Moto’s 5G Mod Is a Big Risk, and We’re the Guinea Pigs

It may seem like 5G is perpetually just around the corner, but rest assured: the next-generation networking standard is coming soon, and it’s bringing super-fast speeds with it. And Motorola and Verizon just took a big step toward putting a 5G-ready phone in our hands.

A dummy model of Motorola's 5G Moto Mod, on the back of the new Moto Z3.A dummy model of Motorola's 5G Moto Mod, on the back of the new Moto Z3.The two companies yesterday (Aug. 2) announced a 5G Moto Mod — a modular component that will snap into the back of Motorola’s upcoming Moto Z3 smartphone. Attaching that 5G Moto Mod will let the Z3 connect to that soon-to-roll-out 5G network, enabling the phone to pull down data at faster speeds.

In many ways, it’s a clever idea; we’re not even in 5G’s early days yet, and the components that would enable 5G connectivity are only now heading to phone makers. Add to that the fact that consumer 5G networks won’t be in place for mobile until 2019, and the modular approach seems like a good way to introduce 5G in a tangible way, while serving as a necessary proving ground for Verizon’s infrastructure as it comes online.

Still, you could argue Motorola and Verizon’s joint announcement raised more questions than it answered. We’re told the Mod won’t arrive until the first quarter of 2019 — at best, five months after the only device that will support it comes out. Meanwhile, Verizon's 5G network still needs to materialize. The carrier is testing out home broadband service in several cities this year, before turning its attention to mobile in 2019, and the company will have serious kinks to work out — both logistical and technical — as it prepares for the new era.

The unfortunate side effect of being the first to something as complicated and industry-changing as 5G is that your earliest adopters more or less end up becoming beta testers. Moto’s 5G Mod could very well be a critical first step as the new networking standard launches. But given the questions that weren’t addressed at the reveal, it’s still not definitive whether a Moto Z3 equipped with a 5G Moto Mod will be the answer for the network of the future.

It’s not coming out until sometime vaguely next year

After unveiling its phone and accessory this week, Motorola demoed a pre-production version of the 5G Mod in action. In the test, conducted in a specialized room to ensure no interference, miniature towers blasted a signal directly at a prototype Mod from a few feet away, which then registered download speeds greater than 3 Gbps. Pretty cool.

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But there are some caveats to that eye-popping result. The Mod was shrouded by a box and wasn’t connected to a phone. Motorola evidently hasn’t reached the point where it’s ready to share this technology running on production-ready hardware yet, even though the Mod’s release is roughly six months away, based on the company’s claims.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a delay is inevitable, but with so many hurdles on the path to 5G and that launch date looming, a demo of the 5G Mod in conditions more like the real world would have inspired more confidence.

Verizon is being cagey about its network and data caps

That brings us to the next issue, which is everything Verizon isn’t saying about it’s first mobile 5G product. We know the carrier is launching residential 5G in four cities, including Houston, Los Angeles and Sacramento, before the end of the year. But Big Red is playing its cards close to the chest for mobile data, even though, again, this launch is merely months away.

Verizon tells us the 5G Mod won’t be a device without a network, which indicates the company will have 5G progress to report soon. But even so, the Mod will presumably only work in certain regions when it sees the light of day, meaning it won’t be available to most customers (at least at first).

The Moto Z3 is a Verizon-exclusive smartphone that will be the first to work with Motorola's 5G Moto Mod.The Moto Z3 is a Verizon-exclusive smartphone that will be the first to work with Motorola's 5G Moto Mod.And then there’s the question of data caps. During the demonstration, I asked Motorola product manager Jeff Snow if he could shed light on how much data 5G Mod users will be able to consume in a given service period. Snow said Motorola is still determining that with Verizon. But if the cap is anywhere near as stingy as what carriers enforce now, it could limit 5G’s value.

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Faster data means you'll hit your limit faster. Even with unlimited plans, you still run into a point where the carrier reserves the right to slow down your speeds. That’s probably not going to change with 5G, but data allotments and prices will almost certainly have to be adjusted. And no one’s saying at this point what that will look like, at least for those who will buy the 5G Mod.

