Moto Z2 Force Mini Review: A Surprisingly Refreshing Experience that Requires an Expensive Commitment to Moto Mods
Lenovo has a lot on the line with its 2017 offerings, and the flagship Moto Z2 Force may be the most important of them all. It’s not only their premium smartphone, but it also inherits the Moto Mods strategy that Motorola began last year, and all the constraints that come with it.
Before we take a deeper look, here’s a bit of a background. Thirteen years ago I got my first cell phone, and I wanted something reliable, and from a brand I trusted — so I got a Motorola V265 flip phone. Nine years ago I got my first smartphone. I wanted something reliable, and from a brand I trusted — I bought a Motorola Q9 running Windows Mobile. Nearly eight years ago I got my first Android phone. It was reliable and from a brand I trusted once again – I went for the Motorola Droid… this was also my last primary phone from Motorola.
It isn’t a stretch to say that Motorola is a core reason Android is what it is today, or at least why it got here so quickly. Their devices were built off a trusted legacy and helped propel Android forward, but somewhere along the way they got a bit lost. It could have been due to its multiple sales, first to Google and then to Lenovo. It could be due to the increasing saturation produced by their expanding lineup, or Lenovo’s insistent desire to mess with their naming scheme — which is back to Motorola for the time being. However, Motorola’s downturn started before all of that though, looking back to the days of the Atrix and Photon — a device supported so poorly by Motorola they ran a rebate program to help users upgrade. Despite all of this, we land today with the Motorola Moto Z2 Force, this year’s flagship from the long lived brand and one of the most controversial phones Motorola has ever produced. Here is our hands-on mini review of the Motorola Z2 Force.
First we need to get the bad out of the way, because I feel that to really enjoy the Z2 Force you have to accept its faults ahead of time, and there are plenty of them. Over the weekend I wrote about the Z2’s display, and while we need the kernel sources to confirm our findings, all indications point to the Moto Z2’s display featuring Jelly Scrolling much like the OnePlus 5’s display. Interestingly this was also present but hardly reported on with the Moto Z and Moto Droid Turbo and predate the OnePlus situation. While some will never notice the issue, it is present and it is a problem that we really shouldn’t have to be dealing with; however it is also a problem that blends into the background with time and can be mostly overlooked. I admittedly gave the OnePlus 5 a lot of flack for its “jelly” scrolling, but like many users of the phone can attest, the effect isn’t noticeable after a few days despite it still being present. Secondly, thanks to the Shattershield technology, the display is also softer than most and absorbing long lasting marks on the display in short order. Mine already has a number of noticeable markings, but that could also be from showing off the display strength over repeated 4ft drops onto tile, carpet… it elicits some hilarious reactions though, and is totally worth it for the comedic effect as well. If you want to use a Moto Z2 Force for long without needing to replace the display, you need to consider a screen protector (further adding to the phone’s costs). Thirdly, the battery is too small, at least on paper – specially when the phone’s predecessor packed one of the largest batteries of 2016. I specify “on paper” though because while it is a measly 2,730mah, it is also paired with the highly efficient Snapdragon 835 and low-power DDR4 RAM that combined have led to some deceptively long lasting devices. No, you’re not going to get 7hrs of screen on time with this phone, but I’ll discuss more about this later on. Finally, it doesn’t have a headphone jack. This is something that, sadly, we need to get used to as more and more OEM’s will join the trend over the next 12 months. While the 3.5mm jack may see a renaissance after some time much like the SD card has, it’s just something we have to deal with on the Z2 Force and many other 2017 flagships.
