Moto Z

Update: The Moto Z has been succeeded, at least for now, by the new Moto Z2 Force, a shatterproof sequel that's nearly just as thin, but way more capable than the original Z.

Additionally, Moto has included a dual-lens camera, the latest Android Nougat software and a superior fingerprint sensor that can act as the phone's sole means of navigation.

Previously, Moto updated the Z to work wonderfully with the Google Daydream VR headset, just like the Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL.

The original review follows below.

The Moto Z is an Android phone with a new name that begins at the end of the alphabet, but is actually the first to pioneer modular connectivity in a more robust way than its competitors.

It's the world's thinnest phone at 5.19mm in so-called "thickness," and it feels incredibly thin to hold. This isn't another meaningless marketing stat. Yet you shouldn't want it to stay this slim.

There are already five practical, modular accessories – more than we have seen with the add-on-deprived LG G5 – and they satisfyingly and securely attach to the back of this phone with magnets.

Moto Z's "build out your smartphone" concept is fun and, importantly, its MotoMods are creative and well-designed. There's everything from a predictable (but essential) battery back, to a more wild pico projector.

This is a really cool (but expensive) pico projector MotoMod

Shining your phone onto a wall is an awesome novelty and it's completely hot swappable. No need to turn off the phone here. All accessories also work with the thicker, shatterproof Moto Z Force and the battery-rich and cheaper Moto Z Play variants, too.

Motorola didn't dial back the performance of the Moto Z to set new thinness records or to make way for these magnetized accessories. Its specs are the same as its top competitors, including the ZTE Axon 7, HTC 10, LG G5, and Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge in the US.

It has the same processor, RAM and internal storage and even a microSD card slot (no modding needed). The 13MP camera on back and real-flash-included 5MP camera in front are solid, though you can't miss that extreme camera bump in back. Somehow, even with that bump, it's still not the best in the world, just really good for everything but low light.

Moto Z review

Goodbye 3.5mm headphone jack, hello easily losable adapter

Two things will throw people about the Moto Z: its lack of a headphone jack in favor of audio through the USB Type-C port and its un-Moto-like price.

Its USB-C means of piping audio to earbuds means that the phone comes with an easily losable 3.5mm adapter, and you won't be able to charge and play music through headphones at the same time.

The Moto Z price costs more than Motorola's previous phones. Is it worth that price bump? There's a lot of potential behind this modular ecosystem, but is it enough to be a contender? Let's see how it does.

Price and release date

The Moto Z US release date was July 28, 2016, and back then it was a Verizon-exclusive. Good news: it's available worldwide as an unlocked phone, including on GSM carriers in the US. That means it now works with AT&T, T-Mobile and Cricket Wireless, too.

Moto Z review

This is the battery mod and it locks into place with magnets

The price is higher than Motorola's previous Moto X series. Moto Z costs $26 a month through Verizon's payment plan over two years, or $624 at full price through the carrier. The actual SIM-free versions costs $699 in the US via Motorola (but won't peg you with hidden activation fees).

The Moto Z UK price is £499 in the UK, while it costs AU$999 in Australia through Moto Online or Harvey Norman. 

Even if it's higher than past Motorola phones, take heart in knowing that you're not paying as much as you would for the US-exclusive Moto Z Force, which costs $30 a month or $720 in full. Ouch. 

To make buying it easier, Verizon offers a trade-in deal: exchange your current smartphone for up to $300 toward the Verizon monthly payment plan of either phone. For the Moto Z, that would mean escaping 11-and-a-half-months of device payments.

And if you really can't afford to buy the regular Moto Z, you can always opt to the Moto Z Play. It's thicker and slightly less powerful, but has a bigger battery and works with all of the Moto Z mods just the same.

Design

Moto Z is a smartphone that takes thinness to a new level with a flagship-worthy stainless steel frame that measures 153.3 x 75.3 x 5.19mm. It weighs just 139g and feels astonishingly wafer-thin in one hand.

Moto Z review

The back collects fingerprints like no other phone

It’s the world’s thinnest phone at 5.19mm in so-called thickness.

