That’s not the case with the Moto E’s internals, though. The 4G LTE model we tested comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 chipset, equipped with a quad-core 1.2GHz Cortex A-53 CPU and an Adreno 306 GPU. A gig of RAM is there as well. That’s all stronger than the base 3G model and its Snapdragon 200 SoC, though we can’t say exactly how stark the difference is.
Regardless, we were pleasantly surprised by how capable this little guy is. Again, it isn’t anything close to a “blazer,” but it can handle just about anything you throw at it. Those used to flagships will notice a faint whiff of sluggishness across the device, and a minute-long boot-up time is excessive, but opening apps, browsing the web, and navigating Moto’s light UI is consistently swift. There’s nary a stutter in sight. Even if you’re coming from a higher-end device, using the Moto E won’t be a nuisance. It simply doesn’t feel like a $150 phone.
Even gaming isn’t much of an obstacle. Outside of some slightly extended loading times and the occasional lag navigating menus, console-esque titles like Deus Ex: The Fall and Asphalt 8: Airborne never made us feel like the phone was getting in our way. They weren’t butter, but they were beyond just playable. It’s all part of the Moto E’s great trick: setting low expectations with its price tag, then smashing them without having to go overboard. It wouldn’t wow us in a vacuum, but because it’s competent in a price range full of trash, it’s excellent for the market at which it’s aiming.
Less excellent is the peripheral stuff, although some of it isn’t exactly Motorola’s fault. The feeble speaker is, at least: It manages individual voices fine, but anything more complex will have it muddling different channels together. Bass and other chunkier noises usually don’t come through clearly, and lack any sort of oomph when they do. The speaker is quiet too, so you’ll want to have a pair of headphones handy when streaming music or more expansive movies. We do appreciate the fact that it projects sound from the front, though, because the quality here would be much worse if it had to travel from behind the device.
Storage space is also a weak point, as the Moto E comes with just 8 GB of room by default. Just over half of that is actually usable out of the box. The phone takes microSD cards up to 32 GB, fortunately, but it’s still a pain to essentially require one of those if you want to download more than a few albums, movies, or games.
Our test unit’s mediocre call quality, meanwhile, mostly comes down to Boost. We were able to hear other voices okay here in the Boston area, but we were told that noises on our end sounded softer and less defined than usual.
Data speeds over Boost’s network were similarly underwhelming. The big selling point for the LTE Moto E is, well, the LTE, but Boost’s 4G speeds are closer to HSPA+ quality in practice. We averaged between 3Mbps and 8Mbps on average, which isn’t unusable, but also isn’t close to the rates provided by a bigger player like Verizon or AT&T. We occasionally climbed into the 15-18Mbps range in the right location, but it wasn’t consistent. Sprint has fallen off the pace of big three carriers when it comes to general network quality, so seeing one of its MVNOs have the same issues isn’t much of a shock. It’s worth paying more for the 4G-capable Moto E—or less, in Boost’s case—for its general performance gains, but don’t expect the kind of network speeds that are normally associated with the “LTE” tag.
This year’s Moto E comes with a 2,390mAh battery, up from the 1,980mAh pack of last year’s model. Part of that is to compensate for the larger screen, but the end result is a phone with superb longevity all the same. The display’s modest pixel count, combined with a respectable SoC, and an updated version of Android allowed us to easily get a day and half of juice with average use—i.e., listening to music, browsing the web, sending some texts, and using various apps. Throw in some time for gaming and that comes down to around a day, be a little more conscious of your Internet use and it goes beyond two days. In any case, it’s fantastic.
The one downside is that the battery isn’t removable, so you’ll have to tough out any dips in lifespan that may come with extended use. If things ever become too dire, though, Android 5.0 comes with a helpful “Battery saver” mode that strips the phone down to its most basic functions and buys you a few more hours to find a charging outlet.
Perhaps ironically, the best thing about today’s Moto phones is something they don’t do—namely, mess with Google’s take on its own operating system. The Moto E doesn’t change that line of thought, so like the Moto X and Moto G before it, it runs what’s essentially a stock version of Android.
