Step back, LG G5. There’s a funky new modular smartphone on sale in Australia, and it’s also — in its standard, straight-out-of-the-box guise — the world’s thinnest. Motorola’s Moto Z measures just 5.2mm from front to back, but still has the latest in high-tech hardware under the hood. Where LG’s top Android phone ejects its modular components like a pistol’s magazine, though, the Moto Z snaps them onto its rear case to add extra battery power, a high-res camera or a more powerful speaker.
What Is It?
The $999 Motorola Moto Z is, on paper, a highly evolved piece of smartphone technology. It’s built around a 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display of the same quality I’ve applauded in the past on the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, but measures just 155x75x5.19mm and weighs 136g: very skinny, very light. Despite that, it has the same top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 quad-core as its high-end competitors like the Google Pixel or Sony Xperia XZ and 4GB of RAM alongside 64GB of internal storage and microSD support.
If you’ve seen a Motorola phone in the past few years, you’ll recognise the basic shape and design of the Moto Z — but pared down to its absolute minimum. The front of the phone is a single sheet of glass broken up only by a top central speaker, next to which are concealed a front-facing 5-megapixel camera and flash. Where you’d expect to press the tactile home button of the Moto Z on its lower front bezel, though, you’ll find no movement — it’s only a fingerprint reader; power and volume buttons live on the phone’s right side. Around the back, it’s the same minimalist, featureless story apart from a sizeable, stacked-10-cent-coin 13-megapixel f/1.8 camera bump and the classic winged ‘M’ Motorola logo.
The lower back of the Moto Z, though, is where all the fun happens: that’s where you’ll see a complex 18-pin multipurpose connector, the point of contact for all of Motorola’s magnetic Moto Mods. There are five different Moto Mods that you can buy right now: a $159 JBL SoundBoost stereo speaker, a $429 Motorola-developed LED projector, a $399 10x optical zoom camera from Hasselblad, a $139 expandable battery and wireless charging cell from Incipio, and Motorola’s always-dependable $29 or $39 Style Shell rear case covers. All clip on to the Moto Z’s rear and don’t require any further setup to operate.
As is standard Motorola practice these days, you can also buy the Moto Z in a slightly different variant. The Moto Z Play is still thin and looks nearly identical to the regular Z, and also supports all the same Moto Mods, but makes a few sacrifices in the quality of its Full HD 5.5-inch display and Snapdragon 625 quad-core processor; to that end, it apparently has the longest-lasting battery of any Motorola ever thanks to a capacious 3510mAh internal cell. I tested the skinnier, more premium Moto Z, but for the most part my conclusions should apply to the Moto Z Play as well.
What’s It Good At?
The concept of the Moto Mods, as Motorola has implemented on the Moto Z, makes it the best modular smartphone yet. Google’s (suspended) Project Ara is a wonderful pipe dream and the LG G5 was a bold step into the unknown, but Motorola has actually delivered with the Mods’ ridiculously simple premise: just clip them onto the rear of the phone, with no restarting required. It works, too: want more sound? Just clip on that chubby little stereo speaker. Need more battery for a night out or a weekend away? Just clip on the battery pack. Of course they make the Moto Z thicker, but if size is a concern then just take them off.
We think there are better all-round smartphones — like the very-hard-to-beat Google Pixel — but the addition of Moto Mods means that for an enthusiast, or for specific needs, the Moto Z has unbeatable appeal. To keep adding value, though, Motorola needs to commit to making more Mods with its partners and internally and keep using the magnetic pogo pin standard on its future phones. Otherwise you end up with a LG G5-esque situation where you have some useful add-ons for one phone that won’t likely ever see use on any other handset. One particular Mod, the LED projector, shows that not all ideas translate into good, usable, useful products, but by and large it’s a great idea.
