone. Make the total package of phone with one or two Mods too expensive, and it's going to be a harder sell.
Trust us: You're going to want to keep an eye on the Moto Z and (to a lesser degree, due to its presumably higher price) Moto Z Force. Unlike the LG G5, this looks like the modular smartphone done right. If Motorola can keep surprising us after launch with more useful and creative add-ons, then add that to what looks like a ferocious flagship at its core and you have the potential for – brace yourself, we don't take statements like this lightly – the most innovative smartphone since the original iPhone.
It's bold, it takes risks and it implements a long strived for, never fully realized feature like modularity in a way that's easy to learn, simple to use and brimming with future potential. If our experience between now and the final review sustains this high level, this is going to be a knockout.
Stay tuned for our full Moto Z review, along with official pricing and release info. Right now we know that this Verizon Droid Edition launches this Northern summer, while a global unlocked version of the Moto Z (and perhaps other US carrier versions) doesn't ship until September.
Product page: Motorola