Moto Z2 Force review: One step forward, another step back
Last year, Motorola pulled off a stunning feat: It built the first modular smartphones worth using. The Moto Z and Z Force played nice with the company’s burgeoning line of Moto Mod accessories, but they otherwise served very different purposes. The Z, with its shockingly slim profile, was a testament to Motorola’s talented engineering team. As for the Z Force, its shatterproof screen and big battery made it ideal for people who valued functionality over form.
This time, things are different. Motorola’s new flagship, the Z2 Force ($720), replaces both of those devices, and it’s obvious that the company tried to blend the best bits of the old Z and Z Force into a single body. All told, it’s sleek, sturdy and powerful, but the compromises Motorola made won’t work for everyone.
Hardware and design
I hope you weren’t hoping for a drastic redesign or anything. The Z2 Force looks a lot like this spring’s Z2 Play, which means it’s a flat monolith of a handset with gently curved corners and a circular camera hump around back. This year’s design language is just a mild refinement of the original Z aesthetic, but the lack of dramatic changes was deliberate. Motorola had to make sure older Moto Mods still worked with the new smartphones. They all do, fortunately, so your collection of magnetic accessories hasn’t yet been made obsolete.
That’s not to say the Z2 Force’s design has been completely recycled. The phone’s 7000-series aluminum back has been brushed instead of blasted with beads, giving the Z2 Force a slightly more rugged look. Then again, a phone this thin can only ever appear so “rugged.” The company designed it to more closely match the original, super-sleek Moto Z than the rough-and-tumble Z Force, and that choice has its drawbacks. Motorola clearly tried to combine the best parts of its 2016 flagship phones, and though the compromise certainly made for a thin and light device (6.1mm), it means the Z2 Force is stuck with a relatively small 2,730mAh battery. We’ll dig into this more later, but this phone’s battery life is nowhere near as good as what we got out of the first-gen Force.
The Z2 Force’s slimness has another side effect: Some people are going to have trouble holding it. Since the phone’s back is flat you’ll mostly just be gripping it by its rounded edges. This was never a problem for me — I never dropped the phone on accident — but it’s something to be aware of.
Beneath the screen is a lozenge-shaped fingerprint reader that can double as a home button. It seems to be a hair faster than the sensor on the original Z, but the edge that runs around it is sharper than on either of the G5s or the Z2 Play. Here’s hoping this was just a lemon. Oh, and the headphone jack is still gone. Never mind the fact that the phone’s slim body is still physically large enough to fit the jack, or that Motorola embraced it with the first Moto Z Play, which came out late last year. It’s all USB-C all the time now. Thankfully, Motorola at least included a dongle (but not a pair of earbuds) for your trouble.
One less hole in a phone should theoretically make it easier to waterproof, but that’s not something Motorola is concerned about. As with last year’s Moto Zs, the Z2 Force has been treated with a water-repellant nano-coating to help protect it from spills and exposure to rain. Although any kind of water protection is helpful, it’s disappointing that Motorola couldn’t figure out a way to achieve full, IP-rated waterproofing on a pricey flagship device. If it’s any consolation, the Z2 Force has a spot for a microSD card on its nano-SIM tray. The phone will accept up to 2TB of additional storage, which is all too handy since 17 out of the total 64 gigabytes of storage are eaten up by Android and pre-installed apps.
Display and sound
Just like last year’s model, the Moto Z2 Force packs a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED screen running at Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) resolution. Colors are bright and sumptuous without getting totally lurid, and image quality stays crisp no matter the viewing angle. Alas, this AMOLED panel isn’t quite as bright as the screens found on the HTC U11 or iPhone 7 Plus, and it exhibits a slightly yellow cast, too. You might not notice it unless you’re doing a head-to-head comparison with other phones, but it’s there nonetheless. You do have another option, though: a quick trip into Settings reveals a “standard” color mode that, while more accurate, looks drab by comparison.
Normally, you’d expect a screen like this to be covered in Gorilla Glass, but this a Z Force we’re talking about. That means we’re working with one of Motorola’s ShatterShield displays… which basically just means there’s a lot of plastic covering the flexible OLED screen. Motorola’s approach to protecting screens worked well in last year’s Z Force, but it seems to have been the victim of compromise this time. See, the original Force had a hard, removable plastic lens while this year’s model has a softer, more pliable covering that seems more scratch prone than before. The screen protector is so soft, in fact, that you can etch some gnarly grooves into it with a fingernail. Sure, the actual display panel remains unharmed — you’ll just have to deal with a bunch of indelible blemishes.
