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Motorola Moto Z2 Force review: the screen won’t shatter, but your wallet will

Lenovo fumbles its flagship Moto Z with questionable design choices

Photography by James Bareham

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Smartphones are supposed to improve every year: they should be faster, able to take better pictures, and have a battery that lasts longer. But Motorola’s Moto Z2 Force is evidence that this isn’t always the case. It makes some modest advancements, but the bad decisions and missteps that led to this $720 end product are too much for those advancements to overcome. Almost immediately, the Moto Z2 Force’s unveiling last month left some longtime Motorola fans feeling apathetic and concerned that Lenovo is fumbling the brand that once let people customize the entire color scheme of their smartphone. What’s with the much smaller battery? How can they possibly justify that price?

Such doom and gloom is perhaps overly pessimistic. Under Lenovo, Motorola has still been producing quality phones and standouts like last year’s Moto Z Play. And you could strongly argue that there’s no company making better budget and midrange options than the Moto E4 and G5 Plus, respectively. But if you were to examine the Z2 Force alone in a vacuum, you’d be rather alarmed about where Lenovo is taking things — and for good reason. The Z2 Force is coming to every major US carrier this month, shedding the Verizon exclusivity of last year’s model, but it’s a hard phone to recommend no matter what carrier you’re with. Motorola has made it faster and added a dual-lens camera, but the battery has been shrunken down just for the sake of thinness and, in all likelihood, with the goal of selling more Moto Mods.

Last year, Lenovo introduced the concept of those Moto Mods — modular accessories like a speaker and battery packs that latch onto the back of the Moto Z family — as the line’s distinguishing feature and unique selling point. In doing so, the company also promised to maintain compatibility with future generations of phone hardware. That pledge was good for customers, but might ultimately prove a mistake. With its feet now firmly planted in the sand, and as competitors run laps around Motorola in design, we’ve been given the Z2 Force as the new 2017 flagship. Unfortunately, it might also be the worst Moto Z yet.

Like the original Moto Z Force, the big selling point of this phone is that it’s got a shatterproof display. Motorola promises that the 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED screen won’t crack or break from the everyday drops that spell certain doom for other smartphones. The secret to all this is that the display is, well, plastic. Several layers of plastic. It makes plasticky sounds when you press near the fingerprint reader in some spots, which is rather annoying to see from a phone in this price category. And the topmost layer is very prone to scratches. Exceedingly so.

I’ve only had this review unit for a few days, but it’s already starting to pick up marks from living in my pocket. And I’m careful about keeping my phone and keys separated, mind you. Android Police found that it’s even more vulnerable to scratches than last year’s Moto Z Force. I can’t imagine it holding up too well over the course of a few months or a year. At least with the old Moto Z Force, Motorola let customers replace that top layer themselves for around 30 bucks. But that’s no longer an option because the top layer is now fused to the rest of it; you can either use a tempered glass screen protector on a plastic screen — Motorola actually encourages this, a spokesperson told me — or get a warranty replacement if the scratches get to be too much. Motorola guarantees the screen against shatters for four years. The display’s overall look is very bezel-heavy and won’t turn heads in the same way that Samsung’s Galaxy S8, the upcoming Note 8, or LG’s G6 can. Even Google looks poised to eclipse Motorola’s design with the next Pixel. Like HTC’s U11, the front of Moto’s phone is looking a little dated at this point.

On the upside, the Z2 Force is definitely tough; I dropped it onto the pavement when taking off the latest 360-degree camera Moto Mod, and it came away with just a few nicks thanks to the upgraded series 7,000 aluminum. But water is a different story. There’s a nanocoating applied to the phone that should keep the Z2 Force safe in the rain or from a spill, but you can’t submerge it, so it’s not protected to the same extent as the Galaxy S8, HTC U11, or iPhone 7. The screen doesn’t break, but a pool or your toilet can still kill this phone.

It also lacks a headphone jack, which is aggravating when you realize that while yes, the Z2 Force is thinner than last year’s model, it’s a hair thicker than the recent Moto Z2 Play. That phone includes a headphone jack while also having a larger battery inside. The best explanation I can come up with is that Motorola went without the headphone jack because the Moto Z and Moto Z Force never had one last time.

There’s no headphone jack, even though the thinner Z2 Play has one

It’d be hard to tell the Z2 Play and Z2 Force apart from just looking at them if not for the dual-lens camera on the back of the latter. Color options also differ, and the murdered out black Verizon unit I had for review accumulated fingerprints and smudges almost instantly. It also can be hard to confidently hold onto at times if finger grease builds up. That would be less of a problem had Motorola included a Style Shell mod in the box as it has done with other phones in the Z line. The Style Shells are a simple way of improving grip, covering up the Moto Mods connector, and mitigating that camera bump. But the Z2 Force is the first Moto Z that I’ve seen ship without a bundled style shell. You’re not going to have a Moto Mod attached all the time, and when you don’t, the odds of dropping and dinging up that screen get much higher.

Once you’re over the invincible screen and get to using the Moto Z2 Force, it’s blazing fast. Inside is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor, 4 gigs of RAM, 64 gigs of storage, and a microSD slot if you need more space. That’s basically the status quo spec sheet for 2017 Android flagships, and it’s a strong combination yet again here. And next to the Google Pixel and HTC U11, you’re not going to find a faster and more fluid experience.

