Moto Z & Moto Z Force review: Maybe the DROID you’re looking for

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The Moto Z and Moto Z Force are Lenovo’s first crack at the high-end smartphone market since acquiring Motorola, and they’ll likely be a make-or-break phone for Lenovo’s chance at being a big player in the premium U.S. market.

Both phones are touted as extremely high-end devices with unique modular accessories called Moto Mods, and both phones are exclusive to Verizon for now. It’s odd for an OEM to tackle a tough market by tying themselves to a single carrier right out of the bat, but it’s a strategy that worked for Motorola in the past.

Hit the break for our review of the Moto Z and Moto Z Force.

When Google bought Motorola back in 2012, it injected fresh life into the company and rebooted their lineup. Before Google, Motorola was making many Verizon-exclusive DROID devices with bad screens, awful cameras, and terrible software overlays. The original Motorola DROID was a success, but the Moto Blur-ridden successors and RAZRs of the world were simply mediocre phones, especially next to Samsung’s rapidly evolving Galaxy S line.

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After Google’s purchase, Motorola seemed like a new company. There were colorful marketing campaigns of varying success and a brand new Moto X line that offered steady performance with no gimmicks, and while it didn’t sell well enough to dethrone Samsung, Motorola carved a niche for itself in the market. They made more affordable phones that were good for everyday use because not everyone needs pricey beast of a device.

Motorola soon introduced the Moto G and Moto E that followed the same philosophy. They were both extremely affordable phones that performed relatively well, and the company solidified itself as a wallet-friendly, reliable hardware manufacturer that actually rolled out software updates.

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Then 2014 came along, and Google offloaded Motorola to Lenovo, which shocked pretty much everyone. It also left everyone slightly concerned with how Lenovo would handle Motorola’s philosophy of affordable phones that actually got updated, and right out of the gate Lenovo confirmed everyone’s fears by axing older devices from its update schedule. Then we saw Motorola dissolve completely into the Moto brand that would now be handled by Lenovo.

But now, in July 2016, we have several new phones from Lenovo that have either been released or are set to release, and we’ll finally get to see how well Lenovo will carry the torch of the Moto brand. The first flagship offering after that change is the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force and they offer a unique spin on accessories. The big selling point here are the Moto Mods, which are modular accessories that snap onto the back of both phones to add features to the device. Lenovo also included some beefy hardware here, so it’s not simply a line of gimmick phones.

Let’s see if they did it better than LG did earlier this year.

Design

Lenovo changed gears when it came to designing the Moto Z with some pretty drastic aesthetic modifications. You can still see some inspiration from the older Moto X models — like the circular camera and the Moto logo below it, and the horizontal speaker on the face of the device. But this is clearly a new lineup of phones from a new company.

The device is made out of very premium materials, with glass and metal all over everything. On the face of the phone you’ll get a Gorilla Glass 4 sheet with a front-facing camera and LED flash and speaker bar on top, and the fingerprint scanner and two microphones are on the bottom. There’s also a small Moto logo above the fingerprint scanner and below the screen, which I find just a little irritating. I’m not a big fan of company branding on everything, but this isn’t not the most intrusive thing I’ve ever seen, so it’s not really worth complaining about.

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The back of the device has a very shiny glass finish, so you know what that means! Fingerprints everywhere. The back of the device is constantly smudged if you’re not using a Style Shell.

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The top of the back of the Moto Z houses the camera with an enormous camera bump. This is arguably the biggest bump I’ve ever seen on a phone, and it’s the same on both the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force. You’d think the added thickness of the Moto Z Force would help offset some of it, but it looks like Lenovo used all of the extra space to cram in more battery.

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The Style Shell completely hides the camera bump, however, and most Moto Mods will go beyond that and actually put the camera in a recess.

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You’ll find the power button and volume buttons on the right side of the phone, with a USB Type-C port on the bottom, and that’s it. There’s no headphone jack found anywhere on the Moto Z or the Moto Z force, so if you want to keep using your traditional headphones, you’re going to need to use the included USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter. That also means you can’t charge your phone and listen to music at the same time.

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There are a few legitimate gripes about the Moto Z: its inability to hide fingerprints, the lack of a headphone jack, and a weird Moto logo on the front. But, overall, it is a fantastically designed phone. The Moto Z is extremely light, and even the slightly heavier Moto Z Force still feels very comfortable in hand. The edges of the device are soft, not sharp, and the entire construction feels solid and sturdy, like it can actually take a fall without smashing into a million pieces. The Moto Z Force does have that shatterproof screen, so there’s a good chance it will actually survive those falls.

