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Motorola Moto E 4G LTE review: Raising the bar for budget phones

The $150 Moto E offers LTE connectivity and ample performance, without breaking the bank.

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Nate Ralph
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Nate Ralph

Associate Editor

Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.

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Editors' note: This review was updated on March 30, 2015, to include test results and notes for the Moto E on Boost Mobile.

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7.3

Motorola Moto E 4G LTE

The Good

The new Motorola Moto E is proof that a cheap phone can be good, too; you're getting reasonable performance, a sharp display and LTE connectivity for $150, unlocked.

The Bad

Like its predecessor, camera quality disappoints. The processor also occasionally struggles to keep up with more hardware-intensive tasks, like gaming.

The Bottom Line

The Moto E delivers in enough of the right areas to make it a fantastic option for a tight budget.

The latest Motorola Moto E doesn't hold a candle to a top-of-the-line superphone. Its chunky plastic shell won't turn heads, and the spec sheet doesn't do much to incite gadget lust. But that's OK if you're looking to save a few bucks; what the Moto E lacks in flair, it makes up for in affordability.

Check out the new Motorola Moto E (pictures)

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Last year's Moto E was a promising, inexpensive device, but it suffered from meager battery life and packed a disappointing camera. This time around, Motorola has also tucked in 4G LTE connectivity, a beefier battery and a near-stock version of Android 5.0 Lollipop -- the camera remains a sore point, serving up pictures plagued by image noise and washed-out colors. At $150 for an LTE model (about £100, or AU$194) and $120 for 3G (roughly £81, or AU$155), it's cheap, unlocked and delivers in enough of the right areas to make it a good option for a tight budget. We also testing a variant of the Moto E running on Boost Mobile: it'll set you back $99 (about £67 , or AU$92).

Design

Josh Miller/CNET

The Moto E's chunky, plastic chassis is a far cry from metal-and-glass stunners like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge or iPhone 6 Plus . But that's OK: in addition to being an order of magnitude cheaper than those devices, this chubby little phone is charming in its own way. Colors help; the phone is available in white or black, but the phone's border is a removable plastic band, available in an array of colors. These add a little bit of pep to the device. I've generally stuck with yellow, but occasionally swap over to purple when the mood strikes me. You can pick up extra colors from Motorola for $20. Sure, it's not quite the customization experience you'll find with the Moto X , but I rather like the ability to change things up on a whim.

The 4.5-inch display has a 960x540-pixel resolution, which is likely going to be a turn-off for specs mavens. That's seems a bit disappointing, especially given all of the 1080p (and higher) phones we see every day. But the relatively compact resolution works here: the phone offers a pixel density of 245 pixels per inch (PPI) and everything onscreen, from app icons to text, looks pleasantly crisp. Photos look pretty good, too, colors are accurate and remain true -- without shifting -- when I hold the device at awkward angles.

The swappable bands make on-the-fly customization easy. Josh Miller/CNET

Pop off the decorative plastic band and you'll run into the SIM card and microSD slots -- the 2,390mAh battery isn't removable. The microSD slot supports up to 32GB cards, and you'll want to pick one up to complement the meager 8GB of storage space.

Software and features

Near-stock Android Lollipop on an inexpensive device is definitely appreciated. Josh Miller/CNET

The Moto E is running Android 5.0.2 Lollipop -- a nice touch, as phones at this price point are generally behind the curve. Of course Android 5.1 has already started rolling out, but the OS remains a nice touch. Better still, Motorola hasn't bogged down the phone with lots of extra apps or a custom skin, it's quite nearly pure Android. There are a few scattered Motorola apps, like a tool to help you share your location with family and friends, and a migration tool to ease the process of transferring your stuff from an old phone to a new one.

While the version we tested on AT&T remained relatively bloat free, the slightly cheaper version available on Boost Mobile is bundled with extraneous apps. They're largely innocuous Boost Mobile-themed wares that are designed to let you manage your account or make payments. There are also a few shortcuts to install miscellaneous games and apps -- all readily removed. The security app Gadget Guardian from Lookout is also present, and can't be uninstalled.

