LG started the modular smartphone system with the G5, and has conceded defeat in less than a year of disappointing sales. Now, Lenovo who bought over Motorola Mobility has offered an alternative approach to the modular smartphone experience. It is no doubt a much better way of modularising the devices, but will consumers buy?
Snap and Use
The Moto Mods experience is simple: just snap the components to the back of the compatible device and it works. No need to power down before swapping. The add-on components stick to the phone using integrated strong magnets so they don’t come apart easily. In fact, you need to exert great amount of force to split them.
At time of publishing, there are 4 official Moto Mods available:
- Hasselblad True Zoom Camera (S$459)
- JBL Soundboost Speaker (S$139)
- Moto Insta-share Projector (S$399)
- Incipio offGRID Power Pack (S$139)
They demonstrate some of the possibilities and benefits that snap-on modules can bring to the smartphone experience, and I must say it is quite amazing.
But the main question still holds: why would anyone want to buy proprietary accessories and be bound to a specific smartphone system when it makes better sense to buy a standalone product?
Instant and Hassle-free
Consider these situations:
1. You want to pipe your smartphone audio to a speaker? In normal cases, you got to pair and connect to Bluetooth first, or plug in to wires. Not forgetting, you have to power up the speaker, and handle 2 separate devices.
2. You want to project the smartphone display to a projector? Same situation: turn on the projector, enable Miracast, wait for connection, worry about transmission lag.
3. You want to share images from another camera? Pair the camera to the smartphone, and only when connection is secure, then transfer the images to the smartphone.
4. You want to charge the phone? Plug the charging cable into a separate portable battery pack.
Each of the above situation is cumbersome and often unreliable.
With Moto Mods, the accessories integrate with the smartphone as one. There is no waiting, no pairing, no battery issues. Once the Moto Mods are snapped onto the Moto Z smartphones, it works instantly. If you need to use another Moto Mod, just remove the existing one and snap the next.
And since it is modular, you are not forced to pay for the modules you don’t need, or carry a smartphone that is permanently bulky like the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom.
Moto Z and Moto Z Play
The Moto Mods cannot work on its own, so the performance and quality of the smartphones are critical to ensure the success of the entire system. Kudos to Lenovo for creating 2 models to cover mid-tier and the high-tier users (it would be splendid if they also create a budget model).
It may seem like the expensive Moto Z is an obvious choice given its better specs, but after trying both phones over the weeks, I find the Moto Z Play a better smartphone overall.
Moto Z is clearly thinner with the back made of matt aluminium with horizontal strip textures that does not feel cold. The Moto Z Play back is glass with concentric ring pattern around the camera module. There are also differences in the positioning of the “moto” logo, front camera, front flash, as well as the mics.
Spec-wise, the Moto Z runs on higher Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor (4GB RAM) while Moto Z Play comes with Snapdragon 625 processor (3GB RAM). The Moto Z benchmark score is definitely higher but it does not feel so when I use both devices. I find both devices perform well for my kind of use, which is mostly productivity apps and social apps.
The Moto Z battery is 2600 mAh vs. Moto Z Play 3510 mAh. With a slower processor, the Moto Z Play battery life in real usage condition is a lot better than Moto Z. I can easily last more than a day with 30% remaining, while the Moto Z barely made it through my 17-hour weekday. The Moto Z also gets hot much easier. I suppose the higher QHD pixel count on the Moto Z plays a part in higher battery drain compared to the Full HD on the Moto Z Play. Both Moto Z and Z Play supports Turbo Charge which is rated 3A 5V, not compatible with Qualcomm QuickCharge.
Interestingly, the Moto Z Play rear camera is 16MP f/2.0 without optical image stabilizer while the Moto Z is 13MP f/1.8 with OIS. The Moto Z cleans up noise better so it performs better under low light conditions compared to Moto Z Play. The Moto Z Play has higher pixel count so it is sharper and more details at zoom-in.
