The Moto Z4 pairs awesome battery life with a sleek design and solid performance

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Mon June 10, 2019

Story highlights

  • Motorola's latest mid-range handset is the $499.99 Moto Z4
  • The standout feature of the Moto Z4 is a long-lasting battery life in a sleek build

Motorola is back with a new mid-range handset, the Moto Z4 ($499.99; amazon.com) that it hopes will continue its success in that market.

And yes, that $499.99 price point is for the unlocked Moto Z4, available through Amazon.com. Along with the phone itself, you're getting a 360 Camera Moto Mod bundled in the box. As expected, the Moto Z4 continues support for Moto Mods, but there aren't any new ones to talk about right now.

So let's dive into the Moto Z4, which ultimately delivers a classic experience with no surprises.

A higher-end design than most mid-range phones

The Moto Z4 is a sleek device that uses an aluminum and glass build. It looks really nice, especially for a mid-range device.

It weighs in at 165 grams. At 7.35 millimeters thick, it's not the thinnest device out there, but a slight curve makes it pretty comfortable to hold and reminds me of the original Moto X. Motorola is paying attention to what users want.

The main hull of the Z4 is an aluminum band, and you can clearly see these on all four sides of the device. There's glass on the front (the display with bezels) and a matte glass on the back that holds the device together. The matte glass treatment is a unique one and I find that it gives the device more grip, especially when you use it without a case. In order to support Moto Mods, you get the same set of proprietary prongs and magnets on the bottom of the back.

You'll also find a very large 48-megapixel back camera in the form of a bump on the back. We'll touch on how it performed a bit later, but the camera bump is not something new for Motorola.

The bottom has a USB-C port for charging and now includes a headphone jack after a several-year absence. On the right side, you'll find a power/sleep button and a volume rocker, while the top gets a speaker grille and a nano-SIM card slot.

A micro-notch dips slightly into the 6.4-inch OLED display, and Motorola is sticking with a notch at the top and bezels along the side -- although to be honest, I can't say I was expecting a fully edge-to-edge display in a $500 phone.

The 360 Camera Moto Mod sticks up beyond the profile of the phone but is easy to remove when you're not using it.

Overall, the Moto Z4 is a very nice-looking device and is very comfortable to use. The aluminum paired with the matte glass on the back looks great. I almost like it better without a case, and with no Moto Mod attached, it really lets the design language come through.

The one downside is that there's no IP rating or certification for durability here. Motorola uses a proprietary nano-coating to make it water-resistant. It's OK for light rain, but don't go swimming with it.

A very sharp and vibrant display

It's really nice to see the Moto Z4 deliver a vibrant and crisp 6.4-inch OLED screen on a mid-range device. It has a 2340 x 1080 resolution at a 19:9 aspect ratio. And after several days of using it in direct sunlight and under fluorescent lights, I can tell you it performs really well. You'll likely be surprised by the colors it can produce and the vibrancy of them, although details can sometimes look a little fuzzy on a 1080p OLED. If you want to use the display for a mini-viewing party or for gaming, the viewing angles are quite wide.

As far as that micro notch, it really is just that. Think of it as a small tear or raindrop that slightly punches out the top center of the display. It doesn't really interfere with any software use cases or applications, and it holds the front-facing camera. At the end of the day, you're not losing any screen real estate, and it fits nicely with the bezels going around the display. If Motorola had opted for a pop-up front-facing camera to make it a truly all-screen device, the price would likely be a lot more.

A hit-or-miss in-screen fingerprint sensor

While the overall display performs really well, the in-display fingerprint sensor leaves you wanting more. I definitely applaud the Moto Z4 team for including this, but at the end of the day, this optical sensor is really hit or miss. I've tried removing mine and adding it again several times, but it doesn't deliver a performance boost.

I found it to be awkward and annoying, and most of the time it wouldn't even unlock the phone. You have to be very precise when placing your finger and get it just right. I'm hoping this can be improved with future software updates but for now, I'd likely opt for a PIN.

Terrific battery life

The Moto Z4 is thin, but Motorola still managed to pack a large battery inside -- a nonremovable 3,600mAh battery that is paired with both a conservative display and processor. Motorola worked some software magic to maximize the performance here.