So now onto the device. The Moto Z2 Force is one of the few mainstream flagship devices that ships without glass on both sides of the phone, after all it wouldn’t make much sense to offer a shatterproof front while the back turns to a piece of modern art with a single drop. Some have pointed to the Moto Z2’s design as outdated and that argument is two-fold. Firstly from the front, the phone still houses the old 16:9 display with large top and bottom bezels. While it would have been nice to see an 18:9 display, it seems that few outside of the top tier and those with their own display manufacturing abilities will do so in 2017. The second side to that argument is that the back of the phone is identical to last year’s layout and is not something that appeals to every buyer, however this is a function over form choice to allow 2016 Moto Mods to support these new phones, something we will touch on later. Moving around the outside, the bottom has only the USB-C port which, aside from the missing 3.5mm port, is an oddity since so many phones use this area for a speaker and microphone. The left side is totally barren, the top houses a microphone and SIM/SD card tray, and the right side houses the buttons. Out of everything on the exterior of this phone, these tiny poorly placed chicklet keys are probably my most hated feature. They are far too small and located ⅔’s up the side of the phone; however, they are all metal and offer a solid click when pressing them so at least they have that going for them.
The face of the phone has a bottom mounted fingerprint sensor and microphone, front firing speaker through the earpiece, a front firing flash, and a Moto logo. The earpiece/speaker arrangement is something I personally love. All too often while I am holding a phone I end up covering a bottom mounted speaker with my finger and Motorola’s placement completely fixes this issue for me. This is something that bothers me on my U11 despite it having two speakers and can only be fixed by forward firing units. This doesn’t mean the speaker is great, it just points in the proper direction and is hard to cover unintentionally. The fingerprint sensor ditches the terrible boxy look and trim from last year for a more subtle look and feel, but it is not a single glass unit like the OnePlus 5 has. It also feels like it is covered with plastic and quickly becomes a smudgy mess, but it does not seem to affect its accuracy which is excellent. Around back is where things are interesting. The Z2, like last year’s Z lineup, has a totally flat back with a massive camera bump and pogo pins near the bottom, not unlike the pogo pins on the Galaxy Nexus, except these actually do something. My T-Mobile unit is also a special lunar grey with silver accents, and where I typically prefer black phones, this thing is sexy with the back looking like a piece of brushed stainless steel — it’s a total eyecatcher. The Z2 Force is also outrageously thin and light coming in at 6.1mm and 143g. While I understand the arguments for thicker phones with bigger batteries that in turn increases weight, I actually am finding myself preferring the route Motorola has gone here (which doesn’t mean I am universally in favor of thinner phones) in part because of the longevity additional battery mods can provide.
I don’t notice the Z2 in my pocket thanks to its size and it doesn’t cause finger fatigue due to its weight after long time periods. The flat and somewhat grippy back fits into your hand comfortably and thanks to it not being glass and heavy like my U11, it does not take random solo trips down the couch, off the bed, or out of my hand. When showing the Z2 Force to friends and coworkers one of the first things they have all mentioned is how great it feels in the hand thanks to its thinness and weight, with many commenting that this is a phone they would use caseless. As any proper 2017 flagship should, it comes with the Snapdragon 835 and the US model has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of UFS 2.1 internal storage. Oddly though, the phone is shipping with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage elsewhere. While the additional RAM is nice it really isn’t needed on this phone for general usage as my device typically sits around 75% usage as most stock Android phones do, but more RAM is always welcomed. If I were to make any changes to the exterior of the Z2 Force it would be an 18:9 display, better power and volume keys, and IP68 water resistance unlike the basic splash resistance it currently has. As I mentioned earlier, this is a phone of concessions. For the thinness and lightweight feel you trade battery capacity. For a totally new edgy design, you get Moto Mods. For a nearly indestructible screen, you have to deal with a soft top layer. Ultimately, it will come down to each person to weigh these concessions against their needs and wants. All things summed up, the Z2 Force is comfortable, familiar, powerful, and easy; everything a smartphone should be.
