Let’s not mince words: You can do things on the Moto G that you simply cannot do on any other phone in this price range. The 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 SoC and 1GB of RAM here make running through all the menus and home screens of Android an absolute breeze. Most apps load within a second, and they almost always run without any noticeable hitches. For the many people who will buy the Moto G for casual use, you’ll be more than satisfied with the horsepower you’re getting.
That’s not to say that the Moto G can’t hold its own when pushed beyond the limits of everyday use. It pumped through games like Riptide GP2, Grand Theft Auto III, and Real Racing 3 without breaking much of a sweat. More intense in-game situations will bring out the occasional chug, but the four ARM Cortex A7 cores and Adreno 305 GPU that make up the Moto G’s SoC aren’t weaklings, and they’d fit right in on a flagship from a year or so ago. What’s more, they rarely let the phone heat up beyond a comfortable level.
There are issues, though. One is web browsing performance. For whatever reason, the Moto G can plow through a modern HD game without much issue, but it stutters and spazzes out every other time you use Chrome. Sometimes it refuses to open up web pages altogether. To be fair, Chrome is a mess on many Android devices, but it’s sloppier than usual here. That’s odd, especially considering the Moto G launched when Moto was still “a Google company.”
Two is the lack of storage space. Just 8GB of memory is listed for the $180 Moto G, and only 5.5GB of that is usable right out of the box. Google naturally pushes you to the cloud by giving you 50GB of Google Drive space free for two years, but that doesn’t really change the fact that you just won’t have room for many apps – especially without a microSD slot in sight. Motorola is selling a 16GB Moto G for just $199, so that’s the no-brainer option if you can spare the extra Jackson.
Then there are the little nitpicks that are to be expected on a phone this inexpensive, but are still annoying either way. The Moto G’s speakers are just alright, for one, and can get rather choppy on higher volumes. The same sentiment goes for the phone’s call quality, which fluctuates between acceptable and awful depending on your signal strength. It’ll do for the everyday users this device is aimed at, but we could see it bothering heavy callers after a while. Most of the other little things – like WiFi or Bluetooth 4.0 connection strength and range – are above-average, however.
But now we come to the Moto G’s Big Problem, the thing that’s less its Achilles’ heel and more its terminal illness: the lack of 4G. Yes, the Moto G has no LTE support whatsoever, meaning that an HSPA+ connection is the fastest you’ll get with it. If you use T-Mobile or AT&T in the right areas, that could be manageable, but most people are going to bound to a decidedly last-gen network. We were stuck with Verizon’s 3G network during our test period, and the speeds were predictably and consistently subpar for a modern-day device. You’ll be itching for a WiFi signal whenever you use this phone.
This is going to be a dealbreaker for many potential Moto G buyers in the US. Unless you bring it to T-Mobile, its network speeds simply don’t cut it for a mainstream smartphone in 2014. However, the LTE chip omission does make sense. Motorola is looking to court a more global audience with this device, and the Moto G is still going to look mighty impressive in emerging markets where LTE hasn’t been widely adopted yet. It’s a bummer for the US, but Google is looking to court the next billion users, after all.
Even without true 4G speeds, it’s hard to be disappointed with the package Motorola has presented here. The Moto G is a whole lot of phone for under $200 – that it can even be in the same discussion as some of the more recent top-end phones is an achievement in and of itself. Relative to its asking price, it’s a beast.
Like the rest of Motorola’s latest crop of smartphones, the Moto G lets stock Android do most of the work on the software side. It focuses on enhancing Google’s solution rather than skinning it, so what we have here is something that looks and acts just like Android 4.4 KitKat, only with some minor camera UI changes and a few Moto-specific apps thrown in.
Android has matured into a much more robust and feature-packed OS over the last few years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when I say that it’s still great here. We’ll have to see how Motorola’s approach changes as it comes under Lenovo’s rule, but prior to its sale it found the sweet spot between leaving stock Android alone and spicing it up with its own software.
Since the Moto G launched back when Motorola was a Google company, the Goog’s apps are front and center here. That’s fine, and it means that you won’t have to deal with any unnecessary duplicate apps if you’re already buying what Google’s selling.
A few of the useful Moto-made tricks that were first introduced with the Moto X are here too. The Moto Assist app, which enables hands-free usage while driving, and lets you auto-reply to texts and auto-silence your phone during pre-set quiet hours, is still a nifty Tasker alternative. The Motorola Migrate app still gives you an easy way to transfer all of your files from your old phone onto your new one. One addition this time around is an FM Radio app, which works well enough, but requires a wired headset to be used – the headphone cord acts as the FM antenna.
But since the Moto G opts for a Snapdragon processor instead of the Moto X’s customized X8 chip, most of the X’s fancier features are absent here. Motorola’s ‘Touchless Control’ voice-activated commands are nowhere to be found, for instance, nor is its ‘Active Display’ notification tech. Yes, you’ll have to actually wake the Moto G from sleep to see if you’ve gotten any texts. Tragic, I know.
Those omissions are excusable on a phone of this price, though, and the Moto G’s anti-skin approach keeps the phone from getting in its own way. I’d much rather have this than the redundant and sometimes messy overlays of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, to be frank. One thing I will note is that the unlocked Moto G has just about no bloatware, while carrier versions like Verizon’s are filled with the stuff.
The Moto G’s camera has a bit of an Odd Couple situation going on, as it pairs a fast and user-friendly UI with an inconsistent, mediocre shooter. The former is lifted right from the Moto X, and is just as stripped-down as it’s always been. Tapping anywhere on the screen takes a photo, while swiping up and down controls the zoom and holding down your thumb takes burst shots.
All of the app’s functions are contained in one radial menu, which can be accessed via a swipe from the left edge of the display. Bring it up and you’ll get options for HDR, flash, tap to focus and exposure, slow motion video, panorama view, geotagging, aspect ratio, and changing your shutter sound.
This is all basic stuff — though I’ll note that Motorola has added the useful ability to drag around your focus point before shooting, as well as a new aspect ratio toggle that lets you switch from 16:9 to 4:3. The slick little wrist flicking motion that used to open to Moto X’s camera app has been removed, but those other improvements help make the Moto G’s camera UI a slight step up from the Moto X’s.
But having more features isn’t the point here; being easy to use is. And this UI is still very good at staying out of your way, taking care of all the technical mumbo jumbo, and letting you snap your pics. It’s especially accommodating for one-handed use, which fits perfectly with the G’s overall profile. It’ll never have as many tricks as some of the other flagships out there, but its simplicity is refreshing.
This makes it all the more disappointing that the actual pictures you take with the Moto G just aren’t very good. It’s very obvious that this is one area where Motorola made sacrifices to reach that $180 price point, as it cuts the Moto X’s 10-megapixel camera down to a meager 5-megapixel shooter here.
The quality of those shots is strangely inconsistent – shots in well-lit, outdoor settings can be perfectly acceptable, but too often I was presented with poor white balance, excessive amounts of noise and other hyperactive post-processing effects. Low-light photos were especially middling, and were typically hampered by unacceptably low shutter speeds. The 1.2-megapixel front-facing shooter is fine enough for your everyday Skype call, but suffice it to say that the Moto G doesn’t fix all of the annoyances that typically come with cheap Android phones.
There isn’t too much to say here, as the Moto G’s battery is neither outstanding nor unacceptable. Its 2,070 mAh pack will get you around a full day of ordinary use, but it doesn’t go above and beyond other phones of this caliber. Like most everything else here, it’s an improvement over other sub-$200 smartphones, but it isn’t world-class either. The fact that it’s non-removable is disappointing, though.