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Review: Moto Z and Moto Mods are intriguing but pricey

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Attachments turn phones into cameras, speakers and image projectors, potentially more.

moto z

Lenovo’s new flagship Moto Z.

MOTO Z & MOTO Z PLAY
THE GOOD: Solid base phones, Mods add superior functions.
THE BAD: Attachments are too expensive relative to alternatives.
RATING: A A A A

Smartphone makers are having to get creative to make their products stand out, which explains Lenovo’s Moto Z, a lineup of devices that are virtually equivalent to Transformer robots.

The flagship Moto Z and the entry-level Moto Z Play are modular phones that can turn into point-and-shoot cameras, sound speakers, image projectors and potentially more thanks to the optional “Modo Mods” that attach to their backs.

So far, there are four Mods – the Hasselblad True Zoom camera, the JBL SoundBoost Speaker, the Moto Insta-Share Projector and the Incipio offGRID Power Pack – but Lenovo is opening the system to third party-developers. It’s almost like creating an app store, except the apps are physical phone attachments.

It’s a nifty idea that works brilliantly, but the execution is not without its problems.

Before we get to the Mods themselves, there are the phones – both of which are perfectly good devices on their own.

The Moto Z flagship, pictured above, is meant to contend with the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy devices, and it’s priced to match at $900 in Canada. It also has the similar high-end specs, including a fast fingerprint scanner, a sharp 5.5-inch AMOLED display with a 535 pixel-per-inch resolution, and a 13-megapixel rear camera.

The Moto Z’s most striking feature is its thinness. At just 5.2 millimetres, it’s one of the skinniest phones on the market, which also means it’s one of the lightest at just 136 grams.

moto z play

The Moto Z Play.

The $650 Moto Z Play is thicker and heavier at 7 millimetres and 165 grams, but the extra girth gives it a few advantages over its more expensive counterpart.

The Play packs a bigger battery – 3,510 milliamps versus 2,600 – and it pays off. The flagship Moto Z has decent battery life, but the Play outlasts it by several hours. The Play also has a better back camera, with 16 megapixels.

On the downside, its display isn’t as sharp, with only 403 ppi density and it has less RAM and a slower processor.

If camera and battery life are your key considerations in a phone, the Play actually makes more sense – and its lower price doesn’t hurt either. If form, display and performance are more important, the Moto Z is the way to go.

There’s one more big differentiator – the Moto Z Play has a headphone jack while the Moto Z doesn’t. That’s kind of a big deal these days, what with Apple also ditching the jack, so be warned. All things considered, the Moto Z Play looks like a more compelling product than the higher-end Moto Z.

Nevertheless, both phones feature Moto Display, Moto Actions and Moto Voice, a suite of features developed by Motorola when the company was owned by Google.

I’m a big fan of these features – they’re the best proprietary additions going on Android phones.

Moto Display, for example, shows notification icons on the screen whenever you pass your hand near it. Touching the icon shows a bit more information, like who a message or email is from, and swiping it takes you into the appropriate app.

Moto Actions also adds a few cool functions, like twisting your wrist twice to launch the camera or making a chopping action to turn on the flashlight.

Moto Voice, the always-listening personal assistant, is also useful in handsfree situations. After you program the phone with an activation phrase – say, “Hello Moto” or whatever – you can ask it to call contacts or look up the weather and so on, all without even touching it.

So far, so good. On their own, the phones are decent products, even if their cameras still aren’t as good as others on the market. The good news there is they’re good enough and certainly not a deal breaker.

Where things get interesting is with the Moto Mods.

The accessories couldn’t work more smoothly. The phone backings slip off easily to reveal a set of pins underneath and the standardized Mods slip on and stay on magnetically. Once their respective software has been added, there’s no need to perform any additional activations – they just work.

moto z

The Hasselblad True Zoom Mod turns the phone into a full-on point-and-shoot camera, complete with retractable lens. The lens itself adds 10-times optical zoom, so you can truly get closer to your subject – none of that distorting and pixellated digital zoom.

I’m torn on this idea. While getting better pictures is always good, smartphones have done much to kill off point-and-shoot cameras so this seems like an odd, almost backwards step. The Mod adds considerable size and weight to the phone, so it’s not something you’d want to tote around all the time.

However, if there’s a specific situation where you know in advance that a better camera might make sense, the True Zoom has its appeal. I took it to a baseball game, for example, and got some decent shots of players that would have otherwise been blurry dots had I used my phone’s regular camera.

Beyond such use cases, though, it’s not clear how else such an attachment might come in handy, which makes its steep $349 price tag hard to justify.

 

moto z

The JBL SoundBoost Speaker is also a cool attachment – and one where the use cases are more obvious.

The SoundBoost provides much better and louder sound than the phone itself and can easily replace the need for a Bluetooth speaker in certain situations – if you’re travelling, for example, or going to the beach. It’s also reasonably priced at $99 and has a kickstand so that the phone can stand upright while playing.

There are better or cheaper Bluetooth speakers available, but this is a good hybrid option that fits into that middle spot between quality, affordability and portability.

moto z, projector

The Moto Insta-Share Projector is perhaps the neatest of the Moto Mods in that it turns the phone into a projector, but it’s also the hardest one to justify buying.

With a price tag of $399, it costs more than many comparable pico projectors that do pretty much the same thing. It’s also not very bright, so its images tend to be too dark. On the other hand, other pico projectors don’t attach to your phone and work flawlessly with it, which is the value proposition here.

Some wireless carriers, such as Rogers, are throwing in the Insta-Share with Moto Z pre-orders, which is really the only way I could recommend getting it.

The Incipio offGRID Power Pack follows in the same vein as the other Mods. The attachment delivers another full day of juice to the phone and gives it the ability to wirelessly charge, but it’s overpriced at $89. Other attachable power chargers can be had for less.

Moto Mods are a cool idea and Lenovo deserves credit for pulling them off so well. Combined with the two different models of phone, the company is giving consumers a variety of choices so that they don’t have to compromise.

Buyers who want better sound, for example, can pick up the speaker while those who want a better camera can go that route, with neither having to pay an extra premium if they don’t necessarily want the other.

The problem is that the Mods don’t make enough of a case for their relatively high cost compared to other third-party alternatives. Hot-swappable convenience is cool and innovative, but it isn’t worth a premium if the attachments don’t deliver as well as other options.

The Moto Z lineup, phones and Mods are thus a good start. It’ll be interesting to see where Lenovo goes with them in future iterations.

Lenovo supplied trial units for the purposes of this review.

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