The Moto Z4 falls well short of its "without compromises" promise
Motorola's Moto Z4 is the latest in a run of Z-series devices to land on the market and is without a doubt the best device under the brand to launch so far. Its spectacularly good camera — for the $499 price — and highly optimized battery mesh well with a comparatively brilliant display, solid speakers, and a unique design to embody a gadget that's going to be well worth the cost for most users.
The Moto Z4 also isn't perfect thanks to a few design flaws that steal away from the premium facade and the fact that modular attachments really seem to boil down to a money grab. There's also a slight issue with overheating this time around. That isn't going to impact everybody but it's not going to go unnoticed either when it does crop up and neither is the utter lack of modern features such as wireless charging.
Without a doubt, this is going to be a great handset for those who love Motorola phones and the Moto Z series in particular. In some respects, it's going to be among the best high-value offerings around but placing the caveats under a microscope shows it isn't going to be great for just anybody.
Disclaimer: At Android Headlines, we now review all phones from the "good" and the "bad" perspectives. Our reviews are designed to give a deeper perspective on the positive and negatives of each new device and should help readers who are specifically looking for why a phone is really good, or why its negative aspects might make it worth avoiding. This "bad" review focuses on the negative for the Moto Z4. For an idea of everything Motorola did right with this phone, visit our "good" review.
Mods are going to be hit or miss depending on the user
As the namesake accessory for any of Motorola's Moto 'Z' series devices, compatibility with moto mods is going to be one of the biggest perks of owning a Moto Z4. The mods add all sorts of features not found already on this mid-range handsets — and my test unit even arrived with a bunded moto 360 camera attachment in the box. For instance, they can add to the gadget's style, videography or photography capabilities, entertainment value, or performance.
A quick glance at the currently available mods reveals add-ons for audio improvements, a game controller, extra battery capacity, photo printing, camera zooming, and there is even a mod to add 5G connectivity.
That diverse range of options doesn't mean this particular modulation model is without its faults though.
For starters, with the Moto Z4, the mod I tested didn't quite fit flush with the design language and shape of the rest of the device once pins and magnets were lined up and snapped together. It did fit snugly in place with no jiggle or unwanted movement but it looked like it wasn't part of the device at all.
Now, the biggest fault I found when I began exploring the mods had little to do with aesthetics or functionality though and a lot more to do with pricing. While useful, especially with its center-positioned physical shutter button tucked behind the Moto M logo, the mod costs a whopping $200 over the price of the device when shipped separately. That's consistent with the cost of the other mods for photography or printing too.
Other mods are cheaper — with the exception of the Verizon-exclusive $350 5G mod — and the next most expensive mod is the moto smart speaker with Amazon Alexa at just short of $150 to buy. The real problem with the mods' pricing is that some of these features don't feel as though they'd be worth the cost.
While it may be convenient to snap a moto stereo speaker mod onto the gadget at just $59.99 in place of a quick portable speaker. A portable speaker at that cost will undoubtedly offer a more powerful experience. Similarly, the moto gamepad does add in an extra battery and some Nintendo Switch-like controls for only $79.99 but that's decidedly more expensive than the average for a simple Bluetooth or wired controller
Neither necessarily offers a lot of advantages for the extra cost and that's fairly consistent across the board.
Put simply, although moto mods will certainly be worthwhile for some and particularly for those who already have a Moto Z device, placing that extra cost over the initial buy-in of $499 for the Moto Z4 itself won't be worth it for everybody. That's especially true since this is decidedly a mid-range smartphone and won't likely have the same shelf life or longevity as a flagship.
Even at a premium, at least some of those mods are still going to be well worth the cost for some users. I can't see my way to justifying the $199 price tag of the included moto 360 camera mod, let alone the cost of the 5G mod.
The latter of those is around half the cost of some brand new top-tier smartphone. Although it opens up the use of next-generation networks, it does not open up all of the next generation features that might be expected from a brand new device. Because the Moto Z4 won't ever see an update beyond Android Q, expected to land in 2020, and because it's limited to Verizon's still-unsubstantial 5G network, that cost won't exactly offer much for most users.
Cameras are okay but not so much the 360-degree camera and not that camera hump
The moto 360 camera does have some worthwhile features in its own right. As its name implies allows users to capture a full sweeping view of their surroundings and a dedicated shutter button, for example, has been placed at the center and hidden behind the Moto logo. It's also extremely convenient to snap a full panorama without having to move the phone at all. It really is just a click and the photo is taken.
The most prominent problem I ran into with the camera, however, is that the quality just doesn't appear to quite match up with the cost or with what the expectations that might be built up by primary snappers on the Moto Z4. Transitions from light to dark scenes don't translate well at all, for starters. Making matters worse, in shots where both heavy shadows and bright light come into play, one or the other is going to be washed out or just too dark. It also just performs extremely poorly in low-light circumstances such as when it's used indoors.
