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Review – Motorola Moto z4 and Moto Mods

Introduction

Mobile devices and I go back to 1996.  Some of the best devices in the history of mobile devices came out before there was any kind of a standard form factor, shape or set of features that nearly every device manufacturer now touts.  There were also some devices with very unique features, that didn’t stand the test of time.  The Palm Tungsten T3 had an extendable body that hid a portion of the device’s screen used for pen gestures and digital inking.  The Samsung Epix had a touchpad the user could use to manipulate a mouse cursor. Some of devices over the years have been really awesome.

Today, the choices are a bit more streamlined.  You’re either gonna buy an iPhone, or you’re gonna buy an Android device.  iPhones are pretty standardized.  The only REAL differentiator is screen and storage size.

Galaxy FoldOn the Android side of the device world is really where device diversity exists.  This is in large part due to the fact that Google allows anyone and everyone to license the OS so they can build and customize a device the way they want.  Conversely, Apple doesn’t license any of its operating systems – including iOS – to anyone.  Apple wants to control the entire mobile device experience so the reality matches their vision.  Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold or the Motorola Razr 2019 are some of the newest devices on the market. Both of those take advantage of some of the newest technology available – foldable displays or screens.  While foldable screens are hot right now, they come at a huge premium.  Both the Galaxy Fold and the Motorola Razr cost well over $1500 each.

To put that into contrast, you can buy a brand new MacBook Air with a 1.2GHz quad-core i7 processor with 8GB or RAM and a 512GB SSD (including the new, improved, (fixed) butterfly switch keyboard, Touch ID and two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports for $50 less than Motorola’s new 2019 Razr. That should tell you something about how expensive those new devices really are.

Thankfully, there are a number of other Android devices available that don’t cost nearly that much.  Case in point – the Motorola Moto z4.  The device has some compelling features, too.  But do they and the much lower price point make it the device for you?  Let’s talk about that a bit as we look at the device and what it can do…

Device

I did an unboxing of the Motorola Moto z4. You can see it here.  To be honest, the unboxing is a bit cluzy. It’s not my best video; but that’s largely because of how the device was shipped to me.  It didn’t come in standard retail packaging. As devices make the review rounds, sometimes the retail packaging gets a little beat up.  The device is in good shape, but the native, retail packaging must have really taken a beating.

Currently, the device runs Android 9 Pie; and is scheduled to get an upgrade to Android 10 sometime near the first half of the year.  I’m not going to get into a big comparison between Android 9 Pie and iOS 13.  There have been enough comparison reviews between Android and iOS over the years.  Instead, I’m going to concentrate on the hardware itself – how you interact with it and how it performs.  So let’s take a look at the device itself and how it compares to an iPhone XR (the other flagship phone that I have).

The Full 360

Long and thin, the Motorola Moto z4 is perhaps one of the most easily identified smartphones on the market, thanks in no small part to its Moto Mod panel and pins near the bottom, on the rear of the device.

 

360-Fronts

This is the front view of the iPhone Xr (left) and the Moto z4 (right). Note that the Moto z4 is noticeably taller than the  iPhone Xr.


You’ll notice in the shot above, that the Moto z4 is noticeably taller than the iPhone Xr.  The iPhone Xr is 5.94″ x 2.98″ x 0.33″ (HWD).  The Moto z4 is 6.22″x2.95″x0.29″ (HWD).  So its taller and noticeably thinner at 0.29″ or just over a 1/4″ deep.

360-Tops 360-Bottoms

Top Edge – The top edge of the Moto z4 has the SIM/microSD Card tray, a microphone and speaker grill.  The earpiece is directly below the microphone on the front of the device.

Bottom Edge – The USB-C port, microphone and 3.5mm headphone jack are along the bottom edge. The device’s CE mark and model number and type are also printed along the bottom edge.

As you may be able to see from the pictures above, the iPhone Xr is slightly thicker than the Moto z4.  The Moto z4 also doesn’t have any additional speakers along the bottom edge of the device, though it does have a second microphone there. Unlike the iPhone Xr (or any other iPhone for that matter…), the Moto z4 does include a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom.

360-Left Sides 360-Right Sides
Left Edge – There’s nothing on the left edge of the Moto z4.

Right Edge – The right edge of the Moto z4 has both the volume rocker (on the right) and the power button (on the left). Note that the power button is noticeably smaller and is ribbed.

The left edge of the Moto z4 has nothing on it.  The right edge has both the volume rocker (near the top of the right edge of the device) and the power button, directly below the volume rocker.  The power button is noticeably smaller than the volume rocker; and is less than half the size of the power button on the iPhone Xr.

360-Backs 360-Backs Cameras
Back of the Device – Note the pins for the Moto z4 Camera Close Up – Note the large camera bump on the Moto z4.