The phone comes with Android 5.0.2 Lollipop out of the box, which is slightly behind the curve now that Android 5.1 has launched, but is still more up-to-date than many devices four times its price. We wouldn’t expect it to remain dated for too long, either—because Motorola barely touches the base Android UI, it typically updates its phones faster than any other Android OEM. Whatever the case, this is currently the cheapest way to get into a stable, (virtually) unaltered version of Google’s mobile OS. It’s something like an ultra-cheap Nexus phone.
Lollipop released to the public five months ago, but it remains a general improvement over KitKat. Little things like its wonky new drag-down menu and lack of a mute function are annoying, but it runs smoother than before, and added features like a new “recent apps” menu that makes multitasking easier and the aforementioned battery saver mode are welcome.
It’s a visual overhaul above all else, though, and most of its tune-ups go a long way towards sprucing up the software. It’s a friendlier UI, with a host of cutesy icons and livelier animations. There are plenty of things we’d like to see Google add in the future, but for now, it’s a shot in the arm for an OS that was already improving with each passing update.
More than a few of Lollipop’s best features—farther-reaching voice control, the ability to access notifications from the lock screen, etc.—derive from features Motorola itself introduced with the last few Moto X devices, and a handful of those return on the budget model here. The Moto Display setup, which lets you preview notifications while the screen is in a low-power state, still serves as a battery-friendly way to see what you’ve missed. Moto Assist silences notifications during pre-set sleeping hours, or sends automated replies to people who try to contact you during meetings. The Moto Migrate app makes moving data between phones a breeze. Best of all is the built-in “quick capture” gesture that quick launches the camera with a couple easy twists of the wrist.
Things like this don’t morph Android into whatever the device maker sees fit. They enhance it, and as a result the few tacked-on features here never feel like bloat. Motorola remains of the only Android manufacturers that lets its customers determine what they want to do with their device, which is ostensibly the point of an OS as flexible as Android in the first place. It’s not impossible to improve stock Android with a full-on skin, but because nobody has really done that yet, this is the most user-friendly approach for an OEM to take.
Unfortunately, our version of the Moto E wasn’t totally devoid of bloatware. Like its papa Sprint, Boost stuffs most of its devices with a handful of marginally useful apps made by itself or its partners. Things like Boost Music, Boost Wallet, and Messaging+ aren’t vital when Google Play is overflowing with better music, money managing, and messenger apps, but they’re here anyway. In a refreshing change of pace, most of those can be uninstalled, but the day carriers stop eating up storage with half-baked software can’t come soon enough.
The quality of the Moto E’s build, processor, and battery suggests that something had to be shoddily put together to keep costs down, and unfortunately that thing is its 5-megapixel main camera. It’s godawful.
The vast majority of shots we took with it came out under- or over-exposed, with colors that are either washed out or devoid of life. Chunks of photos are eternally murky and lacking in detail in all but professional-lit environments. Its autofocus is slow, but even if you keep your hands steady, there’s still a good chance that there’ll be a lot of blur. It’s also useless in low-light surroundings on its own, and without the help of an LED flash, grabbing anything suitable for Instagram is nigh impossible if you’re one of those people who goes outside at night. Videos don’t fare much better.
The phone’s 0.3-megapixel front-facing shooter might be even worse, again requiring perfect lighting and a robotically stiff arm to keep photos from not being wholly sloppy. The one saving grace here is that Motorola’s camera UI is still among the most straightforward to use—only the most essential settings are included, and snapping a photo is as easy as tapping anywhere on the screen. You can manually drag the viewfinder’s focus point now as well, which would be nifty if nine out of every ten shots didn’t come out terribly.
All of this is horrid enough to be a deal breaker if you frequent apps like Snapchat, or just value photo quality in your phone in any way. It may feel worse than it is because the rest of the phone is so far beyond its price point, but this camera setup is the one part of the Moto E that’s content with only meeting the low standards set by most budget handsets.