The Moto X represented a sizable step forward for Motorola. A comfortable, fresh, customizable design married with tasteful and useful software features, it’s the polar opposite of the aggressively styled and skinned Droids Motorola and Verizon have produced. Now, Motorola is back with the Moto G, a budget smartphone that aims to bring the best things about the Moto X to customers that don't want or can't afford a midrange smartphone. And it’s going to attempt to sell it worldwide.
The Moto G offers a lot of phone for $179. Its 4.5-inch 720p display is theoretically equal to the panel in the more expensive X, while a quad-core Snapdragon processor and clean design belie its ridiculously low price tag. In the saturated smartphone space of the US and western Europe, the thought of saving a couple hundred dollars is intriguing, for sure, but in Latin America, Asia, and other developing markets, more expensive phones are just non-starters.
For those priced out of the midrange market, there’s never been a device quite like this before. This is a phone that, on paper, at least, blows away every limp-fisted offering in its price range. Developing markets are dominated by Nokia, BlackBerry, and Samsung; they’re the markets that Mozilla is attempting to enter with its Firefox OS; and the markets that represents “the next billion” users that are being chased by Facebook, Google, and every other company worth its salt. If the Moto G lives up to even some of its promise, it could redefine an entire section of the market, and give users on a tight budget a truly quality experience.
Motorola was very clear at its Moto G launch event that it's making money from every Moto G it sells. When you consider what companies with massive scale like Samsung and Nokia are offering at this price, it seems impossible that Motorola hasn't cut corners. Surely something has to give, right?
A devolutionary design
At first glance, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the Moto G for the Moto X. Like the more expensive handset, it's a subtly designed phone, defined by its softly rounded corners and elegantly curved back. Although it apes the look of the Moto X, there are a few important differences between the two phones. The 5-ounce Moto G feels much heavier than the X, and its back curves slightly too much, ruining the balance and making the G look and feel pudgy in comparison. Its side-mounted buttons poke out slightly too far and feel very plasticky and cheap.
These are the kind of details that Motorola has proven it’s capable of nailing, but at such a low price they’re apparently impossible to work around. You’re still getting an attractive handset for the price, and one that many might mistake for its more expensive cousin, but the Moto G falls short of being spectacular.
Motorola has swapped its custom X8 chip for a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and cut the RAM down from 2GB to 1GB. The cuts are clearly a trade-off required to get the price so low, but the specs still look good compared to the average $179 smartphone. Another change can be found in internal storage, which has dropped from 16GB or 32GB of storage in the Moto X down to 8GB or 16GB. The 8GB version I tested has around 5.5GB of storage for your apps, photos, and music, and there’s no microSD slot for expansion. Given the Moto G’s pretensions as a phone for the masses, this is something of an oversight. A capacious microSD can be picked up from retailers across the world for a few dollars, and a slot for expandable storage is an important feature to many.
Even for me, storage posed an issue; after syncing my (admittedly quite large) music collection over to the phone, I was left with just 500MB free. Google may want people to use its cloud services instead of local storage, but if that’s not always practical in the US, it’s a near impossibility in other countries. Thankfully, Motorola is offering the the 16GB version at just $199, just $20 more than the 8GB edition. The upgrade is a no-brainer.
No LTE is less of a problem outside of America
LTE is probably the Moto G’s biggest missing feature, and in the US that could be a deal-breaker for many potential buyers. The Moto G is intended to be sold across the world, though. Many countries have no LTE networks at all, while others, especially in Europe, have well-developed 3G networks that can deliver good speeds compared to their US counterparts. Although some Americans might not be dissuaded by the lack of LTE connectivity, it’s perhaps the biggest tell that the US is not Motorola’s target market with this phone.
Trouble in paradise
I actually had a big problem with the first Moto G I used. A manufacturing issue with the processor inside caused the device to run out of memory very quickly, making multitasking impossible. Motorola says it was an issue with pre-retail models, and indeed the retail phone I picked up later doesn’t have the issue.
Motorola tells me it’s scanning all devices coming off the factory line for the issue and that it won’t affect retail units. To date I’ve heard just a single report of a day-one retail device with the problem. I’m confident the company is on top of the issue, but if your device behaves strangely, the processor problem might be the reason.
Moto Maker: Home Edition
The Moto X made headlines for its dizzying array of color options, and Motorola has done its best to bring a similar choice down to the low end of the market. Instead of offering customizable phones through its Moto Maker service, it's taking the Nokia route and offering colorful replacement shells that you can swap in for the phone’s back cover. It’s a shame, but it’s difficult to imagine Moto Maker being viable at such a low price. Unless Motorola was to set up factories in each of the 30 countries where it sells the Moto G, snap-on covers appear to be the only way to bring the personalized feel of the Moto X to the masses.
