When I think of what I want in an everyday phone, I think of battery life, camera, how it feels, and how durable it is. And yeah, how the screen looks. That's what pretty great about Motorola's latest update to its midrange budget smartphone, the Moto G: it's a do-pretty-much-everything-you-need, 5-inch Android smartphone...that costs less than half of your average premium handset.
The Moto G's been around for a couple of years, but last year's version lacked faster LTE in the US (a global version with LTE has been available since April). This new model adds a lot more than just LTE: it's got better front and rear cameras, has serious dunk-in-a-pool water resistance, and its design is even a bit snazzier. It feels more like its upscale Moto siblings than ever before: in fact, it might as well be the lost twin of the 2013 debut Moto X .
I've been using the Moto G for about a week, and while it's clearly not a super-premium phone, it's got enough of what the average person would need, and then some. A clean, up-to-date version of Android 5.1.1 and strong battery life only sweeten the deal.
The Moto G comes in two versions: 8GB of storage and 1GB of RAM for $180 (£179 in the UK), or 16GB storage and 2GB of RAM for $220 (£209 and AU$369). Some carriers are selling the Moto G for even less: in the UK, it's being offered by carriers and retailers for as low as £159. We reviewed the 16GB model, and heartily recommend you pay up for that one; 8GB of storage is just too slight. If you're in Australia then only the 16GB is on offer anyway.
If you add up its design, performance, added water-resistance, and its camera and battery, this is one of the best phones for its price anywhere. Although, it's the budget phone I'd recommend for its overall look, feel and performance, there are other strong contenders. The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 has higher specs across the board, but when I think about the one budget Android I want to grab, this Moto G is it.
For an affordable phone, the Moto G feels awfully nice to hold, not cheap or slapped-together at all.
It's the lines and curves of the G that make it feel special. Yes, it's a plastic design, but the way it all comes together feels satisfying. Sure, the frame is plastic. But from a distance (and even in the hand), it feels nicer than older G models. I used to love the 2013 Moto X for its curved design that fit neatly in my palm. The new Moto G has that feel, but with a slightly larger screen and body. In a lot of ways, it also reminds me of the Nexus 5 .
Even though it has a 5-inch screen, this phone feels hand- and pocket-friendly. It's a good medium-size phone by today's gargantuan standards. The front edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass looks sharp, too. I did, however, already ding a plastic corner a bit.
The 720p display looks bright and crisp -- you probably won't notice that it isn't higher-res, because at 294 pixels per inch, this still feels HD (pixel count is much lower than on the 1080p HD Alcatel Idol 3). And for a budget phone, the colors and clarity look great (the only issue: turning to landscape mode when you have sunglasses on creates huge polarization). The front-facing speakers are pretty loud, too, offering decent sound for movies and games.
The rear of the Moto G has a swappable shell. Motorola's MotoMaker, a website to create customized phones, exists in a pared-down mode for the Moto G in certain markets (Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, the UK and the US). You can create your own MotoMaker custom design for the G, or buy new back plates separately.
You can pick a black or white front, 10 different color options for the back, and one of 10 different color accents that change that little camera-bar on the back to pink, orange, champagne or something else. Motorola also sells five different-colored, textured flip-shell cases. No, this doesn't have fancier metal or wood backs, but the G still feels like it's got enough fun colors to have some personality.
The textured plastic back on my model felt comfy, but some people might prefer a smoother finish. You need to snap the back on completely for it to be water-resistant, though. I feel like no matter how many times I put it on, I missed a few snaps.
The Moto G adds IPX7 water resistance, a big plus for those who are afraid they'll drop their phone in the toilet. IPX7 means the phone can survive dunking in one meter (three feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. That means that the new Moto G, like other pricier phones out there, is really, truly, an all-weather phone. As long as the rear plastic cover is snapped on properly, you'll be fine.
I took a shower with the Moto X, and all went well. Shower sprinkles set the capacitive display nuts, and water droplets affected speaker volume, too, but I could listen to music while I shampooed, and also check emails. All smartphones should have this level of water resistance. I even dropped it into a glass of water and let it sit there for a while on my desk. Still worked.
