Motorola Moto Z: Hello Modular Moto

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Motorola Moto Z: Hello Modular Moto

Under Google, Motorola defiantly swam against the natural current of the smartphone market. The Moto X, unlike other Android flagships at the time, was not a specs hero but instead offered lean, effective software and the ability to personalize the device through Motomaker.

The Moto X defined the company’s time as an extension of Mountain View; fun and vibrant, but it wasn’t enough. In 2014, Google pulled the plug on the Motorola experiment and sold the company to Chinese tech giant Lenovo.

We had to wait several years to see what affect the new ownership would have, and in 2016 we finally have our answer with the Moto Z.

Like the Moto X it replaces, the Z defines the company’s time under its new owners, and Lenovo has certainly made its mark. The first “Lenovorola” product does away with everything the company forged under Google.

And that’s not a bad thing.

A New Era
motoz_standingangled_680.jpgThe Moto X, and its various successors, were great phones but the Moto Z forges its own path, starting with the hardware. Gone is the colorful, customizable design of the X in favor of a more vanilla modern smartphone look. It’s made of metal and glass, looks sharp and collects fingerprints like a monster. To spice up the aesthetics, Motorola opted to make this the thinnest smartphone on the market.

At just 5.19mm, it’s ridiculously, ludicrously, slim. So svelte, in fact, it’s not hyperbolic to call it “impossibly thin.”A phone this tiny shouldn’t exist, has no reason to, but the Z makes a better effort at contextualizing its size than most phones.

The real compelling aspect of the device are the swappable, snapable accessories, dubbed Moto Mods, that give the phone a modular lean. These add-ons offer various improvements, like more battery, a better speaker, even a projector, but they also add a significant amount of depth.

motoz_camerabump_680.jpgReducing the initial size helps offset the added bulk of the Mods. It’s a decent argument, until you consider that Motorola is simultaneously releasing a thicker version of the phone, the Moto Z Force, that comes in at around 7mm. That fact dwindles the Z’s impressive profile to nothing more than novelty.

If it doesn’t offer any real benefit, the 5.19mm frame is at least striking, but I also found it to reduce the phone’s comfort level. It’s simply too thin to feel good in the hand, like a lover that’s all elbows and knees. It doesn’t feel fragile, Motorola did an impeccable job with construction and the Z is solid enough to take a tumble or two. It just doesn’t feel like it wants to be in your hand like phones (i.e. the Moto X) that have invitingly curved backs.

motoz_motomods_680.jpgDuring my test period, I preferred to have a Style Shell snapped to the back of the Moto Z. Style Shells keep the spirit of Motomaker alive by offering a handful of affordable backs that give users different looks to apply to the Z. The best part, though, is that they fill out the phone, removing the camera bump and making the device more comfortable to hold. It’s like a sandwich, but for your phone.

High-end smartphones have gotten so close to one another in recent years from a hardware perspective, that comparing them is like splitting hairs that have already been split. Most feature gorgeous QHD displays that are a joy to look at, and the Z is no different. It’s 5.5-inch 1440P screen comes with a ppi of 535 and looks fantastic no matter the situation. The vibrant colors of Rayman Adventures pop, YouTube videos look as crispy as they ought to and photos are rendered beautifully.

If you were to nitpick, Motorola’s latest wouldn’t stand up to the best display on the market, which many give to the latest Galaxy phones, but if you’re none the wiser the display will satisfy wholly.

The 5.5-inch size feels more demure than it is, thanks to the phone’s waistline obsession, but not every aspect of the device handles its size well. The biggest culprit are the array of buttons, which sit far too high on the phone’s right hand side. For someone with smaller hands, it was an annoyance to stretch my thumb to reach them and, furthering the frustration, Motorola opted to separate the volume up and down buttons rather than utilize a rocker. Because all three buttons are the same size and sit incredibly high on the frame, it was easy to confuse them.

motoz_standingcamera2_680.jpgLuckily, I didn’t have to use the buttons much thanks to the Moto Z’s fingerprint scanner. While I dislike the square shape, which doesn’t fit the rest of the phone’s sleek aesthetic, the scanner performs incredibly well. Easily outpacing the reader on my Nexus 6P, it’s accurate and blazingly fast. It is just a fingerprint scanner, though, not a home button of any sort.

