Finally, 5G mobile connectivity is here with the Motorola Moto Z3. Well, almost.
The Moto Z3 is here, releasing on 16 August in the States (no word yet internationally), and it will support the 5G Moto Mod attachment. But that attachment won't see the light of day until early 2019.
Still, calling a smartphone the very first to be upgradeable to 5G isn't a half-bad boast, and it's something that might entice some buyers to take the plunge on a matter of faith.
And what about the Moto Z3 itself? Well, it's pretty similar to the earlier Moto Z models, with a super-slim, Moto Mod-accommodating build, but it's gone for a slightly-less-than-flagship build this time around – and a price to match.
Should you buy a smartphone on a promise, even if it's an incredibly compelling one? Here's what we think.
Design: Built to expand
Wrapping my hands around this large phone, it feels quite a bit like the original Moto Z that I reviewed a couple years back. In fact, I remember that same immediate sensation of thinking that the handset feels unnervingly thin without a Mod attached. And at 6.75mm, this one's thicker than the original!
But that's the whole point: if you're buying a Moto Z3, you're doing it because you have some level of interest in the Moto Mods. The 5G mod is still several months away, but in the meantime you can snap on a battery pack, a projector, a 10x zoom camera, and other odd little bits and pieces. Even just slapping on a backing plate – decorative or otherwise – helps make it feel a lot more complete in the hand.
Given my own past experience with Moto Mods, I don't see anything out there that's a must-have - an accessory that's so essential and so much better served by being affixed to the back of your handset. Not enough to make these phones stand out above the competition, at least. But you might like the feel and convenience of a snap-on battery pack, or varying backing designs (as shown).
Overall, the Z3 certainly has a flagship-level allure: it's screen-heavy on the front, all glass and aluminum otherwise, and feels like a top-end device. Sadly, it's one that's lacking a 3.5mm headphone jack, although it comes with a USB-C convertor dongle.
Security: Face or... fumble
Like the earlier Moto Z3 Play, the Moto Z3 brings an interesting design tweak: a side-mounted fingerprint sensor. It's on the right side of the device, just below the volume buttons, and it saves Motorola from having to pop one below the screen - you know, since the back is already busied up with Moto Mods.
It's plenty speedy once you have a finger on it, although admittedly, it's a tough adjustment. Front and back-mounted sensors can seemingly accomodate a number of different hand approaches, while the Moto Z3 works with a very specific kind of grip. Even after days of usage, I still feel like I'm fumbling for it, although that will surely ease over time.
Motorola also offers Face Unlock capabilities if you're not into the fingerprint sensor, and while it's less secure than a fingerprint and doesn't have quite the iPhone X-level of sensor-aided capability, it still feels fast and reliable.
Screen: Big and beautiful
The screen in question is big and bold, measuring 6in and taking up the bulk (79%) of the front. It's an extra-tall 18:9 display, no notch in tow, and boasts strong contrast and inky blacks thanks to the AMOLED tech.
That said, it's a 1080p panel, so it doesn't have quite the same level of crispness as the Quad HD-packing Samsung Galaxy S9. But we're seeing a lot of makers opt for 1080p displays in their flagships, which has seemed a more common move of late.
In any case, it looks great here. Netflix and YouTube streams look punchy and clean, and everyday usage doesn't disappoint.
Cameras: Pretty capable
The Moto Z3 has a dual-camera setup on the back, with a 12-megapixel (f/2.0) main sensor flanked by a 12MP monochrome sensor. Both have depth-sensing capabilities, and you can use them for portrait shots, black-and-white photos, and special effects shots that merge color and black-and-white elements.
Every snaps look pretty nice: strong colouring, good detail, and and speedy autofocus via both phase detection and laser. I turned out nice snaps on the street, at a baseball game, in my garden, and nearly everywhere else. Low-light performance sags a bit - you can definitely lose some detail and clarity as a result.
It's well-equipped for Instagram shots, although in head-to-head shooting with the Huawei P20 Pro - the current camera champ - I definitely noticed more naturally-judged lighting, better detail when zoomed into photos, and improved low-light performance from the P20 Pro. But that's not surprising, given the price difference here.