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It’s a fairly long phone, however, and at times I felt like it was tough to hold and use. It’s the age-old problem of trying to reach the notification shade with your thumb while you’re walking, and it’s still going to be an issue here if you don’t have huge hands. The device is also probably too thin if you’re not using any Moto Mods or cases on it, but it needs the thin design to make room for those Moto Mods. It’s a tough situation for Lenovo to be in, but I feel like their design team adapted accordingly.

The Moto Mods, for better or worse, are simply glorified accessories that snap onto the back of the Moto Z and Moto Z Force. All Moto Mods are compatible with both versions of the phone and can easily be swapped.

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Despite how most glorified accessories turn out, Lenovo did a terrific job designing these modular gadgets. I had a chance to play with the Incipio Off-Grid Power Pack ($59.99), the JBL SoundBoost speaker ($79.99), and the Insta-Share Projector ($299.99).

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They all easily snap into place and actually felt like they were part of the phone, and charge by simply plugging in your Moto Z like normal with a Moto Mod attached. The magnets hold everything together extremely securely, and I never felt like things were going to fall apart. The only real complaint you’ll have here is how thick some of the mods are.

The Incipio Off-Grid Power Pack is basically just an extended battery that also enables wireless charging. It’s the thinnest of them all but still added some notable depth to the Moto Z. It’s also the only one that I could comfortably fit in my pocket and was the most useful in day-to-day activities, so I can easily see someone permanently using the power bank Moto Mods full-time.

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The JBL SoundBoost speaker and Insta-Share Projector, though, are two totally different stories. The speaker is by far the thickest and feels like it nearly triples the size of the phone, but it does sound really, really good — good enough to give HTC’s BoomSound-ready phones a run for their money. It also has a small kickstand which was extremely useful at a party.

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I don’t think I’d even consider taking the speaker with me everywhere, but if I’m in a situation where I need to play some music, it can be a very quick and easy way to fill a room with sound. It made the phone a little easier to hold, too but at the cost of a bunch of extra weight.

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The projector is probably the most gimmicky Moto Mod they’ve introduced, and even though it’s really cool and works well, I don’t regularly run into situations where I think “Man, I really wish I had a projector so I could show everyone my phone’s home screen!” If you’re constantly in meetings and need to show slideshows and other presentations I can see the appeal, but I don’t see many people plopping $300 down on this thing.

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The Moto Mods are weird. They’re kind of gimmicky, too. But honestly, they’re really cool. A makeshift portable speaker is awesome if you frequently hang out in groups that listen to music, and being able to pop on a different back to drastically extend your battery life feels very futuristic, even if they are pricey. With that being said, these early Mods feel significantly more fleshed out than LG’s lame duck accessories, and if Lenovo can build out this lineup, get third parties on board, and please make them compatible with the Moto Z2. There’s a ton of potential here.

Hardware

 Moto ZMoto Z Force
AnnouncedJune 9, 2016June 9, 2016
ReleaseSummer / Fall 2016Summer / Fall 2016
Display5.5-inch Quad HD (2560x1440) AMOLED with Corning Gorilla Glass 45.5-inch Quad HD (2560x1440) AMOLED with Corning Gorilla Glass 4
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 820Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
RAM4GB4GB
Storage32GB / 64GB with microSD card slot32GB / 64GB with microSD card slot
Rear Camera13MP with optical image stabilization, laser autofocus21MP with optical image stabilization laser autofocus, phase detection autofocus
Front Camera5MP5MP
Battery2600mAh (non-removable)3500mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB Type-C with Moto TurboCharge technologyUSB Type-C with Moto TurboCharge technology
SoundFront-facing stereo speakerFront-facing stereo speaker
SoftwareAndroid 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0.1 Marshmallow
ConnectivityNFC, Bluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/acNFC, Bluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, compass, gyro, barometer, fingerprintAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, compass, gyro, barometer, fingerprint
Measurements153.3 x 75.3 x 5.2mm155.9 x 75.8 x 7mm
Weight136g163g
ColorsCustomized through Moto MakerCustomized through Moto Maker

Performance

Performance of the Moto Z is fantastic. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 paired with 4GB of RAM can chew through any task you throw at it with power to spare, and that’s absolutely the case with the Moto Z. Even with the Quad HD (2560×1440) display, I wasn’t ever able to slow the device down, despite playing power-hungry games, running background music, and putting forth serious multitasking.

