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Motorola's modular future is mostly battery packs

Commentary: Moto's got a handful of Mods on the horizon, but there are too many charging solutions... and too few big ideas.

Josh Miller

During a full-day briefing of Motorola's product vision a week ago, I listened to a lot of talk about Mods. Motorola's clever snap-on accessory system is a dream of a superconnected phone future.

And yet, what I mostly saw were battery packs. Practicality aside, that's not going to get anyone to upgrade to a modular world.

Motorola might want to figure it out fast. Andy Rubin's Essential Phone is also betting on modular accessories, but with a totally different type of connection technology. Motorola's Z phones remain the only phones made by parent company Lenovo that have Moto Mod support. The number of new Moto Mods have dwindled since the Z and Z Force launched last summer.

Mods are a design exclusive to the Z line of Lenovo's Motorola phones, including the new Z2 Play, but the dream of mods is not unique to Motorola. The LG G5 and Google's Project Ara tried for modular and failed. Essential's success remains to be seen.

Ideally, a modular phone would mean a phone that could evolve over time, and maybe avoid the need for a full-phone upgrade. Last year, Motorola's snap-on accessories seemed wild and potentially exciting. Sure, there were a few battery packs and wireless charging adapters. But, Motorola also had a snap-on LED projector, and a kickstand speaker. Even a crazy zoom-lens Hasselblad camera attachment.

A year later, Motorola is bringing new mods to the second-gen Moto Z Play and last year's phones: these mods work across devices, after all. One or two ideas sound interesting. But that's not nearly enough.


Motorola's snap-in GamePad brings a full game controller to the Moto Z.


A game controller

A new Moto GamePad accessory is about as exciting as Mods get this year. At $80, it's a controller that a Moto Z phone can snap right into. But this idea isn't new. It has the same dual-stick and button layout that most Bluetooth game controllers already have, and cases like these have existed on the iPhone and a few Android phones for years. The only thing the Mod-attached version gains is an easier snap-on function. But, you don't need a modular phone for an accessory like this.


The newest JBL speaker is similar to last year's.

Josh Miller

Another speaker

The JBL SoundBoost 2 is the sequel to last year's SoundBoost, and... well, it's another speaker. The new $80 version seems like it'll be the better option, since it's now splashproof. But it's the same proposition: louder sound and a kickstand. Again, you don't need a specialized Mod-enabled phone to enjoy something like this. Plenty of Bluetooth speakers are out there to choose from.


Last year's Mod lineup. No more batteries, please.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Batteries galore

The rest of Motorola's lineup of mods was nearly all battery-based. A quick-charge battery pack. A smaller, thinner, less expensive battery pack. Another wireless charging adapter. Batteries already exist from Incipio and Mophie. And, weirdly, the new Moto Z2 Play is a phone blessed with really good battery life.

Motorola has its own program to encourage the development of more exciting mods, and so far, the results are a keyboard case, a light-up case, a solar battery pack and another wireless charging adapter. It's not even guaranteed that these will be made, though some might see release in the future. But it points out the biggest problem with mods: How many add-ons do we really need?

But how many batteries does anyone need? And wasn't the dream of modular accessories supposed to be better than this?

Motorola still claims that Mods are the "No. 1 driver" of purchase interest for the Z, but that excitement is built off possibilities.

And those possibilities have to extend well beyond batteries.