Can the new Moto G survive in the world it helped create?
Two years ago, the original Moto G redefined the concept of the affordable smartphone. In a world where even midrange devices commanded $300-$400 unlocked, Motorola’s game-changer debuted at just $179. It brought much of the pocketability and visual appeal of the contemporaneous first-gen Moto X, and thanks to the pairing of near-stock software and a solid processor, it ran Android almost as smoothly as the day’s top-tier flagships. We called it “a surprising pleasure to use” in our full review, ultimately concluding that it was a steal.
Motorola improved on the formula with last year’s Moto G 2014, refining the camera and stretching out the display while moving the speaker to a more sensible position on the faceplate. The minor nature of these improvements didn’t bother us too much:
… even if Motorola only made a few changes to the hardware, we can think of at least two reasons we’re completely okay with that. One, Motorola got it right the first time by offering a whole lot of value for a very small price – just a fraction of what other, comparable smartphones were. And two, when you’re only asking $179 for a smartphone packed with some rather compelling specifications, there isn’t a lot of room for improvement.
The world, it seems, agreed. The Moto G went on to become Motorola’s top-selling smartphone family of all time. It may not have been the most glamorous of success stories, but after years of distractions and under-appreciated flagships, the beleaguered company had finally recaptured some of its old magic from the DROID and RAZR days.
Yesterday, Motorola announced the latest refresh to its midrange family, the Moto G 2015. Motorola built it to IPX7 standards for water resistance while also adding customizability through MotoMaker, allowing buyers to shuffle casing and accent colors to produce a phone that’s uniquely theirs. The primary camera got an upgrade to 13MP (it’s actually the same sensor as found in the Nexus 6, with a new IR filter for glare reduction and a color-balancing flash) and the front-facing shooter saw a bump to 5MP as well. Finally, the Moto G 2014 boasts universal 4G LTE band support, solving compatibility headaches in many of the 60 countries it rolled out to yesterday. While our conclusions and buying recommendations will have to wait until our full review next week, on paper this is easily the best Moto G ever.
But it also might be the last Moto G ever – or at least, the last of its kind. The landscape has shifted; the competition has gotten crazy, and the Moto G 2015 has an uphill climb to match some of the rivals that have sprung up since 2013.
Consider the Alcatel OneTouch IDOL 3, a product we characterized as the budget smartphone to rule them all in a review from last spring. Its octa-core Snapdragon 615 is faster than the quad-core 410 in the Moto G, with a more advanced GPU to boot, and it runs a similarly stripped-down version of Android that’s at least as responsive as Motorola’s offering. The IDOL 3’s screen is larger at 5.5″ and higher-resolution at 1080p; its front-firing speakers are stereo; the battery is larger; and the whole phone can be flipped 180° so you can use it upside down. Okay, I’d probably trade that last gimmick for the waterproofing or customizability of the Moto G 2015, but the point is that the IDOL 3 packs a ton of features into a package that works really well – and it’s not much pricier than the Moto G at $249 unlocked.
If that doesn’t spin your gyroscope, check out the ASUS ZenFone 2. The faux-metal phone squeezes a 5.5-inch Full HD display, Intel processor, and up to 4GB of RAM into a two-piece casing that offers almost as many customization options as the Moto G. It ships with a 3000 mAh battery and a 13MP camera whose viewfinder is absolutely teeming with shooting modes – and it starts at an insanely low price of $199 unlocked. Even the $299 for the higher-end version we reviewed is more than fair given the kind of performance we got during our testing.
Windows Phone more your speed? Microsoft led the charge for super-cheap smartphones years ago with the Lumia 520, and it’s since carpet-bombed the midrange with similarly affordable options. The Lumia 640, which we reviewed a while back, packs a 5-inch 720p display, a Snapdragon 400 processor, an 8MP camera, MicroSD memory expansion and a removable 2500 mAh battery. Yeah, that’s a pretty lackluster list … but this is a smartphone with a starting price of $129 unlocked. And if you want the more capable variant with the much larger display, you’re only looking at $249 unlocked.
In a world with options like these, it’s tough to see people flocking to Motorola’s mid-tier offerings in the numbers they have in the past. That’s not to say the Moto G 2015 won’t see any success; its wide availability will help it win in markets where affordability is a top concern, and it’s possible that features like waterproofing and the reworked camera will carry it to another wave of super sales. But it seems doubtful these assets will lead to the same kind of momentum Motorola’s gotten used to.
This year, Motorola’s more interesting moves seem to be happening on the high end, where it’s slashed the price of its flagship Moto X by $100 relative to 2014. The result is a $399 smartphone with one-of-a-kind hardware customization, a gorgeous display and a very capable spec sheet: a device primed to do battle with the Axons and OnePlus 2s of the world. As the price war moves to higher-end products like these, we’re bound to see the excitement around phones like the comparatively modest Moto G fade away, at least in developed markets. Here’s hoping, for Motorola’s sake, that the Moto X Style/Pure Edition is good enough to pick up the slack.