There was a time when the Moto Z series was meant to compete head-to-head with the best Android smartphones on the market. The first few Moto Z handsets were stacked on the hardware front, while the support for Moto Mods made them stand out in the highly competitive high-end space. Strangely enough, last year’s Moto Z3 marked a shift in the brand’s strategy. It was a peculiar device – one built for the future with its 5G Moto Mod support, but stuck in the past, powered by the previous year’s processing power.
The new Moto Z4, priced at $500 unlocked or $240 on Verizon, further shows that the Moto Z series is now on a totally different path. Indeed, it is the latest Moto flagship phone, but in the greater scheme of things, it has “mid-range” written all over it. It seems as through the Moto Z line is now focused more on the core experience rather than the specs – on proving that a phone doesn’t need all the bells and whistles to be a meaningful handset for the masses.
In the box:
The Moto Z line has always followed a strict design language, mainly because all phones need to be compatible with existing and future Moto Mods. Knowing that, it’s no shock that the Moto Z4 looks very much like its predecessors. It’s a tired look at this point, one that’s in desperate need of significant change, but at least the phone is solidly constructed. It is made of Gorilla Glass 5 at the back and GG3 at the front, with a 6000-series aluminum frame around the edges. And just like before, there’s a small degree of splash protection thanks to the P2i water-repelling nano-coating.
Looking closer at the phone, you begin to spot the details that make it an evolutionary update over last year’s offering. First and foremost, the all-screen look is instantly noticeable, achieving the same appearance as its contemporaries – albeit, it favors a subtle notch for the front-facing camera. Gone is the side-mounted fingerprint sensor, replaced instead by an in-display one that works pretty well as long as your thumb is firmly over it. A welcome surprise is the addition of a 3.5mm headphone jack – a first for the series.
One of the biggest selling points of the Moto Z4 is that it’s upgradeable to 5G on Verizon through the help of a Moto Mod, just like the Moto Z3 before it. It’s clearly an option for eager tech enthusiasts and early adopters, looking at how bulky and pricey said 5G Moto Mod actually is. Beyond that, there’s a healthy selection of Moto Mods to choose from to satisfy nearly any need. From simple designer shells to mix up the look, to others that adds wireless charging, large stereo speakers, or even a pico projector into the fold, no other phone series takes customization to such a high level.
The most exciting things about the Moto Z4’s screen are the addition of the in-screen fingerprint sensor and the all-screen appearance. It’s a 6.4-inch 1080 x 2340 OLED display and it features all the hallmark qualities we get in just about any other recent phone, like wide viewing angles, sharp details, and color tones that can appear either over-saturated or natural depending on the display setting you choose. In terms of brightness, it peaks at about 430 nits, which can make for some difficult viewing outdoors under the gaze of the sun.
Interface and functionality
The Moto Z line has always offered a mostly “stock” Android experience, and the Moto Z4 is no exception, running Android 9 Pie out of the box. What we continue to appreciate is that the Moto experiences it’s packing aren’t redundant or overly complicated. Moto Actions that allow us to run the camera app by twisting the phone twice in our hand or turning on the LED flash by performing a chopping motion are two examples of how these features complement the standard Android experience.
From the looks of it all, Moto Voice has been completely dissolved with the experience – there’s no trace of it whatsoever in the settings menu. That doesn’t bother us at all, seeing that it’s pretty redundant nowadays with Google Assistant’s superior qualities. Overall, there’s not a tremendous push to mixing up the experience with the Moto Z4 this year, which we’re content about because it functions just fine the way it is.
Processor and Performance
When we think of a flagship phone, what comes to mind are handsets with top-of-the-line hardware specs, but the Moto Z4 is different. It is armed with the mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 SoC coupled with 4GB of RAM and the Adreno 608 GPU. Even though it’s enough for fluid navigation across the interface, it’s not quite as capable as a Snapdragon 800-series chip when it comes to handling more intensive applications, such as 3D gaming. For most simple titles, it’ll no doubt deliver great results, but when heavier action calls, that’s where it begins to exhibit choppy frame rates. Still, most users will be content by the Moto Z4’s performance, allowing them to easily get work done on the road without being bogged down. The 128GB of built-in storage is plentiful, and a microSD card slot is available for users who need more.
One of the more discrete changes in the Moto Z4 over its predecessor is that instead of a dual-camera system, the phone sports just a single camera at the back. It has a 48MP sensor that produces 12 MP photos by default – all on the largest sensor the company has put into any of its phones to date. The camera features optical image stabilization, 4K video recording, a dual LED flash, and by combining four pixels into one large 1.6μm pixel, it should deliver better low-light performance. Using the same approach, the 25MP front camera produces 6MP selfies in low light.
The software uses AI to intelligently complement the otherwise well-versed camera experience. It helps by delivering features such as AI Portrait Lighting and auto smile capture, as well as smart composition that will automatically generate a second photo to make sure the image is aligned properly. You’re still going to find some of the staple features from the past, like a manual mode, portrait mode for those bokeh effects, and much more. New to the mix is the Night Vision mode which works similarly to what we’ve seen from dedicated night modes on other phones, where it requires users to hold the phone longer under low light for it to increase the exposure.
