Motorola Moto E Review: budget performance done right
It’s been almost a year since we reviewed the first generation of Motorola’s most budget-priced smartphone: the Moto E. The word “budget” carries with it images of dread and avoidance – though it shouldn’t, especially when referring to the Moto E. Last year we said “you don’t get something for nothing,” and questioned whether Motorola Mobility sacrificed “too much” on the way to becoming “affordable.” This year the 2015 Moto E (or “Moto E Gen 2” if you prefer) hit the ground running. Has Motorola done enough to elevate the Moto E from a “you get what you pay for” product to a loftier “good value for your dollar” one?
Let’s find out.
Specs & Hardware
Like last year, looking at the Moto E’s spec sheet reveals that the phone’s innards were the focus of Motorola’s cost-cutting efforts. This year the handset comes in a couple configurations: a 3G model and an LTE model. The 3G edition is powered by a Snapdragon 200 (Cortex-A7), whereas the LTE model uses the beefier Snapdragon 410 (Cortex-A53). Both are quad-core chips clocked at 1.2GHz. Graphics on the 3G model use the Adreno 302, with the LTE model getting a boost from its Adreno 306.
Both editions of the Moto E share the same IPS LCD panel and sport a resolution of 940 x 540 pixels tucked neatly behind a Gorilla Glass 3 panel, with a light oleophobic anti-smudge coating to help keep fingerprints and grit to a minimum.
The screen on this year’s model is moderately bigger than last year’s (4.5 inches compared to 4.3 inches), but the pixel density is slightly lower at 245ppi compared to last-year’s 256ppi. In practice, this difference isn’t all that noticeable, but it’s worth mentioning. Viewing angles aren’t that great either, but as long as you’re looking squarely at the screen, the display is vibrant and bright, and blacks are impressively deep.
As it did with the previous generation Moto E, Motorola isn’t going after the fashion crowd here. The handset is a phone that’s built to endure; its body is beefy and forgiving when it comes to bumps and scratches. In addition to its Gorilla Glass 3 screen, it’s also water resistant.
The Moto E feels great in the hand, doesn’t take up too much space in the pocket, and feels like a phone that you’d want to take anywhere – and wouldn’t hesitate doing so.
The Moto E ships with Android Lollipop, but it’s stuck at 5.0.2 for now. We suspect Motorola will keep it updated, though it seems like it’s already lagging a little bit in the update department. True to Motorola fashion, what you get is as close to stock Android as you’re going to find on any device that doesn’t sport the Nexus moniker. The interface is familiar, but Motorola has improved a few areas and added a handful of Motorola-specific apps that seem to justify their space on the somewhat limited internal storage.
Like last year’s model, all this is held back by lag, but it’s an interesting kind of lag. Apps and interactions aren’t slow, but when you fire up a new app, or launch a new activity there is an initial pause. One the app is loaded, things are pretty snappy, it’s just getting started that seems to take longer than it should.
Again, like last year, you’ll want to add a microSD card to your cost when considering purchasing the phone. The internal space has been doubled to 8GB in the 2015 model, but not all of that is available out of the box.
Considering that Motorola is targeting emerging markets that may have limited access to fast data networks, we’d have suspected Motorola would have included more on-board storage, but at least it included the ability to expand things with microSD.
When looking at the camera, this year Motorola stepped up its game. The 2015 Moto E camera is still a 5 MP shooter, but this time around it gets auto-focus and the ability to shoot 720P video at 30fps. There’s still no flash, but unlike last year, this model features a VGA-resolution camera up front, which is better than nothing.
The camera interface is clean, simple to use, and quick – especially when you launch it with a double-wrist-flick gesture (which looks odd when you do it, but it works great). When it comes to picture quality, take a look:
The Moto E’s camera is everything you’d expect from a 5-megapixel shooter. In bright sunlight with a good angle you can capture some good-looking photos. What surprised us was how well the camera did in non-ideal situations.
We took pictures in low light and bright light (even facing directly into the sun), and the images came out looking surprisingly decent. We tried to snap shots where our subjects were close-up, far away, and in mixed-focus situations. Each was fair, but none were astounding.
