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Moto G (2014) REVIEW: Still the Best Cheap Phone You Can Buy

by Brandon Russell | September 16, 2014September 16, 2014 2:00 pm PDT

Last year, Motorola surprised the smartphone market with its Moto X; it was, without question, our favorite smartphone of 2013. But right under our noses, it was actually the company’s Moto G that proved to be the real winner.

At just $179 off-contract, the device quietly became Motorola’s most successful phone ever—even surpassing the Razr, which essentially defined the flip phone era. Sure, it didn’t have the best specs, nor did it have a particularly beautiful design. But it gave Android fans an affordable vanilla device that worked exactly as expected. It punched above its weight, and Motorola was rightfully rewarded for taking such a big risk.

This year, the Moto G has beefed up, featuring a larger 720p screen, front-facing speakers and better overall specs. What’s more, you can still interchange the rear shells like you would change your wardrobe and, best of all, it now has microSD support, which is a huge addition.

All this without compromising that $179 price.

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Design

Look, the new Moto G’s design isn’t all that different compared to its older brother, or even the original Moto X. It’s a little bit thicker than most of today’s phones, a little heavier. But it’s comfortable. The back features a nice curve, and the dimple, which rests below the camera, is perfectly placed for your index finger.

If you’re making the jump from the first generation Moto G, you’ll definitely notice the difference in size; it’s wider at 70.7mm (compared to 66mm), taller at 141.5mm (compared to 130mm) and just slightly heavier at 149g (compared to 143g). But the curve is exactly the same, so it’s familiar.

The screen, meanwhile, has made the jump to 5-inches, but still retains the same 720p resolution. You won’t notice major differences in quality compared to last year’s model, even though the new Moto G only has 294ppi compared to last year’s 329ppi. We put a lot of stock in screen resolution, but 720p more than gets the job done here. You’ll find no complaints from me about pixels or fuzzy graphics.

While a lot of the soul of last year’s Moto G is retained, Motorola made a few key changes that makes the newest model a worthy upgrade; the first being expandable memory. The original Moto G only offered 8GB and 16GB options, which is still true with the newest version. But now owners can slip in a 32GB microSD card, greatly expanding the device’s memory; it’s not quite up to par with the 128GB support of most flagships, but the addition is huge.

The second change Motorola made was in adding front-facing speakers. This is a feature not even some of today’s biggest flagships possess, let alone devices this affordable. And they sound pretty great, too; better than many devices of the non-front-facing variety. I wouldn’t call front-facing speakers a must-have feature, but if you regularly gather around with friends to watch the latest viral YouTube video, it’s definitely better than the alternative.

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Motorola suggests listening to Daft Punk’s “End of the Line” to truly appreciate the fidelity, and we can indeed confirm the full stereo sound is superior to more expensive alternatives. It’s quite impressive, actually, that such an affordable device has a feature more popular handsets do not. However, Motorola’s implementation here isn’t the most elegant. The top and bottom bezels are huge, and those two silver bars are quite unsightly.

One final design note: like the previous Moto G, you can interchange the rear shell, and choose from either a solid color or a Flip shell for added protection; colors include red, dark blue, light blue, yellow, green, black and more. It’s super easy to change the backs, too, and when they’re on, they’re secure and snug, so there’s no worry changing cases frequently will eventually lead to degraded quality.

Good, Made Better

If you hate OEM skins, and the bloat that comes with it, the Moto G is the perfect phone for you. The Moto G is essentially a Nexus device without the benefit of bleeding-edge specs. There are a few additions included, like Motorola Assist, Motorola Connect and Motorola Alert, but you aren’t forced to use any of them; they’re there in the app drawer if you want them, or otherwise hidden if you prefer to just skip them altogether.

There are some obvious benefits to this approach. For one, Motorola’s tweaks are built at the application level, meaning the OS is not dependent on them to function. This means the Moto G will get Android updates faster, while Motorola can update its apps whenever it wants. The company has already guaranteed to update the new Moto G, which sports Android 4.4 out of the box, to version L when that launches. The older Moto G, meanwhile, is only getting upgraded to Android 4.4, up from Android 4.3 JellyBean.

Because the device is running pure Android, there’s no extra weight taking up valuable resources, which means the Moto G is zippy despite only coming with a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 chip. Swiping through menus, settings and different apps is smooth and quick, with little noticeable lag throughout. Sure, more graphic intensive apps will slow it down a little, and they do take a little longer to open, but you’ll hardly notice any lag, if at all.

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The pure Android experience actually lends itself to greater battery life—the Moto G sports a 2070mAh battery—which lasts a solid day with heavy use. Of course, as with every phone, your mileage will vary depending on what it is you use your device for. If you spend the majority of your day watching Netflix, of course it’ll go dead quicker than if you did some light Web browsing, email and Snapchat.

