Moto Z2 Force review

Moto says you can’t smash the screen of the Z2 Force. I’ve dropped it a few times, a few definitely on purpose and the thing is still intact. Knowing you can’t smash your phone screen is a great thing.

I snapped a battery mod on the back of it and it lasted for well over two days of use away from a plug. I took 360 photos with the awesome 360 camera mod. I gamed on the train with the game pad.

It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed using it all.

But these were review sample devices that I didn’t have to fork out for. Moto sent me well over £1,000 worth of kit to test including the Z2 Force itself, which costs £719. That makes it more than pretty much every competing flagship phone in the UK.

Can you see where I’m going with this? The Moto Z2 Force with its optional (but essential) mods are unquestionably excellent. But they pose a serious problem to consumers when the combination immediately prices itself out of the market.

Moto Z2 Force price and availability

The Moto Z2 Force costs £719 unlocked from direct from Moto in the UK. At the time of writing, it’s not available on contract from any provider. This only adds to the issue of its high price as you’ll have to stump up the cash up front to get it.

Without labouring the point, the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, OnePlus 5, Huawei P10, HTC U11 and iPhone 8 all retail for less. That’s a tough crowd for Moto to take on, particularly when it doesn’t always offer a free mod when you purchase the phone.

Mods range anywhere from a simple style shell for £9.50 up to the sky-high £239 for a 360-camera mod

Moto Z2 Force design and build

Even before you’ve considered its cost, the Moto Z2 Force is a phone that you will either love or hate. I personally really like the design, even though its thicker than the ridiculously slim Moto Z from last year.

That phone was criticised for having no headphone jack before even Apple did the same on the iPhone 7. Moto has made the Z2 thicker to cram in more battery, but it still lacks the 3.5mm jack, even though the Z2 Play is a mere 0.1mm thinner and manages to have one.

The modular design means the back of the phone is an acquired taste, with its exposed magnetic pogo pins towards the bottom of the device. It’s complemented by the purposefully jutting camera bump.

This back is has an attractive subtle wood-like grain to it, but feels smooth. This makes it a tad slippery in the hand and is a fingerprint collector of the highest degree. The simple material style shell that the phone comes with clips on easily and gets around this, but adds bulk to the phone.

On other phones it is a frustration, but on the Z2 Force acts as a circular feature to secure the mods in the correct position, so I’ll let it slide. It’s a dual camera too, another upgrade.

The display has Moto’s so-called ShatterShield technology, which it ensures you cannot smash. It achieves this by fusing a plastic protective layer over the 5.5in pOLED display. You can’t remove it.

Being plastic, it means that it picks up surface scratches much easier than a normal unprotected glass display. And because you can’t replace it, you’re stuck with the scratches.

None that my review unit collected in my time with it impeded my use of the phone, but it’s a bit of an annoying aspect of such an expensive phone – even if it is supposedly unbreakable. The scratches are quite noticeable from day one. It could be a trade-off you want to make for peace of mind, though.

The frame of the phone is made of 7000 series aluminium, which is high strength but picked up some dinks from light use on my black review unit. The front of the phone has pretty big bezels top and bottom and is practically visually indistinguishable from the £379 Z2 Play

Those bezels hold a front facing flash, a rarity on a smartphone of any price, and a front mounted fingerprint sensor that is pleasingly larger than the odd tiny square of the older Moto Z.

The phone is also available in gold with a white facia, but I think the black is the best-looking one. It feels less premium than the Galaxy S8, but the Z2 Force is not about designer good looks, it’s all about the promised functionality of the modular add ons.

It’s a phone I personally like the design quirks of, but to another eye it looks unfinished and oddly bulky in width despite its thin profile.

Moto Z2 Force features and specifications

Like most flagship Android smartphones in 2017, the Moto Z2 Force runs the Snapdragon 835 with 6GB RAM and Moto’s attractive close-to-stock version of Android Nougat. Oreo can’t be far off when the experience is this close to Google’s, and Moto has confirmed that it’ll be getting it ‘starting this fall’.

The phone absolutely flew through anything I threw at it, using it as my main phone for well over a week. I had practically every app I use open at the same time and didn’t notice any lag in performance. I found it great to use in split screen mode, and liked how the UI encourages you to use it when you tap the recent apps button.

For a £719 phone, there’s no water resistance and no wireless charging. The latter I can live without, particularly as the Turbo Charge charging on the Z2 Force is excellent, but for the price it’s a shame there’s no waterproofing. This appears to be a pay-off for modular connectivity.

Screen

The display is a 5.5in 2560 x 1440p pOLED that produces a colour palette that I enjoy; not too bright and over-saturated, with crisp whites and dark, dark blacks. Its befitting of the stock-style software.

It’s a responsive screen despite the ShatterShield. This is a subtle plastic layer on top of the display, so you’re not interacting directly with glass. Thankfully the oleophobic coating is good enough, but means this premium priced phone feels ever so slightly plastic day to day, which is an unavoidable downside to the undeniable upside of it not smashing when you drop it.

I also noticed a very slight jelly effect when scrolling on the phone similar to the OnePlus 5. When scrolling you notice the screen continue to scroll and bounce back when your thumb or finger stops rather than accurately and immediately obeying the touch input.

It’s subtle, but once I noticed it I couldn’t help but be bugged by it. It spoiled my enjoyment of the device like it did for me on the OnePlus 5 – it feels like a fault, even if it doesn’t hamper day to day use of the phone. If things like that bother you, steer clear.

Cameras

The large camera bump holds two 12Mp sensors with f/2.0 aperture, autofocus and a dual-LED flash. To cut to the chase, these cameras are perfectly serviceable in 2017, but they are far from the perfect article. Auto HDR worked accurately in my testing.

