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Lifewire / Brittany Vincent
Upgradeable to 5G
Moto Mod design is innovative
Great display for the price
5G module sold separately
Moto Mods are expensive
The Motorola Moto Z3 puts you on the cutting edge of Verizon's network technology, but it isn’t quite a cutting-edge phone.
The Motorola Moto Z3 is one of the legions of phones that make up the mid-range tier of Android devices. It isn’t trying to compete with the latest Samsung and Apple flagships—instead, it’s a more affordable alternative for those who don't need or want the most high-end smartphones out there.
It has a twist, though, in the form of Moto Mods. These are attachable accessories that add different functions to the phone, whether it’s a stereo speaker, a compact projector, or a 5G connection. The Moto Mods make this device worthy of a second look, even if you're the type that normally buys top-of-the-line flagships.
The Moto Mods give this phone a lot of extra capabilities, but they also increase the price. For the sake of this review, we’re focusing on the Moto Z3 as a stock phone, considering it as a mid-range device that just happens to be modifiable. That being said, we will touch on one of the buzziest Moto Mods—the Moto Z3 is the first phone to be compatible with Verizon's 5G network, so we'd be remiss if we didn't at least discuss the 5G module.
The Motorola Z3 takes the guts of the Moto Z2 Force from 2017 and puts them in a new body. We liked the minimalistic design of the Z3, and it's quite thin without any mods attached. The bezels are narrow, especially for a phone in this price range, and it feels sleek and substantial in the hand. There is a camera module on the rear, along with the pins for the Moto Mods. The Gorilla Glass 3 back is sleek and looks great.
The fingerprint sensor is mounted on the right edge of the phone and is easy to use. It's in a natural position for your thumb, so there's no awkward stretching to unlock your phone. The volume rockers are positioned right above it (which may be strange for people who are used to those controls on the opposite side) and the power button is on the left edge of the device.
The actual cost of the Moto Z3 fluctuates depending on which Moto Mods you want.
This unconventional button arrangement was actually a source of frustration during our testing. We kept hitting the volume buttons trying to turn on the screen, and accidentally putting the phone to sleep when we were trying to adjust the volume. It’s unclear why they decided to mix things up with the positioning, but it seems like there's nothing gained from it.
And, because this is a less expensive phone, Motorola had to cut some corners when it came to one important design feature: waterproofing. The Z3 features a “water-repellent coating” that is supposed to protect against accidental splashes. But having at least IP68 water resistance is something we've come to expect in newer devices, and we're not eager to return to the days when we had to throw our wet phone into a bag of rice. With the Z3, you might still find yourself in that situation.
The setup process for the Z3 is typical for an Android phone. After inserting a SIM card and powering on the device, we were presented with the initial setup screen. We were then asked to connect to your Wi-Fi (you can also choose to skip this step) and given the chance to opt in or out of several sets of analytics.
Once we entered the info for our Google account (this is also an optional step), we were taken to the Z3's home screen. The setup process is very straightforward, and we were not asked to make any Motorola-specific accounts or complete any other atypical steps.
Unfortunately, the Moto Z3 launched with fairly unimpressive hardware. It’s equipped with a Snapdragon 835 processor with four Kryo cores clocked at 2.35 GHz and four at 1.9 GHz. Like most phones, the Z3 doesn't use all eight at once. Instead, it uses the four slower ones while idling or doing non-intensive tasks and switches to the faster ones when it needs the extra horsepower.
The graphics are provided by an Adreno 540 GPU, which is a generation behind the Adreno 600-Series GPUs that are in most flagships from the past year.
In the PCMark Work 2.0 test, which measures how well the phone performs during general tasks, the Moto Z3 scored a 7,305. That puts it far below current flagship phones like the Galaxy S10 which scored a 9,620. Even some flagships from 2017 beat it out.
The Moto Z3 is the cheapest way to get Verizon’s 5G service.
We also tested the phone in GFXBench, which benchmarks how well the phone handles complex graphics. In the Car Chase on-screen test the Moto Z3 averaged 22 frames per second. This is far better than its predecessor, the Z3 Play, which only averaged 6 fps. However, even Samsung's last-gen Galaxy S9 beat out the Z3 with an average of 26 fps.
But you won't really notice all this when you’re actually using the Z3. In our testing, it felt plenty fast and allowed us to play games like Fortnite and PUBG without noticeable lag or slowdown.
The stock Moto Z3 is compatible with GSM, HSPA, and LTE bands along with 801.11ac Wi-Fi. Since this phone is a Verizon exclusive in the United States, it's odd that it supports GSM and HSPA but not CDMA, which is the technology used for Verizon's 2G and 3G connections.
At the time of this writing, Verizon is in the process of switching all its towers to LTE-only. But if you’re in one of the few areas that don't have LTE coverage, you'll have to hope you can roam onto a T-Mobile or AT&T tower, and you may experience issues with sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages. If you buy the Moto Z3 in a Verizon store, they will most likely check to make sure your account is provisioned correctly to avoid this issue. But if you purchase the phone online or via a third-party, you may have to call into Verizon for provisioning.
The Moto Z3’s claim to fame is that it's the first phone to be compatible with Verizon's new 5G deployment. This compatibility comes with a catch: it's not 5G-ready out of the box. You'll need to spend another $200 for the Moto 5G Moto Mod to enable this feature.
