The Lenovo Moto Z is the first truly original flagship device born from Lenovo’s acquisition of Motorola so many years ago. While we’ve seen the continuation of Moto’s existing lines like the Moto X and Moto 360 to name a few, the Moto Z represents the first major departure of any of Motorola’s existing products and a bold new step into a future that’s designed to be modular and customizable to your specifications. This isn’t quite the modularity you’ll find on the Project Ara phones that may or may not be debuting soon enough, but it’s far more than we’ve had in the past, and goes one step further than LG did with the G5 just a few months ago. It’s also the first major phone to get rid of the 3.5mm headset jack in favor of a single multi-function USB Type-C port, but are these too many changes or is this just the right amount to positively differentiate itself from the rest of the swath of smartphones on the market? Let’s find out.
The variant of the Moto Z we’ve got for review is the Verizon Moto Z Droid Edition, which is exclusive to Verizon in the US, but the specs remain the same as the international Moto Z. For about $620 you’re getting the most cutting edge device available, starting with the Snapdragon 820 System-on-a-Chip (SoC) inside of the insanely thin body. Measuring in at 153.3mm high by 75.3mm wide and an almost paper-thin 5.19mm thin, the Moto Z also weighs only 136 grams as well. Moto is going for the thin-and-light envy package here, but it’s not sacrificing a whole lot to do it. A 2,600mAh non-removable battery is inside as well as 4GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of internal storage with microSD card support. On top of that you’ll find full adoptable storage support, so your microSD card is treated just like internal storage, meaning no weird management of data or forcing apps to move from internal storage to the SD card; it’s all done automatically.
On the front you’ll find a 5.5-inch Quad-HD Super AMOLED display along with a 5-megapixel camera with f/2.2 lens and 1.4-micron pixel sensor just above it. On the back is a sizable camera hump with a 13-megapixel camera featuring an f/1.8 lens, 1.12-micron sized pixels, optical image stabilization (OIS) and laser autofocus. The sealed metal body is also water repellent, so you won’t have to worry about rain ruining your brand new phone, but you won’t want to take a dip in the pool with it. Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow ships with the device, with just a few Moto enhancements atop but no skin at all. Lastly we’ll look at connectivity in which this phone only features a single USB Type-C port on the body, as well as Bluetooth 4.1 capability and WiFi 802.11 dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz through 802.11ac speeds. The Moto Z ships in multiple colors including our black body with lunar grey trim review model, as well as a black body with rose gold trim, and a white body with gold trim.
In The Box
For $620 Lenovo is working towards adding in more value than other flagships on the market, starting with the things included in the box. Aside from the phone you’ll find a USB Type-C 5v/3a quick charger and a SIM/microSD card tray ejection tool, but that’s just the start of it. Because this doesn’t have a 3.5mm headset jack, Lenovo has included a 6-inch cable that features a USB Type-C port on one end and a 3.5mm jack on the other, giving you backward compatibility out of the box with existing 3.5mm peripherals like headphones and other audio systems. In addition to this they’ve included a Style Shell of your choosing, of which ours was a darker wood similar to the OnePlus Apricot Wood case.
Lenovo has been one of the biggest proponents of AMOLED technology aside from Samsung, and it’s not just the quality of the panel that has caused Lenovo to make the shift over the years either. This 5.5-inch quad-HD panel sports plenty of pixels to make everything razor sharp on screen all while delivering beautiful, accurate colors, supreme black levels that only OLED can right now, and even some incredibly easy view-ability in sunlight. Everything from the viewing angles to the refresh rate here is nothing short of fantastic, and if you don’t like the default vibrant color saturation you can easily change this option in the display settings menu to a more standard color saturation rate.
Moto Display is the original Ambient Display if you will, but significantly enhanced over the now stock Android feature. While resting on a desk you can hover your hand over the phone to light up Moto Display, which will only light the pixels needed to display the current time, date, battery percentage and the icons of any apps that have given you notifications since you last cleared them. Pressing and holding on an icon will give you a preview of that notification, while dragging the icon upward will unlock your phone and launch that notification’s action. It’s a flawless feature that works incredibly well when you’ve got the phone sitting on a table or desk and frees you from always having to pick it up or awkwardly press side buttons.
