Lenovo's modular Moto Z phones reviewed

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Lenovo's modular Moto Z phones reviewed

The Moto Z and Moto Z Play make it easy to add 'mods' such as a battery pack and DSLR camera. But how do the handsets themselves rate? Here are our in-depth reviews.

With Google axing its Project Ara and LG creating a mere handful of add-ons for the LG G5, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the days of modular smartphones are numbered before they even began. Nobody told Lenovo.

Since buying Motorola in 2014, Lenovo now owns the full range of Moto phones. Even though the company plans to phase out the brand name, that hasn’t stopped it from trying something different with its new Moto Z series of phones: a modular design that offers the ability to add components such as a bigger battery pack and DSLR camera module. And it works far better than LG or Motorola's former owner Google could have dreamed.

This Z series comprises the $999 Moto Z and $699 Moto Z Play. As we’ll see in our in-depth reviews here, these are very good premium and mid-range phones, respectively – and most notably, the Moto Z Play has the best battery life we’ve ever seen – but first, let’s look at how the modular design works.

Modular design and ‘mods’

Both phones can use the same ‘Moto Mods’, of which there are currently four:

  • Incipio Offgrid Power Pack, which offers up to 22 hours of battery life ($119, or $139 for the wireless option).
  • Hasselblad True Zoom, a DSLR camera module with 10x optical zoom ($399)
  • JBL SoundBoost speaker for much improved audio ($159)
  • Moto Insta-Share Projector, which casts the screen to up to 70 inches ($429).
The Hasselblad True Zoom camera mod

There are also a variety of backplates, ranging from “washed oak” ($29) to “black leather” ($39), to customise the look of the phones.

In practice, the mods are far more convincing than anything we've seen in a modular phone before. Unlike the LG G5, which requires you to turn off the phone every time you want to add a different modification, the Moto Z family is plug-and-play. It’s so elegant, in fact, that if you attach the JLB SoundBoost add-on while listening to music, the output will automatically switch from the internal speakers without you having to do anything at all.

The JBL SoundBoost speaker mod

The mods clip on and off easily, and it’s quite believable that you would hang on to a few of these for different occasions – though it is a touch disappointing that they don’t work together. Because they replace the entire back of the phone, you can’t mix and match the speaker with, say, the projector.

But that’s nitpicking what is one of the best smartphone innovations we’ve seen in years. And while the mods aren’t cheap, Lenovo has said it will keep this feature going for its next generation of phones.

So, what about the phones themselves? Let’s start with the premium model.

Lenovo Moto Z review

When you take the Lenovo Moto Z out of the box for the first time, you’re struck by its thinness first of all. That’s for two reasons: firstly because it really is (5.2mm to be exact) and secondly because there’s an optional backplate in the box. You’re perfectly free to go about your business without adding the backplate, it’s just that you'll be exposing the phone’s party trick to the world.

That party trick is revealed by the strip of golden contacts dotted along the bottom of the handset. These securely hold the mods to the back of the phone.

In making this the “world's thinnest premium smartphone,” a couple of sacrifices have had to be made. First up, it’s a tiny bit misleading, because the camera hump is extremely obvious, though attaching the supplied backplate (in the same way you would add modules) instantly smooths things out. Second, and more importantly, the Moto Z follows the iPhone 7’s lead and loses the 3.5mm headphone jack. Indisputably, this is an unpopular move, even if Motorola does include a USB Type-C to 3.5mm jack adapter in the box.

And yes, it has a USB Type-C connector. This leads to rapid charging (there’s a fast charger in the box too) and data transfer, but does mean all your existing microUSB leads are instantly redundant.

It has a small, square fingerprint reader on the bottom of the phone which works both consistently and quickly, but oddly Lenovo has made the decision to put the home, back and menu buttons on screen in Android, rather than using the fingerprint reader and the space around it. Confusingly therefore, applying your finger back to the reader just locks the phone again.

Other than that, however, Lenovo should be applauded for doing as little to Android as possible, as per usual. So vanilla is their skin of Android Marshmallow, in fact, that Google Keyboard is included by default.