With the 5G Moto Mod, the total for the Moto Z3 comes to a less-affordable $680. But if you have to have 5G, it’s still the best deal out there. As of the time of this writing, the only other phone with 5G capability available in the U.S. is the Galaxy S10 5G for $1,300.
We weren't able to test the 5G speeds since the service has only been rolled out in select cities. However, on LTE the Z3 downloaded at an average of 12 to 15 MB/s, which isn't too shabby. Wi-Fi speeds were also good, clocking in at around 20 MB/s on a Linksys WRT3200ACM router situated about 10 feet away.
One area where the Moto Z3 really shines (literally) is the display. No other phone in this price range comes close to the quality of the Z3's screen. The six-inch AMOLED display has a resolution of 1080 x 2160, which is a bit lower than you'll find on most flagship phones. But with the 402ppi density, it looks sharp and still manages the wonderful color range and deep blacks you’d expect from an OLED screen.
No other phone in this price range comes close to the quality of the Z3's screen.
The Moto Z3's screen is plenty bright as well. At 564 nits, you can turn it up and read the screen in almost direct sunlight. The great display goes a long way towards making this mid-range phone more appealing and shows that companies don't have to cut corners with blurry low-res screens to get a phone into this price range.
In its stock form, the sound quality on the Moto Z3 is average. You won't get the benefit of a 3.5mm jack on this phone, but a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle is included in the box to keep your headphone options open. The Z3 doesn't have any fancy dedicated DACs or anything like that, so don't expect to be blown away by its performance.
But if you're crazy about sound, there are several Moto Mods that enhance the Z3's aural capabilities. These don't focus on headphone quality (unfortunately) but there are several mods you can attach to the rear of the Z3 that turn it into the equivalent of a small stereo speaker. This is a cool enough concept, but it might have relatively niche appeal depending on how often users listen to music or media through their phone’s external speakers.
We would like to have seen a mod that just added a DAC and perhaps a built-in 3.5mm jack. There are four different Moto Mods that feature speakers, but nothing that adds to the quality of the audio if you just want to listen with headphones.
The Moto Z3's cameras work as well as you could ask for the price tag. This phone is equipped with a dual-camera module on the rear with one monochrome 12-megapixel lens and another 12-megapixel lens with an f/2 aperture. The images it produced in testing look good but not great, and the HDR worked quite well. As we expected, the Z3 really suffered in low light, and the 8-megapixel front camera was plagued with the same issues.
The Z3 can record 4K video at 30 fps or 1080p video at up to 60 fps. There's nothing really special here—in testing, our videos looked decent as long as we had good light, but autofocus, in particular, suffered in low-light situations.
There is a Hasselblad True Zoom Moto Mod that allows you to turn the Moto Z3 into essentially a point-and-shoot camera with a full-size lens. We didn't get a chance to try this mod out, but its 10x optical zoom and bigger flash—along with the ability to shoot RAW files—should produce much higher-quality images if you're willing to throw down an extra $200.
The Moto Z3 has a 3,000 mAh battery that can get you through the day with light to moderate use, but if you're someone who likes to play a lot of games, stream music, or watch videos, you're going to want some extra juice.
The Z3 doesn't have a detachable battery, but there is an attachable Moto Power Pack Moto Mod that can add another 2,220 mAh battery. Additionally, the 5G Moto Mod has a built-in 2,000 mAh battery that helps offset the increased power requirements of the 5G modem.
The Moto Z3 is basically running stock Android, which is a good thing in our book. The phone was updated to Android Pie in April 2019, but if you consider that Android 9.0 was released in August 2018, that means it took eight months to make it to the Z3. That's not the quickest update cycle, but there are still plenty of flagships from last year sitting on Android Oreo, so the Z3 still stacks up pretty well when it comes to OS update frequency.
Since this is a Verizon-branded phone, it comes with some pre-installed bloatware. Fortunately, these apps don’t impose themselves nearly as much as the bloatware from other manufacturers—most of these games and applications can be removed, but the Verizon-specific ones are marked as system apps and can't be deleted by normal means.
The actual cost of the Motorola Moto Z3 fluctuates depending on the Moto Mods you want. The phone by itself retails for $480, but as you start to add mods (most of which cost $200 or more), things quickly become a lot more expensive. With higher-end phones like the Google Pixel 3 often on sale for around $600, this makes the Moto Z3 is a bit of a hard sell.
However, there is one area where the Z3 beats out all the competition, if only by default. If you want to use Verizon's 5G network, you can either pay $480 for this phone and $200 for the 5G Moto Mod, or pony up $1,300 for the Galaxy 10 5G. For those who want the most cutting-edge network technology, the Z3’s price can’t be beat.
If you just want a mid-range phone in the $450-500 range, you can likely find a phone that’s better than the Moto Z3. Shop around for last year's flagships like the Galaxy S9, and you can snag a phone with better internals and a more premium build for about the same price. The new Google Pixel 3a is also priced starting at $399 and has a lot more in the way of cutting-edge features without having to pay extra for modifications.
That being said, if you're looking for a phone to connect to Verizon's 5G network, your options are limited. And between this phone and the Galaxy S10 5G, this phone is the far cheaper option to get you that technology.
A solid if unremarkable mid-range phone that only gets fun if you’re willing to spend extra on Moto Mods.
The Moto Z3 is the cheapest way to get Verizon’s 5G service, and it has a great display for the price. But it depends too heavily on Moto Mods to make it attractive. If you don’t want to spend extra on these modifications, you're better off looking for something with a bit more power for the same price.