Moto G review: raising the bar for affordable Android smartphones
Motorola’s stake in the mobile industry has been constantly slipping, alongside revenue, for years now. In Q1 2008, it held a respectable 10.2 percent global cellphone market share. (Keep in mind, the smartphone-specific market was just then beginning to bloom.) According to Gartner, Motorola now resides among the many in the ominous “Other” category on its quarterly global market share reports.
Ever since the Google acquisition of Motorola Mobility in August 2012, Motorola has attempted to stem the bleeding: first through appointing a new CEO, Dennis Woodside, and also through consolidating and refining the hardware lineup, focusing more on user experience over the best, fleeting specifications possible.
The beginning of that endeavor was the Moto X, the recipient of glaring reviews around the globe, despite how mediocre and modest the handset appeared on paper. Motorola managed to pack an exceptional user experience in an otherwise unexceptional smartphone.
Despite the reception of the Moto X and Google’s best marketing efforts, the impact seems to have been minimal.
We learned late last month, however, Motorola had another trick up its sleeve: the Moto G, a Moto X look-alike for a fraction of the price.
We have a soft spot in our hearts for the Moto X. Can the Moto G have a similar effect on us despite its specs and price point? Were simply too many corners cut to keep the cost so low? Or is it a genuinely great budget smartphone?
We’ve now spent eight days with the Moto G, and here’s our take on Motorola’s remarkably affordable smartphone!
We’d also like to extend a final thanks to our friends at Clove for lending us this Moto G unit for review. Be sure to check out the company’s site at clove.co.uk for your mobile purchases and to see about ordering a Moto G of your own!
Specs & Hardware
References to the price of this device are scattered all throughout its review, simply because you can’t afford to look at this phone without price in mind. Affordability is the sole reason this smartphone exists, and if you choose to overlook that, you’ve missed the point entirely.
The very first indicator of sacrifices made is apparent upon tearing open the box: the only accessory included in the box is a micro USB cable. There’s no AC adapter for charging, so if you don’t have a surplus of wall chargers laying around, you may want to plan on purchasing an additional one.
Surprisingly, however, when we first took the device out of the box, it had a certain heft to it which caught us off guard.
In the hand, it feels a lot like its more premium and mature sibling, the Moto X. Visually, the two share a lot in common, as well. At a glance, the Moto G and Moto X are so similar, we were afraid a Moto X was accidentally slipped in the Moto G box. But a quick tour of the hardware ensured it was, in fact, the Moto G.
The tell-tale signs of the Moto G: the speaker grilles on both the front and back, which are noticeably larger and appear more budget-friendly; the removable backplate and lack of an external SIM slot; and the size and weight. In total, it measures 129.9mm tall, 65.9mm wide, and 11.6mm tall, which means it has an ever-so-slightly larger footprint than the Moto X. And it hits the scales at a moderate 143g, or 15g more than the Moto X.
No, this is not a comparison with the Moto X, but we have sufficient reasons for comparing the Moto G to the Moto X. Motorola somehow managed to convey much of the Moto X’s quality in a device it built and sells for a fraction of the price. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
Nothing about the hardware of the Moto G feels like it’s part of a budget smartphone. The build quality is great without considering the price. But factor in the $179 price tag (or $199, in our case) and the build quality is absolutely spectacular. It’s perfectly weighty and solid – like something we’d expect from a $400 or more smartphone.
Take a gander at the Moto G’s internals, and exactly where Motorola made its cost savings is immediately apparent. It’s powered by the Snapdragon 400 chipset – a 1.2GHz quad-core CPU and Adreno 305 GPU. The phone comes in either 8 or 16GB variations, has only 1GB RAM, a 5-megapixel rear camera, and a 2,070mAh battery.
Those specifications are respectable at the price point, but let it be known there are also a handful of caveats. The device has no LTE connectivity, NFC, or WiFi ac. For the target demographic, these sacrifices are minimal and will go mostly unnoticed. To someone who has used any recent flagship, these missing features will be a constant annoyance.
The display is surprisingly impressive on the Moto G. Is it the best we’ve seen? Obviously not. But it’s incredibly sharp. It measures 4.5 inches diagonally, for a total pixel density of 326 pixels per inch. Colors are quite vibrant, though they appear somewhat muted beside other displays. Contrast is relatively high, viewing angles are great, and whites are neutral. Blacks, unfortunately, are milky, not the inky we’d like to see. And although our unit shows no signs of issues, we’ve heard stories of quality control problems – dead pixels, light bleeding, etc.
