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Motorola Moto E review: A dirt-cheap Android KitKat phone for the basics only

The Motorola Moto E has the latest Android KitKat and is just $130, or £90, but the slightly pricier Moto G is a better deal.

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Andrew Lanxon
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Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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8 min read

The Motorola Moto G was my favourite phone of 2013. Not because it had the best HD display or most powerful quad-core processor, but because it offered a well-rounded set of specs for a price that blew its competition clean out of the water. Now Motorola has a cheaper mobile that means even the most cash-strapped of phone fans can get their hands on the latest Android software.

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Motorola Moto E

The Good

The Moto E is cheap, comes with the latest Android KitKat software and has a screen and processor capable of tackling the essentials.

The Bad

Its camera and battery life don't impress and it isn't much less than the Moto G, which remains the best Android bargain around.

The Bottom Line

The Motorola Moto E is unquestionably cheap and has a set of specs that makes it more than capable of handling your basic everyday tasks. Its price, however, isn't much lower than the Moto G, which has a better camera, more powerful processor, improved screen and longer battery life. Unless you're shopping on a very tight budget, the Moto G is still the best value phone around.

The Moto E is a 4.3-inch phone, boasting a dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel camera and the latest version of Android, 4.4.2 KitKat . KitKat aside, these are far from top-end specs -- it lacks 4G LTE -- but it is a very affordable phone.

You can preorder the Moto E from Amazon in the UK for £90 (it ships on 22 May), or buy it now from Amazon in the US for $130. It'll be available globally, including in Australia, where it will cost AU$179.

Here's the dirt-cheap, KitKat-running Motorola Moto E (pictures)

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If you have a few more quid or bucks to spare, you may be interested in the new improved Moto G, now with 4G and microSD. You can find our first take of the new 4G Moto G here.

Motorola's first launch event for the Moto E was in India, and it went on sale at launch there and in Brazil, which highlights Moto's particular emphasis on emerging mobile markets, rather than on areas where flagship phones such as Samsung's Galaxy S5 dominate.

Design

It's easy to spot the Motorola family resemblance between the Moto E, G and indeed the Moto X as there are various design cues, common among all three. Most notably on the back, which has the same rounded, rubberised shape as the others. This curved design makes it very comfortable to hold in one hand as it sits snugly in your palm.

Also like the other Motos, there's a dimple in the back where the Moto logo sits. The camera is in the middle at the top and the power, volume rocker, 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB port are all scattered around the edges.

At 4.3 inches, the Moto E is the smallest of the bunch, so will suit those of you who can't bear stretching your thumbs out across 5-inch displays. It's pretty fat -- particularly when you compare it to extremely narrow phones such as the iPhone 5S -- but it will sit in your pocket without you noticing it too much. Even so, the E definitely feels bulkier than the Moto G, and a degree less luxurious.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The front of the phone is pretty basic. It's an all-glass design with two metallic strips at the top and bottom -- they hide the speaker and microphone -- adding a little flair. While not oozing the sleek luxury of the all-metal HTC One M8 , it's perfectly functional for a budget phone.

The back covers are removable and there will be a host of different coloured covers available, including cases with flip-over fronts to protect the screen. That might not be necessary though, as Motorola has used Gorilla Glass 3 for the display, which is particularly resistant against scratches.

The internals of the phone too have been given a water-resistant nano-coating. This is designed to protect the phone from small spills or from rainwater if you're walking along making a call in wet weather. It's not submersible though, so don't take it in the bath. Although the phone is far from "rugged", these tweaks should help it stand up to the sort of everyday use it's likely to see.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The phone has only 4GB of storage on board, which won't be enough to house your music, videos and apps -- particularly as there's little over 2GB available for you to use, as the operating system itself takes up a lot of space. Under the plastic back, however, is a microSD card slot to expand the storage, so you should definitely factor in the price of a microSD card too.

Display

At 4.3 inches, the Moto E has a marginally smaller display than the 4.5-inch Moto G and it has a slightly lower resolution too. It packs 960x540 pixels into its screen, which results in a pixel density of 256 pixels per inch. While that's slightly less than the G's 326ppi, it's a fair amount, particularly for such a cheap device. By comparison, the LG G2 Mini 's display has 234ppi, and it costs over £200. It slightly beats the similarly cheap Nokia Lumia 520 's 800x480-pixel display too.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Side-by-side with higher resolution phones, you can see a noticeable difference in clarity, but the Moto E's display is at least adequate for the everyday tasks it's designed for. It's fairly bright too and I've definitely seen worse colour handling on other budget mobiles. If you're expecting to play the latest 3D games in glorious high-definition with eye-searingly bright colours, an ultra-budget phone really shouldn't be on your wish list.

I did notice that the Moto E's viewing angle wasn't great -- tilting the phone away from my line of sight resulted in a little colour distortion. The display generally isn't as good as the Moto G's, which is the best screen you get for the price, but it's still better than the vast majority of displays I've seen for around £80.

