Motorola Moto G Google Play Edition review: Pure Android KitKat at an unbeatable price

Software and interface
In my view the most compelling quality of the Moto G Google Play Edition is its status as a GPE device. As a result the phone ships straight out of the box running pure Android 4.4 KitKat. That trumps the original carrier and Motorola-branded version of the Moto G which, while promised, a KitKat upgrade (from Android 4.3 Jelly Bean) may take its sweet time reaching your device.

Of course just because the Moto G GPE flaunts Google's freshest version of its mobile operating system, it doesn't mean the phone brings all the company's bells and whistles to the table. For instance, the Moto G lacks the special Google Experience Launcher interface of the Nexus 5. Besides sporting larger application icons and an app tray with a bigger view (achieved by pulling out the widget tab), the Nexus 5 puts the Google Now advanced search in easy reach -- co-opting the leftmost home screen completely. That said you can just as quickly drop a Google Now widget to any of the Moto G GPE's five home screens.

Moto G GPE
The Moto G GPE may boast KitKat but it's no Nexus. Sarah Tew/CNET

Also absent from this version of the Moto G are Motorola's homegrown software tools and services. Specifically there's no Motorola Assist app, an evolution of the Smart Actions solution that graced the old Droid Razrs. I admit that Assist offers some handy abilities like automatically switching your phone to silent mode when it thinks you're in meetings or tucked into bed for the night. Still, it's not a make or break feature for me.

The same goes for the Motorola Migrate app which is designed to make switching to the Moto G from other handsets (both Android and iOS) less of a hassle. Since I'm in the Android camp myself, and as someone who is constantly moving from gadget to gadget, I prefer to transfer my digital baggage myself.

Camera
Just like my experience on the first Moto G, the camera on the Moto G GPE is a big letdown. The handset uses a 5-megapixel camera, which while capable of snapping images relatively quickly (in under a second), isn't what I'd call nimble. Unlike other smartphones which grab pictures almost instantly, the Moto G takes about half a second to mull things over before blinking its digital eye.

Moto G GPE
Indoor shots were well exposed but lacked detail. Brian Bennett/CNET

Additionally, the camera was prone to capturing blurry photos with soft details, regardless of whether I shot outdoors in bright sunshine, or inside.That said, colors were richly saturated and indoor shots properly exposed even with the fill-flash engaged.

Moto G Google Play Edition
The camera app is the stock tool from Android. Sarah Tew/CNET

One big difference between the Moto G GPE and its Motorola-branded counterpart is the camera app. While the original Moto G uses Motorola's own photo application, whose simple UI is, frankly, better-designed and much easier to operate, the Moto G GPE relies on the stock Android photography tool. Its tiny icons are tough to tap (at least with my big fingers) and the software's multi-level, semi-circle menu system confusing. Worse, there's no HDR mode, something Motorola's Moto G has. Still, the Moto G GPE lets you select picture resolution manually, a feature absent in the Motorola camera app.

Moto G
HDR mode pulls detail from shadows, but not on the Moto G GPE. Brian Bennett/CNET

Performance
Driving the Moto G Google Play Edition is a sluggish 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and low 1GB allotment of RAM. That said, the Moto X isn't exactly a speed demon either; at least when running admittedly artificial benchmark tests. The Moto G GPE Quadrant score of 8,526 was barely higher than what I squeezed out of the Moto X (8,519). Still, that's nowhere near what other flagship devices notched, such as the HTC One (12,194), Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381), and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (23,048).

Indeed, even with clean Android KitKat the Moto G felt a little late on the draw, whether opening applications, firing up the camera, or even powering on from an off position. Flipping through menus also lacked the instant snap I've come to expect from other (and a lot pricier) phones, such as the Nexus 5 and Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition.

Battery life
One area of performance where the Moto G Google Play Editon won't disappoint is run time. The device's 2,070 mAh battery cruised through the CNET Labs video playback battery drain test for a long 9 hours and 14 minutes before expiring. Oddly enough that's more perseverance than the first Moto G demonstrated on the same test (7 hours, 52 minutes).

Conclusion
It used to be the case that locating a quality, affordable yet unlocked Android device, at least one optimized for American shores, was a downright Herculean endeavor. My how times have changed, and for the better too. The Moto G GPE and previous Moto G, both of which start at a shockingly low $179 ($199 with 16GB of storage), would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Whether or not the Moto G GPE is the 'droid you seek, really depends on how much you're willing to spend. It's low price is hard to pass up, especially for those sticking to a tight budget. There's simply no better pure Android deal around. Likewise, the Motorola-branded Moto G, which costs the same, makes more sense if you have no addiction to fresh, uncut Android.

Those who desire impressive components such as a powerful processor, sharper camera, and more engaging screen will be better served by splurging on either the Nexus 5 ($349) or the Motorola Moto X($399) for true mobile power.

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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Where to Buy

Motorola Moto G Google Play Edition

Part Number: Moto G Google Play Edition Released: Jan. 14, 2014

MSRP: $199.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications

  • Release date Jan. 14, 2014