Lenovo-owned Motorola has shaken things up in the premium segment with its new Moto Z series, primarily because of the way these phones are designed to work with a variety of snap-on Moto Mods accessories. Unlike other manufacturers which have tried this concept before, Motorola seems to have put a lot of work into making it easy to use and swap these mods. The ecosystem is starting out strong with four distinct options, and the company has indicated that more are on their way. More importantly, it seems as though mods will be compatible with future Moto Z models, making the investment seem attractive.
We have three of the four mods with us for review: the Hasselblad True Zoom camera, JBL Soundboost speaker, and Moto Instashare projector. The fourth is an extended battery with an optional wireless charging receiver, the Incipio Offgrid, which is listed online as “coming soon”.
Mods attach to the back of a Moto Z series phone with absolutely zero effort. You don’t need to turn your phone off or pop the battery out (which isn’t even possible). Magnets hold them in place, and you can pry them off just by exerting a little pressure. The most obvious comparison is LG's G5, which is a lot less convenient to work with. Dropping your Moto Z (Review) with a mod attached will most likely send both pieces flying in different directions, though we did not try doing this to find out.
Things are just as simple on the software side. Mods are detected and can be put into use automatically with zero user intervention. There’s a brief animation and a popup on screen to let you know that something has been attached, and that’s it. You can check for firmware updates and things like battery status through a subsection of the Settings app on the phone.
The idea seems to be that you would keep one of these mods attached for the duration of an excursion or even permanently, so you don’t have to set up an accessory every time you need to use it. However, they all add considerable bulk and weight to the Moto Z, which takes away from its identity as a slim, high-fashion phone. Read on for more on each of the mods.
Hasselblad True Zoom
This, to us, was the most interesting of the three mods. There’s only so far manufacturers can go to improve the sensors and lenses packed into smartphones’ tiny bodies, and models that try to break out of that mould end up being novelty items which don’t really work well in all situations. Motorola’s modular solution could let you take great photos but ditch the bulk when you need to.
The name Hasselblad immediately brings to mind professional gear that costs multiple lakhs, so obviously we have high hopes for the True Zoom mod. As its name suggests, one of its biggest draws is the 10x optical zoom lens which physically protrudes from the back just like a compact camera’s lens.
This is easily the thickest of the three mods, and it makes the Moto Z a bit difficult to hold on to. We had trouble maintaining a sure grip on the device while stretching across the screen with one thumb. A strap of some kind would have been handy. You do get a cloth pouch with a strap, but getting the Moto Z plus attached True Zoom mod into and out of it was actually quite difficult, and ultimately it was no help at all.
The plastic quality is also disappointing, especially the shutter button and zoom ring around it. The True Zoom covers the Moto Z’s own rear camera so you completely lose its functionality. This is also the only mod without a battery of its own, so if you happen to pop it off while it’s in use, there’s no way to retract the lens and cover it up.
The True Zoom doesn’t need its own app; it simply takes over from the Moto Z’s rear camera. You can use the dedicated button next to the shutter release to launch into the app, or use the two-flick gesture that works with the phone. The camera is set to capture 4:3 stills at 12 megapixels. Video tops out at 1080p, 30fps which is lower than the default camera, which can go up to 1080p at 60fps or 4K at 30fps. You also lose the ability to take slow-mo videos, but there are new options including a B&W mode, RAW mode, and scenes such as sports, night portrait, and night landscape. Manual mode is still available.
The sensor is a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS with 1.55µm pixels. The aperture range is f/3.5 to f/6.5, and focal length is 4.5-45mm (25-250mm 35mm equivalent). You get a xenon flash with red-eye reduction, optical image stabilisation for stills, and electronic stabilisation for video. Storage, image processing and GPS depend on the phone you use this mod with – our Moto Z had no trouble, but future models might be different.
Real-world performance was a mixed bag. Optical zoom is of course a wonderful and transformative thing to have. It is a great smartphone camera, and we found that in direct comparisons with the mod on and off the camera, it did make a difference in daylight: colours popped more, details were sharper, and there were greater possibilities when it came to composition - for example, we managed some dramatic depth-of-field effects.
The issues we noticed with texture compression on the Moto Z went away entirely. Video was sharp and smooth, but not noticeably better than that taken with the phone on its own. Low light was a completely different story though, and we found that photos taken without the mod were more vibrant. Though the mod did help capture better details, it didn’t matter at all when images were scaled down to even PC screen size.
On the whole, it seems hard to justify paying Rs. 20,000 on top of the cost of a Moto Z to go from the quality of the internal camera to that of the Hasselblad True Zoom. That might not be the case for lower-end phones such as the Moto Z Play, which will obviously see a more dramatic increase in quality.
Price: Rs. 19,999
Ratings (Out of 5)
There isn’t much to say about the Soundboost – it’s one of the most obvious smartphone accessories. Smartphone speakers aren’t generally very good, and the more space you have to push air through, the better. This speaker mod snaps on, and sound is immediately passed to it rather than the Moto Z’s earpiece speaker. It is rather heavy at 115g though, and does change the balance of the phone in your hand.
You’ll see space at the top for the Moto Z’s camera to poke through, and then two metal speaker grilles lower down, separated by a red metal kickstand. While somewhat stylish in its own right, it doesn’t really go with the slick look of the Moto Z. The kickstand has only one position, which angles the speakers downwards.
