It’s really difficult to make money selling expensive phones when your name isn’t Apple or Samsung.
This, more than anything else, is what I was reminded of while testing the Moto Z2 Force Edition.
The latest high-end smartphone from Motorola has all the usual attributes you’d expect from such a device: It’s very fast, its screen looks good, its cameras are capable of taking nice photos, and it has a razor-thin frame. Better yet, unlike many of its premium rivals, the Z2 Force’s display is particularly resistant to cracks.
But nailing the essentials simply isn’t enough to guarantee sales in today’s saturated, top-heavy smartphone market. Motorola knows that. So how do you get the highest return from your $A1,000 device?
Motorola’s answer is to sell accessories alongside the phone itself. The Lenovo-owned company last year introduced Moto Mods, a line of add-ons that snap onto the back of its Moto Z phones. They worked well with last year’s Moto Z, and they continue to work well on the Z2 Force.
But just because they work well doesn’t mean they are worthwhile. Motorola has thrown all its eggs in the Moto Mods basket this year, but in doing so, the company is chasing a fantasy that’s both expensive and impractical. Combine that with a few unfortunate design choices, and you have one of the most baffling flagship phones of the year.
Let’s take a closer look:
It's sturdily put together, but the large borders above and below the display immediately look dated compared to the wide screens of Samsung's Galaxy S8, LG's G6 and other expensive phones.
The bottom bezel is home to a fingerprint scanner and the Moto logo. But the scanner doesn't act as a home button by default, which means you'll have a big bezel and onscreen buttons chewing up space until you mess around with Moto's software settings.
On top of that, the Z2 Force isn't fully water-resistant. Motorola says the phone can survive a slight splash or two, but anything more and it will be at risk. Rivals like the Galaxy S8 and G6 offer better protection.
The back is made of a nice brushed aluminium, which feels suitably high-end. But it's tarnished by a protruding camera bump, an odd grey-on-grey border around the phone's edges that houses its antennas, and an unsightly set of Moto Mod connector pins. And the fact that the phone is too wide and large to be comfortable to use with one hand doesn't help.
The worst part is that Moto gave itself no choice with the design. The phone looks a lot like last year's Moto Z because it has to work with every Mod. Those accessories are built to fit that specific shape and use those particular connector pins.
And because the Mods connect on the back, Moto has to keep the fingerprint scanner on the front, which leaves at least one big bezel. If Motorola tried to change the design, it would risk alienating everyone who bought Mods in the past. It's basically boxed itself in.
The phone is just 0.24 inches thick. By comparison, the iPhone 7 Plus is 0.29 inches, while the Samsung Galaxy S8 is 0.31 inches. Last year's Moto Z was similarly slim, but the Z2 Force still feels like an impressive feat of engineering.
While that thinness is impressive, it hampers the phone in other ways.
Thanks to its svelte design, the Z2 Force -- just like its predecessor, last year's Z -- doesn't have room for a headphone jack. This hasn't gotten any less irritating over the past year. Bluetooth headphones still have problems, headphones that can plug directly into USB-C ports are still rare, and having to use a dongle to connect traditional headphones is still aggravating.
The phone's slim case also means that the Z2 Force's speakers are anemic. You'll have to be in a quiet, closed space to be able to take a call over its speakerphone. And don't expect it to play music with good volume either. There simply isn't enough space for the speakers to resonate.
As a result, the Z2 Force's battery life is just average. Its 2,730 mAh battery pack will get you through a day of typical use, but that's it. Thankfully, it charges quickly.
But I can't think of anyone who'd willingly trade a longer-lasting battery for a phone that's half an inch thinner. Have you ever heard anyone say their iPhone was too thick?
Motorola needs the Z2 Force to be this slim so the phone doesn't become unwieldy when you attach a Mod.
Among the Mods are a charging case and an external speaker. Buy those, though, and you're paying extra to fix deficiencies caused by the needlessly thin design. It's hard not to feel like Motorola built the Z2 Force with the idea of selling accessories in mind.
