Moto Z3 review

Someday it will do 5G, but the Moto Z3 is already a great phone

The affordable Moto Z3 brings strong performance, an all-day battery, and the promise of 5G.
The affordable Moto Z3 brings strong performance, an all-day battery, and the promise of 5G.
The affordable Moto Z3 brings strong performance, an all-day battery, and the promise of 5G.

Highs

  • Great performance
  • Good display
  • Day-long battery life
  • Capable camera, no shutter lag
  • Promise of 5G

Lows

  • Thick camera bump, uninspiring design
  • Unavailable to non-Verizon customers
  • Poor low-light camera

At a time when smartphone prices are through the roof, Motorola is charging a little under $500 for its 2018 flagship phone. Why? The new Moto Z3 will be the first smartphone that’s “upgradable to 5G” early next year via a 5G Moto Mod, which will magnetically snap onto the back of the phone and allow much faster data speeds. By keeping the phone’s price low, the cost of the 5G mod won’t feel as exorbitant, and it also allows people to buy more Moto Mods to suit their lifestyle.

There are a few caveats. The Moto Z3 does not have the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor like the competition, it’s not water resistant (nor does it have Motorola’s signature Shattershield display), and most importantly, it’s only available through Verizon. You won’t be able to buy it from other carriers, or unlocked. The 5G Moto Mod, which we’ll discuss below, also doesn’t arrive until early 2019.

But if you’re a Verizon subscriber looking for a phone in this price range, the Moto Z3 is still your best choice.

Uninspiring design, great display

The Moto Z3 is almost an exact replica of the mid-range Moto Z3 Play, with the differences being a lower-performing processor and a slightly lesser camera in the Z3 Play. Since both share the same design and display, we strongly recommend checking out our Moto Z3 Play review, where we discuss this in greater detail.

But to summarize: The phone is exceptionally thin, so it doesn’t feel too thick when you attach Moto Mods. These mods range from a battery and speaker to a projector and 360-degree camera — they snap magnetically to the back of the phone, and data is transferred through Pogo pins at the bottom. We’ve found a few of them to be useful and fun, but most are expensive, and it’s also cumbersome to carry these mods around unless you always have a backpack or purse nearby.

When Motorola announced the Moto Mod program and the first Moto Z in 2016, it said it would commit to the same modular dimensions for Moto Z devices up to three years. This is the third-generation Moto Z phone, so we asked Motorola’s president, Sergio Buniac, whether the 5G mod will be the last Moto Mod. His answer? “No.” Buniac doesn’t see Motorola dropping support for them soon, so your Moto Mods should still hold a little more value for future Moto Z devices, but no timeline for the Moto Z program was shared.

The Moto Z3 is almost an exact replica of the mid-range Moto Z3 Play.

Back to the phone. The fingerprint sensor is on the right edge, which is unusual, but we’re pleasantly surprised at how well it works. This is subjective, though, and you may prefer a sensor on the front (like previous Motorola phones) or on the back. There’s no headphone jack, but a 3.5mm to USB Type-C converter is in the box, and the biggest disappointment is the speaker. It’s a single mono earpiece at the top; it doesn’t get loud, and the audio sounds tinny. You’ll definitely want the speaker mod if you want to blast music with this phone.

The 6-inch display has skimpy bezels surrounding it, which means this phone won’t feel much bigger than last year’s Moto Z2, which had a 5.5-inch display. It’s a Super AMOLED screen with a 2,160 x 1,080 resolution; it’s sharp and colorful, with incredibly deep blacks. Reading the screen in direct sunlight is manageable, though you will need to crank the brightness to the max.

Check out our Moto Z3 Play review for more details on this section.

Strong performance, Android 8.1 Oreo

The biggest difference between the Moto Z3 and the Moto Z3 Play is the processor. We were pleasantly surprised with the Snapdragon 636’s performance in the Z3 Play, but the Snapdragon 835 with 4GB RAM kicks things up a notch and delivers even more power. It’s still not as powerful as the 2018 processor of choice — phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and LG G7 ThinQ utilize the Snapdragon 845 — but you should be able to run almost anything you throw at the Moto Z3.