The Google Pixel 2 has the best camera on any smartphone I’ve ever used, and the iPhone X is bound to be just as excellent. The Z2 Force struggles with its headline feature of depth enabled images (portrait mode) in most situations during my testing.

Where the iPhone 8 Plus uses two lenses to apply ‘true’ depth to portrait images, so should the Z2. But it struggles to identify the subject and blurs in patches, often in the wrong places.

The two iPhone lenses works very well, and the Pixel 2 has managed to achieve better results with just one lens. The saving grace for the Z2 Force is that it also has a dedicated monochrome sensor like on the Huawei P10, bringing two uses of the dual cameras where most other phones only have one.

If you take a depth enabled photo, there are some editing options you can apply to it, with selective focus, selective black and white and replace background. They are fun ways to toy with your portrait photos and does add some value to the Z2 over some others. But with Apple’s portrait mode and portrait lighting more advanced, Moto has big competition.

The depth effect blur is so, so off here. The cameras can't find the edges of the subject

The level of detailing and handling of light and colour is excellent here however

The black and white photos are excellent, with crisp reproduction and decent handling of light. In fact, the regular auto mode on the Z2 is great for most photo situations and I got some good-looking images from it.

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But the problem is Moto has shot for the two dual camera features without refining them, and doesn’t add optical image stabilisation. This is pretty criminal on a £700+ phone, and coupled with the fact there’s also no optical zoom – only digital – it becomes hard to recommend despite the upsides such as excellent light handling in bright daylight.

The front-facing camera is 5Mp but perfectly adequate, with f/2.2 for a slightly wider angle and a notable LED flash for those night-time selfie group shots.

There are also two cool features that I can't quite call AI but are clever, in object and landmark recognition. The former is pretty clever, using machine learning to decide what you're pointing your camera at.

The results weren't quite as consistent as Google Lens, but it is quite good at recognising what objects are compared to places, where Lens is better (Lens is currently only found on the Pixel).

Video recording is also decent and includes electronic image stabilisation. This means the ability to record in what is approaching steady 4K Ultra HD @ 30fps is actually very good.

Benchmarks

Benchmarking phone speeds in 2017 has proven slightly futile at flagship level. Bar the iPhone 8 in these results, all the other (Android) phones run either the Snapdragon 835 or the Huawei (Kirin) or Samsung (Exynos) equivalent. Real world use is practically class leading, and identical.

The Z2 Force more than holds its own in the performance department and I can't fault it apart from a slight camera shutter lag. 

Battery life

Battery life is better than the old Moto Z as the capacity is up to 2730mAh from 2600mAh. But given the Z2 Play fits in 3000mAh (and a headphone jack) in practically the same form factor it’s a tad disappointing. I got over 48 hours of power from the combination of a fully charged phone and a fully charged 3490mAh Moto TurboPower mod that retails for $79.99 in the US and is coming to the UK soon for £55

On its own, the Z2 Force lasted me through each working day but often was struggling down at around 10% by about 11pm. You’ll definitely need to charge it at some point if you’re a heavy user, and screen on time for me never beat three hours between charges.

Moto Z2 Force and Moto Mods

The battery pack turned out to be my favourite of the mods I tested. I also got to use the game pad, which I found largely needless given mobile games are designed with touch input in mind and the JBL Soundboost 2, which is merely fine and more useful as a kickstand than a speaker you’d actually want to use – for £89 I’d rather buy a Bluetooth speaker that I can use with other devices. 

The most expensive mod by far is the 360 camera, and the results are excellent. As with every other mod, when you clip it to the back of the phone you get a splash screen that knows what you’ve attached and guides you through any necessary set up.

The camera gives excellent, versatile shots but they aren’t any different from say Samsung’s Gear 360 – and that smartphone 360 camera isn’t restricted to a Moto Mod compatible phone.

I used the projector mod on last year’s Moto Z and it remains a favourite alongside the battery pack. But it costs £150, and this remains the issue. If I decided I wanted a Moto Z2 Force, battery pack and nifty projector, I’d have to fork out £925 (as I can’t buy it on contract in the UK).

The curse of the mods is that they make themselves necessary. I don’t recommend buying the Z2 Force if you don’t want any mods, but at the same time I don’t recommend spending the earth on accessories whose lifetime is dictated by the lifetime of the phone.

If you want a phone with better battery life, buy another phone. Ditto speakers.

Moto Z2 Force software

This is all a distracting shame, as the pure Android experience on the Z2 Force is very desirable. Aside from a Pixel, this is the most close-to-stock experience you’ll find, and coupled with the high-end processor and RAM it’s darn close to the slick speeds of Google’s flagships too.

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The only thing I tweaked was the the text size and display size, as Moto's defaults for these render text comically large. You can adjust to your tastes easily.

Moto’s skin adds stuff like the prompt to use multi-window when you tap recent apps, the subtle redesigning of core app icons and a useful home screen information widget that plays nice with mods.

I reviewed the phone on Nougat 7.1.1 and feel confident that Oreo will suit it no end, whenever it arrives. There’s not a lot else to say as the software is so unchanged and so uncluttered. You’ll enjoy its purity, though this is at odds with the Frankenstein nature of the modular system the hardware forces you to buy into.

OUR VERDICT

As a software experience, the Moto Z2 Force is excellent. But the Moto Mod ecosystem means you’re spending a hell of a lot on accessories that are only useful for the lifetime of the device.

It’s also far too expensive, even before mods. Practically every other smartphone manufacturer sells a flagship device for less, and sometimes considerably less. 

If money is no object and you love the idea of mods and like the reassurance of an unbreakable screen, the Z2 Force will be the phone for you. For everyone else, there are cheaper high-end phones out there from Samsung, Google and OnePlus with better battery life and better cameras.

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