Moto Z2 Force review: Stronger, not better
The best of Motorola just isn’t good enough for the rest of us.
The quick take
Motorola decided to forgo a sequel to its mainline Moto Z flagship in favor of a neutered successor to the Moto Z Force. And while there are some reasons to be legitimately excited about the phone, it doesn’t do anything well enough on its own to recommend over the incredibly competitive field of $700+ Android phones.
- Top of the line specs
- Extremely hardy and well-built
- Moto Mods support
- Useful enhancements to Android
- Too expensive
- Unimpressive and slow dual camera setup
- Low speaker volume
- Worse battery life than previous generation
- No headphone jack
- No waterproofing
Back in May, I got a chance to walk through Motorola’s phone testing lab, a marvel of elaborate equipment and lab coat-wearing engineers, to see how the sausage is made — and improved.
I learned that Motorola takes its legacy of impressive hardware very seriously, and that it spends hundreds of hours ensuring that the marketing it does for its products has a basis in fact. One such example was the Phone Dropper, robot hand-like machine that has one job: dropping phones from various heights. Motorola wanted us to see just how unbreakable its ShatterShield screen covering technology had become, and used the unceasing presence of gravity to impress upon us its effectiveness.
What it didn’t show us was the effect the repeated impact had on the visibility of the still-intact screen, a proprietary combination of hardened plastic and glass that Motorola has been using to differentiate itself from the competition since 2015’s Moto X Force (known in the U.S. as the Droid 2 Turbo). If I had picked up the phone from the ground, I may have noticed the myriad gauges and scratches that seem to be a side effect of the ShatterShield’s hardy properties. It also would have conveniently given me a real-life example of Motorola’s flagship gambit: compromise.
See at Motorola
About this review
I, Daniel Bader, am writing this review after using an unlocked Verizon-branded Moto Z2 Force for just over one week on the Telus network in Canada. It was running Android 7.1.1 build NDX26.122-58 with the July 1, 2017 security update. It was not updated during the review period.
Rewatch the video
If you want to learn what the Moto Z2 Force is all about, check out the hands-on video Andrew did when he was in New York for the launch event.
A mixed bag
Moto Z2 Force Hardware
7000 Series aluminum and a gorgeous Deep Black color make this the best-looking Moto Z phone yet.
Much of this review has already been written, given that Phil took a look at both the Moto Z and Z Force just over a year ago, and I reviewed the Moto Z2 Play at the beginning of June.
The Moto Z2 Force looks very similar to the Moto Z2 Play — 5.5-inch Super AMOLED display flanked by large bezels and an oblong fingerprint sensor, a single front speaker/earpiece combo, a front-facing camera, and a dual-tone LED flash. Power and volume buttons blend into one another on the right; a USB-C port on the bottom. Around back, sixteen magnetized pins for attaching Moto Mods, a growing ecosystem of Motorola-built or coaxed attachments below a rounded “Batwing” Moto logo and a camera protrusion that, until its thickness is matched by one of many Style Shell backs, looks a little garish.
Moto Z2 Force specs
There are a few minor differences to the Z2 Play, though: the USB-C port lacks a neighboring headphone jack, echoing the controversial decision to obviate the popular port a year ago. In its place, a flimsy dongle in the box, and the allure of an increasingly affordable ecosystem of Bluetooth headphones. The Z2 Force is encased in rigid 7000 Series aluminum, a step up from the anodized variety on the Z2 Play and other devices in Motorola’s lineup.
That rigidity, coupled with the Deep Black matte finish, makes the Z2 Force easily the company’s best-looking Z-series product to date, but the differences are so minute as to be easily overlooked. Staying on the back, the most obvious visual change to the phone’s design is the inclusion of a second camera sensor, a strategy that, as we’ll see later, doesn’t pay off for Motorola.
The Moto Z line was introduced prior to the industry’s shift to tall, narrow screens and a distaste for vertical bezels (though one could argue that they went out of style long before the release of the Galaxy S8 early this year). I don’t mind the extra room to grip the phone, nor do I begrudge Motorola for sticking to a design language that it promised to support for three years to ensure multi-generational compatibility with the proliferating Moto Mods ecosystem that has become, for better or worse, a burden that the Moto Z line has had to carry on its narrow shoulders. The fingerprint sensor is spacious and fast, and though I am agreeable to a rear-facing sensor, it doesn’t align with Motorola’s “put-it-on-a-table-for-Moto-Display” usage strategy.
See, the Moto Z2 Force maintains the company’s four-year legacy of simple software buoyed by a series of thoughtful additions to Android, the cornerstone of which is Moto Display. Set the phone on a table, wave your hand over it, and interact with the notification bubbles as they appear, all without unlocking or even turning on the screen.
