The Moto Z4 is not a particularly exciting phone. It’s a midrange device with a familiar design, spec list, and feature set. Its main differentiator is Moto Mods, the attachable accessories that can magnetically snap on the back of the phone. But those aren’t really much of a draw anymore. They wore out their welcome a few Moto Z versions ago.
With a price tag of $499 for the unlocked model (or as low as $240 if you’re buying from Verizon and starting a new line of service), you might think the Z4 is one of those midrange budget phones that really could replace something that costs much more. Yet the Z4 has plenty of great competition that feels fresher or more appealing in that price range. In a lineup of 2019 phones, the Z4 wouldn’t get a second look from anyone.
But while the Z4 is not an exciting phone, it’s certainly not a bad phone. In fact, it has quite a few redeeming qualities that make it worth considering, depending on your priorities.
What is it?
The Z4 is Motorola’s flagship phone for this year (unless it releases that folding phone that’s been rumored for a few months). In terms of design, it looks basically just like every other Moto Z phone, with glass on the front and back and a metal frame in the middle. It’s compatible with all of the Moto Mod accessories dating back to 2016, and the unlocked model comes with the 360 camera Mod in the box. Verizon is the only carrier that will sell the Z4 directly in the US, but you can buy the unlocked version and use it on other carriers. I’ve been testing an unlocked model on T-Mobile’s network.
What’s good about it?
The most impressive thing about the Z4 is its battery life. Motorola put a 3,600mAh battery — the largest of any Moto Z phone — a power-efficient processor, and a 1080p display in the Z4, which, together, result in a device that can easily last a couple of days between charges with normal usage, without the need for aggressive power-saving features or notification policing. I haven’t been this impressed with a phone’s stamina since the original Moto Z Play from 2016. As an experiment, I tested how long the battery would last away from the charger with one of Motorola’s battery pack Mods, and the Z4 was able to last from Saturday to Tuesday under normal usage without needing to be plugged in.
The Z4’s display is also very good, despite it having a lower resolution than other phones. It has excellent color reproduction, great viewing angles, gets bright enough to read outdoors on a sunny day, and has those deep, rich blacks we’ve come to expect from OLED screens. It does have a small notch at the top for the front-facing camera, but it’s one of the smallest display cutouts I’ve seen, and it doesn’t get in the way of any video watching or other screen functionality. This is the kind of screen I expect to see on phones that are much more expensive than the Z4.
Motorola phones are usually very well put together, with recent models embracing the trend of a sandwich of glass front and backs with a metal frame in between. The Z4 is no different: the back of the phone has a smooth matte glass finish, and all of its seams and tolerances are very tight. It feels like a much more expensive phone when I hold it. Additionally, Motorola has actually added a 3.5mm headphone jack to the Z4, something that wasn’t on any prior flagship Moto Z device.
Finally, the Moto Z4 has good software. It’s launching with Android 9 Pie out of the box, and it includes Motorola’s customizations, such as an improved gesture navigation interface and the ability to control various functions of the phone by shaking or flipping it. The actual software interface is clean and uncluttered, and the phone is free of bloatware and other preloads that nobody ever really asks for (at least on the unlocked model I’ve been using). Motorola doesn’t have a great track record of updating its phones when new versions of Android come out, but even if it never gets an update, the Z4’s software provides a good experience.
What’s fine about it?
The Z4’s midrange price means that Motorola had to cut some corners compared to the much more expensive flagship phones on the market. The first thing you’ll notice is that the Z4 isn’t as fast or snappy as a OnePlus 7 Pro or Samsung Galaxy S10. That’s because its midrange Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 processor, while very good for battery life, is nowhere near as high-end as the Snapdragon 855 found in many flagships this year. The Z4 isn’t as fast or smooth as other phones, and it certainly won’t win any speed races. That isn’t to say its performance is bad by any means, and I didn’t really see any glitches or hiccups in my time testing the phone. But if you’re the kind of person who wants the ultimate performance from your phone, the OnePlus 7 Pro or Samsung Galaxy S10 will scratch that itch better than the Z4.
The Moto Z4’s main camera uses just one lens and sensor, as opposed to the multiple lenses we see on most phones at this point. Fortunately, that single sensor is good — it’s the same 48-megapixel camera found on the OnePlus 7, Xiaomi Mi 9, and Honor View 20 — and it can take bright, detailed images in most lighting conditions.
Surprisingly, Motorola has a night mode that actually works well to pull more details out of low-light scenarios, much like how Night Sight works on Google’s Pixel phones. But Motorola’s night mode isn’t quite to the level of Google’s, and it often produces exaggerated colors with an abundance of saturation. Still, it’s better than the night mode options on many other phones in this price range.
The Moto Z4 has a single speaker on the top of the phone’s frame, as opposed to the bottom where most phone speakers are located. It gets fairly loud and mostly sounds fine, but it doesn’t compare to the stereo speakers that are available on many other devices. You could improve the Z4’s sound quality with a JBL Soundboost 2 Mod, but that will cost you $79.99 and adds a lot of bulk and weight to the phone.
What’s not good about it?
The biggest issue with the Moto Z4 is the same thing that’s been plaguing many other phones this year: its fancy under-display fingerprint scanner just isn’t very good. Motorola’s using an optical sensor here — the same one as OnePlus and Xiaomi — and it’s slower and less accurate than side or rear-mounted scanners. It often takes more than a beat for the phone to recognize my finger and unlock, and many times, it will take multiple attempts to unlock. Motorola does offer a face-unlock feature that relies on the front camera, but it’s not a 3D mapping system, so it’s far less secure.
Like every other Moto Z phone before it, the Moto Z4 supports Motorola’s Moto Mod system of modular accessories that attach to the back of the phone via magnets. Popular Mods include battery packs and speakers, which help extend the life away from a wall outlet or improve the sound quality of the phone. If you’re a Verizon customer, there’s even a 5G Mod that will add 5G capabilities to the Z4.
Functionally, all the Mods I tested with the Z4, including the 360-degree camera Mod that comes in the box with the unlocked model, work just the same as they do on other Moto Z phones. But since Motorola slightly changed the design of the Z4’s frame — it now has a small chamfered finish that adds a slight curve to the back — none of the Mods that are available actually sit flush with the phone. There’s a roughly 1mm lip around the entire edge when a Mod is attached that makes the accessory feel less like a cohesive part of the whole phone and more like the bolt-on piece that it is. The redesigned frame does make the Z4 more comfortable to hold when you don’t have a Mod attached, but it’s strange that Motorola would commit to continuing to supporting the Mods on the Z4 and then compromise the experience with them.
Who should consider it?
The Moto Z4 is really only worth considering if you get it for an amazing deal, like Verizon’s launch offer if you open a new line of service. At that price, it’s an excellent phone and a better option than Motorola’s G7 lineup, which are typically priced in that range. If you’re really curious about how Verizon’s 5G network stacks up, you can pick up the 5G Moto Mod to add next-generation network capability to the phone. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the whole reason the Moto Z4 exists is because Verizon wanted an inexpensive 5G phone to sell to its customers.)
At full price, the Moto Z4 is a tougher sell. Sure, the battery life is great, and the display is surprisingly good, but I’d be more inclined to buy last year’s OnePlus 6T for a similar price and get faster performance, even better software, and better software support. If you own one of the older Z models and have a stack of Moto Mods looking for a home, the Z4 is the most modern option for you, but the rest of us are better off elsewhere.
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