There's no denying it’s a handsome handset, though we would have kept the headphone jack even if it meant losing the coveted “thinnest handset” prize. The glossy glass rear is also a fingerprint magnet, meaning you'll almost certainly want to apply one of those modules as quickly as possible.

Screen

Things continue to impress with the screen, which is a quality AMOLED affair with perfect blacks and vibrant colours. It's a 1,440 x 2,560-pixel display, meaning it has around 535 pixels per inch when stretched across the device's 5.5in screen – very sharp, in other words.

But how does the screen compare to other flagship handsets? Here is a quick comparison table showing how it fares against some of the other top dogs (along with the cheaper Moto Z Play):

  Resolution Brightness sRGB gamut Contrast
Lenovo Moto Z 2,560 x 1,440 354.24cd/m2 98.5% Perfect
Lenovo Moto Z Play 1,080 x 1,920 355cd/m2 100% Perfect
LG G5 2,560 x 1,440 354.05cd/m2 97.1% 1,621:1
Samsung Galaxy S7 2,560 x 1,440 353.74cd/m2 100% Perfect
Apple iPhone 7 1,334 x 750 540cd/m2 95.8% 1,425:1

Those are damned fine scores in anybody's book, and bear in mind that the relatively low brightness can be attributed to the AMOLED screen – because they work by turning off pixels off when not in use.

What's more, the Moto Z has another trick up its sleeve here. While it doesn't have an always-on display, it arguably has something a bit more clever: wave your hand over the screen when it's off, and the display comes to life with the time, date and any notifications you have. Remove your hand and it’ll fade out in three seconds – a smart way of giving you the benefits of always-on without draining too much of the battery.

That’s just as well, because battery life is an area where the Moto Z struggles a tad. Within the Moto Z is a 2,600mAh battery. If that sounds a touch stingy, it's because it is, but if you're fearing that it'll struggle to get through the day with more than moderate use, then you may be pleasantly surprised. In our battery test, the phone lasted 12 hours and 21 minutes before giving up the ghost. That’s not great – the Samsung Galaxy S7 lasted 17 hours 48 minutes – but it’s only 41 minutes less than the iPhone 7, so it’s certainly not woeful.

If you want long battery life, you can always buy the Incipio Offgrid Power Pack mod – or consider the cheaper Moto Z Play, which offers the best battery life that we’ve ever seen.

Thankfully, the bundled fast charger is very fast indeed, giving you nearly a third of your battery back in a quarter of an hour. Still, you can't help feel that chasing the “thinnest phone” trophy isn't worthwhile if you need to strap a battery to the back to rival the longest lasting phones out there.

Performance

Thinness aside, one of the reasons the battery struggles to cope with the Moto Z is because it’ one powerful phone. A quad-core 2.15Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 runs the show, backed with 4GB RAM. If that chipset sounds familiar, it’s because it's the same Snapdragon used in – amongst others – the HTC 10, LG G5 and Sony Xperia XZ.

So how does it compare to its peers? Very well indeed. As you would expect on a phone with these kind of specifications, everything you throw at it is handled with total ease – which is why we turn to benchmarking software to give us direct comparison in like-for-like handsets. Here are those comparable handsets again:

  Geekbench  
single core
Geekbench
multi- core
GFXbench
Manhattan 3
(onscreen)
GFXbench
Offscreen
Lenovo Moto Z 1,474 4,007 27fps 41fps
Lenovo Moto Z Play 798 2,599 10fps 9.8fps
LG G5 1,667 3,879 31fps 46fps
Samsung Galaxy S7 1,877 5,295 27fps 38fps
Apple iPhone 7 3,489 5,652 58.92fps 62.62fps

So, overall, the Moto Z comes fairly close to (or in one case beats) its more expensive rivals. It comes with 64GB of storage, too, along with a microSD slot for expansion. 

Camera

The Moto Z’s rear camera is a 13 megapixel affair with 1.12um pixels and f/1.8 aperture. Optical image stabilisation and a laser autofocus are also included for a solid all-round package.

The results are good too: in well-lit environments, photographs are very impressive indeed, not too far behind the best in the business. Images appear sharp and detailed, even when zoomed in to a level that some handsets would consider too close for comfort.