Both front cameras shoot at 5MP but I find the Moto Z front camera images produce more pleasant skin-tones while the Moto Z Play rear camera captures more accurate white balance. Images are not over-processed like Samsung or Huawei, but low light noise are well-controlled.
Display-wise, there is slight colour variance since the panel technology are different. Moto Z using AMOLED appears cooler.
I compared the speaker quality (it is front facing and the same as the phone speaker) and found the Moto Z Play delivers better audio output with balance mids and highs, while the Moto Z is mostly highs and lacks the lower frequency. Take note that Moto Z does not have a 3.5mm audio port, but it comes with a USB Type-C adapter.
Finally, the Moto Z Play can run on 2 SIMs and micro SD card at the same time, but the Moto Z comes with a hybrid SIM tray where you choose either 2 SIMs or 1 SIM and micro SD card.
So, apart from the thinner, lighter, faster advantage on the Moto Z, I find the Moto Z Play is a better overall phone.
Android UX with Moto Apps
During my review period, Lenovo released Android Nougat (7.0) firmware updates for both the smartphones, so I was fortunate to be able to review the latest OS. Using a stock Android is like buying a housing flat with the bare amenities instead of a fully-furnished private apartment. I personally prefer smartphones with customised features and pre-installed apps. Moto Z does not support themes, hence the overall UX can be rather uninspiring. There are also no power management or security apps commonly found in phones like ASUS and Huawei. The only pre-installed feature is a Moto app that personalises gesture-based actions, voice, and display. Some interesting gestures include:
Moto Display: when I reach for the device, the screen activates to show notification icons, and pressing the respective icons show the messages in brief. The monochrome display appear fast and the interaction with the notification icons is very responsive. While the display seems to light up randomly due to some stray proximity detection, this feature does not seem to drain the battery excessively.
Camera: Twist the phone twice to activate camera. The other shortcut to start camera is to press the power button twice.
Flashlight: Make a chopping motion twice to activate flashlight. This gesture can be rather hazardous, as I nearly dropped the phone while doing this gesture.
Display Off: The fingerprint sensor is located at the bottom of the front display. Besides unlocking the phone with fingerprint authentication, it also turns off the screen when I hold the sensor, which is better than reaching for the power button at the side. Of course, nothing beats double-tap the screen which LG pioneered.
Lenovo launched 4 official Moto Mods and hopes that other makers will take up this platform to offer other innovative snap-ons. Except the Hasselblad camera, the other 3 Moto Mods contain battery to help power the accessories. However, if the battery is flat, the smartphone battery can still power on the Moto Mods.
Once the Moto Mods are snapped on, the smartphone will interface with it to check for firmware and allows personalisation where applicable. The battery level of the Moto Mods will also be shown on the notification icon.
There are also Moto Style Shells that magnetically snap to the back of the phones for personalisation and protect the Mods connectors.
I will now touch on each of the Moto Mods and my experience with them.
Hasselblad True Zoom Camera
Sensor resolution: 12MP
Sensor size: 1/2.3-inch
Pixel size: 1.55um
Aperture: f/3.5 – 6.5
Focal length: 25mm – 250mm
Macro: 5cm (1x), 150cm (10x)
Flash: Xenon, AF-assist lamp
ISO: 100 – 3200
This Mod is undoubtedly the star of the Moto modular system. Lending its formidable brand power, Hasselblad True Zoom Camera offers 10-times optical zoom to camera enthusiasts. The mod looks ravishing, shaped and formed like a real compact camera, complete with power button, zoom, shutter, flash and AF assist. The image sensor is also the size of the usual compact cameras and larger than the Moto Z. When started, the camera UI displays different sets of on-screen options, like shoot in RAW, shoot effects.
But the Hasselblad contains several weaknesses inherent on compact cameras, like a variable aperture from f/3.5 – 6.5 (poor by today’s standards), slow shutter response, poor macro. I compared the images taken with the Moto Z cameras and find the Hasselblad is slightly softer and lacks resolution.