Hardware and Build
There’s thin, and then there’s the Moto Z. Sure there have been some phones this thin on the market before, but this is the first major phone to make its way out of China and onto the shores of other countries, and it’s likely going to get a lot of praise for this factor if nothing else. Paper-thin is an expression that’s over-used, and while this isn’t actually as thin as a piece of paper it feels like it when coming from any other phone on the market. The phone is barely thicker than the single USB Type-C port that sits at the bottom of the device, and that alone is incredibly impressive to say the least. Many will likely say this is taking it a bit too far given the negatives we’ll talk about, but there’s no denying how good this feels when holding it. This USB Type-C port is also the only port on the entire phone, giving it a very minimalist look and feel.
It’s not just being thin that makes holding this device feel great though, it’s the overall construction. Lenovo is using completely premium, solid materials for this device and it feels like it on every single inch of the phone. This may be a thin phone but it’s not going to bend easily, with a solid metal frame all the way around the edges, as well as a mix of metal and glass along the backside of the device. The camera hump is the only obvious weak point of the design, with a hump that protrudes considerably out of the back of the device, adding at least 30% more thickness to the overall measure when placed flat on a table. This also makes the phone sit at a slight edge too and keeps it from resting flat on its back. At the lower section of the back sits a series of pins and magnets designed to make attaching and detaching modules as easy as can be.
On the front you’ll find a square fingerprint reader, which actually only functions as a fingerprint reader and not a home button. Flanking each side of this reader are a pair of sensors used for the ambient display mode and to detect hands-free gestures. Above the screen sits the camera as you would expect, but also on the opposite side of the earpiece, which doubles as the speaker for the phone, sits an LED flash for low-light selfies. On the right side sits three evenly spaced buttons near the top, the top two of which are the volume keys while the third is a textured power button. All three keys are metal and have an extremely satisfying click, and the texture on the power button is unmistakable when pressing or feeling for the button without looking.
One thing worth noting for the Verizon model is that there is absolutely zero Verizon branding anywhere on the phone. It’s actually quite impressive to see this given that even big players like Samsung still feature that Verizon checkmark on the back of their flagship phones, yet there’s only a very small Droid branding on the camera hump that’s only noticeable when looking closely, with a small Motorola logo on the back and the Moto brand name on the front above the home button. All in all the branding here looks great and falls right in line with the industrial design of the phone.
Aside from being one of the thinnest phones on the market, the Moto Z is the second major modular phone released to the market, and the second one this year after the LG G5. Lenovo is taking a very different approach to modularity than LG though, eschewing the detachable bottom from the G5 and instead going with snap-on magnetic “plates.” The back of the phone features a prominent camera hump as we discussed, which actually works quite nicely to hold these modules in place and line them up easily. In addition to the hump there’s a series of pins and magnets along the metal backside that help the modules snap into place incredibly easily, and only a forceful pop from the sides or bottom will release them.
These modules are aptly called Moto Mods, and are designed to significantly enhance the Moto Z in many ways. We’ll have reviews for each of these modules so you can decide what’s best, but our review package included a Motorola Insta-share projector for literally projecting your smartphone’s screen onto any wall up to 70-inches in size, a JBL Soundboost speaker that provides stereo speakers with deep bass and a built-in kickstand for excellent music listening, as well as a Tumi 2,220mAh battery pack that will effectively double the battery life of the Moto Z with its built-in charging capabilities. In addition to this the included Moto Style back in each box also snaps right on the back of the phone via a series of magnets and provides additional grip and style over the stock feeling and look of the phone.
These mods are ingenious to say the least, and not only work incredibly well in form and function, but also feature deep software integration via the Moto Mod Development Platform 1.0. This allows anyone to make a Moto Mod if they have the know-how and funds of course, and Lenovo has ensured that plenty of additional modules are in development. The negative side to all of the Mods we have of course is that it adds significant bulk to the phone, something that might be less than desirable if you bought the phone mainly for its insanely thin nature.