This has driven several other reviewers mad, but I was able to quickly compartmentalize that the on-screen home button was the only home button because the fingerprint scanner became my de facto locking method. A small, but handy, feature lets users lock the phone with the fingerprint reader, something I now wish all companies would implement. Given the hand acrobatics necessary for me to use the actual lock button, I usually defaulted to using the scanner.

Hit the Road, Jack

The biggest losers to the Moto Z’s starring role on The Biggest Loser are audioheads. The Z is one of the first phones to ditch the headphone jack, a move that is grossly premature and reminds me of Samsung’s original Galaxy Gear, which the company dumped upon the world months before the Apple Watch was released merely to be first out of the gates.

In Samsung’s case, the subpar wearable led to far more clever, and genuinely impressive hardware. That’s a best case scenario with this phone, but if Cupertino does kill the headphone jack, you can be assured the Z’s successor won’t backslide.

motoz_dongle_680.jpgI fully expected to be enraged by the lack of a headphone jack, only to find that I am the perfect user for a phone without one. I often work from home and thus listen to music through my computer or connect my phone to a Bluetooth speaker. When I do commute, it’s on foot to a destination only 15 minutes away, not nearly enough time to dig into music or a podcast. If I do listen to music on a walk or during a workout, I have Bluetooth headphones I can use.

I didn’t miss the headphone jack. Not for a single second. But just because the Moto Z’s lack of a 3.5mm input was fine for me doesn’t mean Motorola and Lenovo are just in removing it. In the 21st century, smartphones have become extensions of our bodies; limbs made of Gorilla Glass. The idea of one without the ability to easily play music through headphones you already own is unthinkable, and more than enough reason to pass it by.

Motorola attempts to ease those with concerns by putting a USB-C to headphone jack dongle in the box. It works, but also makes you feel like the silliest goober in the world. The truth is that, without a new standard in place, it was too early to remove the headphone jack. This isn’t Apple killing the floppy disk, this is Motorola trying to cut the lunch line.

motoz_standingpins_680.jpgAs stated above, the most interesting aspect of the Moto Z is not the thinness of its body, but what you can attach to its back. Like the LG G5, the “modularity” here is surface-level, at best. Sadly, I wasn’t able to try any of the Moto Mods first hand, beyond the Style Shell, but the system is not hard to grasp and that’s the beauty of it.

Mods snap onto the back of the phone with the help of strong magnets and the gold 16-pin connector. There’s no need to reboot the phone, and there’s clever software at work that makes the device recognize Mods as an extension of itself rather than an accessory.

It’s the best swing at a modular phone yet, but the whole concept still has issues. Mods are not cheap, adding $60-300 on top of a device that is already $624, or $720 for the Z Force. There’s also no guarantee third-party manufacturers will buy into the ecosystem, though there is more support for Motorola’s implementation at the outset than what LG had. At this point, modular smartphones still feel like the fad of 2016, but Motorola’s idea has some legs. If the company pushes it, and can get well-respected manufacturers to build Mods, it could define the company’s flagship devices for years.

That’s the meat of the story for the Moto Z. It’s really thin, and has funky accessories that snap onto the back. It’s completely different than the Moto X, but also approaches the smartphone market with a similar sense of individuality. The Z is more in tune with the gimmick of the era, but does it in a way that feels legitimate and clever, like Motorola has done for decades.

Some Things Never Change
motoz_screen_680.jpgThe rest of the phone is not that far off from Motorola’s previous flagships. The software is mostly stock with Motorola’s signature additions, like gestures that let you launch the camera app with a twist-twist motion or turn on the LED light with a chop-chop, and Moto Display, which shows your notifications and lets you dismiss or open an app to take action.

