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Moto Z2 Force Review

The new flagship Moto Z is a fine improvement, albeit a pricey one.

We had a lot of fun with the Moto Z last year, if for no other reason than it tried something radically different. Motorola was seemingly able to get modularity right, creating an ultra-thin phone that could be paired with a number of magnetic back cases called Moto Mods to add the likes of external speakers, souped up camera lenses, or battery packs. The system worked, and the phone performed every bit like a flagship to boot — enough to make us very interested in this year’s Moto Z2 Force.

The Moto Z was joined last year by the Moto Z Force, a thicker version of the phone with longer battery life and a shatter-proof screen. The longer battery life was huge, because the regular Moto Z sacrificed a lot of battery capacity to be as thin as it was. Both phones had their advantages, but once they hit the market, there was an immediate problem — some of the Moto Mods were way too expensive, making an already expensive phone a tough sell.

But, Motorola has made a commitment to support those Moto Mods, and so we have the Moto Z2 Force. With the same basic design, all Moto Mods released in the past year will work with Motorola’s new flagship phone. The big design change has been a fusion of the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force — the Moto Z2 Force combines the shatter-proof display of the Moto Z Force with the thinness of the Moto Z. The result is a high-end phone that has too many shortcomings on its own to be able to compete at its very high price point.

Build

The 5.5″ Moto Z2 Force looks almost the same as last year’s models, because it has to — Motorola can’t change much about the design without sacrificing compatibility with older Mods. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of design constraints that have hurt the Z2 Force. The fingerprint scanner is forced to stay on the front, which isn’t bad, but it does mean Motorola can’t make the same kind of ultra-thin bezel, widescreen phone that LG and Samsung made this year. Instead, it ends up looking dated compared to the LG G6 and the Samsung Galaxy S8.

At 6.1 mm thick, the Moto Z2 Force is almost exactly in the middle of the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force from last year. That’s still very thin, but that’s not always a good thing — without a Mod on the back, the exposed plastic back feels cheap, and the phone feels so thin and light that sometimes it felt like a strong gust of wind would rip it out of my grasp.

It’s not all bad. The metal frame and shatter-proof screen make this phone much tougher than it looks — it’s ready to take some spills. If you do happen to have a Mod on when you drop the phone, the Mod might take some damage, but because the Mod can separate easily from the phone, the shock shouldn’t do as much damage.

And despite rumors to the contrary, yes, they still left the 3.5 mm headphone port off. We’re still firmly against this — forcing the customer through an extra hoop (an adapter) to use an accessory they already own is not a great practice, and unlike last year’s Moto Z, the Moto Z2 Force is certainly thick enough to accommodate one. Bluetooth headphones are still limited by battery life issues and performance in windy or crowded areas, so we’d definitely still prefer to be able to use our wired headphones with ease. Apple can get away with this because they offer so much convenience within their ecosystem of products. There’s simply too much competition from other Android smartphone makers for Motorola to get away with it. It doesn’t help that the phone isn’t water-resistant, either.

Performance

As a pure performer, the Moto Z2 Force is unassailable. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC, paired with 4 GB of RAM, ensures snappy performance, especially because Motorola doesn’t weigh its phones down with a bunch of additions to stock Android. The phone also comes with 64 GB of storage, with a microSD card slot good for up to 256 GB more. The benchmark scores below are right up there with the Galaxy S8, the G6, and the rest of the premium Android milieu, with top performance from both the CPU and the GPU. Whether you want to work or play, the hardware won’t hold you back.

Benchmark Test Score
PC Mark for Android Work 2.0 6401
AnTuTu 175241
GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan Offscreen 2,350 frames
3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme 3683
PC Mark for Android Work Battery Life 2.0 N/A (test fails to finish)

The battery, on the other hand, might. Because of its thinness, the Moto Z2 Force has a 2,730 mAh battery. That’s tiny when paired with this powerful of hardware (and the 1440p display). Motorola’s solution would be to use one of their battery case Moto Mods, but I’m not sure how I feel about needing to pay for a separate accessory to get up to the kind of battery life seen on other flagship phones. Alone, the battery could last a full day, but a prolonged gaming session or a movie will probably make it fall short. Its saving grace is its Turbo Charge power adapter. I was able to charge the phone from 4 percent to 63 percent in just a half hour.