Details around the edges of the capture zone, since this camera effectively combines a fish-eye front and back shot into a single capture, tend to be far less clear too. The end result is a lot of convenience for those who like to snap 360 shots manually using a panorama mode but with sub-par performance in terms of stitching frames together.
That's disappointing since color capture and details toward the center of each frame is actually very accurate. So it ends up feeling like the shots could have been much better. It isn't immediately clear whether that's a hardware or software problem either.
Regardless, that issue — combined with the fact that I actually had to carry around the mod, to begin with — and the fact that attaching the gadget breaks the overall aesthetic of the handset made using the 360 camera more of a chore than something I actually wanted to do.
The mod also highlights a design feature of this Motorola that really feels out of place in 2019. Namely, it makes the clash between the sleek design of the body of the Moto Z4 and the camera hump at the back seem more prominent. Viewed from the side, the hump has the appearance of being separate from the rest of the handset too, thanks to a gap between the edges and the back of the phone.
Once noticed, that gap was pretty much impossible to unsee.
This runs a bit too hot
Setting aside problems with the overall aesthetics of Motorola's Moto Z4, there's also a minor caveat in the temperature this handset seems to run at sometimes. Particularly while charging up or running very intensive apps or games, and especially when done simultaneously, this device gets exceptionally hot.
That's not quite enough that it's going to scald the skin or result in a trip to the hospital but I did notice it immediately the first time it happened. In fact, I dropped the phone immediately when I noticed it while charging the Moto Z4 because it was just a touch beyond what could accurately be described as "uncomfortable to hold."
Now, that's not going to be a big problem for most users. For those who need to use their phone while it's charging on the odd occasion or who are going to be doing intensive gaming or productivity and creative work on the gadget, it almost certainly will be.
Adding to that issue is the fact that the moto 'M' at the back of the device seems to be made of a rubbery sticker that's been embedded in the rear panel. The heat does seem to be just high enough that any adhesive holding that in place could feasibly be weakened over time, potentially resulting in the logo peeling off.
That's setting aside any damage that could reasonably be caused to internal components or other aspects of the device over time if it becomes overheated often enough.
Self-promotion and quirks get in the way of the classically "stock" feel Moto is known for
On the software side of the equation, the Moto Z4 also falls short for those who might be looking for the same almost stock Android experience available through other moto devices. That's not to say Motorola hasn't produced a nearly stock experience but the branded software and self-promoting material included with that really can't be ignored.
The first piece of aftermarket software is, ironically enough, also intended to make using the rest of the features and software easier. Placed front-and-center on the default home screen, the Moto app acts as a quick reference guide for using the gestures, navigation, display, and "Moto Actions" that come with the Z4, tucked under the "Moto Actions" and "Moto Display" categories in the app's menu.
As might be surmised from the naming convention used there, the tools themselves are useful.
The first includes gestures to access the flashlight, take screenshots, control media, turn on Do Not Disturb mode, capture photos, and even a way to turn on a Google-like one-button navigation mode. Moto Display, conversely, allows interactions with the display while the screen is turned off and a feature that will keep the screen on as long as it notices you're looking at it.
Both sets worked as well for me as I expected and hoped they would.
While having a guide for getting the most out of a device is useful in its own right, it hints at just how much more complex the gadget's included software is than Google's stock Android 9 Pie would otherwise be. Motorola does also include a "Moto Help" application for added assistance, easy contact for official company support, hardware testing, and extended service plans.
That should all prove useful if things go wrong or if extra help is needed. But with consideration for the additional "Moto Z Market" app — which is basically a store for buying moto mods, accessories, and the like — for a bit of shameless self-promotion on top of the added complexity, using the Moto Z4 just isn't going to be anything like a "pure" Android experience.
Go ahead and buy it, if you can ignore the compromises
The caveats with this handset are predominantly defined by whether or not you happen to be looking for a truly stock Android device and whether or not a load of extra software features is desirable. Moto mods are, of course, completely optional and nobody is necessarily going to have to use the features — although those do cause pop-up notifications if they're turned off.
With that said, the overheating problem is going to be the bigger issue. That's not going to cause an enormous problem for the majority of users and it certainly didn't cause many for me once I stopped overworking the phone. It's also uncertain whether or not the heat will cause any actual damage to the handset itself.
For those who are looking to do a lot of hardcore mobile gaming or who will absolutely have to use their device while it's charging, the lack of cooling to offset the problem is probably going to be a dealbreaker anyway. That's unfortunate because the Moto Z4 is a brilliantly good device where it excels and is among the best available in the mid-range category, at under $500 for either the Verizon or unlocked version.