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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Sharp OLED display
Day-and-a-half battery life
Main camera takes very good shots
Moto Mods offer unique options
Spotty in-display fingerprint sensor
Moto Mods don't fit right
No IP water resistance rating
Middling gaming performance
So-so sound quality
It's tough to get excited about another Moto Mod-capable mid-range phone in 2019. There are better all-around phones for the same price or even less.
Motorola's Moto Z was a bold idea when it was introduced in 2016, offering an easy way for people to augment, customize, and enhance a smartphone by snapping magnetic Moto Mods accessories onto the back. Quite a lot has changed in the smartphone market over the last three years, but Motorola is still plugging away at the concept with the new Moto Z4.
Now packed with upper mid-range specs and features, the Moto Z4 still offers the ability to easily snap on things like battery packs, back covers, and even a speedy 5G network mod—but the Moto Mods premise hasn't been the revolutionary game-changer that Motorola intended it to be, and the company's adherence to the concept has gradually produced less exciting results over time. Given that, what makes the Moto Z4 special in 2019? Not much, we're afraid.
The shape and feel of the Moto Z has largely stayed the same over the years to accommodate the existing Moto Mods, but the front of the phone has adapted to changing trends. On the Moto Z4, that means the screen dominates most of the face, with a small waterdrop notch at the top of the screen to accommodate the front-facing selfie camera. It's much smaller than the notch seen on an iPhone XS or Pixel 3 XL, and is closer to what's found on the OnePlus 6T.
This kind of approach minimizes the amount of bezel or empty space around the screen itself, although there's a little bit on the top and a larger chin beneath the screen. Even so, the effect is a pleasing one, with the 6.4-inch OLED screen given a real chance to shine.
The Moto Z4 is a super-thin handset, with the thickness measuring less than 0.3 inches. Motorola has smoothed out the edges compared to the Moto Z3 which felt a little sharp when gripped, but that's had both positive and negative results. On the upside, the Moto Z4 feels plenty comfortable in the hand. Unfortunately, the slightly changed dimensions have resulted in ill-fitting Moto Mods, which is a major issue. More on that later in the review.
Because of the Moto Mods approach, the back of the Moto Z4 is functionally identical to those that came before. The frosted glass back has a big camera module in the upper-center. There are a series of magnetic nodes at the bottom that the Mods securely connect to. Admittedly, the phone feels a bit naked without a Mod attached. You might want to look into getting a back cover—available in various designs—to give the phone a slightly fuller build and a personalized touch.
The slightly changed dimensions have resulted in ill-fitting Moto Mods, which is a major issue.
Thankfully, Motorola brought back the 3.5mm headphone port that was missing from the Moto Z3. Unfortunately, the phone doesn't have a water and dust resistance rating; Motorola cites the same P2i splash-proof nano-coating as its cheaper Moto G7 phones, but that's not a reassuring promise. The Moto Z4 comes in Flash Grey and Frost White varieties, each with 128GB of built-in storage and the ability to add up to 1TB more via microSD cards.
You won’t see a fingerprint sensor on the Moto Z4 because it's now embedded within the display, instead of being on the side like with last year's phone. Unfortunately, like many of the early in-display sensors, it's a downgrade. The Moto Z4's sensor is just not consistently reliable, often misreading your fingerprint on the first attempt—and sometimes the second and third. That's a very familiar experience coming from Samsung's Galaxy S10, which also struggles with its in-display sensor. However, the OnePlus 7 Pro's larger sensor is the best we've used to date, so there is hope for the technology. It's just not very good on the Moto Z4.
Luckily, the screen is one aspect of the Moto Z4 that we can't find any real faults with. The 6.4-inch Full HD+ (1080p) display is big and bright, with the OLED panel delivering vibrant colors and deep black levels. The contrast is on point, the detail is consistently strong—truly, this is one of the best screens we've seen on a $499 phone. It's a bit better than the overly saturated screens of the Pixel 3a phones, in fact.
With Android 9 Pie installed, getting started is a piece of cake. Just hold down the power button on the right side of the phone and follow the on-screen prompts. You'll need to log into a Google account, accept the terms and conditions, and consider a few settings and options. You can also choose whether or not to restore from a backup or move data over from another phone. In any case, it shouldn't take more than a matter of minutes to get started.