Performance and Memory
When it comes to Snapdragon 820 powered devices, and smartphones in general, the Moto Z is among the fastest devices you can currently buy. This isn’t just because of the Snapdragon 820, which all flagship devices have shipped with thus far in 2016, but because of the insanely fast internal storage speed of the Moto Z. Moto didn’t cheap out when selecting internal storage chips for this phone, and in fact it not only uses the fastest storage chips of any phone we’ve tested, but also the most secure, not only coming encrypted out of the box and featuring a hardware encryption layer, but also following FIPS kernel cryptography standards.
All this means that apps will launch essentially instantaneously barring any network connectivity issues. Everything runs perfectly here too, from heavy web pages on Chrome to taxing 3D games, the Moto Z handles anything you can throw at it and then some. Multi-tasking is the absolute best I’ve seen from any modern smartphone too, minus the ability to run a multi-window experience until the Android Nougat update comes along. Since the debut of Pokemon GO I’ve run the game on many phones, and most phones will close this app after navigating away from it and opening any number of other apps at all. The Moto Z not only kept it open after navigating away from it, but it also was able to completely resume my progress with zero loading time after a full day of not opening the game. This is some seriously incredible multi-tasking, and it shows that Moto has figured out how to use all 4GB of RAM when most OEMs don’t even bother.
As far as mobile devices are concerned, the Moto Z is easily one of the best VR mobile machines on the market. There are a number of factors to this, but two of them in particular play an important role in a quality VR experience. First off we’re looking at an AMOLED panel with plenty of resolution to keep you from noticing pixels constantly, even though it’s clearly a pentile arrangement of pixels. Secondly the low persistence rate of the panel keeps images sharp even when moving, and the 5.5-inch size of the screen keeps your field of view right where it should be without weird eye-crossing problems. Second of course is performance, and as we noted already the Moto Z is one heck of a good performer. This includes not just the CPU and the GPU, but also the internal storage speeds, which are second to none on the market. Even more physics heavy VR games like Super Box Forts VR ran like a charm and delivered consistently great VR performance.
The Moto Z sits neck-and-neck with other Snapdragon 820-powered phones with the exception of the storage test. In this test it is double the speed of most phones on the market today, and at least 50% ahead of the second fastest phone out there. This shows some pretty tangible performance that will make a massive difference in the long run, much in the way that a solid state drive will over a hard disk drive in a computer. Check out all the benchmarks we ran below.
With the decision to remove the 3.5mm headset jack you might imagine Lenovo is on board with the latest in wireless protocols and standards to enhance both the functionality and wireless audio quality on its latest flagship. Unfortunately the reality is that Moto has skimped a bit on wireless support, making the lack of 3.5mm headset jack more painful than it should be, which we’ll cover in the audio section below. As it stands the Moto Z supports up to Bluetooth 4.1, which is a minor revision behind the latest Bluetooth 4.2. Thankfully dual-band WiFi 2.4Ghz and 5GHz up to 802.11ac speeds is available for wireless Internet speeds, and plenty of spectrum is supported on the unlocked version too. Our review unit is a Verizon branded model and is tweaked to best support Verizon’s network here in the US. Below is the list of spectrum supported for the phone, with theoretical LTE speeds up to Cat9 450/5Mbps.
4G LTE bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/13
Being so thin has some serious drawbacks when it comes to battery life, there’s just no mincing words here. 5.19mm doesn’t leave a lot of room for battery after cramming in the screen and all the other components a modern smart phone has, leaving the Moto Z with a relatively small 2,600mAh battery. This isn’t any different of a size from previous Moto X phones, and anyone who’s used one of those devices knows full well how much of a problem the battery life can be for more active users. Lenovo offers plenty of power savings built into the software, including the Moto Display feature that attempts to help you from turning the screen on more than necessary, but in the end this is still a very small battery for such a powerful phone.