Other than that, though, the ShatterShield has worked as promised. I’m normally pretty careful with my phones, but I spent the past week hurling it into pillars and trying to sink three-pointers from across the office. (Suffice to say, I’m a lousy shot.) The Z Force’s screen took all that punishment and more; I even drove over the thing in my car and the screen works as well as ever. Just remember that only the screen is impervious to damage. The plastic-coated display was decently nicked after a few test drops, but it still worked fine. The same cannot be said for the phone’s vibration motor, which crapped out after two drops from about five feet high.
The Z2 Force’s single speaker still worked after all that abuse, pumping out surprisingly loud, clear audio without too much distortion at high volumes. This is normally where I’d lament the lack of stereo speakers, but that’s a moot point here — Motorola clearly wants you to buy one of JBL’s speaker Moto Mods instead. While that might be a smart investment for folks who actually give a damn about blasting music from their phones, don’t feel the need to rush out for one — the built-in speaker was great for podcasts and the occasional (non-bass-heavy) Spotify playlist.
As usual, Motorola mostly just left Android alone. The interface here is as close to Google’s Pixel launcher as you’ll find on a non-Pixel phone, and that’s a good thing. Motorola’s rivals have dramatically improved their interfaces and first-party services, but the cleanliness and flexibility of near-stock Android is a strong argument for software purity. Our review unit is carrier-locked to T-Mobile and comes with a handful of easily disabled apps as a result. Other than that, this is a characteristically clean version of Android 7.1.1 with a handful of tried-and-true Moto “experiences.”
Some of you have been honing your wrist-twists and karate chops for years now, and those gestures still fire up the camera and the flashlight, respectively. As with the recent G5 and G5 Plus, you can also start to use that home-button-looking fingerprint sensor as, well, a home button. This so-called one button navigation works well enough and is helpful for freeing up the minuscule amount of real estate taken up by the on-screen nav keys. Repeatedly swiping to back all the out of some nested menus gets old, though, so most people are better off sticking with the classic interface.
Google’s Assistant is here too and it works as well as it always does, but it’s not alone. I wouldn’t exactly call it a “virtual assistant,” but Motorola’s updated Moto Voice lets you ask the Z2 Force to show you things — say, the weather or your next appointment. Doing so brings up a widget that takes over your screen showing you exactly what you asked for five seconds before fading away. Motorola’s voice recognition works well, to the point where it recognized me even when I was sick and raspy. Also, the “show me” wake-word makes for the most natural-sounding conversations you’ll have with your phone. Being able to launch apps by saying “show me Chrome” or whatever is handy too, if not exactly novel.
Here’s the rub, though: Unless you really want to see your weather or your calendar, this upgraded form of Moto Voice is pointless. Want to fire up Spotify? It often takes just as much time to tap the icon as it does to enunciate your request. And since Moto’s approach is fairly basic, you can’t ask the Z2 Force to perform more complex, useful commands like “show me Spotify and play the playlist ‘Chill Vibes.’” In fairness, Google Assistant can’t always handle those multi-part queries either; if you want an assistant that does, Samsung’s Bixby might be your best option. That said, Google Assistant does everything Moto Voice can but better, and I don’t understand why Motorola devoted any effort to this.
Motorola is the latest smartphone maker to embrace the dual-camera concept, and it’s a little different than what you might’ve expected. Unlike recent phones from Apple, LG and OnePlus, each of which uses multiple cameras for optical zoom or wide-angle shooting, the Z2 Force pairs a 12-megapixel color sensor with a 12-megapixel black and white sensor. As with most of Motorola’s cameras, though, this one falls squarely into “good but not great” territory.
Most of my test shots exhibited respectable detail and nice colors, and the inclusion of both laser and phase detection autofocus made the Z Force’s camera cluster lock onto subjects quickly. Things get hairy when lighting conditions become suboptimal — the f/2.0 aperture helps the sensors suck up more light, but the lack of optical image stabilization means you’re going to see a lot of blur.
The inclusion of a second camera means Motorola was able to build a “depth effect” mode that simulates the sort of background-blurring bokeh you’d see on an SLR, but this, too, suffers in low light. Under the right circumstances, the phone does an adequate job of figuring out the edges of an object sitting in the foreground, but even then the results mostly fail to impress. Really, the best part about the Z2 Force’s camera is being able to shoot in true black and white; it’s more fun than you’d think, and the resulting shots actually look pretty great.