Motorola estimates two full days of battery life for most users, and I got pretty close to it even with heavy use. From light productivity tasks to a few games of Fortnite and streaming, this still lasted nearly a day and a half. If I take the gaming out, and keep in productivity, phone calls, messaging and streaming, it would last for close to two full days, so it's really impressive on its own. But since this supports Moto Mods, those power-hungry users can get an extra battery to pop in on the back.

The included power brick supports Turbo Power charging at 15 watts, so you can fast charge this device via the included setup. But out of the box, the Moto Z4 does not support wireless charging.

A similar story with performance and software

Motorola opted for a pretty standard Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 processor inside that is clocked at 2.0Ghz with a 4GB of RAM. You may experience some lags when a lot of applications are open, but for the most part, it will perform well.

It's running Android 9.0 Pie with a very clean Motorola user interface. It's close to clean Android, without a lot of preinstalled apps, which is very nice to see. And if you've been following Motorola, you'll still get the same quick look display you're used to. The new trick here is that you can wave your hand over the phone, without touching it, to get it to turn on. It still lets you see notifications, the time, battery life and the date.

You'll also get Motorola quick actions like a chop-chop to turn on the flashlight, or a twist of your wrist while holding the phone to open the camera. I really enjoy these and how natural they have become, but Motorola hasn't introduced any new ones.

In terms of storage, you'll get 128GB internally, with the option to expand via a microSD card. Out of the box, you'll find some Google applications preloaded and several Amazon apps. And if you'd like, you can have Amazon's Alexa be the virtual assistant on the phone. This is a nice bonus, especially if you're already attached to that ecosystem.

A massive main camera performs well

The back features a 48-megapixel single lens to act as the main camera, and the good news is that it performs really well. While it calls on AI for features like bokeh or portrait mode, Motorola has done some good work in that area. Most images look great and capture a large amount of detail. There are some new enhancements in the camera app like auto-framing, which helps you to master the rule of thirds, but I think most users will like the ability to quickly capture a shot.

New for the Moto Z4 is a low-light mode, which essentially uses AI and custom processing techniques to enhance low-light images. Overall, Motorola's low-light mode performs well but tends to exaggerate some colors. I'm hoping an update comes along for this.

The competition

You may be wondering where the Moto Z4 fits in the mid-range market, which has become an especially crowded one with the recently announced Pixel 3a from Google, which is cheaper at $399 and features Night Sight mode for superior low-light photos. There's also the Galaxy S10e, which is a bit more expensive, currently on sale for $649.99 unlocked, and the OnePlus 7 Pro at $669. It's becoming more and more evident that people don't want to pay upward of $1,000 for a phone.

It's a competitive market, and while these other phones opt for innovative features like a hidden front camera that pops up when you need it and vibrant colors, the Z4 looks a little stale. A majority of these phones can outperform the Z4, but you'd likely end up paying a bit more and might even not get a headphone jack.

In the end, it comes down to personal preference, but I think the design of the Moto Z4 beats out the Pixel 3a's polycarbonate and plastic build. It just feels as if you're getting more for the money, and you'll get close to a clean Android experience on the Z4. On the other hand, the S10e, OnePlus 7 Pro and likely the Pixel 3a as well have faster processors, so you can expect speed improvements.

But with them, you'd lose Moto Mods support, and that is a big reason for sticking with the Moto Z4 if you're in that ecosystem.

Bottom line

The Moto Z4 continues Motorola's line of good mid-range Android smartphones, but it doesn't do much to innovate or excite. Sure, it has a sharper display, continues support for Moto Mods and adds in the headphone jack, but it doesn't really push the brand. And maybe that's all right for the Z4, but I'm hoping we get a fresher take with new features and larger improvements on the next generation.

For now, at $500 you're getting a solid Android smartphone that performs well, is a good pocket camera, looks excellent and has fantastic battery life. Plus if you're sold on the Moto Mod ecosystem, the Z4 continues support for it and includes a 360 camera in the box. The Moto Z4 is available on Amazon.com now for $499.99 and is eligible for Prime shipping.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.