First World Smartphone Problems
Over the last year I’ve begun to feel like somebody who loves smartphones but hates the smartphone market. The ever-growing trend to make bigger and bigger handsets has well and truly embedded itself in the industry- Flagship handsets from almost every manufacturer have upwards of 5″ displays with no signs of stopping, and introducing phablet-sized devices into product lines is also becoming the norm. At the other end of the spectrum, smaller form factors are now the reserve of budget products and the diluted “mini” versions of higher end phones, emulating the design but are otherwise inferior to the premium experience their larger siblings offer. Apple are arguably the last exception to this trend, but even the Cupertino giant have adopted a larger screen size in recent years and rumours abound of even larger handsets being tested.
This is something I’ve not been happy about. I use my phone with one thumb wherever possible, so the ideal smartphone size is around the 4.3″-4.4″ mark. The Nexus 4 was a decent compromise when stock levels finally stabilised after the enormous initial rush, being both well spec’d and a size I could use with relative comfort (just about) at a price I was more than happy to stomach, without any manufacturer skinning over Android. However after an unfortunate run-in with the bathroom floor I had to replace it, only to discover Nexus 4 stock had evaporated, making room for the larger, more expensive Nexus 5. I eventually opted to renew my contract and get a HTC One Mini, which quickly validated my scepticism of low end phones as it soon became a laggy mess I disliked using. With no money or viable options to replace it with, I resigned myself to a couple of years of smartphone purgatory. Enter the Moto G…
Right, enough of the prelude.
The Motorola Moto G shocked everyone with its remarkably accomplished spec sheet and low price tag when it was announced earlier this month. The newest handset from Google’s recent acquisition is packing a 4.5″ display at a resolution of 720 x 1280, a 1.2 GHz quad core Snapdragon S4 processor paired with a healthy 1GB of RAM, along with either 8GB or 16GB of internal storage. On the software front the Moto G is running stock Android 4.3 (with Motorola guaranteeing an update to KitKat arriving in January) with only a few software additions from the manufacturer, most notably some security features and a new camera app for using the phone’s 5MP shooter. All of this paints the picture of a solid mid tier phone from Motorola, and then you get to the price, a bargain-bucket inspired £135 for 8GB. On paper, it puts everything competing at this price point to shame. Of course there’s more to a phone than a list of numbers, so let’s take a look.
The Moto G is an unassuming phone to look at, it’s an entirely black affair and aside from the necessary ports, buttons and sensors the only other marking is the depressed Motorola logo that sits in a dimple at the centre of the phone’s curved back. The result is a handset you probably wouldn’t look at twice if you passed it in a store, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may not have the design flair of the handsets from Apple or HTC, but it’s a handsome enough phone that nobody would mind carrying around with them.
Picking the phone up, you immediately notice it’s a fairly hefty thing. At 143g it’s heavier than most of the larger flagship phones currently on the market and tying with the predominately-metal HTC One. It’s not heavy enough to cause me any problems, but if you’re coming from a slimmer device you’ll probably notice the extra grams when you first use the phone. Luckily with this weightiness comes a feeling of solidity- this phone feels extremely well built. There is no flex or creaking anywhere on the phone, a usual tell-tale sign of a low end product, and the volume rocker and lock/power buttons don’t wiggle and are reassuringly clicky, the Moto G’s build quality certainly inspires confidence. The curved design of Motorola’s top end Moto X is brought over to the G, and does a great job of making the phone comfortable to hold and use despite its relative thickness.
