Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 26 October 2016
Category: Features
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The Moto Z's selling point is Moto Mods - hardware extras that you can snap onto the device to extend the battery, have a better camera, or, even, convert the phone to a projector. Is this a gimmick? Is this the future? Lenovo is betting on the latter.

There are those who love to claim than no one has any long-term memory anymore and Motorola is long forgotten but it was a well loved phone brand in South Africa due to some key devices that wormed their way into people's hearts and memories because of great battery life and features. You may be wondering what happened to it and why it is suddenly back.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

Motorola, which was originally a US company, disappeared in 2013 after Motorola Mobility (the cellular phone division) merged with Google. In 2014 Chinese tech company Lenovo bought Motorola Mobility from Google but, as part of the deal, Google retained much of Motorola Mobility's patents (which is the whole reason many people thought Google wanted Motorola Mobility in the first place). Consequently, we've been waiting to see what Lenovo would do with the brand (it still has access to the original patents through a licensing agreement with Google). Would the remaining tech just disappear into Lenovo's operations for something else? Would it make new Motorola phones?

The answer is yes - there are new phones. The flagship is the Moto Z (which is called the Moto Z Droid in the US), a premium modular phone that Lenovo announced internationally in June. It was launched on Thursday night in South Africa in Johannesburg at a lavish, but odd, event.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa
Above: For over an hour two young women sat on hoops and poured champagne into guests' glasses. I actually asked permission to take this photo as I felt a bit sick at how objectifying it was.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa
Above: Performance art(?) and one of a few men in black.
I'll skip the bit with the canapes and uncomfortable moments that featured women in hoops pouring champagne and women in underwear inside sheets doing some sort of performance art and get right to the presentation, which was led by DJ Fresh.

We were given an overview of Lenovo from Graham Braum, the general manager for Mobile Business Group, Lenovo Africa (four devices sold worldwide every minute; three focus areas: Moto (phones), ThinkPad (business tech), and Yoga (consumer tech)), and then Christoph Janeba, Lenovo's director of product operations EMEA, Mobile Business Group, talked the guests through the new phone and the Moto Mods.

The event also included a video montage of eight Johannesburg based "tech journalists" (really one trend forecaster, a handful of journalists, and a few "journalists"), who had all been given the phone and the mods (to look at? to keep?) ahead of time, talking about their impressions and opinions, which ranged from objective and/or non committal in some cases to fawning and/or irrelevant in others.

(Ten phones were then given away to guests at the function. I only mention this because when a few of us later asked about review units we were told they are still waiting for stock.)

Here's where it gets weird(er). After the main device presentation ended a man came on stage to do some sort of interpretative dance with laser pointers so some of the journalists, including myself, and many of the guests, politely stayed to watch.

While this was happening, as well as later, the rest of the journalists and bloggers were slowly scooped up to go to a media briefing with the Lenovo executives that no one had told us was happening. Sheer bad luck resulted in me, plus a couple of journalists I was with, being the last to be tracked down for the briefing so by the time we got there it was pretty much over, although I learnt a few things, which I'll get to later.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa
Above: I found this Lenovo XT1700 (Android 6.0, 8 GB onboard storage, no junk software - just the basics), which may or may not be the Moto E3 but probably is, on display in a dark corner. The Moto Z isn't the only Motorola phone that Lenovo has developed but there's been no information regarding whether the other models will be sold in South Africa.
Additionally, there were sample units of the phone and the mods somewhere but a few of us never found them. This is the first time I've ever been to a function where I never got to see the device that I was sent to the function to see.

The Phone

Here's what I know, based on what I was told and what's in the press documents. Unfortunately, because I have no first-hand experience of this phone or its mods, I can't offer any initial impressions or discoveries, such as how the phone feels in your hand, with and without mods, and what's installed on it.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

The Moto Z is 5.2mm thin (the company is claiming that it is "the world's thinnest premium smartphone") and features a 2.2 GHz quad-core (two 2.15 GHz Kryo and two 1.6 GHz Kryo, according to GSMArena.com) Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with an Adreno 530 graphics processor, 4 GB RAM, a 5.5-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 2560x1440, a 2600 mAh Li-Ion battery, and either 32 GB or 64 GB on-board storage.

The operating system is Android 6.0.1, the back camera is 13 megapixels, and the front camera is five megapixels. There is no 3.5mm audio jack (Motorola actually beat Apple to this) but an headphone adaptor for the USB-C port is included. The phone also has a fingerprint reader.

The Moto Z will retail in South Africa for R12 999 and will be available in Black and Lunar Grey. A Moto Style Shell (clip on fashion cover) is included. As there are two versions (32 GB and 64 GB on-board storage) I assume the price is for the 32 GB version. I asked for clarity but never received a response. Either way, that's very expensive, especially when you take into account the extra costs for the mods.

The on-board storage is a good size, and there is also a microSD card slot, but the battery capacity is small, considering that this is a high-end device. Of course, there is a Moto Mod for that (see below) but I expect better internal capacity. There are all sorts of claims about the built-in battery's life - 24 hours is the most common - but none of it has any meaning to me until I test the phone. My understanding is, however, that this is based on mixed use, so much that would be standby time.

The company is also claiming seven hours of power after 15 minutes of TurboPower charging.

The Moto Z will be available in South Africa at Takealot.com and Cellucity from 1 November 2016 and DionWired from 13 November 2016.

The Mods

The Moto Mods all snap onto the phone using magnets and, although they are the same basic size, they vary in weight and thickness. They are apparently all hot swappable, which means you can just snap them on and off without switching off the phone.