That Super AMOLED display is certainly an improvement over last year’s, but that’s not saying much: like practically every Motorola flagship phone released since the Moto X in 2013, the panel is nowhere near the top of the heap in terms of color reproduction, brightness and viewing angles. In reality, that doesn’t really matter since even a mid-range AMOLED panel with a Quad HD resolution, like this one, is very good, and mostly visible in direct sunlight.
Here’s the thing, though: despite purporting to have a water-repellent nano-coating, the Moto Z2 Force is yet another phone in Motorola’s lineup that isn’t water resistant — something that should be easier with such a robust display and no headphone jack.
What concerns me more than the Z2 Force’s display is the thing on top of it: the ShatterShield covering protecting against breaks to the screen. ShatterShield is the overarching brand name for a number of different elements — well, five — in Motorola’s quest to prevent glass in the fingers and expensive insurance claims. It starts from the bottom, with the phone’s shock-absorbent aluminum chassis; then the AMOLED panel is flexible to a point, and can withstand sudden impact; then the touch layer has a redundant backup in case the primary one is damaged upon impact; then there’s a polycarbonate (read: plastic) layer where a phone’s glass cover normally rests; and then there’s a secondary “lens” that acts as a redundant layer against impact while keeping the primary one free from scratches.
ShatterShield may prevent cracks, but it scratches WAY too easily.
This is a pretty great system, especially since you are insured against breakage for four years, but the layer you primarily interact with is, for all intents and purposes, a screen protector — one that can be peeled off and replaced if necessary. But because it’s plastic, not glass, it’s not great at conveying touch, making the Moto Z2 Force one of the least sensitive displays I’ve used in a long time; and it scratches much too easily.
Motorola recommends putting a tempered glass screen protector on top of this one to prevent scratches, but I would highly discourage that; the further away your finger gets from the touch layer, the less likely it is to pick up light taps and swipes. That additional layer may be the only option, though, since Motorola has decided not to sell a $29.99 “lens replacement kit” for the Z2 Force as it did for the previous two generations.
Even before public availability, Motorola has already had to defend itself against allegations that the Moto Z2 Force is more scratch-prone than previous models, likely because in trying to minimize the distance between the finger and the display it’s thinned, and therefore weakened, the top lens.
The Z2 Force is a good deal thinner than its predecessor — 6.1 mm compared to the original’s 7 mm girth — and weighs 20 grams less, which is not insignificant. It’s a better-looking phone, too, especially in the matte Super Black version. But there’s a sense that, were Motorola to have kept the original’s thickness and battery size, it may not have had to compromise on its screen.
That thinness does come with some benefits. There is a sense of airiness to the Z2 Force that belies its density. To use this phone is to hold a perfectly weighed and properly-proportioned slab of metal and glass plastic, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know it.
I am not fond of the lack of a headphone jack, especially because the similarly-proportioned Moto Z2 Play does have one, but everything from the calibration of the power and volume buttons to the impossibly fast fingerprint sensor is worth noting. And I suppose that I should be thankful the Z2 Force has an unbreakable screen cover in spite of my fastidiousness with phones, since you always drop the thing you grasp the tightest — or something to that effect.
Of course, one of the benefits of owning a Moto Z product is the growing ecosystem of Mods, to which a 360-degree camera was recently added. From batteries (so. many. batteries) to speakers to the upcoming GamePad, Motorola’s so-called modular platform contains a surprisingly strong selection of add-ons for a series of phones that have only sold in the low millions.
That the Z2 Force is to be sold at all four major U.S. carriers is a boon to the snap-and-play nature of the Mods, since they give such a great first impression. Since their debut in mid-2016, I’ve found myself carrying a select few accessories, depending on the situation: the new JBL SoundBoost 2 is an astonishingly good speaker for the size and price, and it comes with me to every park outing; the Incipio 2220mAh wireless charging battery pack is a tremendous piece of tech, thin enough to leave on the phone at all times; and the Insta-Share Projector has impressed many a late-night summer party as I project YouTube onto the side of a wall.
There are impracticalities to the Mods system, for sure, especially if you tend to maintain a Style Shell back on the phone, as I normally do. When the Mod comes out, the Style Shell needs a place to go, so you’re always accounting for at least one extra piece of equipment. And while Motorola encourages families to share Mods between members, the likelihood of a nuclear family having more than one Moto Z is fairly low.
I also think it’s important to address some stinging criticism being leveled against Motorola this time around — that the company knowingly hindered on-device battery life in both the Z2 Play and Z2 Force in order to push people towards buying battery mods. While on the surface this seems like a valid argument, I have to push back: Motorola wants to sell phones, because Mods don’t work on their own.
