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Motorola Moto E (2015) review

It turns out $149 can buy a lot of smartphone

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Crunch. That’s the sound of glass doing a belly-flop on concrete. A couple of months ago, I heard it for the first time. After a long night of Dungeons & Dragons and bar-hopping, I got to my front door, reached for the keys in my pocket, and instead fumbled a Nexus 5 to the sidewalk. I thought I’d be bummed out — but then, a day later, I was fine. The phone still worked, and even though the glass had been shattered, it was totally usable. I even felt morbidly relieved; now that my Nexus had a one-way ticket to the island of misfit toys, I had one less precious object to fret over. Since then I’ve been ready for a cheap, but competent smartphone — one I don’t have to worry about — and I found it in Motorola’s new $149 Moto E.

Moto E 2015 stock

The new Moto E is $20 more than its shockingly cheap predecessor, and this time around it’s got LTE, a bigger battery, and a slightly larger screen. It’s a small bump up in price, but that’s probably okay; it handled streaming shows on Netflix, running Crossy Road and Monopoly, giving me real-time navigation, and everything else I wanted it to do without the sluggish performance I’d expect from a phone this inexpensive. Text on the screen looks a little fuzzy compared to the best displays out there, but I quickly stopped noticing it after a day.

The E is pleasing to look at and hold. I would even call it beautiful. Its curves and lines are utilitarian but friendly, its 4.5-inch screen rests comfortably in my hand, its weight is balanced, and its design is clean of cruft. There’s even a little genius in small details, like the smooth circular depression on the back of the phone with Motorola’s logo in it. When I use the phone with one hand, the bottom landing on my pinky, my index finger naturally rests in the nook. It’s a pleasing sensation, and it makes my grip feel secure when I’m thumbing a tweet or a text message. You can also customize the phone’s look a little bit with swappable colored bands that wrap around its edge. I chose pink.

Thankfully, the software is just as clean as the Moto E’s appearance. It runs a lightly customized version of Android 5.0 Lollipop, and I mean lightly. It mostly feels like stock Android except for a few unobtrusive Motorola apps and quirks. One of the quirks I unexpectedly found myself loving is Quick Capture: a feature that lets you twist your wrist to open the camera app. Sadly I can’t recommend that you ever use the Moto E’s camera.

The Moto E’s camera is its only truly upsetting feature. Sure, there are bad cameras all up and down the Android price range, but the Moto E’s camera is actual garbage that belongs in an actual garbage bin. These days that’s a huge problem, even for someone like me who doesn’t use a ton of apps. The apps I do use often, like Instagram and Snapchat, are all about photos and video. I just don’t want to share anything that comes from the Moto E’s camera. If you care about the photos you take from your phone, it’s a deal-breaker.

Moto E camera sampleSample image taken with the Moto E

Still, I could see myself using the Moto E every day as my only smartphone.

I’ve been working at The Verge since 2011, and I’ve spent a lot of time with smartphone enthusiasts. I’ve been ribbed by my colleagues on more than one occasion — even laughed at — for having an unfashionably "old" phone in my pocket. But I guess that just makes me like a lot of people out there — unwilling (or more likely, unable) to drop hundreds of dollars on a whim every six months to buy the newest, shiniest smartphone. I think smartphones are marvelous machines, but you’ll probably never see me camp in line for the privilege of spending $800 on a new one.

I could see using the Moto E every day as my only phone

Fortunately, that thrifty instinct doesn’t keep me from enjoying everything I love about smartphones anymore. (Well, everything except a decent camera.) The difference between last year’s top phone and this year’s top phone is a crack in the sidewalk compared to the chasm between, say, the Motorola Q and the first iPhone. In his review of last year’s Moto E, Vlad Savov called it "the people’s smartphone — the smartphone that makes all others look stupidly expensive." The same is true for Motorola’s latest attempt, and it’s a refreshing counterpoint to the maelstrom of hype that just came out of Mobile World Congress.

Moto E 2015 stock

I didn’t grieve for my shattered Nexus 5, but I did agonize for the phone that came before it: an HTC One I bought from T-Mobile at full price in 2013. Last year, a week after its one-year warranty expired, I woke up and found that my One died overnight. It was really upsetting! I couldn’t afford to replace it, and I’m still paying T-Mobile $20 a month for a broken phone. It turns out there’s a huge emotional gulf between dropping a $180 phone on the ground and losing nearly $600. So the best part about a competent, affordable smartphone like the Moto E? It doesn’t control me. I won’t worry as much about losing it, or having it stolen, or dropping it on concrete. That peace of mind is something the newest iPhone or Galaxy can’t offer.