Motorola software has stood out for the past few years because of two things — a close to stock Android snappy experience, and terrible updates. Both still seem applicable as my unit is still on the June Android 7.1.1 Security patch and the performance is near impeccable as this phone flies. I thought my U11 was snappy but the Z2 Force is on another level, near OnePlus and Pixel levels of fluidity and responsiveness. This is likely due to the fact that Motorola does not replace many core functions with their own, and it does not change their ROM up for change’s sake. Despite appearing as being close to Android, the HTC U11 has its own highly skinned settings menu and a slew of HTC applications like the dialer, email, calculator, lockscreen, and so-on, and in most cases these are worse than what Google offers stock. However, on the Z2 the quick settings panel, dialer, lockscreen, and settings menu are all what you would expect from a Stock Android phone. This doesn’t mean that Motorola forgoes any modifications at all, but instead puts them all into an application simply called Moto. Here you can control your standard array of Motorola improvements like the twist to open the camera, flip for DND, Moto Display, and others. A new addition to the Z line is the One Button Nav, which drops the onscreen navbar for a series of gestures controlled via the fingerprint sensor (similar to what we saw earlier on the Moto G5). Tapping the sensor works as a home button, swiping in either direction triggers back or the recents menu, a short hold turns off the display and a long hold activates Google Assistant. Generally speaking I really like this, it cleans up the chin of the device allowing me to hold it there by my thumb without worrying about hitting my recents or back button, but in practice it is clumsy often times going home instead of back, or home instead of the recents screen.
This doesn’t stop me from using this functionality as I like my screen real estate, and my guess is that Motorola will provide updates to improve this feature, if it delivers updates at all. That unfortunate statement brings us to likely one of the worst aspects of Motorola phones, the lack of updates. Motorola have been notorious for being terribly slow in releasing major software revisions, and they also do not commit to monthly security patches, instead opting for semi-regular or quarterly updates. I have written about this before, and while pushing major software updates can be overlooked for a bit, there is simply no reason to not provide timely security patches, especially when brands like Nokia are promising same day updates. Fortunately though, Lenovo just recently announced that they were ditching their homegrown skin in lieu of what Motorola has had for a while now and one could only hope this leads to faster updates, but don’t get your hopes up. Thankfully though, Motorola has also had a habit of maintaining their speed and fluidity after months of usage which is welcomed in a world where LG and Samsung phones quickly lose their edge.
One of the most important aspects of a smartphone for me is the camera. Judging by the amount of focus OEMs put towards this aspect of a device I think many other users feel the same way. The Z2’s camera, at least in some situations, does not hold up its $700 weight in comparison to other flagships on the market — despite having two of them. So let’s start with the good things. Following the current trend of flagships, the Moto Z2 Force comes with a new dual camera array that is setup in an RGB/BW sensor configuration. This is similar to what Huawei has been doing where they use the data obtained from the monochrome sensor, which has increased contrast and better dynamic range due to the lack of a color filter, to add extra data to the finished image. This causes images to have an almost unreal feel to them. To get the full effect of how this setup works, you can take a picture where there are objects hidden in shadows but the overall exposure is bright, such as a photo beneath trees. The dual sensor setup delivers an almost unworldly over-sharpened look without the downsides of post processing the photo. Bright, sunny photos are sharp with extreme contrast right to the finite edge and it’s just beautiful. Nearly all of my favorite photos on a smartphone have been taken on a device using this dual sensor configuration.
Unfortunately though – and this is something I have noticed on Huawei devices and now the Z2 – this does not transfer to anything other than bright lighting conditions. In medium lighting, such as the inside of a home, the phone has a tendency to soften images and the lack of OIS can cause noticeable blur. As you continue to move towards less and less light the effect gets worse and worse and plain disappointing, again for a flagship. You can get a good low light shot, but they are hit or miss and almost never have a moving object. I think this can directly be attributed to Motorola foregoing OIS on the Z2. They aren’t the only manufacturer leaving out OIS, but they also do not have the processing prowess of a company like Google and ultimately it negatively affects photos. The black and white sensor also allows for some depth of field shots, but my experience has been very poor with this setting. The photo shows my object in focus while shooting, but the end result is a muddy unfocused picture. This could be caused by a faulty unit though and I’ll likely try and get it replaced if that’s the case.
Video is very nice though — at least for a phone. I was pleasantly surprised with the EIS in 1080p30 and in 1080p60, but 4K seems to disable the EIS. Overall the image quality is nice for both photos and videos, but it tends to blow out reds to the point of clipping and can oversaturate the greens. Unfortunately this is a trend common with smartphone cameras, Motorola just took it a little too far and needs to dial it back a bit, or at least let the user do so. Personally though, I am not the biggest fan of video out of smartphones. While photos have taken a great leap in recent years video is still trying to catch up outside of a few standouts like the LG V series. As such I just don’t end up nitpicking smartphone video as much as I do photos, and unless something is really messed up, most phones produce acceptable video — the Z2 Force falls firmly into this category.
