Motorola Electrify M review:

Compact, capable Android with poor camera

Preloaded third-party applications include Amazon's shopping, Kindle, and MP3 apps, Quickoffice for opening spreadsheets and other work docs, and the Slacker streaming-music service.

U.S. Cellular throws its own branded apps and services on the phone as well. There's the Wi-Fi Now app, which collects the personal Wi-Fi hot spots you use and looks for free Wi-Fi networks around your location. Daily Perks also promises to give you a heads-up about special deals and promotions.

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SmartActions offers ways to automate phone functions. Brian Bennett/CNET

An application Motorola calls SmartActions tries its best to more intelligently control phone functions and enhance performance. You can enable rules SmartActions suggests that are designed to increase battery life; for example, shutting off background syncing of e-mail and other data-hungry updates, shutting off GPS, and dimming the screen when the battery runs low.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. The biggest weakness I've encountered with Motorola smartphones has been their digital-imaging systems. Where other phone makers such as Samsung, HTC, Nokia, and now Sony have long since made camera performance a priority, Motorola still needs to up its game. Sadly the Electrify M doesn't break the trend.

Indoor shots were soft and dark. Brian Bennett/CNET

Indoors, in studio shots, the Electrify M's 8-megapixel sensor and lens captured still-life pictures that were dark with soft details. Image quality did improve outside under bright sunlight and colors were vivid and lifelike.

Unfortunately, moving subjects, such as restless children, were tricky to capture. Worse, if the automatic scene mode decided to activate the HDR mode, the phone often took photos with double images. This is a failing of HDR in all smartphone cameras since the feature is so processor-heavy. Having the option to disengage HDR would fix the issue but I couldn't see a way to do this within the Electrify M's camera app.

Moving kids were trouble to capture unless they held still. Brian Bennett/CNET

Still, the phone's camera does offer plenty of handy shooting modes such as Panorama, Multishot, and eight color filters. Shot-to-shot time was also close to instantaneous, if the previously mentioned HDR mode wasn't activated. Otherwise the camera took about 1 second between snapping pictures.

HDR mode brightens up shadows but can cause double images. Brian Bennett/CNET

The similarities between the Droid Razr M and Electrify M extend below the surface too. Under the hood of both devices is a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, plus 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage.

Now considered midrange components, these parts helped the handset to run smoothly if not blazingly fast. I didn't notice any delays or lag when navigating through menus and opening apps. That said, the Electrify M didn't shock me with its agility.

Synthetic benchmark tests bore out my experience. The phone turned in a middling Quadrant score of 4,943, which is nowhere near the lofty results we've seen from superphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381) and HTC One (12,194). The same goes for the M's Linpack showing of 269.87 MFLOPs (multithread), which is far below the norm for today's Android handsets.

Like its sibling on Verizon, the Electrify M can connect to 4G LTE networks for fast data access. Unfortunately U.S. Cellular's LTE signal isn't available in New York where I tested the device. That meant I was limited to 3G speeds, and slow 3G at that. I only once came close to getting downloads exceeding 1Mbps. Upload throughput as well was at a snail's pace, hovering around 6Mbps.

Call quality didn't impress me either. Again, I tested the Motorola Electrify M roaming in New York, since U.S. Cellular lacks its own cell towers in the Big Apple. Callers immediately could tell I was speaking from a mobile phone, commenting on the flatness of my voice. They also complained of the robotic cast to my words. Even so they had no difficulty comprehending what I said, just that they wouldn't want to listen to me for long.

One gem in the Electrify M's otherwise tarnished performance record is excellent battery life. The device managed to survive the CNET Labs video playback battery drain test for a full 9 hours and 40 minutes before shutting down. That's almost as long as the HTC One lasted on the same test (9 hours, 45 minutes) and longer than the Galaxy S3 could muster (9 hours, 30 minutes).

Back when it debuted in November 2012, the Motorola Electrify M was definitely a smartphone that I would have absolutely loved. At that time its extremely portable and compact design really turned heads, and it still does today, in fact. Also, the phone's AMOLED screen is bright and colorful. Unfortunately, too much time has passed for the Electrify to make me feel any excitement. Its sluggish dual-core processor, while speedy when it launched, doesn't get my heart pumping as it once could have. That said, the phone's unimpressive camera features and image quality would have been a disappointment even last year. The M's recent Android Jelly Bean software update doesn't provide much of a jolt of handset envy, either. Sure, the Electrify is reasonably priced, but for the same $100 I'd much rather buy the Samsung Galaxy S3 which has more features and better hardware, including a far superior camera.

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