The front of the phone is dominated by a single sheet of Gorilla Glass 3, the same glass draped over the displays of most flagship phones, and aside from the front facing camera and speaker is entirely plain (there’s also a notification LED and the usual array of sensors, but they’re impossible to see with the naked eye). There’s no Motorola branding to speak of, giving the device a distinctly “Nexus” feel to it. Moving around to sides you’ll find the volume rocker and lock button on the phone’s right edge, a Micro USB port on the bottom and a headphone jack on top, leaving the left hand side unused. Flipping the phone over you’ll find the 5MP rear shooter, with an LED flash underneath and the phone’s loudspeaker off to one side. Below the flash there’s a small dimple within which you’ll find Motorola’s logo, the only bit of branding on the whole phone. Finally, remove the flexible plastic back of the phone and you’ll be presented with… well, not much. Aside from the SIM tray there’s nothing really to speak of, there’s no expandable storage or removable battery (although the outline of the battery can be clearly made out, it’s almost like they’re taunting us). So why give us removable covers if there’s nothing remove underneath?
These removable back covers are Motorola’s way of injecting some of the customisable elements of their flagship into the entry level Moto G. These back covers will come in a variety of colours, starting with an initial release of red, violet, blue and “lemon”, with additional colours like turquoise expected in December. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a white cover in the post a few days after picking up my Moto G, it was supposed to be an online exclusive for Phones4U buyers but they must have wanted to share the love with customers visiting their retail stores too. Once you’ve wrestled the back cover off (it’s pretty damn stiff when you first take it off, not an easy task for a nail biter like me) it’s as simple as snapping the new cover into place. Just switching the backs over gave the phone’s appearance a new lease of life, turning a relatively pedestrian design into a much more attractive looking handset. I can’t imagine it will be long before third party manufacturers get in on the game and start producing all manner of covers either. There’s also Motorola’s Flip Covers to consider, which come in roughly the same palette of colours and also protect the front of the device.
Display and Audio
One of the most common corners that gets cut when building low end phones is the screen, however Motorola has curbed the trend here by using a pretty fantastic one, both in terms of resolution and overall quality, which all things considered is a pleasure to use. Viewing angles and brightness levels are both great, and colours are vibrant and accurate where most phones in the price range are splashy and washed out- anyone upgrading from an older budget handset is in for a real treat here. The 720p resolution of the Moto G may not match up to the 1080 panels used in top end handsets, but at 4.5″ there’s really no need to. The resolution results in a pixel density of 329, enough to quality for Apple’s “retina display” moniker and even beating out the density found in the iPhone line. In other words you’ll be hard pressed to notice individual pixels during standard usage scenarios, which coupled with the generally high quality attributes of the display make for a shockingly good visual experience. It’s not the largest or most vibrant display out there, but then none of those bigger or more vibrant screens come close to the £200 mark, never mind £150. It’s downright scary how close Motorola have come here to matching the displays of substantially more expensive phones, just on a slightly smaller scale.
Audio quality on the other hand is something that most smartphones scrimp on regardless of where they site on the price scale, and the Moto G is no exception. The loudspeaker is pretty much your standard cheap smartphone affair, it’s fine when it comes to your ringtone and notifications but you certainly aren’t going to want to rely on its tinny renditions for long music sessions. Plug in a pair of headphones and the results will be fine for most people, however it does seem a step below more premium handsets. When listening to music the soundstage felt a lot more closed in than it did coming from my Nexus 4 or One Mini using my Sennheiser Amperiors, the bass sounded woolier and the treble much less defined. If you’re using a cheap pair of earbuds then you aren’t likely to notice the change from one smartphone to the next because it’s your headphones that are the limiting factor here, but for owners of quality cans looking for top notch audio, you won’t find it here. Luckily for the price of a flagship smartphone you can purchase both a Moto G and an entry level audiophile media player in the form of an iBasso DX50 or FiiO X3, both of which will put any smartphone on the market to shame. I’ve recently bought my own DX50 and love it, review to come soon.
Perhaps the most obvious concession of the Moto G comes in the camera quality, and even the rather basic 5MP number alludes to that. Unlike HTC’s megapixel offerings this is just a regular, low end sensor, and the photos it produces are uninspiring and lacklustre. The new camera app Motorola use is nice and pretty feature packed, but these extras can’t make up for the hardware limitations. Don’t get me wrong, photos are fine to share on Facebook and twitter where most people will only end up seeing them through their own smartphones anyway, but needless to say it won’t be replacing my point-and-shoot or bridge cameras any time soon.
