Moto Z and Moto Z Force Review: More than just mods?

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EDIT: Minor corrections were made to our battery stats.

We’re aiming to knock out two birds with one stone in this review as these two phones are more alike than they are different. A small handful of hardware options separate the two, but otherwise we get a pretty clear idea of where the manufacturer wants to take the future of its smartphone business.

These two devices come from a fully entwined Motorola and Lenovo partnership, bringing both company’s cultures to the forefront. Moto delivering excellent consumer choices and business grade construction, alongside Lenovo’s influence for experimentation and multi-mode usage. This pairing results in one of the more exciting accessory systems we’ve ever seen for a consumer handset.

Video Review

Specs

The tech specs are what we would expect from a 2016 flagship with few surprises. We get 5.5” QHD AMOLED screens. Above each screen we get a loudspeaker doubling as your phone call solution, and a 5MP selfie camera that also has a front LED flash.

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Fingerprint sensors are located under each display, but even after a week, we’re still having issues with muscle memory. Motorola treats this hardware like a power button replacement, and we’re just so well trained to reach for a home button there. We’re often accidentally turning the screen off with the Moto Z. This isn’t a familiar way to use a fingerprint sensor. Expect a slight learning curve if you’re coming from a phone with a hardware home button.

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The top of the phone is home to the shared Micro SD and SIM card  tray. The right side of the phone holds power and volume keys, which we found to be a touch on the small side, and the even spacing caused a little tactile confusion when first using each phone, but we quickly acclimated to the spacing.

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There’s a USB Type C port on the bottom, which uses Motorola’s “TurboPower” standard to charge each phone. The rear of the phone is pretty busy too. A sizable bulge holds the camera module, and the bottom panel is covered in dots and dimples for the Moto Mod accessory system, which we’ll discuss later in this review.

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The tech specs are fairly similar. Both phones have Qualcomm 820 chipsets, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of built in storage. So where do these phones differ?

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First off, the Moto Z camera is a 13MP shooter, while the Z Force moves up to a 21MP sensor that includes Phase Detection autofocus. The battery on the Z force is also larger, 3500 mAh to the 2600 mah in the regular Z, which is why the Force is also slightly thicker than the regular Z. Lastly, the Force includes a shatter resistant screen, like the Droid Turbo 2. We did not test the shatterproof claims of the manufacturer here.

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Design

Both phones follow similar design guidelines. A mix of metal and glass achieves a premium look. The Moto Z is a shockingly thin phone, like a radical evolution of the Droid RAZR. This feels like a Lenovo idea, where some Thinkpads are built as lean as possible, but rely on fast charging for folks on the go.

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In the hand, the Z Force felt easier to hold onto. For how thin the Z is, reaching across a 5.5” display with my stumpy thumbs was regularly an exercise in heart-stoppingly sliding the phone in my hand and almost dropping it. This is compounded by the location of the fingerprint sensor and that sensor’s small surface area.

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The Z Force’s extra girth and weight seemed to help balance it on my fingers a little better when trying to use it one-handed.

It’s tough to judge these phones naked, as more than any other phone we’ve reviewed, they feel designed to be used with some kind of Moto Mod, if only a style back plate. A mod will cover up the techy look of the rear pins, and even the thinnest style mod will even out the camera module to sit flush with the back of the mod.

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The Moto Z Force is taller wider and thicker, though it’s just a fraction of a millimeter thinner than a Galaxy S7. Moto engineers have done something clever here in tapering the sides to the rear of the phone, it shapes the Z Force in a way where a slightly larger device can still use the same mods as its smaller stablemate. We’re happy to see this, as it means we won’t have to see Future Moto’s follow EXACTLY the same form factor in the future to continue compatibility with this Mod system. Subtle design changes and accents should still be possible provided the back is contoured appropriately.

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A small note, as we’re sure to get comments on why we didn’t “clean these phones” before taking pictures, these two both fail the “t-shirt test”, in that smudges and fingerprints persist beyond a casual wipe of the phone on a t-shirt. We’re not shooting commercials and vanity footage for Motorola here, this is what these phones will really look like when you really use them. Another reason why we believe that using a Mod will be the norm for most folks.

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Display

These are very pretty screens. We like colorful, contrasty AMOLED panels, and the Z’s deliver very good outdoor brightness. Outdoor viewability falls slightly behind phones like the Galaxy S7, but ahead of the LG G5. We wish Moto would change the contrast more in bright light, but we’re talking about very slight differences in how consumers might use these devices.

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One additional nit-pick though, the auto brightness mode on our review units was significantly slower to respond to changes in lighting conditions than just about any other flagship phone we’ve reviewed. Maybe a quirk of our handsets, or a bug in early software, it should be easy to remedy in a future update.

