Hands on: Moto Z4 review

A decent upgrade, if not too exciting

What is a hands on review?
Moto Z4
Image credit: TechRadar

For

  • Moto Mods!
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Beefier cameras

Against

  • Incremental refinements
  • Midrange processor

Motorola’s Moto Z4 is more an iteration than a new direction for the phone series, with a few improvements nestled in roughly the same design we’ve seen since the original Moto Z launched in September 2016. While the new handset is undoubtedly the sleekest in the series, it’s also made a few trade-offs to keep it solidly in the midrange category.

There’s a reason the phone’s design hasn’t moved far ahead of its predecessors: Moto Mods. Once a distinguishing feature that endeared the Moto Z phones to consumers, these magnetic add-ons have restricted design space, requiring subsequent handsets to keep the same flat backs, pin strip and magnets if they want to stay compatible with the Moto Mod suite. 

With its design so restricted, the Moto Z4 stretches in different ways, upgrading its rear and front cameras and maximizing front display space while introducing some new and old feature favorites (an in-screen fingerprint sensor and a 3.5mm headphone jack, respectively). 

As part of the compromise, the phone packs a new but middle-tier processor, which settles the phone firmly in the midrange category. The phone's hardware won’t blow the competition out of the water, and isn’t a significant step above what's in the Moto Z3 it’s replacing, but the Moto Z4 serves its purpose – especially as a more affordable option for Verizon 5G (with the 5G Moto Mod) than the pricey Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

Image credit: TechRadar

Image credit: TechRadar

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Release date and price 

The Moto Z4 launched on June 13, 2019, and you can buy it either unlocked or through Motorola’s only in-store carrier partner, Verizon. It’ll cost $20.83 per month on-contract for 24 months, but if you want to use Verizon’s 5G network, you’ll need the 5G Moto Mod, which costs $199. 

Previously, you needed to purchase one while buying a compatible phone (Moto Z4 or otherwise), or provide proof of ownership – it’s unclear if this is still the case, or if you can buy the 5G Moto Mod outside of Verizon stores.

The unlocked version of the Moto Z4 will be sold at Best Buy, B&H and other outlets for $499 (£395, AU$721), which also includes a 360 camera Moto Mod. One thing to note: the unlocked version won’t work with the 5G Moto Mod (which makes sense, since it’s keyed to Verizon’s 28Ghz 5G network)...at least for now. We’ll see if Motorola and Verizon lift this ban.

See the Verizon logo? This is the carrier version compatible with the 5G Moto Mod (Image credit: TechRadar)

See the Verizon logo? This is the carrier version compatible with the 5G Moto Mod (Image credit: TechRadar)

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Design and display

As previously mentioned, the Moto Z4 looks very similar to its predecessor, yet streamlined for a modern look. The front-top has a teardrop notch and a thin speaker, while the bottom chin is barely there. Since the fingerprint sensor has been moved within the front screen, the sides are only broken by a volume rocker on the top-right and a power button below it. 

The sides are, however, a little rounder than on the Moto Z3 – deliberately so, in order to make the phone’s thicker size less noticeable. That’s right, the Moto Z4 has 0.5mm more girth than its predecessor, but it needs that space to fit in a bigger battery, the in-screen fingerprint sensor and, in a crowd-pleasing move, the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Sure, the thicker body is a little more noticeable than the Moto Z3 or the razor-thin (5.19mm!) Moto Z we had lying around, but its rounder edges are actually more comfortable to hold. Unfortunately, that means the sides no longer sit flush with the flat Moto Mods. Something had to give, and it was symmetry.

The 6.4-inch OLED FHD+ (2340 x 1080) display is a bit longer for a 19:9 ratio, and despite the noticeable notch, the smaller top and bottom bezels make for a more impressive 85% screen-to-body ratio. It’s not the leanest phone on the market, but it is narrow enough to handle one-handed, unlike some of the heftier flagships.

The Gorilla Glass 3 on the front screen is a bit older but still protective; while the phone doesn’t have an IP protective rating, Motorola does apply a P2i splash-proof nano-coating to the device. It’s unclear how protective this is in comparison, but in a briefing, the company noted the coating doesn’t get jostled out of place during drops, as gaskets might (commonly used to achieve IP protective ratings).  