What’s uncanny about its dimensions is that Motorola introduced its thickness as 5.2 inches at Lenovo Tech World unveiling in June. When has a company ever rounded up on their smartphone thickness?

This may be why Motorola didn’t call it the Moto X 2016, even though that’s really what this is. The design drops the curved back and familiar Motorola dimple for a flat and boxy shape that still feels good to hold.

All of this means that it’s so thin it doesn’t even include a normal 3.5mm headphone jack. Yes, Motorola beat Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus to dropping the headphone jack in favor of charging-audio output “solution.”

Moto Z review

Thinner than an iPhone and any Samsung Galaxy phone to date

There's nothing on the bottom except for a USB Type-C port. Included in the box is a 3.5mm jack to USB-C cable to convert your existing headphones, or you have the option of using Bluetooth. This seems like the future, like or not, and Motorola is going first.

The new connection that's more revolutionary – and favorable for consumers – is the Pogo-style pins on the back of the Moto Z that enable modular accessories. These 16 gold-plated connectors feed data back and forth between the phone and MotoMods.

The entire back of the phone and all of the mods are magnetized so that the two parts click into place and, thankfully, no amount of shaking knocks them loose.

You won't find a fingerprint sensor in the back since that's where the MotoMods connect. Instead, there's a tiny fingerprint sensor on the front of the phone at the bottom. It's right near the new "moto" lowercase logo (because that's how everyone in Silicon Valley does it these days).

Moto Z review

The fingerprint sensor both wakes and locks the display

This non-clickable fingerprint sensor (which is totally not a home button, despite what your brain will say for the first week of ownership) is fast and accurate. The real home button is above it on-screen. That's fine, but the sensor and logo take up a whole bunch of otherwise dead space on the phone face.

The sensor does have one standout feature: it not only wakes the phone with a finger press, but it also puts the device back to sleep. No more reaching for that tiny sleep wake button on the side.

Moto Z review

Why are the buttons equidistant?

This is a relief because the Moto Z has very small power and volume buttons on its ultra-thin steel frame. These three side buttons are also evenly spaced and confusing to press at times. The fact that the power button is lightly riveted doesn’t help this time around.

Three equidistant buttons on the same side has caused us to press the power button when trying to turn the volume down (and, great, our phone is now off) and crank up the volume when we want to lock the phone (great, now it’s insanely loud instead of locked and silent). The fingerprint sensor pulls double duty as a sleep wake button and is much appreciated.

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You can see fingerprints on almost every one of our photos – and we tried to clean it first

Fingerprints are more of a problem everywhere else on the Moto Z. This phone is a fingerprint and grease magnet – maybe to a world-record level, too. Both the front glass and the stainless steel back have been perpetually covered in smudges since day one. It’s not very appealing or easy to wipe clean.

Both the black and gold Moto Z color options we tested were loaded with them. All the more reason to add modular accessories to this Android phone. That can include “Style Shells” (aka its thin back covers that add a small curve) that come in a variety of textures (wood, leather and plastic).

Moto Z modules

MotoMods are “world thinnest’ title-destroying accessories, which sounds bad for the form slim factor, but this actually have us excited the about the Moto Z. They’re more creative and plentiful than what we’ve found using the LG G5.

Moto Z

The JBL speaker is powerful enough for a small party

The Moto Z Insta-Share projector is the most unconventional accessory: it’s a pico projector that shines whatever’s on your screen anywhere you’d like at a size of up to 70 inches before distortion kicks in.

True to its name, it instantly worked the first time we tried it, and we’ve been able to watch YouTube videos and browse TechRadar in a passable 480p resolution without having to lug around a heavy projector. It’s ideal for showing off funny videos to a group of people (those “Have you seen this video?” moments) without having to pass a phone or tablet around and laugh in strange intervals.

Moto Z review

The projector mod shines brightly in dark rooms

This projector fits in a pocket (though barely, at size close to 70mm) and has an embedded kickstand for tilting and an automatic keytone adjustment. The projection focus can be adjusted manually via a side dial.

