Motorola Moto Z : The future of Modular phones?

Motorola is bringing sexy back with the Moto Z. At a time when most Android smartphones look and feel the same, Lenovo-owned Motorola is hoping to bring back the cult that the Moto Razr V3 was with an ultra-slim design and appearance that is instantly recognizable. It is sharp with its features too, boasting top-of-the-line hardware like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 SoC, 4GB of RAM and a pretty capable camera. On its own, the Moto Z is a pretty capable device that could take on rival flagship smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S7, OnePlus 3 and others. And then it comes with snap-on mods which, just like the Iron Man suit, take its performance to another level altogether. I have been using the Moto Z as my primary smartphone for a week and here’s what I think about it.



Moto Z design

Back in 2004, Moto made a stunning comeback with its Razr V3. The flip phone was like nothing we had ever seen before with its aircraft grade aluminum body and chemically etched keyboard. It was pricey, around Rs 40,000 when it was launched in India, but it started a new trend that a mobile phone does not have to be functional alone and can be a style statement as well. This is kind of true for smartphones these days as well. All of them look the same — a rectangle with rounded corners — and are indistinguishable from the front. And Motorola seeks to change that with the Moto Z.

The Moto Z is a stark departure from Motorola’s design language that we first saw on the Moto X and something that has percolated down to the Moto G and Moto E series as well. Gone is the plastic build, the curved back and the overall soft “human” finish that Motorola has been projecting over the past couple of years. The Moto Z is edgier and sharp to a fault. At 5.15mm at its thinnest end, it is one of the slimmest smartphones out there. It feels premium with its metal back panel and the 16-dot connector invokes a sense of futuristic technology. It looks nothing like any other smartphone we have seen.

Moto Z_6

But just like Mr Stark, even the Moto Z has its own idiosyncrasies. The metal back is a fingerprint magnet and you will wish you wore white gloves while handling the phone. The edges are sharp and will dig into your palm when you hold it for lengthy calls. Thankfully, the phone comes with a cover mod that you can snap on but in many ways it defeats the purpose of the edgy design. That said, the phone is quite light and won’t pull your trousers down on days when you forget to wear a belt.

Moto Z review

Moto Z hardware and performance

The thing about the Moto Z is it doesn’t skim on features despite the focus on making a style statement. It comes with a 5.5-inch QHD display that offers good legibility under every lighting condition. It comes with adaptive brightness that tweaks the display brightness depending on the ambient light and it works perfectly. It also comes with customization options where you can choose the color reproduction between standard and vibrant.

Like most flagship Android smartphones, the Moto Z also runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor that is paired with 4GB of RAM. As anticipated, the phone does not lag or hang no matter what I threw at it. Even the graphics performance was up to the mark, whether it was Marvel Contest of Champions or a basic game like Subway Surfer. Long term game play makes the phone warm but it never heated up to an alarming level, where I felt the need to let go of the phone to cool it down.

At a time when most smartphone makers are cramming big capacity batteries, Motorola has equipped the Moto Z with “just” 2,600mAh battery. Surprisingly, the optimization is such that I was able to get a full day of usage on a single charge. My usage included a couple of hours of streaming over YouTube and Saavn, about two hours of calls and Slack, WhatsApp and Gmail accounts running in the background. On a typical day, when I started with 100 percent charge at 8AM, the phone still had more than 20 percent battery at 7PM. In most cases, I believe users will be able to last a day of moderate usage on a single charge. The Moto Z comes with a USB Type-C charging port and charging the battery from zero to 100 percent takes less than an hour with the bundled 15W charger. It also supports fast charging, which ensures you can top up the battery for a few additional hours of usage with a few minutes of charging.

The Moto Z also comes with a square fingerprint sensor that’s placed below the display, which resembles the one we had seen recently in the Moto G4. You can configure up to five fingerprints and it is fast at recognizing them. Apart from unlocking the smartphone you can also lock it by tapping the fingerprint sensor. The smartphone lock feature works even with fingers that have not been registered. But what irks me the most is the fingerprint sensor is not the home button, which for some reason is placed as an onscreen button. It is not intuitive at all, though people who use just one phone might get used to it over time.

Moto Z review

One of the controversial things missing from the Moto Z is its 3.5mm audio port. The Moto Z joins a steadily growing list of smartphones that are ditching the century-old audio output standard for the new USB Type-C. I am not a big fan of this move. Firstly, there are no noticeable advantages and you lose the capability of charging the phone while listening to music. Secondly, it becomes cumbersome to use you existing headphones, all of which are likely to have a 3.5mm jack. Motorola bundles a 3.5mm to USB Type-C adapter in the box but it becomes yet another dongle that you have to carry with you everywhere, increasing the chances of losing it. Other options include using the bundled earphones or going for Bluetooth ones, which would have a considerable drain on the phone’s battery, not forgetting having another device to charge.