The Moto Z4 makes a change in approach with its choice of processor. Last year's phone opted for a then-year-old flagship processor, the Snapdragon 835, cutting a relatively small corner to trim down the price tag. But the Moto Z4 instead opts to use an upper mid-range chip, the Snapdragon 675. As the larger number attests, the phone is a tiny bit more powerful than the Snapdragon 670 chip seen in the $399 Google Pixel 3a, but it's in the same ballpark.
For the most part, it's hard to complain about the shift to a lower-tier line of processors. Swiping around in Android 9 Pie feels speedy and responsive, apps typically run well, and the camera isn't sluggish at all. The 4GB RAM surely helps with all of this. The Moto Z4 is solidly well-equipped as an everyday smartphone, and the 7,677 score we recorded in the PCMark Work 2.0 performance test is a little bit better than the 7,380 score we saw from the Pixel 3a XL.
Unfortunately, Motorola opted for a weaker GPU than seen in the Pixel 3a line, and the results are disappointing. In GFXBench testing, the Adreno 612 GPU posted scores of just 7.2 frames per second (fps) in the Car Chase benchmark demo, and 38fps in the T-Rex demo. The Pixel 3a's Adreno 615 chip, meanwhile, hit 11fps in Car Chase and 53fps with T-Rex.
Getting around in Android 9 Pie feels speedy and responsive, apps typically run well, and the camera isn't sluggish at all.
What's sad is that the Moto Z3 had a much more powerful, gaming-ready GPU the last time around, yet the pricier Moto Z4 sees a major downgrade. We noticed the difference in action when racing in Asphalt 9: Legends, which consistently stuttered during play on the Moto Z4. Luckily, online shooter PUBG Mobile ran smoother, but don't count on the Moto Z4 handling 3D gaming with ease now or in the future.
Also, we noticed that the Moto Z4 sometimes became very warm during high-performance usage, such as when playing games or handling large downloads. It's a very slim phone, and it doesn't seem to mitigate heat like a lot of more recent devices.
The Moto Z4 posted similar download scores to what we've seen from other handsets recently on Verizon's 4G LTE network just north of Chicago. Using the Speedtest.net app, our download speeds typically fell in the 30-50Mbps range, while upload speeds were around 10-18Mbps. Web browsing felt speedy and responsive, and downloads were swift. The Moto Z4 runs on 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz Wi-Fi networks, and we had no issues on either.
Don't expect much from the audio playback on the Moto Z4, unfortunately. With the all-screen approach, it has opted for a single mono speaker—and it's on the top of the phone, curiously. Playback is fine for YouTube videos and the like, but it sounds thin and there isn't much bass response. It's not the kind of phone you'd want to blast music from, although Motorola and JBL both offer stereo speaker Moto Mods to snap to the back.
Unlike even Motorola's budget Moto G7, the Moto Z4 doesn't pack in multiple back cameras—but that's not a complaint. The Moto Z4 has just one main camera, a 48-megapixel sensor (f/1.7 aperture) but it's good enough to get the job done on its own. Thanks to pixel binning, it combines pixels to output improved 12-megapixel results, and they're often pretty good.
The Moto Z4 captures strong shots with plentiful lighting, with quite a bit of detail included, although they're not always as vibrant as we'd like. Optical image stabilization helps ensure steady shots when the lighting is good, although the Moto Z4 isn't as successful in indoor and lower-lighting scenarios; we ended up with a fair number of blurry shots in those situations. Still, at this price range, the Moto Z4 is only beat out by the Pixel 3a in terms of camera quality.
An included night shooting mode helps ratchet up visibility in very dark settings, but the results were a mixed bag in terms of color and detail. Once more, it can't match up to the Pixel 3a's Night Sight feature. Meanwhile, the 25-megapixel front-facing camera does a great job of snapping clear, well-judged selfies.
Battery life is a highlight of the Moto Z4, which packs in a beefy 3,600mAh pack. That's enough to deliver a strong day and a half of average usage in our testing. By the end of an average day, we'd often have about 50 percent left to play with. The battery seemed to drain faster on day two, however, so you're unlikely to get two full days without very light usage.
Still, it's great to have the flexibility to skip the charger one night, or a bit of extra insurance in case you do push harder with games or streaming media during a single day. If you're looking for a longer-lasting option, Motorola's budget Moto G7 Power—which sells for half the price of the Z4, but also has weaker components—packs an enormous 5,000mAh cell that can last for 48 hours without breaking a sweat.
