Lenovo Moto Z review: Proof that modular smartphones have a future

Price when reviewed

Moto Z: Mods

So the Moto Z is a super all-round phone, but what about it’s unique selling point: the mods? Lenovo was kind enough to send us a couple of Motomods to try. Further thoughts below, but firstly: how are they to use?

The short answer is they’re great. There are several problems to overcome to make modular phones popular but Motorola has just about nailed one of the toughest: usability. While LG’s idea of modularity requires you to restart the phone and fiddle with a clip every time you want to mix things up, Lenovo’s works instantly with no friction at all.[gallery:14]

It’s as simple as putting on a new phone case. In fact, simpler. Remove the back, put on a new one and Android immediately detects the change. It’s so effective that the JBL speaker will actually switch speakers mid-song if you clip it on with something playing.

They’re also incredibly sturdy. You might imagine a handful of small magnets at the bottom of a phone wouldn’t be able to hold these phone backs in place, but the opposite is true. In fact, if there’s any complaint it’s that they’re a little bit too hard to remove, but there is a small gap at the bottom perfect for nail-prying.[gallery:12]

Lenovo has also outsourced the creation of modules to other companies, and while we haven’t been able to try every one of them, they all seem to work the same way. Here’s what we made of a couple of the more interesting ones:

Hasselblad True Zoom camera review

Price: £200 inc VAT

Phone/camera hybrids have been attempted before, most notably by Samsung with its Galaxy Zoom series. But given there hasn’t been a new one since 2013, it’s possible that they’re a niche pursuit. And you can see why: adding camera controls and a zoom lens to the back of a phone really adds bulk.

As a Motomod, it makes perfect sense, and Hasselblad’s £200 expansion module works really nicely. Clip it on, and the Moto Z’s existing lens is covered and replaced by an ergonomically friendly compact camera – albeit one a hugely responsive touchscreen on the rear. I found this extremely comfortable to hold and shoot with, much more so than with a standard camera, however, it may not suit everyone. If the thumb on your right hand tends to trail, you may find yourself accidentally pressing the Android home button when you’ve nearly lined up the perfect shot.[gallery:11]

The headline here is that it provides 10x optical zoom, which works significantly better than smartphones that use digital zoom to butcher quality while getting close to the action. Optical zoom lets you get up close and personal without sacrificing quality in the process. Elsewhere, it packs a Xenon flash and has the ability to shoot in RAW format for further tinkering in Photoshop. It actually sees a slight reduction in megapixels from the Moto Z on its own — from 13MP to 12MP — and the aperture isn’t quite as bright, with a range of f/3.3 to f/6.5. At least the pixel size is up to 1.55um from 1.12um, so quality should be decent in low light, but it’s worth noting that the sensor is no bigger than that found in the Google Pixel phones, so there’s a limit to how much better the images can be.

As you can see in the examples below, the picture quality is great, in fact significantly better than with the standard Moto Z camera, with noticeably more detail and better performance in low light, although I did notice a slight tendency to blow out highlights.img_20161031_133442359

Is it worth £200 extra, though? I’d say probably not: adding that kind of money to the price of the Moto Z brings it level with the Google Pixel, which has the best mobile camera in the game, and without the fuss of carrying around extra kit on the off-chance the perfect shot presents itself. For most people, the Hasselblad True Zoom may prove a slightly bulky overkill.img_20161031_133448684

Where it does excel however is in terms of its optical zoom. As you can see from the zoomed shots below taken from the roof of our office at Dennis Publishing, the zoom is so effective that you can take in details like number plate numbers and facial expressions from a huge distance away. On a phone camera, these would just be a messy blur.img_20161031_133505103

Photographers will love it, but then they’ll likely already have a better dedicated DSLR or CSC that does things better. So it’s a good product, but it’s hard to know who is going to buy it.

JBL: SoundBoost speaker review

Price: £69.99 inc VAT

If there’s one common complaint about smartphones after battery life (and Lenovo has a mod for that too), it’s sound quality. Simply put, teeny-tiny speakers in the bottom of smartphones don’t provide booming surround sound. Tiny begets tinny.

Which is a shame, given all the music and video in the world is available at the tap of a screen. The JBL SoundBoost speaker looks to answer that particular dilemma, and it does so neatly, clipping onto the back of the phone, with a fold-out kickstand on the rear to prop up the device for handsfree Netflix viewing.

The 6W mod (3W per speaker) comes with its own ten-hour battery, so it won’t drain the Moto’s, but it’s not Bluetooth, meaning that it will only work when it’s connected to the phone. That makes sense, but it’s kind of a shame, as it means you can’t use it alongside the projector mod for a true film night experience.[gallery:14]

But what about the sound itself? Well, it’s a big improvement, certainly. As soon as you clip it onto the phone, it kicks into life, diverting the tinny, reedy sound of the phone into something considerably more rich. Make no mistake: it’s no substitute for a quality bluetooth speaker, but it’s a vast improvement on in-phone audio, and competes well enough with smaller, cheaper speakers.

It’s definitely loud, too. We tested it in the Alphr labs with a sound pressure meter held next to the sound source while playing back a pink noise track. At max volume, the internal speaker on the Moto Z reached 79.5db and this jumped to 99.7db using the JBL mod. At that sort of volume you will hear some distortion, but it’s nowhere near as offensive as the distortion the handset produces.[gallery:15]

The JBL SoundBoost is a decent add-on, all things considered, but personally I’m not convinced I would get the use out of it. If you’re out and about, you’d want something with more oomph, and if you’re using it consistently around the house, then a compact Bluetooth speaker that works with all your devices is a safer pair of hands, and you won’t be tied to just your Moto Z.

Lenovo Moto Z: Verdict

I really like the Lenovo Moto Z. Modular smartphones have been a bit of a gimmick to me so far. Only LG has produced something usable, and in that case only a couple of add-ons ever arrived, and they tended to add a fair amount of bulk in the process. The Moto Z’s slim frame and incredibly easy attachments makes it far more user-friendly, and there are already enough modules to prove that the idea has legs. We’ll be back to test some of them soon, but even if they aren’t up to scratch, the simplicity and effectiveness makes this the best use case we’ve seen to date.

However, there are three problems with the Moto Z – two of which were avoidable, and one of which is beyond Lenovo’s control. First, the thin design has come at a cost to battery life: 2,600mAh simply won’t be enough for heavy users, and a fast charger can only go so far – especially when wireless charging isn’t part of the package. The lack of 3.5mm headphone jack is also something that many will consider unforgivable. Both of these issues could have been fixed if the company wasn’t so hell-bent on making the thinnest smartphone ever.

What couldn’t be fixed  – arguably – is the price. For a phone of this quality, £500 wouldn’t be unreasonable, if it weren’t for OnePlus shaking up the game and causing every manufacturer on the planet headaches. The OnePlus 3 is £329, and is either equal to or better than the Moto Z in every metric. There’s just no way around that.

The OnePlus 3 may not offer modules, but then you’re looking at an extra cost for each one you purchase. And the question remains: why would you bother when the OnePlus 3 has all you need for considerably less?

Still, don’t discount the Moto Z. It’s one of my favourite phones of the year, and I’d be tempted myself if I hadn’t only recently upgraded. If you see it on an appealing contract, then go for it. You’ll thank me later.

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