Up until the release of the Nexus 4 I would only ever recommend Windows Phone handsets to buyers looking for a cheap phone, because I had yet to find an Android phone in that price that could provide a consistently enjoyable experience. Where the Nexus started a movement towards high quality and affordable Android devices, the Moto G one-ups it in a big way. Under the hood lies a 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM powering stock Android. It’s not going to sit at the top of any podiums when it comes to benchmarks, but what it does do is what the majority of buyers will want it to do, and that’s power through Android like a dream. The Moto G glides through navigating Android’s menus and displays with no discernible lag, apps open and the phone wakes from sleep instantly, web browsing is fluid. For all but the most discerning power user the Moto G will fly. The phone would stutter occasionally when playing the most graphically intensive games on the platform, but that was about all I could do to get the thing to slow down.
Another product of the “slower” (is it really inferior performance if you can’t tell the difference?) processor is lower power consumption, which paired with the smaller screen allows the Moto G to get fantastic battery life out of its relatively modest 2,070 mAh battery. I can easily squeeze almost two full days of use out of a single charge running 50% brightness and with Wifi and 3G both turned on. Of course gaming and media playing will strip this down more quickly, but for someone that doesn’t want to always rely on a nightly charge the Moto G could be a great choice.
There are a couple of shortcomings though. With such a low price tag there are inevitably going to be some necessary omissions, and in the case of the Moto G the big ones are expandable storage and 4G connectivity. With only 8GB or 16GB options this is going to be a pain for somebody looking to take their whole media library with them, and even a few of the blockbuster gaming titles can eat up over 1GB of memory space each. If that sounds like you, be aware that you may find yourself spending unwanted time managing the contents of your phone whenever it fills up. On the 4G front, while it may not have been deal breaker last year, most large UK cities support at least one LTE network at this point and the benefits can be significant. The prevalence of free wifi around the country mitigates both of these issues somewhat, with cloud storage and player apps granting access to your files and media (I have a few thousand songs stored in Google Music for when I only have my phone with me) and even 4G speeds can still be bested by a good quality local connection. However the shortcomings are still there, and you may not want to be at the mercy of public networks to get fast internet or your fix of music.
I won’t say too much about the operating system at this point, Android 4.3 has been around for a while now and you’ll find it here in it’s purest form… almost. Aside from a few additional features and apps Motorola have unobtrusively added you’re essentially getting an identical experience to a Nexus user running the same build of Android. The lack of overlays like HTC Sense or Touchwiz free up the phone’s resources to let Android fly, and even better offer almost unlimited scope for customisation through things like launchers and icon packs. I personally like my interface minimalist, using Nova Launcher to remove as much clutter from the homepage as I can and replace buttons with gestures, however if you’re the kind of person who likes to get really creative or just have as much information on display as possible, then you can do that too. The Moto G highlights what was originally so great about the openness of Android before carriers locked it down with their own visions. The Moto G is also guaranteed to receive the newest version of Android (4.4 Kitkat) in January, something it may even beat the Galaxy S4, HTC One and Xperia Z1 to. With an unrivalled scope for tweaking and fast updates, you can really see where Motorola’s new owners have rubbed off on the creation of this phone.
One thing that dawned on me when writing these reviews is that I could potentially be coming off as overly enthusiastic about the products I review, as if I was pandering to their makers in order to be rewarded (if only!). However it’s simply a case that I only tend to review products that I own, and I only tend to own products I like. In the case of the Moto G, it’s a product I really like. Rock solid build quality in an ideal form factor and excellent performance powering great software make for an immensely enjoyable smartphone. Yes there are caveats and shortcomings in a couple of places that may be enough to put some people off, but this is definitely a phone for the Everyman, offering all you could ask for without a large price tag or a lengthy contract. There’s nothing I would recommend more highly until you reach the Nexus 5, and for people after a smaller smartphone, there’s nothing else I’d recommend at all.