The Moto Z3 is the first 5G phone–with an asterisk. Motorola has been promising a 5G add-on Moto Mod for its modular Z line of phones for a while now, and the Z3 is the first one that will officially get it. It’ll be for Verizon’s 5G network, and it will come “early in 2019,” according to Verizon network chief Nicola Palmer.
That means until then the Z3 has to stand on its own merits. The specs are fairly midrange, consisting of last year’s processor and a 1080p screen. Fortunately, the Z3 is priced accordingly at £479.99, making it more affordable than the unlocked Z3 Play.
It doesn’t match top-tier phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 in sheer power, but its combination of price, performance, and the unique Moto Mods functionality allow it to hold its own among midrange competitors.
Design, Features, and Display
The Z3 is easy to confuse with the rest of Motorola’s Z-series. It looks a lot like the Moto Z2 Force Edition and is almost identical to the Z3 Play. The Z3 on Verizon is a slim, metal slab with a shimmery glass back.
It measures 6.2 by 3.0 by 0.27 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.5 ounces. It’s a little thicker and heavier than last year’s phone (6.1 by 3.0 by 0.24 inches, 5.04 ounces), but it has a slightly larger battery. It’s a little bit too wide to be comfortable to use one-handed, but the bezels are thin due to the 18:9 aspect ratio.
Keep in mind that Moto Mods will add considerably to the thickness and bulk, unless all you’re using is a basic Style Back.
Above: Moto Z3, Moto Z3 Play
Like the Z3 Play, the fingerprint sensor has been moved to the right side, under the volume buttons. The left side of the phone has a ridged power button, while the bottom has a USB-C charging port. The top has a SIM/microSD card slot that worked fine with a 256GB card during out testing.
There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, but the phone does ship with a USB-C dongle for wired audio.
The magnetic connector pins on the bottom work with Moto Mods, letting you easily snap on various backs for added functionality. The phone is splash resistant, but not waterproof.
The Z3 has the same screen as the Z3 Play. On the front, you’ll find an 18:9, 6-inch, 2,160-by-1,080 AMOLED screen with saturated colors and inky blacks.
The resolution works out to a crisp 402 pixels per inch. It won’t be as sharp as the Quad HD Samsung Galaxy S9 (570ppi), but it’s on par with the 1080p OnePlus 6 (402ppi). Viewing angles are great, and the screen gets quite bright, making it easy to use under direct sunlight.
You can adjust screen color temperature and saturation to suit your preferences in the Settings menu.
Above: Moto Z3, Moto Z3 Play
You can use Moto Actions on the Z3 (enabled through the Motorola app). This includes various gestures like twisting the phone to launch the camera app or chopping twice to trigger the flashlight. There’s a handy active display that displays time, date, and notifications when you pick the phone up.
If you want to save some screen real estate, you can switch between Android virtual buttons or a new, Android P/iOS-like horizontal bar, which uses taps and swipes to navigate.
We started using it with the Z3 Play and found it quite easy to use once we got the hang of it.
Network Performance and Connectivity
Out of the box the Z3 runs on Verizon’s network and supports LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/20/26/28/34/38/39/40/41/46/66). This allows it to have great connectivity in heavily congested midtown Manhattan, where we reliably had solid downlink and uplink, with a high of 17.2Mbps down and 10.1Mbps up.
Call quality is decent. Transmissions do sound robotic, but clarity is good and noise cancellation does a great job of blotting out most background noise with only minor distortion.
The earpiece doubles as the primary speaker, allowing for good speakerphone calls, but average music playback.
Other connectivity protocols supported include dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth 5.0 for wireless listening on more than one audio device at a time.
Moto Mods and 5G
Moto Mods is where things get interesting. The Z3 is backward-compatible with all the Moto Mods that have been released to date and works with everything from the various battery Mods to the Moto Gamepad. But what makes the Z3 compelling is that the bleeding-edge 5G Mod will connect to Verizon’s millimeter-wave 5G network using four Qualcomm antenna arrays on different sides of the device.
That’s because millimeter-wave signals are very easy to block: If your hand covers an antenna, speeds plummet. Installing the quartet of antenna arrays is a way around that, as you’re unlikely to cover them all.
Inside, the Mod has a Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem, an X24 4G modem, and its own 2,000mAh battery that it shares with the phone. The phone, meanwhile, has its own slower X16 4G modem.
