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Motorola Moto G Google Play Edition review: Pure Android KitKat at an unbeatable price

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Up until now, the most affordable way to get your mitts on an unlocked Android smartphone was the Motorola Moto G. For true 'droid diehards though, the device's software, which is only slightly tweaked by Motorola, may not be quite pristine enough. Enter the new Moto G Google Play Edition (GPE). Priced at the same incredibly low price as the first Moto G, $179 (8GB) and $199 (16GB), this model offers completely unadulterated Android 4.4 KitKat at bargain basement rates.

Motorola Moto G
6.7

Motorola Moto G Google Play Edition

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Moto G Google Play Edition</b> runs pristine Android 4.4 KitKat right out of the box and for a rock bottom price. It's compact, has a premium build quality, and powerful speakers.

The Bad

The Moto G's processor is slow, it has no LTE, and storage is limited to 16GB. The dim screen lacks contrast and vivid colors, and its camera takes blurry photos and lacks an HDR mode.

The Bottom Line

If you yearn for pure Android KitKat on the cheap, the Moto G Google Play Edition is worth the price, but power users should look elsewhere.

Of course the Moto G GPE also proves the old maxim that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Even with its advanced operating system, the phone suffers from the same hardware shortcomings as its progenitor, namely a pokey processor, lackluster screen, and an underperforming camera. Many will also ask, why bother with a Google Play Edition of this handset as well since the original Moto G is just as capable? I counter this question with the fact that though other unlocked Android gadgets such as the Nexus 5 ($399 for 32GB) and Moto X ($449 for 32GB) boast better components, you'll pay twice as much for those bragging rights. That's why the Moto G Google Play Edition is the clear choice for Android fans on a tight budget.

Editors' Note: For this review, I focused on how the Motorola Moto G Google Play Edition differs from the carrier-branded versions of the handset. For my complete assessment of the Moto G's design, features, and performance, please see the full review.

Android KitKat in a compact, budget package (pictures)

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Design
Physically speaking, the Moto G Google Play Edition is identical to the original Moto G. Trust me though, that's a good thing, since for an unlocked phone with such a rock-bottom price, the Moto G to feels almost as good in the hand as its more expensive sibling, the Moto X. You'll find many of the handsome design elements I love in Motorola's current flagship model.

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 0.5 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 0.4 inch). That makes both gadgets svelte enough to slip into tight pockets and tote around with ease.

Motorola Moto G
The compact Moto G is easy to grip. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 stock Moto G uses a basic black back plate. 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 finger naturally falls. Here, too, is the Moto G's speaker, which I can confirm gets pretty darn loud without distorting.

Moto G
The back has a dimple to place an index finger. 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.

Screen
To meet the Moto G's low sticker 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 G's display is neither bright, nor high contrast.

Moto G
Sadly the Moto G's 4.5-inch screen isn't that bright. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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.

Moto G
The Moto G's battery is embedded. Sarah Tew/CNET

Software and interface
In my view the most compelling quality of the Moto G Google Play Edition is its status as a GPE device. As a result the phone ships straight out of the box running pure Android 4.4 KitKat. That trumps the original carrier and Motorola-branded version of the Moto G which, while promised, a KitKat upgrade (from Android 4.3 Jelly Bean) may take its sweet time reaching your device.

Of course just because the Moto G GPE flaunts Google's freshest version of its mobile operating system, it doesn't mean the phone brings all the company's bells and whistles to the table. For instance, the Moto G lacks the special Google Experience Launcher interface of the Nexus 5. Besides sporting larger application icons and an app tray with a bigger view (achieved by pulling out the widget tab), the Nexus 5 puts the Google Now advanced search in easy reach -- co-opting the leftmost home screen completely. That said you can just as quickly drop a Google Now widget to any of the Moto G GPE's five home screens.