Moto Mods

The biggest draw for the Moto z line of smartphones is its expandability with Moto Mods. The idea is ingenious – different modules – or Mods – are stuck to the back of the phone, providing extra functionality.  The idea here is that the driving device – the smartphone itself – is the base and foundation and the Mods make the smartphone do extra things. As a result the phone is nothing more than your basic smartphone, and the mods provide the pull and draw that should make it a success.

There’s good and bad here…

Its good because the phone can easily be expanded by slapping “whatever you need” on the back of the device.  Need a speaker..?  There’s a mod for that.  Need an advanced camera?  There’s a mod for that.  Need an extra battery, or a photo printer, or even a video projector..??  Yeah.  There’s a mod for those needs too.

The options should be endless, right?  Unfortunately, not. Not by any sense of the word; and it’s unfortunate.

The bad part of this module expansion system is, unfortunately, multi-facetted. There are a number of different Moto Mods; and Motorola has provided a number of different mods for the moto z line of smartphones.  The link I provided has what is available directly from Motorola as of this writing, though unfortunately, many of the Mods appear to be unavailable through Motorola.  However, third party manufacturers like Tumi and Incipio also have some options available; and you should be able to find nearly all of these Mods available through eBay as well.  Let’s take a quick look at what is available.  Without turning this into a Moto Mod ad or catalog, Motorola has about a dozen Mods available on their site, in four different categories – Performance, Entertainment, Photo/Video and Style.

The latter (Style) is nothing more than a shell or case that gives you a bit more to hold on to. The Moto z4 is THIN.  Its perhaps the thinnest phone I’ve ever held; and is by far the thinnest phone I’ve ever worked with.  Thin is nice; but its almost too thin. I always feel as though I’m going to break it every time I pick it up. Having a Style mod on the z4 isn’t a bad idea.  It will protect the back of the device and provide a bit more physical volume for you to hold on to.  The Moto Style Shell is $2.99 USD as of this writing (down from $19.99 USD).  The Moto Folio does the same thing, only it folds over the front of the device as well.

Some of the more compelling Mods, however, include the following:

  • 5G Moto Mod – A Verizon exclusive with a 2000 mAh battery, and perhaps the biggest and most compelling Moto Mod that Motorola has available for the entire Z line of mobile devices, the 5G Moto Mod provides 5G service… in cities that actually support the service. This is perhaps the most compelling Mod in the lot, as it pretty much future proofs the device.  The 5G Mod is $350; but isn’t in wide distribution. In fact, you can’t get it right now. Though you may be able to find one on eBay.
  • Moto Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa – This is the only smart speaker that I have been able to find that works directly with the Moto z4 through its Moto Mod interface.  When attached to the z4, your device becomes the equivalent of an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot.  It also comes with a 1530 mAh battery as well as a dedicated USB-C port to power the speaker and your device.  At its current price of $49.99 USD, its $10 bucks cheaper than the Echo Dot; and does at least as much, if not more, once the Amazon Alexa software (works for all Android devices) is installed.  The value here is amazing. If you have a Moto z device, and don’t have this Mod, you’re missing out.

    My review unit came with this smart speaker. Its actually a very good speaker, though to be honest, I’m having issues with the Alexa mobile, digital assistant. It doesn’t listen like you would expect it to. It has to be manually activated first. I’ll have more on this in a separate post.

    Mods - Alexa Side Mods - Alexa Activated
    Side of the Smart Speaker with the z4 attached The ring around the product name plate lights up when the Speaker is activated 
  • Moto Insta-Share Projector – This is another very compelling Moto Mod.  Giving the ability for users to project video on a wall or screen, the Insta-Share Projector Moto Mod includes a 1100 mAh battery allowing users to project video for well over an hour at 854×480 resolution and a 400:1 Contrast Ration and 16:9 Aspect Ratio. The Mod does NOT include a speaker, however; and will require users to either listen to projected audio via the device’s speaker or through a Bluetooth or USB-C connected speaker.  This device is also not available through Motorola.  You might be able to find this one on eBay as well.

There are other Moto Mods available directly from Motorola including a Power Pack ($49.99 USD), the Moto Game Pad ($99.99 USD), the JBL SoundBoost Speaker ($39.99 USD), and the Moto 360 Camera ($149.99 USD).  There are other mods on this page, however, they just don’t seem to be available anywhere else other than eBay some other third party source.

Mods - Power Back with Device
The back of the Moto z4 with the Incipio Off Grid Power Pack

I have a third party Moto Mod – the Incipio OffGrid Power Pack, a wireless charging battery pack.  The device is set to discharge the Moto Mod battery first.  Once that’s dead, your phone uses its own battery.  This is a great Mod to have; and one that I would recommend to everyone. However, you really need to understand how hot this thing gets when you use your device for any length of time.