Here’s how they all work together: When the mod is strapped on, the X16 goes into a low-power listening mode. All 4G data transfer goes through the X24, which can achieve 4G speeds up to 2Gbps, double the speed of the X16. If the phone needs to make or receive a voice call, or coverage drops to 3G or 2G, the X16 turns back on to handle the call or process the slower data.
Moto told us the reasons for all of these handoffs basically comes down to making sure the software is stable.
It was easiest to implement the X24 in a 4G, data-only mode, as opposed to figuring out how to route call audio into it. (An app-based, as opposed to VoLTE or traditional, call over 4G would go through the X24, because of how and where VoLTE audio is encoded in the device versus over-the-top-audio.)
Verizon’s network tells the X24 when 5G is available, and if it’s available, the X24 goes into a lower-power mode and the X50 takes over. Now, yes, this means that in 5G mode, you’ll have one active 5G modem and two listening 4G modems, so it’s all going to use up more battery power than the integrated Qualcomm 4G/5G solution we expect to see announced at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit this December. But Motorola insists that between the Mod’s 2,000mAh battery and the phone’s 3,000mAh you’ll still get a “full day” of use.
From a subscription perspective, the Mod acts like “a data card connected to your phone,” according to Moto engineers.
That means it has its own embedded SIM and its own subscription–but Verizon isn’t saying anything yet about service plans or whether it can be swapped between phones. It will also work as a Wi-Fi hotspot (with your phone) and as a USB-C modem for a PC (with your phone). Last year, Verizon execs promised to greatly loosen data caps for 5G, but we haven’t heard an update since then.
The Mod will initially work only with the Z3, although Moto said it’s working on making it compatible with earlier generations of Verizon Moto Z phones.
That’s a software challenge, not a hardware one, so it’s apparently possible. The Mod will only work on Verizon’s 5G network, not any other carrier’s, though. And it makes the phone thick and heavy.
Processor, Battery, and Camera
The Z3 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor.
The 835, which was last year’s flagship chip, doesn’t support 5G, but all of that magic will come in the aforementioned Mod. We asked Motorola about that 835 processor choice, and the answer was basically that it’s good enough. Upgrading to the Snapdragon 845 would enable a few extra features, such as higher-quality 4K recording, which could be compelling in a 5G environment, but the 835 is still a respectable processor, especially when paired with a 1080p rather than a 2K screen.
In the PCMark benchmark, which measures a variety of tasks like web browsing and photo and video editing, the Z3 scored 7,378.
That’s higher than the Snapdragon 636-powered Z3 Play (5,786), but a bit lower than the OnePlus 6 (8,484) with its newer Snapdragon 845 chipset and 8GB of RAM. Of course, in real-world performance, it’s hard to notice the difference. The Z3 is fast and responsive and the 4GB of RAM is sufficient to handle multitasking without any significant slowdowns.
High-end gaming also isn’t an issue; the Z3 can play PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds on high graphics settings without much choppiness.
Battery life is good. The phone clocked 7 hours, 35 minutes when streaming video over LTE at maximum brightness. That’s longer than the OnePlus 6 (5 hours, 49 minutes), though both fall short of top-tier phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 (which lasted longer than 10 hours in the same test).
If you need more juice, you always have the option of using one of the various Power Pack Mods. The included 15W Turbo Power adapter supports fast charging. Wireless charging isn’t built in, but it’s available with a Moto Style Shell Wireless Charging Mod.
The Z3 has dual 12-megapixel main cameras, and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera.
The two main cameras have color and black-and-white sensors respectively, and they combine for better low-light performance, according to Moto. In testing, we got mixed results. Photos taken outdoors were good, with crisp details and accurate color reproduction.
Shots we took indoors were a different matter. Taking some shots indoors led to blurrier photos than I’ve been accustomed to seeing from the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the OnePlus 6. When the Z3 focused accurately and snapped, images looked sharp and noise was minimal, but often it seemed the autofocus just missed the mark.
Fortunately, there are manual controls that let you set focus, ISO, and shutter speed to try and get more reliable shots. The front camera is fine for selfies and video chats. For video, the phone offers fairly stable 4K recording at 30fps, but it won’t hit the smoother 60fps top-tier devices can offer.
Motorola’s version of Android has always been smooth and clean, and this is mostly the case here.
