Moto Z4 Review: Good Phone, Bad Buy

Motorola is an interesting place compared to where they were a couple of years ago. The company hasn’t released a proper flagship smartphone since 2017, sales have been dwindling for a number of years, and Moto hasn’t had a break-out hit in a really long time. Admittedly, its budget and lower mid-range offerings are performing pretty well, but Motorola’s far from its former self where it could capitalize on the lack of today’s competition.

Enter the Moto Z4. The company’s latest offering in its Z line is far from a proper flagship. After all, it sports a Snapdragon 600-series processor, a Full HD+ screen, and only 4GB of RAM. It’s also priced at $499 which is $500 shy from virtually every other high-end phone on the market. The most interesting part? This phone seems to be Moto’s flagship phone, the one that’s most important to them, not just the highest-end they offer.

Because of this, I tried to review the Z4 like a flagship. I wanted to push it to its limits to determine whether it could serve as a proper alternative to a traditional flagship. I also wanted to see if users of past Moto Z phones should upgrade.

My conclusion? Unless you need Moto Mods, there are better phones out there that hover around the same price point, including offerings from both Google and OnePlus.

Same Design, Just 2019-ized

One glance at the Moto Z4 and you’ll find a design that’s both fresh yet familiar. Every generation of a Moto Z smartphone has shared a similar design: a flat front and back phone that’s kind of wide but very thin. Every one of these phones also comes with a set of pogo pins on the back to enable Moto Mod functionality.

With the Z4, however, it’s clear that Motorola is starting to get uncomfortable being constrained to this form factor. For example, the Z4 is slightly narrower than past Z phones, so when you connect a Moto Mod to the back of it, the sides of the accessory stick out a bit. Before, the Mods would sit flush with the rest of the phone, but that isn’t the case any longer.

In a nutshell, though, the Z4 is your average glass-coated Z phone, just with 2019 tweaks such as the 18.5:9 display, in-display fingerprint reader, and the notch.

Good Display, Fine Fingerprint Reader

On the front of the Z4, Motorola includes a 6.4-inch Full HD+ Super AMOLED display that stretches virtually to the top and bottom of the front of the phone. Complete with a notch and an 19.5:9 aspect ratio, this screen is exactly what you’d expect from any 2019 phone. And for what it’s worth, it’s a good screen that offers solid color reproduction and inky blacks.

Under the screen, Moto includes yet another 2019-esque feature: an in-display fingerprint reader. It’s an optical sensor just like what you’d find from OnePlus, so it’s faster than most ultrasonic sensors like the ones found on Samsung phones. I will say, though, that it’s a bit spotty sometimes as once in a while, it can take a couple extra tries to get it to read your fingerprint.

Notably, the front of the Z4 is what you’d expect from 2019, but it’s a bit too bland to stand out. Motorola’s goal with the phone probably wasn’t to stand out very much, but just in case you thought if you bought this phone you’d look flashy, I’m here to tell you that you won’t.

Bland Performance

Hot take: the Moto Z4 does not have flagship-level performance. It does not ship with a Snapdragon 800-series chipset and it won’t remind you of using something like a Galaxy Note 10 or OnePlus 7 Pro.

I’m not gonna say the Moto Z4 has bad performance. On the contrary, I actually think it has quite good performance, for what it’s worth. The Z4 comes with a Snapdragon 675 that offers more than enough horsepower for common tasks like going on social media, checking email, and even playing a few games.

I will say, though, 4GB of RAM is no longer enough to handle the constant jumping in-and-out of apps we all do on a daily basis. Back in the day (I’m talking four years ago), 4GB was plenty of RAM and anything over that was seen as overkill. Nowadays, though, we have phones shipping with 12GB of RAM which is the new overkill.

At its price point, I feel like Motorola could’ve at least included 6GB of RAM. If they did that, I’m sure performance would be noticeably better. But because those two extra gigs are missing, performance is kind of average and run-of-the-mill, to the point where it’s bland enough that there’s nothing to rave about.

On the bright side, the Z4 does come with 128GB of storage. I still think 64GB is enough for most people, but if you find yourself filling that amount of space up more often than not, you’ll be happy with what the Z4 packs.

Great Software from One of the Kings

Motorola has never disappointed when it comes to software implementation. The company is known for including clean, near-stock builds of Android on its devices, and the Moto Z4 is no different.

The Z4 comes pre-loaded with Android Pie and includes Motorola’s custom gestures, subtle tweaks, and welcome improvements. There’s really nothing to complain about since the entire experience is always fast and smooth. If this thing had a Snapdragon 855, it would absolutely fly. But it still performs great, despite having a 675.

The Camera is… Solid?

If you’ve been following me for the past few years, you know that I’m not a huge fan of Motorola’s cameras in its smartphones. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad. In fact, some shooters can be quite good for the money you pay, and the sensor strapped to the back of the Z4 is one of those sensors.