In low light, things get a bit more tricky, and it loses ground to the Galaxy S7 in terms of detail and – at times – blurring. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of camera that should leave most amateur photographers happy, and there's always the Hasselblad DSLR camera mod for those unsatisfied.

The front-facing selfie camera is a 5 megapixel snapper, with f/2.2 aperture and 1.4um pixels and a LED flash. Suffice it to say, it’s more than sufficient to make your selfies come alive.

Conclusion

We really like the Lenovo Moto Z. Modular smartphones have been a bit of a gimmick so far, with only LG producing something usable, and in that case only a couple of add-ons ever arrived, all of which tended to add a fair amount of bulk in the process.

The Moto Z’s slim frame and incredibly easy attachments make its add-ons far more user-friendly, and there are already enough modules to prove that the idea has legs.

However, there are two problems with the Moto Z. Firstly, the thin design has come at a cost to battery life: 2,600mAh is simply not going to be enough for heavy users, and a fast charger can only go so far – especially when wireless charging isn't part of the package. And secondly, the lack of 3.5mm headphone jack is also something that many will consider unforgivable. Both of these issues could have been fixed if the company weren’t so hell bent on making the thinnest smartphone ever.

Still, at $999, the Moto Z is very good value, although buying additional modules will quickly add to the total cost. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available from an Australian carrier on a monthly plan – it’s only available from the official online store and retailers like Harvey Norman.

However, if you like the idea of having a modular phone with premium features, the Moto Z is a fine choice.

Read on if you're more interested in the cheaper Moto Z Play.  

Lenovo Moto Z Play review

If the Lenovo Moto Z wins our most interesting phone award of 2016, the Moto Z Play gets the runner-up award, for carrying off the same party tricks in a slightly less appealing way – but for $300 less than its premium sibling.

So what exactly what are the differences the two phones? Let’s look at the Play’s design first.

Design

The Moto Z would have looked like a perfectly generic phone, if it weren’t for how ridiculously thin it is: 5.2mm, to be exact. The Moto Z Play gains an additional 1.8mm, making it a little plain to behold. It still has the camera hump – although it's much less pronounced here – and still attracts fingerprints like there's no tomorrow.

It has the 16 metal contacts at the bottom of the rear panel, which attach mods to give the handset extra functionality. These attach magnetically, just as they do on the Moto Z. Crucially, the same mods work on both phones and, just as with the Moto Z, you get a backplate in the box that smoothes out the camera hump and gives you a more fingerprint-friendly back. Of course, plate does add a little more thickness to the mix.

There are differences, aside from negative ones. You know how the Moto Z followed Apple’s lead and disposed of the 3.5mm headphone jack on the Moto Z? Well, it’s back for the Moto Z Play, meaning no messy adapter to listen to your music, and you’ll be able to listen at the same time as you charge. The Moto Z Play still charges via USB Type-C, though, so it’s time to invest in spare cables, if you haven’t already done so.

Screen

While the screen size between the Moto Z and the Moto Z Play is identical, the specifications of the panel aren't. Both have 5.5in AMOLED displays, but while the Moto Z outputs a resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 pixels, the Play's display is “only” 1,080 x 1,920 pixels. That's a pixel-per-inch difference of 32 535 versus 403), so not exactly huge, and a 1080p display is sharp enough, especially when it’s as good a panel as this one.

And it is a good panel, as revealed in its specifications and results on the previous page.

Performance

If you’re still wondering where Lenovo have made the $300 saving, stop looking. While the Moto Z was powered by the quad-core 2.15GHz Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM, the Moto Z Play has the markedly less powerful 2GHz Snapdragon 625 running the show. There’s also 3GB of RAM and 32GB storage, with a microSD slot allowing you to add an extra 256GB should you wish.

As you’d expect, the Moto Z Play was significantly slower than the Moto Z in our more demanding benchmarks – for example, it was 35% down in our Geekbench multi-core processing test (see previous page for full results). However, in everyday use, the Moto Z Play is no slouch – we found it to be fairly zippy and smooth, with no problems multitasking.

At this price, you get half the Moto Z's storage, but you can add to that using the microSD slot. 

Battery life

Battery life was something else again. In fact, the Moto Z Play’s results were so good that it left us wondering whether we’d made a mistake testing.

