Motorola's modular Moto Z: A fine phone for a weekend away
And grand for everyday use, but the modules just don't excite
Real World Test Motorola's modular Android, the Moto Z, offers something genuinely new in the increasingly dull world of smartphones.
That something is a range of “Moto mods” that click onto the phone with magnets and a few conductive contacts. The four mods The Register tested – a Hasselblad camera, JBL speaker, projector and battery – mean the phone can quickly take on all sorts of duties.
First things first, though. The device runs Android 6.01 Marshmallow, powered by a quad-core Qualcomm SnapDragon 820 at up to 1.8GHz. There's 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and the chance to add more in a micro-SD card slot. The 5.5in screen offers 2560 x 1440 resolution and fits into a 75.3 x 155.3 x 5.19 mm package containing a 2600 mAh battery, 13MP rear camera and 5MP forward-facing snapper.
If anything, the phone is a bit too thin: the included clear plastic buffer made it easier to hold by making it feel less likely that the lovely, shiny, slick package would elude my grasp.
Motorola's version of Android is slick. When I confront a new Android I nearly always find myself installing a third-party Launcher to to tame a handset-maker's too-busy and/or otherwise-inconsistent riff on Google's mobile OS. The Moto Z needs no such augmentation and is immediately approachable, comprehensible, lightning-quick, easy on the eye and everything you could want in a premium smartphone.
The bottom line: buy one as-is and you'll get a very fine Android that won't disappoint.
What I did on my holidays
But its the mods that distinguish it, so let's talk about those and what I did with them on my holidays, because that's where I tried to test the concept.
Motorola has nailed the experience of adding modules to a device. All you need to do is line the mods up with the phone and its magnets, let the phone and mod click together and start using it. There's an oh-so-brief lag while the phone figures out it has new hardware to play with, but nothing disruptive, jarring or confusing. It's a high-class plug and play experience that will be hard to rival.
Whether the mods are useful is another matter.
I'm not so sure they're great for long-term use.
Here's why: when the Sharwood family goes to the beach for an Australian summer, we take a mid-sized Bluetooth speaker capable of filling a room and the family SLR so the photo album fills with more than happy snaps. We also try to make sure the place we stay has a good big telly for watching cricket and movies.
The Moto Z's mods don't beat that collection of kit.
The Hasselblad camera add on offers a 12MP sensor, 10x optical zoom , focal length of 4.5-45 mm, a xenon flash, aperture of ƒ / 3.5 – 6.5 and the ability to shoot video at 1080p for good measure. Plenty of those specs are inferior to our decade-old family SLR and also the deck-of-cards-sized Canon compact that your correspondent once won at a trivia night. The Hasselblad lets you shoot in RAW and control F-stop, but so do the other cameras mentioned above. Adding the Hasselblad to the phone bulks it out to the extent it won't comfortably fit in a pair of shorts, but is easier to hold. So while it takes lovely shots it's hard to imagine it becoming a go-to camera over dedicated machines or other premium smartphones. And frankly the Moto Z's on-board 13MP snapper is no slouch.
The JBL speaker also adds unwelcome bulk to the Moto Z, but that volume doesn't translate into sound you'll rave about. The nifty stand does mean the phone is easily positioned to project audio well, but I'll keep bringing my Bluetooth to the beach because I can use it in the kitchen while my phone avoids beer damage in another room of the house.
The projector is a remarkable little piece of kit. Squeezing a 50-lumens-capable bulb into the 153 x 74 x 11mm, 125 gram, package is a remarkable feat. While the projector can create a 70in diagonal image, it does so at washed-out 854 x 480.
The last mod – a battery pack – does what it says on the tin, uncontroversially. Indeed, I found the battery mod helped make the Moto Z easier to handle.
Like LG's all-but-failed modular G5, the Moto Z is well executed but doesn't solve a pressing problem (the G5 also fluffed the module-attachment process, which Moto has nailed). Your current cameras, speakers and laptops will do better taking pictures, getting people dancing or entertaining a small crowd than the mods. They'll also be at least as convenient to schlep about and, if you've tooled up well, meet specific needs better than mods that have been constrained by the need to click with the phone-as-mothership. They'll also be better-priced than the mods, which aren't cheap.
I enjoyed my summer fling with the Moto Z, but once I got home felt little need to continue the dalliance with the mods. I can imagine one or two would be fine accessories for a weekend away. But they're not going to become fixtures in your life and don't perform well enough to deter you taking dedicated devices on longer trips.
As a standalone phone, however, there's no reason the Moto Z won't serve well as a constant companion. And if Motorola can find someone to make mods suited for niche use cases, the ease with which they attack to the phone could yet see it find a place in business. ®