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Hands on with Lenovo’s new ‘snap-together’ Moto Z flagship phone

Google’s Project Ara has been targeted at the creation of low-cost, modular phones, often called “grey phones” (or gray phones if you prefer), due to their plain nature. But now, Motorola-buyer Lenovo is introducing a pair of flagship phones — the Moto Z and Moto Z Force — based on a beefed up version of a similar technology. One way to think of the Moto Z is as a flagship version of the modular Grey Phone. Instead of using its modularity to reduce cost, or trade off between system components, its Moto Mods snap-together architecture is designed to allow a range of peripherals to quickly and easily attach to an already fully-featured phone — a little like docking connectors on some laptops.

The Moto Z comes in two versions, both featuring an all-metal chassis. The base model features a SnapDragon 820, 4GB of memory, a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, 32 or 64GB of storage, as well as optical image stabilization for its main camera, a microSD slot, and a water-repellant coating. Reflecting the popularity of selfies, the Z even features a separate flash for the front-facing camera. The Force version upgrades the camera from 13MP to 21MP, adds phase-detect autofocus, beefs the battery up by 1/3rd, adds a shatterproof screen and even faster charging — 50% in 20 minutes. The Z and Z Force will arrive as Droid-branded exclusives with Verizon this summer, and then be available more generally in the fall.

It's not often that a connector takes center stage, but here Lenovo showcases the 16-pin Moto Mod snap-together technologyLenovo showed off several accessories that use the new capability. The most interesting is Insta-Share, essentially a pico projector with kickstand massaged into a phone back form factor. One cool feature of Insta-Share is that it uses the phone’s accelerometer to do auto-keystoning (it assumes your projection surface is vertical). At 6 feet it projects a 70-inch diagonal display, which is viewable if you are in a dark environment. If there is a lot of light, 2 or 3 feet is more practical.

JBL has created an impressive-sounding audio accessory — SoundBoost — that can play up to 10 hours of music using its own battery through its speakers. Like the projector, the JBL speakers feature a small kickstand for propping up your phone. It can also double as a speakerphone. Of course there are also some battery add-on products coming, and Lenovo showed at least a concept for an accessory that supports HDMI output. As you’d expect from Motorola, there are also a variety of backs made from materials including wood that can be snapped onto the phone.

The Z is extremely thin (5.2mm), but the slim design means it gives up a headphone jack. This is part of a push by Intel to have USB-C replace traditional audio jacks — both to save space and allow digital audio. Lenovo does facilitate this change by shipping a USB-C to headphone jack adapter. Another side effect of the ultra-slim design is that the 13MP rear-facing camera sticks out from the rest of the phone. That’s not an issue if you’ve snapped an accessory or rear cover on, but might be annoying to some who use the phone without any attachments.

The Moto Mod developer kit will contain an extensive set of both software and hardware prototyping toolsLenovo execs described this new technology as game changing, but that seems like a bold claim for what is basically a programmable magnetic connector. Lenovo is doing what it can to help the Moto Mod spec become popular. The hardware and software will both be open sourced, so support could be extended to other operating systems, or even other hardware. Certainly they are out first (or will be when the developer kit ships this fall), but I expect to see both additional innovation around the increasingly-popular USB-C connector, and perhaps other competitive modular interconnects from other smartphone vendors.

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