Hands on: Moto Z3 review

Motorola's mod-est upgrade, at least for now

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The Moto Z3 is the most interesting smartphone we’ve seen in 2018.

For

  • Promise of 5G speeds in 2019
  • New 18:9 screen
  • Modular add-ons are fun

Against

  • Need a 2019 Moto Mod for 5G
  • Last year's chipset and RAM
  • Very similar to the Z3 Play

We're pretty sure the Moto Z3 launched today, although Motorola's latest modular smartphone is itself a mod-est upgrade – at least this year. There's more to come.

It'll launch on August 16, but become the world's first 5G upgradable phone next year via a 5G modem-filled Moto Mod, according to Motorola and Verizon.

The Moto Z3 is the most interesting smartphone we’ve seen in 2018. Yet its potential won't be fully realized until 2019 when it taps into Verizon's budding 5G network.

This is also a 2018 update to last year's Moto Z2 Force, with a taller 18:9 display, a side-mounted fingerprint sensor, and compatibility with all existing Moto Mods.

The specs haven't changed much from the Moto Z2, and the design reflects what we got with the recent Moto Z3 Play, right down to the dimensions.

What's the good news here and now, before the 5G Moto Mod launches? It'll be a lot cheaper, with a price that actually undercuts the mid-range Moto Z3 Play.

Price and release date

The Moto Z3 is launching on August 16 in the US, with Verizon having the exclusive on this phone. Its close tie-in with Motorola in the past and its 5G presentation at the launch event means you shouldn't expect this phone on AT&T or T-Mobile.

And the Moto Z3 price is surprisingly low: $480 (about £370, AU$650). That's cheaper than the mid-range priced Moto Z3 Play at $499 (about £380, AU$630).

Moto Z3 is Motorola's flagship phone for 2018, one that trades a specs upgrade for a cheaper price. It's a risky move that the company hopes will excite people who want to be on the forefront of the 5G revolution without paying through the nose.

The 5G Moto Mod

The Moto Z3 is all about the 5G Moto Mod that won't come out until early 2019. It's odd that the big highlight to today's smartphone won't be ready for several months.

We got to go hands-on with the 5G Moto Mod, however, and see 5G demos of what to expect in the jump from 4G LTE to 5G NR. More bandwidth, faster speeds, and lower latency are all things we're told you can expect from the Qualcomm X50 and X24 modems embedded inside this Moto Mod.

The reason for two modems inside the Moto Mod is to support regions that don't have 5G coverage yet. Outside the first major cities, it can fall be back to the X24 with 4G speed capabilities.

The 5G Moto Mod works just like the projector, speaker, and camera add-ons. You simply snap it to the back of the phone and it magnetically holds on. The Mod makes the phone undeniably bulky and there's an overlap at the top right corner for an antenna, though we'd expect such sacrifices from cutting-edge 5G tech at first.

We got to see demos of 5G antennas and hands-on time with the 5G Moto Mod on the Moto Z3. It's only when these two experiences are combined that we'll be able to judge the phone in a full review follow-up.

Everything else

Take the more modern look of the Moto Z3 Play from two months ago and the core specs of the Moto Z2 Force from last year and you've pretty much got the flagship Moto Z3.

It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, the chipset that's found in the Moto Z2 Force, Samsung Galaxy S8, and Google Pixel 2 – so last year's chipset. It also stays stingy with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, not even the 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and found in the Moto Z2 that launched outside of the US. You do get microSD card support if you run out of space.

More up to date is the design that takes cues from the Moto Z3 Play: that tall 18:9 screen and, because of the expanded screen dimensions, a side fingerprint sensor. Moto's on-screen one-button home button interface appears here too, as does the Android 8.1 software upgrade. 

And just like the Moto Z3 Play, the Z3 has a Full HD 1080p resolution. That's a step backward from the Quad HD resolution of the Moto Z2 Force and even the original Moto Z. What does this mean? Not much for most people – you won't be able to enjoy great VR with the weaker resolution.

Early verdict

There's a lot of hype around 5G, and the Moto Z3 wants to deliver on the promise of more bandwidth and faster speeds first. It's technically doing that by launching the first 5G upgradable smartphone. That doesn't mean it'll be first – that could be Samsung for all we know. But it's the first one on the roadmap publicly and has a strong backer by way of Verizon.

The phone, as it stands today is closer to a Moto Z2 with a big price drop and an 18:9 display upgrade. That's not a bad thing given the popularity of cheap phones today, and the rise of the $1,000 iPhone X. Motorola isn't trying to appeal to the same audience that will be tuning into the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 launch on August 9.

With a cheaper price and 5G potential, the Moto Z3 has a chance at capturing an audience that wants a forward-looking phone at an affordable rate. The OnePlus 6 has this vibe, though it does it with top-of-the-line specs present at launch. Motorola's 5G plans are still in the offing, as is our full review of this phone.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.