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Google’s Moto G puts other Budget Android phones to shame

The Moto G isn’t much like the high-end handsets we spend most of our time with, but in many ways it’s more interesting than Another 5-inch 1080p Android Flagship. It looks and feels a lot like a Moto X. It performs a lot like a high-end phone from a couple of years ago. But it costs only $179 off-contract, where most similar phones go for at least $400 unlocked.

This handset obviously isn’t meant to compete with $600-and-up flagships, but it’s trying to redefine a part of the market that’s now served by years-old phones and barely-usable garbage. Look at thephones that an MVNO like Straight Talk Wireless offers for less than $400, and you’ll see just how under-served this market is. With the Moto G, Google and Motorola have attempted to put together a basic smartphone that doesn’t throw quality under the bus in the name of cheapness.

In giving this phone the review treatment, we’ll hit all of the same stuff we usually test—benchmarks, battery life, and so on. However, we’ll also spend quite a bit of time answering the biggest questions about the Moto G: where does this phone feel like it costs $179, and who is it for?

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Where it’s better than $179

Like the Moto X, the Moto G is made of a solid, reassuring plastic that uses a glossy finish around the sides and a nice matte finish on the back. The G is actually subtly larger and heavier than the Moto X, but the two phones feel pretty much the same in your hands. Plastic doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and like the 2013 Nexus 7, the Nexus 5, the iPhone 5C, and most of Nokia’s plastic Lumia phones, the Moto G gets it right.

The phone doesn’t have any harsh angles or chintzy faux-silver trim, and the design doesn’t make any bold statements. Its curved back feels good in the hand, and while it’s a little on the heavy side it’s perfectly comfortable to use for extended periods (it weighs just over five ounces, making it heavier than the likes of the smaller iPhone 5C or 5S and even the 5-inch Nexus 5).

Google doesn’t offer the Moto Maker customization service for the Moto G, but the phone’s black rear shell can be pried off and replaced with one of six colorful replacement backs or six shells with integrated flip covers. The standard shells run $15

a pop, and while the removable back may contribute somewhat to the phone’s extra thickness we’re sure people will appreciate the personalization options. Different colored shells may feel subtly different—the default black shell has a Nexus-esque soft-touch feel to it, while the turquoise shell that came with our review unit feels more like plain matte plastic (and the flip cover is made of a harder material with a rough texture). Neither is unpleasant, but you can tell the difference.

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As others have noted, the Moto G’s shell takes quite a bit of force to remove, but you probably won’t be taking it off very frequently. That’s because the G lacks some of the niceties that people have come to expect from phones with removable backs—the micro SIM tray is under there, but there’s no micro SD expansion slot and the battery is emphatically non-removable (seriously, there’s a sticker and everything).

The build quality is excellent for the price, but objectively it’s not perfect. The turquoise rear shell Google sent over had a little creakiness to it that the black shell didn’t have. While the flip cover feels a little thicker and more ruggedized, the magnets that hold the cover itself to the front of the phone aren’t quite strong enough, and the cover makes the phone less comfortable to hold. Finally, the power and volume buttons are loose enough that you can actually hear them jiggling around as you shake the phone (they were a little jiggly on the Moto X too, but not audibly so). All of that aside, this is still the best-feeling phone you’ll be able to find for this price.

The screen

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Cheap gadgets and terrible displays go hand-in-hand most of the time, but the Moto G’s 4.5-inch 1280×720 display punches well above its price class. Brightness and viewing angles are very good, and it’s got better contrast and brighter colors than the screen on the Nexus 4. Because we’re looking at a conventional LCD screen here and not an AMOLED panel like in the Moto X, contrast on the Moto G isn’t quite as good, but colors also lack the glaring over-saturation they sometimes have on AMOLED phones.

If you’ve got the Moto X and G next to each other, you’ll notice that the G has thicker bezels—the phones are roughly the same size, but the G’s screen is smaller. It’s not a big deal since the phone is still nice enough to hold, but it’s a place where some space might have been saved. One surprising commonality between the two different phones is that they both use Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3, so both screens feel good to touch and should be reasonably scratch-resistant.

The one thing to complain about on our Motorola-supplied review unit was some pretty noticeable backlight bleeding all the way across the top of the screen (it’s made more noticeable by Android’s all-black status bar). It’s not too distracting most of the time and it may not even affect all Moto Gs, but the bleed is a little more noticeable if you’re watching a movie or playing a game with a dark background.