The Insta-Share projector requires a dark or very dim room for its 50 lumens to be effective and, as you might have guessed, it doesn’t come cheap: it costs US$299 (£249, AU$429).

Moto Z

The new Moto Z Hasselblad True Zoom mod proves that this phone is capable of capturing, and not just projecting. It launched later with the Moto Z Play in September, and gives you amazing 10x zoom capabilities.

It worked to snipe far-away shots and we really liked the manual zoom and half-press shutter physical controls. Close-up pictures didn’t look at natural vs the Moto Z camera, oddly enough, and there’s a serious camera bump. You’re going to have to really want distant pictures because it costs $299 (£199, AU$399).

Motorola also partnered with JBL to pump up the volume with SoundBoost, which turns the back of the phone into a thick, powerful speaker. It’s loud, but not nearly as loud as the best Bluetooth speakers we have tested, and it includes a handy kickstand that we really like. It’s strong, and has a confident clicking sound to it. The SoundBoost also supplies 10 hours of battery life with its built-in 1,000mAh capacity for $79 (£69, AU$159).

If that’s not enough extra juice for you, there are several MotoMod packs that have 2,200mAh of additional battery life in exchange for a few millimeters of thickness added to the handset. The Moto Z can afford this supplemental girth. Battery mods cost $60 to $80 (£16 to £20, AU$119 to AU$139).

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It’s super easy to snap MotoMods into place

The battery mod prices vary because they comes in four different designs, including from designers like Kate Spade and luggage maker Tumi. Case maker Incipio supplies the entry-priced versions.

Moto is really trying to combine style and functionality with its battery packs, and it’s way easier to clip on compared to a Mophie case. Be warned: unlike Mophie juice packs, these lack protection around the side of the phone.

You don’t have to buy a MotoMod right away to satisfyingly lock an accessory to the back of your new phone with magnetics. Moto Z comes with a Style Shield in the box. New ones within Motorola’s Moto Maker store cost $19 to $24 (£16 to £20, AU$29 to AU$39).

Moto Z review

Moto is already experimenting with future MotoMods

Wood, leather and plastic options are going to be available in the future, giving you some degree of customization over your ever-important handset, just like the Moto X series.

Further out, there's a lot of potential for MotoMods. Motorola is opening up its platform to one and all with a developer kit that costs USD$125 (about £94, AU$167). The possibilities for future MotoMods are exciting and, unlike Google's Project Ara modular phone, it's here now.

At MWC 2017, new MotoMods were announced, from Amazon Alexa to a gamepad attachment that looks like the . We're waiting to test these out when they launch.

Moto Z is thin and focuses on modular capabilities, so at first we weren’t sure if it would fall behind when it came to its screen and internal specs. The good news is that is keeps up with today’s powerful displays and chipsets.

Moto Z review

The AMOLED display is beautiful and offers some neat tricks

It has a Quad HD screen that’s every bit as brilliant AMOLED as Samsung’s world-class displays, with deep blacks and vibrant colors to match. Motorola has consistently excelled here, and it’s a wonder as to why the company hasn’t gotten into VR yet.

What’s even better than the richness of the screen is its functionality. Returning with the Moto Z debut is the Moto Active Display, which embeds two IR sensors and one transmitter in the face. These pick up hand gestures and other passing movements and light up a portion of the display.

Moto Z review

It’s not always-on like the Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and LG G5, but it doesn’t need to be. It intelligently turns on when these proximity sensors detect your presence and won’t waste as much battery life.

In turn, the Moto Active displays shows discrete notification icons and you can tap on any of them to reveal more information. Press on that icon and flick it up to open that app, or down to dismiss the alert. It’s a handy way to deal with notification and also see the time when the screen is otherwise off.

Moto Z review

It’s powered by a Qualcomm-made Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU, and connectivity options include USB Type-C port and NFC, meaning Android Pay is fully supported.

Moto Z starts at 32GB of internal storage, but you can always spring for the 64GB configuration. Just know there’s a microSD slot that can take the storage level up to another theoretical 2TB (really 256GB right now since current microSD card technology is only up to that size).