Processor and Android software

The processor has also taken a cut from the Moto G in order to keep costs down. It's a 1.2GHz dual-core rather than quad-core chip -- a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200, to be specific. It does, however, come with the same 1GB of RAM. Unsurprisingly, benchmark performance by the E was a little below that of the G. On the Geekbench test, the E racked up a score of 817 (the Moto G achieved 1,315).

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Benchmarks aren't everything of course, and I'm happy to report that navigating around the Moto E is swift and enjoyable. Swiping between home screens was lag-free, the camera and messaging apps opened without delay, the keyboard was responsive and kept up with my typing, and pulling down the notifications panel didn't result in any juddering. That might not seem like a big deal, but underpowered cheap phones can often make even moving around Android clunky, slow and frustrating. That's thankfully not the case with the Moto E.

More demanding tasks such as photo editing with Snapseed was also possible, as was streaming the first series of Pokemon on Netflix. I was surprised to see that Riptide GP 2 played adequately well too. Although the frame rate noticeably dropped on occasion, it was at the very least playable -- in fact, I managed to complete the final race in 1st place while waiting for a train to London -- something I didn't expect would be possible on such a cheap phone.

Having Android 4.4.2 is a huge plus. Most budget phones -- and, annoyingly, quite a few more expensive phones -- tend to come with older versions of Android, with only a vague promise of an upgrade at some point. It's extremely refreshing to see brand-new software on a phone so cheap.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's a near-stock version of KitKat, with none of the usual manufacturer skins and tweaks you'd find on phones such as the Galaxy S5 and One M8. Apart from making it a much less cluttered interface, it has the benefit of being less demanding of the hardware as there are fewer background processes being run. On a lightweight, dual-core chip, that's important.

Motorola has left out its "always-listening" touchless control, however, explaining that the sensors and software required for this would have made it more expensive. I'll be surprised if anyone really misses these features.

Camera

The back of the phone is home to a 5-megapixel camera -- the same resolution you'll find on the Moto G and Nokia's Lumia 520. Both the G and Lumia 520 could capture some decent shots, so the E is off to a good start on paper, but I found its results mostly unimpressive.

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Motorola Moto E camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My test shots suffered from an overall lack of clarity, always seemed a little underexposed and had quite cold colours.

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Motorola Moto E camera test with HDR Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The HDR mode seemed quite effective though. It brightened up the sky over St Paul's Cathedral, as well as shadowy areas under the bridge. HDR mode helped bring out a lot more detail on this street scene below too.

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Motorola Moto E camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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Motorola Moto E camera test with HDR Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Its biggest problem, however, is the fixed-focus lens. While landscape shots will be in focus, it's not able to focus close up, so you can forget about snapping pretty macro shots of flowers when you're out for a stroll this summer. There's no flash on the back either, so it's not going to be your camera of choice for pictures of your food in a dingy restaurant.

Selfie-lovers will also want to look towards the Moto G as there's no front-facing camera. That also means you won't be able to easily make video calls over Google Hangouts or Skype.

The camera is undoubtedly one of the main areas that's been cut back in order to keep the cost down. While you could get a snap good enough for Facebook when you're outside with plenty of light, it's not suitable for anything more. If you absolutely don't care about having a camera on your phone, the Moto E will suit, but if you're keen to get snap-happy with Instagram, you'd be wise to look elsewhere.

Battery

Finally, Motorola reckons the Moto E has an "all-day battery". That's an attractive claim, as I find with even moderate use, most phones need a boost in the afternoon if they're to keep going until I go to bed. In my battery drain test -- looping a video at half brightness until it runs out -- it lasted a little under 7 hours.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That is a little disappointing, particularly as the Google Play edition of the Moto G achieved over 9 hours on the same test. Given its lower-powered processor and lower-resolution display, I'm surprised the Moto E didn't put in a stronger effort.

Based on my own use though, I'm still fairly confident it can last a full day, providing you're careful about what you do with it. Playing back video all day will, as proven, drain the power pretty quickly, but for sending texts, emails and some tweets, you shouldn't find the juice leaking too fast. Keep the screen brightness low and turn off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi if you want to keep it going as long as possible. Bear in mind too that although the back panel is removable, the battery is fixed in place, so you won't be able to carry a spare.

Conclusion

If you're struggling to decide between the Galaxy S5 and One M8, the Moto E certainly won't be a confusing third option. Instead, it's squarely aimed towards emerging mobile markets where flagship phones are simply too expensive for most people. Its cheapness means it's geared more towards those of you who only want social apps such as Twitter and WhatsApp, and simply don't need to spend hundreds on higher-end devices.

It's unquestionably an affordable bit of kit, but I'm not convinced it's cheap enough. You can pick up the higher-spec Moto G for only £119/$179/AU$249 (or £149/$219/AU$299 for the 4G version ). I think it's worth it for the improved camera (and front-facing camera), better screen and longer battery life. Unless you're desperately trying to save every penny you can, the Moto G is still the best deal on the market today.

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7.0

Motorola Moto E

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 6
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