Motorola’s signature improvements to stock Android are all present, too. Moto Display gives you a helpful view of notifications that are coming in without fully waking your phone, and you can reply to some messages right from the lock screen. Moto Voice now has its own “Show Me” command for opening apps or showing your calendar or the weather. I didn’t really didn’t use Show Me much since Google Assistant can handle all the same tasks and always worked better in my tests. Unlike Google Assistant, there’s no vibration or subtle indication for when the “Show me _____” command actually registers. You’re just talking to the device in blind hope that it’s listening, which feels rather awkward. Like other recent Moto phones, you can choose to turn off the on-screen buttons and use gestures on the wide fingerprint reader to go back, go home, or access recent apps.

The second headline feature of the Z2 Force is its dual-lens camera. Both rear cameras are 12-megapixels; one shoots color, and the other shoots monochrome black and white. Together with the flash, they look like a smiling robot face. But overall, Motorola still isn’t making much progress at the important part: capturing better quality images. The camera is strong in good lighting and puts out nice detail, though it can struggle with saturated reds. But in darker conditions, these photos can’t shake that “taken with a smartphone” look; they’re often muddy and overprocessed.

Motorola takes advantage of having two cameras with some depth-of-field tricks: you can blur the background of your subject, but the effect looks as artificial here as on the iPhone or Huawei’s latest. You can also selectively remove color from either the foreground or background of your shot — assuming the Force actually gets those areas right, which it sometimes doesn’t — or take “true” black and white images using just the monochrome camera. These ideas are clever; it’s just the execution that’s not quite there. Plus, there are plenty of apps on Android that can mimic these concepts to the same or better results. I didn’t notice any substantial difference between the monochrome black and whites versus a simple filter in Instagram or VSCO.

Motorola shrank the battery for the sake of making the Z2 Force thin

Where Motorola has taken the most criticism with the Z2 Force — deservedly so — is its downsized battery, which has a capacity of just 2730mAh. That’s a big drop from the 3500mAh battery of last year. But thanks to the efficient Snapdragon 835 processor, the change doesn’t completely tank the phone’s endurance. It’ll still get you through a day of typical use — even when you’re using Moto Mods. I saw between 4 and a half hours to 5 of screen-on time between charges in my testing. Sometimes it was less. But the bigger question is why Motorola made this choice. A thinner phone? Sure. But again, we’re left without a headphone jack. Some have speculated that this was done to make Moto Mods less bulky when attached. But how often are you going to be carrying your phone around outside with a music speaker or projector latched on? Most of all, it feels like a badly disguised way of selling more Moto Mod battery packs.

No one likes being that person carrying around a phone that’s tethered to an Anker or a Mophie; we do it out of necessity. The Moto Mods look much better than a USB cable running to your pocket, yes. But the point is that last year, Motorola made phones that alleviated almost all battery anxiety. And the company still is: the low-range Moto E4 Plus has an enormous 5,000mAh battery inside. Motorola has taken on a strange philosophy of giving fundamentally useful features to inexpensive devices, while focusing the Moto Z2 Force all on the shatterproof concept, bringing it up to par on speed with other 2017 flagships, and basically calling it a day.

Rounding out the hardware, there’s no wireless charging on the Z2 Force; you’ll have to add a $40 Moto Mod for that. And the included wall charger isn’t as powerful as the one that came with 2016’s Z Force. The battery difference probably makes that negligible, but a faster charge is always appreciated. As it stands, the Z2 Force support’s Motorola’s Turbo Charge, which still manages to top off the battery in good time — around an hour and a half.

The family of Moto Mods are still novel and useful in their own way. The JBL speaker sounds great, and the new 4K 360-degree camera would be a ton of fun to take on vacations. Video quality is excellent outdoors, and the four built-in microphones expand on the immersion further by recording 3D audio. But it’s also $300, which is even more expensive than the standalone Gear 360. And in my tests, apps like Facebook and Periscope don’t yet support it for livestreaming 360-degree video. Hopefully that will come soon. As with every other mod, the Moto 360 Camera is compatible with all Moto Z phones.

Battery Mods are obviously the most popular of the set, and I’m not understanding why you wouldn’t just buy a cheaper external pack from Amazon that works with your other gadgets instead of something pricier and limited to the Moto Z family. What once seemed like an innovative concept is now holding back and restricting Motorola’s design. The case is stronger when the Mods are unique, like the upcoming gamepad or the 360 cam, but there aren’t many of those two years in. The other standout Mods — a Hasselblad camera and wall projector — underperform for their price.  

If I can put on my prediction hat for a moment, it would seem to me that very few people are going to pick the Z2 Force over the competition beside it at carrier stores and Best Buy. You can find the Galaxy S8+ on sale for less money, which is a comparison that Moto just won’t win. Or you could save over $200 and opt for the OnePlus 5, which offers essentially the same specs. Sure, those screens can break from the unexpected drops that we all see happen on the street daily. But if you really need a screen that won’t break, just buy a good case to counter your clumsiness.  

Motorola is still making some very good phones like the G5 Plus and Z2 Play, but it’s hard to classify this Moto Z2 Force as one of them. Between the smaller battery, Motorola’s cost cutting (omitting a Style Shell), and the high price, it's hard to recommend the Z2 Force compared to other phones on the market. The flagship Moto Z phone — the one that’s supposed to be the best thing Lenovo and Motorola put forward — needs a course correction. If you were to buy this and add on some Moto Mods, you could easily be approaching $1,000 in total cost. No thanks. If the Mods seem like something you’d be interested in, just stick to the Play side of the Moto Z line.