Lenovo Moto Z review: The most convincing case for modular smartphones


With Google ominously taking Project Ara out back with a shotgun, and LG creating a mere handful of add ons for the LG G5, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the days of modular smartphones are numbered before they even began. Nobody told Lenovo.

Since buying Motorola in 2014, Lenovo now owns the full range of Moto phones, even if the brand name is being gradually phased out. While the best known of the bunch is the Moto G – the handset that proves you can get a quality smartphone for not much money – the Moto Z series adds another string to its bow: modularity. And it works far better than LG or Motorola’s former owner Google could have dreamed.

This modular capability is going to be available on both the £499.99 Moto Z and the £369.99 Moto Z Play. We’ll be looking at the Play soon, but in the meantime, here’s what you get if you lay down the big bucks.

Lenovo Moto Z: Design

When you take the Lenovo Moto Z out of the box for the first time, you’re struck by its thinness first of all. That’s for two reasons: firstly because it really is (5.2mm to be exact) and secondly because there’s an optional backplate in the box. You’re perfectly free to go about your business without adding the backplate, it’s just that you’ll be exposing the phone’s party trick to the world.

That party trick is revealed by the strip of golden contacts dotted along the bottom of the handset. These securely hold optional modules to the back of the phone, transforming both the Moto Z and Moto Z Play in a handful of really practical ways. When I say securely, I really mean it: it’s just as tough as removing the backplate off a regular smartphone, despite the lack of clips.

When Motorola brought the phone round for review, they demonstrated four such modules: a battery pack that automatically tops up the Moto Z series, a projector that casts the screen to up to 70in, a JBL speaker to ramp up the sound, and a DSLR camera module from photography legend Hasselblad. They provided the latter two for review, so check back later for our thoughts when we’ve had time to put them through their paces.  

Make no mistake, this is a smart design, and already far more supported than LG’s offering. The modules clip on and off easily, and it’s quite believable that you would hang on to a few of these for different occasions – though it is a touch disappointing that they don’t work together. Because they replace the entire back of the phone, you can’t mix and match the speaker with the projector, say. But that’s nitpicking in the extreme for such a welcome innovation, so I’ll shut up.

In making this the “world’s thinnest premium smartphone,” a couple of sacrifices have had to be made. First up, it’s a tiny bit misleading, because the camera hump is extremely obvious, though attaching the supplied backplate (in the same way you would add modules) instantly smooths things out. Second, and way more importantly, the Moto Z follows the iPhone 7’s lead and loses the 3.5mm headphone jack. Indisputably, this is an unpopular move, even if Motorola does include a USB Type-C to 3.5mm jack adapter in the box.

USB Type-C, y’say? Yep. This leads to rapid charging (there’s a fast charger in the box too) and data transfer, but does mean all your existing microUSB leads are instantly redundant. It has a small, square fingerprint reader on the bottom of the phone which works both consistently and quickly, but oddly Lenovo has made the decision to put the home, back and menu buttons on screen in Android, rather than using the fingerprint reader and the space around it. Confusingly therefore, applying your finger back to the reader just locks the phone again.

Other than that though, Lenovo should be applauded for doing as little to Android as possible, as per usual. So vanilla is their skin of Android Marshmallow, in fact, that Google Keyboard is included by default. A small thing, but an extremely welcome one from where I’m standing.

There’s no denying it’s a handsome handset, though personally I’d have kept the headphone jack even if it meant losing the coveted “thinnest handset” prize. The glossy glass rear is also a fingerprint magnet, meaning you’ll almost certainly want to apply one of those modules as quickly as possible.

Lenovo Moto Z: Screen

Things continue to impress with the screen, which is a quality AMOLED affair with perfect blacks and vibrant colours. It’s a 1,440 x 2,560 display, meaning it has around 535 pixels per inch when stretched across the device’s 5.5in screen. Very sharp, in other words.

But how does the screen compare to other flagship handsets? Here is a quick comparison table showing how it fares against some of the other top dogs:

Resolution

Brightness

sRGB gamut

Contrast

Lenovo Moto Z

2,560 x 1,440

354.24cd/m2

98.5%

Perfect

HTC 10

2,560 x 1,440

449.22cd/m2

99.8%

1,793:1

LG G5

2,560 x 1,440

354.05cd/m2

97.1%

1,621:1

Samsung Galaxy S7

2,560 x 1,440

353.74cd/m2

100%

Perfect

Apple iPhone 7

1,334 x 750

540cd/m2

95.8%

1,425:1

OnePlus 3 (sRGB mode enabled)

1,080 x 1,920

415cd/m2

100%

Perfect

Those are damned fine scores in anybody’s book, and bear in mind that the relatively low brightness can be attributed to the AMOLED screen – because they work by turning off pixels off when not in use.

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