I still wouldn't recommend swimming with it, and definitely don't take it into salt water (corrosion fears), but at least this means the G is ready for a good, wet day outdoors, without any annoying port covers to worry about. Use it in the rain, send an email in the bath, take a photo in the hot tub. Breathe easy: you don't have to worry about dropping this phone in a puddle -- unless the puddle isn't water, or is filled with sharp rocks, or both.
The big advantage to Motorola's recent phones has been how clean they are, Android OS-wise. If you like a "pure" version of Google's Android without lots of pre-installed junk or customized layers, this is about the closest you can get outside of a Nexus phone.
The Moto G comes with Android 5.1.1 (Lollipop) installed, and for the most part it runs well. Instead of layering some sort of extra experience on top of Android, this feels just like regular Android Lollipop as Google intended. Apps pop up quickly, and a folder of Google apps lies ready for you on the home screen, but other than that, the experience is minimal and clean.
Motorola does have a few of its own apps to offer, tastefully lying in wait in the app grid. You'll find this all in the Moto app. You can't start talking to your phone hands-free like you can on the Moto X, but you can set the phone to automatically adjust notifications and other settings by contextual action or location ("sleeping," or "in a meeting") via a function called Moto Assist.
There are also some physical gestures that can be used, like shaking your phone to turn on the flashlight (which works only some of the time) or flip your phone with your wrist to turn on the camera (ditto). The best is Moto's easy-glance lock screen for notifications, called Moto Display: tap to see important info, or slide up to open the app.
There's even a real FM radio, which uses plugged-in headphones as an antenna. Laugh if you want, but I love using an actual FM radio to listen to radio broadcasts of local NFL games (local sports games are usually blacked out on national streams).
The camera is one of the key areas that's seen a boost in the new Moto G. It now packs a 13-megapixel sensor, rather than the 8-megapixels we've seen before. While this is a very generous amount for a budget phone, Motorola isn't alone here. Other phones in this range, like that Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3, also use a 13-megapixel sensor.
Every phone manufacturer is throwing more megapixels into its phone specs, but there are some added photo hardware improvements beyond that; most notably, a new dual-LED flash on the rear cam to color-correct for night shots. The front camera's also been boosted to 5 megapixels over the previous 2, which is the kind of evolution we want to see out of this Moto G family.
Motorola's included camera app is fast, but not always intuitive to use. The interface is super-minimal, and you have to swipe left and right to get to your photo gallery or adjust camera settings. You can add auto HDR or manually adjust exposure and white balance, and record videos in either 1080p or slow-mo at 720p.
Megapixels don't necessarily result in better photos however, so we were keen to try it out in several hands. Besides myself, CNET editor Andrew Hoyle did a detailed examination of the cameras in London, and New York labs tech Joseph Kaminski even jumped in.
The Moto G's pictures turned out pretty well overall, especially those outdoor shots. Exposure and natural colors were strong, and there was plenty of detail when viewed on the full screen.
This thistle-y picture taken outdoors is a good example of what the Moto G's camera can do. The sharp leaves are crisp, and the little ladybird (ladybug) is clearly visible. The 13-megapixel resolution even gives some room to crop without losing a lot of detail.
Unfortunately, the phone's autofocus isn't easy to use. It's set to tap-to-focus by default (tapping on the screen simply takes a picture), so you'll need to manually turn that on in the camera settings. While the default setting makes it very quick to shoot, it means focus on close-up subjects suffers and you'll shoot multiple out of focus pictures like this until it properly locks on. That gets annoying.
Outdoor shots in everyday light usually turned out really well, though, with crisp, colorful results. But in indoor and lower-light situations, things didn't turn out quite so nicely.
Low-light pictures are also decent, though there are a few issues. Motorola has clearly slowed the shutter speed down to let the camera take in more light in low-light mode, which turns normal hand-shaking into a blurry image. Lower-light images without flash turn out bright but colors are muted, and there's quite a lot of image noise, too.
