Batman was always my favorite superhero. Superman had it way too easy–rooting for him is like rooting for the Warriors to beat a bunch of fourth-graders. Spiderman, the whole Fantastic Four, all those guys were just science experiments gone horribly right. But Batman was a super-rich, kind of bro-y guy with emotional demons and a voice that sounds like he’s this close to sneezing. It was his gadgets that made him a superhero. As a gadget nerd, that was an idea I could get behind.
Motorola Moto Z
Modularity could open up a whole new world for smartphones. This phone is stupid thin. It’s fast, the camera’s good, it does all the things a good phone should.
No headphone jack. This phone is like a photo frame for your fingerprints. The fingerprint reader makes no sense.
To say the Moto Z is the Batman of smartphones is a stretch. It’s not saving Gotham, and it features exactly zero grappling hooks or batarangs. But you get the idea: The Moto Z, by itself, is just a really thin, high-end phone. It’s Bruce Wayne in a six-thousand-dollar suit. It’s the gadgets that snap on to the 16-pin connector on the back that make it special.
The gadgets that attach to the back of the Moto Z are called mods. The difference between a mod and an accessory is the difference between the mechanical hand Luke Skywalker gets in The Empire Strikes Back and one of those grabber things old people use to grab prune juice off the coffee table. When you put a mod on your Moto Z, the phone is programmed to accept it as a new appendage, as part of the phone. Instead of putting on a battery case, for instance, which your phone would see as a source of power from which to slurp up all the juice it could, a battery mod makes the Moto Z believe it suddenly has a larger battery inside, which it can then regulate and charge as efficiently as possible. Pop on a speaker, or a second screen, or a projector, and it’s like your phone always had those things.
Far more than screen resolution or camera performance, these mods are what will decide whether this is the smartphone of the future. Motorola believes that by giving users more control over the way their phone looks and functions, it can sell them phones that feel more personal and more effective. It’s also making a big, long-term bet on mods, in a way that goes far beyond smartphones: When everything is connected, there’s a lot of money to be made in being the one to connect it all. The 16-pin connector is really the future of Motorola. And it’s not just Motorola going after this future–LG’s G5 beat the Moto Z to market by more than three months, as did a bunch of startups. Google’s Project Ara team is also hot on their trail. But from what I can tell, Motorola’s doing it better than anyone.
Thin, thinner, thinnest
One housekeeping note: There are actually two Moto Z’s. I’ll talk mostly about the regular phone, which Verizon’s selling for $26 a month or $624 outright, but there’s also a device called the Moto Z Force that is a little more expensive ($30 a month or $720 outright), a lot thicker, and has a slightly bigger battery and a shatterproof screen. (Both also technically have Droid in their name, because thanks Verizon, but I don’t hate you and thus will not refer to them that way.) If you’re perpetually lotion-fingered, the Force is for you. Otherwise, stick with the standard Z. If you decide you need more battery, well, that’s what mods are for.
Two things about the Moto Z jump out as soon as you take the phone out of its menacingly minimalist black box. One, that the phone is impossibly, ridiculously, OJ’s-alibi-level thin. At 5.2mm, it’s the first big phone that’s felt comfortable in my front pocket, ever. It’s so thin I worry about losing it in the floorboards. It’s so thin I try to feed it cheeseburgers. OK, sorry, I’m done. The second thing that jumps out is the part that literally jumps out: the big, honking, round camera module bursting through the back like it’s about to attack Sigourney Weaver.
I don’t mind the camera module, though, especially since it spices up an otherwise pretty straightforward design. The Moto Z comes in two colors: black, and a white-gold combo. The former is sleeker but also infinitely more prone to proud displays of fingerprints. The latter shows ports and lenses a little more, but fingerprints a little less.