Here are a few benchmark tests:

  • AnTuTu 3DBench: 199,100
  • Geekbench 4 CPU: 1,901 single-core; 6,217 multi-core
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme: 2,705 (Vulkan)

The Moto Z3 sits near most 2017 flagship smartphones, but it’s in the dust of other 2018 devices. The Galaxy S9 Plus scored an AnTuTu score of 263,591, for example, and the OnePlus 6 trounces it with its 269,191 score. That being said, you likely won’t notice a performance difference. Apps open fast, scrolling in apps like Twitter and Instagram is smooth, and games like Altos Odyssey and Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire run without issues. Don’t let this older processor deter you: performance isn’t a problem here at all.

Moto Z3
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The phone runs Android 8.1 Oreo, and it’s almost stock Android. Motorola hasn’t changed the design of the operating system, but it did add the Moto app. It lets you turn on the Moto Display, which subtly alerts you to notifications as they arrive, and you can also turn on gestures to control the phone. A double-twist of the device will launch the camera, or a chop-chop action will activate the flashlight. These are handy, and quick ways to access these services. Moto Voice also lets you control aspects of the phone with your voice, but we found it easier to use Google Assistant, which is also available.

Motorola also has its own gesture-controlled navigation system you can turn on. It’s an elongated bar at the bottom of the screen; swipe it right for Recent apps, swipe it left to go back, press it to go home, and press and hold it to call Google Assistant. It’s easy to use, gives you more screen space, and works well.

One thing we don’t like is the amount of bloatware. Presumably because this is a Verizon-locked phone, Motorola has been forced to pre-install quite a number of apps and games. You can thankfully uninstall most of these, but the Verizon apps can’t be removed.

Capable camera

The Moto Z3 packs a dual-camera system on the rear, with a 12-megapixel lens with a f/2 aperture, and a 12-megapixel monochrome lens. (The Moto Z3 Play differs here with a 12-megapixel lens paired with a 5-megapixel depth-sensing lens.)

The camera app is quick to launch and the shutter button is fast to react. Photos in daylight look good —strong details and good color accuracy — and we’ve been surprised at how well the HDR works on this phone. High-contrast scenes are kept well exposed thanks to Motorola’s post-processing.

The Moto Z3’s camera can produce some decent shots in less-than-ideal lighting, but in low light you may as well put the phone away. The camera has trouble autofocusing, details are completely fuzzy, and grain takes over the photo completely.

In low light, you may as well put the phone away.

The monochrome mode is fun, and the portrait mode does a solid job with identifying edges around a subject to produce a strong blur. It does make a good deal of mistakes, so you’ll need to retake the photo a few times, and it often has problems with hair. It’s also available for the front-facing 8-megapixel lens, but it doesn’t work as well.

There are a few other features in the camera app as well, such as Spot Color, which isolates one color of your choice in a photo and turns everything else black and white; Cinemagraphs, where you can isolate movement in a particular part of a GIF for a cool effect; and there’s even the option to jump straight into YouTube Live from the camera.

We’re mostly happy with the Moto Z3’s camera, though it certainly needs to improve its low-light camera game if it wants to compete with devices similar to its price range, such as the OnePlus 6.

Day-long battery

The 3,000mAh battery easily managed to get us through a full day. Starting off the charger at 7:30 a.m., with heavy to medium usage including using social media, watching YouTube videos, streaming music, and playing games, we ended with a little under 40 percent by 7 p.m.

With even lighter use — such as over the weekend — it wasn’t uncommon to find more than 60 percent remaining by 8 p.m.

If you want even more juice, you can nab a battery Moto Mod and attach it to the phone, which should easily make the Moto Z3 last almost two days. Otherwise, you can rely on the included TurboPower charger to juice the phone back up quickly.

5G Moto Mod

Stepping away from the Moto Z3 for a minute, let’s take a look at one of the key selling points of the Moto Z3: It’s the first phone that’s upgradable to 5G. Carriers are racing to be the first to deploy 5G networks around the country, which will bring significant speed improvements over 4G LTE, among other benefits. The 5G Moto Mod will allow Moto Z3 owners to utilize 5G when Verizon starts rolling it out in select cities early next year.

