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Motorola Moto Z review: A 'modular' phone that just clicks

Halfway between Google's ambitious Project Ara and LG's clunky G5 emerges a modular phone with an approach we can get behind.

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Lynn La
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Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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7 min read

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.

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8.3

Motorola Moto Z

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.

Fall 2016 update

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.

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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.)

Motorola's Moto Z and Z Force: Customization done right

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Moto Mods: Useful, easy and brimming with potential

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Watch this: Moto Mods transform your Moto in crazy ways
Moto Mods transform your Moto in crazy ways
1:18

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.

Morph your Moto phone with Mod accessories

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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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Without a Mod, the camera's bulge is too big to ignore.

Josh Miller/CNET

Software: Nothing we haven't seen before

The handset runs Google Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. You'll still get the usual lineup of Google apps, deeper integration with Google's digital assistant known as Now on Tap, a battery saving mode called Doze and Android Pay. We don't know the timeline for an update to Android Nougat, so you'll have to wait for Google's savvier assistant and multiple windows.

Motorola does include some of its signature software features too, like twisting your wrist to launch the camera and a wave gesture to show your missed notifications, even when the device is sleeping.

If you're getting Verizon's "Moto Z Droid Edition," know that it's capable of HD voice calling and Wi-Fi calling. But be prepared to get a few preloaded, uninstallable apps from Verizon too.

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Motorola keeps the interface close to pure Android, with a few extra goodies thrown in.

Josh Miller/CNET

Camera: Decent but not mind-blowing

The handset's 13-megapixel shooter focuses quickly, has a fast shutter and in general, takes good photos. But I did run into trouble with its white balance -- there were a few times when the camera just couldn't get it right, turning some light sources yellow or bright blue. Photos also looked blurry around the edges and I could see some details lost around this area. For more about photo quality, check out the images below and click on them to view them at their full resolution.

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In this image, you can see how the book titles near the edges of the photo become blurrier.

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For this indoor setting, an unappealing blue tint appears around the windows.

Lynn La/CNET
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In this well-lit outdoor photo, you can see the detailing in the grass isn't very sharp.

Lynn La/CNET

Notable camera features include auto HDR, the ability to switch between cameras with a flick of your wrist, 4K and slow motion video, and a Professional mode that lets you adjust things like ISO levels, the focus meter and white balance (which you'll probably need to tweak given the hiccups I encountered). The front-facing camera also has its own flash to brighten up your dimly lit selfies.

Processor: No stuttering here

In normal everyday use, the device's 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 820 processor works smoothly and swiftly. The camera launches quickly whenever I flick my wrist, I can swipe fluidly from one home page to another and my fingerprint unlocks the phone almost immediately.

Both the Moto Z and Z Force fared well against other flagships in benchmark scores too, beating the Samsung Galaxy S7 and G5. The Z Force also came out on top with 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test against the OnePlus 3. Save for that one benchmark, however, the OnePlus 3 remained the overall winner, beating out both devices on all the other tests.

Motorola Moto Z Benchmark Scores

Motorola Moto Z 2379 5563 29675Motorola Moto Z Force 2396 5603 30468Samsung Galaxy S7 2323 5429 29031LG G5 2313 5345 27758OnePlus 3 2407 5640 30337
  • Geekbench 3 Single-Core
  • Geekbench 3 Multi-Core
  • 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Battery

I was able to get through a complete workday using the the Moto Z without needing to charge the battery, using it to take photos, surf the internet and play games. The phone also comes with a 15-watt TurboCharger. After 30 minutes the battery charged from flat to 54 percent and after 1 hour 10 minutes it was fully charged.

During our lab test for continuous video playback on Airplane mode, the device lasted 12 hours 27 minutes. As a comparison, the Moto Z Force, which has a 3,500 mAh battery, clocked in at 16 hours 32 minutes. The G5's removable 2,800 mAh battery endured slightly better, at 12 hours 34 minutes, and the OnePlus 3 lasted about 14 hours with its 3,000 mAh battery. The Galaxy S7, which also has a 3,000 mAh battery, had a 16-hour runtime.

Motorola Moto Z Spec Comparison Chart


Motorola Moto Z (aka: Moto Z Droid Edition)Motorola Moto Z Force Droid Edition (US only)Samsung Galaxy S7LG G5
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.1-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.3-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 535 ppi535 ppi576 ppi554 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.11x2.96x0.2 in6.14x2.98x0.28 in5.6x2.7x0.3 in5.88x2.9x0.3 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 155.3x75.3x5.19 mm155.9x75.8x6.99 mm142.4x69.6x7.9 mm149.4x73.9x7.7 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 4.79 oz; 136 g5.75 oz; 163 g5.4 oz; 152 g5.61 oz; 159 g
Mobile software Android 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow
Camera 13-megapixel21-megapixel12-megapixel16-megapixel, 8-megapixel wide
Front-facing camera 5-megapixel5-megapixel5-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapgradon 820 processor2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
Storage 32GB, 64GB32GB, 64GB32GB, 64GB (varies by region)32GB
RAM 4GB4GB4GB4GB
Expandable storage 2TB2TB200GB2TB
Battery 2,600mAh (nonremovable)3,500mAh (nonremovable)3,000mAh (nonremovable)2,800mAh (removable)
Fingerprint sensor Below screenBelow screenHome buttonBack cover
Connector USB-CUSB-CMicro-USBUSB-C
Special features Magnetic Moto Mod snap-on accessories; no headphone port; front-facing camera flashMagnetic Moto Mod snap-on accessories; no headphone port; front-facing camera flashWater-resistantPull-out battery; attachable accessories; two rear cameras
Price off-contract (USD) Verizon: $624Verizon: $720AT&T: $695, Sprint: $650, T-Mobile: $670, Verizon: $672, US Cellular: $672AT&T: $689, Sprint: $576, T-Mobile: $630, Verizon: $624, US Cellular: $636
Price (GBP) N/AN/A£569£539
Price (AUD) N/AN/AAU$1,149AU$1,099

Z is just the beginning

With Apple and Samsung dominating the phone market, it's difficult for any company to gain a foothold. Thanks in particular to its easy augmentation with Mods, the Motorola Moto Z can genuinely offer something new.

Without the Mods, the Moto Z is a good, if pricey, Android phone that has the same powerful specs and performance as other top-tier rivals for about the same cost. Still, the effortless Mods are the stars of the show, and you wouldn't really want the Moto Z without them.

The big question is if the Mods will take off enough to keep things interesting for Moto Z and Moto Z Force owners down the line. As far as our modular phone future goes, the Moto Z is an exciting step in the right direction. (Sorry, LG.) Buy the Moto Z and a Mod or two if you want to be part of that future today; but as a standalone handset, we think the OnePlus 3 or Samsung Galaxy S7 are better as a one-and-one phone.

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8.3

Motorola Moto Z

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Camera 7Battery 8