Hands on with Motorola’s new budget superstar
For a long time now, budget Android smartphones have generally been poorly received by both critics and consumers alike. Whilst the design and build quality can still be to an acceptable standard, it is the experience of using a budget handset for a lengthy time that causes problems. The two major problems with this type of device from any manufacturer have tended to be their installation of older versions of Android that don’t get updated, along with a slow and laggy experience in comparison to more feature filled phones.
Google have long been aware of this issue as it is something that affects many of the millions of Android users around the globe. This is especially true in emerging markets where cheaper phones using older versions of Android (generally the stable but now years out of date 2.3 Gingerbread), proliferate due to their low cost. Google’s biggest issue with older Android on new phones is that it locks users out of using the updated Play Store and other new services that are not supported. Android also gets an unfairly bad reputation in certain circles based on these experiences too.
Since Google acquired Motorola in 2011, many have wondered in what direction new Motorola products would go, and how much influence Google would have on these proceedings. North America got a glimpse of things to come with the well-received Moto X, released in August, and now the rest of the world gets to play with the Moto G.
“What do you need from a sub £150 smartphone?”
The Moto G is the phone to change your perception of cheaper Android devices. If you had to answer the question “What do you need from a sub £150 smartphone?”, I’m quietly confident the Moto G would tick every box and more from all but the most niche use-cases. If you’re reading this review and looking at the Moto G as a first, new or replacement handset then the chances are you’re somewhat familiar with Android already and not too concerned about raw specifications. With that in mind I’ll try to steer clear of being too techy and focus on what’s important at this price point: functionality and performance.
Read on for the full review
The Moto G is quite an unassuming device from the front. Much like the Google designed (but LG manufactured) Nexus 5, there is no branding on the front of the device at all. Instead there is only the small earpiece grille and front facing camera on the top of the relatively thick glossy bezel surrounding the screen. The screen is a scene stealing 4.5 inch high definition 720p display that trumps anything else available at this price in terms of clarity, colour reproduction and brightness. Sat next to comparable devices in stores, the Moto G screen is going to make other budget handsets look amateurish in comparison.
It’s quite large in the hand, in part due to the large bezel previously mentioned. The Moto G doesn’t have any ‘soft keys’ on the bezel like Samsung or HTC phones; all the controls are located on the actual touch screen as the device runs almost stock Android. This makes the bottom bezel relatively dead space. The resultant size of the Moto G is similar in the hand to a Galaxy S4 Mini. Unless you have particularly small hands then the Moto G is comfortable to use with one hand, something the larger flagships are now being criticised for by some.
Although the Moto G could undoubtedly be a fair bit smaller and lighter without compromising on the screen size, the R&D time would have adversely impacted on the final price. What we’re ultimately left with is a phone that is neither ugly nor spectacular and still feels like a quality build in the hand. Another thought on the overall size; had the Moto G been smaller, it may have risked looking less ‘impressive’ at first glance. A physically smaller device could run the risk of being perceived as not as good as say the Galaxy Ace 3 or S4 Mini that the Moto G is being pitched against.
The back cover of the Moto G is removable and it is quite likely that adverts and press releases will be showing off the variety of coloured backs available very soon. The back cover hides only the micro SIM card slot as the battery is non-removable and there is no support for expandable storage with micro SD cards. At launch only the basic black cover is available out of the box. The coloured backs are right on the horizon and bring Yellow, Red, Blue Turquoise & Violet to the table. The basic covers are quite cheap (about £8.99 inc. VAT) so obtaining replacements or swapping out for fun every now and again isn’t a big investment.
Some may see the colours as a bit of a gimmick (similar to the personalisation options for the Moto X in the USA) but I actually think it’s quite a cool addition. Smartphones have become very utilitarian in the last few years and in my opinion owning a mobile has lost a sense of fun as everyone is trying to get ‘the best’, whatever that actually means. I remember when getting hold of customisable face plates and buttons was all part of the fun of having your own phone. Motorola might be on to a little something here with a younger generation looking at personalisation. If the Moto G does well I predict a slew of cheap 3rd party backplates becoming available.
I won’t dwell on the hardware but it should be said that Motorola have managed to squeeze in a fair amount of power considering the price of the Moto G. Google must have had some influence as a quick run down of the specification makes the G look like a baby Nexus device. The most important specifications are the processor and the screen which wipe the floor with all competition for at least 100 or so pounds on anyone’s price list.
A 1.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 is running the phone with 1 GB of RAM behind it. Part of Qualcomm’s newest range of processors, this is one up from their current entry level chip and makes the Moto G easily the cheapest quad-core handset on the market. This also includes a pretty decent on board graphics unit, the Adreno 305, which can handle quite high quality games and high definition video decoding.
