Motorola promised at least three years of Mod compatibility when it announced the first Moto Z phones in 2016, and we're about to go beyond that with the new Moto Z4. Good on Motorola for sticking with it and giving consumers some confidence their Mod purchases would not be in vain. Although, Mods still don't seem like a worthwhile purchase, and even Moto is phoning it in with the Z-series. This is the first Moto Z that doesn't even attempt to be a flagship device—Motorola has essentially merged the Z Play and flagship Z-series. It would be easier if the Moto Z4 were an objectively bad phone, but it isn't. It gets the fundamentals right, and it works with any Moto Mods you might have laying around. However, the Moto Z4 is boring, a bit too expensive, and still fails to make the case for Mods.

The real problem here is that I can't imagine even a theoretical consumer who should buy the Moto Z4. In a world where Google has the Pixel 3a for a mere $400, there's just no reason to hitch your wagon to Moto Mods. At $500 with the 360-degree camera Mod, the Z4 is a non-starter when you can get a Pixel 3a for less.

Specs

SoC Snapdragon 675
RAM 4GB
Storage 128GB with microSD
Display 6.4-inch 1080 x 2340 OLED
Battery 3,600mAh
Camera 48MP rear (12MP effective), 25MP front
Software Android 9 Pie
Measurements 158 x 75 x 7.4 mm, 165g

The Good

Design The matte glass feels nice and doesn't pick up fingerprints.
Headphone jack Motorola brought it back.
Speaker It's on the top, which makes it harder to block accidentally block than a bottom-firing speaker.
Display The 6.4-inch OLED is very good, and the notch is tiny.

The Not So Good

Design again Motorola is stuck in the past for as long as it keeps using the Mod platform. To make matters worse, Mods don't sit flush on this phone.
Bundle The $500 bundle includes a 360 camera Mod, which is much less useful than a battery.
Specs The Z-series has merged with the Z Play series, making the Z4 a mid-range phone with a Snapdragon 675.
Camera There's only one camera, and the cheaper Pixel 3a puts it to shame.

Design, hardware, what's in the box

The Moto Z4 is, by its very nature, nearly identical in design to all the other Moto Z phones. It's almost impossible to tell these phones apart at a glance, and sometimes even a long look isn't enough. Sometimes I have to turn on Moto Z and Z Play phones to figure out which model they are. That's because all Moto Z phones need to retain the circa-2016 footprint and flat back for Mods.

This time around, Motorola has made a small tweak to the Z4's shape by rounding off the edges of the flat back. This does make it a bit more comfortable in the hand when not using a Mod or shell, but there's also a small gap where Mods meet up with the body of the phone. That makes the Mod look and feel less integrated, which sort of defeats the purpose. The large round camera module is still present, and there's just a single sensor this time around. The substantial camera hump was more understandable in 2016, but now it's only there to stabilize Mods.

The flat back is still glass like the previous-gen Moto Z phones, but Motorola has moved to a matte finish instead of glossy. This feels nicer and doesn't show fingerprints as well as shiny glass. As usual for Z phones, there's the Mod connector down at the bottom of the rear panel. Because of the connector, it's impossible to make the Moto Z4 truly water resistant. Motorola says it has a nanocoating that will repel the occasional sprinkle, but that's all.

The OLED is flat, and it's a Samsung panel. Colors and brightness are on par with much more expensive phones, and the 1080p resolution isn't a cause for concern. It also helps improve battery life (even without a Mod). There is a notch at the top for the front-facing camera, but it's small enough to be unobtrusive even for seasoned notch-haters. The bezels are mostly symmetrical, but the bottom lip is slightly larger. I do like that the speaker is on the top edge instead of the bottom. That keeps it clear of your fingers while holding the phone.

Motorola has long struggled with fingerprint sensor location as phones have moved to taller display ratios. Last year, it used side-mounted sensors, but the trend toward in-display sensors has given Moto another option. The Z4 has an optical sensor under the screen. It's slightly higher than the OnePlus 7 Pro, but lower than the poorly placed sensor in the Nokia 9. Motorola smartly put the sensor right where the icons appear on Moto Display (more on that later), allowing you to swipe and securely unlock with one gesture.