Meanwhile, the 5-megapixel front-facing camera gets the job done without fanfare. We’ve seen selfie cameras shoot at higher resolutions, but the results here are acceptable and the wide-angle lens means it’s easy to squeeze more friends into the frame.
Performance and battery
With an octa-core Snapdragon 835 chipset, 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 540 GPU, the Moto Z2 Force flies… just like most other flagship phones we’ve tested this year. This particular configuration is so common as to be inescapable, but for good reason: It’s an excellent performer, regardless of whether you’re skimming through open apps or playing resource-intensive games like Afterpulse and Guardians of the Galaxy at high quality. This abundance of horsepower, combined with Motorola’s deft touch with software, means the Z2 Force has felt effortlessly quick throughout my week of testing. That said, people outside the US can look forward to even snappier performance. For whatever reason, every version of the Z2 Force except the American model comes with 6GB of RAM, while the Chinese model packs 128GB of internal storage. Good for them, but I can’t help but feel a little shafted.
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The Moto Z2 Force packs a 2,730mAh battery — that’s a touch bigger than the original Z’s battery but much, much smaller than the 3,500mAh cell found in last year’s Z Force. If you’re anything like me, this probably sounds like a recipe for disappointment. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Z2 Force performed just a little better than expected in my battery tests. In Engadget’s standard rundown test, wherein we loop an HD video with screen brightness set to 50 percent, the Z2 Force lasted for 12 hours and 11 minutes. That’s well short of the 14 hours we got with the original Z Force, not to mention the 15 hours we squeezed out of the Galaxy S8 Plus. Despite having a smaller battery, though, the Z2 Force didn’t do that much worse than the standard S8 (13:27) and the new HTC U11 (13:09).
Meanwhile, in day-to-day use, I could count on the Z2 Force to power through 14 to 15 hours of mixed use before needing a recharge. That’s enough for Motorola to call this an “all-day battery,” but if you’re the type to fiddle with your phone non-stop for hours, expect that figure to take a hit.
Now, 14 hours of usage isn’t that bad, but it’s still a disappointment for people who appreciated the original Z Force’s longevity. Motorola has said that users concerned by the Z2 Force’s battery life could easily invest in one of many available battery mods, but that feels like a cop-out. Being able to strap on a second battery in mere moments is a valuable option and one that I’ve taken advantage of many times. Still, for Motorola to essentially ignore the best thing about the first Z Force when building its successor is puzzling at best and disrespectful to loyalists at worst. Then again, it’s not hard to see the logic behind the decision. A smaller battery means a thinner phone, which means more hype and the potential for more Moto Mod sales.
Since LG shifted its attention away from modular phones, Moto’s Z series is the only option if you want a flagship device to which you can add new features. Since continued Moto Mod compatibility has informed the way Motorola built the Z2 Force, there’s little reason to buy one of these things unless you’re open to the idea of augmenting with accessories later. If you’re on a tighter budget but still crave that modularity, there’s always the Moto Z2 Play ($499 unlocked). It doesn’t offer the same sheer speed as the Z2 Force, and its screen isn’t nearly hardy. Still, for those who don’t play regularly play high-end games and mostly just want to get things done, it’s a fine choice.
Then again, not everyone needs a phone you can magnetically lash things onto. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus remain excellent flagship options with their gorgeous, bezel-less “Infinity” displays and great cameras. Both also have better battery life, though you’ll have to make do with a highly customized version of Android. Fans of cleaner software might want to check out the OnePlus 5, which pairs similarly excellent performance with a lightly tweaked Android build. Oh, and did I mention it’s much cheaper than the Z Force? The base model with a Snapdragon 835, 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage costs $479, while $539 nets you an upgraded version with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Sure, you’ll lose out on a screen you can’t break, but you’ll still end up with an incredibly capable device.
Motorola made some questionable trade-offs here, but the Moto Z2 Force is still a solid, impressive smartphone. I’ll give it props for being the most powerful modular phone out there (unless you count RED’s forthcoming monstrosity) and so far, the shatter-proof screen is a pro at dealing with abuse. Still, the Force’s middling battery life and a lackluster camera are tough shortcomings to deal with when you consider the strength of this year’s competition. If you’re still in love with the idea of a phone that gets better with time, or if your clumsiness knows no equal, the Z2 Force is definitely worth a look. Android purists will appreciate Moto’s work here, too. Otherwise, consider the rest of this year’s incredible smartphones before deciding if you can live with Motorola’s compromises.