At its outset, the Moto G was a groundbreaking phone, combining high-end performance and features with great build quality and a budget-friendly price. For its fourth generation, launching today, this smartphone is splitting into three distinct models as it seeks to maintain its original appeal against a horde of competitors elevating their game. It's the same old formula of growing bigger and more feature-rich, but is that enough to keep the Moto G at the head of the affordable pack?
The regular Moto G moves to a 5.5-inch 1080p display and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor. Implementations of that chip so far have had varying success, but when a company does it right — as HTC did with the One A9 — it offers one of the most fluid Android experiences from a sub-flagship-class processor. Storage options go from 16GB to 64GB and RAM choice ranges from 2GB to 4GB. For Lenovo, the whole premise behind the Moto line is choice.
Alongside the Moto G, the Chinese company is launching a Moto G Plus, which is almost identical, but for the inclusion of a more sophisticated 16-megapixel camera — replete with phase-detect and laser autofocus systems — and a fingerprint sensor on a physical home button at the front. Both run Google's Android Marshmallow with Moto Display and Moto Actions enhancements layered on top. Before Samsung and LG got into the always-on display game this year, Motorola led the way with its active display notifications.
The third member of the 2016 Moto G family is the Moto G Play. This is a 5-inch 720p device with a humbler Snapdragon 410 processor and only 8GB and 16GB storage options. RAM is also limited to 2GB and the camera is a basic 8-megapixel unit. You can think of it as the throwback to last year's model — for people who might not fancy going up near the phablet size range or those who still think of the Moto G as an affordable device first and foremost. Lenovo offers replaceable shells for the G Play and has made it splash-proof. The 2,800mAh battery of the G Play is only a little bit smaller than the 3,000mAh cell in the Moto G and G Plus.
I can't help but feel that the Moto G has lost its raison d'être. Where the former Motorola once enjoyed a lead in terms of performance and industrial design, Chinese rivals now match the Moto G's speed and are starting to produce aluminum unibody shells that Lenovo can't compete with. Lenovo's Aymar de Lencquesaing, co-president of the company's mobile business group, told me ahead of today's launch that he believes the Moto G can still stand out on its old strengths of providing a clean Android experience and trickling premium features down. Having witnessed this year's Oppo F1 Plus, the Redmi Note 3, and the Meizu M3 Note, I simply disagree. No amount of Moto Maker customizations — available on both the G and G Plus — will bridge the gap between Lenovo's new phones and those powerful, all-aluminum $200 beasts of burden.
But, you might rightly argue, those phones aren't headed to the US market. Well, neither is the Moto G range, at least not at first. Lenovo is releasing the Moto G and Moto G Plus in Brazil today, with immediate availability of the G Plus also in India, where the company is hosting a full launch event. The UK will get both handsets in June, with prices starting at £169 (about $243) for the Moto G and £199 ($286) for the G Plus. As to the G Play, Lenovo says pricing will vary by region and the smaller handset will arrive in the summer.
No US pricing or carrier information is being made available yet, with Lenovo only promising to offer its new smartphones there in "mid-summer." The original Motorola's home turf is now a secondary, maybe even tertiary market for new products bearing the Moto name.
Now under the stewardship of Lenovo, the Moto brand is supposed to be defined by choice and variety, but it comes across as indecisive and frankly slow to adapt. The $200 price range has become ridiculously competitive over the past year and, on the evidence of today's announcements, Lenovo doesn't seem to be keeping up.