The Moto G arrived at my door decked out in all black, which just made it look fat. Luckily, I also picked up a couple of cases, one in a fetching "Lemon Lime" that's somehow both pastel and fluorescent at the same time. The other was a black flip-case that protected the display, something similar to the cases you’ve probably seen covering a Samsung Galaxy S4. Other colors available include white, blue, turquoise, red, and pink.
With a splash of color, this is a much more likable phone
After a few minutes dithering, I cast aside the unmemorable black shell in favor of the citrus-inspired casing, and haven't looked back. With a splash of color, the Moto G becomes a much more likable phone, and the two-tone stylings give the illusion of a slimmer device.
Pretty they may be, but swapping covers is a chore, requiring you to wrench off the case by wedging your fingernail into the phone's Micro USB charging port and pulling. It's not likely to be something you do every day, but I haven’t had this much trouble removing a case in years.
With the cases, Motorola once again falls short of exacting standards; the black flip-cover feels coarse and unpleasant in your hands, and when closed the front portion never quite aligns with the corners of the phone. The yellowy cover, although looking more attractive than its brethren, began to creak after a couple of days. After a week of heavy use, it’s developed a cacophony of infuriating squeaks and clicks that radiate from an air gap close to the phone's rear camera. Although matte and resistant to fingerprints, the cover gets dirty very quickly, and I worry how well it’ll stand the tests of time.
The Moto G falls short of exacting standards
The Moto G doesn’t have to contend with the type of premium devices that meet my standards, though, and compared to the (admittedly fun) clear plastic shelled Asha phones like the 503, uninspiring Firefox OS phones like the ZTE Open, and Nokia’s low-end Windows Phones, the Moto G looks truly premium, even if it doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
Motorola has taken a leap in the right direction here, bringing aspirational qualities to a new price range, but it hasn't performed a miracle. Instead, it’s boiled down the elements of great design to sell it to the masses. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Although outdone by more expensive, higher-resolution displays, the Moto G's 4.5-inch 720p LCD panel is in a class of its own at this price. A bright panel with accurate colors and solid viewing angles, there's really not much more I could ask from a budget smartphone. In fact, the display is easily on par with those found on last year’s flagships, such as the HTC One X. It's certainly a huge step up from the low-resolution displays offered by the competition.
Nokia's cheap Lumia and Asha phones, Samsung's lesser Galaxy smartphones, and LG’s Optimus F range all offer WVGA (800 x 480) displays. Some Samsung phones, like the Galaxy Fame, step that down further to HVGA (480 x 320). Of course, resolution isn’t the only defining aspect of a display, but the difference between WVGA and 720p is immediately noticeable. That Motorola has managed to put this display into a phone costing so little is an achievement in itself.Camera
Fast, fun, and out of focus
One almost cruelly overlooked feature at this price range is a phone’s camera. Images from budget phones are almost universally awful, with even camera specialists like Nokia failing to work their magic into low-end offerings. Motorola’s final cost-cutting trick can be found at the back of the phone, where the Moto X’s 10-megapixel camera is gone, replaced by a 5-megapixel unit. Given the mixed performance of the 10-megapixel shooter, the downgrade immediately gave me cause for concern.
The Moto X’s camera experience is almost fully recreated for the Moto G, omitting only the finicky gesture that activates the app from sleep. As with the Moto X, Motorola has stripped out the vast majority of the settings from its camera app. Tapping anywhere on the screen adjusts the white balance, exposure, and focus before taking a photo. It makes taking pictures feel fun and natural; unfortunately, the app yields extremely mixed results. Photos were often out of focus in all but the most perfect of lighting conditions, and, perhaps to compensate for the poor low-light performance, the flash fires off even when it’s absolutely not needed.
Swiping in from the side of the screen brings up a hemisphere of icons that lets you deactivate the flash, and, more importantly, grants you some control over focus and exposure. Activating the "Control Focus & Exposure" option puts a rectangular target on the screen that you can drag to let the Moto G know what you want in focus before you tap the screen to close the shutter and take a photo. It’s not flawless, but it’s actually very intuitive and would perhaps make more sense as the default setting.
Another disappointing camera
Even with Control Focus & Exposure activated, the image quality from the Moto G is disappointing. The phone just doesn’t take good photos most of the time. It’s got a voracious desire to post-process your images to the nth degree, adding in noise and artifacting that result in some extremely bad photos. Coupled with the focusing issues, the Moto G offers up yet another disappointing low-end Android camera. It matches the competition, but nothing more.
Bang for the buck
Comparing the Moto G against more expensive handsets isn't exactly fair. Anyone upgrading to the Moto G is likely to notice a huge leap in performance. That’s true even for those with flagship phones from 2011, like the Samsung Galaxy S II or iPhone 4S, and the difference between the Moto G and any other sub-$200 handset ever is night and day. In the sub-$200 market, only Windows Phone devices like the Lumia 520 and 620 get close to the kind of experience that Motorola is offering here.