It’s worth noting that the battery isn’t removable despite being able to swap backs. Mid-to-low-end devices typically offer that feature, so it’s a bit of a disappointment that that isn’t available here. By no means is it a dealbreaker, but it might limit your use in certain situations.

On that note, the Moto G doesn’t offer LTE (yet). The device supports HSPA+, which I imagine is more than enough for most folks. In Orange County, not once did I look down at the Moto G in frustration because its connection was slow. AT&T’s HSPA+ is pretty solid here, so speed was never really an issue; I’m typically close to a Wi-Fi connection anyway, so I didn’t really find myself missing LTE. For what it’s worth, the Moto G’s HSPA+ support up to 21.1 Mbps down and 5.76 Mbps up.

Motorola Magic

It wouldn’t be a Motorola device without some of the company’s famous software tweaks. You don’t get things like Moto Actions or Moto Display, which are both available for the Moto X, or even Moto Voice, which lets users choose their own custom voice prompt. But you do get Voice Actions, which is essentially Google’s own built-in voice software, along with Motorola Assist, an app designed to automate some tasks based on time of day and your location.

Moto Assist in particular is handy, because it’ll auto reply to texts if you’re driving, or silence your device when you’re in a meeting or fast asleep. Other phones have their own solutions, but Motorola’s is the easiest and most straight forward, and because it can scrub through things like your Google Calendar, you don’t have to spend time setting things up every time you have a meeting.

There’s also an app called Motorola Alert, which is designed to let friends and family know when you’re in need of assistance. It sounds a little invasive, but it could be very helpful for older folks in emergency situations; it could also be handy for worry-wart parents who want to keep a close-eye on their teenage kid. The software will automatically notify your closest contacts when you have left or arrived at a location, and even send texts periodically just to check in. Alert will also sound an alarm or auto-dial an emergency number if you find yourself in need of assistance.

There are a few other handy additions, such as FM Radio and Motorola Migrate, the latter of which makes it super easy to switch over from other phones (even an iPhone). All of these are designed, as I said, on the application level, which means the OS doesn’t depend on them to function. You can use them, or you can ignore them. Chances are, though, that you’ll use them at every chance you get, especially something like Moto Assist, which becomes more useful the more you use it.

Camera

If there’s one thing that Motorola devices—not just last year’s Moto G—have struggled with, it’s been camera quality. The original Moto X, while decent, couldn’t compete with the top Android phones out there, and the first Moto G wasn’t all that great, either. The newest Moto G’s 8-megapixel shooter, however, is definitely improved, but by no means is it among the best available. In context of a phone that’s just $179, it’s great.

Outdoors, in optimum conditions, the Moto G produces some great results—pictures you can proudly post on social networks without worrying about the quality. In such a budget-conscious device, the camera is good enough without excelling. In low-light situations, you’ll notice that the device is definitely limited. But there are enough mobile editing apps out there that you can easily mask the camera’s shortcomings with some tweaks and filters.

The stock camera app itself is the same minimalist experience familiar on other Motorola devices. You can manually control the expose and focus, and adjust settings like HDR, flash, panorama, resolution and more; it’s so straight forward almost to a fault. The main idea is to keep the unnecessary options and settings out of your way so you can focus on what’s right in front of you.

BUY

The new Moto G has better specs, a microSD slot and an improved camera, all at the same $179 price point.

Considering its shortcomings (mediocre camera, thick body and low-end specs), the Moto G still has plenty to offer, especially for just $179 off-contract. You won’t find many offers like it, and the fact that it sports vanilla Android is a huge plus compared to other devices in a similar price range. Having front-facing speakers is another huge plus, as is the addition of a microSD slot.

It’s easy to understand why last year’s Moto G was such a huge success, and this year’s model improves upon that foundation in every single way. If you need a secondary phone, or simply want something affordable that gets the job done, look no further. Lag is negligible, and the worst you’ll notice is that some apps don’t open quite as fast as if you had the Galaxy S5 or any other of the big flagships.

The Moto G is the perfect phone for anyone looking to jump into the smartphone market for the first time, and I’d say it’s a worthy upgrade from the original Moto G as well. The larger screen, microSD support and front-facing speakers are all great, and the fact that Motorola is guaranteeing an upgrade to Android L is the icing on the cake.

$179 is a small sum to pay for a phone of this quality. If you can’t splurge for its older, and more handsome brother, Moto X, then the Moto G fits the bill perfectly. It must be said, however, that the Moto G isn’t the only cheap phone on the block. You can pick up a device like the OnePlus One for just $299, which really isn’t that much more. The choice is yours, but it’s clear that the Moto G is one quality device.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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