Moto Z And Z Force Droid: Solid Flagships With Compelling Moto Mods

What can I say about Lenovo's latest line of phones, the Moto Z in its various iterations? It's Moto, Lenovo has promised timely updates to the latest OS's, the camera is pretty darn good and it has optional attachments, dubbed "Moto Mods." At first, I thought they were a little gimmicky, and some still may be, but there is also some great functionality to be had which only makes this strong showing from Lenovo all the more compelling.

You can check out our in-depth video review here:

When Lenovo took over Motorola from Google, the looming question was what the quality of the much ballyhooed Moto line would look like. Would it suffer? Would OS updates roll out slower now that they weren't directly owned by Google? Would innovation slow down, or come to a halt? Having followed Lenovo's laptops for a while, I was actually feeling positive about the takeover because they'd done such a good job in that market. After living with the Moto Z on T-Mobile for a while, I think it's much more good than bad. The Moto Z line consists of phones compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile's networks and those that run on Sprint or Verizon. That's the Moto Z and Moto Z Play, which are both unlocked phones, and the Moto Z Force Droid, Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Play Droid respectively. What differentiates them, beyond price, is battery life and camera quality. For this review, I've had the opportunity to check out two different versions of the Z line, the unlocked Moto Z and the Z Force Droid. In addition, Lenovo provided me with several of their Moto Mods to check out as I used the phones. The Z Force came from Verizon and was tested on their network, while the unlocked Moto Z and its accessories came Lenovo and was tested on T-Mobile's network.

The hardware is pretty much identical on the outside.On the front face of the device, you get a lovely 5.5" QHD screen on the Moto Z and Z Force Droid with the only difference being the addition of Shattershield on latter. Shattershield is the relatively new tech that Lenovo placed on their flagship Verizon branded Z that is highly shatter resistant when you drop it. Now, I didn't put that to the test to the point of seeing if it really does stand up to drops like they claim, but there are other, more intrepid folk who have and it appears to live up to the hype. Though the trade off, as some have noticed, is that it seems to scratch easier as a result. Besides the display, you also get dual microphones, the usual array of sensors, a front ported speaker grill and the same 5 megapixel front-facing camera on both units. Also on the front of the unit is Moto's fingerprint scanner, which not only unlocks the phone, but can be used to lock it as well. Around the sides, you'll find the volume up and down buttons, the power button, a microphone on top and USB-C on the bottom. No 3.5mm audio port on the Z line. Instead, in the box, you'll get a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter to help ease your transition.

Around back is where things really get interesting for the Moto Z line. The phones are super thin and come with an attractive "wood grain" back that attaches magnetically to the phone, or detaches to allow you to swap it out for one of the Moto Mods. We'll come back to this in a bit. The other thing you'll find on the back is the fourth microphone and the 13 (Moto Z) or 21 (Z Force) megapixel camera. The image above was taken with the Moto Z in HDR mode. Click through the gallery to see more from the Moto Z and the Hasselblad Mod. Both cameras feature optical image stabilization and laser autofocus, but only the Z Force has phase detection autofocus.

Internally, the Z's are no slouch! They sport Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 processor (Z Force clocked at 2.2gHz, the other 1.8gHz) and are smooth transitioning between apps, with no lag. Matter of fact, everything launches so fast it almost feels like the phone was anticipating what you were going to do and started before you. Yes, that was hyperbole. Yes, it feels that fast. Part of that speed is due to the 4GB of RAM included in the phone, ensuring that everything has plenty of space to run efficiently. Speaking of memory, the Z comes with 64GB of onboard storage, while the Z Force comes in either 32GB or 64GB versions, both phones with up to 2TB of expandable memory via the dual function SIM/microSD slot. Both phones do pretty well on battery life, though there are competing products which will last you longer. The Z sports just a 2600mAh battery, while the Z Force has a much larger 3500mAh battery. Lenovo claims that you'll get about 30 hours "mixed use" out of the Z and 40 out of the Z Force, but their saving grace is the TurboPower rapid charge technology, if you're one of the folks who happen to be hard on battery life. TurboPower will get you 8 hours in 15 minutes and 15 hours in 15 minutes for each device respectively. I found that both devices actually get me through a full day of work, so I have no complaints there. My day usually consists of incessant social media checking, responding to email, streaming in my car for about 2.5 to 3 hours, a handful of calls, and texting back and forth with my wife and children.