One interesting item of note is that the camera in our device defaulted to 3.7MP (16:9 widescreen) rather than 5MP (4:3 standard). If you want higher resolution pictures, you’ll need to sacrifice widescreen and manually toggle the change.
When it comes to video, the added resolution bump from last year’s model is nice, but some image stabilization would have been even better, as evidenced by the shaky video we got simply from walking down the driveway.
One somewhat novel feature of the camera app in the 2015 Moto E is the slow motion mode, seen here:
None of the pictures or videos we shot were overly impressive, but none of them looked “bad.” The shutter speed is fast. Colors were accurately reproduced. Noise was low. All told, the camera in the 2015 Moto E is a good all-around shooter.
For all its sacrifices, Motorola didn’t skimp where it really matters. The Moto E’s fundamentals are just as sharp as last year. From reception, to voice calls, to battery life, this device isn’t a flagship, but it’s still a first-class phone.
Motorola has over three-quarters of a century of experience in radio design and this is especially prominent in an area we usually gloss over: the FM receiver. That’s a more important feature for emerging markets than in more developed countries – but it’s one that we wish more OEMs would take advantage of domestically. Who needs LTE or even 3G when there’s free music in the air? The only drawback to this feature is the necessity of having a pair of headphones plugged in – the Moto E uses them as its aerial antenna. We heard virtually no static when listening to local radio stations, whether outdoors or in.
The same can be said for the cellular side, too. In weeks of testing on T-Mobile’s LTE network all over Northern Utah, call quality was always great on both ends of the call. LTE reception seemed to pull more bars than many other phones we compared it to, including our Nexus 5 and several iPhone 6 handsets (also on T-Mobile’s network). Speeds maxed out at whatever was available on whichever tower we were connected to, and easily kept up with the other devices we tested.
Bluetooth has been upgraded to v4.0 LE, but WiFi still lacks 802.11ac support, and NFC isn’t included.
The battery inside the Moto E is a 2390 mAh component, which seems a bit on the small side, but keep in mind that the phone features very power-friendly processors. After the initial break-in period, which is heavy with downloading and installing apps, the battery life started to shine as our usage leveled off: we regularly went days between charges. We even pushed to about a week of standby time before noticing the little phone had gone dark. Screen-on time reduced that endurance a bit, as expected, but even with several hours with the screen on, we were still able to make it through a full day. That’s without using Android’s power-saving mode, which could extend times even further.
+ Very low price for the hardware you’re getting
+ Durable, water-resistant construction
+ Outstanding reception with solid speaker performance in all audio modes
+ Very good battery life
– Slow software
– Limited viewing angles
– Limited internal storage
– MicroSD card requirement impacts affordability
Pricing and Availability
The 2015 Moto E is available in many areas now, and will eventually go on sale in more than 40 countries around the world. Regional variations in pricing are be expected; in the US, the Moto E currently retails for $120 for the 3G model, and $150 for the LTE model. It’s available with US or international band support, in white or black, and with several extra color options for an additional cost.
Moto E 2015 First Hands-On
This year Motorola was able to iron out most of the software stumbles that we experienced with last year’s model, though it still hesitates out of the gate when changing screens. The storage has been doubled to 8GB, but that’s still not enough room to grow. That storage is expandable, but only up to 32GB via a microSD card, which adds to the overall cost of the device. The processor was upped from a dual-core to a quad-core chip, so you’ve got a bit more power behind your apps.
The camera isn’t bad, and is a pretty decent upgrade from last year’s Moto E. You probably won’t win any photography contests with it, but as far as point-and-click cameras go, we can’t complain.
Like last year, here in the US, only $30 to $80 separates the E from its bigger brother, the Moto G (depending on which model of the E you get). We think the Moto G is still a much better buy.
The Moto E is still taking a global, emerging markets focus, and in some of those areas the price difference between the Moto G and Moto E is quite a bit different than domestically. Nonetheless, the Moto E is durable, has great call quality, and runs a fairly modern version of the Android OS (5.0.2 at the time we went to press).
In terms of getting what you pay for, like last year, the Moto E is a very good value (just don’t forget to by a 32GB microSD card). No, it’s not going to compete with the new Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9, but you could outfit your whole family with a Moto E each for the cost of one of those.