The phone runs Android 8.1 Oreo, but because it’s a carrier phone, it does come with bloatware. Aside from the Motorola features we’ve already touched on, you’ll get 18 preinstalled apps consisting of a mix of Verizon apps and games, along with Facebook and Yelp. It’s a heavier load than we’re used to, but out of 64GB of total storage, we had 46.06GB available for use.
That’s plenty of space for adding more apps and games, and you still have the option of using an extra SD card.
The Moto Z3 Play isn’t a flagship phone. With last year’s processor, a 1080p screen, and an average camera, it can’t compete with the latest and greatest like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 or the OnePlus 6. Fortunately for Motorola, it’s not meant to.
The reasonable £480 price point makes it less expensive than the unlocked Z3 Play (£500) while giving it a more powerful chipset. The promised 5G Moto Mod is still some ways out, but until then Verizon customers have a solid phone at an affordable price which can be used to test out Moto Mods. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then we like the OnePlus 6 for its more powerful hardware and sharper camera, but unfortunately, it won’t work on Verizon.
Motorola Moto Z3
Bottom Line: The Motorola Moto Z3 is the “first 5G phone,” in that it will have an optional add-on for Verizon’s 5G network next year. Until then, it stands on its own merits as a solid phone and a good way to try out Moto Mods.
LG G6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S8
Apple iPhone 5s vs.
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 vs.
Samsung Galaxy S7
- ^ phone (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Z3 Play (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Samsung Galaxy S9 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ OnePlus 6 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Moto Gamepad (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ 4G speeds up to 2Gbps (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ See How We Test Phones (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ greatly loosen data caps for 5G (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ fast charging (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Moto Style Shell Wireless Charging Mod (www.motorola.com)
- ^ Samsung Galaxy S9 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Android 8.1 Oreo (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Moto G6 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ G6 Play (uk.pcmag.com)
Samsung took the wraps off the Galaxy Note 9 last week, and it announced that the device would work with Samsung DeX, a desktop-style environment you can project to a monitor using a USB-C to HDMI adapter / cable.
It sounds fairly simple, and it seems like the Note 9 is closer to fully realizing the smartphone-computer dream: using your phone to power a desktop-style computing interface without needing a mouse or keyboard (while still supporting both).
After all, why shouldn’t powerful phones have capabilities like laptops? This isn’t the first time this question has been asked by a smartphone OEM, and there have been many unsuccessful attempts to make this happen in the past. The past two years have brought more powerful smartphones than ever, with clock speeds and cores that are closely rival those of laptop processors.
Before we get into how DeX came to be, here’s a look at some of the iterations that got us here.
Windows Phone Continuum
The platform that comes to mind (but wasn’t the first) is Windows Phone and its Continuum feature.
Announced back in 2015, it underwent two years of development and didn’t bear fruit in terms of an enjoyable user experience. By the time Continuum was ready for consumers, Windows Phone as a platform was on its last legs.
To make matters worse, most Windows Phone apps (of which there were few to begin with) didn’t work with Continuum, so it was dead on arrival. However, it’s one of the most interesting takes of desktop computing with a phone.
Motorola Atrix with LapDock
The Motorola Atrix was originally unveiled at CES 2011 and launched in the first quarter of that year as an exclusive with AT&T in the United States. It was the first phone to use a PenTile qHD display with 24-bit graphics.
But more importantly, it had a feature called Webtop.
When placed into the laptop dock accessory, you could use an Ubuntu-based(!) desktop, complete with Android notifications, multimedia playback, and Firefox. Much like the phone, Webtop was ill-fated and its source code was uploaded to Sourceforge.
Oh, Palm. The short-lived Palm Folio was announced by Palm Inc. in 2007 to serve as a companion to the then-popular Treo line.
It ran Linux as its main operating system, had 256MB of flash memory, near-instant boot-up, and was canceled only three months after the announcement.
It was an odd accessory, mostly due to the fact that it didn’t actually receive or send emails over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but rather transmitted over synchronization with your companion Palm smartphone.
Also, here’s a fun fact: if the Palm Folio had launched, it would have predated some of the netbooks that would be launched and introduced to the consumer market.
Redfly Mobile Companion
If you thought a companion laptop for your smartphone was weird, then get familiar with the Redfly C7. It was introduced in 2007 (after Palm canceled the Folio), supported Windows Mobile smartphones, had a battery life of around five hours, and two USB ports.
