Moto 2016

Moto Z: Is this the Droid you’ve been looking for?

We review the Droid editions of the Moto Z and Moto Z Force, Motorola's latest high-end Android smartphones. (With video.)

The new Moto Z phones are pretty remarkable for some innovative things they can do -- and for something important they left out.

Motorola is one of the oldest brands in electronics. The company invented car radios (hence "Motor-ola") and was the first company to build cell phone infrastructure and the phones themselves. In the early days, Motorola's phones were flat out the best you could get. Over the years, the company lost its way, with the exception of a few pretty good phones in the last couple of years. Now, after several ownership changes, Moto is part of Lenovo.

The good news is that the things that made Moto great -- innovation and build quality -- are back again with the Moto Z line. The two models that were just introduced -- the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force -- are now Verizon's top-of-the-line phones, which the company has indicated by giving them the Droid name. (So: Moto Z Droid Edition and Moto Z Force Droid Edition. Yes, really.)

When you compare the Moto Z Force to the Moto Z, the former is thicker (0.27 in. vs. 0.20 in.) and heavier (5.7 oz. vs. 4.9 oz.). The phones are otherwise identical: 6.1 in. long by 3.0 in. wide. Other differences: The Force has a 3500mAh battery compared to the Moto Z's 2600mAh, a 21-megapixel back-facing camera rather than the Moto Z's 13-megapixel unit, and a more rugged screen. I spent most of my time with the Force.

Physically, the phones are lovely. The Moto Z is model-thin -- maybe a bit too thin, to the point where it's a little hard to grab off a table when it's lying face down. (Face up, the camera bulge props the phone off a surface enough make that a little easier.) On the other hand, the sides of the Moto Z Force are beveled, so it is easier to pick up and hold.

There's a good heft to both phones; nothing feels flimsy. Even the contacts on the phone's back (more about that in a moment), gold against black, look on the classy side of geeky and harken back to the classic Motorola colors of gold and deep brown.

The technology is what you'd expect at the top of the line: a Qualcomm SnapDragon 820 processor, a 5.5-in. AMOLED Quad HD (2560 x 1440) screen, a fingerprint scanner (located on the chin of the phone, just below the display), 4GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, room for an SD card and a USB-C port. The phones come with a TurboPower charger, but do not support wireless charging.

Performance-wise, the phones are as powerful as any on the market. They scored more or less equivalently on the AnTuTu suite of tests: 149220 for the larger Force, 141296 for the slimmer Droid. For comparison's sake, the OnePlus 3 came in at 140208, the Samsung Galaxy S7 scored 13499, and the Apple iPhone 6S hit 133781. (Higher is better.)

Battery life for the Droid Force (using the AnTuTu drain test) came in at nearly five hours -- about an hour longer than other phones in its class. The smaller Droid lasted roughly four hours before dying.

The display can be set to either the default "vibrant," with "enhanced color and saturation," or "standard." Either is fine, although my personal preference is for the less saturated look. Video played back smoothly. Sound through the speakers was tinny compared to real speakers but about what you'd expect from a phone.

The camera bulge, at the top center of the phone's back, is larger than most. The Force's 21-megapixel camera worked well, but it does seem to be chasing pixel count for the sake of pixel count. In other words, the photos are big but the camera's other features are middling. There are the expected panorama, slow motion and "professional" modes. The phone captures 1080p video at 60fps and 4K at 30fps, but won't save RAW stills. You can manually set a focus point, but not an exposure point.

There's no voice control or gesture recognition for selfies, though you can switch between front and back cameras with a couple of wrist twists. On the other hand, the camera uses optical image stabilization, is quick to focus, and has a wide f/1.8 aperture, so it's pretty good in low light.

At first, you might not even notice that the Moto Z is the first smartphone designed without a headphone jack. Read that again: No headphone jack. Instead, Moto includes an easily lose-able dongle that converts the USB-C port to accommodate a headphone. Until someone makes USB-C headphones -- and you know they're coming because I'm reasonably certain that the Moto Z will not be the last phone to omit the headphone port -- you'll either have to deal with the dongle or get friendly with Bluetooth.

Expansion modules

On the back of the phones are three rows of slightly recessed metal contacts. Those accommodate a series of snap-on accessory modules called Moto Mods. At the outset, there are three types available: battery packs (prices ranging from $60 to $90), the JBL SoundBoost Speaker ($80) and the Moto Insta-Share Projector ($300). There are also decorative back plates that will run about $15 each.

The Moto Z is not the first smartphone this year to have expansion modules (remember the LG G5?), but it is the first to get them right. You don't need to reboot to use the Moto Mods; the modules are aligned and held fast by magnets. Put a module into place, and the phone recognizes it and starts using it. There's a quick tutorial and basic settings you're guided through the first time you use a module, but that's it. It's crazy simple.

The power pack adds 2220mAh, almost doubling the phone's battery life; there will be a version of the power pack that provides for wireless charging as well (which was not provided for testing).

The JBL modules has two stereo speaker that put out 3W each -- the sound was not exactly hi-fi but way better than the internal speakers and more convenient than a Bluetooth speaker. The module is equipped with its own 1000mAh battery, which will drive the unit for about 10 hours.

The DLP video projector puts out 50 lumens and optimistically claims a 70-in. diagonal image size. It does automatic keystone correction, which is nice. It also has a 1000mAh battery, which will power the projector for about one hour. It won't replace a full-size projector, but it's actually surprisingly useful for something of its size.

The phones run a reasonably clean Android Marshmallow (6.0.1) with the generally useful Moto software expansions: voice control and gestures. As Verizon Wireless-branded phones, however, they also come with the usual Verizon bloatware and touts to extra-cost services: Audible, Caller Name ID, Verizon Cloud, Empire, Genie and Gems,, IMDB, Message+, NFL Mobile, Slacker Radio, Slotomania, VZ Navigator and VZ Protect.

Motorola's Moto Z smartphones will be available at Verizon on July 28. The Moto Z will cost $624; the Moto Z Force will cost $720. The phones are black with grey trim, black with rose gold trim, or gold with a white front lens. An unlocked GSM version - without the Droid name, which Verizon licenses -- is said to be available in a few months.

Bottom line

The Moto Z's are expensive, but not crazy expensive, and the add-ons are done right. This is a great Motorola phone. Just don't lose that headphone dongle.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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