The software

The Moto G runs a version of Android 4.3 that, if anything, is even nearer to Nexus-style stock Android than we saw on the Moto X. Buying the phone unlocked clears away the carrier bloat, leaving only a bare handful of Motorola apps. One, Assist, offers to silence your phone if you’re driving, sleeping, or in a meeting. Another, Migrate, will copy some of your data over from your old phone if you’ve got one. Other than an FM radio app and most of Google’s standard software, that’s basically it. The Wireless Display feature appears to be absent (I have yet to see it show up on a device without dual-band Wi-Fi support, which probably explains its absence), but otherwise you’re looking at the same software you’d get on a Nexus phone.

If you’ve used a Nexus phone or the Moto X before, this interface will be very familiar to you, since it’s essentially unchanged from the standard AOSP launcher (the new Nexus 5-only Google Experience launcher runs great if you have an up-to-date Google Search app and grab the enabler app from somewhere, too). As we’ll examine a little more in the performance section, the phone isn’t completely without stuttering or lag and it doesn’t feel as smooth as a higher-end phone like the Moto X or the Nexus 5, but it’s better than older phones like the Galaxy Nexus (just to cherry pick another handset with similar software).

More interesting than the software the Moto G runs now is the software it will be running soon. Google has promised an Android 4.4 update for the phone before the end of January, which isn’t Nexus-fast but is nonetheless considerably better than what you’ll get from the likes of Samsung, LG, and anyone else making Android phones (especially budget-friendly Android phones). Google and Motorola were surprisingly quick to update the Moto X to KitKat when it came out, and giving the Moto G the same treatment is an encouraging sign that this is the new “normal” for the Moto phones going forward (the Droid series of phones, despite sharing similar software and underlying hardware, continues to exist in a sort-of-limbo in which updates have been promised but are clearly not being prioritized).

It’s tempting to think of the Moto G as some kind of “Nexus Jr.,” a cheaper way to buy into the clean UI and quick software updates that Google’s reference phones have always received. However, Google is making no promises about versions of Android beyond version 4.4, and speculating about whether Android 4.5 or 5.0 or whatever will roll out to the Moto phones as quickly as KitKat is a pointless exercise. At this point Google is releasing about two new Android versions per year (4.1 and 4.2 in 2012, 4.3 and 4.4 in 2013), so by this time next year we’ll probably know if we can rely on quick updates for this line just as we can for Nexuses.

CPU performance, GPU performance, and battery life

The short version: The Moto G doesn’t promise (or deliver) top-end performance, but it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. For $179, you get a phone with CPU and GPU performance similar to a flagship phone from late 2011 or early 2012.

The long version: Qualcomm’s many different model numbers and naming conventions are pretty good for telling you the approximate performance level of the chip you’re getting, but they’re bad at telling you exactly what that chip includes. Case in point: the Nexus 4, 2013 Nexus 7, and Moto X all include something called a “Snapdragon S4 Pro,” but the three chips differ widely in clock speed, core count, CPU architecture, and GPU power. So it is with the Snapdragon 400—a bunch of different chips all fall under the same banner, and performance can differ substantially depending on the chip you get.

According to Qualcomm’s own marketing materials (PDF) a Snapdragon 400 can give you either two CPU cores based on the Krait 300 CPU architecture (the same as used in the Snapdragon 600), two CPU cores based on Krait 200 (many S4 Pros and S4 Pluses include this slightly older architecture), or four CPU cores based on ARM’s Cortex A7 architecture. Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities also vary from chip to chip, but all of them at least include the same Adreno 305 GPU.

The Snapdragon 400 variant that the Moto G uses is one of the quad-core Cortex A7 versions. If you’re not familiar with the architecture, know that it performs similarly to the older Cortex A9 architecture if the two are running at the same clock speed, but that Cortex A7 cores are physically smaller and should consume less power. Cortex A9 was high-end in 2011 (Apple’s A5 SoC, Samsung’s Exynos 4 series, TI’s OMAP4, and Nvidia’s Tegra 3 are all A9-based), but both it and the A7 will be substantially slower clock-for-clock than newer architectures from Qualcomm, Apple, and ARM itself.