There is plenty of research to suggest that lighter phones sell better than heavier ones, mainly because, especially on phones with larger screens, it cuts down on arm fatigue and makes them easier to use one-handed. In order to make the phones lighter, Motorola had to lower battery size, which results in a thinner, more ergonomic phone.
Yes, Motorola wants to sell Mods, and batteries sell better than any other, but there is nothing to suggest that the company went out of its way to sabotage the phone (and its relationship to its core fans). Instead, it’s taking a calculated risk: alienate the few people who bought the Z Force for its battery prowess in order to appeal to a much wider audience.
A class act
Moto Z2 Force Software
The Moto Z2 Force has identical software to the Moto Z2 Play, and practically any Motorola device running Android 7.1.1. It’s lightweight and clean and is recognizable as “stock” Android, even though at this point it has more in common with something like OnePlus’s version of Android than anything else.
The cornerstone of Motorola’s software strategy is its single Moto app, which opens access to so-called display settings, gesture settings, and voice settings, the core tenets of which haven’t changed in four years. Instead, features like Moto Display have evolved with the phones themselves, opening up some (but not too many) new features to appease the clamoring hoards. This year’s version of Motorola’s actionable notifications adds images, so a Tweet will display the account’s avatar in addition to the content. And if the Android notification has the option to, say, reply or archive, it’s also possible to do so from the lock screen.
This horse has been dead for a long time (because I’ve beaten it to death — why is this expression so gruesome?!) but I’ll say it again: Moto Display is the best form of notification on any phone, period. Given the heavy-handed nature of Lenovo’s hardware influence, I am both shocked and delighted that it has allowed Motorola to keep Moto Display intact.
Similarly, Motorola’s popular gestures — “chop-chop” for turning on the flashlight, and two flicks of the wrist to quickly enter the camera — are still here after all these years, and they’re just as useful as ever. To me, they’re as inextricably linked to the Moto brand as the Batwing logo itself. Developed under Google’s brief tutelage (and under former head of Motorola, and current head of Google hardware, Rick Osterloh), these features have been mimicked by other manufacturers — even Google! — but have yet to be surpassed.
One new addition, One Touch Nav, does away with the phone’s on-screen buttons in favor of gestures conveyed to the fingerprint sensor. Maybe it’s just my poor hand-eye coordination, but I’ve never been able to get to a point where I feel comfortable swiping left and right when a simple tap will do.
I’m so addicted to Chameleon Run right now that anything to make it open faster is a bonus.
I’ve also largely overlooked Moto’s new “Show Me” feature, which avoids the OK Google pitfalls for something a bit simpler. By saying “Show me the weather,” for instance, the phone, even from the lock screen, overlays a weather widget for a few brief seconds before returning to its idle state. “Show me my day” does the same for calendar.
But instead of acting out the limited number of commands (there are 11 in all), I’ve taken to just using it to launch apps. “Show me Slack” jumps right into my work conversations, while “Show me Chameleon Run” gets me right back to my current addiction.
The beauty is that because you have to train the voice model to accept your commands, you can use the “Show me” feature to securely bypass the lockscreen while quickly getting to your app of choice. It may only save a few precious beats in a day, but it’s a satisfying engagement with a simple voice assistant, and that’s usually all I need it for.
Moto Z2 Force Performance & Battery life
Arriving with the latest Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM, the Moto Z2 Force is about as powerful as the Galaxy S8 or OnePlus 5. Being from Motorola phone, the phone is extremely fast, with nary a slowdown to be found. Motorola’s launcher, too, is built using the same code as the Pixel Launcher, so I didn’t even feel the need to install Nova Launcher, the first thing I usually set up on a new device.
I used the phone for over a week prior to writing this review, and came away impressed with its performance. While I had few complaints about the Moto Z2 Play’s Snapdragon 626 chip, there are clear demarcations between that mid-range chip and this high-end one, and the highlight is loading times. Apps open instantly, and animations rarely stutter.
This phone could probably stand to be thicker, if only to make it less awkward in the hand.
Much ado has been made about the 22% drop in battery capacity compared the Moto Z Force, but I can assure you, fine readers, this is a Shakespeare comedy, not a tragedy. Day after day, I rarely went to bed (and I go to bed late) with the phone below 10%. At 2730mAh, the absolute capacity is well below its predecessor’s 3500mAh cell, and nearly every flagship on the market, but Motorola has done a great job optimizing the system for Qualcomm’s new battery-efficient chip.
At the same time, yes, there are myriad Moto Mods available to quickly boost the phone, including the not-yet-available-even-though-it’s-August Turbopower Pack, whose 3490mAh cell gets a dead phone back to 50% in just over 20 months. You probably won’t need a Moto Mods battery pack, but it’s nice to know the option is there.
