Google, which gives away its Android phone operating system to a plethora of manufacturers, is taking a different tack. It is estimated that there are 1.5 billion smartphone users in the world, but experts say that there remain, in the developing countries, another potential one billion customers who will soon be buying smartphones, and the vast majority reside in emerging markets such as India and China. Google wants to gather information on them to woo advertising dollars targeting this new, less affluent cohort of Android users.
Low cost no tradeoffs
Proof of this can be found in the way the newest flavor of Android, version 4.4 KitKat, has been designed to operate on lower end phones, the type that would be available and affordable in developing countries.
As opposed to Apple’s move toward larger, higher resolution screens and faster processors, necessitated by the company’s next iteration of the iPhone, KitKat is designed from the ground up to function smoothly on lower end processors, slower display chips and less RAM. In fact, it is designed to function comfortably with just half a gigabyte of RAM, while most high end manufacturers are equipping their phones with two or even three gigabytes of RAM.
Most top end phones are sold on contract, with the initial cost of the phones from the major carriers subsidized by those companies, which recoup these costs in high monthly tariffs. Off the unsubsidized shelf, the so-called flagship phones, including the iPhone, would cost you from $600 to $800, while the cost to you with a new two-year contract, or a renewal, runs about $199 to $400.
Truth is, unless you’re a super power user or just need the latest and greatest for bragging rights, the new phone released from Motorola, which was manufactured under the guidance of Google during the brief time it was owned by the search giant and which was sold to Lenovo, is not for you. The phone reviewed here, the Moto G, is an example of Google’s market philosophy: maximum user experience without maximum specs.
This phone, which falls into that magic, sub-$200 unlocked market niche, formerly reserved for last year’s phones and low cost, low-powered units from little known Chinese and Korean companies, initially cost just $199 for 8 gigabytes of storage; $20 more for the 16 gigabyte model, upon release six months ago. Corners were cut–the memory is not expandable–there is no slot for an SDHD card, but Google is giving away 50 gigabytes of cloud storage for two years to new buyers, so you can store movies, music and photos in the cloud and download or stream them to your phone.
Actually, and as this is written, the eight gigabyte version of this phone has dropped in price to an unthinkable $99 for the eight gigabyte model. It still retains its Google pedigree however, being the only phone in this price range to run KitKat out of the box.
What’s remarkable with this phone is not that it is blazingly fast, though it is no slouch in that department. It is that the phone’s specs place it squarely in the midrange spectrum, at a rock bottom price. It simply performs as well or better than phones that cost three to four times as much.
The Moto G is clearly the phone for the rest of us; after all, studies show that users of high end phones commonly use only 30 percent of its features. Google, taking a lesson from these studies, crammed into a very attractive, solidly built phone those features we use most, and optimized the specs to accomplish those tasks. This phone does everything you need it to do, quickly, responsively, and yes, elegantly.
The G is the only phone in this category to have a quad core processor, just like the high end phones, as opposed to the dual core processor of phones typical in this price range. It comes with a 4.5 inch, 1280 x 720 display and boasts a 329 pixel-per-inch screen density. Yes, that puts it slightly ahead of the iPhone, and display quality is just amazing. Keep in mind this phone is one-quarter the price of the iPhone, and its display is bigger (4.5 inch as compared to Apple’s four-inch display), of a higher resolution and more defined than the iPhone.
The Moto G weighs 143g, with a well-balanced feel in the hand, and though it’s not the thinnest phone at 11.6mm, it has a curving back design which makes it feel thinner. You can even take the rear cover off and swap it for another color.
The quad core processor is a 1.2Ghz Snapdragon 400, with just one gigabyte of RAM, but remember that KitKat is designed to run smoothly on half a gigabyte of RAM, and in my real world use it is amazingly quick, responsive, and has handled every app I’ve thrown at it, including complex 3-D games.
Your money’s worth
Tech snobs sniff at the relatively older and slower processor compared to the latest generation found in the flagship phones, but this particular processor was last year’s top performer, is much quicker than anything in its class, and does everything you need.