To be completely frank though I never had a problem getting through a full day’s use, even when playing battery intensive games like Pokemon GO throughout the day, streaming music, etc. Thankfully Lenovo has built in the latest in USB Type-C quick charging methods, starting with the charger that ships in the box. This 5v/3a charger will fill the battery up in just under an hour, and a 15 minute charge is rated to give you around 8 hours of usage. Real world usage is a little less than this 8 hour quoted time, but it’s still a 30% charge in an incredibly fast 15 minutes which is nothing to scoff at. There’s always the Moto Mod battery packs too if you’re willing to add a little bulk to the phone occasionally when you need it.
Lenovo has definitely presented us with an interesting mix of ideas with the Moto Z, and that all starts with the removal of the standard 3.5mm headset jack that many have become all too familiar with. This standard, which has been around since the 1800s, relies on analog technologies to deliver sound in a very digital world. As part of this OEMs have been looking for a solution to eliminate this jack, and appear to have found one in the USB Type-C port. USB Type-C is a panacea of sorts as it attempts to solve every problem we’ve ever had with ports on smartphones, including transfer speed, charging rates, data and video out as well as sound output. Lenovo has included a USB Type-C to 3.5mm jack adapter inside every Moto Z box, which provides a 6-inch/15cm cable that provides users with a 3.5mm headset jack so that they can use existing peripherals without issue.
The obvious drawbacks here are that you’ll need to actually remember to bring the adapter with you everywhere you go, and if you lose it there’s no way to use existing 3.5mm peripherals without a comparable adapter. One morning while driving I realized I had left the adapter at home and had no way to play music over my truck stereo because of the missing 3.5mm jack, something that would annoy me even further if this were something I had to constantly remember. Another issue is the fact that this single port is also the only way to charge the Moto Z, as there is no wireless charging and the adapter included doesn’t add an additional USB Type-C port for charging either. Making a phone this thin yet again has some serious drawbacks, and lack of this vital port and the ability to charge and listen to music at the same time is a big negative without a doubt. That doesn’t mean there aren’t options on the market, but when you spend $600 or more on a new smartphone you shouldn’t have to purchase additional items for basic functionality like listening and charging.
Although the drawbacks are big, the sound quality from the USB Type-C port is nothing short of phenomenal. There’s no high-resolution audio here, so regular 16-bit playback is all that’s available, but the mixing and general audio quality found here are nothing short of superb. Audio in every headset I have, as well as higher quality sound systems, sounded excellent and full coming from the Moto Z’s included 3.5mm adapter. Lenovo even includes a great equalizer that not only has easy to use and well labeled presets, but also the ability to choose virtual surround sound modes and customize the audio spectrum via 5 different sliders. The default output is so good though I didn’t find myself needing to change anything though, something that’s a nice change from some other phones on the market.
Wireless audio junkies are likely to be disappointed though, as Motorola didn’t include aptX support for higher quality Bluetooth audio. This means most small Bluetooth speakers will sound just fine, but up the quality to a bigger Bluetooth sound system or higher quality Bluetooth headphones and you’ll definitely hear the compression that regular quality Bluetooth audio produces. Audio on this phone ends up feeling like one big step forward for digital audio but one massive step backward for wireless audio, something that’s unfortunate to say the least given the incredible quality of the wired audio here.
Lenovo has long been about a very stock look and feel with the addition of a few key extra components. True to form the Moto Z ships with a very stock looking and feeling Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, however digging even just a little bit nets you some significant additional features that you won’t find in stock Android. Many of the big unique software features of the Moto Z are found within the Moto app, and many of these are active out of the box. Moto’s amazing Moto Voice makes an appearance here just as it has on many generations of smartphones from Moto. Just like on previous generations of Moto X phones, the Moto Z’s Moto Voice feature allows you to set any custom wakeup command for a completely hands-free experience and ties deeply into Google Now. This means there’s practically no limit to any action you can think of doing or question you can think of asking. Moto Voice will even read messages back to you, giving you a truly hands-free experience and not just a partially hands-free one.