Motorola has also baked in some of its own special touches. You might remember Moto Display from the Moto X -- notifications will appear on your device's screen discretely, allowing you to keep tabs on what's going on, even if your phone is sleeping. My favorite Motorola feature is probably the readily accessible camera; twist your wrist twice and, no matter what you're doing, the phone will open up the 5-megapixel camera and be ready to start shooting. It's a pretty deliberate action, so you won't have to worry too much about triggering it accidentally. It isn't exactly instantaneous, especially if you're playing a game or the like, but still a nice way to grab some spontaneous shots. The camera's aren't all that great, though -- more on that in a bit.

Performance

It's no barn-burner, but video streaming and casual gaming work fine. Josh Miller/CNET

I tested the Moto E on AT&T's LTE network in San Francisco, Oakland and Mountain View. Data speeds are going to vary based on a myriad of variables, including location and time of day -- I saw my best results down in Mountain View, where download speeds peaked at 16.51Mbps, but averaged around 9Mbps here in San Francisco during my testing. The Boost Mobile version of the Moto E runs on Sprint's LTE network. I did most of my testing in San Francisco, where my average download speed was about 8.4MBps.

Podcast

Call quality on AT&T's network was great. The people I spoke to heard me clearly, and I carried on conversations without issue. The phone's speaker isn't especially loud, but things sounded clear enough to carry on a conversation.

Podcast

Call quality on Boost Mobile's network was adequate. I was told I sounded a bit faint, or distant, though I could hear the people I spoke to well enough.

The 4G LTE model I tested runs on a quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, paired with 1GB of RAM. It's not exactly a top-tier part from Qualcomm, but it's more than adequate here. The phone never got in the way of my testing, and I comfortably zipped through menus, bounced about the Web, and streamed video over YouTube with a minimum of fuss.

Motorola Moto E performance times

Unlocked, AT&TBoost Mobile
Average 4G LTE download speed 11.4Mbps8.4Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload speed 4.9Mbps5.4Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (46.2MB) 25 seconds53 seconds
CNET mobile site load 3 seconds4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 4 seconds5 seconds
Restart time 39 seconds37 seconds
Camera boot time 2.3 seconds1.7 seconds

You'll want to steer clear of hardware-intensive games like Dead Trigger 2, but I spent quite a bit of time diligently testing more casual titles, like Crossy Road and Hoplite (and plenty of my other favorite Android games), and am happy to report that the phone presented no obstacles there. The 3G model also offers 1GB of RAM, but is paired with a quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor -- that's in line with the first-generation Moto E , so temper your performance expectations accordingly.

The battery isn't removable. Josh Miller/CNET

Motorola claims you'll get "all-day" battery life out of the Moto E, and it certainly didn't disappoint. My time with the phone consisted of roaming the Bay Area, making calls, taking photos, and finding my way home (I get lost rather easily) -- the phone easily lasted a full day, and didn't yelp for a charger until the evening. On our video-based battery drain test, the phone lasted for an average of about 9 hours and 57 minutes.

Camera

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This brightly-lit outdoor shot came out rather clearly. Nate Ralph/CNET

Sacrifices need to made somewhere. In this case, the Moto E's chief drawback remains its camera. The 5-megapixel shooter on the rear isn't terrible, but the images it produces are generally bland and devoid of detail.

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Colors look faded in this fairly bright indoor shot, and the background is rather noisy. Nate Ralph/CNET

The camera lacks a flash, so you can forget about shooting at night, or in low light. And the autofocus is a bit sluggish, so you can all but rule out action shots.


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The vivid yellows are faded, and the image is rather noisy, too. Nate Ralph/CNET

Personally, I don't expect all that much out of smartphone cameras. But as the old adage goes, the best camera is the one you have with you -- it's a shame the Moto E couldn't spruce things up a bit here, but we're already getting far more than I expected at this price point.

Conclusion

The Moto E isn't flashy, or all that powerful. It doesn't have a curved screen like the Galaxy S6 Edge, or a body that bends and flexes like the LG G Flex 2 . But it's cheap without being a pain to use, and that's important. Too many inexpensive phones sacrifice just about everything to hit a low price point, leaving us with a device that really isn't worth using. If your wallet is looking a little light, you're all but guaranteed to have disappointing options to choose from. Motorola has proven that you can make something affordable and pleasant to use, too.

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7.3

Motorola Moto E 4G LTE

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7