It runs the stock version of KitKat; there are no manufacturer overlays, not surprising given that this is essentially a Google product. So we get the simple, clean interface of vanilla Android, and the latest version at that, whereas most phones in this category are still running Android Jellybean, one iteration behind, and you are stuck there, as carriers do not roll out upgrades of the OS to any but their flagship phones. You get the standard five home screens, and there is no lagging or stutter when switching screens or between active apps.
Although the differences between Jellybean and Android appear to be just mildly cosmetic, the real difference is under the hood, and it is noticeable to the average user. KitKat features highly optimized code, faster boot up times, greater web speed and improvement in general navigation.
I’ve owned a dozen or so Androids, and none comes close to the build quality of this phone. Yes it’s plastic but it is seamless, tough, and the display is covered with Corning’s Gorilla Glass Three, the hardest and most scratch resistant display surface available on any phone.
It fits nicely in the hand, is sized just right for one-handed operation, is slightly thicker and a bit heavier than its apparent dimensions would otherwise suggest, but these are plusses in my book. It gives the phone a solid feel, with no creaking or rattling commonly experienced in low-cost phones.
It is also waterproofed to an extent. Motorola boasts that the ccomponents are covered with a water-resistant nano layer, and while I wouldn’t recommend total immersion, more than one reviewer has dropped it into a bowl of water (one used soup) and the retrieved phone was undamaged.
As expected in a Google phone, all the Google apps come preloaded. They begin updating as soon as the phone is activated, as does the operating system, so allow for 20 minutes as this process completes, before attempting to use the phone.
It comes with a 2070mAh battery, which Motorola claims gives you all day battery life, and this has been my experience. Those power hungry flagship phones with their giant screens often need a top up during the day under heavy use, such as streaming video, playing games, or web browsing. Not so with the Moto G. I am a power user, and my phone routinely lasts all day.
The Moto G comes with all the usual connectivity options, WiFi, Bluetooth, and 3G are all included. The lack of 4G is perhaps a deal killer for some, but I’ve noticed little difference in real world use, and my last phone ran on Sprint’s 4GLTE network. Web pages load quickly, Netflix and other streaming services play back smoothly, and download times are not noticeably longer.
It also lacks Near Field Connectivity (NFC) and dual-band WiFi, but hardly anyone uses the former, while the single channel WiFi remains perfectly acceptable. These are budget sacrifices, but again, you’ll probably never notice they’re missing.
On the top is the standard audio-out jack, along the right side, right where you’d expect it, is the power button. Under that is the rocker volume control. I have to say that this phone is the loudest of any I’ve owned, and call quality is excellent.
On front is a 1.3 megapixel camera, the alarm light, that fantastic screen, and the standard Android buttons–return, home, and active app. These are compasitive, not physical, so the entire front of the phone is all screen. There are two microphones, one on top and the other at the bottom, providing excellent noise cancelation. At the bottom is a standard USB connector.
On the back is a fairly large speaker grill, the famous Motorola dimple where one usually finds one’s index finger during use, and a five megapixel camera and flash.
I’m not going to explain the function of all the standard Android apps, but will mention two Motorola apps, Assist and Migrate.
The first is a handy control app which allows you to silence the ringer during meetings, schedule alarms and set user profiles. You can do these actions using your settings, but it’s nice to have access to them all in one app. Migrate allows you to transfer all your media files, contacts and settings from your old phone to the G, which I found works as advertised and turns this from a chore to nearly effortless.
You simply download another copy of the app from Google Play onto your old phone, push a button, and the transfer process is quick and painless. Remember though that it transfers over only media files. You will have to redownload your purchased apps.
There are not many, but a few trade-offs were necessary to reach this incredibly affordable price point. The five megapixel camera is often criticized for being sub par, but good enough for quick shots to be posted online or sent to friends. You can shoot video at 720p, not the high density 1080p of top-of-the-line phones, but the camera does feature automatic HDR mode and, rather surprisingly, slow motion mode.