The in-screen optical fingerprint sensor is fine, though not always accurate, failing to read a registered finger every so often. 

Image credit: TechRadar

Image credit: TechRadar

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Camera

While the Moto Z4’s design is a bit constricted, its camera alterations reveal where Motorola (and possibly other midrange phonemakers) are changing course. The new phone ditches the dual rear 12MP cameras in favor of a single 48MP shooter...because the software and AI can simulate depth effects well enough.

This does trim costs, of course, but more phone cameras are making software do the heavy lifting for depth and effects – most notably, the Google Pixel line, culminating in the newer Google Pixel 3a

Other updates on the hardware side include Quad Pixel, the option to essentially combine four pixels into one (for a 1.6 micron-per-pixel size) which purportedly allows more light into the frame, a feature first introduced in the recent Motorola One Vision. These are always activated in the rear camera, while you can toggle them off in the front-facing camera mode.

There are a couple of new AI-powered camera modes that also carry over from the Motorola One Vision, like one that automatically takes a photo when a group (up to five people) all smile simultaneously. There’s also a ‘smart composition’ feature that will nudge you to align your photos along the ‘rule of thirds’ grid for a more traditional aesthetic look.

Lastly, we wouldn’t be in 2019 without a night mode, and the Moto Z4’s ‘Night Vision’ (which you’ll have to turn on manually) is promising. We haven’t gotten a chance to test it much, but the sample photos show illuminated dark scenes with good contrast – a definite step up from previous Moto Z phones’ low-light performance, if not quite measuring up to a Google Pixel phone.

The front-facing camera has also been bumped up to 25MP for sharper photos, which have noticeably better background contrast compared to the Moto Z3. As in the back, the phone uses software to simulate depth effects, though we couldn’t always get the phone to recognize faces to activate Portrait mode’s depth.

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Specs and battery life

It was odd to see the Moto Z3 pack the previous year’s Snapdragon 835 chip when the phone launched – perhaps to save cost while still delivering power. But for the Moto Z4, Motorola has deliberately switch from an older top-line processor to a brand-new mid-range chip, the octa-core Snapdragon 675. 

While objectively less powerful – the Moto Z4 scored an average of 6,523 on a Geekbench 4 CPU test compared to the Moto Z3’s 6,549 result – the new chip is, well, new. It may be more compatible with new features (like those coming in Android Q) down the line.

In our short time, we didn’t notice much of a difference with the midrange chip, experiencing few if any hangups while zipping between apps. 

Otherwise, the Moto Z4’s specs are suitable, with 4GB of RAM and a sizeable 128GB of storage (expandable up to 512GB via microSD). 

The battery has gotten a nice increase up to 3,600mAh, which Motorola claims can get up to two days of battery life. While we’ll wait to test out this lofty claim, the 15W fast charging should be nice an easy way to quickly top off your battery.

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Early verdict

The Moto Z4 seems like confirmation of Motorola’s plan to stay the course in the midrange lane instead of releasing a powered-up device to match Apple, Google and Samsung flagship phones. Motorola executives repeatedly mentioned their priority to satisfy customers when asked why the company brought back the 3.5mm headphone jack, for instance; the Moto Z4 has everything Moto fans like and a bit more of what they want.

So it’s not a phone that risks much. And...so what? By expanding the screen and reducing bezels as well as adding the in-screen fingerprint sensor and some AI camera tricks, the phone keeps pace enough with its midrange contemporaries. It’s enough for Motorola fans, and in the US, it’s even taken the lead in the industry as the first 5G-capable phone (with the 5G Moto Mod) – though our initial experience with the phone on Verizon’s 5G network was mixed.

But there are other value phones nipping at Motorola’s heels, including the Honor 20 Pro (for 4G value) and Mi Mix 3 5G. Those phones aren’t really available in the US nor sold by carriers...yet. Those higher-specced phones at not-much-higher prices may eventually take a bigger chunk out of the South American market where Motorola phones sell well. 

For those who want a solid mid-range phone in the US or elsewhere and appreciate Motorola’s approach (or have Moto Mods tucked away somewhere), the Moto Z4 is still a good pick, so long as its value isn’t overshadowed.

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.