The software experiences on the devices are pretty identical except for one caveat, the Verizon branded Z Force Droid comes with the usual amount of Verizon bloatware while the unlocked Z is "clean." The Z Force comes with Verizon's own messaging app, cloud storage app and others, in addition to the enhancements that Moto has baked into the OS.

As I've said when reviewing previous iterations of the Moto line of phones, the items that Motorola added to Google's OS are welcome additions. All of them serve some highly useful function and augment the experience of using the smartphone. Moto Display allows you see messages without ever unlocking your phone and only activates the pixels necessary to do so, saving you precious battery life. Then there's Moto Voice and Actions, which we've covered before in previous reviews as well. Voice is the feature which, similar to Google Now, will allow you to control certain functions of your phone via voice. Voice will also announce calls and texts aloud at the time and place of your choosing, which includes when you're driving or if you add a geolocation. Actions is a gesture based addition which allows you to activate functions like making a chopping motion twice to activate the flashlight, or flipping the phone face down to silence it. Like I said, very functional additions to Google's OS.

The only other addition the software experience, accompanies a hardware experience and that's the Moto Mods. There are settings available for some of them. Though I was given several to test, the two I felt were most useful were Incipio's offGrid Power Pack which I ended up just keeping on the phone for a couple weeks and the Hasselblad True Zoom camera mod which I used to great effect at an event I attended while testing the phone. Moto Mods are attachments which expand the functionality of the phone. Currently they also offer the Insta-Share Projector, JBL SoundBoost speakers, Incipio Vehicle Dock, mophie juice pack and the Moto Style Shells in various colors. The phones come with one style shell in the box already. The Z came with a wood grain style shell and the Z Force with a slick, solid color shell.

In my use, I find many items like these to be novelties which quickly lose their luster and wind up in a drawer somewhere but two of the mods are in my regular rotation, with the third being one of great interest to me. I use Incipio's offGrid quite a bit! Matter of fact, I put it on the phone and just left it on for quite a while even though it almost doubles the Moto Z's thickness. Here's the Z with the offGrid attached and the Z Force, side-by-side. But think about that for a second. How many people have you heard complain about how thick a modern day phone is? How many have you heard complain about hugging a wall for charging, or the fact they forgot their charger at home, or who've come to your desk at work asking if they could borrow your charger for a bit? I'm more than happy to sacrifice a bit of girth for better battery life. Using Incipio's offGrid, I was getting a little less than a couple days use out of the phone. The offGrid even comes in four colorways with two charging options: conventional and wireless (Qi 1.2.1, PMA 3.0). The menu options allow you to set this mod to automatically begin charging the phone's internal battery when that battery reaches 80%, then stop at 100% until it reaches 80% again, or keep the phone's internal battery at 100% until fully drained.

The other mod I thought may move beyond novelty for many is the Hasselblad True Zoom mod. Let's face it, as good as some of these smartphone cameras have gotten, they still can't stand up to a DSLR or mirrorless when it comes to the fact they all have only a fixed lens. The 12 megapixel True Zoom has a 10X optical zoom lens with an aperture of f3.5-6.5 and it takes great shots. Even in low light, as you can see from the shots I took at the evening Ford event I attended, the camera still produced good looking shots with little noise and I was quite a ways away from the stage. The only downside to using the camera is that it is powered by your phone's internal battery. Other than that, and the fact it stores photos on the phone, the camera itself is standalone. It has its own shutter button, xenon flash and zoom slider. Match all of that tech with the Professional Mode on the phone, where you can manually control ISO, color temperature, focus and more, you've got a great setup for capturing great photos without having to be very close to your subjects. I see this mod as a boon for parents especially. Having that 10X zoom will make getting photos of your children at school plays and sporting events all the easier. The only question you'll have to ask yourself is, "Do I want to spend $300 on a standalone point-and-shoot, or one that attaches to my phone for quick, easy sharing of photos I'm only going to be putting up on some social network anyway?" Now, if you're buying the True Zoom mod and are looking to pick up the Z Force Droid, the tradeoff for you is that you lose some megapixels since the True Zoom is only 12, while the Z Force is 21 but how many of you are going to take the RAW files and make posters of your pictures? At 12 megapixels, you'll be able to handle the majority of photo printing options and pretty much all of your digital needs if you're the average consumer.

Disclosure: Lenovo and Verizon provided us with demo units for the purpose of this review.