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Motorola Moto Z4 review: The cheapest 5G phone you can buy but shouldn't

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The Moto Z4 costs $500 but its biggest problem is all of the other phones that you can get for that price. Currently there are four other options that are just as compelling including the Samsung Galaxy S10E, Google Pixel 3A XL, OnePlus 6T and the Moto Z3. Each of these phone offer a different value. We compare those for you here: Moto Z4 vs. Galaxy S10 E, Pixel 3A XL, OnePlus 6T: $500 phones.

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7.0

Motorola Moto Z4

The Good

The $500 Moto Z4 and the $349 5G Moto Mod make this the most affordable 5G phone besides last year's Moto Z3. The battery is an absolute monster.

The Bad

The phone's in-screen fingerprint reader rarely works on the first attempt. Moto Mods don't fit smoothly with the curved edges of the Z4.

The Bottom Line

As a budget phone, the Moto Z4 doesn't beat the similarly priced Pixel 3A XL or OnePlus 6T. So unless you're a 5G early adopter (which requires a $349 Mod), or you're already invested in Motorola's Moto Mod ecosystem, skip the Moto Z4.

Don't get me wrong, the Motorola Moto Z4 is a decent phone, but, it seems like it's having a bit of an identity crisis. In addition to being a midrange phone, it's modular and has 5G connectivity with Verizon's network -- a feature you'd usually see on a high-end phone like the Galaxy S10 5G or LG V50. And like how a pair of zip-off pants that turn into shorts are neither the best shorts nor pants, the Moto Z4's versatility is also what makes it less appealing. 

For starters, its price places it directly in competition with the $449 OnePlus 6T and the $479 Google Pixel 3A XL, the latter of which has one of the best cameras on any phone you can buy. The Moto Z4 can also transform into a 5G phone via a $349 5G Moto Mod accessory. That feature puts it squarely against the $1,299 Galaxy S10 5G and the $999 LG V50. Is the Moto Z4 better than the the Pixel 3A XL or Galaxy S10 5G? Unfortunately, no. Even with the 5G Mod, the Moto Z4 is a middle of the road phone that isn't anything more than just OK.

It's not that the Moto Z4 is "bad," per se. It's just that since the original Moto Z launched in 2016, phones with better cameras and higher-end processors, like the Pixel 3A and the OnePlus 6T, have been released and cost nearly the same price. The Moto Z4 feels like its goal was to be a cheap way to get people on Verizon's sapling-sized 5G network, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But for pretty much anything else, it's hard to recommend the Moto Z4 unless you're thoroughly invested in Motorola's Moto Mod ecosystem.

Moto Z4's 2016 design in a 2019 world

Without any Moto Mods attached, the Moto Z4 looks like the drawing a sketch artist would make if you described what a 2016 smartphone looked like. It has a glass back with a flat gray finish, a big camera bump and looks pretty bland. The screen is vibrant with good contrast, though sometimes hard to see in direct sunlight. In a nod to 2019 though, there's a notch and thin-ish bezels. But overall, it's vanilla ice cream in a Ben and Jerry's world.

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The Moto Z4's appeal is mainly utilitarian.

Juan Garzon / CNET

Mods fit securely but not flush with the sides of the phone. When I have the Moto 360 camera mod attached, for example, the edge of the Mod doesn't perfectly meet the curved sides of the phone and the union makes this annoying lip that rubs my hand literally the wrong way. This noticeable seam between the phone and the Mod makes the setup feel like an oversight by Motorola. Oh, and by the way, the Moto Z4 has full support for all of Motorola's existing Mods, which includes battery packs, a speaker, a projector and others. 

The Moto Z4 has all of the megapixels

The Moto Z4's rear camera gets a few upgrades over last year's Moto Z3. It has a 48-megapixel rear camera, which is one of the highest resolutions you can find on a phone and follows a trend of other upper-mid-tier phones including the OnePlus 7 Pro, which has a camera with the same resolution.

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The Moto Z4 nailed this photo of a cappuccino on an outdoor cafe table.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Overall, photos are solid for the price but won't wow you. In good light, the colors are accurate and bright, and the exposure is spot-on, especially when using HDR. Even in medium- to low-light conditions, photos are useable but start to suffer from softness in details like textures, fabrics and hair.

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This photo of Cheddar the cat was taken in medium-to-dark lighting indoors. Notice the image noise in the ceiling and the softness of the details in Cheddar's fur.

Patrick Holland/CNET

When things get particularly dark, there is a Night Vision mode that takes eight photos and combines them to reduce image noise and improve brightness. Night Vision made images brighter but often processed them too much. In the photo below, of a tree I took after sunset, there's a weird digital stippling effect over the clouds, and it's surrounded by patchy smears of noise reduction. I found Night Vision gave the best results in medium-to-low light like indoors.

