Moto Z Hands-on: A Smarter Take on Modular Phones

The LG G5 started the modular phone trend with its Friends, and now Motorola is joining the party with two new phones in the Moto Z and Moto Z Force that let you augment the phones' built-in features with attachable add-ons. Both phones will be available through Verizon this summer, with unlocked versions following in the fall. Lenovo hasn't announced pricing.

Available in July, the Moto Z and Moto Z Force let you magnetically attach accessories to their backs for adding features, including a powerful speaker, a mini projector and battery packs. Just don't expect to see a regular headphone jack. It's USB-C only. Overall, though, Lenovo's approach with the Moto Z's modular design seems less cumbersome than what LG attempted.

The Moto Z's magnetic connector is the secret to its modularity.

The Moto Z's magnetic connector is the secret to its modularity.

The First Moto Mods

Called Moto Mods, there will be four add-ons available at launch, and from what we saw during Lenovo's demos at the company's Tech World Showcase today (June 9), they're really the star of the show. The mods connect to the Moto Z via pins on the back of the phone and are held in place with magnets.

Attaching a mod is fairly simple, while prying one off takes a little bit more effort. We really had to lift to pull the JBL SoundBoost Speaker off the back of the Moto Z, but we could remove other mods with just one hand. You're able to add mods without having to power down your phone.

The JBL SoundBoost Speaker pumps up the volume while providing 10 hours of playback via its own battery before it taps into the phone's battery. It has a kickstand in the back that can prop up the Moto Z while blasting out music or videos, and the sound it produced was loud and clear enough to be heard in a crowded demo area.

There’s also a Moto Insta-Share Projector, which lets you beam a 70-inch image for sharing photos and videos. The projector offers 480p resolution and, like the SoundBoost mod, sports its own battery. You'll be able to use the projector for about an hour before it has to tap into the phone's battery for power. The projector add-on adds another 0.4 inches of thickness to the Moto Z, but at 4.2 ounces, it should be pretty portable.

The demo area at Lenovo Tech World wasn't an ideal place to showcase the projection power of the Insta-Share Projector, with the ambient lighting not really giving us a good look at the images being beamed from the Moto Z. Still, in a darker room, you should be able to get a good-looking image to appear on a wall

A style shell adorns the back of this Moto Z Force phone.

A style shell adorns the back of this Moto Z Force phone.

Last but not least are two Power Packs — one from TUMI and one from Kate Spade — that each add up to 22 hours of battery life. Lenovo is also offering what it describes as style shells, available in materials like wood and leather, that will give the back of your phone a distinctive look.

There’s no word yet on the pricing for these mods, but I like that they don’t require that you take apart your phone to snap on accessories, as the LG G5 does. On the other hand, only the G5 offers a camera accessory so far, which provides physical keys and a better grip.

More Mods to Come

Motorola says more Mods are on the way from other brands. It's releasing a Moto Mod Development Kit and offering a $1 million prize to whoever comes up with the best prototype.

Motorola's working on a few prototypes of its own. Peter Hortensius, Lenovo's senior vice president and chief technology officer, said the company is working on a Smart Cast prototype with a built-in projector that can beam a working keyboard onto the desk in front of you. A Hypercharge module in the works would be able to bring a 3,600 mAh battery to an 85 percent charge in 15 minutes.

Lenovo is also working on a mod that would let you connect your Android phone to a display and input device, allowing you to use the phone as a PC. That sounds an awful lot like what Microsoft is already doing with its Lumia phones and the Continuum feature, but Hortensius says this will be more about integrating the PC and phone experience. "Microsoft shows Continuum well, but who has Windows phones?" he said during a Lenovo Tech World briefing.

Moto Z Droid Edition vs Moto Z Force

The Moto Z Droid Edition and Moto Z Force Droid Edition (boy is that a long name) share many of the same specs and features, including a Snapdragon 820 processor, 5.5-inch quad HD AMOLED screen, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, a microSD card slot, USB-C, a 5-megapixel front camera a fingerprint reader. Both phones also have a water-repellent coating.

Due to its more durable screen and bigger battery, the Z Force is noticably thicker than the standard Moto Z.

Due to its more durable screen and bigger battery, the Z Force is noticably thicker than the standard Moto Z.

The Moto Z Force is the tougher and longer-lasting of the two phones, as it sports a ShatterShield display to protect the screen from nicks and cracks and a beefier 3,500 mAh battery. You also get a sharper 21-MP back camera.

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The Moto Z Droid Edition has a 13-MP rear camera and a 2600 mAh battery, but Motorola claims that this aluminum and stainless steel device is the thinnest premium smartphone available.

One noteworthy omission in Lenovo's new phones: there's new 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, you'll plug your headphones into the USB-C adapter that also charges the phone. Lenovo left out that port to keep the phone slender. It's going to include a cable that will let you attach headphones with 3.5mm connectors.

The last quirk about the Moto Z is that the fingerprint sensor below the screen does not double at a home button. It's there purely for security purposes, which means you'll have to rely on the phone's onscreen buttons for navigation.

Outlook

With the Moto Z Droid Edition and Moto Z Force Droid Edition, you’re investing not in a phone but in an ecosystem, one that will have to grow quickly if Samsung Galaxy and iPhone owners are going to be willing to switch. The good news is that Motorola says that Moto Mods developed today will work with future Moto Z phones. We’ll just have to see how much value these add-ons truly add.

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