To give you some background, this is how our battery test works. We play a looped 20-hour 720p video, set the phone's brightness to 170cd/m2, enable flight mode, set the volume to medium and connect a pair of in-ear headphones. Then we let the video run the battery all the way down, reboot the phone and see where the video stopped. It’s not the perfect way to gauge battery life, but it allows us to compare handsets like-for-like, and 20 hours is so long that most phones don't see anywhere near the end of the video.

The Moto Z Play did, however. Not only did it see to the end of the video, it managed to keep going for another 3 hours 45 minutes on top of that.

To put that into context, the only phone that has come close was the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (and there are reasons we don't celebrate the battery life on that handset so much nowadays), which lasted 21 hours 57 minutes. With that out of the equation, the next nearest contender is the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with 18 hours 42 minutes. That means the Moto Z Play's battery lasts 27% longer than the next best.

We don't quite understand the secret sauce Lenovo has mixed into their battery here, especially when the Moto Z’s battery life was so underwhelming. And while the battery capacity of the Moto Z Play is bigger, 3,510mAh doesn't suggest a performance this huge. However, other publications are getting similar times with the Moto Z Play, so we're inclined to trust our results.

Camera

Things come back down a notch with the camera. If you just pay attention to megapixels, you might be impressed: it has a 16-megapixel camera, which looks better on paper than Moto Z’s 13-megapixel effort, and the pixels are bigger, at 1.3um in size compared with the Moto Z’s 1.12um.

That should ensure better performance and cleaner low-light imagery. In other areas, however, the Moto Z Play's camera takes a step backwards. For starters, it has a slightly dimmer, f/2.0 aperture, negating the advantage of the larger pixels somewhat. There’s also no optical image stabilisation here, which further reduces the effectiveness in less than optimal conditions.

From the specifications, we'd expect similar results to the Moto Z – and in some respects, it’s better. The photographs it captures are noticeably brighter than the Moto Z’s and more detailed. In darker environments, things become considerably more grainy, but most casual snappers will be happy with the results.

Again, they’re not too far removed from the output of the Moto Z, and we thought that was among the better smartphone cameras we'd used recently, although it's not in the same league as the Samsung Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel XL.

The front-facing camera is identical to that found on the Moto Z: a 5-megapixel, f/2.2, 1.4um Pixel camera with LED flash. It's fine for selfies, although with many rivals plumping for 8-megapixel units recently, it feels a little old hat.

Conclusion

Like any mid-range phone, the Moto Z Play has some compromises: it’s considerably slower and chunkier than the Moto Z, making it inherently less appealing.

However, on the other hand, it has great battery life and a 3.5mm headphone jack – both of which the Moto Z lacks – and it offers the same innovative, modular design and range of Moto Mods for $300 less than the premium model.

It’s hard to ignore what the Moto Z Play does well. The battery life is the best we’ve encountered yet in a smartphone, and not by a small amount – it's a country mile in front of its nearest competitor. And, along with its more expensive sibling, the Play is comfortably the most innovative, interesting phone of 2016.

Unfortunately, like the Moto Z, it doesn’t appear to be available from an Australian carrier on a monthly plan – it’s only available from the official online store and retailers like Harvey Norman. Still, at $699, the Moto Z Play is more feasible to purchase outright – and great value. 

Lenovo Moto Z and Moto Z Play
5 6
Verdict
At last, modular phones that actually work. The $999 Moto Z is beautifully thin and a good performer for the price, albeit with average battery life. The $699 Moto Z Play is a little chunkier and slower, but offers incredible battery life and better value.
Moto Z Play score
Moto Z score
Overall
Specs
$699 AUD for Moto Z Play ($999 for Moto Z)
Moto Z Play: 5.5in Super AMOLED screen (1080 x 1920 pixels); Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor; 3GB RAM; 32GB storage; microSD slot; 165g weight; 16MP ƒ/2.0 rear camera. Moto Z: 5.5in Super AMOLED (2560 x 1440 pixels); Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor; 4GB RAM; 64GB storage; microSD slot; 136g weight; 13MP ƒ/1.8 rear camera. Both phones: Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow).
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Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing
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