Another consideration is that given the same 1x zoom setting as the Moto Z camera, the Hasselblad camera has a smaller aperture (f/3.5) and hence has to compensate with either a slower shutter or higher ISO. I also cannot shoot objects in close range when zoomed in, a technique I always use to isolate background.
Overall, the only advantage of the Hasselblad camera mod is its 10x optical zoom. Instead of carrying another compact camera, the Hasselblad capture compact quality images and saves into the phone directly for fast sharing.
JBL Soundboost Speaker
Speaker diameter: 27mm x 2
Speaker power: 3W x 2
Battery size: 1000 mAh
Battery life: 10 hours
Loudness: 80 dB SPL @ 0.5m
Frequency reaponse: 200 – 20,000 Hz
Charge rate: 1A, 5W
The other branded Moto Mod is this JBL Soundboost. The stereo speakers are tuned with a balanced audio. The treble is not piercing like smartphone speakers, while the mid bass is present. It has a kick stand with a rubber at the end of the stand to prop the phone.
The only small drawback is that the speaker faces behind, while the built-in Moto Z speaker faces the front, which is more directional. Perhaps a better Mod would be to make the speakers face the front.
Nevertheless, for S$139, it is good value and a great add-on for enjoying better quality and louder audio. With a built-in USB 3.1 (Type C) port, the Mod can be charged on its own.
Moto Insta-share Projector
Resolution: 854 x 480
Image size: up to 70-inch diagonal
Projector technology: DLP
Brightness: 50 lumens
Contrast ratio: 400:1
Throw ratio: 1:2
Battery: 1100 mAh
Lamp life rating: 10,000 hrs
This Mod is rather unusual but practical. It projects the screen conveniently for presentations or video watching. The built-in stand and adjustable angle is strong and can hold the weight of the device without slipping. The built-in keystone function will automatically calibrate the projection to remain in correct proportion even when the projection is at an angle. A scroll wheel lets you adjust the focus.
The brightness is not comparable to proper projectors but projecting within 1 metre to the wall is very decent. Anything further, then a lot of details would be lost, especially dark scenes. I was pleased that the Mod does not heat up excessively compared to many other portable projectors I reviewed. The built-in fans also run quietly. The battery lasts about 60 minutes, after which the phone battery will drive the projector. The Mod also comes with a Type C USB port which lets you charge it separately.
Incipio offGRID Power Pack
The final Mod is basically a power pack. This Mod does not have its own USB port so the only way to charge is to snap on to the smartphone to charge together. With a capacity of 2200 mAh, it charges the Moto Z Play by about 40% in about 2 hours, or about 50% on the Moto Z.
I highly recommend using this Mod as an integrated power pack instead of just for charging the primary battery. Meaning, use the power pack and the smartphone fully charged, and let the smartphone deplete the power bank first before depleting the phone battery. I find this this method achieves better power consumption because there is no energy loss due to transference of battery charge from power bank to the phone battery.
You must get this battery pack if you prefer the Moto Z. Snap it on if you expect to have a heavy day of smartphone usage. Else, if you are always at your office desk, then you could just charge the smartphone conveniently when battery is low.
Will the Moto Z system sell like hotcakes? Not likely. Does it work? Brilliantly. The Moto Z and Mods system will delight the very segment of consumers who often needs proper speakers on the smartphones, or requires projector for presentations, a better camera at times, and more battery juice. These consumers want instant results to the use cases, not some wireless connectivity options with a chance of failure. The smartphone aspect of the Moto Mods system is also robust, and contains all the necessary hardware for all the smartphone needs. Wi-Fi AC band, Bluetooth, NFC, fingerprint sensor, dual SIM, micro SD slot, front and back LED flash.
- Moto Z Play delivers strong battery performance
- Moto Mods snap on and works without fuss
- Price of smartphone units are not low enough to attract consumers
- Moto Mods do not work on its own
Official product site: https://www.moto.com/sg/home