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Motorola's 5G phone may be a first, but a foldable Razr is a more important win

Motorola's next slam dunk phone might literally be around the bend.


The Moto Z3's Mod is what brings it 5G power.

Derek Poore/CNET

Motorola can boast about making the first commercial phone running on a live 5G network, but I'd bet money that its rumored foldable update to the iconic Razr phone will leave the most lasting mark. Both are key devices in 2019's mobile story, a landscape that's in the midst of tremendous evolution. 

5G is the next-generation data network poised to bring us tremendous speeds and open up a world of activities that haven't before been possible on our phones. Foldable devices such as the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X seek to deliver a larger screen in a much smaller package, with displays that actually fold on themselves without leaving an unsightly border between two separate screens. And yes, 5G and foldable phones can (and will) intersect. 

So Motorola technically has two potential wins on its hands: There's the Moto Z3 with its separate 5G Moto Mod that's a real, affordable phone you can buy for a real 5G network. And then there's the revamped Motorola Razr, which is surrounded by a cloud of rumor and speculation

Now playing: Watch this: Can Motorola's Razr top Galaxy Fold by going smaller?

Unfortunately, it's the foldable phone, not the 5G first, that will revel in all the attention. I would know because the Moto Z3, 5G Mod and I were inseparable for six hours last week as I tested Verizon's newborn 5G network in downtown Chicago. Throughout the day, the Moto Z3 and Mod hitched a ride in my purse, or protruded from my coat pocket, its thick "fin" a beacon drawing down the 5G signal from above. 

Although it worked, the Moto Mod's cumbersome magnetic attachment isn't the way you want to use 5G. Nobody's publicly seen the rumored foldable Razr design, which is said to fold into a petite body, but it already sounds like a more cohesive design.

Foldable Motorola Razr could make a big impression 

Unlike tablet-size foldable devices that you can origami into a smaller package, the design schematics we've seen for the foldable Razr appear to be much simpler. 

This looks like a tall, narrow flip phone of yore-- like the original Motorola Razr from 2004, in fact -- that folds and unfolds without separating the screen into two pieces. It's expected there will be a display on the outside as well as the larger internal screen.


A concept design for the foldable Motorola Razr.

Waqar Khan/YouTube

The leaks we've seen so far suggest that Motorola is also giving the foldable design a refresh for 2019. Rumors point to that exterior screen doubling as a track pad, and suggest that Google Assistant will play a big role, even possibly invoking the software sidekick when the phone's closed.

Since the interior screen could actually be about the same size as your current phone's display -- under 7 or 8 inches, at least -- using Android could also be much simpler than on the Galaxy Fold or Mate X, designs that have prompted Google to tinker with Android Pie so it will seamlessly switch between screens and support up to three different apps at once.

If the larger, more complicated foldables wind up having teething pains, the foldable Moto Razr could get the upper edge. The same, too, goes for price. Smaller foldable phones are expected to command more modest sums. When you're looking at $2,000 and above on the high end, cheaper foldables may be far easier to swallow. 

Read: Forget the Galaxy Fold and Mate X: Motorola's new Razr could be the foldable phone to beat

Now playing: Watch this: We tested Verizon's new 5G network

The Moto Z3 is here, but not the best way to do 5G 

Let's get one thing straight. I was able to see fast speeds with the 5G Moto Mod when I stood directly beneath Verizon's 5G node in downtown Chicago, where I tested the carrier's day-old 5G network.

"We've seen reports with some really good speeds and certainly we've seen good speeds in our user trials as well," said Doug Michau, Motorola's head of product operations for North America when we spoke over the phone. Her's right. This Moto Z3 was able to pull down blazing-fast speeds upward of 600Mbps in my tests.

ReadVerizon defends its 5G network's rocky start, throws shade at AT&T and T-Mobile

 "We still believe that the Mod is the best platform," Michau said. 


See how the "fin" pops up over the phone edge? Not very svelte.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Here's where I disagree. Although the getup works, it's kludgy at best. The 5G Moto Mod is thick and heavy. You attach it magnetically and pins shuffle 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.

The 5G Mod is also unnecessary. 5G modems that connect to the network can already go into phones, in a much more seamless way that doesn't create inconvenient bulk. Take, for example, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and a host of other 5G phones. Not a single Mod in sight.

That's not how Moto sees it. For the phone-maker, the 5G Moto Mod was a smart opportunity to partner once again with Verizon, the largest US carrier. Because what good is a new 5G network if there's no phone to use it? It's a fair point, and yet...


You can see the oblong infrared sensor just to the right of the camera array.

Derek Poore/CNET

The 5G Moto Mod's fatal flaw: Its battery

As bulky as the Moto Mod is, it did feel securely attached to the Moto Z3, which is a perfectly serviceable midrange handset in its own right. 

The Achilles' heel I accidentally and unwittingly discovered came at the end of a long day of testing. I had just arrived at a 5G node blocks away from the historic Chicago Theater, but whatever I tried, I couldn't get any signal: cycling airplane mode multiple times, reattaching the Mod, even rebooting the phone.

It wasn't until I got back to my hotel that I realized the Moto Mod was out of juice. Michau confirmed that the 5G Mod, which comes with its own 2,000mAh battery, won't charge your phone or accept charge from it. It has its own USB-C charging port, and, apart from sharing signal, operates independently from the Moto Z3.

This limitation makes a certain amount of sense. If your Moto Mod battery dies before your Moto Z3, you can still use the phone on 4G, but then you're carting around some hefty dead weight. Michau says the intent is for the Mod's battery to last all day, though streaming over 5G all day will take a battery toll.

That wouldn't be so bad if there had been a better way to clearly see the Moto Mod's battery meter right on the phone screen. The alert you get in your notification stream can easily get lost.

I will give Motorola kudos for a clever design element that places four infrared sensors near four antennas. If your finger covers one, a different antenna will pick up the signal.


With its own battery source, the Moto Mod is quite the hefty attachment.

Derek Poore/CNET

Saving grace: Affordable 5G today

If the Z3 and Moto Mod have one redeeming quality, it's the price. 

Although you're buying two devices instead of one, the total overall cost of ownership will come in at lower than a flagship phone, like the Galaxy S10 5G. Although Samsung hasn't announced pricing for its 5G model, it's more advanced than the S10 Plus, which costs $1,000 and uses 4G.

Meanwhile, the Moto Z3 is on sale for $240 (down from $480), while the 5G Moto Mod is discounted at $200 (usually $350). So, not counting the $10 monthly surplus for Verizon's 5G network, the total "phone" cost is $440. 

Even the full retail cost, $830, is likely to come in at least $300 under the premium Galaxy S10 5G. However, I have a feeling the Moto Z3's prices will remain lower rather than higher. 

Now playing: Watch this: So retro: Designing the original Motorola Razr

But buying a 5G phone now isn't very practical. Network roll-out will take time and only work in select neighborhoods for now. The Qualcomm chip is already outdated. Last month, Qualcomm announced a slimmer chip that will make phones slimmer as well. It's unlikely the Mod will make the cut. 

For me, the Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod is an empty "win" that will quickly become overshadowed by other 5G phones that enter the market, even more affordable ones.  

Assuming the rumors are true, that's Motorola's best real opportunity to make a name for itself -- at any speed. 

Originally published April 7 at 4 a.m. PT.