Software

Checking out the software, Moto is sticking to a near stock Android look. Very basic options for customizing home screens, you’re stuck with a 4 by 4 grid. No frills. It’s clean if a bit stark, and this current implementation, also noticed on the One Plus 3, wastes a lot of space. There’s plenty of room and resolution to include a fifth row of icons, but at least purists should appreciate less manufacturer bloat. This reviewer personally switched over to Nova Launcher after a day though, just to get back some options for a tighter home screen grid.

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There are only a handful of manufacturer add-ons here. The front face sensors will wake the screen when you wave your hand over it. The camera launches with a wrist twist, and the Moto assistant returns to augment the capabilities of Google Now. It’s well-worn territory and very familiar.

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Being that these are Droid branded devices though, Verizon has seen it to include some “value add software” on our behalf: Verizon Cloud, Audible, Caller ID, Ebay, Empire, Gem Swap, Hotels.com, NFL Mobile, Slacker, Slot Machine game, and the Verizon Navigator. 32GB is a healthy amount of built in storage, but you can’t uninstall any of these. You can disable most of them, but they’ll still be a part of the ROM taking up some space.

Performance

With how lean UI is, we would expect these to be solid performers, and they are. Both phones chew up basic usage, messaging, email, social networking and multimedia playback.

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Both phones also make good use of RAM, as it’s rare that we fully have to reload services when toggling back and forth between a handful of apps.

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Happily, gaming performance shows a slight improvement over other phones using a Qualcomm 820 released earlier this year. Marvel Future Fight has consistently performed poorly on Qualcomm hardware, but here it’s almost as smooth as what we’ve seen from Exynos powered phones. It’s noticeably smoother than the Galaxy S7 using a Qualcomm 820.

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The overall difference is usually slight, but we do seem to see an efficiency advantage for many games on the Moto Z over competing Android flagships.

Networking

Around town we got excellent reception where we knew that Verizon had strong signal, those in good coverage shouldn’t have any issues with Motorola antennas, and that holds true for WiFi performance as the Z stood neck and neck with the Galaxy S7 connected to our router.

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Call quality is great, and the earpiece speaker is respectably loud under normal conditions. The noise reduction microphones did their job well, as even near a busy street, a caller only complained of occasional noise and couldn’t hear the general road sounds around me.

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When in really loud areas, switching to speaker phone doesn’t require that awkward dance of moving the bottom or back of a phone around the top of your head, which is greatly appreciated.

Camera

Talking about the cameras, we have the most in-depth examination of the Z and Z Force cameras available online, where you can see over ten minutes of photo and video samples from these phones in UHD resolution.

As a brief summary, the Z and Z Force are good but not top tier imaging options. In producing this review, these phones had yet to be made publicly available, so in using early software, some bug fixes are certainly in order.

Like all manufacturers, Moto is trying to deliver bright and vivid images, where we see a slight tendency to overexpose and oversaturate. Dropping the exposure down a touch often helps reign in some of the clipping you might see from these finished JPG’s.

Moto Z Photo Samples

On the whole we prefer the higher resolution Z Force sensor. Normally we’d be concerned about cramming more pixels onto a sensor, but both phones have the same pixel size of 1.12um, which means the Z Force delivers a larger sensor to hold that 61% increase in resolution. Eagle eyed viewers have already commented on our videos about the larger lens over Moto Z. We did see advantages in low light situations, and a slightly softer background blur from the larger camera.

In addition to the extra dots, the Z Force generally delivered more even handed white balance, and had more consistent autofocus performance in our testing.

Moto Z Force Photo Samples

Both phones deliver solid results when covering the basics, and feature some innovative settings like software stabilization and HDR modes for UHD video. Mobile phone photogs will certainly appreciate manual controls, even if they do feel lifted from a Lumia. The zoom action for example is also a vertical slide instead of a pinch gesture. If you’re going to be “inspired” by any camera manufacturer, you could do far worse than classic Lumias…

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Unfortunately, a number of the fun features could use some polish, as panorama shots are mediocre at best, and slow motion video could certainly do with some quality adjustments. We’d also like to see Moto add the ability to capture RAW files in this app, for folks who like to edit.

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We’re ultimately happy with this camera, as it shows Motorola’s continued evolution over some of the truly awful cameras of moto’s past. It’s not enough anymore for a manufacturer to claim its product is a “business solution” and offer up a mediocre camera. Phones like these Z devices and the Blackberry Priv show companies working to improve their consumer offerings, but the Z and Z Force just can’t quite climb into the top tier of phone photography solutions.