Moto Z camera performance

The Moto Z comes with a 13-megapixel camera with an aperture of f/1.8 and relatively large 1.2 micron pixels. It also comes with optical image stabilization, dual-LED flash and laser auto-focus. The camera shines in most well lit conditions and HDR mode does a good job in challenging conditions. The Moto Z’s camera does a good job even in low light conditions and handles differently lit areas well. However, it struggles when there is a strong light source and at times goes overboard with white balancing. That said, it is a pretty good camera, though the Samsung Galaxy S7 still remains the best Android camera phone in my book.

The camera module has an unattractive bump to it, which is more pronounced than what is there on the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 7. I always had the feeling that I might scratch the lens module while placing the phone on the table. Thankfully, it has survived unscathed, The bump acts as a sighting guide for the mods, and in particular for the Hasselblad camera mod that provides up to 10x optical zoom. And that brings us to Mr Stark’s Iron Man suit, or in this case, the Moto Mods that add new functionality to the Moto Z.

Moto Z_Camera_Sample_1


Moto Z_Camera_Sample_3


Moto Z_Camera_Sample_5


Moto Mods

The Moto Z is a capable smartphone on its own but Motorola is looking at pushing boundaries with the powerful hardware smartphones have these days. Modular smartphones are not exactly a new concept with the now-defunct Israeli startup Modu giving us the first feel of modularity years ago. Google tried its hand with Project Ara, which has now been shelved and LG came up with the G5, which was weird considering you had to remove the battery and fit it in the new mod you wanted to add. Motorola feels modular smartphones should not be that difficult to use and has come up with a simple snap-on concept. Say hello to Moto Mods, or what I call its armor suits.

The mods snap on to the back of the phone with the 16-dot magnetic gold plated connector at the back of the phone. Adding or removing a mod is simpler than putting on a case on any smartphone. Currently, there will be a handful of mods that would be available when the Moto Z goes on sale. The phone itself comes with one case mod, and the cheapest mod is the Incipio offGrid power pack, which is a 2,220mAh battery bank priced at Rs 5,999. Then there is the JBL SoundBoost speaker priced at Rs 6,999. There are two high-end mods — the Hasselblad True Zoom mod and Moto Insta Share projector, both of which are priced at Rs 19,999.

The USP of the mods is they are extremely simple to use. All you have to do is hold it to the rear of the phone and the connectors connect magnetically. The phone vibrates along with a notification to confirm the mod has been attached. It is really fool proof and does not requiring any tinkering with the phone, unlike the LG G5, which makes it convenient for even a non-tech savvy person to use. Motorola visualizes these mods as accessories that users would use for particular use cases and not something that you would keep on the phone at all times. Most of the mods add quite some heft to the phone, making them impractical to keep throughout.

I had the JBL SoundBoost mod, which I found good enough for watching videos or generally while listening to music on loud speaker in a small room. The speaker comes with a built-in 1,000mAh battery and also comes with a USB Type-C port for charging. You can see the speaker’s battery level on the phone itself. During my usage I played music on it for four hours and the battery was still going strong. Motorola rates the battery for 10 hours of audio playback. While the speaker mod is a good product in itself, especially with the kickstand that props the phone in landscape mode that makes it ideal for watching videos, it is more of a novelty. You will eventually end up carrying it separately in your bag and will have to charge it as well, which is as good as buying a Bluetooth speaker. The only advantage here is that the mod won’t consume the phone’s battery.

Moto Mods

Similarly, the Incipio offGrid battery bank is an expensive accessory and the only convenience you get there is that it is fused to the phone so you are not carrying two devices separately. Then it is only compatible with the Moto Z family of devices. For less than Rs 2,000 one can easily get a 20,000 mAh power bank that will work with any device. This is the price that you pay for convenience. Right now, there are not enough compelling mods, though the Hasselblad True Zoom Mod is something that could be preferred for those looking at getting out more from the phone’s camera. The question again is whether it justifies the Rs 19,999 price tag.

Moto Z review verdict

The Moto Z reminds me a lot of the Moto Razr V3 with its edgy design and gutsy proposition. Even on its own, the Moto Z is a good flagship smartphone with a sharp 2K display, stunning design, top-of-the-line performance and a battery that easily lasts a day. It comes with the Snapdragon 820 SoC, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage, a microSD card slot and also has nano coating to repel water. The 13-megapixel rear and 5-megapixel front cameras do a decent job as well. And yes, there are those mods which, though expensive, can raise the performance by a few notches. At Rs 39,999, the Moto Z is indeed a well rounded flagship smartphone that’s got the looks and features too.

Having said that, there are other smartphones that one can consider as well. The Samsung Galaxy S7 still reigns as the best smartphone in our opinion and has one of the best cameras. The likes of the OnePlus 3 and LeEco Le Max2 would appeal to those who don’t mind experimenting with newer brands and can get top hardware specifications at a bargain. And then there is the Lenovo Z2 Plus, which at Rs 19,999, offers great bang for the buck for those just interested in the latest hardware without the bells and whistles.

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