Moto G GPE
The Moto G GPE may boast KitKat but it's no Nexus. Sarah Tew/CNET

Also absent from this version of the Moto G are Motorola's homegrown software tools and services. Specifically there's no Motorola Assist app, an evolution of the Smart Actions solution that graced the old Droid Razrs. I admit that Assist offers some handy abilities like automatically switching your phone to silent mode when it thinks you're in meetings or tucked into bed for the night. Still, it's not a make or break feature for me.

The same goes for the Motorola Migrate app which is designed to make switching to the Moto G from other handsets (both Android and iOS) less of a hassle. Since I'm in the Android camp myself, and as someone who is constantly moving from gadget to gadget, I prefer to transfer my digital baggage myself.

Camera
Just like my experience on the first Moto G, the camera on the Moto G GPE is a big letdown. The handset uses a 5-megapixel camera, which while capable of snapping images relatively quickly (in under a second), isn't what I'd call nimble. Unlike other smartphones which grab pictures almost instantly, the Moto G takes about half a second to mull things over before blinking its digital eye.

Moto G GPE
Indoor shots were well exposed but lacked detail. Brian Bennett/CNET

Additionally, the camera was prone to capturing blurry photos with soft details, regardless of whether I shot outdoors in bright sunshine, or inside.That said, colors were richly saturated and indoor shots properly exposed even with the fill-flash engaged.

Moto G Google Play Edition
The camera app is the stock tool from Android. Sarah Tew/CNET

One big difference between the Moto G GPE and its Motorola-branded counterpart is the camera app. While the original Moto G uses Motorola's own photo application, whose simple UI is, frankly, better-designed and much easier to operate, the Moto G GPE relies on the stock Android photography tool. Its tiny icons are tough to tap (at least with my big fingers) and the software's multi-level, semi-circle menu system confusing. Worse, there's no HDR mode, something Motorola's Moto G has. Still, the Moto G GPE lets you select picture resolution manually, a feature absent in the Motorola camera app.

Moto G
HDR mode pulls detail from shadows, but not on the Moto G GPE. Brian Bennett/CNET

Performance
Driving the Moto G Google Play Edition is a sluggish 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and low 1GB allotment of RAM. That said, the Moto X isn't exactly a speed demon either; at least when running admittedly artificial benchmark tests. The Moto G GPE Quadrant score of 8,526 was barely higher than what I squeezed out of the Moto X (8,519). Still, that's nowhere near what other flagship devices notched, such as the HTC One (12,194), Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381), and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (23,048).

Indeed, even with clean Android KitKat the Moto G felt a little late on the draw, whether opening applications, firing up the camera, or even powering on from an off position. Flipping through menus also lacked the instant snap I've come to expect from other (and a lot pricier) phones, such as the Nexus 5 and Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition.

Battery life
One area of performance where the Moto G Google Play Editon won't disappoint is run time. The device's 2,070 mAh battery cruised through the CNET Labs video playback battery drain test for a long 9 hours and 14 minutes before expiring. Oddly enough that's more perseverance than the first Moto G demonstrated on the same test (7 hours, 52 minutes).

Conclusion
It used to be the case that locating a quality, affordable yet unlocked Android device, at least one optimized for American shores, was a downright Herculean endeavor. My how times have changed, and for the better too. The Moto G GPE and previous Moto G, both of which start at a shockingly low $179 ($199 with 16GB of storage), would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

Whether or not the Moto G GPE is the 'droid you seek, really depends on how much you're willing to spend. It's low price is hard to pass up, especially for those sticking to a tight budget. There's simply no better pure Android deal around. Likewise, the Motorola-branded Moto G, which costs the same, makes more sense if you have no addiction to fresh, uncut Android.

Those who desire impressive components such as a powerful processor, sharper camera, and more engaging screen will be better served by splurging on either the Nexus 5 ($349) or the Motorola Moto X($399) for true mobile power.

Motorola Moto G
6.7

Motorola Moto G Google Play Edition

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 6