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Moto G5 Plus review: a new value champion

Cheap phones can't afford to suck anymore

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The lesson of Lenovo’s new Moto G5 Plus is simple: cheap smartphones have no business feeling cheap anymore. The "below this price, you get a lackluster device" line that once existed has officially evaporated when you can buy a phone for as little as $229 with a metal build, phenomenal display, great performance, and satisfactory battery life. And best of all, it’s a phone that you can take to any major carrier, and it’ll just work. Very few other bargain phones can offer the same convenience.

The Moto G series has always been a good value, combining great Android software with decent-enough hardware. But this is the first iteration of the series to feel truly premium. If other companies like OnePlus, ZTE, and Huawei weren’t battling out this war to produce impressive, inexpensive phones, I’m not convinced Lenovo would’ve felt compelled to make the G5 what it is. It’s nowhere near perfect, with curious hardware omissions and a camera that doesn’t live up to its spec sheet. But I can’t think of an easier recommendation for someone who wants to spend between $200 and $300 on a phone that just works. And that’s a pretty nice position for Lenovo to be in.

In the US, the G5 Plus comes in two configurations (the standard G5 is not being sold here): one is the $299 model I tested with 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. The other cuts both of those numbers in half and sells for a cheaper $229. You’ll be able to get them from Moto’s website, Walmart, Best Buy, Target, Costco, and other retailers. But here’s the real hook: if you’re an Amazon Prime user, you get a steep discount on either version — as long as you’re willing to put up with lockscreen ads. The better 64GB / 4GB model drops to $239.99, and the lesser 32GB / 2GB G5 Plus falls all the way to $184.99. That’s cheap.

A smartphone that feels above its costakrales_170322_1556_A_0088.0.jpg

When I say that the Moto G5 Plus is a "metal" phone, that’s only partially true. The backplate taking up much of the phone’s rear is aluminum, but the G5’s core frame is actually plastic. It’s plenty sturdy, with tactile buttons, a creak-free frame, and an internal nanocoating that can save the phone from accidental spills. My issues with the design are twofold: for one, Lenovo made some aesthetic choices that make the phone look a little cheap, like the Moto logo plastered on the front and the shiny chrome edges that surround the display. Two, it’s just a little bland. Your opinion may differ, and my unfavorable take might rest partly with the gold color I reviewed. And while the G5 Plus is comfortable to hold thanks to its 5.2-inch 1080p screen — not a size considered "Plus" by today’s standards — it can feel a little slippery thanks to that metal backplate. It’s not what I’d call compact though, since the large top and bottom bezels negate the reasonably-sized display. On the left side is the volume toggle and a textured power button, and up top is the SIM tray, which also holds microSD cards to supplement the 32GB or 64GB of built-in storage.

The display is definitely one of the best things about the G5 Plus. It’s a 1080p IPS LCD panel with flawless viewing angles. No matter how or from where you look at the screen, it’s excellent. Just be aware that colors are somewhat muted compared to the vivid OLED displays on the Moto Z line — even in the "vibrant" display mode. Below the screen is a wide, oblong fingerprint reader. You can use it in one of two ways: by default, it’s just like Moto’s other fingerprint scanners that will unlock your phone or lock it again when you hold your finger down a bit longer. But there’s also a neat trick that turns off Android’s on-screen buttons (back, home, and recents) and lets you replicate them with swiping gestures.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

You swipe left to trigger Android’s back function, or swipe right to enter multitasking view. You can even swipe right twice quickly to do Android Nougat’s quick-switching action between apps. In this configuration, the fingerprint reader acts as a home button and can trigger Google Assistant. This do-everything fingerprint reader approach gives you just that extra little bit of space on the screen for emails, Facebook, and other content. The swiping gestures worked as expected most of the time, but as a longtime user of Android’s on-screen buttons, I could never fully adjust to this style of using the phone day to day. I’m probably just too hard-wired to the virtual buttons; people new to Android might prefer it.

Great software, but updates aren't guaranteed akrales_170322_1556_A_0099.0.jpg

But the biggest feature that Lenovo is emphasizing with the G5 Plus is the camera inside. It’s a 12-megapixel f/1.7 sensor with larger individual pixels to pull in more light. On paper, that sounds fairly similar to the camera setup in Samsung’s Galaxy S7. I wish I could say you were getting that phenomenal camera for half the price, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. In daylight, the G5 Plus captures impressive dynamic range (particularly in HDR mode) and keeps pace with cameras far above its price range.

Come nighttime, the phone’s lack of optical stabilization can have a noticeable, bad impact on your shots. Everything tends to look soft. Phone cameras don’t need OIS to take fantastic low-light images (see: Google Pixel), but Moto’s camera app and algorithms don’t have the smarts to get the image you want on the first try. There’s a pro mode that lets you adjust white balance, shutter speed, and ISO, but most people buying this phone are likely to tap and shoot. Compared to other phones in this price range, the G5’s camera is ahead. It’s just nowhere close to today’s flagships, which is probably an unrealistic expectation to have.

Just about everywhere else, the Moto G5 Plus excels at smartphone stuff. It’s got Snapdragon’s 625 processor inside, and as we saw previously on the Moto Z Play, 95 percent of the time it runs just as smooth and reliably as any $800 phone. And it’ll outlast several of them between charges. The G5 Plus has a 3,000mAh battery, which has been enough to make the phone last for between 4 and 6 hours of screen-on time in my experience, and fast charging that can refuel the battery quickly. Two caveats: I’ve had the phone for under a week, and have noticed an outlier or two where the battery drained faster than expected. It’s not the all-time battery champion that the Z Play is, but it’ll comfortably get you through a day of heavy use.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Hopefully you’ve still got some Micro USB cables around, because neither version of the G5 has USB Type C for charging. But a Micro USB port isn’t the most glaring example of cost-cutting with this phone. That would be the total lack of NFC, which gives you a phone that can’t do tap-to-pay with Android Pay or anything else you’d use NFC for. That’s inexplicably only true of the US version; international models will have NFC support. Lenovo’s backwards justification for this is that US consumers have been slow to embrace mobile payments. You know what might help with that? Putting the technology in every phone regardless of price.

For many people, this phone can do everything they need

For software, out of the box you’re getting Android 7.0 Nougat and Google Assistant. My review unit currently remains on a January security patch, which isn’t the most encouraging thing to see. Motorola’s got a rather patchy history with timely software releases — both on the software and security end of things.

Nougat-specific features, such as splitscreen multitasking, worked very well on the 64GB / 4GB model I tested, though I can’t speak to whether it struggles on the cheaper $229 G5 Plus with 2GB of RAM. If you can afford it, I’d absolutely go for the better hardware. That’ll more comfortably last you another year or two. With the G5 Plus you’re getting most of Moto’s excellent software customizations like Moto Display lockscreen notifications and Moto Actions, letting you twist the phone to launch the camera or chop the phone twice to turn on the flashlight, among other gestures. The only one missing is Moto Voice. But that’s not much of an issue since you can still set up "OK Google" to control the phone with your voice and get answers from Assistant.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The Moto G5 Plus is simply an outstanding phone for the money. It’s cheap, comes without monthly installments or commitments, and you can take it anywhere. Sure, spending $100 or $200 more will get you a better overall package in the OnePlus 3T, or the hard-to-believe battery longevity of the Moto Z Play. But not everyone can do that. And though the Moto G5 Plus is by no means the best smartphone available today, it’s hard to find a better one at this price — especially if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber.