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Moto G REVIEW: An Amazing Cheap Phone That Deserves Your Attention

by Brandon Russell | December 18, 2013December 18, 2013 12:00 pm PDT

Motorola’s Moto G is an unconventional smartphone in the era of “Bigger” and “Faster.” We often get caught up in the smartphone of the moment. Over the past few years, companies have become adept at putting on Vegas-style performances that are filled with unpronounceable buzzwords and over-the-top routines. Executives insist we need bigger screens, faster graphics, thinner frames. And we absolutely eat it up. We’re smitten from the word Go. It’s why so-and-so phone ships however many millions in just a few days. The Next Big Thing is what we want.

Motorola bucked that trend as soon as the Moto X was announced. Instead of relying on big spec upgrades to give the illusion of superiority, the company introduced an experience focused around optimized software, smart features and solid hardware—a device designed with the user in mind. The result was one of the best smartphones we’ve seen all year. With the Moto G, which is just $179 off-contract, Motorola is distancing itself even further from the artificiality of rehearsed stage plays, once again demonstrating a device doesn’t need to possess the latest specs to actually be good.

But is it possible to make a cheap phone desirable? The Moto G certainly makes a valid case.

Cheap smartphones are certainly a frustrating breed. Whereas today’s flagships always feel like two steps forward, many of the most recent cheap devices feel like giant steps back. There’s no real effort put forth—like companies are just going through the motions. Screens are pixelated, guts are slow, designs look and feel chintzy, like they were haphazardly thrown together with leftover parts. There’s no arguing the cheap smartphone market is treated as second-rate, almost as if it’s a waste of time.

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The Moto G, finally, is none of those things.

For anyone that can’t afford a $300 phablet with two-year contract, the Moto G is the perfect solution, and actually feels more like a “flagship” cheap smartphone. It’s great for those who want a second handset for emergencies, or even someone getting their very first smartphone. It doesn’t offer the software enhancements that made the Moto X such a joy, but it does sport an excellent design, (mostly) stock software and some very satisfactory specs that perform most tasks without issue. It also gets incredible battery life, which is one of the biggest must-haves in today’s market. For the price, it doesn’t get any better.

“Moto G is an affordable smartphone for people who don’t want to compromise on quality, experience or style,” Motorola says. It’s a device that exists for people who can’t afford tomorrow’s super phone. “We think it’s time that people have a better option.”

Design

The Moto G sports a design that’s nearly identical to the Moto X, with a body that’s a little bit thicker and a screen that’s a little bit shorter. Seeing them from afar, it’s actually difficult telling them apart, and the differences only become clear when you hold and see them side-by-side. The parity in quality is actually quite minuscule—the plastic rear shells definitely feel different—which says a lot about Motorola’s ability to design a solid handset.

The rear shells, incidentally, can be swapped, essentially allowing users to customize their device in a number of different ways. We were sent three different shells—black, turquoise and a navy flip cover—all of which have a kind of matte appearance with a very plasticky feel, unlike the Moto X’s soft touch. The shells don’t feel particularly cheap, but you certainly notice a difference between the G and the X. Worth noting is that the shells are laughably difficult to replace, nearly impossible. It took me nearly ten minutes, multiple bent fingernails and dime just to pry the back off; it made me want to just leave whatever was on there on there permanently.

The Moto G has a nice curve to it—a little curvier than the X—that’s ergonomically sound for cradling in one hand. Motorola actually said it designed the device—size and shape—with one-handed use in mind, which is a nice change of pace for every other Android phone out there. It’s the same approach Apple takes with its iPhone, though the Moto G’s screen is larger at 4.5-inches. The G is noticeably heavier, at 5-ounces, but otherwise it’s a spitting image of the X, with the button placement, microUSB and headphone jack all in the same positions.

On the inside, the Moto G features a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor—swapped with the Moto X’s X8 chip—1GB of RAM, 4.5-inch 720p display, Android operating system 4.3, 2070mAh battery and 8 or 16GB of internal storage. The 16GB model, by the way, is just $200, only $20 more than the 8GB iteration, which obviously isn’t that much of a difference in price to get double the storage. Other specs include a 5-megapixel camera, Bluetooth 4 and 3G/HSPA+ connectivity up to 21Mbps.

The lack of LTE might prove to be the biggest omission for buyers in the U.S., though it’s not much of an issue for those overseas, where the device will likely prove to be more popular anyway. Doing a quick speed test in Irvine, the Moto G got about 7Mbps down, and 1Mbps up, and was actually better than LTE in the same location (AT&T LTE is poor where TechnoBuffalo’s office is located). For the most part, I found the Moto G got adequate speed wherever I traveled in Orange County, though LTE was much faster where I live in Huntington Beach.

Moto G, Motorola Logo

Moto G, Volume, Closeup

Moto G, Headphone

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I honestly don’t see connectivity being an issue for most, and those overseas won’t even know the difference. At 7Mbps down, you’ll be able to breeze through Web pages no problem, and uploading photos to your favorite social network shouldn’t be much of an issue either. If you really want the added benefit of LTE, you should buy the Moto X, which is dirt cheap right now (if you sign a two-year contract).

Back to the display, the Moto G looks absolutely wonderful compared to similarly priced competition, and is easily the best in its class; other smartphones in the same category typically have WVGA displays or lower—there’s just no comparison. At 4.5-inch 720p (330 ppi), text looks very crisp, and pictures are sharp and beautiful. It’s not quite as nice as the Moto X’s, and it doesn’t stand a chance next to full HD displays on the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, which are two of the best screens on the market. But for the money, it’s by no means a slouch. It’s actually shocking Motorola has managed to stick such a nice display (along with the other specs) inside such a cheap package.

Camera and Performance

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the Moto G’s camera. For a 5-megapixel shooter (in the body of a $180 device), it certainly produces adequate results good enough for sharing through social media. But it’s not particularly fast, colors are washed out, and low-light performance is pretty awful. When compared to today’s brightest handsets, the Moto G isn’t even in the same league. The experience of taking actual photos is the same as on the Moto X, but there’s an obvious parity in quality. The Moto X had a poor camera when it launched, too, which was recently fixed thanks to a software update. Perhaps Motorola can make some tweaks when Android 4.4 KitKat hits the Moto G early next year.

On the whole, the Moto G’s camera isn’t the worst around, especially in such a cheap device—you compare it to other cheap devices, and the quality is up there. It’s on the slower side, which is probably the biggest issue, and auto focus isn’t great. But you’ll be able to shoot pictures for Snapchat and Instagram no problem. Put it this way: if you consider the camera to be your top priority, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But if you can accept the Moto G’s limitations, you’ll find that the handset’s 5-megapixel shooter is passable.

On the performance side, your time with the Moto G will rely on your previous experience with smartphones. If, say, you maniacally trade up to the latest smartphone every year, of course you’ll find the Moto G to be on the slower side. You can’t expect one of Qualcomm’s lower-tier processors, Snapdragon 400, to be on par with something found in the Nexus 5. But, generally speaking, Motorola has created an impressively smooth experience that even most mid-range smartphones should be envious of. It ran every app I normally use just fine—Twitter, Facebook, VSCOcam, Instagram—and it was able to run graphically intensive games, too, such as Asphalt 7: Heat.

If you really want to nitpick, it does lag behind a device like the Moto X when launching stock apps, such as the camera, but only by a second at most, which is hardly anything at all. Onto more intensive experiences, like Temple Run 2, the Moto G does take longer to load, but, again, nothing to really snicker over. If you’re jumping up from a dumb phone or even a feature phone, you won’t notice any sort of hang time with the Moto G. It’s amazing such speed an optimization can be stuffed into such an affordable body, but Motorola has done it. I used it next to my Moto X, which is a fast device in its own right, and never felt let down by the Moto G’s speed.

Moto G, Table, Headphone

Moto G, Table, MicroUSB

Moto G, Wide with Black Shell

The only disappointment I have with the Moto G is that it doesn’t possess the features that made the Moto X so good. Because of its lower-tier specs, the Moto G isn’t capable of handling Motorola’s famous software enhancements. You won’t be able to perform tasks with just your voice (Touchless Control), nor can you quickly peek at notifications with Active Display. You can definitely survive without these features, but it’s a bummer Motorola couldn’t figure out a way to make either work on its lower-tier device. You do, however, get to use (a lesser) Motorola Assist, which you can program to silence your smartphone during meetings and during certain hours of the night.

Moto G, Rear, Angle

Otherwise, I was more than happy with the Moto G’s performance. Sound is nice and loud—but by no means the best—and it sports a very clean version of Android operating system, with only minor touchups from Motorola (Motorola Migrate and Moto Car, for example), and Motorola has promised users the device will get Android 4.4 KitKat very, very soon. As I mentioned above, the device’s battery life is superb, and lasted me throughout the day (with Maps, email, Web browsing, taking pictures, normal tasks) with plenty of juice to spare. Your mileage will definitely vary, but I wouldn’t expect your experience to differ too much unless you’re streaming video all day long.

Other Cheap Options

There are some other cheap alternatives out there, both in the Android and Windows Phone camp, but none of them even get close to challenging the Moto G’s quality. Perusing through a site like NegriElectronics, there are a number of Samsung devices—Galaxy Fame, Galaxy Pocket Plus, Galaxy S III Mini—that are in a similar price range, but even the Ace 3, which costs $251.50 for the 8GB version (microSD expandable) doesn’t match up to the Moto G. The screen is just 480 x 800 pixels (4-inch), for example, and it has a dual-core processor. Bury that under the weight of TouchWiz, and it doesn’t come anywhere close to a faster, more beautiful and more optimized Moto G.

Taking it one step further to the Windows Phone side, a device like the Nokua Lumia 520, which hovers around the same price for the unlocked version, doesn’t match up to the Moto G, which has a faster quad-core processor, sharper display (1280×720 compared to 800×480), 1GB of RAM (compared to 512MB of RAM), bigger battery, a larger ecosystem of apps. Windows Phone certainly has its merits, but for the amount of power, not to mention the superior Android ecosystem, the Moto G is definitely a better value.

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The Moto G is an amazing value.

It’s important to keep the Moto G in perspective. As a $179 off-contract smartphone, it blows all other cheap phones out of the water. But it definitely does not out muscle today’s top flagships, such as the HTC One, Galaxy S4, or Nexus 5, which, as far as price is concerned, is in earshot of the Moto G. For someone that’s just now jumping into the mobile market, say, from a dumb phone or feature phone, the Moto G will feel plenty fast and handle all the most demanding apps with no problem. Not only is Motorola’s low-end creation powerful, but it’s smartly designed—the interchangeable backs is a nice touch.

The Moto G proves that just because a phone is in the lower-tier doesn’t automatically make it bad. Oftentimes the low-end segment triggers negative connotations, and companies should be culpable for that reputation. Plenty of focus is set upon the flagship future—admittedly, that’s the beauty of technology—but very little attention is spent catering to the rest. Motorola has proven a beautiful, fast and well-made device can exist on the bottom rungs without making too many sacrifices; the bar has certainly been raised. For $179, it simply doesn’t get much better.

TechnoBuffalo received the Moto G directly from Motorola. Brandon used it as his main device for five full days before drafting his review.

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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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