Mods - Power Bottom with Device

The bottom edge of the Moto z4 with the Incipio OffGrid Power

Pack. It nearly doubles the thickness of the device

If you play any kind of game or watch any video that goes beyond, say, 5-7 minutes, the device is going to start to get really hot in your hand, as the Moto z4 hits it for extended, high power needs.  After a while its not a great feeling to keep holding on to it.  As I said, it gets hot.

Android Auto

One of the biggest and most important places I use my phone is in the car.  Normally, with my iPhone, I plug the phone into a foot long USB-Lightning cable and I play music or podcasts and make calls through the car radio.  One of the biggest problems I have with my iPhone, though is two fold – there really isn’t a good way to hold the device in the car and Apple CarPlay requires a compatible headset to work.  There’s no “on-device” app that changes the smartphone’s interface while you’re driving.

IMG-2073 IMG-2074
The Incipio Moto Mods Vehicle Dock Mount in my 2014 Toyota Highlander

A close up of the Vehicle Dock Mount.  It securely mounts to the dock  via magnetic connection. It’s released by squeezing the middle of the dock.

With the Moto z4, it’s a totally different story.  Incipio  makes a car kit for the device called the Incipio Moto Mods Vehicle Dock Mount System that firmly holds and charges your Moto Mod compatible Moto z phone while in the car.

The dock is ingenious.  Using the Moto Mod magnetic attachment system, the Moto z4 is firmly held in place on the dock while in your car, all the while, providing power. It also automatically activates Android Auto when connected.

I’m not going to go through a big to-do about Android Auto, either. There’s been enough done on that.  What I can and will do, however, is say this about the program – it works while you drive.  You don’t NEED a compatible head unit to make it work, like you do with Apple’s CarPlay, though when you do have such a head unit in your car, Android Auto will display on your head unit instead of on your device.

IMG-2075 IMG-2076
The Moto z4 running Android Auto when in the Vehicle Dock Mount The Moto z4 running Google Maps through Android Auto in the Vehicle Dock Mount

While on your device, it makes using your phone in your car much less distracting.  Interestingly enough, using Android Auto in Android 9 Pie requires the user to download the app from the Google Play Store. In Android 10, Android Auto is built into the OS, and you won’t need to download and install a separate app.

IMG-2077 IMG-2078

A close up of the Moto z4 in the Vehicle Dock Mount.  The tab in the back is one of the arms that unseat the device when squeezed.

A wide angle shot of the Moto z4 in the Incipio Moto Mods Vehicle Dock Mount. You’ll notice the red cable that provides power to the dock.

The only problem that I have with this setup in my car is that i can’t get the Moto z4 to talk to my car radio.  The setting that allows communication via the USB port is blocked by my device, even though I have Developer Mode and USB Debugging turned on.  For some reason, I can’t modify this setting, and so I have to rely on Bluetooth audio in order to play any music or listen to any content through my device.

Audio from any smartphone (or any audio source) is much better through a wired connection than through Bluetooth.  It kills me that I can’t play audio through the USB connection.

Conclusion

The Motorola Moto z4 is a decent Android smartphone; but this is part of its problem.  Its decent…meaning is merely ok.  By itself, there’s nothing really all that compelling about it.

It’s thin.  Like, 0.29 inches (or just over a quarter of an inch) thin. By comparison, the iPhone Xr is 0.33 inches thin. The difference, while small, is noticeable.  In my opinion, its too thin.  Its not easy to hold on to, to be honest. I feel as though I’m gonna drop it.

The smartphone by itself is pretty unremarkable.  The camera, at 48 MP, is really good.  I was satisfied with the pictures it took.  But other than that, the device is merely an ok smartphone. It really takes the devices module system to make the device compelling enough to spend any kind of money on.  The problem here, though is that many of the Moto Mods that were created aren’t available at this time, or you have to buy them used or from some other unconventional third party. Some Mods are available at Amazon. Some are available at eBay.

But without making use of any Moto Mods, what you’ve got is really nothing more than a middle of the road, ok smartphone, that makes use of a very vulnerable mobile operating system.

The device isn’t bad; and for the current cost of the device, its a decent phone.  Currently at Verizon, the Motorola Moto z4 retails for $499.99 USD.  If you want it on a two year agreement, it will cost you $5/ month.  Yep. That’s right!  Just $5 USD a month for 24 months (or $120 bucks), or a savings of $380 USD.

If you’re looking for a decent mid-range Android smartphone, this deal at Verizon is a really good one.  At $120 USD over two years, this is perhaps one of the best deals you can make.  You’re going to pay more for any Moto Mods you may buy; and you’re likely going to want some.  Without the Mods, the phone is pretty boring. Without the deal, I don’t know that I would bother.

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