Moto Z2 Force hands-on: I can't believe it's not breakable

Motorola's latest flagship has a shatterproof screen and a crazy-fast processor, but at first glance you can't really tell.

Perhaps the biggest compliment and criticism one can level at the Moto Z2 Force is that it doesn't look unbreakable, or even particularly new. From the front, you'd have to squint pretty hard to tell it apart from the $408 Moto Z2 Play released in June, and its resemblance to the flagship Moto Z Force Droid Edition released last year is uncanny.

This is in large part due to the adherence to Motorola's increasingly busy Mods accessory lineup, which snap on to the back of the phone with a satisfying click that continues to impress even a year later.

But the Moto Z2 Force does have some notable improvements both over its predecessor, which was held to Verizon, and to the Moto Z2 Play, which we lauded with praise earlier this summer.

Hardware

You'd be hard-pressed to tell this unbreakable screen isn't glass.

For starters, though the Moto Z2 Force resembles all the Moto Z phones before it, its default color is Super Black, which finds Motorola jumping on the Matte Black trend that began with the Galaxy S7 and OnePlus 3T. While there are other colors — Fine Gold, and a T-Mobile-exclusive Lunar Grey — the Super Black model is really the one to get.

On the front of the phone, you'll find the Quad HD Super AMOLED display, which looks great and gets extremely bright — its automatic brightness mechanism makes the phone quite usable in the sunshine, something you definitely couldn't say about the original. But the real victory here is what you can't see: the seams between the company's ShatterShield layer and the display itself. What began as a fairly opaque differentiator on the Moto X Force was improved on the Moto Z Force and is now completely integrated into the chassis on the Moto Z2 Force.

While there is a small border when you turn the screen into the light, the gap is gone, and that's probably the biggest advantage over the Forces of past. I didn't get a chance to use the Moto Z Force for any length of time, and I definitely didn't get to drop it, scratch it, or attempt to inflict damage to the ShatterShield screen in any way, it's nice to know that should my clumsiness cause a fall onto cement, the screen will stay in tact.

That said, ShatterShield is not glass but a plastic-like compound that, though much more resistant to breakage than glass, is also more susceptible to scratches. In our limited time with the phone, both Andrew Martonik and I racked up some pretty nasty scratches on the screen that, while not visible to the naked eye, can be seen when tilted to the light. This isn't a great first impression.

The phone also retains the more rounded front fingerprint sensor that debuted with the Moto G5 series earlier in the year, though Motorola's made some improvements to the unlock speed by increasing the surface area of the reader itself. We also find the "Moto" logo on the bottom of the device instead of the top when compared to the Moto Z2 Play, along with a reversal of front-facing camera and flash placements. All very subtle.

Around back, the only real difference between the Z2 Force and Play is the new dual camera setup. The camera array, which we'll deal with shortly, consists of 12MP sensors, as opposed to a single sensor on the Moto Z2 Play, but other than that you'd be hard-pressed to tell the two apart. Even the 6.1mm thickness is only 0.1mm greater than the Moto Z2 Play.

Despite being thicker than the Z2 Play, though, the new Force does not have a headphone jack. A USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack is included in the box, but you'll be turning to Bluetooth or a dongle should you need to get tunes from the thing — or listen to the single front-facing speaker, which is just as tinny and underwhelming as most phone speakers. C'est la vie.

Specs

We've got a pretty thorough listing of specs, so let's get to the finer points. Like most flagships this year, the Moto Z2 Force comes with a Snapdragon 835 platform, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage — at least in the U.S. International variants, such as those sold in Brazil, will come with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, while China is getting an extra-special 6GB/128GB version, because of course it is.

Despite looking like last year's model, this is one of 2017's most powerful phones.