Motorola has taken a no-frills approach to software with the Moto G. There are few differences here between Motorola's and Google’s ideas of how Android should look and behave. Gone are the bells and whistles of the Moto X; you won’t find any "Ok Google Now" voice commands here, no gesture controls are offered, and the X’s extremely useful Active Notifications, which allow you to view and interact with notifications while the majority of the phone’s display is powered down, have also been cast aside.
Motorola's apps are entirely useful
The latter feature has probably been omitted due to hardware differences between the two phones. The Moto X has custom chips that can perform such tasks in a low-power state, and its AMOLED display only activates the pixels in use. In contrast, the Moto G has a regular Snapdragon processor and an LCD display that requires backlighting, meaning Active Notifications would impact battery life. That said, the notification LED positioned above the G’s display does a fine job of subtly informing you that it wants your attention.
Only a few of Motorola’s apps made the journey over to the G. Moto Migrate lets you transfer all of your settings, photos, videos, and music from your old Android phone with ease. It works well, but you may have to delete some content from your old device before running it, given the Moto G’s limited storage. Moto Assist intelligently learns your routine and plugs into Google Calendar to automatically set your phone to an appropriate mode. If you’re driving, it’ll allow you to engage with your phone hands-free; if your calendar says you’re in a meeting, it’ll put your phone in silent mode. It’s entirely optional but also entirely useful.
Place the Moto G alongside the Moto X and the gap in performance is almost imperceptible. Swiping through home screens is smooth, apps launch in a pinch, games run beautifully; it’s just astoundingly responsive. As the spec sheet suggests, there’s plenty of raw speed here. In fact, the Moto G offers up the kind of experience you’d expect from a $500 or $600 phone for $179. Yes, it’s not as fast as the current crop of flagship phones, and yes, scrolling in Android’s Chrome browser is as imperfect as ever, but it really blows everything else out the water.
An all-day phone
Often those looking to buy cheap Android phones currently use low-end BlackBerrys, quasi-smartphones like Nokia’s Asha range, or even an old flip phone. These customers might be used to batteries that last a week or more, something that modern smartphones just can’t match. With that in mind, it’s important that a budget device can at least keep up with the competition. Luckily, the 2,070mAh battery inside the Moto G offers more than enough power to get you through to the end of the day. It’s slightly smaller than the Moto X’s cell, but the Moto G’s processor appears to be far more frugal.
In everyday use, the Moto G is well above the average. I use my phone a lot, probably a lot more than the average buyer, but regularly got through to the end of the day with 40 percent or more left on the battery meter. With light use you should be able to squeeze two days from a single charge.
Redefining what a cheap smartphone can be
With the Moto X, Motorola proved a phone can be more than the sum of its parts. The Moto G proves the opposite. On paper it’s competitive with many $500 or $600 devices, and performance is stunning — unheard of at this price range. From afar its clean design begs to be picked up, but it doesn’t quite offer the same reassuring quality you’ll get from more expensive devices. It’s like walking around IKEA, lusting after beautifully designed furniture that looks just as good as the best Scandinavia has to offer, only to take home a creaky bookcase with a cheap veneer. It’s the lust for reasonably priced, beautiful things that keeps people coming back to IKEA, and that same ethos — aspirational yet affordable — makes the Moto G a winner.
At $179.99, it’s pitted against a sorry band of phones impossible to recommend to all but your most mortal enemies. The experience offered by Motorola here is almost incomparable to the Ashas, BlackBerrys, and Firefox OS phones out there. Bring Windows Phone into the equation and it’s admittedly a slightly different story, as Microsoft and Nokia have worked hard — far harder than Google — to make sure Windows Phone runs smoothly on low-end devices.
There’s something reassuring about Nokia’s dense little Lumia 520, and if build quality is more important to you than performance and apps, Nokia’s handset is worth a look. To me, though, the 520 just isn’t in the same league. It’s a little sad that, at this price range, users will have to choose between top-notch build quality and raw speed, with the combination of both saved for ultra-expensive smartphones like the iPhone 5S, HTC One, and Lumia 1020.
The Moto G is a very solid phone. All of its issues, like the somewhat shoddy casing, a mediocre camera, and limited on-board storage, can and will be overlooked at this price. For years, Samsung, LG, HTC, and other Android manufacturers have generally been putting a $200 price tag on junk like the pitiful Galaxy Fame. Yes, compromises have been made to get the Moto G down to $179.99, and I’d like to see a manufacturer put a half-decent camera on a cheap phone. But this phone truly redefines what a low-end smartphone can be, and is the best attempt yet to turn “the next billion” into smartphone users.
Photos by Tom Warren.
More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.
- Design 6
- Display 8
- Camera(s) 5
- Reception / call quality 8
- Performance 8
- Software 8
- Battery life 8
- Ecosystem 8