The 1440p display is bright and clear, even in direct sunlight. That’s no small feat — Motorola has to add thick layers of plastic to the display to make it shatter-proof, and in times past that has affected clarity and color reproduction. It looks like Motorola has been able to solve that problem, so credit to them for pulling that off.

Audio presents a similar kind of problem to battery life. Unlike most Android phones, there’s no speaker unit on the front or bottom of the phone — the only speaker is the earpiece. It still sounds better than you’d think, and it’s always nice to have a forward-firing speaker. If you want better performance, you can always buy another Mod. Motorola does have a JBL speaker Mod, but it’s another expense (even if it is a really, really good speaker).

I didn’t have any problems with call quality using the phone on AT&T’s network in San Francisco. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC includes the best smartphone modem right now, which guarantees as strong of a connection as your carrier is capable of (including up to Gigabit LTE speeds). The frontside fingerprint scanner is also great, working fast and rarely failing to read a fingerprint.

Camera

Unfortunately, it’s a running theme with the Moto Z2 Force — without a Mod, the camera doesn’t match up with the rest of the premium Android competition. The dual-camera array uses two 12 MP f/2.0 cameras with phase detect and laser autofocus, neither of which have optical image stabilization. One camera takes color photos, while the other takes in black and white images to bring in more information about light levels.

In well-lit conditions, this camera array really shines. I was able to get sharp shots with beautiful color reproduction, although the shutter speed was occasionally a little slow. Unsurprisingly given the f/2.0 lenses and the lack of OIS, the phone struggles in low-light conditions, with plenty of noise and muddiness compared to similarly priced phones. It seems like Motorola has decided to compensate for lack of light by slowing down the shutter speed, but to do that well on a smartphone, you really do need OIS. The depth-of-field shots also disappoint — the camera software can’t quite get the edges of objects right. The occasional blotches of blur that mar photos make the results look artificial.

Because it has that dedicated black and white sensor, black and white photos come out looking terrific — but that’s the case with any Android phone that uses a similar kind of dual camera display, like the Huawei phones.

Overall, I didn’t come away disappointed with the camera so much as aware that I could get better for a similar price. That speaks more to how insanely competitive the Android market has become than any particular fault with Motorola.

While I’m on the subject, I’ll go over one of the newest Moto Mods, the Moto 360 Camera. This Mod sticks a 360-degree camera on the top of the phone — this consists of two 13 MP sensors with fisheye lenses that have over 180-degree fields of vision, plus a mic array that can take 360-degree audio. The Moto camera app can stitch the two photos together into one 360-degree 4K picture that captures everything except for the phone itself! The results aren’t bad — the software does a good job of neatly stitching the two photos together so you don’t notice the break (just don’t look at the hand holding the phone). The photos all end up muddier than ones you would take with the normal camera, but that’s to be expected. The problem is that it’s $300 — at that price, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t invest in a dedicated, higher quality 360-degree camera that doesn’t need to be attached to a smartphone to work.

Software

As always, this is where Motorola has the upper hand. They’ve always remained committed to letting stock Android shine, and things haven’t changed with the Z2 Force. Motorola does add the Moto app, though, which can be useful. The voice assistant is superfluous (Google Assistant is preferable in every way), but using a wrist twist to wake the camera is a welcome feature.

Motorola also has their version of the ever-popular always-on display. The Moto Z2 Force will wake up and display time and notifications with a mere wave of the hand over the display, making it a great desk companion while you’re working (this is where having a frontside fingerprint scanner really helps).

It’s worth noting that this year, the Moto Z is no longer a Verizon exclusive. The phone came to all major carriers in the United States — in terms of software, that means you have your choice of carrier bloatware! AT&T isn’t much better than Verizon, including a bunch of games and system apps that you can hide from the app drawer, but not delete entirely. That includes the Final Fantasy XV mobile game, which I swear is being advertised more than I’ve ever seen any other game get advertised, ever. It’s enough.

Read on for the verdict…

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