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The display on the Moto Z is nothing to sneeze at, either. Lenovo opted for an AMOLED display here, one that has certainly paid off. Colors are bright and crisp, text is sharp, and black levels are deep and accurate. It’s not quite on the same level as what Samsung puts in their flagship devices, but unless you have two phones side by side, you won’t find anything to complain about. Besides the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, I think the Moto Z has the best display on a smartphone that I’ve used this year.

If you use the Moto Z without any Moto Mods or the case on, there’s a pretty noticeable source of heat towards the bottom of the phone when things get intesnse. I updated several apps from the Play Store while playing games to test it out, and it does get pretty warm to the touch. This is probably because of how razor thin the phone is, but it’s never painfully hot and it’s easily covered up, so that’s a small gripe for otherwise flawless performance.

Battery

Battery life on the Moto Z and its bigger sibling are top-notch. The Moto Z packs a 2600mAh battery and the Moto Z Force bumps that up to a massive 3500mAh. That 900mAh difference clearly gives the Moto Z Force a serious edge in longevity, but both phones manage their batteries very well and I had no problem getting through an entire day with either. With that being said, the Moto Z Force isn’t that much thicker but you can get several extra hours of battery time out of it, which seems worth it to me.

The Moto Z coming off the charger early in the morning would typically need a charge by 9 or 10PMmwhile the Moto Z Force would still have around 20% battery. I don’t do any scientific testing, but I do tend to hammer phones pretty hard with several email and social media accounts, tons of apps, and frequent Reddit browsing. I’m also not a big fan of sensible battery saving measures like turning radios off when you’re not using them. It’s extremely rare for me to find a phone that actually makes it past midnight, but the Moto Z Force gets close.

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Here’s where the Moto Z Force shines, though: if your battery is dipping into the red and you’re not going to be near a charger for another few hours, use one of the power pack Moto Mods. It’s a simple battery pack that snaps right onto the back of the phone and nearly doubles the Moto Z’s battery life while giving a sizable 60% boost to the Moto Z Force. The phone will charge itself off of that battery back and should easily help you squeeze several more hours out of the phone.

In case you burned through your phone battery and a power pack, the USB Type-C port here charges insanely quickly. The Moto Z Force needs a bit longer to charge its slightly bigger battery, but charge times for both phones stand strong.

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The only legitimate complaint about the Moto Z is that its battery is not removable. That’s been the trend with high-end smartphones for the past few years, but if you’re the type that absolutely needs a removable battery, skip the Moto Z and Moto Z Force.

Software

Loyalists of stock Android will be very happy to know there’s almost nothing to say about the software here. Lenovo didn’t really touch anything, excluding baking in a few apps specific to Moto phones. You’re looking at an almost completely untouched version of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow.

Lenovo’s additions are mostly welcome, especially the ambient display that Motorola popularized years back. It lights up when you go to pick up the phone and shows you a glance of your current notifications, which is great for checking what just made your phone buzz without actually turning it on. Lenovo built this into the Moto app that also gives you access to gestures and other smart features, some of which include the famous chop gesture for flashlight and the twist gesture for opening the camera. There’s a gesture for one-handed mode, plus things like Do Not Disturb and silencing calls.

Hands-free voice commands are still here, although they seem a little redundant now that Google Now has evolved into a great personal assistant, and the ambient display feature has options to block certain apps and turn off at certain times of the day.

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Other than that, Lenovo hasn’t adjusted anything, as far as I can tell. It’s not quite a Nexus phone, but it’s close enough that most of us should be happy with it. It has also been announced that the Moto Z and Moto Z Force will be getting security patches, which is a huge plus.

Now that I’ve praised Lenovo for making a well-performing phone with no software bloat, I’m going to rip Verizon for putting in so much crap you do not need on a brand new phone, let alone one of the flagship variety.

