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Motorola Electrify M review: Compact, capable Android with poor camera

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These days it's hard to find a smartphone that balances size, power, and cutting-edge features. Like the Droid Razr M, the exceedingly compact $99.99 Motorola Electrify M does its best to hit the sweet spot among all three. While it comes close to pulling off this impressive feat, the older device can't quite stand up to even last year's competition from Samsung, namely the brawny Galaxy S3. Yes, the GS3 is more than a year old, but it offers a better camera, a sharper screen, and features galore for the same price. Of course, if a highly portable handset with modern Android Jelly Bean is what you want, and you find the Galaxy S3 too much of a handful or all its capabilities overkill, it's hard to beat the Electrify M.

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7.0

Motorola Electrify M

The Good

The affordable <b>Motorola Electrify M</b> features a colorful screen, 4G LTE, and long battery life. Thin, attractive, and compact, it also runs Android Jelly Bean.

The Bad

The Electrify M's camera takes unimpressive images and has a slow processor. The battery isn't removable.

The Bottom Line

The Motorola Electrify M is a well-priced and compact option on U. S. Cellular, but the larger Samsung Galaxy S3 is the better deal if size doesn't matter.

Modern Android, compact package (pictures)

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Design
If you've seen the Motorola Droid Razr M, you'll do a double take when you lay your eyes on the Motorola Electrify M. If it weren't for its faux-silver metallic skin and gray hue, the handset would be the spitting image of its Verizon sibling.

Measuring 4.8 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide and 0.34 inch thick, the Electrify M has a chassis of almost identical proportions to the Razor M's. That's a good thing since both phones are extremely pocket-friendly and compact enough to slide into tight pockets easily.

The Motorola Electrify M is compact enough to grip easily. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Electrify M sports a similarly sculpted body with an attractive rectangular shape, smooth lines, and a gently beveled bottom edge. The Electrify's button and port layout mirrors the Razr's, too, with a thin volume bar and power key resting on the left side. A Micro-USB port for charging and transferring files to PC occupies the left edge. There's a flap here, which covers slots for microSD and SIM cards.

On the left side sit slots for microSD and micro-SIM cards (under flap). Sarah Tew/CNET

There are no physical keys on the Electrify's front face, either, just virtual Android buttons running along the bottom of the screen. Above the display is a 0.3-megapixel-resolution camera for video chat and self portraits. On the Electrify M's back you'll find its main 8MP camera and LED flash.

Display
To squeeze a relatively large 4.3-inch display into a compact chassis, Motorola opted to use an AMOLED panel with a low qHD resolution in the Electrify M. As a result, images and text lack the crispness and overall impact I've become accustomed to on other handsets with full-HD screens.

For instance, viewing the full desktop version of CNET.com was a bit of a strain on the eyes compared with when I looked at the same site on the Samsung Galaxy S4 (5-inch screen, 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution) or even the Samsung Galaxy S3 (4.8-inch screen, 1,280x720-pixel resolution).

The Electrify M's screen does paint images and video with a richly saturated color palette and deep, dark blacks, though. Viewing angles were also very wide, though that may not seem like an important factor, especially if you're usually the only person gazing at display. Even so,being able to see the screen well from a variety of angles improves my overall impression of a screen's viewing experience.

Software and interface
When the Motorola Electrify M first hit U.S. Cellular's roster in November 2012, it shipped running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Recently, however, the phone's software has been updated to the more modern Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean operating system.

Jelly Bean brings significant performance and handling improvements, what Google calls Project Butter, designed to speed up the responsiveness and increase the smoothness of Android. I can say that after using the Electrify M both before and after the update, it does feel livelier moving from screen to screen and menu to menu.

The Circles widget is fun and useful. Brian Bennett/CNET

Also included with the fresh software are Google's improved voice commands and search capabilities, rolled up into the Google Now app. Google Now performs fancy new tricks, such as automatically displaying the weather forecast or places of interest nearby, and it will even calculate the duration of your commute (to work or home) based on local traffic or transit data.

Google Now offers fancy location-based searches and other information. Brian Bennett/CNET

To be clear, though, the Electrify M doesn't feature pure Android but rather Motorola's custom skin gently overlaid on top of Jelly Bean. Even so, I didn't find it to be overbearing; it actually provides some useful additions. One of them is a handy Quick Settings screen, called up by swiping left of the main home screen. It offers fast toggles for the phone ringer, Bluetooth, GPS, and Airplane mode, just to mention a few.

I also like the Circles widget, placed on the primary home screen, which shows readouts for time (digital or analog), weather, and current battery level. It's both compact and attractive and consists of three circles with faces that flip with slick animation -- each side showcases different information.

By default the phone provides two home screens, but you can have a total of seven to populate with app shortcuts and widgets of your choosing.

Features
As an Android Jelly Bean device, the Electrify M can tackle all your standard smartphone needs. Whether for e-mailing, text messaging, Web surfing, or running mobile apps, the handset is well-appointed. It also ties intimately into Google's wide range of services, such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive, and Talk, along with the Play stores for purchasing books, movies, and music.

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.

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.

Camera
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

Performance
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).

Conclusion
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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Motorola Electrify M

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6