However, it didn’t have its own CPU, RAM, or internal storage, so it was completely reliant on a smartphone. With no support for the BlackBerry or Nokia phones that were popular at the time, its demise hedged most on its lack of compatibility with non-Windows Mobile devices.
Asus Zenfone PC Link
PC Link is Asus’ method for mirroring a Zenfone’s screen to a Windows PC by expanding the user interface on a larger screen and making it possible to run alongside other windowed apps.
You can connect a Zenfone over its USB-C cable or an Asus docking accessory that comes with mouse and keyboard support. It’s not a groundbreaking feature for Zenfone users, but it allows for more flexibility.
Galaxy S8 / S8 Plus / S9 / S9 Plus / Note 8 / Note 9 with Samsung DeX
Samsung DeX first debuted as a dock accessory, and you’d plug in a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. By docking your Galaxy S8, S8 Plus, or Note 8, you could achieve the Samsung DeX experience.
Initially, though, it was a hard sell: why would you use a complete desktop setup with a phone, instead of with a real desktop PC? Still, it was a solid proof-of-concept that extended to the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus with improvements in speed.
Fast-forward to present day, and the Galaxy Tab S4 and the Galaxy Note 9 have DeX built in. The Tab S4 is particularly adept at using DeX, with the option of using it instead of the default Android interface, but it still supports many Android apps.
Unfortunately, the lack of Android tablet apps means it’s not as compelling as it could be. Plus, the Tab S4’s keyboard is lackluster and in dire need of a mouse, which you can add via Bluetooth. However, this still isn’t a fully integrated, smartphone-as-a-computer solution.
On the flip side, it would appear as if the Note 9 does DeX best by requiring just a USB-C to HDMI adapter and cable to connect to a monitor.
From there, you can use the Note 9’s screen like a touchpad or use the S Pen in place of your finger.
The Note 9 in DeX mode also doubles as a keyboard, so there’s a real argument to be made that the Note 9 is the first smartphone that can accomplish a full desktop environment, without needing a separate mouse and keyboard to work or an additional software download. By removing those seemingly small barriers to entry, Samsung is making it easy for you to get DeX working. You only need a monitor and an HDMI to USB-C adapter; it’s a plug-and-play solution.
How much work you can get done with the Note 9 running in DeX mode will be dependent on app developers, Note 9 owners’ experiences, as well as the results of our upcoming review.
But this much is true: prior to the Note 9, it’s never been this easy to use a phone as a computer.
What is the Moto Z3 supposed to be? When Motorola had a bunch of journalists go out to Chicago earlier this month for a hyped product announcement, I figured we’d be seeing that rumored phone with a notch or something with top-tier hardware. The Moto Z3 is neither of those things.
From every angle, it looks identical to the recently released Moto Z3 Play. Its specs are different (and better), but a couple rungs below today’s flagship smartphones.
Is the Z3 really supposed to be Motorola’s 2018 “flagship”? At £480, it’s definitely not priced like one, which might be welcome news for your wallet.
Verizon and Motorola are marketing the Z3 as a device that will eventually be capable of blazing-fast 5G speeds. It’s impossible for me to review the Moto Z3 of the future today, but when it goes on sale this week exclusively at Verizon, the Moto Z3 will offer a big screen and powerful performance for a very reasonable price. However, it also comes with flaws that span its design, camera, and battery life.
7 Verge Score
- Big, vibrant display
- Fast performance
- Very appealing price
- Awkward, unergonomic design
- Average camera and battery life
- 5G promise requires a leap of faith
- Exclusive to a single carrier
The Moto Z3 has the exact same design as the Moto Z3 Play — right down to their identical dimensions and weight.
The Z3 is black compared to the Play’s dark blue, but otherwise they’re impossible to tell apart. You get the same 6-inch, 1080p 18:9 OLED display, the same awkward-to-use fingerprint scanner on the side, the same single front-firing speaker, and the same thinness, which frankly makes the Z3 unpleasant to hold without a MotoMod attached. I also find the volume buttons to be oddly high on the right side.
Between that, the fingerprint sensor, and the power button by its lonesome on the left, you’ll be doing some hand gymnastics when using the Z3. There’s no headphone jack, but Motorola includes an adapter in the box.
Unfortunately, Motorola doesn’t include anything in the box to snap onto the Moto Z3’s back. The Z3 Play comes with a free battery back (which also makes that phone easier to grip), but there’s not so much as a basic rear cover tossed in with the Z3.
