With the launch of the Moto Z at Tech World in San Francisco, California, Lenovo has a new flagship on its hands—the Moto X will be pushed down to fill the upper mid-range spot in Moto’s lineup.
In an ambitious effort to create the world’s slimmest phone with the latest flagship specs, Lenovo opted to strip out all the unnecessary extras. You still have a flagship-worthy Snapdragon 820 processor with an Adreno 530 GPU under the hood along with a gorgeous 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, waterproofing, fingerprint sensor and what Moto is calling its best camera ever on a phone. All this is packed into just a 5.2mm thick frame.
In order to achieve this feat of design and engineering, Lenovo had to move the antenna to the backside of the phone, giving it, according to the company, the best LTE reception on a smartphone. This also means that Lenovo had to work with a single worldwide launch partner, and the phone will initially launch as a Verizon exclusive. Even though Lenovo isn’t talking about future launch plans, executives in San Francisco said that “this [strategy] doesn’t preclude us from launching on other partners and carriers” later. Lenovo promised that a fully unlocked phone will be made available in the fall.
I wasn’t able to test call quality, network strength or reception at the packed San Francisco event, but in the hands the Moto Z feels extremely slim, although angular.
Despite its svelte frame, the phone still packs in a 2600mAh battery. A slightly thicker variant of the Z, known as the Moto Z Force, comes with a beefier 3500mAh battery, a 21-megapixel OIS camera instead of the Z’s 13-megapixel OIS shooter and the shatterproof screen technology that debuted nearly a year ago on Verizon’s Droid Turbo 2.
Both variants come with a front-facing 5-megapixel camera with front LED flash. The rear camera is housed in a circular pod, similar to the design that Microsoft used on the Lumia 950 and 950 XL that we reviewed, and the rear cameras come with dual-LED flash.
However, what sets the Z apart from its competitor is the backside. Lenovo placed POGO connector pins—16 of them—to allow different accessory sleds to magnetically latch onto the back of the phone, allowing the Z to be further customized, expanded and improved to a user’s taste. These accessories and the connection system will be compatible between the Z and the Z Force, and Lenovo promised that accessories today will work on future Moto Z generations to come.
That said, the executives didn’t specify how long this backward compatibility commitment will last, whether if it’s just for an additional generation or for the next few years, but the commitment will hopefully draw more hardware developers to create even more accessories for the Moto Mods system.
Execs said that they don’t want to overload the phone, making it thicker, with features that not all users may need. Filling the phone with bloated hardware also drives the price up, and the Moto Z’s purpose, according to Lenovo, is to eliminate the pain points of consumers.
The way the Moto Mods work is that a magnetic system connects the accessory, essentially a backplate to the phone, with the rear side of the Moto Z. The mods stay connected with a strong magnet and are aligned with the slightly protruding camera lens on the rear along with the 16 POGO connector pins.
At launch, Moto will have several different Moto Mods available. The company showed off a speaker for even louder audio playback and conference calls, a projector mod for sharing your screen and beaming the content on your phone onto a wall or ceiling, some style mods and battery packs. Lenovo is inviting hardware developers to expand the Moto Mods platform to create an even larger ecosystem of accessories, and it’s unclear what will be available in the future.
The system seems more clever than rival LG’s Friends accessories for the competing G5 flagship. Unlike the LG Friends, the phone doesn’t need to be powered off and the battery doesn’t need to removed. This allows the Moto Z to be slimmer than the LG G5 in use and makes the Moto Mods hot swappable so you don’t need to restart your phone every time you want to insert or replace an accessory module.
In use, the magnets gave a reassuring latch. The magnets are strong, and no amount of shaking or rubbing on the phone in my hands-on led to the mods falling off, which is a good sign. I wasn’t able to do any drop tests to see if the mods will remain attached to the phone in the event you drop your Moto Z.
The style mods, which are essentially leather or wood back panels, like a slim-line case, that snap onto the phone, didn’t add too much bulk. With the style mod on, the phone feels more rounded and adds a bit of curve and girth to the overall device, bringing its feel more similar to an iPhone 6s Plus. The benefit of the style mod, other than adding a bit of personal style similar to Moto Maker for the Moto X, is that it smoothens the back of the phone so that the camera is flush with the style mod, eliminating the camera hump.
Lenovo signed on Incipio to create several different power mods, including a white Incipio OffGrid power mod, a Tumi-branded mod that comes with a sleek black brushed metal gloss of paint and a whimsical Kate Spade design. Some of these power mods also add wireless charging. The phone itself doesn’t come with wireless charging due to the antenna placement on the rear of the device and the metal shell, Lenovo claimed. I asked if the variants of the style mods could accommodate a Qi charging coil given the thickness of these plates, but Lenovo said that this isn’t currently in their plans.
It’s unclear how many people would use the speaker or the projector mods at this time. Even though the JBL-tuned speakers did a great job of amping up the volume, sound quality didn’t sound impressive. There was good left and right channel isolation for stereo output despite the small footprint, but a standard Jawbone Bluetooth speaker would offer more fidelity. The benefit of the mod is that it is a one-piece solution, so you don’t need to carry two separate things on your way to the beach.
The projector mod shows that Lenovo and Motorola are beginning to integrate their product designs. A Lenovo product manager told me that the projector used inside this slim mod was inspired by the projector on the Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro. In fact, it outputs the same VGA resolution with a 50-lumen DLP bulb and could project up to a 70-foot large screen.
Both the audio and the projector mods ship with their own integrated batteries, but the nice part about these mods is that once the accessory batteries drains, the mods can continue to work by drawing power from the phone. This means that the projector can last for up to three hours with a fully charged phone even though the battery in the mod is only good for one hour of projection time.
The promise of compatibility of the mods with future generations of the Z could limit Lenovo’s designs going forward. In essence, this could mean that Lenovo sticks with the same—or very similar—phone designs for a few generations at a time, similar to what Apple does with the iPhone. Lenovo reps assured me this shouldn’t be a problem. Even if the company decides to release a larger smartphone in the future, existing mods won’t wrap up to the sides of the phone, but will work fine. However, a smaller phone footprint could make the mods awkward.
While Lenovo is hyping the mods, there is also a curious omission from the Moto Z and the Z Force. Motorola opted to drop the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of USB-C. Motorola execs confirmed to me that an adapter dongle will be included inside the box and that the company is banking on USB-C as the standard for the future.
Another reason why the 3.5mm jack was dropped was to make the phone slim. Execs said that if they tried to cram the jack in, then this would create a curve on the phone that would affect the Moto Mods system, and this would further impact future phone designs.
The placement of the fingerprint sensor is interesting. Because of the Moto Mods mechanism, Motorola wasn’t able to place the fingerprint sensor on the back like what Lenovo did on the Phab 2 series. This means that the fingerprint sensor is on the front of the phone in the bottom center. Given that the Moto Z uses on-screen Android navigation keys, this created a bit of confusion when you first pick up the phone and start using it. I initially tried to tap the fingerprint button to try to get to the home screen rather than using the on-screen keys.
In order for the Moto Z line to be successful, Lenovo needs to convince hardware developers to create compelling accessories for its new flagship range. Even though the Moto Mods seems more user-friendly than LG’s expansion system, we’ll need to see more consumer and business-friendly mods that will make these phones even more compelling.