Put simply, the display is better than anything we ever expected on a $200 smartphone. And that pretty well sums up how we feel about the rest of the hardware. It’s great without taking the price into consideration, but once you do, it’s an incredible bargain.
Motorola initially announced the Moto G would be shipping with Android 4.4 KitKat. At the time, we were looking at a later launch date. However, we came face to face with the Moto G much sooner than expected, and as a result, we were introduced to it running Android 4.3 – still Jelly Bean.
On the surface, it looks like the software we saw from the Moto X: a mostly stock version of Android with a few – yet very helpful and welcomed – changes from Motorola. The Moto X came with unique software features, such as: Touchless Control, the ability to perform a Google search from the dormant device, without touching it; Skip, or the ability to bypass the password or pattern lock using an NFC tag; and Active Display, a breathing message with the time and most recent notification which appear on the display every few seconds.
It would make sense for Motorola to pack as many useful software features into the Moto G as possible, to drive up the value of the offer. However, many of the Moto X’s awesome features are missing on the Moto G for one, simple reason: hardware requirements which the Moto G does not meet.
Touchless Control uses Motorola’s X8 mobile computing system – a unique combination of the Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset and two low-power contextual computing cores – which the Moto G does not use. Active Display uses the unique advantage of no power consumption in the use of black pixels when driving AMOLED displays – the Moto G’s LCD panel would consume a considerable amount of power pulsing the display off and on throughout the day. And Motorola Skip requires NFC, a feature which is oddly absent in the Moto G.
It comes with a handful of Motorola’s software additions, such as Moto Care, an application which offers periodical tips or suggestions for making the most of your smartphone, as well as offering one-touch chat and calling options for customer service.
The Moto G also comes with Motorola Assist installed. Assist toggles settings based on different scenarios. The Sleeping mode acts like Do Not Disturb on iOS, silencing notifications during set times. Using the Meeting setting, you can also silence notifications for scheduled meetings in your calendar. Assist on the Moto G does not have the Driving mode, though, since that requires the contextual processor cores from the X8 mobile computing system.
Our favorite software feature on the Moto G is Trusted Devices. If you use a pattern or password lock on your Moto G and you connect a Bluetooth device, you can add it to the list of Trusted Devices. When connected to a trusted device, the Moto G will not lock. If the device disconnects, the password will be required to access the device again.
For easy migration from one device to another, Motorola also pre-installs Motorola Migrate, and hidden within the Settings application are two final Motorola touches: Motorola Privacy and Motorola Device ID. Motorola Privacy allows you to opt in or out of Moto Care and device usage statistics. Motorola Device ID is there to let you choose which Google account you use for Moto Care and Motorola’s Lost Phone Web Portal.
An interesting side note: our Moto G unit is the global model. In our testing, we quickly noticed the software keyboard did not have the gesture typing ability built-in. In asking around on Twitter, our friend Marques Brownlee confirmed his US model did have gesture typing included. Strangely enough, the UK and US models are running different builds of software. Fortunately, it’s a simple fix. Downloading the Google Keyboard from Google Play brings the gesture typing ability to the UK Moto G in a few quick steps.
Outside those few add-ons, this version of software is virtually bone stock Android. And that’s important on a device like this, since both storage options available for the phone are rather small. On our 16GB model, 12.92GB are available to the user. With something like TouchWiz or Sense, we imagine that free space would be considerably less.
And for that, we have very few complaints when it comes to software on the Moto G. It’s a mostly barebones experience, which might have been something we would have complained about in years past. But the stock Android experience has come leaps and bounds in the last two years.
The camera on the Moto G is hardly anything to get excited over, and for good reason.
The camera interface is actually the best part of the whole experience. Motorola’s camera interface is wide open and clean. It’s also simple to navigate, and the separation of focus/exposure control and the shutter is a much-welcomed improvement.
What happens after you tap the screen for the shutter, however, is less exciting. Images are, more often than not, dull and lifeless. Color reproduction is muted, contrast is painfully low, and dynamic range could certainly stand to be improved.
In great lighting, the Moto G was able to take some passable images – the ones which didn’t turn out blurry, that is. On rare occasion, colors were natural and true to life. But the moment lighting became an issue, the camera performance took a serious dive. With a maximum resolution of five megapixels, there isn’t a lot of detail to begin with. In low-light situations, add in the noise and artifacts, and the image quality is laughable by today’s standards.
Video quality, maxing out at 720p resolution, unfortunately isn’t much better. The colors are washed-out, contrast is very low, and detail is mediocre. The audio, on the other hand, wasn’t bad, though background noise was an issue. We also experienced trouble with in-video refocusing, as tapping the display will snap a photo instead of controlling the focus area.