The Moto G's camera is capable of taking some really great shots, and it's certainly among the best cameras you can find at the budget end of the phone spectrum. Where it shines, as on all smartphone cameras, is in outdoor scenes with ample natural lighting. Even with the flash on, the Moto G's low-light skills aren't up to snuff, so this isn't a camera phone to be excited about if you love taking shots of your food in dimly lit restaurants.
Thankfully, that front-facing camera upgrade was worth the effort. Like the main camera, this selfie camera took pretty good shots outside, but struggled more with indoor self-portraits. It seemed to mute skin tones inside, and other times made skin textures a little grainy. We collectively snapped some decent self-portraits where everything came out looking sharp and detailed when zoomed in, even individual whiskers. The wide-angle images weren't quite as wide as expected.
While the Moto G's camera has taken a big leap over the previous Moto G's and is great for the phone's low price, remember that it's just not as good as cameras on premium flagship smartphones.
The Moto G works well for most everyday needs, as long as you don't push it do a lot at once. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, despite being labeled "quad-core," isn't that fast. Benchmarks put this solidly in the mediocre part of the smartphone spectrum. But for everyday use, Android 5.1.1 feels nice and zippy and optimized to this phone. But running multiple apps or playing some games shows the slowdown. Even my favorite casual game, Hearthstone (which does use some moderate graphic effects) slowed down a bit at times.
Video streaming looked great, however, and the camera app loaded pretty quickly. I tested the 16GB version with 2GB of RAM, versus the 8GB model with 1GB RAM. For the extra 8GB of onboard storage and boosted RAM, I'd definitely pay the extra surcharge.
By the way, there's no NFC on the Moto G. Not everyone needs NFC, but it's becoming increasingly useful because of Google's upcoming Android Pay contactless payments service. Just a thing to keep in mind.
On the 2GB of RAM step-up version, the Moto G had a Geekbench 3 average of 528 (single) and 1,609 (multi) over three runs. On 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test, it had a score of 4,473. That's well below what premium smartphones with better processors get, but in the budget landscape it's not uncommon.
In my experience, Motorola phones always seem to sound good for phone calls. I made a few test calls, and everything was nice and clear, except for one concerning issue with the Moto G microphone suddenly not working, apart from making speakerphone calls. The problem resolved itself, but I'm keeping an eye out to see if it happens again.
I tested call and data speeds in Manhattan, New York City. Results vary based on network strength in your location, and it's sometimes hard to get a good signal in midtown New York. In my Manhattan office (always a dicey place for network connectivity), my AT&T-enabled Moto G had download speeds of 10.01 Mbps, and upload speeds of 0.41 Mbps. I've used LTE phones such as the iPhone 6 that managed faster speeds for both downloads and uploads.
The Moto G gets surprisingly good battery life for its 5-inch screen; our battery run test using looping video ran for around 12 and a half hours, and a full charge lasted me well over a day-and-a-half of casual to moderate use. There's a non-replaceable 2,470mAh battery on board, a bit more than the 2,390mAh that the last Moto G packed. There's no turbo charging, however; with the included charger, it took nearly four hours to fully power up from zero.
Affordable, unlocked phones are starting to multiply, and Motorola has long led the charge. Microsoft, Alcatel, OnePlus, ZTE, Asus and even Samsung are migrating previous years' top-billed parts into next years' midrange and starter phones, and are pushing prices down, too.
Right now, getting an unlocked LTE smartphone with a clean version of the latest Android software for less than the third-generation Moto G's price is pretty rare. With its LTE boost, better camera and water resistance, the Moto G trumps the Samsung Galaxy Grand Prime and similar phones in the territory.
Compared to the similarly priced, "low-end premium" Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 ($250, around £270, roughly AU$520), this Moto G lacks the hardware oomph on almost every category except the camera, but I still think it's fast enough for most of what you'd need, and there's something about the way its design comes together than draws me to it more than any other phone in its class.
CNET's Andrew Hoyle and Joseph Kaminski contributed to this review.