South Africans associate two brands with the dawn of the mobile revolution: Motorola, which started it all, and Nokia, which practically owned the phone world for a decade. It’s one of the serial ironies of the mobile industry that Nokia killed off Motorola in this market, only to be killed off in turn by BlackBerry, which was then all but destroyed by Apple and Samsung.
Meanwhile, Motorola stayed alive through various incarnations, including a resuscitation attempt by Google. Now, under the stewardship of Lenovo, it is taking another shot at redemption.
And what a shot it is. This week, it will announce the arrival in South Africa of the Moto Z smartphone, a handset that redefines what smartphones can do. At a time when it is conventional wisdom that we can only expect incremental advances in smartphone technology, this may seem absurd.
However, it is an absurdity four months in the making. The Moto Z was unveiled in San Francisco in June, along with four add-on devices called Mods. Short for modifications, they take the functionality of smartphones to a new level.
To start with, the Moto Z itself is a revelation. The 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display puts it on a par with anything on the market: a resolution of 2560×1440 and a pixel density of 535 ppi makes for dazzling images and video. Despite these heavy specs, it lies a mere 5.19mm deep, earning the title of the thinnest flagship smartphone in the world. It harks back to the second generation Razr, which itself seemed impossibly thin, at 7.1mm, so many years ago back in 2011.
Some argue that mere mortals wouldn’t notice whether a handset is 5mm or 7mm thick. They’ll notice with this one. The real difference emerges when one attaches an additional device to the back of the handset, and it still fits into a pocket.
The rear of the phone is distinctive for two features: a protruding camera lens, and an array of metal connectors. Both combine to allow easy and instant clipping on of the Mods. A round hole in each of the add-ons aligns instantly with the protruding lens, and the connectors latch onto the magnetic rear of the Mods.
These, in turn, extend the phone’s functionality, in various directions.
Along with the Z’s slightly bulkier sibling, the Moto Z Play, Lenovo has released four Mods. The most exciting is called the Moto Insta-Share, a somewhat retro name for a device that points the way to the future. It is a mini-projector, which projects the phone interface onto any surface. It’s 11mm thick and weighs 125g, about the same as a light smartphone, and attaching the Moto Z seems like adding only a thin layer.
It projects a sharp image at up to 70 inches, which translates into a large TV display. In other words, one can use it to view ShowMax, Netflix or any other videos streamed or stored via the phone. With an adjustable fold-out kickstand, it also makes for a great presentation device. The one drawback is that it requires a fairly dark environment for optimal viewing, meaning it can’t replace TV sets in all conditions. Yet.
While it can use the phone’s power supply, the Insta-Share also houses an 1100 mAh battery, which allows for around an hour of additional viewing. The Moto Z’s own 2600 mAh battery provides the phone with up to 30 hours of mixed use.
The Insta-Share points to a future where a phone’s interface will be displayed or used on any surface, and will make the specs of the handset irrelevant, as the user will only interact with the display. The phone and its projector may as well be housed in a necklace or ring. But that is still a few generations away.
A Mod that generated similar levels of enthusiasm at the launch, the Hasselblad True Zoom, turns the phone into something closer to a DSLR camera.
The camera on the Moto Z itself is not too slack: at 13MP with f/1.8 aperture and dual LED flash, it compares well with the market-leading Samsung S7 edge. It captures video in full HD as well as 4K.
So far so great. Now add the Hasselblad. Photographers will appreciate the specs: a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS sensor, focal length of 4.5-45 mm, equivalent to 25-250mm on a 35mm camera, 10x optical and 4x digital zoom, with macro zoom of 5cm @1x to 1.5m @10x. A wheel next to the shutter button controls the zoom function, with the lens protruding or retracting accordingly.
The strategy is to adapt the phone for any number of special interests. The JBL Soundboost mod turns it into a boombox, while the Incipio Offgrid power pack is a 2200 mAh add-on battery, for another 22 hours of usage.
Lenovo has issued a challenge – with $1-million in funding – for the best prototypes of third party mods. If the challenge turns into a viable and sustainable build-out of a new ecosystem around the Moto Z, the Motorola brand will be propelled far beyond its nostalgia value.