Speaking of fingerprints! There’s only one thing about the Z’s design that I can’t stand: the fingerprint reader. The reader works great, you just press it and the phone wakes up and unlocks. But for some reason that I’m sure was carefully considered (and I’m even more sure isn’t good enough), it’s not a button. The home button is a software button, just above the fingerprint reader. If you have the phone on, and press the reader thinking (as you should) that it’s a button, your phone turns off! This is crazy and bad. It’s crazybad. Yet somehow I soldier on.
You probably already have a good idea of how the Z performs, since it performs like the one you’re holding right now. There’s a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4 GBs of RAM, 32 or 64 GBs of storage–all good things. Its 5.5-inch, 2560 x 1440 screen us outrageously sharp and perfect for your VR-heavy future. A 2600mAh battery is not huge, but it’s enough to get me through a day full of photography and Netflix streaming. I’ve had a couple of odd moments, like when the edges of the touchscreen stopped responding or when the phone got so hot I thought it might burst into flames. But overall, it’s been years since phones were underpowered or low-res, so there’s really not much to say about the Moto Z except that it’s as good as it ought to be.
Same goes for the camera. The 16-megapixel camera on the Z (or 21 on the Force) takes photos and 4K video as well in most situations as any other smartphone I’ve tried. The Force is even more impressive, using a better Sony sensor and 21 megapixels to get slightly richer colors and sharper focus. Both give you some overly aggressive noise-reduction and artifacting, but nothing you wouldn’t get on an iPhone or Galaxy. The app’s fast and full of useful controls, too, and the twist-twist gesture is a great way to launch it. It’s great for selfies, what with the 5-megapixel sensor and front-facing flash.
Goodbye Jack, Hello Dongle
So far, so good. And then you turn your phone on and try to plug in your favorite headphones. Cue sad trombone. Since the Moto Z has no headphone jack, your only option is to buy a pair of wireless headphones, or use the included adapter dongle to plug into the USB-C port. Long-term, wireless is the answer–and Motorola won’t be the last company to kill the headphone jack–but for now, get ready to live your best dongle life.
But here’s where things start to get exciting again. What if you didn’t need headphones so often, because your phone had a kickass speaker? What if you weren’t stuck with a smartphone-level camera unless you wanted to be? What if you didn’t have to buy a thicker phone just to have more battery when you need it? Sounds great, right? Sounds like you need a modular phone.
The review unit Motorola sent me came with three mods: a slim white case that adds 2220 mAh to the battery; a projector, which adds a projector; and a big speaker with a kickstand. All three clip on to the back of the Moto Z, aligning to the camera module and the 16-pin connector. All three do exactly what you expect without a single second of setup or connection. None ever fell off, though the battery case does wiggle a bit if I fiddle with the phone in my hands. You don’t quite get the illusion Motorola’s going for, which is that you’ve fused the two parts together WITH OUR POWERS COMBINED and created some mutant Captain Planet hybrid. But the basic idea works great.
Motorola’s done a lot of software tweaking to make this all work, but most of it won’t concern most users. You’ll just be using Android. There are a few user-facing tweaks, but Motorola’s Android tweaks are the best Android tweaks: the great always-on voice control, and the lockscreen that subtly blinks on when you have a new notification. Not even Verizon can ruin the Moto Z: there’s a handful of pre-loaded junk apps on the phone, but mercifully not much else.
The Moto Z is supposed to be a great phone, and then some. Motorola said all along they had to make a phone that didn’t make compromises, for which the modular stuff was an added value with no subtractions. In almost every way, they did that. Of course, it’s not as polished or sculpted a phone as Samsung’s Galaxy S7. Nor is its camera as good. Nor is it waterproof. Nor does it have a headphone jack. Okay, the GS7 is probably a better phone. But the Z is a great phone.
The bigger question is whether Motorola can turn the mods ecosystem into something bigger and broader than the three I have on my desk. If so, you’ll be able to buy a Moto Z–or maybe the next one–and know that not only will your phone still be great a year or two from now, it might even be better. No one’s ever been able to say that about a smartphone before.