The Moto Z4 keeps a unique design with performance and cameras more suitable for a 2019 flagship
The Moto Z series has been a high-performance, mid-range staple for Lenovo-owned Motorola since its inception, delivering top-tier features in a somewhat modular framework. The company wasn't looking to change that with its latest entry into the family, the Moto Z4, and based on my experiences with the gadget, they really haven't.
Instead, Motorola has mostly kept the device's unique heritage in design with a couple of worthwhile changes and improved wherever possible to bring the performance, display, and cameras in line with the competition. The result proved to be a smartphone that can truly live up to the bar set its flagship killer predecessors as well as amp up the pressure on the competition despite one or two deficiencies that most will be able to easily overlook.
More than just iterate the series forward, at $499, what the Moto Z4 does is to force the issue of whether or not 'flagships' have become too expensive in terms of the value offered. More directly, it's one device that just about anybody in the market for a new smartphone should be looking at more closely, regardless of which price bracket is up for consideration.
Disclaimer: At Android Headlines, we now review all phones from the "good" and the "bad" perspectives. We've designed our reviews to help readers get a clearer perspective on what makes a phone worth buying or avoiding without the little details getting lost. The "good" review focuses on the positives for the Moto Z4, while you'll be able to find all the negative details in our "bad" review.
Bring out your inner photographer on a budget
There are actually a few ways that the Moto Z4 stands out from the competition but the camera is probably going to be the biggest and that's not just because it shoots at least as well as other mid-rangers either.
We can step straight past the quality of photo output derived from Motorola's decision to include a 48-megapixel sensor with a 12-megapixel "Quad Pixel" output — backed by an f/1.7 aperture optical image stabilization, laser autofocus, and phase-detection autofocus as well as a CCT dual-LED flash.
Portrait mode, AI-based 'Portrait Lighting', AR stickers, Panorama mode, pro features, Live Filter, and direct Google Lens access features found in the software are relatively standard in Android phones now too. All of those work as intended and, based on my experiences with the Moto Z4, at least as well as the same features found in any flagship.
Even the unique "Spot Color" feature, which allows users to select hues to stand out on an otherwise monotone black and white capture, can be bypassed as relatively straightforward and standard. The same can be said of its 4X, 8X, 16X, and 32X timelapse capture mode and its slow-motion features. YouTube Live is even accessible directly from the camera's menu and there's a "Cinemagraph" mode that adds motion to moving subjects — similar to a GIF — against a stable background.
All of that is intuitively tucked behind a swipe-right menu or under the multi-app icon, as explained at the first launch of the camera.
No, the big kicker from this device, in terms of photography, is going to be its "Night Vision" mode.
While other companies have sought to replicate the same feature as it's found on Google's Pixel-branded handsets under the name 'Night Sight', Motorola may very well have matched those gadgets' dedicated night mode on its Moto Z4. Even under conditions where only very little light is available — for example, from a porchlight or the moon — the camera captures shots in that mode that seem relatively as color-accurate and detailed as daytime shots.
It's worth pointing out that those do take quite a bit longer to shoot per capture and required me to keep the camera as steady as possible for quite a bit longer than a normal shot but Night Vision, as shown via our sample gallery on Flickr, is impressive.
The moto 360 camera mod that was included in the box with our unlocked variant of the Moto Z4 in undeniably weaker in terms of performance and doesn't take indoor or night shots well at all. Thankfully, that substandard performance doesn't spill over into the standard camera modes here.
For everyday photography, the Z4 captures color accurately and captures details better than most other handsets I've managed to get my hands on. That includes some devices that might presumably be far better if they were judged on cost alone.
Image processing, meanwhile, is only made better by the fact that both focus and shutter speed are nearly instant with the Moto Z4. So there was never any waiting around for things to come back into focus or just hoping for the best when taking a shot of a moving object or subject. Put simply, the camera just works and it works for a lot more than just simple photos and videos.
The only area the standard camera seems to lag behind, in fact, is when zoomed in. The act of zooming in and out is smoothly animated and there's no lag here either — as is the case with the rest of the camera software — but the quality degrades substantially after passing the 2X mark. That only gets worse as the maximum of 8X zoom is approached but isn't a dealbreaker since only the very best smartphone cameras really do zoom better.
For mobile photographers, the camera on the Moto Z2 is going to be a very close second to Google's Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a lineup.
The 25-megapixel selfie camera is equally impressive, featuring not only face recognition features and portrait modes but also a low-light mode that takes advantage of the Quad Pixel tech found on the primary snapper for better shots with less noise.
Battery for days …maybe
Longevity, thanks in part to the inclusion of a 3600mAh capacity battery and "TurboPower" 15W charging, is the second area where Motorola has really outdone itself this time around. To be clear, there's no wireless charging here but that's not going to be a problem thanks to the charging speed.