During the event, Motorola made many of the same bold claims we’re so used to hearing about 5G, like how it has the capability to allow customers to accumulate unfathomable amounts of content in record time. In 10 seconds, a 5G-enabled phone could save 90 songs off Spotify; in one minute, it could download four 4K-quality episodes of Game of Thrones. But those what-if scenarios will simply be meaningless unless Verizon gifts a sizable chunk of data to its 5G guinea pigs.

You’ll need a Moto Z3 for it — at least for now

Up until now, every Moto Mod that Motorola has released has worked on every device in the Moto Z family. That encompasses three generations of smartphones.

It’s an impressive display of conviction that the company has stuck with this platform so long, but the Moto Z3, due out August 16, will introduce a critical rift. Motorola tells us the 5G Moto Mod will only work on the Verizon-exclusive Z3 initially, although its engineers are trying to find ways to enable compatibility with earlier Moto Z models.

The back of the Moto Z3, showing off the Moto Mod connector on the back where the phone will interface with the 5G Mod.The back of the Moto Z3, showing off the Moto Mod connector on the back where the phone will interface with the 5G Mod.It’s surprising that Motorola would break its own rules this way. Then again, this is the most ambitious Mod the company has produced, much more complicated than a simple speaker or even a Polaroid printer.

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The whole purpose of the Moto Mod experiment, as the company has told us again and again, was to allow customers to add features and improve their devices without having to shell out hundreds more on an entirely new handset. Unless Motorola is able to make good on its attempts to bring compatibility to older Moto Z phones, it seems buyers will have to do exactly that.

None of this would be an issue, though, if not for the phone the Mod was tied to. To be clear, the Moto Z3 looks like a perfectly fine and even reasonably priced handset, the likes of which you wouldn’t expect from a carrier exclusive. However, it doesn’t bring much new to the table outside of its 5G possibilities, considering that it employs last year’s Snapdragon 835 processor and a design almost entirely unchanged from the midrange Moto Z3 Play.

In other words, Verizon customers are being asked to drop $480 on a new phone based on a promise of eventual 5G that could take very long to materialize. Meanwhile, they’ll be biding their time with a phone that doesn’t seem particularly leading-edge.

And what about the price?

It’s important to note that we don’t know how the 5G Mod will be priced. But given the crazy technology inside — a combination of Qualcomm’s X50 5G and state-of-the-art X24 LTE modems — it could be quite pricey. The LTE modem covers for the one in the phone and is used when 5G service is poor. However, it can still achieve up to 2 Gbps, which isn’t far off the 3 Gbps peak in the 5G test we witnessed.

Motorola has also equipped the Mod with antennas on each corner, to mitigate the effect that physical obstructions have on 5G signal loss. And if you’re wondering how all this gear might impact battery life, consider that the company felt it necessary to stuff a 2,000-mAh battery in its Mod for good measure, simply to offset the speedier drain all those radios have on the 3,000 -mAh power pack already built into the Moto Z3.

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Anyone who can remember the early days of LTE understands how new wireless technologies can absolutely crater longevity on a charge. Motorola told us users of the Mod would hit their data limit well before the battery dies, but again, that not saying much when the currency we’re dealing in is 4K HBO dramas.

These are hefty compromises, which is why it might be be difficult for Motorola to charge hundreds for the 5G Mod itself, even with so much going on inside it.

Outlook

The 5G Moto Mod launch treated us to the same talking points we’ve heard so many times about the changing mobile landscape and the need for faster data. While we saw pictures of an add-on and a vague release window, we’re still waiting on specifics. Theoretical download speeds are nice, but in the real world, coverage, data caps and battery life matter — and all parties remained ominously silent on those matters.

Once you look past the hyperbole of this latest step toward 5G, we’re still missing far too much of the picture to know if Motorola and Verizon will be able to deliver the kind of experience people are expecting from the next great revolution in our digital lives.

Photo Credit: Adam Ismail/Tom's Guide

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