Lenovo’s new Moto Z and Moto Z Force are the best test yet of whether a “modular” approach to smartphones can truly reinvent what these devices can be, beyond slabs of internet-connected glass. In reviewing them, I’ve been trying to figure out whether this futuristic dream makes sense, if it’s an underwhelming gimmick, or maybe modularity is just a fun thing somewhere in between.
I didn’t expect the answer: all of the above.
These two phones are coming to Verizon starting July 28th (preorders open today) as the latest Droids. And having that “Droid” brand attached to these particular Android phones, which let you attach and switch between snap-on components called Moto Mods, feels very appropriate to that robotic heritage. You can slap on a speaker, a battery pack, or even a projector! There are some very cool ideas here.
The Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid are here now, though they don’t come cheap: the Z costs $624 and the Force is $720, each available to be split across 24 monthly payments. That’s what you’d pay for a Galaxy S7 or HTC 10 — and much more than the excellent OnePlus 3. So even before you start paying for the Moto Mods, these need to be excellent smartphones in their own right. And they are, but each for a different reason: one is ridiculously thin, the other surprisingly durable.
Is a phone this incredibly thin worth the annoyance of no headphone jack?
In pushing these design boundaries, Lenovo made the decision to get rid of the headphone jack on both models. That means you’re stuck either going wireless with Bluetooth headphones or plugging in a wired pair with the included, easy-to-lose adapter. You can call it user-hostile and unnecessary, sure. My takeaway after a week of using the Moto Z is that it can be rather inconvenient, but not a complete dealbreaker. It’s form over function, but the form is incredible. I’ve really come to enjoy carrying something so svelte and light around.
The nice thing is you don’t really lose out on display clarity and sharpness by choosing the Force and ShatterShield. It’s as bright and vivid as the glass-covered Z from any viewing angle. Lenovo has made a lot of progress since we first saw this drop-proof screen in last year’s Droid Turbo 2. The new ShatterShield display is guaranteed against cracking for four years, which is longer than most people are likely to own this phone.
Both Droids share other traits, too: a Snapdragon 820 processor (which can run pretty warm in these phones), 4GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of storage, plus a microSD slot. There’s only one loudspeaker in the earpiece, so that’s a downgrade from the great stereo audio offered by last year’s Moto X Pure Edition. They run Android 6.0 Marshmallow with Moto’s software improvements such as Moto Display — still the best approach to notifications on a smartphone, I think — and Moto Voice, which lets you access Google’s search assistant hands free.
The first moto mods are expensive and you don’t really need any of them
The battery cases from Incipio, Tumi, and Kate Spade make a little more practical sense. They range in price from $60 to $90, though, and only offer a capacity of 2,200mAh. That’s not enough to get you from zero back to 100 percent; you’d more likely use these to top off when you’re down to a 50 or 60 percent charge or to just make it through the rest of the day until you can plug in. I wouldn’t buy any of them, though, because the TurboPower charging in both Droids is very, very quick to refill the battery. Just don’t believe Lenovo’s nonsensical claim that plugging in for 15 minutes will get you 8 hours of battery. Not quite.
And then there’s the Moto Insta-Share projector. Snap it onto the Moto Z, hit the power button, and it’ll beam out an image up to 70 inches on any wall. This is probably the Moto Mod with the biggest “wow” factor. Everyone that I demonstrated it to was blown away — mostly by the concept and less so the actual image quality. A projector that latches onto your phone and turns any wall into your personal Netflix or YouTube movie screen is just a cool idea.
Whenever you snap on these Moto Mods, you get a visceral feeling of “Yes, this is right, this is how extending a phone should work.” The approach is dead on. Who doesn’t like magnets? The Mods latch on securely and never fall off unless you drop the whole phone. And Mods enjoy much deeper integration with the phone’s core than some rando accessory. In that respect, Moto deserves some kudos for pushing the concept forward.
But this is a pretty bad time to buy a new smartphone, with the Galaxy Note 7, a new iPhone, and new Nexus devices all slated to arrive within the next few months. And truthfully, these phones aren’t anybetterthan existing options from Samsung, Huawei, HTC, or LG. If Lenovo’s goal was to stray from the pack and do something a little different, it succeeded. The Moto Z and Moto Mods are unique. They’re fun. They’re a little gimmicky. But they’re definitely different.