Starting with that Moto Z4 perk, the phone was mostly dead when I pulled it from its box. I signed in and installed the apps I can't live without to finish it off before plugging the phone in — with the expectation that I'd be waiting at least a few hours due to the capacity of the battery.
I actually missed when the device hit 100-percent the first time around and had to wait until it died again through normal use before timing the process again. Rather than taking a few hours as expected, the 15W charging meant that an hour on the charger put the battery at just over 76-percent full. In just over an hour-and-a-half, the batter was completely full.
It doesn't die quickly either, actually requiring that I mostly watched videos and played games just to kill it off with a day of use. Surprisingly, on the first day of testing, the Moto Z4 was rarely set down and it still had more than 30-percent charge at the end of the day.
Used more conservatively, with only a few hours of gaming and streaming video or music, two days of use is absolutely not going to be a stretch for most users — although it will be pushing things for heavier users. For those who actually use battery saving features and don't use their phones quite so frequently, it will undoubtedly be the minimum battery life expectancy here.
A distinctly Moto design with one major perk and at least some ruggedization
One of the biggest drawbacks with the Moto Z4 is going to be that it isn't waterproof or dustproof. It hasn't been given an IP-rating for ruggedization at all and instead has been given a P2i splash-proof nano-coating that will keep it mostly safe against water from rain or sweat.
Setting that aside, however, fans of the series are going to love the consistency in design here and the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack almost seems worth the trade-off — although other companies do include both at a serious premium.
The Moto Z4 utilizes what should be a familiar squared-off design language comprised chiefly of polished aluminum. The high-end materials, smoothly-rounded corners, textured power button, grippy back panel and cleanly cut ports all give this handset a great in-hand feel.
In fact, apart from the large camera bump at the back and connectors along the bottom, the entire thing has a decidedly top-end feel. That's well represented visually in a "Flash Grey" coloration that doesn't quite stay gray depending on the way light is hitting the casing, shifting between reds, pinks, and purples that sometimes match up with reflections from surrounding objects.
A "Frost White" variant is available as well.
Metal covers the forward-facing earpiece speaker in a tightly knit grill while the top-mounted loudspeaker has wider ports, accenting the 2.5D Gorilla Glass used in the display and Gorilla Glass 3 is used at the back.
The ports, buttons, and pin connectors all feel exceptionally well made too with the former fitting plugs snugly without room for wiggle and the SIM drawer is comprised of an enclosed metal frame. The latter feature meant the SIM tray was easier to use and there was less chance I'd drop or lose my SIM card.
Meanwhile, buttons click through with what both feels and sounds like a solid click that should indicate a long life ahead while the magnetic mechanisms geared at holding moto mods in place deliver with a firm grip on the accessories, as expected.
A similar level of quality can be found in the shutter button that's hidden away in the "M" logo on the moto 360 camera mod my test unit shipped with too. Throughout the test, that never failed to snap a photo on-demand or showed any squishiness beyond expectations. The mod itself showed no signs of structural weakness either, although it was hardly a perfect camera.
As noted above, the back panel on the body of this device is actually the opposite of what it appears at first glance too. That is to say that the Moto Z4 isn't slippery at all. The glass panel at the front is another matter and it may be the case that this smartphone should not be placed on any surface face down. The edges aren't great for grip either but that should be less of an issue since it's easier to get a firm grip there anyway.
The back of the body, despite appearances, allowed me to hold an open hand at a relatively steep angle — roughly 70 to 80-degrees, to be more concise — without the phone dropping out. I didn't have my fingertips hooked around the edges either. It just kind of stayed in place, regardless.
That's impressive because it means that in spite of being made of glass, the back panel actually helped keep the device from being dropped in day to day use. I never felt like it was just going to slip from my hands.
Performance beyond the specs
On the performance front, the Moto Z4 and its octa-core Snapdragon 675 processor — backed by 4GB RAM and 128GB expandable storage — were able to handle everything I could throw at it without issue.
Now, whether or not that remains the case for every application is going to vary from user to user but it didn't matter whether I was running a battery and CPU-intensive game or just running multiple apps at the same time. The lag I expected to experience during the initial setup of the device was non-existent and it didn't crop up during multi-tasking either.
That's a testament to how far mobile devices have come and how well-optimized the hardware and software environment of Android is but it also highlights Motorola's efforts in that space.
The only area where any delay appeared was during the process of attaching or detaching the moto mod camera that shipped with this handset. That appeared to mostly arise from the fact that the hardware environment had changed and the camera application needed to be altered to accommodate that fact. The delays typically lasted just a fraction of a second, followed by the requisite loading of a new UI to announce that the mod had been properly attached.
