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Hands on with Moto Z and Moto Z Force: Not all modular smartphones are bad ideas

If you’ve been hoping modular smartphones wouldn’t become a thing, well, you’re out of luck. Modular smartphones are most certainly en vogue, and Motorola is stepping up next with the Moto Z and Moto Z Force. These two flagship phones are the first Moto launches under Lenovo’s wing, and both are compatible with Moto Mods, a family of snap-on modules that give the phones better sound, extra battery life, and even a display projector.

The Moto Z and Moto Z Force not only look good, they also feel good. And their modular ecosystem appears to be more fleshed out than what LG released in its G5 Friends modules. Of course, I only spent a brief time with the Moto Zs, and I did find some annoying design quirks—including Motorola’s decision to completely do away with the headphone jack. Still, for a new take on smartphone modularity, the Moto Z approach looks like it will be easier to use than LG’s.

Almost disturbingly thin

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The Moto Z is one of the lightest, thinnest phones I’ve ever held. 

I’m impressed by how feather-light the Moto Z feels. Dare I say, it’s almost weightless. At 5.2 mm thick yet boasting a 5.5-inch display, this is the thinnest, lightest big-screen smartphone I’ve ever held. That said, as a consequence of its thinness, it feels a bit insubstantial—and perhaps even prone to bending. This doesn’t feel like a smartphone that can withstand too much torque, so we’ll have to see just what it can handle when we get our review units.

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The Moto Z Force is a bit thicker and a bit heftier than its counterpart.

The Moto Z Force, on the other hand, is just as shiny and polished as its counterpart, but is also thicker and slightly denser, due in part to its shatter-proof display. It also has a bigger, 3500 mAh battery (the Moto Z’s battery is 2600 mAh).

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The Moto Z and Moto Z Force both feature 5.5-inch displays and run on a Snapdragon 820. 

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The Moto Z (pictured here) and the Moto Z Force both feature front-facing fingerprint scanners. 

Both phones boast a 5.5-inch QuadHD display, Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, USB Type-C, and Android 6.0.1. The two Zs also have front-facing fingerprint scanners that look like they function as Home buttons... but they don’t.

You might also notice the two dots on either side of the fingerprint scanner. These are infrared sensors that can tell when your hand is approaching the phone, and turn on the ambient display to show the time and your notifications. It’s a pretty neat feature, but I don’t like how all this clutter takes up valuable chassis space (I’d rather see a larger display or a smaller phone).

Because the phones are so thin, Motorola had to sacrifice headphone jacks. The upshot is you’ll have to invest in Bluetooth headphones to listen to tunes, or buy a separate USB Type-C adapter to plug in your antiquated analog headphones. This is a major annoyance. And while it’s been funny to joke about Apple killing the headphone jack on the iPhone, it’s not as funny when you realize it’s coming to Android.

The upshot is you’ll have to keep your Bluetooth headphones charged at all times if you want to listen to music in the spur of the moment.

Put a MotoMod on it

Move over, LG. It looks like Motorola has figured out how to make a proper modular smartphone. Both the Moto Z and Moto Z Force are compatible with the company’s new Moto Mods, which are sold separately.

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This is one of the Moto Z’s Moto Mods: a fancy bamboo backplate that snaps on with magnets.

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What it looks like with the bamboo shell snapped on.

Relative to LG’s modular Friends approach, this is a very different concept. With the LG system, you have to shut down your G5, and basically disassemble and reassemble its chassis to add a module. But with the Moto Z, you simply tack on a module to the back of the phone via several strong magnets and connector pins. No power-off/power-on routine is required. What’s more, Motorola has promised that the modules will be “forward compatible” with phones that come over the two Moto Zs.

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Here we have the JBL module with pop-out kickstand (top), a bamboo back cover (middle), and the Tumi rechargeable Power Pack (bottom).

I was impressed by how well the Moto Zs’ magnets and pin connectors could hold even the heaviest Moto Mods, like the Insta-Share Projector and JBL SoundBoost Speaker. And I couldn’t even tell that the backplate modules weren’t actually a part of the phone when they were snapped on.

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This Moto Mod by Tumi is a stylish case and an extra battery pack. 

What’s more: The modules look like they’ll be actually useful. For instance, I can see using the Insta-Share Projector to project online yoga classes on my wall. Then there are the stylish battery packs from the likes of Kate Spade and Tumi. They look good, they deliver much appreciated extra battery life, and they give Motorola some major branding support. This helps elevate the Moto name beyond the tech space, and into a more mainstream lifestyle conversation.

Bloatware, sadly

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The Moto Z and Moto Z Force are both exceptionally stylish modular devices, but the latter will be riddled with Verizon bloatware.

We still don’t know anything about pricing, but both phones will be available this fall. The Moto Z will be sold unlocked, but the Moto Z Force will be a U.S. exclusive on Verizon—which means it will be full of agonizing bloatware that you can’t remove. This is also a bummer for anyone who wants to use the Moto Z Force, but is with another carrier.

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