We’ll be pulling in a bunch of hardware to put the Snapdragon 400’s performance into context. This includes:

  • The Moto X and its 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro
  • The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD and its 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus
  • The iPhone 4S and its 800MHz dual-core Apple A5
  • The Nexus 4 and its 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro
  • The Nexus 5 and its 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800
  • The Nexus 7 (2012) and its 1.2GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3

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Looking at the single-core Geekbench scores, you can see how slow the Cortex A7 architecture is relative to the newer and higher-end architectures that we’re now used to. It’s within spitting distance of the Tegra 3’s Cortex A9 cores—that was a high-end chip in late 2011 when it first began appearing in tablets. Qualcomm’s chip is taking a “strength-in-numbers” approach to delivering mid-end CPU performance here. In aggregate, the Moto G’s four weaker cores can just about match a pair of Krait 200 CPU cores, at least when all four are active. Looking at the browser benchmarks can give us some idea of how actual apps will behave.

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Look at an app like System Monitor while you use an Android phone or tablet, and you’ll notice that many apps rarely use all four CPU cores—this is even true for benchmarking apps when they aren’tbeing manipulated. It’s more common for apps to lean on one or two cores heavily, hitting the third and fourth cores for brief speed bursts (when an app is being launched, for instance) or when performing some sort of background task (say, displaying a notification or taking a screenshot). The benchmark scores reflect this—they don’t get as close to the dual-core Kraits in Chrome as they do in Geekbench.

The upshot is that the Moto G’s CPU performance is in the same league as a flagship phone from late 2011 or so. Compared to a flagship phone from any of the OEMs or to the Nexus 5, there’s a noticeable performance gap, but the intended audience should be more than happy with the way it runs.

The GPU is more straightforward. The Adreno 305 is slower than the Adreno 320 and 330 GPUs included with high-end Snapdragons, but as the names suggest, the three share the same underlying architecture. This means it offers up OpenGL ES 3.0 and OpenCL support that previous-generation Adrenos can’t boast, even if it doesn’t have top-end performance.

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Stepping down from the Moto X to the Moto G will more than halve your graphics performance, and this gap widens if you compare it to the Snapdragon 800 in the Nexus 5. The quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro shipping in high-end phones from a year ago (here represented by the Nexus 4) also beats it handily, but the Moto G will give you more 3D power than early 2012 models like the Galaxy S III or the Droid Razr HD series. The phone will have no problem at all running any Android games you can buy today, and it ought to hold up reasonably well over the next couple of years.

How fast does it feel?

Compared to something like the Moto X, the Nexus 5, or even the Nexus 4, the Moto G hesitates and stutters just a little more. Most interactions are smooth, but you’ll notice some jerky scrolling here, a brief delay while an app opens there, and occasional touchscreen lag throughout. Slower internals and less RAM now also mean that the phone will feel older, sooner—you don’t necessarily buy a flagship because you desperately need more GPU or CPU speed today, but because it’s going to be able to handle everything you throw at it for the next two or three years.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Moto G’s performance can go toe-to-toe with Android flagships from a year and a half ago, and that’s outstanding news for a $179 phone.

Battery life

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The Moto G uses a 2070mAh battery, smaller than the 2200mAh battery in the Moto X. The smaller battery is canceled out by the less power-hungry SoC and smaller screen, however, and the Moto G notches a respectable eight hours and 24 minutes in our Wi-Fi browsing test with the screen brightness set to 50 percent. In actual use, the Moto G had no problem lasting all day—it usually had between 20 and 30 percent of its battery left by the time I plugged it in every night, though obviously your mileage will vary based on use.

Where this is definitely a $179 phone

Wireless

The Moto G’s wireless features are the most obvious casualties of its lower price tag, and this is the only area in which the phone can’t hold its own against flagship phones from early 2012. The omissions are three: first, NFC is missing entirely. Second, you’re limited to 72Mbps 2.4GHz 802.11n, where most flagship phones from the last two years either support 5GHz 802.11n or have moved on to 802.11ac. Third, and most damningly, the Moto G has no LTE support whatsoever. The phone’s maximum 3G data rate is 21.1Mbps, well below the 100Mbps theoretical maximum of many LTE modems (or the 150Mbps maximum of LTE Advanced). Even the Nexus 4, which we and other publications criticized for shipping without LTE last year, supported 42.2Mbps HSDPA speeds.