- 1.2 GHz Quad Core Snapdragon 400 processor
- 4.5 inch HD 720p capacitive touchscreen
- 5 MP camera with autofocus & flash
- 1.3 MP front facing camera
- 1 GB RAM
- FM Radio
- 8 / 16 GB storage options
Android / Experience Launcher
The Moto G is using the new ‘Experience’ launcher from the moment the handset is turned on. This is the same looking interface as is found on the Nexus 5, although the Moto G is running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean right now, rather than the newest 4.4 KitKat. This won’t matter too soon though, as Motorola have already confirmed that an update to KitKat will be available before the end of the year. With the new launcher included out of the box, the update should not prove jarring to any users unfamiliar with the update procedure on an Android device. This will almost certainly be delivered Over The Air (OTA), with a notification appearing on the handset to let you know that an update is available and prompting you to continue with downloading and installing it.
Getting the Moto G to comfortably run the newest version of Android (without any major additions from the standard version Google provide on Nexus phones), shows the rest of the industry that cheap handsets no longer have to be underpowered and running old software. It’s quite an aggressive move from the Google/Motorola camp as it now makes anything else on the market that isn’t definitively a higher tier device, appear either grossly overpriced or outdated. Moto G is now the new entry level standard. If other manufacturers can’t match it with their own cheap Androids, we could be looking at a very one sided race at the bottom end of the market for quite some time.
Android 4.3 with Experience runs like a dream on the Moto G, with slick transitions throughout the interface and seamless browsing when connected to a decent quality network. If anyone is worried about the G’s performance based on the price then they can put those concerns to bed right now. There’s no reason to believe the KitKat update will change any of this, if anything the added optimisation should clean things up even more.
You get very little other than standard Android and Google apps when you first turn on the Moto G but that’s enough to get you up and running. You’ll find all the usual Google fare so expect Gmail, Google+, Maps, YouTube and Hangouts. The core Android apps are available too, including People (your contacts), Calendar, Clock (alarms hide in here) and a few others.
An updated Translate app is available and makes use of recent advancements in Google Now which underpins much of Android 4.4, ready for when the update hits. Speaking of that update, the biggest change to many users is likely to be the switch from the core Android Messaging app to Hangouts for SMS. Motorola may not actually implement this in their build but it is quite likely. If you use a 3rd party app however then this will have no effect on you.
Quickoffice has been included with the Moto G as it was in the Nexus 5. This free app from Google provides the ability to view, edit and save Microsoft Office compatible files on the go. Quickoffice can work on offline files but also has integrated support for Drive, Google’s cloud storage service. You’re likely to end up using that too, as Google have provided a generous 50 GB of free Drive space, exclusively on the Moto G.
Motorola are keen to remain an independent entity and brand despite officially being under Google’s tutelage. So whilst the big G might be pulling a lot of the strings, there are still a number of Motorola tweaks to the Android experience on the Moto G that can be uncovered.
One of the most obvious is available when the device is turned on for the first time and is called Motorola Migrate. This is a handy app that allows you to transfer content such as pictures, videos, screen settings and stored contacts from your old Android handset. If you have an older Android running 2.3 or newer, you can download the Migrate app from the Play Store and set it up.
Following the instructions on both devices will open up a connection and transfer the data. Obviously the more you have stored, the longer this will take. Unfortunately you can’t pick and choose exactly what to send, it’s currently all or nothing. Overall it’s probably a better option than copying everything you want over to a PC first, and there are certain things that can’t be done with.
Assist is a useful little app that allows you to set the phone to silence at particular times such as your general sleeping patterns or whenever meetings are detected on your calendar. At these times, you will only hear calls or messages from numbers white-listed within Assist. Lastly a Moto Care app is installed which allows you to search (via Google of course), Motorola help topics and FAQs.
As a budget handset, the Moto G is somewhat limited in respects to its connectivity options. You of course get standard GSM connectivity for voice and 3G (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 MHz on the UK / European stock sold at Clove), there’s no LTE support at this price point just yet. You’ll get connected to any Wi-Fi network although some of the newer protocols and bands (n/ac & dual band) are not supported. The newest Bluetooth 4.0 with Low Energy also makes an appearance.
That’s about it though; there’s no NFC or wireless charging which must have been viewed as frivolous extras needing the chop in order to keep costs down. Interestingly, Miracast wireless screen sharing doesn’t seem to be available within the settings either, despite a new enough version of Android being installed.
I didn’t see a Bluetooth connection open when using Motorola Migrate to copy files from another device so I’m going to assume Wi-Fi direct is supported on the Moto G and was used, perhaps it will only take a software layer delivered in an update to unlock Miracast’s potential. It seems odd that Google of all companies would skimp on a software feature if they are pulling the strings and the hardware is capable.
