The Moto Z Quietly Flew under the Radar, but it Transformed Smartphone Modularity

The Moto Z Quietly Flew under the Radar, but it Transformed Smartphone Modularity

At a time where smartphone enthusiasts long for OEMs to return to the days of spectacular and unique smartphone designs, the Lenovo-Motorola Moto Z and its brethren were some of the most anticipated phones going into 2016.

Ever since Google took on the Project Ara mantle, there was renewed focus on smartphone modularity. Many enthusiasts were bracing for a modularity revolution led by Google Ara, but until then, we had to be content with other solutions.

In an attempt to cash in on the modularity media frenzy, LG was the first to play with the concept with the LG G5. Their attempt could be called pseudo-modularity at best, as the practicality of “LG Friends” was rather limited and its compatibility restricted to just a single device, especially after we saw LG drop the concept altogether with the V20. The fierce competition from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and the HTC 10 made it difficult for LG to retain the limelight for daring to do something new.

Then came the Moto Z and Moto Z Force with Moto Mods. Released during the second half of 2016, Motorola had undergo the same set of difficulties that LG faced. Stiff competition in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (before it started exploding), the OnePlus 3, the ZTE Axon 7 and even the iPhone sapped attention away from the Moto Z family. Motorola’s attempt at modularity was more true to its name than LG’s attempt, and with the death of Google Ara it meant that Moto Mods would remain the best implementation of the modular smartphone concept. But still, the Moto Z family was relegated to the sidelines by consumers and media alike.

However, the Motorola Moto Z might be among the most underrated flagships of 2016. We were underwhelmed when the phone was first launched, as several aspects of the device were unappealing on paper. Not only that, but the phone took its sweet, sweet time to hit the mainstream market as we had disappointingly learned that Verizon would remain the exclusive carrier for the phone within the United States. Such delayed releases can put a dent in consumer enthusiasm –  something we saw with the LG G5 and V20 as well. Even though it took a while for the Moto Z to enter the market, we have had a chance to play with the Moto Z at the XDA office. With the slew of developments coming out of Motorola on Mods, our opinions on its few shortcomings have changed.

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Moto Z Critiques

The first set of complaints targeted at the Moto Z usually start with its design. The Moto Z is one of the thinnest phones to release this year, which meant that there were a lot of compromises Motorola had to make with the exterior of the phone.

The Moto Z feels premium, and one could argue, too premium. With a thickness of just 5.2mm and weighing in at just 136g, the Moto Z is in a class of its own compared to phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3 with thickness of 7.9mm and 7.4mm and weight of 152g and 158g respectively. The differences would imply that the other two phones are thick and heavy, but anyone who has handled either of these two popular devices would agree that both are comfortably thin and manageable — the Moto Z is just that much thinner and lighter. As one would expect, Motorola’s obsession with thinness comes at the cost of reduced battery capacity and some questionable hardware choices, but it also lends itself to more practical long term handheld usage with lower wrist pain. Hours spent with the Moto Z, whether it be gaming or watching a movie, are physically less taxing on the wrist joints. It is a very subtle difference that not a lot of people would notice if their usage does not involve long and continuous multimedia sessions, but the ergonomics of the device in such situations cannot be overlooked.

The battery capacity is unfortunately the prime victim of the Moto Z’s thinness, but the Moto Z still manages to lessen the pain through a few redeeming factors. With a battery capacity of 2,600 mAh, it is quite difficult to last through a day or two’s usage on a device with a 5.5″ QHD display and a top of the line SoC. But, through the miracles of Turbo Charging with the 15W charger included in the Moto Z packaging, one can top up pretty quickly if you get some time near an outlet. You can realistically look at getting around 50% of your total capacity in half an hour of charge, which is not too shabby by itself, and is one of the fastest charging protocols around in terms of percentage per hour. If you are in a real pinch, a few Moto Mods do offer battery extensions, which can help you get some additional juice to last through the day.

