Smartphone reviewers, including myself, write reviews that read more like Robert Parker’s reviews of expensive wines from great vineyards. Oenophiles and smartphone reviewers alike often meander through subtle differences that most consumers don’t have the palette to distinguish.
The Moto Z with the Hasselblad True Zoom Moto Mod add-on module, however, allows smartphone reviewers, for the first time in a long time, to stop meandering with subtleties and gives them something tangible to write about.
The power of Hasselblad True Zoom
The Moto Z can be personalized with a point-and-shoot 10X optical zoom paired with a top-tier image sensor built by camera industry icon Hasselblad.
The True Zoom uses a 12-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor with large 1.55µm pixels that capture more light compared to most smartphone cameras that are built with less-expensive CCD sensors with 1.2 µm pixel sensors. The Nexus 6P uses a similar sensor with 1.55µm pixels, and HTC’s Ultrapixel technology uses an even larger 2.0µm pixel sensor. But none of the smartphone cameras can change the focal length with an optical zoom to bring a distant scene closer like a telescope.
The geometry of the sensors explains why the True Zoom will outperform every smartphone camera. When a smartphone camera viewing screen is zoomed-in with a gesture (opposite of pinch) the camera lenses are fixed. Zooming in on a scene is really an enlargement of the image that would have been captured without the zoom. The enlarged shot uses only part of the sensor.
A smartphone without an optical zoom captures a 2x-zoomed image using just half the pixels, throwing away the other half.
One way to think about it is to compare this fixed focal length zoom to using a photo editor on a PC to manually crop and enlarge a photo image 2x. First, the desired scene is cropped from the larger image into one half the size of the original. Then the cropped image composed with half the pixels is enlarged to the size of the original image. The resulting enlarged-cropped image has half the light for the human eye to render.
The image below explains how the geometry of the cropped image renders a less-faithful reproduction of the scene with only half the pixels.
Why the True Zoom is better
The servo motor in the True Zoom lens optically adjusts the camera lenses to focus the full scene on the camera’s entire image sensor. The enlarged image created with all 12 megapixels is a more faithful representation of the scene, bringing it up to 10 times closer than the original scene first seen in the viewfinder. The True Zoom will also digitally zoom up to four times at the cost fewer pixels.
Newly designed manual mode
Motorola designers have redesigned the Moto Z camera app with an intuitive manual mode that will impress camera-savvy consumers. Less camera-literate consumers can also understand the intuitive interface to improve their photos. Focus, white balance, f-stop, ISO and exposure are adjusted using self-explaining radial dials until the photo is just right.
The images below show that combining the True Zoom optical zoom with manual mode produces a photo that would otherwise be impossible with a smartphone.
The photo on the left was taken at 8x zoom on automatic. The bright light behind the subject suppressed the automatic flash, resulting in a very dark image. Using the radial dials in manual mode—adjusting for exposure, ISO and f-stop with the flash—captured the musician in the foreground in the photo on the right. Some of the background detail was, of course, lost, but the subject is pretty clearly rendered. With a little more experience and a smartphone tripod mount, the image could be improved.
The capabilities of Hasselblad’s camera app falls between Motorola's automatic and manual modes, sort of a P-Mode for digital SLR users. Consumers choose a category of photo, such as sports, backlit portrait or landscape, which helps the auto-mode algorithms to render better images.
There are quite a few interesting features, such as optical image stabilization and raw image capture, for people who want to use computer-based professional editing tools to create a final optimized image. The full specs follow:
Moto Mods help designers add unique smartphone features
Designers are locked into creating phones that are just a little better than their last, but consumers would be hard-pressed to differentiate the new phone from last year’s model and to choose the subtly best one. The chart below of the DxOMark rankings of the top 10 smartphone cameras explains the designers’ and smartphone camera reviewers’ dilemma.
There’s just a few points difference between the top-ranked camera and the tenth. And Samsung’s previous year model, the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, ranks just one point below the Samsung Galaxy S7. Because the rankings are so close, it takes a lot of advertising dollars to change a consumer’s preference.
By the way, the Moto Z Play is a cool phone
Consumers looking to buy a high-quality, stylish, glass and metal smartphone in the $400 range shouldn’t deliberate too long. The Moto Z Play is very similar to the Moto Z Droid released last month.
The design, chassis and camera are the same. The screen pixel density is slightly less at 402ppi, compared to the Droid’s 535ppi. The Moto Z Play has one gigabyte less RAM and uses the Snapdragon 625 processor instead of the flagship Snapdragon 820 compared to the Droid. One might see the difference only when running CPU- and GPU-intensive apps such as games. And it costs about $220 less. The Moto Z Play also has an unlock bootloader for those who want to root their phones.
Pricing and availability
Moto Z Play Droid will be available in the U.S. beginning Sept. 8 at Motorola.com and at Verizon for $17 per month on the Verizon device payment plan, or $408 full price.
The Hasselblad True Zoom will be available in the U.S. for pre-order starting Sept. 8 and available beginning Sept. 15 at Verizon.com and Verizon stores for $249.99 and on Motorola.com for $299. For a limited time, when you buy a Moto Mod, Verizon is offering 50 percent off another Mod. Discount applies to equal or lower-priced Mod.
Moto Z and Moto Z Play will be available in the U.S. in GSM unlocked versions, with pre-sales beginning Sept. 15 and availability beginning in October. Moto Z will be available unlocked for $699.99, and Moto Z Play will be available unlocked for $449.99.