Moto Z2 Force review: A great phone, despite the mods. But it's no bargain

Motorola's flagship modular-accessory phone has lots of features, but phone season's just getting started.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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The Moto Z2 Force is a really good phone, and that has nothing to do with its mods.

moto-z2-force-31
8.0

Moto Z2 Force

The Good

The Moto Z2 Force is really thin, with a fast processor and great battery life. It can survive drops without shattering. The new dual rear cameras have some cool features we haven't seen before.

The Bad

It's a really high price for a phone that doesn't do anything terribly new or exciting. The modular accessories are sometimes fun, but generally not worth the hassle. There's also no headphone jack, and it's more splash-resistant than water-resistant.

The Bottom Line

Motorola's step-up sequel to the Moto Z2 has great features and solid design, but the competition in this price range is about to get fierce.

Thin? Check. Powerful? Check. Flexible? Check. Durable? Check.

The phone to beat? Hard to tell.

Motorola's newest premium phone, the Moto Z2 Force, arrives at a strange time. The biggest and best phones of the year are right around the corner, most likely: Samsung's Galaxy Note 8, the next iPhone (or, iPhones) and an expected Google Pixel 2.

Meet the drop-resistant Moto Z2 Force and its crazy mods

See all photos

Where does that leave the Z2 Force? The sequel to last year's Z and Z Force phones is thin with a sharp design and very good specs. In several significant ways -- processor, camera and display -- it's a step up from the excellent midrange Moto Z2 Play. And, it adds Motorola's shatter-resistant ShatterShield, a feature that used to be a Verizon exclusive on the older Z Force.

It's also compatible with Motorola's snap-on MotoMods, an idea that seemed bold last year but now feels like it's treading water, as the idea of modular phones has migrated to niche status on such specialty handsets as Essential and Red's Hydrogen.

Forget about the mods, just focus on the phone. The Moto Z2 Force is great. But it's no bargain. Starting at a whopping $730, it's a premium-priced phone, and it will get a lot of competition very soon. 

Do you wait? I would.

That shatter-resistant display doesn't mean scratch-resistant

"ShatterShield" sounds like "impact-proof," but really it means "won't break when you drop it accidentally from 4 or 5 feet." I dropped the Z2 Force a handful of times on concrete, face first. It survived, but it doesn't look pretty. The aluminum case got very dinged up, and some parts of the display were mega-scuffed. We did an even deeper drop-test: and the results lined up with my experience. That said, we would agree that the screen is effectively crack-proof under all but the most outlandish conditions.

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After a few drops, scratches were definitely present.

Josh Miller/CNET

Also, the Z2 Force lacks water resistance. Its nano-coating is meant to survive splashes, but it's not so dunk-friendly as many phones are now, including the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8.

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One camera's color, one monochrome. Using both allows depth effects.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dual cameras means new features

Two 12-megapixel cameras on the back are Motorola's first foray into dual cameras, joining the iPhone 7 Plus, LG G6, OnePlus 5 and others. A few new features come aboard with them. One of the two cameras is monochrome, one color. A truer black-and-white mode claims better black-and-white photos. Shots did look great, but I never had problems shooting black-and-white before with a filter. More impressive is the camera's mixing of black-and-white and color shots, but again, honestly, you could just use an app to the same effect.

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A photo of myself with the rear cam, using depth effect.

Scott Stein/CNET

A new depth mode mimics that popular bokeh-type effect, but the results I got ranged from acceptable to way too artificial.

Camera quality, in my time using it so far, seemed good, but not always great. I had some autofocus issues, and low light performance wasn't stellar. Extra controls over manual focus, white balance, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation help.

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Trying to transpose the background to a black and white shot of a cafe using Depth Editing didn't work out well.

Scott Stein/CNET

Also, an in-beta depth-editing mode allows some neat but rough-edged tricks. Depth-enabled photos can be re-edited for different in- or out-of-focus adjustments. You can also keep the foreground color and turn the background black and white, or vice versa. Or replace the background of a photo with something else, like on-the-fly Photoshop. My attempt to transpose myself to a nearby cafe backdrop looked pretty bad (the camera didn't resolve my outline well; see above).

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Manual controls aplenty.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Clean design, clean software

The Z2 Force feels thinner than most other phones. It's as thin as the iPhone 7, and its body is comfy to hold. I'm also a fan of the front fingerprint sensor, which has some swipe navigation functions, too. It can nearly replace the navigation buttons on Android displays. Not entirely, but nearly.

But the back of the Z2 Force still looks weird naked: the dual camera juts out of its circular housing, and exposed gold-coated pins for the MotoMods line the bottom of the phone's back like an exposed game cartridge from the '80s. Snapping on a back panel (not included, by the way) makes the phone look a lot more complete.

