Motorola
By Lisa Eadicicco
July 21, 2016

The good: Super thin and attractive design, Moto Mods are easy to use, Snappy performance.
The bad: Bloatware, Sometimes runs hot.
Who should buy: Android fans looking for a customizable, premium smartphone.

Smartphones have already taken on the role of digital wallet, camera, pocket-sized newspaper, and portable game console. But some companies are trying to further add to their capabilities, offering so-called “modular” phones that gain new features with the help of added accessories.

Motorola is the latest phone maker to jump on this trend. Its new Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid phones are compatible with a special line of accessories designed to connect to the phones’ back panel. The earliest of these so-called “Moto Mods” can transform either phone into a portable projector, a speaker system, or simply give the devices extra battery life.

The Verizon-exclusive Moto Z and Moto Z Force, which cost $624 and $720 respectively without a payment plan and are available for preorder starting Thursday, come as Motorola’s competitors have announced phones with similar capabilities. LG’s G5 works with components like a larger battery or camera grip, while Google plans to develop a shape-shifting phone with modules that can be pulled apart like LEGOs.

Moto Mods

In practice, the Moto Mods work almost like a regular phone case. But instead of fidgeting with the phone to fit it in a frame, mods snap easily onto the back of the phone. Accessories connect to the phone’s back panel via magnets, allowing them to communicate with the device without any complicated setup. That makes using them easier than adding accessories to the LG G5, which requires some tugging at the phone’s base.

To get the projector up and running on my Moto Z, I simply snapped it on to the phone, held down the projector’s power button to turn it on, and fired up Netflix to project TV shows onto my wall. The projection size is automatically adjusted depending on the surface it’s being aimed at. After some toggling, the picture displayed on my bedroom wall looked crisp and clear.

My experience using the JBL speaker was similar: just snap and go. The add-on gave the Moto Z’s audio a big boost, making it much more pleasant to listen to music without headphones. There’s also an integrated kickstand in the speaker Mod, which came in handy while watching Netflix. Tumi’s power pack Mod, meanwhile, is noticeably slimmer than most battery cases, making it a solid option for those seeking extra power without added bulk.

To get these add-ons, you’ll have to pay $299.99 for the Moto Insta-Share Projector, $79.99 for the JBL SoundBoost, or between $59.99 and $89.99 for a power pack made by Tumi or Kate Spade.

Using it

For general use, the Moto Z and its more expensive Force sibling are perfectly adequate. The two phones differ in a few important ways: the Moto Z Force has a screen that Motorola says is shatter-resistant, its battery is larger than that of the Moto Z, its main camera has a higher resolution, and the Force model is generally thicker and heavier.

Meanwhile, the Moto Z stands out for its incredibly thin and lightweight frame, which feels sleeker than any phone I’ve tested this year. At 5.19 millimeters, it’s slimmer than most flagship phones, including Apple’s iPhone 6s, which measures 7.1 millimeters. This is especially important for the Moto Z, as a large part of its appeal hinges on attaching accessories that come with the cost of extra bulk. The one exception to the Moto Z’s svelte physique is its camera, which juts out from the back of the device line a knob. (Moto Mods have a circular cutout to accommodate this.)

The Moto Z’s thinness comes with an important tradeoff: There’s no headphone jack. Both phones only contain a single USB Type C port; plugging in headphones requires an adapter. (Another hangup: The phone had the tendency to get hot after just a few minutes of use.)

The Moto Z’s interface is straightforward and will feel familiar to most Android users. Its biggest shortcoming, though, is that it comes preloaded with more than a dozen apps that I’ll likely never use. These extraneous pieces of software — called bloatware — can be bothersome for those like myself who prefer a neater aesthetic. My Moto Z’s app drawer was crowded with seven Verizon apps in addition to a few other games and services I don’t use.

Although the Force model has a 21-megapixel main camera compared to the slimmer Moto Z’s 13-megapixel shooter, I didn’t see much of a difference when comparing photos captured on both phones side by side. While the images taken with the Moto Z devices looked sharp and crisp, I noticed that photos taken on Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge and iPhone 6s Plus boasted richer colors.

The Moto Z’s battery lasted for more than a day, which is on par with what I’ve experienced on premium smartphones. After nearly 24 hours of using the device sporadically to play games, browse the web, check social media, and take photos, my Moto Z’s battery was at about 20%.

Conclusion

Motorola’s Moto Mods offer more flexibility than most smartphone accessories, allowing Moto Z and Moto Z Force owners to easily bolster the phone’s abilities or add new features altogether. The Mods’ most impressive aspect is that they just work. Clicking a Moto Mod into place instantly turned my phone into a projector without any cables or hassle.

For many, though, the Mods may not be compelling enough to make the Moto Z their phone of choice, especially since they come at a high price. At the moment, they’re more of a novelty than a necessity, which is a barrier competitors like LG and Google will also face as they pursue development of their own modular smartphones.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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