Moto Mods aside, the Moto Z is just a good phone at the same time, which is important. Motorola’s skin on top of Android is, for the most part, quite straightforward, and really only adds a few useful features — like a double twist of your wrist to launch the phone’s camera while it’s unlocked, or a wave over the screen to show notifications while sleeping. The Moto Z should receive an Android 7.0 Nougat update in Australia imminently, too, that brings with it Daydream VR support as well as the latest Android version’s across-the-board upgrades to battery life and Google Assistant tech.
If you don’t mind the particular style that Motorola has taken with the Moto Z — which is a little bit avant garde, a little bit more high-tech than the comparatively bland iPhone or Pixel you might compare it to — you’ll be very impressed with how well put together it is. Motorola has built impressively well-constructed phones since the original Razr and the Moto Z is no different: every edge and corner feels refined. Similarly, the Moto Z runs smoothly and without any obvious lagging or stuttering in every aspect of its performance that I tested.
What’s It Not Good At?
Like we’ve seen on other very thin phones from Oppo — and, yes, from Apple — the Moto Z makes one potentially crippling compromise in the pursuit of the slimmest possible form factor. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. This is not a big deal at all if you already own a pair of Bluetooth headphones, but if you don’t you’ll need to remember to carry Motorola’s bundled USB Type-C to headphone jack adapter with you, or keep it attached to a single set of headphones that you’ll use exclusively with the Moto Z: no 3.5mm jack means no versatility to plug in any pair of headphones you have lying around without planning ahead.
There’s one big annoyance I have with the Moto Z’s design, and one that feels like an oversight mainly because of the expectations I’ve brought over from Motorola’s competition in Apple and Samsung. The Moto Z’s small, front fingerprint reader on its lower bezel — a design quirk that actually reminds me quite a lot of the little touch sensors on old Blackberry phones — doesn’t click. It doesn’t drop you back to the Android home screen. It doesn’t do anything except read your fingerprint to unlock the phone, or to use fingerprint-locked features like Android Pay throughout the phone. That extra point of interaction would have been really nice, and instantly familiar to many potential buyers.
While almost every aspect of the Moto Z impressed me, I was a little disappointed with the quality of its camera. Any phone these days can take good photos in good light, but the Moto Z doesn’t back that up with its low-light performance. It struggles to take clean, noise-free photos in dim and dark lighting, despite the relative brightness of its f/1.8 lens and the relatively large size of the pixels on its 13-megapixel sensor. Google’s Pixel showed that good software processing can save You can always buy that Hasselblad add-on and take some great shots, but that’s a $399 fix for a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Similarly, my final main complaint about the Moto Z is again something that’s addressed very well by one of the Moto Mods. The phone’s internal 2600mAh battery is small given its 5.5-inch screen size — an obvious trade-off for the claim to be the world’s thinnest premium smartphone at just 5.19mm thick. That relatively small battery means mediocre battery life; I’ve been classing modern phones into the one-, one-and-a-half-, and two-day battery life classes for some time now and the Moto Z is definitely a one-day phone. It charges fast, but you’ll be charging it often if you’re a power user.
Should You Buy It?
The $999 Motorola Moto Z is, in a lot of ways, the most innovative phone of 2016. It’s been a good year to buy a new phone, with a lot of great contenders out there trying for your hard-earned dollars, but Motorola distinguishes itself with the addition of its Moto Mods modular add-ons. One small problem, though: it feels like it might be a bit hard to buy the Moto Z and not buy at least one of the Moto Mods; this is perfectly fine, but drives up the price and the bulk of an otherwise reasonably priced and very thin, light phone.
There are a few stumbles that might give you pause when you’re considering the Moto Z: battery life, camera performance, no headphone jack. All of those can be addressed with Mods or with judicious use of each, and none of them alone should turn you off from what is in general a very impressive phone. If you’re the kind of person that likes to tinker — maybe you carry a camera around with you in your day bag, or if you’re already always using your USB battery charger — then the Moto Z was made for you. It’s a completely different proposition to an iPhone or the Google Pixel, but it’s certainly no less tempting.