Camera quality can make or break a device and factors into many peoples’ decisions when looking at a new phone. Just like everything else on the Moto G, the camera passes and exceeds expectations. At only 5 megapixels it might be dismissed by specification hounds as low end, but the truth is in the final pictures you get as a result. An HDR shooting mode is present, which means the sensor can’t be right from the bottom of what’s available. There’s no optical stabilisation included though, so shooting in HDR (which takes a second or so to collate multiple shots into one colour-rich image) means you need to keep a very steady hand if you want to avoid blurry results.
The white balance is a bit off too, overexposing a lot of lighter areas such as sky or white walls, with no option to adjust this in the settings. The app seems to be almost the same one that shipped with the Nexus 5, although Motorola look to have tweaked it somewhat to make the interface more user friendly. The are no new or missing settings, so the options are still very spartan, however they have all been moved into a scroll wheel accessed by sliding across the screen, rather than the fiddly and confusing on-screen press-and-hold interface on the new Nexus.
I’m not sure if the focussing time and shutter lag are slightly improved as well, perhaps it’s the smaller sensor size making for less data and quicker interaction with the app. Lacking a shutter button or the ability to assign a key to the shutter means the annoyance of having to tap the screen to take a picture, so you end up with the occasional blurry shot where you nudge slightly out of focus doing so. This is a personal gripe of mine with many smartphone cameras though, and not specific to the Moto G.
Overall I was pleased with the results, which once again made me realise just how much the Moto G provides for so little outlay.
I took a few sample shots, posted below. The first image in each pair is taken using the automatic settings and the second utilises the HDR shooting mode. Click on each image below for a full size version:
As you would expect, the HDR mode evens out the colour gradients and provides a richer palette, especially with the greens. Outside it also has the benefit of sharpening up the edges against light backgrounds and stops some of the light ‘bleeding’ from the bright sky in the background. The trade off of course is that the HDR images are harder to focus correctly outside, especially with no image stabilisation, there were plenty more discarded HDR shots than automatic ones.
The Moto G as a 2,050 mAh cell installed, this is also non-removable so can’t be swapped out should you run out of juice during the day. This is probably not likely to happen though; the battery should easily last the casual user, who this device is being marketed to after all, a full day’s life.
If you’re going to be caught short then it’s likely that the large, high resolution screen will be the biggest offender. Limiting the brightness is the first step if you regularly find yourself running low towards the end of the day and don’t have the ability to charge.
Also the Moto G’s capability to do more than any phone before at this price may lead you into using it more intensively than other devices of this type. For instance I found the handset able to run some quite powerful games, which I did not expect. This rightly ruined my battery, although this is definitely not a standard use case.
The final word on the battery life is that it is exactly what you would expect when you pay under £150 for a phone. It’s perfectly acceptable and I’ve seen far worse on more expensive devices
This is definitely a Motorola phone, despite Google’s obvious influences across the board. Motorola claim to be making a worthy profit on this device (after outsourcing manufacturing, unlike the US built Moto X), which seems incredible given the hardware under the hood. One can only imagine how much Google’s influence has helped purchasing and logistics in getting this handset to market.
The Moto G is a marvel of engineering and planning, more so than the Nexus range of devices Google has made its name in. It’s not revolutionary, or particularly innovative in any way, however it is incredibly disruptive, a word which has been finding ground in a lot of industry talk recently.
Think of the Moto G (and to some extent the Nexus 5) as Google/Motorola throwing the gauntlet down in challenge to other manufacturers. A kind of ‘come on then, do better than this!’. At this point, no-one else has a response. The cheapest mainstream and current range HTC, Samsung or Sony devices are all more expensive and/or laughably underpowered in comparison.
Available at a rock bottom price not only SIM free / unlocked, but also on cheaper contracts from networks, the Moto G also has the potential to steal sales of flagship devices in classes above. If the less tech-savvy play with a Moto G and a Galaxy S4 (or other flagship) in store, they may find little in the top-tier handset to sway them off the G that could be available for say £15-20 less per month without affecting plan details.
The Moto G suits a wide group of consumers: first time buyers, upgraders on a budget, parents buying for pre-teens/teenagers and the security conscious requiring a capable backup phone, as well as many in emerging markets internationally with lesser comparative disposable income. If I didn’t have a shiny new Nexus 5 in my pocket, I might have been tempted to save £150 myself after a week with it.
Aside from a few missing connectivity options, which are more than understandable, there is almost nothing to put against the Moto G. The camera isn’t perfect but once again you have to consider the price tag and then the Moto G effortlessly brushes past anything nearby. After struggling to find something bad to say about the Moto G, I eventually gave up so I’ll leave you with the thought from the start of the review:
What more do you need from a sub £150 smartphone?
- Unbeatable power/specification to price ratio
- Free 50 GB Google Drive for 2 years
- Guaranteed Android 4.4 KitKat & future updates
- Design is very basic
- Camera app is fairly limited
- No LTE
The Moto G is available from Clove Technology now in 8 / 16 GB variations for £124 / £145 + delivery & VAT where applicable