Moto Z review

All of this means it has the same basic guts as the LG G5, HTC 10, ZTE Axon 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7and S7 Edge (US versions). That’s a lot of sameness. So far, only the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe has slightly newer Snapdragon 821 processor.

As you can see, more and more, there’s little that differentiates these phones, so there’s actually more reason to like the idea of modular accessories that change things up.

Performance

The Moto Z is one of the faster Android phones with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM we have tested, and its real-life speedy performance proves just that.

Moto Z review

There's never any lag when we flipped between menus and the camera app boots up quickly, whether you're pressing the normal camera button or shaking the phone twice to access the shortcut gesture to launch it.

Backing that up are our lab-tested benchmarks we ran using Geekbench 3 software. Moto Z managed an impressive multi-score of 5,167, which beats the HTC 10 (4,962) and just trails the US versions of the Samsung Galaxy S7 (5,337) and S7 Edge (5,398).

It finished not too far behind the Moto Z Force (5,472) and the OnePlus 3 (5,425), and latter has 6GB of RAM. Of course, none of these phones touch the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge numbers that top 6,500 in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Those two handsets use Samsung's Exynos processor.

Moto Z's performance is an impressive showing, and it may be due to its less weighty software. Motorola, while not under the Google umbrella anymore, runs a nearly-stock version of Android Nougat. Samsung Experience haters love this; Samsung loves making (sometimes bloat-causing) tweaks to Google software.

Moto Z

A familiar stock Android pulldown quick settings menu

Besides likable Moto-branded apps, there are a bunch of Verizon apps that fill the home screen and app draw in a sea of red. Most of them aren't useful and cannot be uninstalled. Verizon has a solid messaging app, but it's mainly beneficial for people within the same network. Once Google flips the switch on its new Allo and Duo messaging apps, there'll be a better alternative for the masses that isn't Google Hangouts.

The Moto Z main camera is 13MP with larger-sized 1.12um pixels, and includes a f/1.8 aperture with optical image stabilization and laser autofocus. Its quality is certainly a step up from the Moto X series.

The front-facing camera is 5MP and with an f/2.2 aperture and 1.4um big pixels for better low light and a real LED flash on the front. That’s becoming a bigger and bigger feature for selfie-craving phone owners.

Moto Z review

We no longer need to take, re-take, and re-re-take photos before giving up – the Moto Z comes through with colorful shots in the daytime and, at times, above average low light photos, too.

Moto Z

OIS and zero shutter lag make this a fine smartphone camera during daylight hours, one that can compete with Samsung and LG, in fact. Well, if you’re not zooming in to 100% crop to nitpick.

Even with OIS and zero shutter lag here, however, photos like to blur with a modest amount of movement in dark situations. Stills require still subjects in low light.

Moto Z review

Why you so blurry?

We like the default Moto Z camera app better.

The good news is that Motorola has overhauled its camera software. Gone is the awful, hidden dial that housed all of the controls. New to the app is a Professional mode for fine-tuning the ISO, white balance aperture and other manual settings. Pro-level tweaks work for both the back and front cameras.

In additional to Professional mode, there are other basic modes of Panorama, Video and Slow Motion. Video can be shot at 4K UHD at 30fps and 1080p at 60fps or 30fps. Slow motion on the rear camera records at 120fps, but brings the resolution down to 720p.

Moto Z review

A much better camera app

It’s still not as intuitive or robust as Samsung and LG’s feature-loaded default camera apps, and we hate the way you swipe from the edges to review photos (it leads to many error-filled back button presses). But we love the returning “Quick capture” gesture in which you can twist the phone twice to launch the camera app and, within the app, perform the same gesture to switch between the front and back camera.

Moto Z review

There’s a real LED flash on the front

By default, the camera shoots in 16:9 and 9.7MP, but you can (and should) be change to the max 13MP, even though it's a 4:3 aspect ratio. Samsung's top-tier phones use the same boxy frame by default. That's the resolution and aspect ratio we used on our camera samples gallery on the next page.