The Z3 might not be at the top of the scale, but it's not priced like it should be. That's a key consideration. For the money, it does quite well. And the front-mounted 8MP (f/2.0) camera is likewise ready to take very solid selfies.
Performance: Speedy, but just behind
Motorola opted not to keep pace with the flagship class, using last year's Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip instead of the current Snapdragon 845. Granted, the 835 is the same chip used in the still-current Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, so it's not exactly outdated.
For the average user, last year's top-end tech is more than enough right now. But if you're keen on keeping up with the best of the best, just know that the Moto Z3 doesn't go quite all the way here.
And everything runs pretty smoothly – 4GB RAM surely helps there, as does the near-stock version of Android 8.1 Oreo. Motorola always makes small feature enhancements, but thankfully doesn't slather on an obnoxious skin. Good on them.
The Moto Z3 comes with 64GB internal storage, but you can pop in a microSD card (up to 2TB) to vastly expand that tally.
Meanwhile, the 3,000mAh battery pack is about average given the components in play. Motorola calls it an all-day battery, that sounds about right in my testing: if you don't go too hard with gaming and streaming, it'll last 'til bedtime. But heavy use could call for a late afternoon or early-evening top-up.
It doesn't have wireless charging (there's a Moto Mod for that), but the 15W TurboPower charger can deliver about half a day's charge in about 30 minutes. So that's handy.
The 5G mod
Earlier this month, I saw a demonstration of Motorola's 5G tech within a foam-padded isolation room, but the actual 5G Moto Mods I handled weren't fully functional yet.
The demo version of the Mod felt relatively lightweight, however, although it does add a bit of bulk to the Moto Z3 –and the little fin at the top (as seen below), which Motorola says is a functional move. It allows one of the antennas to peek out unobscured, with three others located elsewhere on the Mod.
If Motorola and U.S. carrier Verizon's 5G claims hold up, it could be a monumental leap in mobile connectivity, letting you stream 4K-quality content with ease, download an entire season of a TV show in a couple of minutes, and even stream live VR content without nausea-inducing latency issues.
We'll have to see how much the 5G Moto Mod costs, however – the US$480 price of the phone seems reasonable, but if the Mod is hugely expensive, then it'll dilute the value proposition.
It's also slated to work with other Moto Mod-compatible phones, although it sounds like the Moto Z3 will be the first out of the gate to support it. And for now, only U.S. release plans have been announced, with Verizon being the sole carrier at the outset.
Moto Z3 verdict
The Motorola Moto Z3 is much like the other Moto Z devices: if you like the idea of modular accessories, then it's pretty compelling. If you don't see the point of Moto Mods, then you've got a lot of other options - some of which are arugably more compelling.
The excellent OnePlus 6, for example, packs in a faster processor, great camera, and sharp design for just $50 more. And since the Z3 uses a year-old processor, you could even look at something like Samsung's Galaxy S8. Last year's best flagship can now be had for about the same price as the Z3, and it's still a fantastic handset with a whole lot of great perks of its own.
Things could change dramatically once the 5G Moto Mod comes out. If there aren't a lot of phones with 5G support at the time, let alone 5G-capable phones below the flagship price point, then that capability could make the Z3 a must-have. But there are a lot of question marks, and it's tough to recommend buying a phone today based on a nebulous accessory that'll be out in six or more months.
You can plan and try to future-proof all you want, but if you're buying a phone today, then I think you need to make the decision that's good for you both now and into the short-term future. The Moto Z3 is a very fine upper-midrange handset with an attractive build, great screen, and very fine performance.
But there are sleeker, sexier, and faster phones in this general price range, and the Moto Mods are really the deciding factor. If you don't see must-have attachments in the lineup today, then consider other options.
On the other hand, if you love the idea of modular upgrades, then the Moto Z3 is a great base phone to build upon. And who knows? Maybe you'll be one of the first to ride the 5G wave early next year if the timeline holds up and the price isn't overwhelming. Maybe.