There's no wireless charging on the Moto Z4, unfortunately, but the included 15W TurboPower charger can give you a speedy top-up via the USB-C cable.
The Moto Z4 runs Google's Android 9 Pie operating system, and as is Motorola's usual approach, the phone isn't bogged down by bloatware or aggressive skinning. It's close to stock Android, running well on its mid-range processor.
Motorola's tweaks are all positive additions in the form of a list of optional Moto Actions, which include helpful shortcuts and software tweaks that can speed up access to features. For example, you can perform two quick chopping motions with the phone to bring up the flashlight, or flip your phone over to automatically enable the Do Not Disturb mode. You can also switch to a gesture-based navigation mode rather than using the classic Android software nav bar at the bottom of the screen. It's a solid alternative way to get around the interface.
Despite lofty aims, the Moto Mod ecosystem hasn't yielded the kinds of amazing attachments we'd hoped for. Some have reasonable utility, like snap-on battery packs, while others are decidedly a lot more novel—like an attachable pico projector that can fling a movie or TV show onto a nearby wall.
The snap-on accessory fad feels like it has run its course, and the Moto Z4 doesn't have a strong enough hook beyond that.
The latest and potentially greatest one is the 5G Moto Mod, which lets you tap into Verizon's emerging next-generation wireless standard ahead of the vast majority of phones on the market. That sounds amazing, but there are two big hang-ups with it: first, it's $349 for the Moto Mod alone. Second, and most importantly, there's barely any 5G service to tap into at this point, and it's pretty finicky. It's a good idea, but one that isn't terribly useful right now.
The unlocked Moto Z4 actually ships with a 360 Moto Mod Camera attachment that snaps onto the back and sticks out over the top, filming from all angles and stitching together a 360-degree video that you can pan around at will. That's a cool trick and a welcome freebie, even if it probably isn't something we would've paid any significant sum for (it's valued at $199).
The 360 Moto Mod Camera snaps on easily, but doesn't sit perfectly flush with the Moto Z4. That's not a big deal with a Mod that you're likely to take off after a few minutes, but it's a problem with others. We tried snapping on a back cover that we had fit perfectly on the Moto Z3 last year, but thanks to the tweaked contours on the Moto Z4, there's a noticeable lip between the phone and cover. It's off-putting enough that we didn't bother using it. Reports suggest that other past Moto Mods aren't a perfect fit, even if they ultimately still work. That's a big letdown, especially with the fourth version of the phone.
As a grab bag of features and components, the Moto Z4 has some perks. The large screen is great, the camera is very good overall, and battery life is impressive. On the other hand, it's underpowered for gaming, the fingerprint sensor is a misfire, and Moto Mods just aren't the big hook that Motorola hoped they'd be— they don't even fit correctly.
The $499 (MSRP) price point feels high for the overall experience here. For example, you could spend $399 for a Pixel 3a or $479 for the Pixel 3a XL and get an even better camera and comparable performance, including improved gaming results. Or you could bump up to the $549 OnePlus 6T and get flagship-level performance. Either option is a more appealing one in our book. Honestly, it feels like Motorola tucked in the 360 Moto Mod Camera to try and better justify the price. We'd rather just have a better all-around phone than a freebie gimmick.
If you want a killer large-screened phone at less than $500, our pick is the Google Pixel 3 XL, which has an amazing flagship-quality camera that captures an incredible amount of detail. It has a strong advantage over the pretty good camera on the Moto Z4. The 6-inch screen is nearly as strong as the Moto Z4's, everyday performance is also nearly on par, and game performance sees a solid improvement.
Granted, the Pixel 3a XL opts for plastic instead of aluminum and glass on the sides and back, but it's still a nicely distinctive handset. And if you don't mind the smaller 5.6-inch screen, the standard Pixel 3a has the same brilliant camera at a $399 price point.
A middling Motorola phone.
The Moto Z4 is a solid phone at a time in which truly great phones are dominating the $400-$500 smartphone market. If you're already invested in Moto Mods and want a newer phone to pop them onto, then the Moto Z4 may satisfy your urge. Otherwise, the snap-on accessory fad feels like it has run its course, and the Moto Z4 doesn't have a strong enough hook beyond that.
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