The Moto Z can't quite compare to the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge in low light, but, as you can see, the quality and new app are a step in the right direction for Motorola in good light.

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Oldest still-operating movie theater in America

Moto Z review

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It did a good job here, but still doesn’t match the Samsung Galaxy S7

Low light photos

Moto Z review

Why you so blurry?

Moto Z review

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With the front-facing flash

Moto Z

Without the flash

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With the flash

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With HDR

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Without HDR

Moto Z review

Moto Z review

Moto Z battery life is where it falls short, and that slender size is to blame. It includes a 2,600 mAh battery capacity that just isn’t enough for modern phones.

It got us through the day with mixed use, but not to the 30 hours that Motorola had claimed. It died after 24 hours in most cases. The 3,500mAh battery of the Moto Z Force, however, carried us through the day and beyond, meeting its 40-hour promise.

Moto Z review

Backing this up, we ran our standard battery life test, which includes an HD video loop for 90 minutes. When the video expired, the phone was down to 77% from a full battery. Contrast that with the Moto Z Force, which dropped to 86% in the same amount of time.

All of a sudden the Motomods battery case accessories make convincing arguments. There’s also reason to keep around the TurboCharger that’s supplied with the Moto Z. It provides fast charging for the phone with a USB-C cable on the end.

Moto Z

We found that the Moto Z regained 27% of battery life in just 15 minutes and that it was up to 100% by the end of 74 minutes. The only issue is that Motorola’s TurboCharger in the box is tethered to its power wall brick. It doesn’t separate with a USB or USB-C connection that you can separate from the wall end.

Moto Z isn’t the only smartphone you should consider buying in 2016. It’s not even the only modular Android phone to launch this year.

Several of our best phone and best Android phone picks are direct rivals of this Lenovo and Motorola creation, all with different standout features. Let’s see if any of them are better fits for you.

Moto Z vs LG G5

LG G5

The LG G5 is the “other modular smartphone” this year, and it fully deserves that designation because it doesn’t have enough accessories available and none of them are hot swappable. You have to turn the phone off, cumbersomely disassemble the bottom chin and slide in the new mod. It takes patience and there are no magnets here.

Why is the LG G5 still a good choice? It has a dual rear camera system that we really like and can’t get anywhere else. One camera takes 16MP photos, while another ultra-wide camera can snap 8MP photos. All of a sudden, you’re not going to have to back up to get that perfect shot of your friend and the huge monument in the background. We liked the LG V10 dual selfie camera for the same reason. The G5 isn’t as thin as the Moto Z, but it does have the same internal specs and it does come with a headphone jack.

Moto Z vs Samsung

Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge

It's hard to argue that the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are the best phones in 2016. Both have the best cameras, best-looking displays and best specs performance (outside of the US where they uses Samsung's own chipset). That's a lot of bests.

The S7 Edge is also the most stylish phone on the list thanks to its curved display, so it's able to compete with the slimmer Moto Z in terms of design. It doesn't run the near-stock Android interface that Motorola has here, but Samsung's Experience interface is cleaned up enough now. Both the S7 and S7 Edge are more expensive, but worth it if you're looking for the best phone that money can buy.

Moto Z vs Nexus 6P

Nexus 6P

Outside of modular accessories, you’ll find a lot of the Moto Z features in the Nexus 6P, and it’s delivered by Google and Huawei at a significantly cheaper price: starting at $499 (£449, AU$899) for 32GB. There’s an enviable aluminum design, straightforward stock Android interface, reliable fingerprint sensor (on the back in this case), and solid camera that claims to be great in low light situations, but still can’t compare to Samsung’s cameras.

It’s thin at 7.3mm, but not not recording breaking like the Moto Z “thickness” of 5.19mm and it uses the slightly older Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1 processor with 3GB of RAM. If you’re really concerned about price, there’s less reason to even want to upgrade your phone with modular accessories like the expensive pico projector, so the Nexus 6P makes a great alternative to phone buyers on a budget. The Nexus 5X is even cheaper, but is even more of a performer compromise.