The same likely holds true for other mods as well, with slight latency when first attached and first removed.
Software included by default and the optimization in that regard certainly helped with the Moto Z4's performance too. Out of the box, it is predominantly Google apps installed thanks to Motorola's persistent drive to offer as close a stock experience as possible.
A truly stock Android installation isn't actually achieved with this particular device and there are some problems with the software for those who want a pure experience but it isn't all bad at all — with the possible exception of Facebook being installed by default. But setting up and getting moving with the Z4 was intuitive and straightforward, for the most part.
Sensors, sound, and connections
As with the more general performance of Motorola's latest value-priced premium device, the in-display fingerprint sensor tended to lag slightly behind what might be expected too.
However, it wasn't any slower than some fingerprint scanners found in other devices, including flagship devices. By comparison to the fingerprint sensor found in the Samsung Galaxy S10+, for instance, the one in the Moto Z4 is somewhat less secure but much faster. It just shouldn't be expected to perform as quickly as an external capacitive scanner.
Connectivity with the Moto Z4, conversely, was brilliant. Not only was I able to maintain a 4G LTE connection throughout my use of the gadget. It is also able to gain access to Verizon's 5G network via a special moto mod sold through the carrier. So the Z4 is going to be among the fastest devices on the market for quite some time when it comes to mobile connections.
Bluetooth wasn't disappointing either, during those times where I opted to use that instead of the wired headphone jack — although that obviously isn't going to be as good as a wired connection. That's thanks to the inclusion of Bluetooth 5.0, integrated neatly alongside GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and NFC.
Since this is an Android Enterprise Recommended handset, the Moto Z4 should meet security standards on those fronts better than most others too. At the very least, that certification means the phone has met Google's standards for enterprise-ready devices.
In terms of sound quality outside of the headphone port or Bluetooth, the on-device speakers are loud and respectable but don't really rise above those included on similarly-priced Android smartphones. That's not necessarily a bad thing since sound quality in mobile devices has gotten so much better over the years and it translates well when speaker-phone calls need to be made.
The same bears true for the onboard audio input too. Thanks to the inclusion of three far-field mics, the audio recording is great in video captures and so is the audio quality of captures sent out via phone calls or voice messages. That's setting aside that this phone will capture voice commands at a distance on a level that's similar to a Google Home speaker and even when there is a fair amount of noise in the background.
Let's talk about that display
The 19.5:9 ratio 6.4-inch display panel included on this handset is rated at Full HD+ (2340 x 1080p) resolution and the overall screen to body ratio is only around 85-percent. That's not necessarily impressive in its own right but the design of the phone compliments those figures and actually using the Moto Z4 reveals that there's more here than is detailed in the specifications.
To begin with, the viewing angles on this phone's screen are comparatively great and, in keeping with its enterprise certification from Google, it's backed by VDE blue light hazard safety certification. So it's easy on the eyes and useable even after it has been set down.
There's no settling here on the color representation front either. The screen on the Moto Z4 is bright enough to be used outdoors under direct sunlight and just vibrant enough to avoid distorting the natural vibrancy of whatever's being displayed.
The Moto Z4's display refresh rate, while not listed by the company, seems quite high too and the OLED panel is extremely responsive on the touch side of the equation.
In real-world use, that meant that not only was everything crystal clear all of the time and regardless of what app I was using. I very nearly listed the responsiveness as a negative because I had become so used to using smartphones with less sensitive screens.
After finally figuring out exactly what the problem was — and that, relatively speaking, I didn't need to mash the screen to interact with it — the entire experience could be described as "amazingly buttery." Taps and swipes registered properly every time
A mid-range phone that's worthy of its price tag
Buying a smartphone has become a very real hassle for a significant portion of the wider consumer market over the past several years. Not only is it increasingly difficult to decide between brands but even the budget, mid-range, and premium smartphone brackets seem to be on the move.
Thankfully, as smartphone prices continue to climb with each successive generation, the entire floor beneath those — all the way down to the budget-friendly category — has risen. That means a device that performs nearly as well as a flagship in almost every regard can be purchased at a fraction of the price. In this case, the Moto Z4 really does fit the bill.
The Moto Z4 is easily a shoo-in fit in among this year's top devices in the mid-range category and could even have a chance at taking the top spot in that category at just $499.
This is a smartphone that checks almost all of the same boxes as the Pixel 3a series and offers a smooth experience, to begin with. At the same time — setting aside the wealth of other mods from projectors to battery expansions and with the purchase of a separate, if expensive, moto mod — it goes above and beyond the competition because it's also 5G capable.
So there's no question that Motorola's Moto Z4 should be on the shortlist for anybody who doesn't want to spend a whole lot of money but needs a device that keeps up with whatever is thrown at it.