A couple of quick Speedtest runs really drive home how much faster LTE can be compared to 3G—even in the best of conditions, the Moto X was several times faster than the Moto G to download and upload data. Even more than the slower CPU and GPU, you’ll really notice this bogging the phone down when you’re out and about. E-mail takes longer to download, Twitter takes longer to update, Google Maps takes longer to load.

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PHONE DOWNLOAD UPLOAD
Moto G (AT&T 3G) 14.68Mbps 3.15Mbps
Moto X (AT&T LTE) 45.28Mbps 15.22Mbps

Bear in mind that these tests represent the best speeds I could get on either handset, but they won’t necessarily reflect the speeds you’ll see. Actual speed will vary greatly depending on network load, signal strength, and a host of other factors. Keep the Moto G’s target audience in mind when you look at these speeds—people in the market for a phone like this will usually be upgrading from an ancient smartphone or perhaps buying their first smartphone, not stepping down from a high-end LTE-equipped handset. We still wish the speeds were better, but those buyers won’t miss what they haven’t experienced in the first place.

You won’t notice the other wireless deficiencies as much in actual use. 2.4GHz 802.11n is acceptable in a budget phone and the 72Mbps data rate won’t max out many home Internet connections. NFC is a nice checkbox to be able to mark if your phone has it, but the technology has never been the killer feature it has aspired to be. It’s mostly the pokey cellular modem that’s dragging down the experience.

Memory and storage

The Moto G ships with 1GB of memory, half of what most flagships from 2012 and 2013 have included. Around 880MB of that is actually usable by the operating system. It’s difficult to tell whether the amount of RAM by itself is responsible for any speed or responsiveness issues, but at least in day-to-day use we didn’t run into any problems with games or apps or Chrome even with a whole bunch of applications open. Having less memory might cause problems in the future, but for now it doesn’t get in the way.

More troublesome are the small storage sizes available: the Moto G comes in 8GB ($179) and 16GB ($199) capacities, and there’s no microSD card slot available to augment the built-in storage (microSD is inelegant, but a certain subset of Android users still demand it). We’ll be up-front: don’t buy the 8GB version of this phone. The jump to 16GB is only $20, and you’ll fill up the 8GB phone’s five-and-a-half-or-so usable gigabytes without even trying. Even with the larger storage capacity, your entire music and movie library isn’t going to fit on this phone.

Luckily, Google and Motorola haven’t cheaped out on the NAND even if there isn’t very much of it—makers of cheap phones and tablets will often use whatever bargain-basement flash memory they can find, but that’s not the case here. The 16GB version, at least, can easily keep up with the Nexus 5 and Moto X, and while neither phone has the fastest NAND we’ve ever seen, the storage shouldn’t be a performance bottleneck.

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Assuming that the 8GB version of the phone uses fewer NAND chips than the 16GB version, it’s possible that the smaller phone will have slower speeds (to speed up reads and writes, devices with multiple NAND chips will often write to and read from multiple chips at once, a process known as interleaving). We’ll be getting our hands on an 8GB version of the phone soon, and we’ll either update this review or publish a follow-up if speeds are significantly slower.

Update: A couple of you have pointed me to AnandTech’s review of the Moto X, where they discovered that the phone’s user data partition was formatted with F2FS (Flash-Friendly File System) instead of the usual ext4. F2FS changes the way write operations are performed in ways that make them less punishing for the simple eMMC flash storage used in smartphones, and the result is a nice increase in performance. The Moto G appears to be partitioned in the same way as the Moto X: it uses F2FS for its data partition, and ext4 for other system partitions. This explains, at least in part, why the phone’s storage performance is as good as it is.

Camera

A few of the Android phones of 2013 include camera hardware that can match Apple’s and Nokia’s mobile shooters on paper, but in practice photography is one of the few areas in which the Android ecosystem inarguably lags behind the competition. Still, the Moto X’s 10MP rear camera takes pictures sufficient for Facebook and the odd family photo album (especially after its camera-improving software update), and that’s most of what phone cameras are called upon to do.

The Moto G retains the minimalist camera software of the Moto X, but the hardware has been cut back substantially. The 10MP camera has become a 5MP version with an f/2.4 lens, and with that drop in megapixels (and, one assumes, cheaper sensor) comes a drop in image quality and detail. We’ve taken a few sample shots to demonstrate (note that the Nexus 5 shots were taken with the newAndroid 4.4.1 update applied).

