Motorola can boast about making the first commercial phone running on a live 5G network, but I’d bet money that the pride stops there. The with its 5G Moto Mod may be a real phone you can buy for a real 5G network, but its cumbersome magnetic attachment for a midprice phone isn’t the way you want to use 5G.
I would know because the Moto Z3, 5G Mod and I were inseparable for six hours this week as Iin downtown Chicago. Throughout the day, the Moto Z3 and Mod hitched a ride in my purse, or protruded from my coat pocket, its thick “fin” a beacon drawing down 5G signal from above.
“We’ve seen reports with some really good speeds and certainly we’ve seen good speeds in our user trials as well,” said Doug Michau, Motorola’s head of product operations for North America when we spoke over the phone. Her’s right. This Moto Z3 was able to pull down blazing-fast speeds upward of 600Mbps in my tests.
“We still believe that the Mod is the best platform,” Michau said.
Here’s where I disagree. Although the getup works, it’s kludgy at best. The 5G Moto Mod is thick and heavy. You attach it magnetically and pins shuffle information and the data connection from the Mod, which has a Snapdragon 855 processor and a X50 modem that makes 5G possible, to the phone.
The 5G Mod is also unnecessary. 5G modems that connect to the network can already go into phones, in a much more seamless way that doesn’t create inconvenient bulk. Take, for example, the and a host of . Not a single Mod in sight.
That’s not how Moto sees it. For the phone-maker, the 5G Moto Mod was a smart opportunity to partner once again with Verizon, the largest US carrier. Because what good is a new 5G network if there’s no phone to use it? It’s a fair point, and yet…
The 5G Moto Mod’s fatal flaw: Its battery
As bulky as the Moto Mod is, it did feel securely attached to the Moto Z3, which is a perfectly serviceable midrange handset in its own right.
The Achilles’ heel I accidentally and unwittingly discovered came at the end of a long day of testing. I had just arrived at a 5G node blocks away from the historic Chicago Theater, but whatever I tried, I couldn’t get any signal: cycling airplane mode multiple times, reattaching the Mod, even rebooting the phone.
It wasn’t until I got back to my hotel that I realized the Moto Mod was out of juice. Michau confirmed that the 5G Mod, which comes with its own 2,000mAh battery, won’t charge your phone or accept charge from it. It has its own USB-C charging port, and, apart from sharing signal, operates independently from the Moto Z3.
This limitation makes a certain amount of sense. If your Moto Mod battery dies before your Moto Z3, you can still use the phone on 4G, but then you’re carting around some hefty dead weight. Michau says the intent is for the Mod’s battery to last all day, though streaming over 5G all day will take a battery toll.
That wouldn’t be so bad if there had been a better way to clearly see the Moto Mod’s battery meter right on the phone screen. The alert you get in your notification stream can easily get lost.
I will give Motorola kudos for a clever design element that places four infrared sensors near four antennas. If your finger covers one, a different antenna will pick up the signal.
Saving grace: Affordable 5G today
If the Z3 and Moto Mod have one redeeming quality, it’s the price.
Although you’re buying two devices instead of one, the total overall cost of ownership will come in at lower than a flagship phone, like the Galaxy S10 5G. Although Samsung hasn’t announced pricing for its 5G model, it’s more advanced than the S10 Plus, which costs $1,000 and uses 4G.
Meanwhile, the Moto Z3 is on sale for $240 (down from $480), while the 5G Moto Mod is discounted at $200 (usually $350). So, not counting the $10 monthly surplus for Verizon’s 5G network, the total “phone” cost is $440.
Even the full retail cost, $830, is likely to come in at least $300 under the premium Galaxy S10 5G. However, I have a feeling the Moto Z3’s prices will remain lower rather than higher.
Motorola’s next slam dunk is literally around the bend
For Motorola, the final clincher is that the Moto Z3 is a phone you can buy and use on Verizon’s 5G network the moment it’s available. But buying a 5G phone now isn’t very practical.
Network roll-out will take time and only work in select neighborhoods for now. The Qualcomm chip is already outdated. Last month, Qualcomm announced a that will make phones slimmer as well. It’s unlikely the Mod will make the cut.
For me, the Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod is an empty “win” that will quickly become overshadowed by other 5G phones that enter the market, even more affordable ones.
Motorola’s real win is yet to come, when the brand is expected to launch its comeback Galaxy Fold and . Assuming the rumors are true, that’s Motorola’s best real opportunity to make a name for itself — at any speed.to take on the premium
Originally published April 7 at 4 a.m. PT.