Moto Z vs iPhone 6S

iPhone 6S

Apple’s iPhone 6S is anything but modular, with a design that doesn’t even allow for storage upgrades and software that’s long been considered a walled garden. iOS 10 is changing that to a degree, but it’s still very much a closed ecosystem. That said, we dig a lot of iPhone-exclusive features, like iMessages, FaceTime and a few other apps that you won’t find in the Google Play Store.

There’s, of course, one caveat: it’s not a good time to buy a new iPhone. Apple is rumored to be launching the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in September, meaning you might want to wait to see its new features. It won’t be modular, according to the latest reports, but it’s likely to include a better camera. Apple’s current 12MP camera is currently on par with the Moto Z, according to our tests, and still lagging behind the better post-processing of Samsung’s cameras.

Moto Z vs iPhone 6S

ZTE Axon 7

We’re currently testing out the ZTE Axon 7, but really like its features for the price. It comes with a generous 64GB of internal storage and all of the same specs as the Moto Z otherwise, yet the phone costs $399 (about £300, AU$525). That’s pretty amazing. The gold-colored phone is stylish (though slippery) and packs in a pair of front-facing dual speakers. The front of the phone is devoid of needless logos. It’s just speakers and the front-facing camera.

You won’t find this phone in carrier stores, however. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile aren’t selling the phone on contract. Instead, it’s being sold through retailers like Amazon and is only available off-contract. That means paying full price upfront. You also have to get used to the very-not-stock Android software. Installing a launcher an easy workaround for that. That’s a small price to pay for paying a small price.

Moto Z takes the modular accessory idea we liked so much about the LG G5 and actually makes it work with better add-ons and an easier-to-use snap-on design.

It’s an Android phone that performs well right now and the potential behind its future accessories hold a lot of promise down the road. Usually when we talk about mid-cycle upgrades, we’re strictly talking about new software. Moto Z could take on new form at any time.

Moto Z review

We liked

MotoMods really make this smartphone desireable. Right now, there are textured shells, fashionable battery cases, a powerful-enough JBL speaker and a bright-enough mini projector, and they’re all great ideas that take advantage of the magnetic back pins.

The design is already incredibly thin, so the extra thickness isn’t an impractical trade-off. The accessories, sensor-filled Moto Active display and fingerprint sensor that wakes and puts the phone to sleep are what make this phone stand out from the other half-dozen flagships with a Snapdragon 820 processor.

moto z review

We disliked

There is such a thing as being too thin in the smartphone world, and the Moto Z is at that point. Without a 3.5mm headphone jack, it requires an aux to USB cable that’s included, but a pain to remember to bring everywhere. We will likely lose it before we finishing typing up this review. Then there’s the less than stellar 2,600mAh battery capacity that is so small and giant camera bump that anything but flush with the phone – both a result of Moto Z’s ultra-thin size.

The phone design is likeable at the base level and its mods and shells give us some flair of your choosing, but it’s a fingerprint magnet no matter what. It’s fingerprint sensor and front logo also take up way too much space on the front of the chin of the device. While there’s no Verizon logo on there too, the carrier’s time-exclusivity and uninstallable app can’t be missed in the US right now.

moto z review

Final verdict

Moto Z isn’t the first or last modular phone, but it’s the first time we liked the idea on an Android device and see the potential behind building out our smartphone with new accessories. Options like a pico projector and attachable boom box are creative enough at launch that they could inspire a new way of thinking about how we use phones. Moto Z is more than just an unchanging sheet glass and metal.

The more boring LG G5 didn’t live up to that promise and Google’s Project Ara, while more ambitious, isn’t ready for mainstream consumers just yet. The Moto Z falls somewhere in between, and delivers on everyone’s standard smartphone needs too: a fast processor, enough memory and internal storage, and a solid performing camera except in low light. Its battery life and audio delivered via USB-C are major hurdles, but as long as you know about them going in, or find (or create) a future mod to correct the issues, there’s no reason to automatically bypass Motorola as an also-ran in your best phone buying decision.

Matt Swider
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