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The front fingerprint sensor doubles as a mini-navigator.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The clean look extends to Motorola's software, which keeps a pretty annoyance-free version of Android 7.1.1. Moto's own tools are really useful, from quick gesture and display shortcuts to a voice command called "Show Me" that bypasses having to say "Ok Google" for key assistant requests.

The front fingerprint sensor isn't technically a home button, but it does make quick work of unlocking the phone, putting it back to sleep, or navigating around a bit by swiping.

It's fast

With its Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, we got Geekbench 4 and Ice Storm Unlimited scores that fell into similar territory as the HTC U11 and OnePlus 5 -- and were a hair better than Samsung Galaxy S8. It's far faster than the Moto Z2 Play, on paper: 40,167 on 3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited, and 1,907 (single) and 6,472 (multi) on Geekbench 4.

The Quad HD OLED display also means it's compatible with Google Daydream for VR apps. It's a top-end speedy phone.

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Fast-charging USB-C power adapter works well, too.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Good battery life, even without a battery pack

Despite being thin, the Z2 Force lasted 16 hours and 42 minutes on a battery test, just 18 minutes less than the Moto Z2 Play. That's better than the 16-hour battery life of the Samsung Galaxy S8 on the same test. It's one of the best battery performances on a recent phone. And you could always add a MotoMod battery pack (of which there are many), if you wanted an extra boost.

I'm glad it doesn't need that boost, though, because it's bothersome that the Z2 Force did get thinner and reduce its overall battery capacity. That was part of the appeal of the phone a year ago, and now, by offloading that to separately-sold accessories, it also means tacking on extra money to your potential Moto Z2 Force purchase.

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Not enough pockets.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mods: Still not worth it, mostly

Motorola's investment in modular accessories remains experimental. I still don't find that I use them much. The newest Mod, a 360-degree camera, costs a whopping $300 on top of the cost of the phone. It's fun to use: I easily attached it and started recording some decent 360-degree photos and videos. Do I need it? Absolutely not. And there are non-mod 360-degree cameras you could buy instead of this.

Motorola's other Mods include a crazy mini-projector, a zooming camera lens, fashion-design back covers, an upcoming game controller, a kickstand speaker by JBL and a boatload of battery packs. They're sometimes fun, but I don't think I'd buy more than one as a novelty. And where would I keep all these mods, anyway? The projector mod is being given away for a limited time (through September 9) as a bonus, which is a nice freebie... but I'm still not sold on the future of modular phones. Not these types of mods, at least.

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Before we dropped it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's still a great phone, though

Add up the processor boost, battery life, compact size and decent camera quality, and the Moto Z2 Force is a great phone. But it's also expensive. At around $730, it's in premium territory. Samsung's next big phone, the Note 8, is around the corner. So is the next iPhone. And the next LG phone. And the next Google phone. When the dust settles, the Z2 Force could still be a great choice. But that's a big if. The less-expensive Z2 Play is probably the better bet, but the Z2 Force is the better phone.

Moto Z2 Force specs versus Galaxy S8, LG G6, HTC U11


Motorola Moto Z2 ForceSamsung Galaxy S8LG G6HTC U11
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 with ShatterShield5.8-inch; 2960x1440 pixels5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 534ppi570ppi565ppi534ppi
Dimensions (inches) 6.1x3x0.24 in.5.9x2.9x0.31 in.5.9x2.8x0.31 in.6.1x3x0.31 in.
Dimensions (millimeters) 156x76x6 mm148.9x68.1x8 mm148.9x71.97.x7.9 mm154x76x7.9 mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5 oz.; 143g5.5 oz.; 155g5.7 oz., 162g6 oz.; 169g
Mobile software Android 7.1.1 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.1.1 Nougat
Camera Dual 12-megapixel12-megapixel13-megapixel (standard), 13-megapixel (wide)12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 5-megapixel8-megapixel5-megapixel16-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K1080p
Processor 2.35GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)2.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPUOcta-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.4GHz+1.9GHz)
Storage 64GB, 128GB (varies)64GB32GB64GB, 128GB (varies by region)
RAM 4GB, 6GB (varies)4GB4GB4GB, 6GB (varies by region)
Expandable storage Up to 2TBUp to 2TBUp to 2TBUp to 2TB
Battery 2,730mAh3,000mAh3,300mAh3,000mAh
Fingerprint sensor Bottom of front faceBack coverBack coverHome button
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Special features Splash-resistant; Gigabit LTE-readyWater-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready18:9 aspect ratio; wireless charging (US only); water-resistant IP67, dual SIM (some regions)
Price off-contract (USD) $730-$810, depending on carrierAT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675AT&T: $720, Verizon: $672 T-Mobile: $650, Sprint: $708, US Cellular: $598$649
Price (GBP) Converts to about £615£689£649£679
Price (AUD) Converts to about AU$1,000AU$1,199AU$1,008$AU999
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8.0

Moto Z2 Force

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 9Camera 8Battery 9