Motorola Moto G review: The price you want, but not the power you crave

Along with Jelly Bean comes the Moto G's native support of Google's vast stable of popular services, including Gmail, Google Plus, the Chrome browser, and the Play digital media storefronts (music, movies, TV shows, and books). Of course, as with any Android smartphone, the Moto G also offers access to over 700,000 third-party apps (and growing) for instant download.

Another solution built into Android Jelly Bean, is Google Now advanced search. Google Now does its best to serve up timely information, such as weather forecasts, sports scores, and even how long your commute to and from the office will likely take. Other ambitious skills in the Google Now arsenal include status of flights in real-time, meeting appointments and other reminders, tracking package shipments, and keeping tabs on restaurant reservations.

Moto G
Google Now serves up personal alerts. Brian Bennett/CNET

Relevant notifications appear in the Android notification shade, and within an optional home screen widget, but you can also launch Google Now quickly by swiping your finger up from the bottom of the screen. In my experience using Google Now on the Moto G plus numerous Android phones, I've only consistently gotten alerts for weather, my daily commute, and appointments.

Noticeably missing from the Moto G are a few of the fancy tricks you'll find on Motorola's other recent handsets, specifically the Moto X, Droid Maxx , Droid Ultra , and Droid Mini . Unlike those phones, the Moto G lacks Touchless Control so it won't perk up (even from sleep) to conduct voice searches. Active Notifications, however, is what I miss most on the Moto G. The feature works to cut down on battery usage by keeping Motorola phones asleep, yet still firing up portions of the screen to display snippets of e-mail, call, and other messaging events.

If you're expecting to find a decent camera on the Moto G you're in for 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. Additionally, the camera was prone to capturing blurry photos with soft details, regardless of whether I shot outdoors in bright sunshine, or inside.

Moto G
Indoor shots were soft with inaccurate colors. Brian Bennett/CNET

Details in images I took indoors of still life were far from crisp and colors looked washed out. The camera also had a tendency to either select slow shutter speeds or crank up the ISO under low-light conditions. This resulted in motion blur, especially of moving subjects, or lots of distracting image noise.

Moto G
Moving subjects often came out blurry. Brian Bennett/CNET

The Moto G's camera app is identical to the Moto X's and Motorola's other Droid phones. Camera controls are simple and intuitive, if on the sparse side. Swiping your finger from left to right pulls up a virtual settings wheel that offers modes for HDR, flash, slow-motion video, panorama, and toggling between widescreen (16:9) or standard view. There's no way to select image size, since the phone will default to the highest resolution available.

Unfortunately, the Moto G won't launch the camera in a jiffy if you twist your wrist twice while gripping it, something Motorola's latest Droid phones and the Moto X do. Honestly its a surprisingly handy ability, particularly because it wakes up phone cameras promptly even from slumber. I admit I often catch myself absentmindedly performing the gesture, called Quick Capture, even on devices I know lack the skill -- it's that addictive.

Moto G
HDR mode pulled detail from shadows. Brian Bennett/CNET

Powered by its modest 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM, the Motorola Moto G is no speed demon. Even so, it held its own against the Moto X; at least when running admittedly artificial benchmark tests. It's Quadrant score of 8,568 was a hair 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), and Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381).

Using the Moto G out in the real world, however, I felt the handset could use a heck of a lot more pep. Sure, the phone was responsive enough, but there were times when I distinctly noticed a sluggishness while launching apps and navigating through menus. To its credit the G didn't stutter, jerk, or freeze outright like other devices I've used. What I saw was more along the lines of a slight pause, especially when the device handled graphically heavy eye candy, such as animations, when firing up the app tray.

Performance: Motorola Moto G
Average 3G download speeds (AT&T) 4.5 Mbps
Average 3G upload speed (AT&T) 0.8 Mbps
CNET App download (AT&T) 4.89MB in 21 seconds
CNET mobile site load (AT&T) 5.7 seconds
CNET desktop site load (AT&T) 16.5 seconds
Boot time 24 seconds
Camera boot time 1.5 seconds

Call quality
I tested the unlocked Motorola Moto G on both AT&T's GSM network and T-Mobile's GSM wireless service in New York. The call quality I experienced was mixed, with people preferring the sound of my voice when chatting over a T-Mobile connection. Callers described my voice as richer and less compressed through T-Mobile, as opposed to when I dialed them via AT&T. According to them, I sounded robotic and tinny, plus they noticed a distinct background hiss.

Motorola Moto G (AT&T) call quality sample Listen now:

Conducting calls through the Moto G's speakerphone was enjoyable on my end since the device's speaker packs plenty of volume. Callers, on the other hand, complained about the ambient noise the phone picked up in the background that gave the impression I was speaking from a cavernous space, not a small conference room.

Motorola Moto G (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
Another stark difference between the Moto G and the Moto X flagship, is that the G doesn't support 4G LTE networks for fast data access. As a matter of fact, Motorola makes the Moto G in three main cellular flavors (Global GSM, US GSM, and US CDMA), none of which can touch an LTE signal.

I tested the US GSM model of the Moto G connected to AT&T's HSPA data network in New York. The data speeds I logged were strictly 3G, with average downloads coming in at 4.5 Mbps, and average uploads clocking in at just under 1 Mbps (0.8). While that's not an awfully slow showing, it's well below the double digit performance I typically see from LTE handsets connected to AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. For example, the Moto X sucked down data at a swift 10 Mbps linked to Verizon 4G LTE, while uploads reached almost 7 Mbps.

Moto G
Data speeds on the Moto G were stuck in 3G. Brian Bennett/CNET

Battery life
The Moto G's run time is acceptably long, but it's not what I'd call marathon-worthy longevity. In anecdotal tests, the phone managed to play an HD video file for 7 hours and 52 minutes before expiring. The Moto X, on the other hand, stuck to its guns for over 10 hours playing the same video.

That said, I can vouch that the Moto G certainly lasted a full 12-hour workday of testing, and well into the afternoon, before requesting an AC outlet. This seems to match Motorola's claim of 24 hours of mixed use.

I love a good bargain just like the next guy, especially when it means getting a great Android phone unlocked and unshackled to a wireless carrier. On the surface, the new $179 Motorola Moto G looks to fit this bill perfectly. Not only does the handset have premium build quality approaching Motorola's flagship, the Moto X, it sports a large 4.5-inch screen and modern Android 4.3 Jelly Bean software. Motorola has even pledged to upgrade the Moto G to its freshest mobile operating system, Android KitKat, in short order.

After delving deeper though, the G's many flaws began to get in the way, and my initial infatuation evaporated quickly. Specifically irritating were its dim screen, slow processor, and paltry internal memory, made worse by a lack of an expansion slot. The fact that the phone can't link to 4G LTE was the last straw. Of course, I understand many people just want a solid Android smartphone with no-strings attached. Sadly, most no-contract devices are really old models repackaged as new devices -- essentially obsolete the moment they hit the shelf. The Moto G certainly bucks that trend, providing a truly modern Android experience at a budget price. Still, if you can manage it, I'd argue you're better off in the long run saving up for the $399 Nexus 5. The Nexus is an unlocked Android powerhouse, and sure to meet your mobile needs for years to come.

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