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Moto Z4 Hands-On: The Pixel 3a’s Biggest Rival Has Arrived

What even is a flagship phone, anyway? That’s the question Motorola appears to be asking with the Moto Z4, the latest iteration of its modular handset that mixes premium design and features with somewhat modest hardware, for an attractive price.

Like the Moto Z3 Play before it, the Moto Z4 starts at $499. However, Motorola hasn’t revealed a more powerful Force variant as of this writing. That means the Z4 — with its humble Snapdragon 675 chipset — is the range-topping Motorola device for 2019, at least in North America where the company’s Motorola One line isn’t available.

In fairness, though, the Moto Z4 can do things other phones can’t. It supports the full range of Moto Mods, for one, and can be upgraded to work on Verizon’s 5G network with the help of the 5G Mod. At $499 — either unlocked or through Big Red — the Z4 is shaping up to be a formidable adversary for our new favorite midrange handset, Google’s Pixel 3a.

Moto Z4 Specs

Price$499
OSAndroid 9 Pie
Screen Size (Resolution)6.4-inch OLED (2340 x 1080)
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 675
RAM4 GB
Storage128 GB; microSD expandable up to 512 GB
Rear Camera48 MP (ƒ/1.6)
Front Camera25 MP (ƒ/1.9)
Battery Size3,600 mAh

Design and display

Because the Moto Z4 supports Moto Mods, and because the spec for the Mod platform date back three years, there’s no getting around the Z4’s proportional similarity to prior Moto Z models. Motorola is locked into a design, to a certain extent. It can’t really change the shape of the device without breaking Mod compatibility.

That’s not to say the company hasn’t done a lot to improve the Z series design where it can. The Z4’s new 6.4-inch OLED display incorporates a teardrop notch and features minimal bezels all around. The back of the phone is glass, but it’s been etched in a matte finish that feels really pleasing to the touch. Doug Michau, Motorola’s head of product operations, told me this wasn’t a cheap process to implement, but the team felt it was a worthwhile one. I’m inclined to agree.

The Z4 comes in two colorways — Flash Gray and Frost White — and while our sample unit is of the Gray variety, I really dig the aesthetic of the latter flavor. There’s just something about the way the gold Mod pins play off against the matte white that looks delightfully classy. Motorola’s modular phones have never looked better.

You won’t find a fingerprint sensor on the back or sides of the Moto Z4, and there’s certainly no room for it on the front given how tight those bezels are. Motorola has opted for an optical in-display fingerprint sensor here, which makes a lot of practical sense for the Z line. Initial impressions aren’t great — I’m having some issues getting successful reads on the first try — but these kinds of scanners do take some time to get acclimated to, so stay tuned for the full review for the final verdict.

One last point on the design front that shouldn’t go unnoticed: Motorola has brought the headphone jack back for the Z4. After nixing the 3.5-millimeter port on the original Moto Z, the company had a change of heart after reflecting on consumer feedback.

Performance, camera and battery

At the heart of the Moto Z4 beats Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 675 octa-core chipset. This silicon is the next step up from the 670 CPU inside Google’s new Pixel 3a and 3a XL, and should provide adequate performance for everyday use, barring any strenuous gaming. That chip is backed by 4GB of RAM and a spacious 128GB of storage, while a microSD slot can be used to expand the latter even further.

However, it’s the Z4’s imaging stack where Motorola looks to have made the biggest strides. On the back of the device lives a whopping 48-megapixel lens with an ƒ/1.6 aperture and optical image stabilization. It’s the highest megapixel count of any image sensor Motorola’s embedded into a phone, and thanks to the addition of quad-pixel binning — a trick employed by our current top camera phone, the Huawei P30 Pro — the Z4’s camera can use that wealth of data captured to pump out optimized 12-MP shots with superior low-light detail. The same goes for the 25-MP selfie shooter notched in the Z4’s OLED screen, which also benefits from pixel binning technology.

Improving low-light shots is a priority for pretty much every smartphone maker these days, and much like its rivals, Motorola has decided to tackle that problem with the help of computational photography. The Z4 introduces Night Vision, which combines eight frames of an image, as well as dynamic noise reduction and sharpening, to produce a clean result despite your dim surroundings.

Finally, the Z4’s battery has also seen a sizable bump in capacity, up to 3,600 mAh from 3,000 mAh in the Z3 series. There’s 15-watt fast charging on board, which won’t top the device up quite as quickly as the 18W charging of the Pixel 3a — let alone the OnePlus 7 Pro’s 30W Warp Charge adapter — though it’s certainly better than nothing. For the record, last year’s Moto Z3 Play endured a respectable 10 hours and 3 minutes in our LTE battery test, so we hope to see the Z4 shatter that result.

Pricing and availability

The Moto Z4 will be sold both unlocked and through Verizon for $499. The unlocked device will hit Best Buy, B&H Photo and Amazon on June 6 with a pre-sale today (May 30); it will come with the 360 Camera Moto Mod packed in. That Mod originally retailed for $199, but can now be ordered on Amazon for roughly $50.

Like all of Motorola’s unlocked handsets, the Z4 can run on GSM- and CDMA-based networks alike. Initially, only the Flash Gray model will be available at launch; the Frost White version is coming later this summer.

As for Verizon, here’s where things get a bit more interesting. The carrier is offering a limited time promotion whereupon new activations will be able to snag the Moto Z4 and a 5G Mod for $439. That lowers the barrier to 5G service considerably, though those customers will still have to pay for either Verizon’s $85 Beyond Unlimited or $95 Above Unlimited plans that include 5G. (Right now, 5G access is provided in these plans for no extra charge, though eventually it’ll cost an extra $10 per month.)

Alternatively, anyone opening a new line with Verizon can get the phone itself for a total of $240, or $10 per month over 24 months — essentially getting the device for half off.

Outlook

Motorola has charted a more iterative cycle of development for its flagship Z series. And while some will certainly lament the lack of a “true” flagship topping the company’s portfolio of phones, the Z4 still looks to be a solid value in the booming sub-$500 segment.

In fact, Motorola’s latest modular effort looks like a compelling rival to Google’s $479 Pixel 3a XL. In all likelihood, the cheaper Pixel might still win the camera war, but the Moto Z4 will have it beaten in practically every other respect, save for software. The Z4 appears to be a prettier, more modern-looking device with a faster processor, a larger display and a bigger battery. And, of course, Motorola is offering a relatively cheap upgrade path to 5G.

If nothing else, the Moto Z4 has piqued our interest, and looks to offer especially price-conscious customers another compelling choice — and the world could always use more of that. Look forward to our full review in the coming days.

Photo Credit: Tom's Guide