Motorola Moto Z4 review: The cheapest 5G phone you can buy but shouldn’t

At $499 the Motorola Moto Z4 is a decent phone. But, it seems like it’s having a bit of an identity crisis. In addition to being a mid-range phone, it’s modular and has 5G connectivity with Verizon’s network — a feature you’d usually see on a high-end phone like the Galaxy S10 5G or LG V50. And like how a pair of zip-off pants that turn into shorts are neither the best shorts nor pants, the Moto Z4’s versatility is also what makes it less appealing. 

For starters, its price places it directly in competition with the $449 OnePlus 6T ($473 at Amazon) and the $479 Google Pixel 3A XL ($479 at Amazon), the latter of which has one of the best cameras on any phone you can buy. The Moto Z4 can also transform into a 5G phone via a $349 5G Moto Mod accessory. That feature puts it squarely against the $1,299 Galaxy S10 5G and the $999 LG V50. Is the Moto Z4 better than the the Pixel 3A XL or Galaxy S10 5G? Unfortunately, no. Even with the 5G Mod, the Moto Z4 is a middle of the road phone that isn’t anything more than just OK.

It’s not that the Moto Z4 is “bad,” per se. It’s just that since the original Moto Z launched in 2016, phones with better cameras and higher-end processors, like the Pixel 3A ($400 at Amazon) and the OnePlus 6T, have been released and cost nearly the same price. The Moto Z4 feels like its goal was to be a cheap way to get people on Verizon’s sapling-sized 5G network, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for pretty much anything else, it’s hard to recommend the Moto Z4 unless you’re thoroughly invested in Motorola’s Moto Mod ecosystem.

Moto Z4’s 2016 design in a 2019 world

Without any Moto Mods attached, the Moto Z4 looks like the drawing a sketch artist would make if you described what a 2016 smartphone looked like. It has a glass back with a flat gray finish, a big camera bump and looks pretty bland. The screen is vibrant with good contrast, though sometimes hard to see in direct sunlight. In a nod to 2019 though, there’s a notch and thin-ish bezels. But overall, it’s vanilla ice cream in a Ben and Jerry’s world.

The Moto Z4’s appeal is mainly utilitarian.

Juan Garzon / CNET

Mods fit securely but not flush with the sides of the phone. When I have the Moto 360 camera ($39 at Amazon) Mod attached, for example, the edge of the Mod doesn’t perfectly meet the curved sides of the phone and the union makes this annoying lip that rubs my hand literally the wrong way. This noticeable seam between the phone and the Mod makes the setup feel like an oversight by Motorola. Oh, and by the way, the Moto Z4 has full support for all of Motorola’s existing Mods, which includes battery packs, a speaker, a projector and others. 

The Moto Z4 has all of the megapixels

The Moto Z4’s rear camera gets a few upgrades over last year’s Moto Z3. It has a 48-megapixel rear camera, which is one of the highest resolutions you can find on a phone and follows a trend of other upper-mid-tier phones including the OnePlus 7 Pro, which has a camera with the same resolution.


The Moto Z4 nailed this photo of a cappuccino on an outdoor cafe table.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Overall, photos are solid for the price but won’t wow you. In good light, the colors are accurate and bright, and the exposure is spot-on, especially when using HDR. Even in medium- to low-light conditions, photos are useable but start to suffer from softness in details like textures, fabrics and hair.


This photo of Cheddar the cat was taken in medium-to-dark lighting indoors. Notice the image noise in the ceiling and the softness of the details in Cheddar’s fur.

Patrick Holland/CNET

When things get particularly dark, there is a Night Vision mode that takes eight photos and combines them to reduce image noise and improve brightness. Night Vision made images brighter but often processed them too much. In the photo below, of a tree I took after sunset, there’s a weird digital stippling effect over the clouds, and it’s surrounded by patchy smears of noise reduction. I found Night Vision gave the best results in medium-to-low light like indoors.


The Z4 uses 8 photos to improve photos taken in low-light. Here there is an odd mix of digital noise and smears of noise reduction.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Video from the Moto Z4 is nothing special. It can shoot 4K, but videos looked oversharpened and struggle from noise in low-light. Selfies are actually good as long as you have a nice amount of light.

The Moto Z4 adds a giant battery and in-screen fingerprint reader

Perhaps the most impressive feature on the Moto Z4 is the big honking battery on the inside. In our looped video tests in airplane mode, the battery lasted 19 hours and 21 minutes, which is nearly 5 hours longer than we got with last year’s Moto Z3. And in actual use, even with the battery-sucking 360-camera Mod attached, the Moto Z4 got through two days on a single charge. Of course, if you want even more battery, for an additional $50 you can grab a Moto Power Pack mod, which Motorola claims adds another 16 hours of battery life.

Built into the display is a fingerprint sensor, similar to the one on the Huawei P30 Pro and OnePlus 7 Pro ($795 at Amazon). Setting up the optical fingerprint reader was seamless, but over weeks of testing I found it unlocks on the first try only, say, two out of five times, and it unlocks on the second try nearly all the time. This could be user error, though I doubt it — I honestly tried to place my finger flat and centered on the reader and not move.

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