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When you first turn on the Moto Z or Moto Z Force, you’ll find the following apps pre-installed from Verizon:

  1. Amazon Kindle
  2. Audible
  3. Caller Name ID
  4. Cloud (Verizon backup app)
  5. Genies & Gems
  6. go90
  7. IMDB
  8. Juice Jam
  9. Message+
  10. My Verizon Mobile
  11. NFL Mobile
  12. Panda Pop
  13. Slacker Radio
  14. Slotomania
  15. Voice Mail
  16. VZ Navigator
  17. VZ Protect

Seventeen apps. You’ll probably use some of them. My Verizon is great for checking on your bill, so that gets a pass, and I personally like IMDB and NFL. Otherwise, I don’t want Panda Pop on my phone, Verizon. Some of it can be uninstalled, like the games, but other things like VZ Navigator (who in the world uses this over Google Maps?) have to be disabled, so they’re still taking up space. The phone has 32GB of internal storage — space isn’t a huge issue — but we still don’t need this much bloat on a phone, especially considering that doesn’t count all of the Google products and services mandatory on every device.

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Verizon rant aside, the software on this phone is not bad. It’s not mucked up and distorted, and if the phone actually gets timely software updates, it might as well be Verizon’s quasi-Nexus.

Camera

When I first started playing with the Moto Z Force camera, I took some really awful photos. Then I started to take some really great photos! That completely sums up my experience with the device — inconsistency front and center yet again.

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When the Moto Z takes a good picture, it’s phenomenal. Colors are bright and crisp, there’s a ton of detail, and, on the technical side of things, it focuses and snaps extremely quickly. Every once in a while, though, you’ll get one that’s just mush. Soft, blown-out colors that just completely drop the ball. That sounds bad, but I really, really liked the results from the Moto Z, and those occasional bad shots don’t bog down the entire experience. Plus, it means they’ll likely get ironed out in a software update pretty quickly.

The camera app is very minimal, too. There’s a timer button, a flash button, an HDR button, then a button to shoot video, a button to take a picture, and a button to switch between the front and rear cameras. That’s all. If you want to manually dig into the settings and start tweaking things, you’re going to need a third-party app to do it.

Outdoor shots turned out very well with both phones, with a slight lead lending itself to the Moto Z Force’s higher megapixel count.

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None of the images I captured were night and day from the other, so whichever phone you choose, you should be very happy with the camera. Colors tended to be cooler and little more realistic on the Z Force, and indoor shots were just slightly sharper.

Below you’ll see comparison shots with the first picture coming from the Moto Z followed by another from the Moto Z Force.

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z force camera sample outdoor wide

Indoor shots were surprisingly strong, too. This is the biggest pain point for most cameras, so it was nice to see both phones take indoor and indoor low light shots without any issues. The phones do have some low light compensation that also allows you to see the images with and without the touch-up. This helps indoor shots look significantly better at the cost of slightly slower shutter speeds.

Again, first picture is Moto Z, second picture is Moto Z Force.

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z force indoor camera sample

moto z camera sample low light

z force low light camera sample

Surprisingly, I had better results with just low light instead of lots of artificial light. Neither phone handled all of the artificial light well and tended to blow out colors.

Closing

The long and short of this review is that Lenovo has made an absolutely outstanding phone, but there are some serious caveats to the situation surrounding the phone. Lenovo has shown they aren’t the greatest with software updates, and paired with Verizon that just smells like a disaster. Google security patches help, but there’s no reason this phone shouldn’t be running Android 7.0 Nougat shortly after launch.

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Oh, and speaking of that, if you’re not on Verizon in the United States you can’t buy this phone. Lenovo revived Motorola’s old bad habit of making Verizon-exclusive devices, although they should be releasing an unlocked, GSM-only model later this year. That one won’t have all of the Verizon crap on it, fortunately. Still, it’s disappointing for a phone to come out ahead of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and the iPhone 7 only for it to be limited to Verizon customers. By the time the unlocked model is ready, all the steam will have dissipated and Samsung and Apple will have everyone’s attention.

The other unknown with the Moto Z is how well the Moto Mods take off. If they’re popular, affordable, and we start to see them regularly trickle out, they’re a killer feature on an already great device. If they flounder and support dries up, well, at that point you basically have a limited Nexus-like phone from Verizon with a few niche accessories that may or may not get proper attention through software updates.

The easy part for Lenovo was making this phone. It’s simple and hits nearly all the check boxes for a great phone. The hard part is going to be supporting the Moto Z and its accessories for more than three months. If Lenovo can do that, they’ve made a phone that’s very worth buying.

Buy it now: Motorola, Verizon


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid and an unhealthy obsession with fixing things that aren't broken. This accidentally led to being the go-to guy for anything more complicated than a toaster, which he considers more of a curse than a blessing. Jared is enrolled in online classes at the University of Phoenix, and spends his spare time on video games and listening to music.