In other camera related things, there are a few items Motorola needs to fine tune. For starters, and something that drove me nuts, is that you physically cannot access the camera settings from the phone in landscape in any mode. In order to change the resolution or any other setting but HDR, Flash, and Timer, you must rotate to portrait. I hope this is just a bug and not something they actually decided to do because it is a very poor design. The camera is also slow, annoyingly so when compared to other phones on the market. It’s slow to open and the shutter is slow once you try and capture your shot. If I open my U11 camera and Z2 camera at the same time, my U11 is opened and focused before the Z2 even displays the viewfinder.
When all is said and done with the Moto Z2 Force camera experience, we are left with an adequate shooter that has a lot of headroom for improvements. I think many of my issues can be fixed with software updates and in the past Motorola has made significant improvements with its devices post-launch, so the hopes are high they will fix some of these. The Z2 force is decidedly mid pack among other flagships, and possibly even a generation behind the leaders like HTC and Google with its camera. However, this is largely being nitpicky and the camera is still good. Being midpack amongst the HTC U11, Google Pixel, and Galaxy S8 is not a terrible place to be in. I think that generally people will be happy with its results, especially if you have never used an HTC U11 or Google Pixel.
Unspectacular Battery Life
As I mentioned in the onset, the battery capacity is one of the most controversial items with the phone and I will honestly say it, the Z2’s battery will last you a day of normal use, and quite reliably as well. But if you go on the phone hard, or have extreme circumstances you will need a battery mod to comfortably go the distance, meaning you need to spend more money and carry the Mod with you as well (either attached or elsewhere). The thing is, and I know this is unpopular, I agree with Motorola’s decisions here: As I mentioned in the hardware section, I think that part of the reason many will enjoy using the Z2 is because of its incredible thinness and lightweight feel. Last year the Moto Z was too thin, and the Z Force was too thick if you used Mods — this year it’s just right for the modular form factor. In the week that I have had the phone only once did I need to plug it in before 9PM. Otherwise, I have been able to comfortably get four or so hours of screen on time over 16-18 hours — definitely not outstanding, and disappointing for a 2017 device, but good enough for a solid day not factoring in Moto Mods. While I know that is not what many people want in a phone, it is enough for many to last through the day. For the situations where you need to go the extra distance you can pick-up a Moto Mod to help out. While throwing an external battery at the problem is never the proper solution, a Moto Mod doesn’t really feel like an “external battery pack”, instead I am reminded of the old days of just swapping out the battery when my main one got low.
Moto Mods are the new removable battery, they are easy to use and you can just pop it on the back and go about your business, and best of all they can attach to your phone so there’s no second piece of tech to carry around. If you use something like the smaller 2,200mah pack you can leave it on the phone and hardly even notice it. Again though, it is not a perfect solution but there are times I would kill even the Galaxy S8+ in a single day, and knowing that I have total of nearly 5,000mah at my disposal in something marginally thicker than a phone plus a case is a no-brainer. The battery situation on the Moto Z2 Force is not perfect, but I think they struck a critical balance. Power users should look elsewhere if they aren’t planning on purchasing Moto Mods, sadly, but we also knew that going in
While I was quick to dismiss Moto Mods as a poor implementation of the modularity boom that gripped the market in late 2015 and early 2016, it seems that Motorola might have the legs to go all the way, or at least die trying. While it is true that the actual usability of these is slim, Moto Mods are also shockingly handy and nearly flawless in execution. My son thinks it is magic that he can take the JBL speaker mod and have it snap to my phone and instantly start playing music with amazing quality. The 2,200 mAh battery mod marginally increases the weight and thickness of the phone but ends up offering a total battery capacity just shy of 5,000mAh; enough to easily go more than a day without a charge. This smaller battery pack does not have quick charging though, for that you need to upgrade to the much larger and much more expensive Moto TurboPower mod. There is also the wireless charging mod, an addition that lets you both enjoy the durability of a metal body with the perks of a glass one, and style shells that let you change the look of your phone simply and easily with various colors and textures — not the Moto Maker we asked for, but more customizable than most devices out there. I would never buy it myself, but as part of the early owners perks, Motorola is sending out free Projector Mods to Z2 Force owners — $300 is steep for something that I will hardly use, but in having it I may actually use it from time to time, if only for the cool factor for my kids.