Along with the higher-resolution screen and faster internals, this is definitely Motorola's most powerful-ever phone, which is great to see, but the original Moto Z Force was no slouch, either. The company appears, however, to be resting on the strength of its Moto Mods ecosystem, in which there are four separate batteries, to shore up its significantly smaller battery this time around. The original Z Force was a scant 7mm thick, with a 3500mAh cell; its sequel knocks 0.9mm from its waist and 22% from its battery capacity in the process. Not a great trade-off, in my opinion, even with the addition of a Moto Mod.

We've also got Qualcomm's X16 baseband chip, which means Gigabit LTE support on T-Mobile and, in some parts of the country, AT&T. So far, I've experienced excellent speeds using the Verizon model, though nothing surpassing 150Mbps on my home network of Telus.

Cameras

No optical image stabilization is a huge disappointment.

Motorola went with two rear camera sensors this time around, one color and one monochrome, the purpose of which is to offer depth effects and a true black-and-white mode.

Both sensors are identical 12MP Sony IMX386 parts paired with f/2.0 lenses. Unlike last year's Moto Z lineup, neither lens is supported by optical image stabilization, an enormous oversight and a decision that was probably not taken lightly given the advantage it would bestow to low-light imagery. The lenses are also narrower than the Moto Z and Z Force: f/2.0 lets in less light than f/1.8, so it would be incumbent on Motorola to figure out how to use both cameras at once to improve low-light performance. We'll see.

Of course, Motorola has largely painted itself into a corner with its design, since the camera equipment has to fit into a narrow protrusion near the top middle of the phone, but the reality is still disappointing.

Moto Z2 Force camera samples. Left to right: Regular, Depth, Black-and-white

So is the trade-off worth it? It's not clear if the phone uses both cameras at all times, or only when calling the depth effect, which is accessed through a separate mode, but so far I'm impressed with the photos I've taken. Moreover, the dedicated monochrome sensor allows for true black-and-white photos straight from the sensor, something that only Huawei has offered until now with its Mate and P series. It's an interesting decision given how OnePlus and LG have differentiated themselves by using two color sensors at different focal lengths, and it remains to be seen whether Motorola made the right choice.

Of course, the company is also banking on users buying (or being gifted) the Hasselblad Moto Mod, which offers a larger sensor and 10x optical zoom, alongside a Xenon flash.

Software

On the software side, the experience is largely identical to what you'll find on the Moto Z2 Play: Android 7.1.1 with some Motorola tweaks, most of which are highly welcome.

Moto Display continues to showcase just what ambient screens should look like, while the company's lo-fi, near-stock design is about as good as you'll get from an OEM. Given that I'm using a Verizon unit, I had to disable a number of apps and stubs that I will likely never use, but customers that don't want the hassle can pick up an unlocked version, updated straight from Motorola, in the coming months.

So far, so so

I'm certainly not writing off the Moto Z2 Force, since it's only been in my hands a few hours, but my impressions of the phone are decidedly mixed. In eliminating a proper sequel to the Moto Z, it has been forced to compromise on camera specs and battery life, two of the original Force's biggest advantages.

The Moto Z2 Force does a lot of things well, but its success will depend on its camera and its battery.

But the Moto Z2 Force is also an impressive piece of hardware, packing a lot of power into a very compact and well-made exterior. Every buyer will be getting at least one Moto Mod to start his or her collection, and Motorola is banking that, upon using one, more will follow. At the same time, add-ons can't make up for what appear to be decisions that many customers will not be impressed by, especially since some of them appear to be regressions from the 2016 models.

With most carriers charging between $750 and $810 for the phone, the Moto Z2 Force needs to have a strong marketing push behind it, something that it can achieve with Lenovo's deep pockets. That the phone is available at all four U.S. carriers, a first for Motorola, is a windfall for the once-powerful brand, and a confidence booster for an impressive line of smartphones that, despite a slow start, has emerged as a strong competitor to Samsung and LG in the Android space.

Much of the Moto Z2 Force's lasting impression will come down to the quality of the camera, and the longevity of the battery. Everything else, despite being familiar, is already here. It just needs to clear those remaining hurdles.

Where to buy the Moto Z2 Force



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