Motorola Moto Z review:

A 'modular' phone that just clicks

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CNET Editors' Rating

2 user reviews

The Good The Motorola Moto Z is thin, fast and (literally) snappy. Those magnetic Mods accessories are practical and easy to use.

The Bad The phone looks naked without the Mods, and its fingerprint reader can be easily mistaken for a home button.

The Bottom Line Ambitious, quirky and ultimately useful, the Motorola Moto Z is the most polished and customizable modular phone yet.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Camera 7.0
  • Battery 8.0

Fall 2016 update

Upon its debut in July, Motorola's premium Moto Z made waves with its magnetic snap-on accessories. Unlike the LG G5, which featured swappable components but fell short on execution, the Moto Z's modularity offered coherence and ease of use.

With the Moto Z Play released in September, Motorola trims down the hardware but beefs up the battery, retains the modularity and lowers the price. Affordable, reliable and resilient, the Z Play is an excellent midrange phone -- even without the quirky Mods. It's available in the US on Verizon for $408; the unlocked GMS version will become available globally in October for $450 (or £347 and AU$590, converted). Though it doesn't have all of the bells and whistles of the original Z or Z Force, the Z Play embodies most of the best virtues of the Z series -- and includes an increasingly rare 3.5mm headphone jack -- without breaking the bank.

moto-z-play-9364-008.jpg
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The Moto Z Play and Hasselblad True Zoom snap-on camera module.

Josh Miller

Editors' note: The original Motorola Moto Z review, published in July 2016, and updated since, follows.

With the Moto Z (or Moto Z Droid Edition as it's called by US carrier Verizon), customization isn't about what your phone looks like. It's about what it does. Snap-on "Moto Mods" give your phone a meatier battery, turn it into a boombox for your weekend cookout and transform it into a video projector for an impromptu movie night.

These Mods aren't perfect. They add a layer of bulk when they snap onto the phone's back and you'll need to cough up extra dough to buy them. But Motorola's whole magnetic take on the modular ecosystem is simpler and more approachable than Google's intricate (and still developing) Project Ara. It's also easier to use than LG's clunky G5, which forces you to remove the battery, thereby turning off the phone, if you want to swap parts.

On top of that, the phone ain't cheap. Motorola hasn't said how much the Z costs worldwide, but it will sell with US carrier Verizon for $624. International prices aren't available yet, but convert to about £475 or AU$835.

On the whole, the Moto Z is a reliable and powerful device that can stand up to most of the top-of-the-line phones -- and that's even if you strip away the compelling modular factor. But you wouldn't do that, would you, because those modules are half the fun.

If you're not interested in snapping on an extra battery, or case, or speaker, then skip the Moto Z and buy something else. But if you can't wait to be on the cutting edge of smartphone design, the Z here is actually useful while still being different and cool. (If you're from the US, you could also check out the Moto Z's meatier counterpart, the Moto Z Force Droid Edition, but in truth I like the Moto Z better.)

Moto Mods: Useful, easy and brimming with potential

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Without a doubt, the Moto Z's biggest draw is its Moto Mods, hot-swappable accessories that can decorate the back or, better yet, add extra functionality -- such as a battery pack or audio speaker.

Motorola's take is polished and well-executed because attaching the Mods is as easy as lining up magnetic parts -- science does the rest. You can change Mods in seconds and won't have to power off the phone to do so. There's a decent variety of starter Mods, and Motorola's parent company Lenovo says it's lining up more partners.

Companies such as Incipio, Tumi and Kate Spade make battery packs that can wirelessly charge the phone while also extending battery life. JBL's snap-on speaker rests on a kickstand while it cranks out tunes louder than the phone's built-in speaker. Perhaps the quirkiest Mod, however, is from Motorola itself: the Insta-Share Projector beams images, videos and the Moto Z's display onto any surface. Check out Moto Mods pricing and availability here.

By and large, the Mods stay put when you snap them on. Slimmer "Style Shells" (think of this as a customized back plate) hugged the Moto Z when we dropped it from every angle onto carpet. The bulkier speakers sometimes popped off at the end of a 4-foot drop (which we expected), but otherwise, you'll pull them off when you want to.

Design: Thin, but awkward when bare

The Moto Z is a thin phone, but sturdy and well built. But the more I admire its svelte design, the more awkward it looks without any accessories. The camera bulges out brazenly, the magnetic pins on the back cry out for a mate, and the phone's sharp sides dig into my hand. A backplate, however, can round out the rough edges.

And then there's the no-headphone jack thing. Instead, there is just the USB-C port and a headphone jack adaptor dongle, which makes wired headphones work. But you won't be able to charge the phone while listening to music this way, and if you lose the adaptor, you're toast. The industry seems to be going this way, but it's still annoying if you don't have any Bluetooth headphones.

Still, the Moto Z's most maddening detail is the bulbous fingerprint reader on the front. It looks like a home button, but does nothing other than read your fingerprint. You know how many times I pressed it instinctively expecting it to take me to the home screen? A lot. If Motorola can't turn it into a home button, it should move it to the power/lock button or the back.

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