YouTube link ]

The following mods are launching in South Africa (there are a few others in other territories):

• Incipio offGrid Power Pack: This mod is a battery pack that comprises a 2220 mAh battery for up to a claimed 20 extra hours of battery life. There are two versions, one of which supports wireless charging. The mod will cost R1199 (according to the press release) or possibly R999 (according to the executives at the media briefing).

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

• Hasselblad True Zoom: This mod (pictured above) offers Hasselblad optics for better photography and comprises a 12 megapixel camera with a 10X optical zoom and a xenon flash. There are physical shutter and zoom controls and the mod allows the phone to take photographs in RAW format. The mod will cost R4299 (according to the press release) or possibly R3999 (according to the executives at the media briefing).

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

• Insta-Share Projector: This mod (pictured above) turns the phone into a projector that can project up to a 70-inch screen at 480p resolution (WVGA 854x480) and an intensity of 50 lumens. The lamp life is 10 000 hours and there is a built-in kickstand to allow users to stand the phone on a flat surface to project the image. This mod also includes a 1100 mAh battery, which offers up to one extra hour of projection time. The mod will cost R4699 (according to the press release) or possibly R4999 (according to the executives at the media briefing).

• JBL SoundBoost: This mod (pictured below left), which includes a kickstand, turns the phone into a portable audio player that boosts the sound of music and videos and can also be used as a speakerphone. It features stereo 3W JBL speakers (27mm in size) with a maximum level of 80 decibels. The mod also includes a 1000 mAh battery that offers 10 extra hours of battery life. The mod will cost R1699.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

In theory I really like the idea of modular electronics and being able to customised exactly what you want based on what you do, what you like, and your lifestyle. In practice I don't know how well it will work, especially when your base unit is a phone. I could definitely get on board with a device that would allow you to swap out the processor and graphics processor over time, which would also allow you to upgrade the operating system indefinitely - right now there are many devices permanently stuck on versions of Android 4 and Android 5 - but that's not what we have here so I'm not going to get sidetracked on what is a very attractive idea to me. (Especially since one of the pioneering ideas, Project Ara, which, ironically, was developed by Google using those Motorola patents, is dead.)

Instead, we do have a problem in that phones in their current form have a lifespan. Lenovo has said that the Moto Mods will fit future phones but we have no guarantee of that because, among other things, the next big thing might be small-form-factor phones (again). Additionally, Christoph Janeba stated that the company promises a "two- to three- year commitment" to forwards/backwards compatibility. That's scary. That's the near future.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa
Above: Graham Braum, the general manager for Mobile Business Group, Lenovo Africa, and Christoph Janeba, Lenovo's director of product operations EMEA, Mobile Business Group, address the media.
Graham Braum also said that "it's not our prime focus to develop mods", which means that the handful that are currently available may end up being the only ones the company produces. He did also state that "we're bringing the ecosystem" and that many brands have expressed interest in developing mods. My assumption is that it is hoping a mod ecosystem will develop in much the same way as an accessories ecosystem has for iPhones, which would be great, but it's too soon to tell whether this will take off. The Motorola brand is going to have to fight its way back into the market, which, as we all know, is dominated by a handful of very large players, and it may be too late. BlackBerry, which launched the BlackBerry PRIV (and, more recently the BlackBerry DTEK range), a fantastic Android phone, to try to get back into the market after drastically losing market share with its BlackBerry OS-powered phones, is getting nowhere. (BlackBerry OS has dropped from a 20.1% worldwide market share in Q1 2009 to 0.1% in Q2 2016, according to a report on Statista.)

Additionally, the price of the Moto Z, plus the mods, is a huge barrier to entry, certainly in this country, where premium phones do not have a large market share (as much as the brands would like you to think otherwise) so I am going to assume that gaining market share will be a huge exercise (both locally and internationally). It's possible - but it will be costly.

Let's Talk About The Future

Motorola has made its Moto Mods development kit available to anyone who wants it (for a price, via the Motorola Developer Portal; it currently costs US$125/GBP£100, via element14, and includes "a reference Moto Mod with all core computing function, a perforated board with 364 solder points, and a rear housing to carry your prototype" and you'll also, obviously, need to buy a Moto Z.)

This means that anyone can build mods for the system either for themselves or to bring them to market, although they will have to go through a certification process if the developer wants to commercialise them. This is to ensure that they will work with all versions of the phone(s) and that there aren't any inherent flaws that could cause problems or be dangerous.

In contrast to what the executives at the media briefing seemed to be implying about Lenovo's commitment, the Motorola Developer Portal is stating that Lenovo Capital has set aside up to US$1 million to help developers bring "the best Moto Mod ideas to market". Developers with a working prototype can submit their designs, which will be evaluated by an expert team, and those with "the best prototype" will be able to pitch for investment funding to get the mod to market.

This is a good - and necessary - push to get people building mods for the ecosystem.

Lenovo Launches The Moto Z Modular Phone In South Africa

There are sectors of the market that might find this phone very appealing if the right mods are developed. Think of something such as the handheld parts of the Nintendo Switch but for an Android phone: after all, mobile gaming is huge. The medical sector, and this could include medical personnel needing more cost-effective, portable devices in rural, remote, and war-torn areas, could also benefit from the right mods (Lenovo, itself, has suggested blood-pressure monitors and air-pollution sensors).

Graham Braum mentioned that he hopes to see a lot of innovation coming out of Africa, which is already a pioneer when it comes to innovative apps and mobile services. The possibilities are currently endless - but we're going to have to wait to see what happens.

As for the phone itself - well, it would be great to see one, nevermind test one. Hopefully those review units will materialise soon.

Tags: #technology

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