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The Z4 uses 8 photos to improve photos taken in low-light. Here there is an odd mix of digital noise and smears of noise reduction.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Video from the Moto Z4 is nothing special. It can shoot 4K, but videos looked oversharpened and struggle from noise in low-light. Selfies are actually good as long as you have a nice amount of light.

The Moto Z4 adds a giant battery and in-screen fingerprint reader

Perhaps the most impressive feature on the Moto Z4 is the big honking battery on the inside. In our looped video tests in airplane mode, the battery lasted 19 hours and 21 minutes, which is nearly 5 hours longer than we got with last year's Moto Z3. And in actual use, even with the battery-sucking 360-camera Mod attached, the Moto Z4 got through two days on a single charge. Of course, if you want even more battery, for an additional $50 you can grab a Moto Power Pack mod, which Motorola claims adds another 16 hours of battery life.

Built into the display is a fingerprint sensor, similar to the one on the Huawei P30 Pro and OnePlus 7 Pro. Setting up the optical fingerprint reader was seamless, but over weeks of testing I found it unlocks on the first try only, say, two out of five times, and it unlocks on the second try nearly all the time. This could be user error, though I doubt it -- I honestly tried to place my finger flat and centered on the reader and not move.

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The Moto Z4 has an optical fingerprint reader built into the screen.

Sally Neiman/CNET

It turns out the fingerprint reader relies on machine learning and, in theory, the speed and reliability of unlocking will will improve over time. I'm going to continue to use the Moto Z4 and see if it does.

The Moto Z4 lacks wireless charging, but if you already own the Moto Style Shell with wireless charging, that won't be a problem. It also lacks IP-rated water resistance, though Motorola says the phone's nano-coating can withstand spills and rain. In a welcomed return, there's a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack along the bottom of the phone, which the previous Moto Z3 didn't have. 

Running Android 9 Pie on a Snapdragon 675 chipset 

I love Motorola's friendly and easy-to-use software, especially Moto Actions. These are thoughtful shortcuts that you can selectively enable, like One Button Nav(igation) and Flip for DND (Do Not Disturb mode). Motorola's near-stock take on Android is honestly one of favorite versions of the operating system out there, and the company promises to update the phone to Android Q in the future.

The Motorola Moto Z4 looks like the dark and stormy type

See all photos

The phone features a Snapdragon 675 processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. In daily use, the Moto Z4 launched apps quickly and handled videos as well as some games, like the graphics-rich Alto's Odyssey, just fine. In games like PUBG Mobile, the Moto Z4 got warm to hold (as most phones do), but for $80 you can buy a Moto Gamepad Mod that makes holding the phone more comfortable during gameplay. It adds joysticks, buttons and a D-pad, too.

During our performance testing, the Moto Z4 scored lower than last year's OnePlus 6T (which has a Snapdragon 845 processor) and split results with the Pixel 3A and 3A XL, even though the Pixel 3A phones have less powerful Snapdragon 670 processors. The Moto Z4's performance scored lower than last year's Moto Z3, which has a Snapdragon 835. Perhaps a more fair comparison is to the Moto Z3 Play, which the Moto Z4 beat handily.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Moto Z4 1,739Google Pixel 3A 2,533OnePlus 6T 6,590Moto Z3 5,050Moto Z3 Play 1,514
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Moto Z4 23,429Google Pixel 3A 27,084OnePlus 6T 64,993Moto Z3 41,712Moto Z3 Play 19,629
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

Moto Z4 2,312Google Pixel 3A 1,632OnePlus 6T 2,384Moto Z3 1,918Moto Z3 Play 1,319
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 multicore

Moto Z4 6,246Google Pixel 3A 5,199OnePlus 6T 8,853Moto Z3 6,600Moto Z3 Play 4,948
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

The Moto Z4 with 5G Moto Mod

Though I myself didn't test the Moto Z4's 5G connectivity with the 5G Moto Mod, my colleague Jessica Dolcourt got to test a Moto Z3 with the 5G mod this spring. She describes the experience as "kludgy at best."

"The 5G Moto Mod is thick and heavy," she wrote. You attach it magnetically and pins shuttle information and the data connection from the Mod, which has a Snapdragon 855 processor and a X50 modem that makes 5G possible, to the phone."

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Both the Moto Z3 and Z4 can be transformed into a Verizon 5G phone with the addition of a $349 mod.

Juan Garzon/CNET

Her biggest issue with the Moto Z3 and 5G mod setup was the horrible battery life. Since the Moto Z4 offers a bigger battery though, this might be less of an issue when using the 5G Mod.

For more of her thoughts on Motorola and 5G read her story Motorola's 5G phone may be a first, but a foldable Razr is a more important win.