Expectations are naturally high for just about any mid-range device following the release of the Google Pixel 3a series of smartphones. Thankfully, the Moto Z4 delivers better-than-average results for its price point. Not surprisingly, the best results occur when there’s great lighting in the scene. Outdoor shots taken under sunny conditions are filled with details, but they’re not the best in terms of dynamic range. The camera simply doesn’t add enough boost to the shadows in many instances, so some of the compositions appear a little on the underexposed side. Take it indoors, and the details would still be pretty good, but colors would seem a little bit flat.
Under low light, the Moto Z4 is capable of capturing good-looking shots. Just take a look at some of the photos from a carnival we checked out! Even without using its brand-new Night Vision mode, the Moto Z4’s low light performance can still turn out favorable shots. There’s not too much noise evident in the shadows, but even though details do not degrade heavily, we can tell the camera is shooting at a slower shutter speed – resulting in some blurring to subjects that are moving.
Moving on to extreme low-light situations, we can rely on using the new Night Vision mode, a process that requires us to hold the Moto Z4 pointed at the scene for several seconds. However, using it results in some noticeable details loss and heavier digital noise. Yes, the overall shot looks brighter and more exposed, but the noise that infiltrates the scene doesn’t make it too pleasing. Clearly, it’s not as good as Night Sight mode with the Google Pixel 3a series. Still, it comes in handy for moderately low-lit situations, especially when there’s a presence of strong light somewhere.
Using the same Quad Pixel technology found with the rear camera, the Moto Z4’s 25MP front-facing selfie camera also delivers exciting snapshots. It’s really good at taking them when there’s ample light around, resulting in strong detailed images that aren’t over-sharpened and are accompanied with natural color tones. We suggest keeping the beauty effects at a minimum, since these can make the image appear a bit on the artificial, unrealistic side. Furthermore, the camera is not a strong performer under low light. The AI helps with the portrait effect, but using it aggressively tends to soften edges a lot more around the subject.
Video recording performance is just okay with the Moto Z4. It’s not a hit out of the ballpark, but it’s not bad either. Topping out at 4K resolution 30 FPS, the camera is best suited for sunny, daytime settings. Details are sharp, but dynamic range continues to be a struggle as the footage can appear just a smidgen on the underexposed side. Another thing worth pointing out here is the optical image stabilization which seems to apply a slight bobbing effect, making it seem as if it’s overcompensating for some of the shake. It is noticeable, but it’s not extremely distracting and only comes into play in some cases like when walking.
The weakest point about the Moto Z4’s camera is video recording under low light. Artifacting and digital noise are very apparent. It doesn’t help either that the overall look is on the softer side, so fine details are just about non-existent. The performance in this particular setting isn’t too surprising given the similar outcome with still shots.
The Moto Z4 performs decently in the call quality department. Our one minor complaint we have is how voices have a subtle artificial quality to them through the earpiece, which doesn’t hinder the overall call experience, but it’s still something that we definitely notice above other things. Aside from that, there’s really very little to complain about here, because the earpiece and speakerphone deliver strong volume output – making it easy for users while dealing with noisy conditions. On the other end of the line, its microphone is able to transmit our voice with a lot of distinction to our callers, so we sound more than audible on their end.
Inside the Moto Z4’s svelte chassis is a 3600mAh battery – the largest in the series to date. Daily usage allows us to get more than ample time with the phone, leaving it decently filled at around the 40% mark buy the end of the night. More impressive is how it performs in our custom battery benchmark test, reaching a mark of 9 hours and 49 minutes – besting its predecessor by over an hour and even newer phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10+.
Over on the recharge side, the TurboPower charger that comes included with the package requires 120 minutes to get the battery back to full capacity. That’s longer than its predecessor’s tally, but then again, we’re dealing with a much higher capacity battery cell. There’s no built-in wireless charging, but you can always add it later with the help of a Moto Mod – or alternatively, get one of the Moto Mod battery packs to really extend battery life.
Now comes the price! The Moto Z4 can be fetched for $500 unlocked, bundled with a free 360-degree camera Moto Mod. It’s a nice incentive to sweeten the package, but the real treat will come to new subscribers to Verizon, who can get the Moto Z4 for $240. We have two totally different prices here, and there’s no denying the fact that $240 is a steal! That undercuts a lot of the competition, while still offering users the option to add features through the extensive lineup of Moto Mods.
But if you’re planning on buying the Moto Z4 unlocked, at $500, it’s treading close to OnePlus 7 Pro territory. Moreover, the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL are priced below the Moto Z4 and are likely to impress you more with their camera performance.
Needless to say, we wouldn’t hesitate to tell you to buy the Moto Z4 if you intend on having Big Red as your carrier. It’s a phenomenal deal! However, if you’re not going to steer towards that area, then it’ll come down to whether or not you plan to invest on add-ons for the phone, either on day one or down the road, with the help of the Moto Mods. If so, then absolutely consider the Moto Z4.