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

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The Good The Motorola Moto G is extremely affordable, unlocked, and runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. The phone is compact and has premium build quality that belies its low price. The Moto G’s speakers pack lots of volume.

The Bad The processor is slow, and the phone comes with a maximum of 16GB of storage and no LTE. The phone’s screen is dim and lacks contrast and vivid colors. The Moto G’s camera takes blurry photos without much detail.

The Bottom Line You can't beat the price of the Moto G, but the more expensive and more powerful Nexus 5 remains your shrewdest unlocked Android option.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Editors' Note: I tested two versions of the Moto G (2013) for this review. The first was a Global GSM model connected to T-Mobile's cellular network. The second was a US GSM model linked to AT&T's cellular network. Motorola also sells a CDMA model of the Moto G optimized for US wireless networks, which is sold by Verizon. For information about the 2014 Motorola Moto G 4G LTE variant, read our hands-on.

If your priority is to get your hands on the cheapest Android phone deal around, the new Motorola Moto G can't be beat. Starting at just $179, the unlocked and unsubsidized Moto G flaunts a big 4.5-inch screen plus all the power of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. That's a lot of smartphone with no strings attached. Even so, Motorola made some big compromises to help the Moto G reach its extremely low price, specifically a slow processor, an unimpressive camera, no 4G LTE, and a screen that won't wow anybody.

To me, many of these flaws are deal-breakers on their own, let alone when piled into one device. Sure, the Moto G's low impact on your bank account sounds tempting, and if $200 is all you can spare it'll serve you well. But if you're willing to spend extra cash, the Nexus 5, or even Motorola's own Moto X, are more capable and faster.

For a phone with such a low unlocked price, I admit I expected the Moto G to feel cheaper than it does. My prejudices were quickly assuaged the moment I picked up the device. The Moto G feels almost as good in the hand as its more expensive sibling, the Moto X. That's because the newer handset has many of the handsome design elements I love in Motorola's current flagship model.

Moto G
The Moto G has a large 4.5-inch 720p resolution LCD screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

These include a compact chassis that's easy to manipulate one-handed, along with a curved back intelligently designed to fit comfortably in your palm. Measuring 5.1 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.46 of an inch at its thickest point, the Moto G shares an almost identical footprint to the Moto X (which only differs in thickness, at 0.41 inch). Believe me, it's a good thing, since both gadgets are svelte enough to slip into tight pockets and tote around with ease.

And while the Moto G isn't sculpted out of luxurious materials such as aluminum or polished steel, its plastic body is reassuringly solid and radiates quality craftsmanship. Even so, I definitely prefer the soft-touch back surface of Moto X to the G's matte finish as it does a better job of repelling fingerprints and grease. That's why I strongly suggest buying one of the Moto G's shell backings for an extra $14.99, which feature a soft-touch texture and come in a choice of six snazzy colors.

Moto G
The back side of the Moto G has a matte finish that smudges easily. Sarah Tew/CNET

There are other small physical differences between the phones, such as the Moto G's slightly heftier weight (5 ounces), and thicker profile. Besides that, thanks to an identical button layout, the Moto G could easily be mistaken for the Moto X. A tiny power key and trim volume bar sit on the right side, while a 3.5mm headphone jack occupies the top edge.

Around back is the G's main 5-megapixel camera and LED flash. The phone even has a little circular dimple (matching the Moto X) placed just below the camera lens -- right where your index naturally falls. Here, too, is the Moto G's speaker, which I can confirm gets pretty darn loud without distorting.

Moto G
The back is curved for a comfortable grip, and has a dimple great for resting index fingers. Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike the Moto X's sealed chassis, the Moto G has a removable back plate. Don't get your hopes up though, because underneath the phone's back cover isn't an SD Card slot, but merely an embedded 2,070mAh battery (2,200mAh on the X), and spring-loaded micro-SIM receptacle.

Moto G
You can remove the back panel, but the battery is embedded and there's no SD Card expansion slot. Sarah Tew/CNET

To meet the Moto G's rock bottom price Motorola had to make some sacrifices and a major one was the handset's display. At 4.5 inches across, the G's screen is certainly big, especially considering the phone's small footprint. Its 720p resolution (1,280x720 pixels) is also acceptably crisp. Sadly, however, the Moto's G's display is neither bright, nor has a high contrast.

In fact, when viewed side-by-side against the Moto X (with both devices set at maximum brightness), the G's LCD panel literally pales in comparison. Not only is the Moto X significantly brighter, its OLED screen technology produces very wide viewing angles with deep blacks and vibrant (if oversaturated) colors.

Moto G
The Moto G's screen is big but not very bright. Sarah Tew/CNET

Core components
Motorola dialed back the Moto G's processing power as well. Under the phone's hood is a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor paired with Adreno 305 graphics and 1GB of RAM. It's less muscular than Motorola's X8 processing platform tucked inside the Moto X, which consists of a 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro (dual-core Krait) backed up by 2GB of RAM and quad-core Adreno 320 graphics.

The Moto G's standard 8GB allotment of internal storage (16GB on premium versions) is less impressive compared with the Moto X's base 16GB and 32GB options. The handset's CPU is a far cry from true powerhouse devices such as the Nexus 5 and Galaxy Note 3, both powered by 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 chips, Qualcomm's finest slice of mobile silicon to date.

Software and interface
With Motorola now owned and operated by Google, I'm not surprised the Moto G's real draw is its modern Android software. Similar to the Moto X, the G comes running mostly stock Android 4.3 Jelly Bean right out of the box. Even better, Motorola has officially said the Moto G will soon enjoy an update to Google's most recent flavor of Android, version 4.4 KitKat (though exact timing remains unclear).

Moto G
The Moto G mostly runs a stock version of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.