While the sensor location is fine, the speed and accuracy are sub-standard. It's nowhere near the disaster that was the Nokia 9, but it's noticeably slower than Moto's old capacitive sensors. Sometimes I'll place my finger on the sensor, and the phone will think for two or three seconds before rejecting me. Other times, it rejects instantly because the angle wasn't just right or I didn't press hard enough. I hope Motorola can improve things with a software update, but the fingerprint sensor is a pain to deal with right now. I'll take the Pixel 3a's rear-facing sensor any day.

Motorola sells the Moto Z4 unlocked, and Verizon has its own version which it uses to push 5G Mods. If you buy on Verizon and add a line, you can get the phone as low as $240. Most buyers will be looking at $500 for the unlocked edition. That comes with the usual smartphone accessories like a charger (15W), USB cable, and manuals. The unlocked phone includes the 360 camera Mod. That's fine if you need the camera, but it's hardly the most useful Mod. I wish Moto had bundled something like the TurboPower battery Mod and dropped the price a bit.

Software, performance, and battery

The Moto Z4 ships with Android Pie and Moto's usual assortment of custom features. Those features mean the phone can't be Android One, even though the software is close to stock. Still, it's a nice change of pace if you're used to something with a heavier Android skin like Samsung or LG, and some of Moto's added features are still very useful.

Moto Actions lets you fire up the flashlight or launch the camera by jiggling your phone in the right way, and Moto Display shows notification content without waking up the phone. Not all is well with Moto's software, though. Most of the good things are years old, going all the way back to the original Moto X. There have been some minor optimizations for Moto Display with the in-display fingerprint sensor, but the software is otherwise unchanged from other recent Moto phones. Moto Display has traditionally been my favorite part of Moto's custom Android build, and it's still useful. However, the Moto Z4 seems much slower to wake up the display than past phones. When you wave your hand over the phone, it often takes two or three seconds for Moto Display to appear.

We're working with a lesser SoC than some past Motorola phones, the Snapdragon 675. Motorola's Z Play and flagship Z-series have essentially merged at this point, which doesn't seem like great news for Mods. That said, the 675 is more than enough to make the Moto Z4 a usable phone. Apps open quickly, and multitasking is passable. The phone isn't as responsive as a Pixel (including the 3a), Galaxy S10, or OnePlus 7 Pro, but you won't feel like you're waiting for it to catch up.

The more modest hardware and the sizeable 3,600mAh battery do at least mean solid longevity. I have no trouble getting through a day of heavy use with 6-7 hours of screen time. With lighter use, you can probably eke out two days. Unfortunately, the phone only supports 15W fast charging. Moto would probably prefer you just pick up some battery Mods to keep your phone running longer.

Camera

The Moto Z4 sports a single rear-facing camera in a world where even cheap phones have at least two. Still, most budget phones could get by with a single camera considering the level of quality you usually get. The Z4 has the same 48MP camera found in the OnePlus 7 Pro, and like that phone, it's binned to produce 12MP images.

Motorola's camera processing is overall good. It's better than what you get on most budget phones, but it won't best Google, Samsung, or even OnePlus. In bright outdoor conditions, the Moto Z4 takes nice photos with accurate colors and lots of detail. The phone defaults to auto-HDR mode, and it's good enough to even out some lighting variation. Don't expect any miracles, though.

In lower light, the Moto Z4 ratchets up the exposure time quickly. That leads to shutter lag and fuzzy photos if you don't hold still. The camera is optically stabilized, but that can only do so much. I will say Motorola does an excellent job of reducing noise through processing.

The elephant in the room here, again, is the Pixel 3a. For $100 less, the Pixel 3a absolutely destroys the Moto Z4 when it comes to photography.

Should you buy it?

No. The Moto Z4 is not a bad phone, but it is woefully behind the times. I can't shake the feeling that Motorola doesn't want to make Moto Z phones, but it knows Verizon will buy them. The launch of the 5G Mod a few months ago all but guaranteed there would be another Mod-compatible phone this year, but Moto seems to have found a cheaper way to make that happen. However, it's still too expensive at $500 when the Pixel 3a exists.

The modest specs of the Z4 aren't the end of the world. It's a generally responsive phone thanks to the clean software, but you can tell the difference between this and a flagship phone in daily use. There's also that fingerprint sensor, which offers sub-standard speed and accuracy. Ultimately, Motorola still hasn't made the case for Mods, so there's no reason to buy this phone.

Buy it if...

You absolutely must have a Verizon 5G Mod for some reason, and every Moto Z3 in the world has mysteriously vanished.

Don't buy it if...

You don't care about 5G and want a more capable phone.

Buy: Motorola