The Soundboost speaker has its own 1000mAh battery with a Type-C port on the inside for charging. It will only draw power from the phone's charger when the phone is at 100 percent and still plugged in, but you can charge it directly if you need to. There’s no audio input other than the Moto mods’ magnetic interface and no volume or any other controls – you cannot use the Soundboost with any other source device or as a standalone speaker. A 3.5mm input for redundancy would have made this accessory much more versatile, since speakers can easily outlive smartphones. We would also have loved a 3.5mm output, since the Moto Z lacks one and there’s plenty of space to use here.
The speakers themselves are rated at 3W each. The frequency response range is 200Hz to 20kHz. Sound is loud, but not very bright or rich. It’s just hollow, which is somewhat masked by busy dance tracks, but becomes especially evident with slower instrumental solos. Mids are entirely lacking, and bass is also weak. On the other hand, voices come through crisply with the speakers firing backwards away from you and reflecting off a tabletop, making the Soundboost suitable for conference calls and watching videos. There’s a bit of distortion at anything near the top volume level.
There are plenty of Bluetooth and even wired speakers that will sound better and cost less. Given the weight of the JBL Soundboost, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to leave it attached all the time, but it is something you could toss in a bag to keep handy.
Price: Rs. 6,999
Ratings (Out of 5)
One of the more ambitious mods, the Moto Instashare puts a pico projector on the back of your Moto Z smartphone. It’s surprisingly slim, considering that it has a fan for active cooling. There’s a folding stand that can support the weight of the phone and projector at any angle. The lamp shines out the raised side, allowing you to use the phone screen comfortably while the projector is in use.
As with the JBL Soundboost, this mod has a built-in battery and cutout for the camera lens. At least the Type-C port is on the outside so you can plug it in to use the projector for long durations without draining the phone as much. You’ll see a message on screen warning you not to look into the lamp while turning the projector on, which is a sensible precaution.
There’s a simple on/ off button and a physical rotary dial to focus the projector’s lens. This is also the only one of the mods with a software control panel. You can adjust the keystone manually or set it to auto, which does a fairly good job of compensating for odd angles. You can also adjust brightness and choose to suppress phone notifications from appearing on the projected screen - an idea which struck us as incredibly thoughtful and smart.
Setup is absolutely painless, as expected. Motorola says you can project a screen of up to 70 inches, but at the native resolution of just 854x480, this doesn’t seem like a good idea. Brightness is 50 lumens; about standard for pico projectors. Zoom and image size can only be adjusted by physically moving the projector closer to or farther from the surface you're projecting onto. We found image quality enjoyable in a pitch dark room and were actually impressed with the size of the image, but the bigger you get, the duller it is. The lamp is rated for 10,000 hours of life.
You should be able to get 60 minutes of projection time with the 1100mAh battery – we tried it and managed exactly 65 minutes before a notice appeared on screen. It told us that the mod's battery was at zero, but not that it would continue to run by draining the phone, and ideally that should have been clear. The unit's fan was quite loud and could be heard whining from several feet away. The biggest letdown was sound – the Moto Z’s speaker is totally inadequate for an audience, and we obviously couldn’t use the JBL Soundboost at the same time. Bluetooth is the only option.
The quality of the projected image will depend a lot upon how much light there is in the room you’re using. Colours are dull and sharpness is compromised, but it’s still enjoyable. This is something you’d be able to amuse friends and family with, and of all the mods, we find the idea of having a projector attached to our phone the most appealing. Of course, you’ll have to remember to keep it charged so that it’s actually useful. We’d also have liked some kind of external input for the same reasons as with the Soundboost.
Price (MRP): Rs. 19,999
Ratings (Out of 5)
While there’s no doubt that Lenovo and Motorola’s design expertise has come through in terms of usability and convenience, there are bigger questions to answer. Why would anyone spend a lot of money on a flagship-class Moto Z and then up to Rs. 50,000 more for all these mods? Is there any significant benefit to using these specific products as opposed to ordinary standalone accessories?
All of them detract from the sleekness and style of the Moto Z. If you bought this phone for its thinness or metal-and-glass body, be prepared to lose those attributes. Weight also becomes an issue, and you’ll definitely feel your pockets sagging with a mod attached. Conceptually, none of these mods is something you’ll ever need to whip out at a moment’s notice, and even if an occasion arises, the chances of having the right one at the right time are minimal. You’ll have to carry them all and swap on the fly – which means standalone products would do just as well, if not better.
As we noted, it’s impossible to use the projector and speaker at the same time, which is a shame since they’d work so well together. This problem could have been solved if either allowed external input, but you’re stuck with single-purpose products. Sure, the Moto mods platform is meant to outlast the current generation of Moto Z phones, but it’s frustrating that these products simply cannot be used with other devices and will very likely end up as e-waste long before their time.
Finally, we come to cost. The Hasselblad True Zoom attachment is undeniably cool, but awkward to use. There is no universe in which it is worth the price of a current-generation entry-level DSLR. Similarly, you can get far better, more versatile Bluetooth speakers for way less than the cost of the JBL Soundboost. We like the Moto Instashare projector - it’s also ridiculously expensive and limited in function, but it could really come in handy for people who make presentations on the go.
All in all, while we do appreciate Motorola’s efforts to differentiate itself, we wish a little more thought had gone into each of the mods and the platform as a whole. They’re great as amusements, but not worth a serious investment; at least this first wave. If you’re paying for a Moto Z plus mods, chances are you’d be happier with an ultra-high-end phone such as the iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel XL.