The quality of the 1.3-megapixel front camera is par for the course. It’s there to serve the purpose of video calls and selfies, often areas where quality and detail aren’t of the utmost importance. It gets the job done. Nothing more, nothing less.
Performance on the Moto G isn’t exactly incredible. The Snapdragon 400 chipset is far from the worst CPU and GPU combination to date. It’s a 1.2GHz quad-core Cortex-A7 CPU with an Adreno 305 GPU. It typically provides a smooth experience. For instance, browsing the Web is buttery smooth – everything from pinch zooming to panning. Flipping between home pages is also smooth, as is any amount of scrolling and panning.
Opening and closing applications, task switching, and multitasking is fairly quick, too. It’s noticeably slower than the Snapdragon S4 Pro in the Moto X or the Snapdragon 800 chip in many other flagships – no surprise there. Nor were there any surprises in synthetic benchmarks. We’ve seen far better and far worse in devices this year alone.
The major performance drawback is less about the phone’s CPU or GPU and more about memory. The Moto G only has 1GB RAM, and that leads to more aggressive application closing than we’re accustomed to these days. The fourth or sometimes the third application in successive task switching will entirely reload.
We did notice a very small amount of stutters and lag, but the aggressive application closing is what truly disrupts the fluidity of the device’s performance.
On the bright side, the consistency and overall performance could improve with the forthcoming KitKat update, as the update was intended to improve performance on lower-end handsets.
The speaker on the backside of the Moto G provides a fair amount of volume, comparable to that of the Moto X. It’s strong on the mids and highs, but the low end is unsurprisingly absent, making music and speakerphone callers sound tinny and robotic. And at full volume, the audio begins to distort.
Fortunately, the earpiece speaker performance was substantially better than the speakerphone quality. We were told we sounded crisp and clear from several callers, and the earpiece speaker provided ample volume and great quality.
The lack of LTE connectivity did make data speeds suffer to some degree. The downlink speeds maxed out at 8.13Mbps and the uplink peaked at 2.39Mbps. The average speeds on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network throughout the Charlotte metro area were 5.23Mbps down and 1.8Mbps up. The speeds are certainly sufficient for most people’s needs, but the lack of LTE is noticeable.
Finally, the Moto G’s stamina is something we’re quite pleased with. The 2,070mAh battery doesn’t provide the most impressive results to date, but it did manage to power us through most days on moderate usage. The typical day consisted of benchmarking, pushing three Gmail accounts, syncing three social accounts, Web browsing, taking dozens of photos, and light gaming. We managed between two and a half to three hours of screen-on time each day. On some days, however, we did need a mid-afternoon charge to last us into the night.
+ Extremely affordable
+ Great display
+ Decent battery life
+ A mostly stock Android experience
+ Easily customizable hardware via additional backplates
– Meager storage options
– No LTE or NFC
– RAM limitation is troublesome at times
Pricing and Availability
Above all, this is the high point of this review and this device. Sans contract, the Moto G retails for just $179 for the 8GB model and $199 for the 16GB variant. That’s roughly one-third the full retail price of a standard flagship model, or approximately the price of a subsidized flagship with a two-year agreement.
It first launched in Europe and Brazil, followed by Latin America, Canada, and the United States.
You can also check Clove for availability in other regions of the world.
By default, the Moto G comes in black, but additional back shells can be purchased from Motorola for $14.99 in Chalk, Violet, Royal Blue, Turquoise, Lemon Lime, or Cherry. Flip Shells are available for $29.99 in the same colors.
If you look at the Moto G in a vacuum, it’s not a bad phone, nor is it a compelling phone. Ignoring price, it would be yet another one of the countless low-end smartphones without a purpose. But when you consider the entire package – the hardware, the specifications, performance, user experience, and the price – the Moto G is a bargain.
No, it’s a steal.
In essence, it’s like the Moto X Lite – a similar experience, in a similarly packaged smartphone, minus the premium features and premium price tag. It will become the gold standard for what an entry level, budget smartphone should be.
The real question is: who is the Moto G for? Just about anyone … with the exception of tech fiends, that is. It will make a fantastic first smartphone, either for a high school or college student. It can serve as a great backup phone, for those times your phone gets lost, dies, or needs to be sent off for repairs. It will also serve well as a downgrade for a smartphone veteran who realizes how few their actual needs are.
The entire time we carried this phone, we had to remind ourselves it was only a $199 smartphone. Is it something we would carry ourselves? Obviously not. But it’s a phone we wouldn’t mind carrying if we had to. It was a surprising pleasure to use.