It is true that the Mods are getting off to a slow start, but Motorola has committed to at least 3 more years of supporting them. Things like 18:9 (2:1) display ratios, 2.5D glass, full IP68 water resistance, and adding back the 3.5mm jack across the lineup could all be done without affecting the Mods functionality. Mods do have their downsides, among them the price: $300 for the projector, 360 camera, and camera attachment is a nearly impossible pill to swallow. Even the $50-$100 battery banks and $40 wireless charging mod feel somewhat overpriced, especially when the argument could be made that concessions on this phone were made with a goal of selling more mods. Modularity in smartphones has largely failed. But Motorola wants to prove that this partial form of modularity can succeed and its does not take much to imagine that Essential built off what Motorola is pioneering with other OEM’s soon to follow. Motorola has the core set of Mods down, now they need to get the cool ones out that can really help move the needle with potential buyers — like the gaming controller Mod being released.
As I mentioned in the hardware overview I have really enjoyed the front firing speaker on the Z2 Force. It gets very loud, it is hard to obstruct, and a nice feature for both speakerphone calls and normal phone calls. It is no dual setup like those that the Mate 9 and U11 have perfected, and do not expect the full sound of from one of those phones either. It does have its own strengths and for every time I am in the garage working and I want loud sound I can just snap the JBL Soundboost Mod on. This powerful front firing unit also benefits calls as mine have been clear and very loud.
If you are going to do audio over USB-C, it sadly needs to be how Motorola does it. My belief is that the phone uses a form of USB-C’s ability to send analog audio out a DAC through a special pin-out since the adapter has no DAC included in it. Some OEM’s – HTC – instead rely on the DAC being part of the adapter itself, and this causes a host of issues with the biggest being that HTC phones can only work with their own adapters and not third party ones. While you could get better quality through this method, it ultimately leads to a terrible customer experience judging by the HTC Bolt owners commenting on 3.5mm USB-C adapters on Amazon. It doesn’t make it any better to not have a 3.5mm port, but at least making it as consumer friendly as possible helps the situation.
The Moto Z2 Force Does Not Fit All Sizes
Thirteen years ago when I bought my first Motorola phone, there was something special about it and the Moto Z2 Force – despite its flaws – makes me feel that same way again. Compromises were made, and I feel that most of them except for the camera were calculated. The screen is soft and gets scratched easily, but it is unbreakable. The phone is super thin and light and its battery suffers but using a Mod is more comfortable than last year’s Z Force as well. These weren’t things that Motorola did on accident, they were intentional and for the most part I can live with them, but not everyone will. The Z2 Force is not the one sized fits all phone for everyone, but it has some incredibly redeeming qualities that will appeal to the right buyers. Motorola sold 3 million Moto Z phones last year and while we will likely never know the breakdown between the 3 Z phones, this is a solid number for a lower tier manufacturer and shows people are buying into the Motorola’s vision for the Smartphone. The issue comes with the price though. Samsung is about to launch its Note8, and at $720 the Z2 Force will likely be within $200 of that phone. Similarly, Samsung is yet again tanking its phones’ resale values by selling the S8 at ridiculous prices right now, not to mention the endless BOGO and trade-in deals. Should someone buy the Z2 Force over the $575 Galaxy S8? Should someone buy a Z2 Force over a U11, Pixel XL, LG G6, or OnePlus 5? And over the next wave of flagships from Apple, Google, or LG? Those questions will determine the phone’s success.
Ultimately that comes down to your needs, and if your needs are a ridiculously strong near unbreakable phone that can easily be adapted to a number of situations — nothing really comes close to the Z2 Force.