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Moto Z and Moto Z Force Review

chipchickpick1Despite the smartphone market leveling off after years of torrid growth, it seems like we’ve got more choices than ever when it comes to high-end phones. The longtime premium Android players like Samsung, HTC, and LG are still there, with lower-cost brands like Asus, ZTE, OnePlus, and Alcatel rapidly catching up in terms of quality (or, in the case of Huawei, both quality and price). Motorola, currently owned by Lenovo, has been caught in the middle — it’s an established brand that never committed to the high-cost, premium tier.

That changes with the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force — while pricing isn’t official for either phone yet, they’re rumored to be around $600 to $700, which would put them right up there with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, HTC 10, and LG G5. That’s a lot to ask, especially in a very competitive industry, but the Moto Z line has a strong argument — modular accessories. While the premium specs are the same as what you’ll find on those other phones, Motorola’s Moto Mods enable the Moto Z to become even more useful. The mods, which snap onto the back of the phone, include a separate JBL speaker unit, a battery pack, a projector, and, if all goes well, a whole lot more in the future. While the Moto Mods are sold separately, they add a lot of value to the Moto Z in the flexibility they afford. While the modular system does lead to some minor sub-optimal design choices, overall the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force are both terrific phones that are worth a high price, mods or no — as long as you’re a Verizon customer.

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Build

The Moto Z and Moto Z Force both have an aluminum and stainless steel frame and displays protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4. The Moto Z Force also adds Motorola’s ShatterShield display, which doesn’t crack or shatter from drops several feet high. Both are 5.5″ phones, but the Moto Z Force is quite a bit thicker and heavier than the Moto Z. Little wonder — the Moto Z is the thinnest smartphone of the year at 5.2 mm and weighs only 136 grams, while the Force is not too far off from other flagship Android phones at 7 mm thick and 163 grams. They’re both comfortable to hold despite have flat backs (as opposed to the slightly rounded backs of many other premium phones) — a practical necessity because of the back-mounted modular system. We’ve not found those rounded backs to make much of a difference in ergonomics, anyway.

We really like the Moto Mods, which we will cover in more detail below, but they did require some design compromises. The most obvious one is the fingerprint sensor. It’s on the front of the phone at the bottom, but it’s not a home button like on the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 6 series. I often found myself instinctively tapping on it as if it was, which was a mild annoyance. But, it was unavoidable — Motorola didn’t want to alter Android and its touch navigation buttons, and it couldn’t put the fingerprint scanner on the back because of the Moto Mods, which would otherwise cover the sensor when attached. This was the only way Motorola could get a scanner onto the phone, but it does make the phone’s body longer than necessary and makes for awkward placement.

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Also, because the Moto Mods work with a set of 16 gold pin connectors on the back of the Moto Z, complete waterproofing wasn’t possible. Motorola mitigated that by adding a water-repellent coating. The other design compromise is the large camera bump on the back — that’s a result of the extreme thickness, but also possibly out of concern that the Moto Mods’ camera holes would block out too much incoming light if the camera was flush with the body.

Unfortunately, there’s also one poor design choice we feel was unnecessary — there’s no 3.5 mm audio port on either the Moto Z or the Moto Z Force. The iPhone 7 is expected to do this as well, and it’s confounding. The idea is that the audio industry is moving toward Bluetooth connectivity (true, but dramatically overstated) and that wired headphones can still be used with a USB Type-C to 3.5 mm adapter (which, thankfully, is included). The adapter amounts to an extra length of cable, but it still hangs out awkwardly when you’ve got your phone in your pocket. It’s irritating mainly because there’s no benefit to the end user — it’s harder to use the wired headphones you already have, and relying on Bluetooth or the USB Type-C connector doesn’t do anything to improve audio quality over using a 3.5 mm port. At least with the switch to the USB Type-C charging port, we’re getting faster recharge and file transfer rates — there’s no upside for users in axing the 3.5 mm port.

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Performance

The Moto Z and Moto Z Force have identical specs aside from battery capacity. It’s top of the line (or almost) across the board — a 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC, 4 GB of RAM, and 32 GB or 64 GB of storage (up to 256 GB more with a MicroSD card slot found on the SIM tray). The Moto Z Force has a pretty large 3,500 mAh battery, while the Moto Z’s 2,600 mAh battery is so small that the battery pack Moto Mod is virtually a necessity. The only place where the Moto Z isn’t leading is in RAM — some phones like the OnePlus 3 and the ZTE Axon 7 have 6 GB, although we’re not convinced it’s necessary to have that much RAM in a phone yet.

Test Moto Z Moto Z Force
PC Mark for Android Work 7570 7441
AnTuTu 143534 150298
GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan Offscreen 1,529 frames 1,842 frames
3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.1 2204 2523
PC Mark for Android Work Battery Life 6 hours, 18 minutes 8 hours, 23 minutes

The benchmark scores are fantastic. The Moto Z and Moto Z Force, for reasons I haven’t fully worked out yet, appear to be the best-performing Android smartphones on the market, beating even the Galaxy S7 Edge, mostly on faster photo editing and writing. Graphics performance as tested by GFXBench and 3D Mark is a little more down to earth, keeping company with the premium tier while coming in lower than the Galaxy S7 Edge and the OnePlus 3. However, the Moto Z Force did have better graphics performance.

In battery life, the Moto Z Force fares well, but the Moto Z unsurprisingly lags far behind with its smaller battery capacity. Using the enclosed charger, the Moto Z went from 18% to 86% in one hour. The Moto Z Force is about the same as the Galaxy S7 Edge in battery life, which means it should last a full day, even with heavy use. We can’t say the same for the Moto Z, which will really need that battery pack Moto Mod. Both phones, especially the Moto Z, get pretty warm when downloading several apps or playing 3D games (more so than similar phones).

The 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display is terrific on both, although it’s a little dimmer and less clear on the Moto Z Force because of the extra layer of the ShatterShield. They both get very bright — I was able to use the Moto Z as a flashlight without needing to turn to the LED flash for that purpose. That means it’s great for use in direct sunlight, too. Color reproduction looks on point, which isn’t always a given with AMOLED displays.

The Moto Z and Moto Z Force have a single forward-firing speaker, but it’s a very powerful one (and even if it wasn’t powerful enough, there’s a Moto Mod to help with that). This also helps to hear calls well, which came in clear over Verizon’s network. There is no second SIM slot, which is unfortunate. Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 both held up well, and there is NFC connectivity for use with Android Pay. GPS and A-GPS also work well, with running routes through side streets and trails accurately recorded.

Next page: Camera, Software, and Mods

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