Moto Gestures include many familiar ones to previous Moto X users, but not everyone will be familiar with these. Out of the box two of these are enabled; hold the phone sideways and chop twice to toggle the torch, and double twist the phone in a figure 8 to launch the camera. These gestures work anywhere, whether the phone is locked or not, and are part of a series of gestures that all work very nicely and are well thought out. Additional gestures include Attentive Display for keeping the screen on while you’re looking at it, putting the phone on its face on a surface to activate Do Not Disturb mode, muting the ringer when you physically lift the phone and swiping from the bottom bezel upward to shrink the screen to a smaller size for one-hand use.
Fingerprint and Security
As should be expected nowadays, the fingerprint scanner on the Moto Z is nothing short of fast, accurate and downright incredible. The phone recognizes fingerprints within milliseconds of touching it, which to our brains registers as instant unlocking. Up to 10 fingerprints can be registered so there’s no shortage of fingers that you can add to more comfortably unlock your device from either holding or on a desk. The front-facing fingerprint scanner location is ideal for unlocking the phone while it’s sitting on a surface, and Lenovo has even built functionality to lock the device straight from this scanner too. Touch it to wake up and unlock instantly, or press and hold the scanner to lock the phone and shut the screen off while in use. It’s a genius way to do things even if Lenovo wasn’t the very first ever to have this feature.
In addition to fingerprint scanning and securely locking the device, the Moto Z comes encrypted out of the box and features a powerfully fast hardware method of encryption. It also complies with the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) cryptographic kernel for full use with the US Federal government and other agencies that require more stringent security methods. In addition to these the phone of course has per-app permissions and a number of other new security features introduced last Fall in Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
Over the years since the original Moto X, Moto has been tweaking and refining their camera software experience to better represent what customers expect from a modern smartphone camera experience. Today Lenovo’s software exhibits many of the industry standard designs that customers have come to expect, but in that respect it’s still held back by some of the limitations many camera apps have too. The camera interface features a prominent white shutter button centered at the bottom of the screen, with a front/rear camera toggle button next to it on one side, and a mode switch on the other side. On the opposite side of the screen from these buttons you’ll find some quick settings like HDR, flash and timer toggles. Clicking to focus will bring up a visual ring of the focal point with a radial exposure adjustment for quick exposure changes when needed.
Swiping in from the left side reveals a settings tray that’s specific to each mode. Lenovo offers plenty of modes here including photo, video, panorama, slow motion video and professional photography mode. There’s even Android Wear integration that launches on your watch as soon as you launch the camera, giving you access to a remote shutter via a single large button press that counts down from 3 seconds and takes a shot, as well as giving you a quick view of the shot from your watch. Manual mode is among the best out there, although not the absolute best in every single measure. Manual focus is here, but there’s no focus peaking or zooming, and you can also adjust the white balance, exposure, shutter speed and ISO levels straight from the interface. These can be toggled individually or all brought up on the screen at once, giving you one-click access to all manual features at the same time.
Aside from having no way to quickly take a picture from the video mode, or start a video recording from the picture mode there’s very little wrong with the camera software here, and it generally exhibits some great design. Users who don’t want so many options can turn on easy mode which allows a single press anywhere on the screen to focus and capture a shot. The software also takes multiple shots at a time, and when it determines the best shot it will present you with the option to choose between the multiple shots from the gallery. This is an excellent feature as it takes shots before and after you press the shutter, and sometimes these additional shots could mean the difference between a blurry and a clearer image.
Camera Performance and Results
The Moto Z utilizes an unnamed 13-megapixel sensor with laser-assisted autofocus and a dual-tone dual-LED array. Similarly the 5-megapixel front-facing camera features a single LED flash for great night-time selfies, but fully expect to be blinded afterward because of its brightness. The camera itself launches incredibly quickly, from screen off to taking a shot in around 2 seconds flat. The built-in double twist gesture ensures that you don’t have to think about pressing the right button or drawing a gesture on screen, just flick your wrist around in a figure 8 movement and you’re ready to take the shot.