Quick for all that
The processor is relatively slow compared to high end phones on paper, but was plenty quick for me. And it handles every task I attempted, and I threw at it every demanding app I could find. I must repeat that this phone sports a quad core processor, alone among budget phones, which still come standard with dual core processors. I have used top of the line dual core processor equipped phones, and the speed gains with the Moto G’s quad core internals are indeed impressive.
As mentioned the phone comes with just one megabyte of RAM, another budget saving feature but one that is addressed by the refinements included in KitKat. I run a lot of apps and I’ve never had issues with low RAM, though the phone might be a tad faster with two. But, again, no deal breaker.
The biggest drawback is that the phone has limited storage space, with just eight gigabytes, with only 5.5 available to the user. This means you won’t be carrying around your entire photo, film, or music collection. But this is offset by Google’s giveaway of 50 gigabytes of free cloud storage to everyone who buys this phone, for two years, which, when combined with the free 15 gigabytes, gives you 65 gigabytes of storage, available wherever you have an internet connection.
I’d still opt for the 16-gigabyte model, especially if you use a great many apps, which cannot be stored in the cloud.
You also might consider that the phone is capable, out if the box, of attaching to a USB drive using a $3 to $6 On The Go adapter, giving you local access to up to 64 gigabytes of storage. It might be ungainly but is very useful.
The battery is non-user replaceable.
Actually these are the only drawbacks I’ve encountered, and they amount to little more than quibbles.
This phone completely changes the otherwise bleak landscape of the so-called budget phone market. It does everything you need, is extremely well made, packs processing power far greater than any other sub-$200 phone, and the reviews on tech sites rave about it and most simply say this is one of the top ten best phones of 2014, regardless of its dirt cheap tag.
Remember when the first stand alone electronic calculators came out, and cost $400? Now you can buy one more capable than early models for under five bucks. If this phone is any example, it shows that the smartphone market is moving in the same direction. If it is however, a stunt perpetrated by Google and Motorola to prove they can bring a higher end phone within the means of most people, well more power to them.
Simply put, buy this phone. It just does everything you need in a smartphone, and at a fraction of the cost of much more expensive phones. It performs as well as others costing four times as much, and, as I mentioned, the build quality gives it a true high end feel.
The Moto G is available unlocked on Amazon for just $99, $129 for the 16 gigabyte model. It is offered by Boost Mobile, owned by Sprint. But it is being given away by the major carriers, upon signing a two year contract.
But don’t let that price fool you. You get as much phone with the Moto G as you do with phones costing hundreds more, but you’d better make the purchase quickly. This phone’s future is in doubt. Motorola is focusing its current design and engineering talent on the upcoming Moto E, a stripped down G, with just a dual core processor and half a gigabyte of RAM, aimed squarely at the Indian and Chinese market. In fact this new phone may not even be sold here in the States.
So though supplies remain plentiful, and the phone remains in production, it won’t last forever. Also, Google has promised that the Moto G will be among the few phones to receive direct over-the-air OS updates, so you will never find yourself with an obsolete, dead end device.
I highly advise you to Google the Moto G name and read the rave reviews it has garnered in the tech press and on YouTube video reviews by Android Authority and others.
If you’re locked into the early stages of a two-year contract, buy a Moto G now and keep it in a drawer till your contract is up. It really is that good a deal. If you’re in the market for a new phone and don’t want to spend a fortune, do your research then buy this phone. It is also the perfect phone for an older child or adolescent, as it is cheap, tough, yet powerful enough to keep pace with the higher end smartphones.
I go through phones quickly, at least one a year, but I suspect I’ll have this one for at least twice that long, which will make it ancient by phone standards. But the race to the top by the manufacturers is beginning to slow, as processing power with current technology is reaching its limits.
The new phones or those under development are not greatly more powerful than their previous models, instead the makers are adding features such as larger, clearer, true HD screens, pulse rate and activity monitors, and other gewgaws. So maybe the Motorola G will still be nearly current two years from now.
At least I know it will be performing the same tasks in the future as it does now. And I know it will be running the latest version of Android put out by Google.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.