You can check out the full list of Moto Mods here. Few of them make much sense. Who wants to carry something extra around? Why buy an $A101 speaker that works with only one phone when you could get a Bluetooth speaker that works with just about any phone? In what situation would you need a $A380 mini-projector that can't play anything in high definition?
Meanwhile, the $A380 Hasselblad camera Mod has received middling reviews. The new game controller Mod is exclusive to Verizon. And I'm still not convinced that 360-degree cameras are something consumers actually want, let alone something they will pay $A380 to use when they work with only one phone.
The battery pack Mod makes some sense, but it doesn't hold a lot of charge, and you can find lots of other external batteries that will work with any device, not just one of the Z models.
The least offensive option is probably a case that adds wireless charging. But other phones have wireless charging built-in; you don't have to buy a $A50 accessory to get it.
Motorola coats the screen in layers of plastic, which make it extremely difficult to crack.
I smashed it against railings and desks, purposefully dropped it onto the concrete, and threw it across my apartment. Each time, the 5.5-inch panel came away in one piece. Having that extra security is great.
You can get an idea from the image above. Even before I roughed it up, the Moto Z2 Force started scuffing from everyday wear and tear.
You do not want to put this phone in the same pocket as your keys. Again, in trying to solve one problem (in this case, breakable glass), Motorola has created an even bigger one.
It's not like Motorola is unaware of this, either. When the company has used similar displays on previous phones, they each had a removable top layer that could be replaced if it got too rough.
But that option no longer exists. Instead, with the screen on the Z2 Force, Motorola fused the plastic to the device itself -- a move that helps make the phone thinner.
It's a 5.5-inch OLED panel, which gives it wonderfully deep and mostly accurate colours. With a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440, it's plenty sharp.
It's nice and bright, which makes it easy to read outdoors, and it doesn't wash out if you aren't looking at it head-on. It's the kind of display you'd expect from a top-tier smartphone.
It runs on an Snapdragon 835 chip, the most powerful on the market, and it has 4 GB of RAM. The phone can get a little bit warm if you play games on it for too long, but there is very little it can't do quickly and smoothly.
Storage space isn't an issue either. You get a hearty 64 GB by default, and you can add more via its microSD slot.
Just like with its more affordable Moto G5 Plus and Moto E4 phones, Motorola did very little to alter Google's standard version of Android that it uses on the Z2 Force. That version of Android is already clean and easy to manage.
The changes Motorola did make are often genuinely useful. You can twist the phone twice to quickly launch the camera app, for instance. This approach helps the phone stay especially smooth to use.
There's a pair of 12-megapixel sensors on the back of the device -- one a standard colour camera, the other monochrome.
The monochrome camera allows the phone to take 'true' black and white photos, for one. Used together with the colour camera, it also allows the Z2 Force to offer a depth-of-field effect similar to the 'portrait mode' on Apple's iPhone 7 Plus.
Black-and-white photos shot with the Z2 force look gorgeous. Sadly, its version of 'portrait mode' is hit-or-miss. You generally need your subject to stand still for it to work. Even then, the camera often blurs out portions of the object or person you're focusing on.
It's a level below the upper echelon of smartphone cameras that's occupied by those in the Galaxy S8, Google's Pixel, and HTC's U11.
The Z2 Force's camera system takes detailed, well-exposed shots in good lighting outdoors, with accurate colours. Like most of its peers in the $US700 range, it's totally capable of producing something gorgeous. Its camera system focuses quickly too, although other smartphone cameras are faster.
Photos start to lose details once you bring the Z2 Force indoors, even in adequate lighting. And at night, it simply can't match the colour accuracy and brightness of rival phones. Noise abounds.
The Z2 Force's camera systems is still good, but Motorola is charging too much for it not to be great.
I give Lenovo and Motorola credit for at least trying something different. But modular accessory systems remain a bad idea, and the Z2 Force's shatterproof display is marred by its extreme susceptibility to scratching.
Everything the Z2 Force does well can be found on other phones with better cameras, smarter designs, and longer battery life. Go with Samsung's Galaxy S8 or LG's G6 instead.
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