A Verizon exclusive billed as the first phone to be upgradable to 5G speeds, the Moto Z3 does not actually have 5G capability built-in. For that, it needs the attachment known as the 5G Moto Mod, which is currently in prototype form and won’t go on sale until later this year.
That makes sense, because there also won’t be any actual 5G wireless networks for the mod to tap into until later this year, when carriers like Verizon are expected to spin up their first 5G networks in the United States. Even when the buds of 5G coverage do begin to bloom, it’ll happen one market at a time, with 4G LTE speeds carrying on as usual while the roll-out slowly continues.
Before we go any further, let me give a huge thank you to the awesome folks over at Verizon Wireless for always sending me devices for me to review. I’ve been working with them for a year or so now and they always take care of me on the latest devices to check out and for that I can’t say thank you enough.
Design And Features
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.
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 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.
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.)
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 $529.00 at OnePlus (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.
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. On the more affordable end, we like the Moto G6 and G6 Play for their solid performance and support for all US carriers.