Moto Z3 Hands-on: A Bargain Flagship with a 5G Future

CHICAGO — Motorola’s flagship contender for 2018 is here at last, though it’s not quite what we were expecting.

The Moto Z3, announced today (Aug. 2) at an event held at Motorola’s headquarters, takes the design and nearly all of the features of the Moto Z3 Play, and throws in a more powerful processor and upgraded dual cameras. Like all Moto Z devices, the Z3 is compatible with a slew of Moto Mods already on the market, as well as a new one due out in early 2019 that will enable 5G connectivity on this particular phone. But it’s what’s inside the new Z3 that has us scratching our heads.

Surprising specs and a very special mod

While 2018’s Android flagships are enjoying Snapdragon 845 power, the Moto Z3 makes do with an 835 chipset — the same one featured in the Pixel 2 XL. That puts Z3 at an obvious disadvantage in terms of out-and-out performance, though it may be worth the tradeoff, given that Motorola is only asking $480 for the new phone.

That’s actually cheaper than the $499 Z3 Play, with its inferior Snapdragon 636 processor — though that handset comes with a Power Pack Moto Mod. The Moto Z3 will be available exclusively on Verizon on August 16, and the carrier is offering up to $300 to any subscriber that wishes to trade in their existing phone for it. Motorola representatives have told us that an unlocked variant of the Z3 isn’t in the cards.

The Verizon exclusivity is partly due to Motorola's partnership with the carrier to launch its 5G Moto Mod. The add-on won't be available until early 2019, and Motorola hasn't disclosed pricing yet. But we do know the Mod is so far only confirmed to work on the Moto Z3, with support for Verizon versions of the Moto Z2 and first-generation Moto Z handsets potentially coming in a post-release software update. That makes this the very first Moto Mod to only work on certain products in Motorola's modular family.

Design and cameras

From the outside, the Moto Z3 looks exactly like the Z3 Play. That’s not by accident, as the company tends to keep design changes to a minimum for its Z-series products. The footprints of its modular phones need to stay unchanged if they're going to maintain compatibility with existing Moto Mods.

However, while previous Motorola flagships like the Z2 Force have brought crazy shatter-proof displays and other unique touches aimed at the premium market, the Moto Z3 doesn’t enjoy any of that. In fact, the front and back are still clad in Gorilla Glass 3, even while some phones are sporting Corning’s fifth-generation strengthened glass.

The Moto Z3 certainly looks and feels well made, but I suspect it’ll come across as something of a missed opportunity for those hoping Motorola would raise the bar set with the Z3 Play. It certainly isn’t as attention grabbing as the leaked Motorola One Power that has been making the rounds in recent months, with its iPhone X-borrowed design cues.

At least the cameras on the Z3 are better than those of Motorola’s cheaper modular device. On the back, users will find dual 12-megapixel sensors. The main lens has an f/2.0 aperture, while the secondary one only sees in monochrome, to enable true black-and-white photography.

That should be an improvement over the 5-MP secondary shooter in the Z3 Play, which produced unconvincing bokeh-effect portraits when we tested it out. Unfortunately, both cameras lack optical image stabilization, which typically improve low-light output and alleviate shaky-handed shots.

In all other respects, the Moto Z3 doesn’t introduce anything new. The display is still of the Super AMOLED variety, sized at 6 inches with minimal bezels above and below it. The fingerprint sensor is on the edge, just as it was on the Z3 Play, and once again users will find 4GB of RAM alongside 64GB of storage and a 3,000-mAh battery inside. The Z3 is still splash resistant but not certified for water submersion, and the software — Android 8.1 Oreo — comes with all of Motorola’s typical extra features, like an optional gesture-based navigation system and shortcuts to launch the camera and fire up the flashlight.


On one hand, the Moto Z3 appears to be a less ambitious device than the Moto flagships that came before it. But then again, at just $480, it could be a really great value for Verizon customers who appreciate the flexibility that comes with a modular smartphone.

Motorola says it’s trying to avoid the specs race and hone in on the practical needs of their users, that perhaps don’t need the newest silicon on the block. It’s an admirable strategy, but you’ll have to wait a few weeks for our full review to know how it’s played out. And you'll have to wait a bit longer to see what the 5G Moto Mod adds to the party, too.

Photo Credit: Adam Ismail/Tom's Guide

Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.