All of Motorola’s additions still feel as useful as they first did, except for Moto Display which is showing a bit of age. With Android Nougat ready to revamp notifications, particularly with actions you can take directly on the lock screen, Moto Display suddenly looks thin on features. I’d love to see an evolution that let’s you do more than dismiss or open an app, but for most users, who won’t sniff Android N until 2017 if they’re lucky, Moto Display remains one of the better ways to handle notifications in the Android universe.

Moto Display will also turn on when you hover your hand over the phone, which may sound like a bullshit feature, but it works phenomenally and is actually quite useful. It really shows at night, when you might just want to check the time, or see if you missed an important email, but don’t want to activate the entire display and turn your eyeballs into a mess of goop befitting the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just wave hello to your phone, and it will show you everything you’ve missed without lighting up the whole screen.

Being a Droid branded phone, there are pre-installed Verizon apps to deal with here, but to Big Red’s credit, they are easily hidden and mostly stay out of the way. Verizon should also be lauded for holding back on branding the bejesus out of the Z. Just a simple Droid logo is found on the camera module. It’s still ugly, mind you, but at least it’s small.

motoz_fingerprint_680.jpgAs for performance, the Moto Z zips along like you would expect a phone powered by a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM. Nothing can slow this skinny beast down. Occasionally, it gets hot after extended heavy use but I never found it to be to a frightening degree. The 2600 mAh battery is another sacrifice in the name of leanness, but I was able to get through a full day no problem. On average, I managed about three hours of screen-on time, and if you do need a hit of juice the included TurboPower charger does a nice job refilling the tank in a timely fashion.

motoztest1.jpgFor all the fuss made by the camera bump, it’s a shame the hardware inside doesn’t perform. As someone who knows a little about photography, but so rarely takes photos that I have to make a concerted effort to do so when reviewing phones, all I want from a mobile camera is for it to provide a good picture when I feel the inspiration to snap.

The Moto Z does not give me the same confidence as cameras like the LG G5, or even the HTC 10. The 13MP rear camera can certainly take good photos, like the one you see above, but there is a significant amount of processing at work that softens the image more than I’d like. With enough light, the Z can offer a good enough picture for most. Unfortunately, when light becomes scarce, the Z is woeful, having trouble to muster up even a halfway-decent image.

motoztest2.jpgStill, if you’re like me and just need a camera that will give you a photo that isn’t complete swill every so often, the Z can do that. The app is pretty quick to launch and take a photo, plus offers a bevy of features including a manual mode that experienced photogs can use to offset some of the camera’s shortcomings. But, if you are always sharing photos and have camera performance at the top of your priority list when smartphone shopping, look elsewhere.

The 5MP front shooter fares a little better. It’s a nice wide angle, and does a good job of properly exposing the scene, offering more than enough quality for selfies. There’s also a front-facing flash, which is a nice bonus.

motoz_back_680.jpgAfter Lenovo acquired Motorola, the entire tech world knew the longstanding Chicago telecommunications company was in for a shakeup. Google Motorola and Lenovo Motorola were going to offer the world very different products.

That has rung true with the Moto Z. It is an entirely different animal to the Moto X, but one with a similarly great experience and its own set of quirks that make it distinct from the rest of the smartphone market. Sadly, it shares one tough similarity with the X. The smartphone world has gotten no easier for OEMs to find success. In the Android sphere, particularly, the outlook is bleak, especially with Samsung having regained its swagger.

To the uninformed, the Moto Z has little going for it that other top-tier phones don’t also have. It’s in the clever modular design the Z has life, and if Motorola can push the limits of that idea, it’s yearly flagship would become the most interesting device on the calendar. If, and this is a massive if, the modular idea catches on, it could change how people look at smartphones. Instead of seeing a device they’ll hope lasts them two years, consumers might look at the Z and see it as a phone that will be great when they buy it, and maybe even better in the future.

If Motorola can scrape that wishful thought into some sort of reality, a lot of people might once again say: Hello Moto.

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