We’re in the dog days of summer, and this fingerprint-magnet glass back starts to feel slippery and greasy in no time at all. A simple style shell really would’ve made all the difference.
Motorola’s cost cutting can be annoying, but it also leads to the Moto Z3’s biggest upside: a very low price. At under £500, the Z3 costs less than the decidedly mid-range Moto Z3 Play, yet contains a much more powerful processor.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 was in all of last year’s best flagship smartphones, and it remains more than capable of running the latest apps and games. There’s 64GB of included storage (with optional microSD support) and 4GB of RAM.
The Z3 has shown no signs of stutters or frustrating slowdowns in my time using it, and the fast performance is likely aided by Motorola’s hands-off approach to Android customizations. The company’s Moto Actions gesture shortcuts and software tweaks are still present and are only growing more helpful, but everywhere else, the software experience is basically stock Android 8.1 Oreo. (You do have to deal with an obnoxious amount of bloatware thanks to Verizon, including games and a few random apps you’ll never use.
Most of it can be uninstalled; the rest can be disabled.)
Motorola has seemingly taken the dual-camera system from last year’s Moto Z2 Force and crammed it into the Z3. The two f/2.0 sensors are both 12 megapixels — one color, the other monochrome — and can produce nice images in good light. In dimmer conditions, you’ll quickly start to lose detail and sharpness, but shots remain usable.
I enjoy some of the camera modes that Motorola has added to complement the basics, such as selective color and cinemagraphs. The latter lets you choose a single portion of the frame where you want movement, and the rest of it looks like a still photo. Fun factor can help make up for a camera’s technical deficiencies, but the Z3 can’t compete with the best of the best.
This isn’t a flagship in that respect.
As for battery life, the Z3 has been a bit inconsistent for me. Some days it breezes through without issue, but heavy use has occasionally necessitated a mid-day charge. A 3,000mAh battery isn’t much for this processor, so you’ll want to buy a battery pack MotoMod if you won’t have easy access to a power outlet.
Verizon and Motorola say the Z3 will be the first smartphone you’ll be able to upgrade to 5G data speeds sometime in “early 2019” with the help of an upcoming MotoMod.
But you should never buy a phone based on what it will be tomorrow or next year. And something YouTuber Michael Fisher said has really stuck with me: 5G will undoubtedly lead to some incredible mobile breakthroughs, but the Moto Z3 just isn’t the phone I’ll want to experience them on. By the time carriers have their 5G networks lit up and reaching millions of people, you’ll have several 5G phones to choose from.
We don’t even know how much the 5G mod will cost, and I doubt it’ll come cheap.
And then there’s the murky future of MotoMods themselves. Lenovo and Motorola have supported the ecosystem of snap-on modular accessories for three generations now, but I can’t help but feel like we’re reaching the end of the runway. There’ve been novel ideas like the Hasselblad camera and a Polaroid instant film printer, but battery packs and music speakers are still the most useful, practical MotoMods today — just as they were when the original Moto Z launched.
Promising concepts like the keyboard MotoMod have been delayed into infinity.
The outlook would be better if one of two things were true:
- Moto Z phones were great enough on their own to justify buying into these proprietary accessories.
- MotoMods were so irresistibly cool that they could sell you on a good-but-not-great smartphone.
It’s been over two years, and neither scenario has panned out. I read our comments, so I know existing Moto Z owners really love these modular gadgets. But the roadmap has petered out, and the Moto Z lineup itself seems to be getting less ambitious with time.
There’s no Force version this year for those who were drawn to Motorola’s “shatterproof” screen, and the Play edition has lost its reputation for being a battery champ. I wouldn’t be surprised if Motorola rethinks MotoMods on a future phone or just moves on entirely.
All of that said, the Moto Z3 is an extremely decent phone for its price. If a nice screen and fast performance are your top priorities, this isn’t a bad option.
But there’s no real reason to upgrade from a prior Moto Z besides the taller screen. Even then, I’d sooner save a bit extra and go for something like the OnePlus 6, which has a far nicer, modern design, provided you’re not committed to Verizon. If you are, the Moto Z3 ultimately feels like an affordable, odd hodgepodge of recycled bits and a far off, yet-to-be-realized promise of 5G.
Hopefully Motorola has bigger plans for next year.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships.
These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.
For more information, see our ethics policy.