Audio

The script flips on audio though, as the Moto Z delivers solid sound from the front facing speaker, but where we’re impressed is with headphone audio. Sure the lack of a dedicated 3.5mm jack is a bummer, and we’re not looking forward to keeping track of the USB Type C adapter, but the sound quality through this port is very good.

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The Moto Z down samples hi-res audio, playing everything back at 16 bit, but the actual output is loud and punchy. This is delivering a better signal to noise ratio and includes a more powerful amp than the Galaxy S7 or the built in DAC on the LG G5.

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Battery

Battery capacity is another one of the differences between these two, so it’s unsurprising that battery life is different too. Running a media test streaming 30 minutes of HD video over WiFi at 50% brightness, the Moto Z drained 6% of its battery while the Z Force drained 4%, and these numbers definitely resemble our daily use, where unsurprisingly, we ended each day with significantly more remaining battery on the Force.

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Ultimately though, we don’t think we’d be overly concerned with the run time on the Moto Z unless you really tax your phone hard throughout the day. Plus, there is something fun about the idea of slapping on a mod to add more battery when you need it, especially when showing off how thin the phone is.

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Recharge speeds were a little funky though. Testing the Moto Z several times, after 30 minutes on the included moto turbo charger, the most we could top off was 38%. This isn’t necessarily bad, but we were easily able to best that on the Z Force with a 43% recharge after 30 minutes. No small feat considering the significantly larger battery.

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For those running off to the comments to complain about our testing, the same “Turbo 15” charger was used for both phones, as during the unboxing I thought they were the same when looking through packaged plastic bags. The Force on the slower charger was still able to top off faster than the Z given the significant difference in battery capacity, and moving to the Turbo 30 charger, we saw that battery rate increase to 57% after 30 minutes.

We might hypothesize that the smaller Moto might be slowing recharge speeds to keep thermals in check? We’re not sure. Using the Turbo 30 charger, we saw Moto Z times improve slightly to 41%.

We have to re-iterate one small gripe from our first impressions video though, in that the chargers supplied have their USB C cables fused with the AC adapter. Moto does not supply an additional cable to connect these phones with a computer for file transfers.

Moto Mods

Lastly, we’ve got to talk about this Moto Mod system.  Motorola is aggressively launching a trio of Mods alongside the phones. We received the JBL Sound Boost speaker, the Lenovo Insta-Share projector, and the Tumi battery back. We have a separate video reviewing each of these mods in greater depth, but as a quick summary, this is a fun accessory system, which we think will be easy for consumers to understand and use.

For any concerned about the durability of this system, the magnets employed are surprisingly strong, and easily support the weight of the Z Force. Aside for a very slight sliding action, once the Mod is slapped on, it feels like it becomes a part of the phone.

The only issue here might be buying into an early ecosystem, while we wait to see how well this hardware is supported by partners, but we can’t find any fault with the actual operation here. Activation of each Mod is seamless, and we’re happy that there are actually products to play with for folks interested in the Moto Z. Mind you we already delivered a Moto Z versus LG G5 comparison video, so you can imagine how that showdown concluded…

Pros

+ Excellent build quality

+ Fast performance

+ Innovative accessory system

+ Excellent audio playback

Cons

– Using the phone naked slightly marred by pins and fingerprints

– Software customization options are lean out of the box

– Second tier camera performance at these prices

– Headphone adapter will be annoying to some

Conclusion

Moto has a really interesting pair of phones here. The Moto Z represents a solid flagship, but if we were pressed to pick between the two, we’d probably side with the Z Force over the Z.

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Shopping these phones on Verizon, we’re looking at $624 for the Moto Z and $720 for the Z force. If thin is your thing, you can’t beat the regular Z. It will give off a stunning first impression. However, the additional battery, nicer camera, and more durable screen on the Z Force are well worth the additional $100 if you have the means. The additional girth, which happens to be less than the thickness of a Galaxy S7, is hardly a compromise.

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As to how these phones compare to other flaghip devices, we have an interesting fight on our hands. These Motos aren’t quite the best jack of all trade phones. Instead, the premium you’re paying for is this Moto Mod system, which requires additional buy-in for the accessories you might want to use. If you’re always traveling with a Bluetooth speaker, or want better battery life in the field, but you don’t want to lug around extra gadgets.

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Moto Mods will increase the cost of your investment, but are arguably more convenient to use. It’s a premium offering, backed up by some bleeding edge tech, which means it’ll cost you some cash to play along, and buying in early is always more expensive. Still, this is certainly one of the more fun gadgets we’ve gotten to play with in quite some time. Novelty is cool like that.

Related Videos

Moto Z vs LG G5

Moto Z vs Galaxy S7

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About The Author
Juan Carlos Bagnell
Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.