Modular smartphone hardware promises a world without compromise. No more thinking, “what a great phone! If only it had a better battery, or speaker, or camera.” With modular hardware, users have the freedom to swap in alternate components as they choose.
Right now the modular platform with the most momentum is Lenovo’s Moto Mods for the Moto Z series of phones, having launched earlier this summer with modules like a portable projector. Now the latest Moto Mod is making its debut, and rather than introducing some new functionality, it offers an upgrade over some of the hardware built into these phones: the Hasselblad True Zoom camera.The Hasselblad True Zoom is interesting in that it brings an entirely new camera to any of the Moto Z phones. This isn’t like the LG Cam Plus for the G5, which offers a nice grip and hardware camera controls, but uses the phone’s built-in camera. Nor is it like the unwieldy old Sony clamp-on “lens-style” cameras. Instead, the True Zoom is a slim, compact module that clings to the back of any Moto Z phone and delivers its own 12MP camera, 10x optical zoom lens, real xenon flash, and camera grip with hardware zoom and shutter controls.
Meeting the True Zoom face-to-face, the unit certainly appears impressive, and it’s a joy to attach the module to a Moto Z phone for the first time and watch its zoom lens spring to life.
But while the True Zoom helps bridge the gap between smartphone camera and stand-alone point-and-shoot camera, it’s important to be realistic about the hardware we’re looking at here. The camera’s 12MP sensor is a 1/2.3-inch component with 1.55 um pixels, and while that’s larger than the sensors you’ll find on many smartphones – and a larger sensor (with larger pixels) tends to be one of the most important factors in getting higher quality pics – it’s far from the biggest we’ve ever seen.
Compare that with the iPhone 6’s camera, with 1.5 um pixels (albeit a smaller, 8MP sensor), or with the Lumia 1020’s giant 1/1.5-inch sensor. This one’s quite good, but not exactly the best around. Instead, rather than being a best-in-class component that would justify the True Zoom’s camera upgrade on its own, the sensor is but one of many parts that seek to add up to making the accessory as a whole a worthwhile upgrade.
Maybe the biggest selling point of the True Zoom is its titular zoom lens, and we can’t deny that it’s a lot of fun to use. There’s something enormously empowering about looking at a full-field shot in your preview window and being able to quickly crop in on one tiny area while maintaining full resolution the whole time.
In practice, though, zooming feels slightly more like a novelty than a must-have, daily-use feature. The hardware rocker control for wide/zoom is nice to have, but the switch itself feels a bit loose, and its input is on a hair trigger; it’s extremely difficult to make small adjustments to zoom, a situation exacerbated by the lag between hitting the switch, the lens moving, and the viewfinder updating. More granular control would be a godsend.
It’s also worth noting that the zoom lens itself is a bit noisy, and if you intend to adjust zoom while filming video, a lot of motor noise will end up on your recording.
Another consequence of zooming is that it tends to adversely affect auto-focus performance, and grabbing new subjects can take a little time; that’s especially true while shooting video. The good news is that once you have focus, pics tend to be nice and sharp, thanks to the presence of optical stabilization – but only for still images, not video.
Finally, we have the xenon flash, and as expected it’s bright and produces copious amounts of scene-filling light. The True Zoom’s camera already has some pretty solid low-light performance, so you may not even need to take advantage of the flash all that much, but it’s nice to know you’ve got a capable light source there when you need it.
For all we’ve said about the True Zoom’s sensor not being some huge component that puts every other smartphone to shame, it really does capture some nice pics. Images are awash with detail, and the presence of that zoom lens is always tempting you to look even closer for more.
The optical stabilization keeps even zoomed-in pics looking clean, and helps squeeze low-light performance for everything it has. While there’s definitely a limit to how low you can go before needing a flash, even just a few streetlights should be enough for the True Zoom to work with.
While the True Zoom offers plenty of features, it does come up short in one key area: there’s no 4K video support. That may have something to do with processing demands or bandwidth limitations of the Moto Mods bus, but for whatever reason, the camera add-on tops out at 1080p 30fps recording.
If you’re shooting one subject, even with the zoom engaged, video recording tends to be OK. The electronic stabilization isn’t quite as clean as the OIS for still-pic mode, but keep a steady grip and you should be fine.
Problems only really start arising when you begin putting the zoom to work. As we already mentioned, the zoom motor is plainly audible in recorded video, and reacquiring focus after zooming in can take seconds upon seconds; don’t count on being able to quickly zoom in and continue recording without interruption.
If you can understand and live with those limitations, though, the ability to zoom while recording HD video is a nice little extra to add to our smartphone bag of tricks.
The Hassleblad True Zoom taps into the same camera software the powers the Moto Z phones’ built-in cameras, helping using the accessory feel as natural as working with the phones themselves. That makes switching resolution easy and intuitive, as well as accessing extended camera controls.
Problem is, that also means working with the same software limitations, like if you’re shooting a bunch of video footage and briefly jump out of the camera app to send a text message, it’s going to forget you’re in video mode and default back to still-pic when returning.
Software’s also very aggressive about engaging and disengaging the True Zoom’s lens. While we can appreciate the desire to keep it tucked away and safe from damage when not in use, this is a smartphone, designed for multitasking; having the lens pop in and out every time you jump between apps gets awkward fast – and we can’t imagine it’s good for wear on all those moving parts.
There are also a few glitches now and then: sometimes we’d get odd rows of colored pixels on the camera app’s display while trying to communicate with the True Zoom, and other times the app crashed entirely. We’re hoping Lenovo’s working on making that better – and it’s already prepared one update that enables earlier Moto Z phones to work with the True Zoom at all – but for now you might run into a few scattered issues.
Motorola’s asking just about $300 for the Hasselblad True Zoom on its own, while Verizon slashes $50 off that price tag. Either way you cut it, that’s a pricy upgrade – on par with the $300 Insta-Share projector. And while the True Zoom’s a lot of fun to use, and has the capacity to capture some impressive pics, it also doesn’t feel quite refined enough to demand that sort of money. If the sensor were a little larger, or the hardware buttons a tad sturdier, or there were 4K video support, arguing in support of the True Zoom would be that much easier.
Right now, though, the True Zoom does a lot simply OK, and we’re not sure that’s necessarily worth the price of admission. Ultimately, it feels like you’re paying for the novelty of optical zoom, while we’d have liked to see more attention paid to all the other aspects of the shooting experience, as well.
But if zoom’s your thing, and you’d love a phone that can transition between a slim, pocket-friendly handset and one ready to take some seriously telephoto shots, the Hasselblad True Zoom represents a pretty capable, easy-to-use option.
Check our the galleries below for examples of what kind of shots the Hasselblad True Zoom can take – here paired with a Moto Z Play Droid.
Hasselblad True Zoom impressions and gallery: see what the Moto Mods camera add-on can do