Moto Z

The next complaint that people point out is the awkward chin on the Moto Z. The rounded square fingerprint sensor and the ‘moto’ branding on the front gives us a big chin rivaled only by the likes of the Google Pixel. There are no capacitive buttons for use either, which further adds insult to injury. But, the chin does play well in real world usage. It presents itself as a good resting spot for your fingers in landscape use, such as when watching a movie. And because the phone is so thin, you can effectively “pinch” and hold the device between your thumb and index finger. Motorola’s fingerprint sensor functionality is also unique in the sense that since the button does not simultaneously act as a home button, it can used as an alternative to the power button for screen off functionality. It furthermore ignores light-graze touches, so you do not accidentally lock your device without deliberate intention to do so.

War of the Chins: OnePlus 3, Moto Z, Pixel XL

War of the Chins: OnePlus 3, Moto Z, Pixel XL

Otherwise, the rest of the hardware on the Moto Z is top notch (if it exists, unlike the 3.5mm headphone jack). Smaller stuff that make up the smartphone experience, like touch screen latency, hardware button quality, build quality and overall finish, thermal performance, radio and modem performance, vibration and tactile feedback — all work very well in tandem to give the user a clean and coordinated experience. All of these complement the other major areas of hardware like the 5.5″ QHD AMOLED display, the top of the line Snapdragon 820 SoC, 4GB of RAM, 32/64GB of internal storage (UFS 2.0 on F2FS for fast real-world performance!) and expandable storage options up to 2TB via micro-SDXC, USB Type-C, and a competitive camera setup with a 13MP rear camera with f/1.8 and OIS.

The stock flavor of Android 6.0 Marshmallow (on unlocked Moto Z’s) also plays a great role in this clean experience. Motorola is seeding the Android 7.0 Nougat update gradually, but impatient owners have the ability to sideload the update as well.


The Promises of Moto Mods

All of the details mentioned above are achieved successfully on the Moto Z, but then there is its exclusive feature: despite being more within the realm of add-on cases than true modular parts, the Moto Z is still the best modularity implementation in smartphones right now. The Moto Mod ecosystem started off with just a handful of mods at launch, but that portfolio has expanded on towards more options — a commitment that LG (and in a way, even Google) could not follow through. At the moment, the following mods exist:

  • JBL SoundBoost Speaker
  • HasselBlad True Zoom Camera
  • Moto Insta-Share Projector
  • Incipio Off-Grid Power Pack
  • Moto Style Shell
  • Incipio Vehicle Dock
  • Mophie Juice Pack

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What is more exciting than the current options available is the promise of what is to come. Lenovo has committed to releasing at least 12 new Moto Mods in a year. Some of the ideas thrown on the wall include e-Ink displays on the back, 5G modules and Tango-ready mods. Lenovo has not officially confirmed what’s in the works, but the number that they quote leaves room for innovation beyond the tried and tested. The whole modular platform is practically an experiment on consumer expectations and social acceptance, so the mod makers involved already know the risks of this growing platform.

Further, the Mods are not restricted to just one device — a total of three devices in the Moto Z lineup (the Moto Z, the Moto Z Force and the Moto Z Play) share the same mod configuration. This means that mod makers realistically have a wider audience of potential customers, thus giving them a better margin to work with. The LG G5 failed in this regard, as the modularity aspect was restricted to one device only and was quickly dropped with the V20, thereby restricting the mod market to the subset of users who purchased the G5. Depending on how many more devices that Lenovo will put out with the same mod configuration in 2017, we can expect makers to show more interest into developing innovative use cases.


Conclusion

The Moto Z was a very different take on the smartphone in 2016. At a time when phones look increasingly similar, the Moto Z did have enough to stand out from the crowd. This was something that the market and us as tech reviewers have been craving ever since smartphone designs have started becoming “standardized” — the Moto Z had that “wow” factor and novelty.

With the device, Lenovo also laid the foundation for an entirely new platform and branding — one that promotes innovation in the smartphone world without worrying about making the smartphone first. Lenovo can really bring modularity to popular acceptance if they persist along the route. The Moto Mods are at least one reason to remain excited about.

Even without the mods, the Moto Z is a good option for flagship hardware for this year. The reasons why it was ignored and cast aside was the lack of options in modularity and its price, as well as a hiatus between announcement and release. Lenovo is working on expanding Moto Mod options, but when it comes to price and availability, you can pick up the device on sale for $499 on Amazon in the U.S.

Check out XDA’s Moto Z Forum!

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