Most smartphone manufacturers, when they release a new flagship, are content to claim their phone is the thinnest, or most powerful, or most feature-packed, or most stylish, or made of the most exotic materials, or something else specific to that one model. With the Moto Z, Motorola is being a little more ambitious.
The company says it wants to use the Moto Z’s interchangeable back module system to create an “app store for hardware”.
So it’s not just that the Z launches with a handful of “mods” that enhance or augment its base functionality. It’s that Motorola wants to provide support for hardware developers to create more mods as time goes by, and for those mods to remain back-and-forwards-compatible with future Moto Z models.
Anyway, we still have to review the Moto Z as a phone. And as a phone its more or less up to par with the rest of the Android flagships. It doesn’t feel quite as premium as the so-hot-right-now Samsung Note 7, though on the plus side no one will ever mistake it for a giant iPod, like happens with the Google Pixel.
Stripped of all accoutrements, the Moto Z is remarkably thin. It’s just 5.2mm front-to-back though of course you’ll never use it this thin. It comes with a rather attractive wooden Style Shell that hugs the contours of the phone and sits flush with the camera module – there are lots of these to choose from. But of course, most users will have some kind of mod stuck on the back there, which can double or even triple the thickness.
Let’s quickly dispense with the software: Motorola continues with its very light skinning of Android, making this the most stock-like of all the flagships except the Pixel itself. Our review unit was still running Android 6.0 but an upgrade to 7 should hit soon. In short: the Moto Z has all the usual Android stuff: NFC for Android Pay, a decent camera, 4G mobile data, 64GB internal storage and SD card expansion (thankfully!).
Alarmingly, it only has a 2600 mAh battery. But there’s a reason for the titchy battery... Almost everything about the “substrate” Moto Z is geared toward thinness so that the mods don’t bulk the thing up too much.
Beneath the “unique” slab of special steel are various magnets that hold the mods tight against the gold electric contacts. And the mods do clip on with that satisfying and slightly magical click you only get from expensive magnets...
Back on that battery, one of the more straightforward mods at launch is the Incipio Offgrid Power Pack. For $119 you can add another 2220 mAh for a total of 4820. Yes, it bulks the phone out past 11mm thick, but 4820 is massive. Motorola rates it as adding another 22 hours of power, depending on how often you check your Facebook, obviously.
Moving upward in mod complexity, the next device is a JBL speaker. It uh... is a speaker. It sounds about as good as a cheap Bluetooth speaker and costs $139. There’s a 1000 mAh battery on board so the 3W speakers don’t drain the phone too quickly, and it can charge independently of the phone via USB-C (the phone uses a USB-C charger too). It cranks about as well as you’d expect from a speaker of this size, but it bulks the phone out to 17mm thick and adds another 143g to the 136g base weight.
Now, in the US the final two mods cost the same, but for some reason here in Australia the Hasselblad True Zoom camera is $399 while the Insta-Share 70-inch projector is $429. No, we don’t know why either. The Hasselblad turns the phone into an old-school compact camera. And while it does take a better fully automatic shot than the onboard module, you do need to play around with the many settings to get the most out of it. Optical zoom on a phone is quite a novelty.
Finally, the projector is a very neat toy indeed. It can throw a reasonable image in a dark room, and the auto-keystone feature is very clever.
Will the Moto Z launch a new age of cheaper hardware modules for your phone, like the iPhone did for “apps”? Look, never say never, but there needs to be a more compelling set of mods released first. The Moto Z is a good phone that Motorola loyalists will love. The rest of us? The prospect of spending another $399 for a bulky camera might just be a tough sell.