Remember the Moto Z? The Lenovo-controlled redesign of Motorola’s flagship smartphone bet the farm on a modular phone idea, and the modular system kind of sucked. The modules were expensive, only worked with brand-new Motorola smartphones, and didn’t offer anything useful over a non-modular version of the same accessory. To limit the effect the bulky modules would have on the phone, Motorola slimmed the phone down as much as possible, resulting in the removal of the headphone jack. Motorola sacrificed a lot to make the modular phone idea work, but at the end of the day the modular system never delivered a compelling use case.
Motorola committed to the modular “Moto Mod” system for at least “two more generations” after the Moto Z, which doesn’t leave the company much room to course correct. The “backpack” modular design demands an identical back shape to the Moto Z, with the same size camera bump and massive modular connector in the same place. So say hello to the Moto Z2 Force, the 2017 flagship for Motorola. It looks a lot like the Moto Z(1).
The Z1-outsides do at least get more modern insides: a Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a MicroSD slot, and Android 7.1.1. This year, every model of the Z2 is a “Force” model, which means it has a plastic screen instead of Gorilla Glass. Plastic won’t crack or shatter, but it’s prone to scratching more easily. Like the Moto Z, the Z2 Force has a 5.5-inch, 1440p AMOLED display, an aluminum body, and a 5MP front camera with flash. In terms of international configurations, the US version is the worst of the bunch. The rest of the world gets 6GB of RAM, and China gets a version with 128GB of storage.
One new addition is the dual 12MP camera sensors on the back, which were squeezed into the same size camera bump as the Z1, along with phase change and laser autofocus. The dual camera system is for a depth-of-field effect rather than a zoom feature. The fingerprint reader now supports a few gestures that can replace the standard Android navigation buttons. A tap works as “home,” a swipe left will go “back,” and a swipe right will open “recent apps.”
What do you say about a phone with this many design limitations imposed on it? It would be great if Motorola could build a phone with a modern, slim-bezel, “2017” design to compete with the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, and Xiaomi Mi Mix. A slim-bezel design usually necessitates a rear fingerprint reader, but that isn’t really possible while maintaining compatibility with the Moto Mods. Motorola his locked into its 2016 design this year and next year. So of course it looks dated.
Motorola is still using the most awkward possible button combination—a front fingerprint reader and on-screen buttons. Usually the two options are “minimize the bezel” with a rear fingerprint reader and on-screen buttons, or “put everything on the front bezel” with a front reader and capacitive buttons. Motorola combines all the space-sucking properties of a front fingerprint reader while still reserving the bottom of the screen for on-screen buttons.
The one part of the phone Motorola really had control over this year—the thickness and battery size—is a disaster. With the idea that a super-slim phone makes the thicker modules easier to use, Motorola has again taken to damaging core functionality to promote its gimmicky modular system. The phone is slimmer than ever—6mm thick—thanks to a battery that is 22 percent smaller (2730mAh) than last year’s Z1 (3500mAh). It also still doesn’t have a headphone jack.
Battery life is the single biggest pain point of a smartphone today. It’s not unusual to have to recharge in the middle of the day (sometimes twice a day), and we’ve all had a friend ask “do you have a charger?” at some point in our lives. Cutting battery life for thinness—something that comparatively matters very little—is a bad idea.
One big upgrade to the Moto Z is that the device is now available on the five major US carriers and will be sold at Best Buy.
All the same Moto Mods from last year work with this year’s phone. That means there’s a $300 Pico Projector with awful image quality, a JBL speaker attachment for $80—money better spent on a more-compatible Bluetooth speaker—and a few semi-useful battery pack attachments, but battery cases have been around for a while without the need for a modular system.
The new Moto Mods this year continue the “modular and proprietary for no reason” theme with a $300 360 4K camera mod. This mod makes a camera module stick up from the top of the phone with front and back fisheye lenses to capture the entire world. This oddly still requires a whole back piece, which is rather thick.
For a great example of how bad this modular business is, check out Samsung’s 360 4K camera, which it launched alongside the Galaxy S8. The “Samsung Gear 360” works with any phone, and it only costs $229. What benefit does modularity have? Sure, it gives you a viewfinder, but it’s a 360 camera—you don’t have to “aim” it at anything with any kind of precision. It’s just hardware lock in.
Another new Mod is a Moto Game Pad, which turns the phone into a Nintendo Switch-like system with a screen in the middle and the usual controller parts on the left and right. You get a pair of analog sticks, dual shoulder buttons on the left and right, A, B, X, and Y buttons, and start, select, and home. There’s also a 1035mAh battery in the game pad, which should help your phone survive a gaming session.
The buttons are all very clicky. The D-pad seems to suffer the most from it, having a tactile click that would make things like a fighting-game sweep movement challenging. The shoulder buttons feel like they are made out of mouse button parts—very small travel with a sharp “click” at the end. The analog sticks and A/B/X/Y buttons are the real stars here, though. I’d prefer stiffer springs in the analog sticks, but both it and the buttons are a massive improvement over the touchscreen controls. You’re definitely not getting a first-party, console-quality controller here, which makes the $80 price tough to swallow.
The biggest downside is that you’ll be stuck playing Android games, which usually aren’t very good, usually don’t support controllers, and are usually full of in-app purchases. The controller also doesn’t collapse at all, so it will always take up a massive amount of space in a bag. I feel like this would be much more compelling if it folded up somehow.
So that’s the Moto Z2 Force. A smaller battery, the same bad-in-2016 design, and an expensive modular system that doesn’t have any good modules. The device hits stores August 10 in the US for a heart-stopping $800, which is $80 more than last year.