To try and add value to the Z4, Motorola packs in a 48MP rear camera with an f/1.7 aperture, phase detection autofocus (PDAF), and optical image stabilization (OIS). This package makes for a great marketing angle since you could say “This phone has four times the amount of megapixels as an iPhone!” Moto isn’t necessarily doing that, but it is flaunting the 48 number.

Full disclosure: the Z4 can take 48MP photos, but it won’t do that by default. Instead, it takes a 12MP photo and combines the data from all 48 so you get more detail and sharpness in your image. This also helps to save space on your phone which is always a plus.

Obviously, we aren’t talking Google or Samsung levels of photos out of the Z4, but Motorola is able to kick out some pretty good ones. With the right amount of lighting, you can actually take some pictures that you’ll be proud to post on Instagram. Here are a few I’ve taken during my usage.

At night, the Z4 does tend to suffer quite a bit in terms of sharpness and detail. Luckily, there is a night mode on the Z4 that helps a bit to boost the overall quality of the output photograph.

The Z4, like many other phones, can also capture 4K video at 30 frames per second. There are very few phones that are actually good at taking videos, and the Z4 isn’t one. But if you want to spend less than $550 and record 4K video with your smartphone, the Z4 should be on your list.

On the selfie side, Moto includes a 25MP camera that takes 1080p videos at 30 frames per second. Selfies are fine for what they are, but it’s nothing too crazy. Personally, I would wanna touch them up a bit before posting to Instagram or Twitter.

I’d like to note that the Z4’s camera is fine. It’s quite good for casual photography, but nothing too crazy. If you’re serious about image quality, however, don’t buy this phone. It’s not gonna satisfy you the same way something like a Pixel 3a could.

It’s a little sad, actually, how you can spend $100 less on a Pixel 3a and get way better photos out of it. But Motorola’s photography techniques haven’t reached the peaks Google has. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon, either.

Just keep in mind that when buying a Moto Z4, you get a solid camera that can take decent photos. None of them, however, will blow you away. That’s the Pixel 3a’s job.

Superb Battery Life, As Expected

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 series oof processors is known for offering excellent optimization when it comes to efficiency, so whenever you pair a Snapdragon 675 with a 3,600mAh battery inside a mid-range phone, you know you’re gonna get some pretty stellar battery life.

That’s the story when it comes to the Moto Z4. I can go a full day with the phone and still have around 40 percent left in the tank. This doesn’t mean it’ll last you the two full days the original Moto Z Play did, but it’s at least enough to give you peace of mind that after taking the phone off the charger in the morning, you won’t have to scramble for a power outlet at any point during your day.

Moto Mods Live to See Another Day

Every time I review a Moto Z phone, I have to bring up their modular accessory line, Moto Mods, because it’s the thing that the devices are literally built around. This year, we didn’t get any new magnetic attachments to go along with the Moto Z4, but there is one mod that Motorola is advertising alongside the Z4, and that’s the 5G Mod.

Last year, alongside the now-dated Moto Z3, Motorola debuted its 5G Moto Mod that allows users to connect to 5G simply by attaching the accessory to the back of their phone. Now that 5G is live in more cities across the country, the company has started to ramp up advertising for the mod, even going so far as to give it to som early Z4 buyers for free.

It’s still too early for 5G, however. Sure, there’s a couple of handfuls of cities across the country that now support 5G connectivity, but the new network standard is a good distance away from becoming mainstream enough that I can begin telling people “yeah, 5G phones are okay, you should buy one.” And if you only pay attention to Motorola’s marketing of the Z4 and not any reviews or other coverage, you’d think this phone means absolutely nothing to the company and that they just want to sell you a 5G Moto Mod.

Admittedly, this is probably the cheapest way to buy a 5G phone since phone that are coming out nowadays with 5G built-in cost upwards of $1,100. Meanwhile, the Z4 and 5G Mod cost around $700, depending on where you buy from. Even then, though, the question becomes whether you want to buy a mid-range phone and adopt 5G as early as possible or just buy a flagship phone and wait for 5G to roll out on a much broader scale.

Why Buy a Z4?

Here’s who should buy a Moto Z4: those who want 5G as fast as possible, those who are already invested in the Moto Mod ecosystem, and those who are fans of Motorola devices and don’t want to spend more than $500. Everyone else should either save a few bucks and get a Pixel 3a or choke up some change and get a OnePlus 6T or 7 Pro.

This isn’t to say the Z4 is a bad phone. After all, it’s Motorola’s flagship offering, so they definitely paid attention to how it implemented things. Battery life is great, performance is fine, the screen is nice, the camera’s good, and there’s a headphone jack. It’s an overall solid package. It just comes at a time where competition is really getting heated in the mid-range space, and the Z4 doesn’t do enough to justify buying it over a Pixel or something from OnePlus.

The Motorola I remember was filled with crazy ideas, risky but rewarding design, and some of the best Android phones you could buy. Three years later, however, the Moto Z4 barely scratches the surface of the company’s previous reputation. Nowadays, Moto is the Lenovo division that makes money selling low-end and mid-range phones. That’s fine and all, but it’s certainly a lot less exciting than the company’s past.

Rating: 7/10