Moto Z3 review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The 5G Moto Mod is a little thick, and it has a unique shape that makes it something you wouldn’t want to have attached to the back of the phone all the time. Like all Moto Mods, it magnetically attaches to the back of the Moto Z3. Four millimeter-wave antennas implanted in the device ensure you consistently get a 5G signal without interference.

There’s a 2,000mAh battery inside the 5G Moto Mod. Unlike other mods where their batteries would deplete first before the phone’s battery kicks in to power them, the 5G Moto Mod’s battery will deplete alongside the phone — you’ll never end up with a dead Moto Mod first.

You’re not going to access 5G as soon as you slap the mod on.

The 5G Moto Mod also has its own SIM card inside, and two modems: Qualcomm’s X24 and X50. In a 5G-supported area, it will be capable of hitting 5Gbps speeds. In 4G LTE areas, the X24 modem should still be able to hit speeds up to 2Gbps speeds — a marked improvement of what you would get from the X16 modem built into the phone.

What will these dramatically faster data speeds enable? Well, it will drastically change the way we use our smartphones. Think about this: It currently takes around a minute and 20 seconds to download 90 songs from Spotify on an iPhone X using 4G LTE — that’s with peak download speeds. With the 5G Moto Mod on the Moto Z3, Motorola said you will be able to do the same thing in 10 seconds. Downloading 200 pictures from Google Drive will take 30 seconds; downloading four episode of Game of Thrones will take a minute; downloading one 4K movie from Netflix will take around a minute and a half. Motorola showed us a demo of the Z3 hitting 3Gbps per second, but promised the final unit would achieve the full 5Gbps in areas with 5G coverage.

5G will affect everything from cars to the Internet of Things, but for our purposes here with the 5G Moto Mod, expect your smartphone experience to dramatically improve.

As awesome as 5G sounds, this is the current reality: You’re not going to access 5G as soon as you slap the mod on. You need to be in a place with 5G Verizon service, which means only three cities right now: Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Houston. It will take a long time before 5G is as ubiquitous as 4G LTE, and when that happens, this phone and mod will be outdated. This is very much early-adopter territory for a select few.

The mod will arrive early 2019, and as mentioned, it will only be available through Verizon stores and work on that network. We have no idea yet how wide-scale support for 5G will be by then, how often you’ll be able to access 2Gbps speeds on 4G LTE, and what kind of data plan Verizon will offer to those with the Moto Z3 and the mod.

Price, availability, and warranty information

The Moto Z3 costs $480 (you can opt for a monthly payment plan), and it will be available from Verizon starting August 16. You won’t be able to purchase it anywhere else.

Motorola offers a standard one-year limited warranty, which covers manufacturer defects.

Our Take

The Moto Z3 brings strong performance, an all-day battery, and an affordable price tag. The potential of 5G aside, it’s the best option for Verizon subscribers looking for a sub-$500 phone.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. The Essential Phone is your next best choice — it has a more beautiful design, and similar performance and cameras. It’s available for $400 or below on Amazon. You should know that the future Essential is uncertain, so support for the phone may not last much longer.

You shouldn’t overlook the OnePlus 6, which costs $530, has the newer Snapdragon 845 processor, a better design, and stronger cameras. It’s the better phone in every way — but we can’t recommend it here because you won’t be able to use it on Verizon or Sprint. If you’re a non-Verizon or Sprint customer looking for a phone the same price as the Moto Z3, go buy the OnePlus 6 immediately.

If your budget isn’t limited to $500, there are better options, including the Galaxy S9, the Pixel 2, the iPhone X, and the LG G7 ThinQ. Some of these phones have also started to dip in price, or you can always grab them on a payment plan, and all of them are much better than the Z3. Check out our best smartphones guide for more.

How long will it last?

The Moto Z3 is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 on the front and back, which means you’ll still want to throw a case on the phone. There is no water resistance, so you should be careful with this phone around water.

It should receive software updates for the next two years, and we expect it to last your around three to four years, if not more, in total.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you’re on Verizon looking for a mid-range smartphone, you’ll be satisfied with the Moto Z3. The promise of 5G is nice, but it shouldn’t be the primary attraction for buying this phone — yet.

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