The Moto Z utilizes a laser-assisted autofocus module with some pretty good results. Focusing is generally accurate, although autofocus doesn’t seem to want to focus quite as close to the phone as you can force it to in manual mode. In addition to this focusing is quite quick, around half a second or less in most cases, even low light, but not quite the fastest on the market. The shutter speed is absolutely instant though, regardless of whether or not the shot was focused, so you’ll want to make sure you pause for a fraction of a second to ensure the shot focused. There wasn’t a time I ran into where a shot was unfocused outside of me trying to do this, so it likely won’t happen often or at all to you in real life situations. Auto HDR and auto night-time modes also kick in when necessary and take a fraction of a second to process before allowing you to move on to the next shot. All of this adds up to a very quick camera experience that no one would complain about, but it’s still not the absolute fastest picture taking at this point in 2016.
Shot quality hovers around the good mark, sometimes going into great and sometimes trending toward mediocre. There’s a lot of great things about this camera though, so we’ll start with those. Color reproduction and white balance are absolutely spot on, and no matter what light I was shooting pictures in, things just looked right. Overall detail is pretty good but nothing over and above what you might expect from a 13-megapixel sensor, although these images aren’t as detailed as ones from higher quality sensors of this size like the Nexus 5x/6p for instance. One of the best things Lenovo has done is allow the software to favor a faster shutter speed over everything else going on. This means that even in lower light you’ll get crisp, clear shots when things are moving. I was actually able to clearly capture my 2 year old banging on the piano well after the sun had set, something most phones would catch in a blur. This was all on the first shot too thanks to the phone automatically taking multiple shots at once and selecting the best one for me.
While movement in low light shots is absolutely fantastic, the issue with having a fast shutter means that less light is allowed to enter the sensor. Higher ISO can help but this particular sensor seems to produce slightly more noise than other 13-megapixel sensors, or at least it seems that way given how soft things get when lower light situations arise. This also means that lower light shots may turn out a bit darker than other phones, but then again the trade off to have blur-free images may very well be worth it depending on what you’re using it for. Dynamic range in general also isn’t terribly impressive here, and the software seems to trend toward not using HDR even in situations that would have benefited from it. HDR here is pretty good, although it takes about a second or so longer to capture the photo, plus in general it seems like it biases toward much lower exposure when using HDR mode and keeps things a little too dark most of the time.
What is absolutely above average, and quite so, is the video quality and options. With 4K recording, Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), HDR video and 720p 240FPS slow motion video, the Moto Z is equipped to handle anything you want to film and more. Video quality is phenomenal, especially the 4K recording which features not only OIS stabilized video but also HDR video. Most phones now offer 4K video but almost none offer 4K video with OIS, and on top of that almost no phones offer HDR video either. The Moto Z offers both and blows away the competition in quality for so many reasons because of this. Even slow motion video is excellent, offering clean 720p video at a super high framerate that matches the best phones out there. Check out our gallery below for all the photos and videos taken during the review period.
Insanely thin and light, yet sturdy and quality feeling
Moto Mods are brilliant
Fantastic VR performance
Fastest internal storage of any mobile device
Adoptable storage support
Unbeatable multi-tasking performance
Moto software in general
Great sound quality through USB Type-C port
Superb video recording quality and options
Moto Mods can get expensive
Battery is a tad small
No 3.5mm headset jack without included adapter
No aptX support
Hands down the Moto Z is the best phone Motorola has made in years. That’s not to say the Moto X line wasn’t good or a success, but this phone is so above and beyond anything most OEMs are doing right now it’s nothing short of stunning. Everything from the incredible build to the ingenious Moto Mods scream of being well thought out, and even though not having a 3.5mm jack will be a huge disappointment to some, Lenovo’s inclusion of the adapter in the box means that you won’t have to buy anything extra just to use this standard jack. The battery could be a bit bigger, but there are sacrifices that have to be made to be this thin, and sometimes pushing things like better battery and app management as well as an all-digital audio standard could pay off in the long run. Time will tell how successful Moto Mods are, but the current availability is pretty compelling, and the overall effort on Lenovo’s part to deliver a truly killer flagship in 2016 has absolutely been fulfilled. If you’re looking for a top notch flagship in 2016 don’t pass this one up, it’s really something special.