Indoor Comparison

Outdoor Comparison

The Moto G’s camera does about as well as you could expect from a $179 phone, but its images lack detail and are decidedly soft and blurry (and you can forget about low-light pictures). It does fine outdoors and its pictures are good enough for the Web, but unlike other aspects of the phone it can’t transcend its price point.

Audio quality

Call quality on the Moto G is actually not bad, which is to say it’s not really any less bad than any other smartphone on the market. One thing I noticed as I listened to music and podcasts is that audio through the headphone jack doesn’t sound quite as good as it does on the Moto X, the Nexus 5, or the iPhone 5S. Things sound just a little more muffled and compressed—you might not even notice depending on what you’re listening to and how sensitive your ears are, but this isn’t a phone for audiophiles.

The small speaker on the back of the phone also leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not so much about how it sounds (not great, but even the best phone speakers aren’t great), but the fact that the volume range isn’t as large as it could be. Notifications and other sounds are essentially inaudible if the volume is far below 50 percent, but the volume at 100 percent is ridiculously loud. With some additional tuning, it seems like the volume levels should be capable of scaling more smoothly, but its behavior right now is a little irritating.

Value-adds

The Moto X has a pair of genuinely useful features (Touchless Controls and Active Notifications) that help it stand out from the crowd, even if its innards aren’t quite the fastest and its screen isn’t quite the best. The Moto G doesn’t have the coprocessors needed to make these features work, and it includes little by way of unique features—the active notifications are replaced by the standard pulsing notification light, and there’s no replacement for the touchless controls. Google and Motorola are counting on price to be the Moto G’s main differentiator; given how good the price is relative to the overall quality of the phone it’s a pretty compelling argument. Just know that the Moto G includes few frills.

Who should buy it?

If you buy subsidized phones on-contract and you don’t have any particular problem with that contact, there’s no reason to tie yourself to the Moto G. It’s a very nice little phone but a $199 subsidized handset is going to do everything the Moto G can do, and do it better. Likewise, if you’re a heavy user with a little extra cash, the Nexus 5 is the better phone in every respect except size (assuming that you find larger phones less comfortable to hold, that is). It’s not made for people who lust after the latest and greatest.

Luckily for Google and Motorola, that still leaves them with a pretty huge potential customer base. That the phone was announced and launched outside of the contract-happy US is probably indicative of where Google expects this thing to sell the best, but even domestically the Moto G is a great option for people who want to bring their own unlocked phone to T-Mobile or a low-cost MVNO like Straight Talk.

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If you look at the unlocked offerings at this price point offered by those MVNOs, there’s no comparison. You can find phones for $149 that still ship with Gingerbread, phones that advertise a “virtual QWERTY keyboard” among their banner features rather than disappointing you by listing out their mediocre specs. The other phones that match the Moto G in performance and quality (phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III, or perhaps the iPhone 4S) cost $400 or more unlocked. The Moto G isn’t a perfect phone, but this kind of quality is unheard of at this price point.

The Moto G could really shake the low end of the market up, and that’s important because the low end is where the smartphone industry’s continued growth is expected to come from. If you know someone who’s still using a flip phone or a hoary old BlackBerry or something, the Moto G is a solid low-cost option that you can recommend to them without hesitation. Hopefully it goads the other OEMs into stepping up their efforts, too.

The good

  • Dat price tag
  • Solid, reasonably attractive plastic body that’s nice to hold
  • $400 of CPU and GPU performance for less than $200
  • The screen would be excellent even in a more expensive phone
  • Near-stock Android 4.3, with a KitKat update promised by the end of next month
  • Good battery life
  • Nice variety of colorful rear shells and covers

The bad

  • 3G data speeds feel especially slow in the age of readily available LTE
  • Middling camera and audio quality
  • Weaker internals and 1GB of RAM might make it feel old before its time
  • No-frills design cuts out NFC, dual-band Wi-Fi, and useful add-ons like Touchless Controls and Active Notifications

The ugly

  • The 8GB version. Seriously, spend the $20 to double your storage.

About Gavin

Gavin is a geek and tech enthusiast and has been writing for many successful online blogs until finally starting his own Tech/Geek website “Geeknado.”

One comment

  1. Great review, made me switch from iPhone 4S to MotoG. Could you tell me the name of the used weather widget? Thank you.

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