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Moto Z and Z Play first impressions: may you rest in pieces Project Ara, modular phones are here to stay

|October 4, 2016 |Android Phones, Motorola, Lenovo, First impressions

“The Z and Z Play are a compelling pair of smartphones that keep the promise of modular phones alive”

Google first showed us the dream of modular phones with its Project Ara, and then rudely snatched it away. Thankfully though, other brands picked it up somewhere in the middle, and one of the first phones that came close to realising that dream was the LG G5. The G5 was an ambitious attempt, but didn’t really rock our boat due to a variety of issues (read our review). Moto, now under the aegis of Lenovo, is now taking a similar route, and the result of its pursuits is the Moto Z family.


The range, which consists of the flagship Moto Z and its more affordable sibling, the Moto Z Play, also lets you add functionality using accessories, but takes a classier approach. There's a third member in the family called the Moto Z Force, but it looks like it won't be landing in India anytime soon. Join us as we go hands on…

First up, the high-end Moto Z. Brands like Gionee, OPPO and vivo have all laid claim to the title of the slimmest phone in the world with some of their offerings in the past, and while the Moto Z falls just a wee bit short, it’s still one of the thinnest phones we’ve seen till date. A mere 5.7mm thick, its svelte body comprises an aluminium frame and a steel back to give you a phone that shouts premium, and looks oh so stylish.


The flipside of that slim girth is the protruding camera and the missing headphone socket. But at least as far as the latter is concerned, Apple seems to have absorbed much of the indignation and vitriol for the very same choice it made for the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The Moto Z then, outputs audio via USB Type-C, and to keep everyone happy, comes with an adapter that lets you use regular headphones if you so wish.

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The Moto Z’s window to the world is a 5.5-inch (13.97cm) AMOLED display that boasts QHD resolution, as can be expected of a premium flagship. Below the screen, you’ll find a square-shaped, dedicated fingerprint scanner, just like the one found on the Moto G4 Plus (review). Above the screen is the earpiece, the 5MP front shooter and a selfie flash.

The left spine is barren, and the right is home to two separate volume keys and a power button. The bottom is home to the USB Type-C port, while an ejectable tray that takes a nano-SIM and a microSD card can be found on top.

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At the rear, the circular module holding the primary snapper can be seen, also integrating Moto branding and a true-tone flash. Closer to the bottom, you’ll see the 16-pin proprietary connector that makes all the modular magic with the Moto Mods accessories happen, but more on those in a bit. Interestingly, these pins are plated with 23k gold to prevent corrosion.

Inside, a Snapdragon 820 SoC mated to 4 gigs of RAM handles the processing, and there’s 32/64GB storage as well. The 13MP primary shooter boasts an aperture of f/1.8, and comes loaded with laser autofocus and optical image stabilisation to keep shutterbugs satiated. The 2,600mAh battery seems a bit of a concern, and though it’s a tad early for us to comment on how long it lasts, at least it supports turbo charging so you should be able to juice it up fairly quickly.


Moto’s smartphones are known for their stock Android builds and promise of early access to the latest updates, and the Moto Z is no different. Android Marshmallow is what you’ll find on the phone, and the completely stock platform take help from the usual signature Moto features that we’ve come to know and love over the years. Features like double karate chop to toggle the flashlight, double twist of the wrist to launch the camera, voice control, and reaching your hand out towards the phone to wake up the display are all there. Moto has also thrown in some new ones, like an upward swipe from the bottom of the display to activate a one-handed mode.

Moving on to the Moto Z Play, it brings the same ethos of semi modularity as its flagship sibling, but does so in more affordable manner. While it does bring lower specs to the table, interestingly it also manages to trump its more accomplished sibling in a few ways.


Using a glass sandwich design instead of all metal, it’s thicker in comparison (7mm). But then, it also manages to cram in a more powerful battery (3,500mAh), and brings the good ol’ 3.5mm headphone jack back. Also, the Z Play should come in a dual-SIM model, which is good news for those who find this functionality indispensible. The AMOLED screen is a 1080p affair – no QHD goodness here.

While the front camera seems to be the same 5MP sensor, the primary snapper on the Moto Z Play boast higher resolution than the flagship Moto Z – 16MP vs the latter’s 13MP. Laser autofocus is there, but the Z Play can’t boast of optical image stabilisation unlike its cousin. In terms of core specs, the key difference is that the Moto Z  Play utilises a Snapdragon 625 processor, the very same which we experienced on the ASUS Zenfone 3 last, and proved to be a smooth performer. The RAM is lower at 3GB as well.


The overall design language is quite similar though, and largely, the placement of ports and controls is also the same… including the front fingerprint scanner and the 16-pin proprietary connector at the back for connecting the Moto Mods. The 3.5mm headset finds its way to the bottom, but apart from minor changes in the placement of the front flash and the SIM tray on the top, most other elements are placed identically. The stock Android Marshmallow platform and the signature Moto features also seem similar.


We saved the best for last, as it’s now time to introduce you to the Moto Mods. These come in the form of four accessories for now – the Incipio offGRID Power Pack, the JBL SoundBoost speaker, the Moto Insta-Share projector and lastly, the Hasselblad True Zoom. Each one of these brings its own unique functionality, and attaches magnetically to the back of your Moto Z or Z Play. The brand says that it will ensure these Mods stay compatible with forthcoming models in the Moto Z range, which means that if you invest in some of these now, you can continue to use them later when (and if) you upgrade to the newer devices. An intriguing idea this, and a interesting attempt to keep Moto Z within the family.

Attaching a Mod to your Moto Z or Z Play is child’s play – align the rear camera, bring the Mod and the phone together, and snap, the two are connected. There’s nothing to configure, no settings to be done – the Moto Mods are hot swappable and ready to rock as soon as they’re attached.

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The Incipio offGRID Power Pack, as evident from the name, adds an extra battery to the Moto Z / Z Play. It’s rated at 2,220mAh, and is also available as another option that boasts wireless charging. The JBL SoundBoost adds stereo speakers and a kickstand to the phones, while the Moto Insta-Share is a pico projector that lets you mirror your Moto Z / Z Play’s screen and project it to a wall or a flat surface. Our favourite, the Hasselblad True Zoom accessory converts the phone into a proper point-and shoot digital camera, complete with a xenon flash, 12MP sensor and 10x optical zoom. We’ll go a little more in depth with these Moto Mods and give you a peek at how they really work soon, but trust us when we say that Moto’s implementation of how these modular accessories connect and work is idiot proof and requires zero effort. As based on our experience, these accessories seem more than just gimmicks.


Did we mention the Moto Style Shells that are available in different finishes, attach magnetically to the phones’ backs just like the Moto Mods, and allow you to customise the look of your phone? The Moto Z retail pack should have one of these included for you to enjoy.

With its premium pricing of Rs 39,999, the high-end Moto Z obviously goes head to head with other premium flagships, like the Samsung Galaxy S7 (review) and S7 edge (review) siblings, and the HTC 10 (review). The LG G5 is of course, one of the key rivals when it comes to the modular aspect. The Moto Z Play, priced at Rs 24,999, is likely to attract more buyers because of its relatively more affordable asking price, but will also have to compete with some powerful contenders like the OnePlus 3 (review). The Moto Mods don’t come cheap, but with the brand ensuring they’re future proof to some extent, look like worthy investments depending on the exact functionality you desire. The Moto Mods and their ease of use are what make the Z duo stand out from the rest, and could just be the X factor that could make these new phones compelling.

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