The Moto Z4 vs. the competition

Moto Z4 vs. Galaxy S10E: The Moto Z4 and Galaxy S10E are two very different phones that by a twist of fate cost nearly the same -- at least for the time being. The Galaxy S10E is essentially a scaled down Galaxy S10 and includes a Snapdragon 855 processor, one of the best camera systems and wireless charging that can also be used to juice up accessories like wireless earbuds or a smartwatch. At its original price of $750, the Galaxy S10E was an incredible deal, even more so if you can snag one for $520.

At $500, the Moto Z4 lacks wireless charging and has a modest processor compared to the Galaxy S10E. On the other hand the Moto Z4 lasted 2 hours and 21 minutes longer in our looped video tests in airplane mode, has a larger screen and can be modded into a 5G phone with the addition of a 5G Moto Mod. Also, Motorola's friendly and easy-to-use software on the Z4 is a delight. The near-stock take on Android is honestly one of my favorite versions of the operating system out there.

Moto Z4 vs. Pixel 3A XL: If you're a camera nerd, the Pixel 3A XL has one of the best cameras on any phone today. The Moto Z4 lasted over 2 hours longer than the Pixel in our battery tests, despite having a lower-capacity battery. 

One more thing to consider is software updates. Google promises a minimum of 3 years of software updates for the Pixel 3A and 3A XL, and as a Google phone it'll be one of the first devices to get updates as they roll out. Motorola is committed to keeping phones up-to-date, but makes no promises for how long.

Moto Z4 vs. OnePlus 6T: Though it launched in November 2018, the OnePlus 6T still offers more flagship appeal than the Moto Z4. It has a better design, camera and faster performance. However the Moto Z4's battery lasted 2 hours and 18 minutes longer than the OnePlus in our tests. Still, if you have $50 more to spend in your budget, the OnePlus 6T is the way to go.

Moto Z4 vs. Moto Z3: Currently Motorola sells the Moto Z4 for $500 and the Moto Z3, which has a Snapdragon 835 processor and can use the 5G Moto Mod, for $480. The Moto Z4 has a much longer battery life, comes with twice the storage and newer cameras on the front and back.

Moto Z4 specs vs. Google Pixel 3A XL, OnePlus 6T, Moto Z3, Galaxy S10E


Motorola Moto Z4Google Pixel 3A XLOnePlus 6TMotorola Moto Z3Samsung Galaxy S10E
Display size, resolution 6.4-inch OLED; 2,340 x 1,080 pixels6.0-inch gOLED; 2,160 x 1,080 pixels6.41-inch AMOLED; 2,340 x 1,080 pixels6.0-inch OLED; 2,160 x 1,080 pixels5.8-inch AMOLED; 2,280x1,080-pixels
Pixel density 403ppi402ppi402ppi402ppi438ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.2 x 2.95 x 0.3 in6.3 x 3.0 x 0.3 in6.20 x 2.94 x 0.32 in6.16 x 3.01 x 0.27 in5.6 x 2.8 x 0.27 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 158 x 75 x 7.35 mm160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2 mm157.5 x 74.8 x 8.2 mm156.5 x 76.5 x 6.75 mm142 x 70 x 7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.82 oz; 165g5.89 oz; 167g6.5 oz; 185g5.5 oz; 156g5.3oz.; 150g
Mobile software Android 9.0Android 9.0Android 9 PieAndroid 8.1 OreoAndroid 9.0
Camera 48-megapixel12.2-megapixel16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto12-megapixel, 12-megapixel mono12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle)
Front-facing camera 25-megapixel8-megapixel16-megapixel8-megapixel10-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.0GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 6752.0GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdraon 6702.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 8452.35GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Storage 128GB64GB128GB, 256GB64GB128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB4GB6GB, 8GB4GB6GB, 8GB
Expandable storage YesNoNoYesYes
Battery 3,700mAh3,700mAh3,700 mAh3,000 mAh3,100mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-displayBackIn-displayOn the sidePower button
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack YesYesNoNoYes
Special features In-display fingerprint reader, Moto Actions, Moto ModsAR in Google Maps, Timelapse video shootingIn-display fingerprint sensor, dual-SIM, Dash Charging, notifications toggleCompatibility for Moto Mods, extra battery packWireless PowerShare; hole punch screen notch; water resistant (IP68); Fast Wireless Charging 2.0
Price off-contract (USD) $499$479$549 (8GB RAM/128GB), $599 (8GB RAM/256GB)$480$520

Originally published July 31. 3:30 a.m. PT.

Updates, July 31 at 5:45 p.m.: Lists the Moto Z4's pixel density at 403ppi; Aug. 14: Adds link to other $500 phones you should consider.

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7.0

Motorola Moto Z4

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 6Camera 7Battery 10