Overall Score: ★★★★
Modular phones seemed to be a thing of the past with the untimely demise of the LG G5 and Google’s Project Ara, but Motorola trundles on with its Moto Z. In fact, a successor has already been announced, and will be joined by a new market player – the Essential Phone.
While the Moto Z is not the best Android device out there by a long shot, it’s a solid entry into a market saturated with Samsung wannabes and a plethora of Chinese come-ups that have yet to fully establish themselves.
Motorola doesn’t have this problem. Even though it’s now manufactured by Lenovo – itself an established Chinese brand – we all cherish fond memories of fantastic devices like the V3 Razr and V360.
The MotoZ is, first and foremost, very nice to look at. It was, at one point, the world’s thinnest smartphone, and despite relinquishing the title to several other devices in recent months, it’s still quite a work of art.
Curved edges, an inconspicuous selfie camera and a big 5,5” screen almost make up for the abomination that is the rear camera – a bulging effigy of function-over-form that makes it entirely necessary to snap the included magnetic cover to the back of the device. It makes the phone a bit thicker, but it also keeps mods in place.
Speaking of magnets, that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? The phone’s modular connection sits far south of the camera, consisting of a few gold pins and a magnetic strip.
The fingerprint sensor is nicely located right underneath the screen, but I do wish it was an actual button. Instead, the home buttons are virtually displayed on the edge of the screen, wasting valuable pixels.
The sensor redeems itself by doubling as a sleep/wake button. Yup – no more stretching for the power button.
The volume buttons and power button are ergonomically located on the right side of the MotoZ, and that more or less rounds off the phone’s profile.
That’s until you look around and realise that there’s no headphone jack. Why, oh why, Motorola? Have you not learned from Apple’s mistakes?
One the other hand, a single port may just be the way things are going, and Motorola may have done well to jump ship sooner rather than later. Thankfully, a 3,5mm USB-C adapter is included with the phone.
The Moto Z is powered by a more-than-capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset, with 4GB of RAM to back it up.
It handles multitasking really well, and games run smoothly, making full use of the vibrant Quad HD screen that rivals anything else out there today.
There’s no real bloatware pre-installed, and even if there was, you’d never experience performance lag on the Android Nougat system.
This is undoubtedly the area that lets the Moto Z down – it’s miniscule 2600mAh battery is pathetic. Even with the included TurboCharger that restores power in just over an hour, a power bank – or the Icipio battery mod – is a must.
2600mAh simply isn’t enough for modern smartphone use, and with screen battery brightness all the way up, every bit of it will disappear within a couple of hours.
The Moto Z’s camera can be summed up in one word – capable. It’s not going to give you the low-light brilliance of a high-end Sony or the all-round great performance of Samsung’s flagship S7 and S8, but it’s still a fantastic piece of tech.
It records crystal clear video in 4K HD, while stills are captured in an industry-standard 13MP.
The front-facing camera is a definite winner for the phone. Despite being quite discreet, it still packs a 5MP punch – essential for the selfie generation.
The Moto Z has a nifty camera trick up its sleeve. With a quick twist of the device in your hand, you can both launch the camera app and switch between cameras. It’s fun and also very convenient, as reaching for that switch button can often be a drag.
Now, for the main event. The Moto Z has no real step-up on its competition aside from its modular design, so how exactly does the gimmick fare?
The modular phone concept hasn’t fared well at all, with LG failing to sell that many of its hyped-up G5 unit, even in its local South Korean market. Meanwhile, Google literally gave up on Project Ara – a warning that Lenovo should have perhaps heeded.
The Moto Z’s modular function is little more than a party trick. It seems like a desperate attempt to stand out in a congested smartphone market. Has it worked? Surprisingly, yes! Lenovo had already sold more than a million units as of November last year.
Still, I’m not sold.
I was able to test both the Incipio offGRID power pack and the JBL SoundBoost speaker, both of which snap on to the back of the phone with ease.
The magnetic pins are completely hot-swappable, meaning that you can instantly switch between mods with no fuss at all.
The JBL and Incipio mods. Credit: Lenovo
It’s quite obvious that Motorola has commissioned mods that make up for some of the Moto Z’s shortfalls, rather than actually improving an already-perfect device.
As I’ve said, the phone’s battery performance is poor, making the Incipio mod more of a necessity than an augmentation.
What I haven’t mentioned is the device’s low-quality volume, which makes playing music anywhere remotely noisy virtually impossible. The JBL mod saves the day, with its two speakers pumping out 80 dBSPL from half a metre away.
It’s even got its own power supply, which promises ten hours of playtime, while ensuring that playback doesn’t eat away at what little battery life you have.
At the end of the day, though, there are many cheaper Bluetooth speakers out there that fare way better. There are also bigger power banks that are compatible with all your devices.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test the most exciting mod of all – Motorola’s own Instashare projector. The idea of a 70” projection beaming out of a smartphone is genuinely cool, not to mention functional.
At R4,999, the Instashare costs nearly as much as a full-sized projector, making it a very expensive toy.
The biggest problem of all, however, is that Moto Mods are exceptionally difficult to find. Takealot is out of stock, meaning that you’ll have to scour cellphone outlets looking for them.
The Moto Z is an honest attempt at shaking-up the smartphone arena, but its Moto Mods merely save it from its own flaws. They’re great for showing off to friends and family, but is the Moto Z truly a phone worth buying?
Overseas, perhaps, but not here in South Africa. Sky-high pricing and limited availability make it an expensive and rare plaything, easily outmatched by several competitors.
Interestingly, Lenovo has just announced a successor, along with a new generation of mods, including upgrades to the offGrid and SoundBoost, with the latest addition being a fully-functional GamePad gaming controller mod.
From the looks of it, Lenovo is making the modular concept work. It’s not dead yet, and for that, the Moto Z deserves some respect. It, along with the LG G5, has paved the way for a new generation of gadgets.
Looks: 9/10 (It’s pretty and slim, but the camera bulge is too much)
Performance: 10/10 (Lag is never an issue)
Battery: 5/10 (It’s just too small – form over function has hurt it)
Camera: 8/10 (Not the best, but good enough)
Wow factor: 7/10 (The mods make you take note, but they aren’t that special in the end)
Overall Score: ★★★★