On the other hand, the phone could stand to be slightly girthier, since without a Style Shell or some sort of Mod attached it’s difficult to grip and use. One could argue that, at 6.1 mm, it’s too thin. It’s also remarkable that Motorola didn’t manage to put a bigger battery in a phone slightly thicker, and without a headphone jack, than the Moto Z2 Play. Truly bizarre.
From a cellular perspective, the Moto Z2 Force is akin to the Galaxy S8: it supports near-gigabit speeds on supported networks, and despite using an unlocked Verizon model (which I quickly shed of its bloatware) I was able to achieve speeds of over 150Mbps on Canada’s TELUS network using carrier aggregation. And while my particular model didn’t support VoLTE on my home network, phone calls over 3G sounded great over the front-facing earpiece.
That earpiece doubles as a speaker, and like many Moto devices before it, it’s… not good. Fidelity is fine for a phone speaker, but it just doesn’t get loud enough. For a forward-facing port, you’d think it would match downward-facing equivalents from Apple and Samsung, but that’s just not the case.
One too many
Moto Z2 Force Cameras
Given that this is Motorola’s first foray into dual cameras, I will forgive it for not taking full advantage of their abilities. What I won’t forgive is that delta Motorola is opening up between itself and the rest of the industry when it comes to overall photo quality.
Let’s start there: the phone has two 12MP rear sensors from Sony — model IMX386 with 1.25 micron pixels — one color (Bayer) and one monochrome (Clear). Essentially, the latter sensor has no ability to detect color, but in removing that color-sending layer the sensor is able to pick up three times the amount of light.
Together, the sensors are supposed to combine to deliver sharper photos during the day and better low-light photos at night.
Qualcomm, which designed this combination, even calls the technology Clear Sight.
Unfortunately, the results aren’t quite as impressive. Neither lens is optically stabilized, which means that Motorola’s camera doesn’t like to keep the shutter open for very long, causing dim photos. Worse, details are blotchy and unpleasant.
Daylight results are much better, and can produce some absolutely stunning images. Despite narrowing the aperture to f/2.0 from f/1.8 in last year’s Moto Z Force, it’s possible to get some beautiful depth of field — even without added effects.
So what about the other benefits of a second sensor and lens? As we’ve learned from countless other implementations, with two cameras comes real depth information, which allows you to play with depth of field and focus after the photo is taken. And because there’s a monochrome sensor, Motorola gives you a separate black-and-white mode, which can result in some fantastic photos.
The issue here is that this is a $720 phone, and Motorola really had an opportunity to blow us away with some industry-leading imaging. Instead, it decided to forgo stabilization, which was present in last year’s Moto Z flagships, for a dual camera setup with dubious advantages.
Is it fun that I can remove or replace the backgrounds of images, or turn the background monochrome while leaving the fore subject in color? Sure, that’s nice enough, but nothing new. What I really wanted, though, was a Motorola camera that I could rely on to give me great photos every time. I didn’t get that.
The image quality issues are compounded by the molasses-like speed of the camera. Given that this is Motorola’s fastest phone, I often felt like some silent background process was keeping the camera app from being its best self.
In a similar vein, the lack of stabilization affects the phone’s ability to take great video. Despite supporting 4K, I found little to be impressed by, from the robustness of the video itself to the shake-prone nature of the sensor.
Not quite good enough
Moto Z2 Force Final thoughts
Earlier this year, when I reviewed the Moto Z2 Play, I said it was a great phone but not a great sequel. With the Moto Z2 Force, I don’t even know if I can say the former. There are certainly hints of greatness, but they’re buried underneath a burden of strange decisions. Why did Motorola decide to get rid of its mainline Moto Z in favor of an expensive, unbreakable but scratch-prone screen? Why wasn’t the company able to fit in a slightly larger battery, even just to match the Moto Z2 Play? Why did it opt for a dual camera setup without ensuring that the basic threshold for quality was met?
I can’t really answer these questions, but I will say this: despite all the problems, I really like this phone. I love how responsive it is, and the speed of the fingerprint sensor. I enjoy Motorola’s take on Android, and that there are small things, like a front-facing flash, that aren’t common other devices. When the camera captures a great photo, it’s phenomenal — especially from the B&W sensor. Also uncommon is how easy it is to augment the Moto Z2 Force with additional features, like the very cool Moto 360 Camera or the upcoming GamePad.
None of these things overcome the fact that the Moto Z2 Force doesn’t feel competitive against products like the Galaxy S8 or HTC U11. At a minimum of $720 it’s a hard sell, even with a free $299 Insta-Share Projector mod. And while the phone is, for the first time in recent memory, available all four major U.S. carriers, I wish Motorola had a better representative to showcase its resurgence in mainstream culture.
See at Motorola
Additional photography by Andrew Martonik.