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Motorola's Moto Z2 Force has an unbreakable screen, but it isn't flawless

Motorola brought us one of the first cool-kid phones with its Razr. But that was way back in the halcyon days of the early 2000s when bleaching your spiked tips and oversize bell bottoms were all the rage. Today, Motorola and its parent company, Lenovo, are fighting to remain relevant in the high-end smartphone market.

The manufacturer’s latest effort, the Moto Z2 Force, takes many of its features found in the original Z Force, such as its Moto Mods add-ons and unbreakable screen, and further builds on them. But a slimmed-down body and smaller battery, coupled with the added cost of those Moto Mods, makes the $720 Z2 Force a tough sell.

The Moto Z2 Force’s display us unbreakable, but it can still be scratched.
The Moto Z2 Force’s display us unbreakable, but it can still be scratched.

Old-ish school design

The Moto Z2 Force hews closely to the design of last year’s Moto Z Force, and by extension, the much older Moto X. That’s a letdown for a flagship device, especially when companies like Samsung, LG and HTC have made significant changes to the looks their marquee phones.

That’s not to say Motorola hasn’t tweaked the Z2 Force’s styling. The biggest, and most obvious, change to the phone’s body is how much thinner it is than its predecessor. Motorola trimmed 0.04 inches from the Z2 Force’s thickness, which might not sound like much, but makes quite a difference when holding the handsets side by side.

Motorola chopped down the thickness of the Z2 Force to make it thinner, but sacrificed the size of its battery.
Motorola chopped down the thickness of the Z2 Force to make it thinner, but sacrificed the size of its battery.

And when it comes to smartphones, thinner is usually better. Until, that is, you realize that cutting down on the phone’s size also meant that Motorola had to trim the Z2 Force’s battery size, as well.

The battery was cut from 3,500 mAh to 2,730 mAh. And while the Z2 Force still lasted most of the day, I can’t help but think how long the phone would have lasted if it had that larger battery. I get that Motorola wanted to make its phone slim and sleek, but I’d take a bit more bulk and a larger battery over a thinner handset any day.

Unbreakable — without the twist

Perhaps the Moto Z2 Force’s biggest selling point is the fact that its screen is practically unbreakable. Seriously, Motorola says it guarantees its ShatterShield display won’t crack or, well, shatter, for four years. If it does, the company will replace it. I threw my review unit around the office a number of times to see if it stood up to Motorola’s claims and it survived without issue.

Still, the ShatterShield screen isn’t perfect. It’s surprisingly prone to scratches, even in your pocket. And unfortunately, those aren’t covered under the company’s warrantee.

As far as the display’s image quality goes, though, the Moto Z2 Force’s 5.5-inch, 2560 x 1440 resolution Super AMOLED panel is beautiful, with gorgeous colors and deep blacks.

Modding your phone

The dream of a modular smartphone, one that you can add and remove parts from, is all but dead. Just look at Google’s Project Ara. But Motorola isn’t giving up. Instead, the company is doubling down on the concept by offering even more of its Moto Mods for the Moto Z2 Force than it did for the original Moto Z Force.

In addition to improved versions of Motorola’s existing JBL SoundBoost speaker mod and battery pack, the company has released its new Moto Gamepad mod, which eliminates the need for you to use a Bluetooth controller when playing games by turning your phone into one big controller, and the Moto 360 camera.

The Moto Z2 Force can be connected to a 360 camera mod.
The Moto Z2 Force can be connected to a 360 camera mod.

The 360 camera is clearly the standout of the group and lets you capture 360 images and video with ease. But unlike other solutions, like Samsung’s Gear 360 camera, which is independent of your phone, the Moto 360 connects directly to your device, and doesn’t require any secondary apps, as it uses the handset’s existing camera software.

Still, the camera mod will cost you a whopping $299. And how often do you really think you’re going to want to carry around a smartphone with a bulging orb stuck to its top?

Out of the 12 available Moto Mods, the battery pack and the new JBL SoundBoost 2 are the most useful. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the mods do add a significant amount of bulk to the Z2 Force’s slender frame.

Camera time

Motorola’s biggest addition to the Z2 Force is its new dual-lens camera. Similar to Apple’s (AAPL) dual-lens iPhone 7 Plus, the Z2 Force’s camera allows you to add bokeh effects (that look where your subject is in focus and the background is blurry) to your images.

But unlike the iPhone 7 Plus, which uses one of its lenses to add an optical zoom to your photos, the Z2 Force uses one lens to capture color images, while the other captures black-and-white shots.

Motorola equipped the Z2 Force with a dual-lens camera.
Motorola equipped the Z2 Force with a dual-lens camera.

The idea is to help improve low-light performance. But next to the iPhone 7 Plus’ low-light shots, the Z2 Force’s contained more artifacting and made my skin look sun burned. Photos taken in bright sunlight, meanwhile, looked beautiful.

The Moto Z2 Force’s bokeh effect was also inconsistent at best. A shot of my Lego Boost robot’s head looked excellent, with the majority of its head in focus and the background blurred, but a picture of a flower against a backdrop of billboards in Times Square was a mess. Parts of the stem were blurred, while others were in focus.

Power, performance and bloat

As you’d expect of a flagship device, the Z2 Force comes packed with top-of-the-line specs including an 8-core Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM (the rest of the world gets 6GB, which is a bummer), and 64GB of storage, which can be expanded via a microSD card.

The Moto Z2 Force runs on Google’s Android 7.1 operating system, and as with most of the company’s recent smartphones, Motorola keeps Android relatively free of any unnecessary interface changes.

But my Verizon version of the Moto Z2 Force did come with a number of unwanted Verizon apps including Verizon Cloud, Verizon Message+ and VZ Navigator. Why are those apps annoying? Because they’re duplicates of apps you’ve already got on your phone and simply taking up space.

Should you get it?

The Moto Z2 Force is a decent device, especially if you’re looking for a handset that runs a largely unmodified version of Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Android and believe in the idea of adding mods to your phone. But with the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus already on the market, the case for buying the Z2 Force is a bit thin.

I’m a fan of the handset’s “unbreakable display” and its JBL speaker add-on, but the fact that its design is showing its age, coupled with its easily scratched screen, makes the handset a hard sell. Still, if you’re looking for a new smartphone and want to avoid the iPhone or one of Samsung’s offerings, then the Z2 Force might be right for you.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.