Moto G real-world review: The best budget phone money can buy

The Moto G provides an excellent overall experience at a low off-contract price -- but it's still a budget phone. So is it worth owning?

Quick -- when you hear the phrase "budget phone," what's the first thing that comes to mind?

If you're anything like me, it's a subpar, low-level experience you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy. That connotation exists for a reason: Smartphones that cost less than $200 off-contract have traditionally been pretty pitiful devices -- junky old phones with poor performance, disappointing displays and outdated software.

Motorola's Moto G

With its new Moto G, Motorola is hoping to change that. The Moto G is sold unlocked and off-contract for $179 (8GB) or $199 (16GB) -- and while it's certainly not a top-of-the-line device, it delivers an admirable overall user experience that puts other phones in its class to shame.

So generalities aside, what's the Moto G actually like to use in the real world? I've been living with the phone all week to find out.

Note: The Moto G is currently compatible with GSM networks in the United States, which means it'll work with AT&T, T-Mobile or any of the prepaid carriers that utilize those networks. A CDMA version of the device (compatible with Sprint and Verizon) is expected to be sold via carriers starting in January.

Body and display

At a glance, the Moto G looks a lot like its higher-end brother -- the critically acclaimed Moto X.

The Moto G has the same basic shape and design as the X, with a narrow profile and curved back that fits nicely in the hand. The phone's soft plastic casing has a warm and comfortable feel.

Like the X, the Moto G has a dimple in the upper-center of its back that's a natural place to rest your finger while holding the phone. The dimple has a subtle silver-colored Motorola "M" logo, which is the only marking or branding anywhere on the outside of the device.

The Moto G's back can be detached from the rest of the phone. Behind it, you'll find a slot for the phone's SIM card but no removable battery. The real purpose of the detachable back is to provide a simple means of customization: You can buy a brightly colored replacement shell from Motorola for 15 bucks and give your gadget a little extra personality. You can also opt for a $30 "Flip Shell" that has a built-in screen cover with magnets that turn the display on and off.

I tested the phone with a turquoise shell and a blue Flip Shell. I liked the look of the regular shell but wasn't so fond of its material: It has a less smooth and soft feel than the default black panel and struck me as a step down in quality. The Flip Shell worked as advertised, but it has a textured vinyl-like feel that wasn't quite my cup of tea.

In terms of general form, the Moto G is chunkier than the Moto X: It's 5.11 x 2.59 in. and 5.04 oz. with thickness ranging from 0.24 to 0.46 in. The X, meanwhile, is 5.09 x 2.57 in. and 4.58 oz. with thickness ranging from 0.22 to 0.41 in. The differences in weight and thickness are the most noticeable of those measurements; the G looks and feels somewhat bulky next to its sleek sibling.

The Moto G (right) is slightly larger and thicker than its high-end cousin, the Moto X (left).

While the Moto G itself is slightly larger than the X, its screen is actually smaller: The G packs a 4.5-in. LCD display compared to the X's 4.7-in. AMOLED display. The reason is that the Moto G has larger bezels than its brother, both on the sides and at the bottom of the device.

At 720p and 329 pixels per inch, though, the Moto G's Gorilla Glass-protected screen looks fantastic. Colors are vivid and true to life, text is sharp and the display is bright and easy to see even in glary outdoor conditions. Images on the Moto G are less saturated than what you'll see on the X, but that's largely just a result of the difference between LCD and AMOLED technology. The G's screen also has less deep blacks but more pure whites than the X's display, which is also typical of any LCD vs. AMOLED comparison.

A small LED notifier sits above the Moto G's screen, to the left of the earpiece. The phone has a sturdy-feeling metallic-colored power button and volume rocker on its right side, a 3.5mm headphone jack on its top edge and a standard micro-USB port on its bottom edge. There is no HDMI-out functionality.

As far as audio goes, the Moto G has a single speaker grille on the upper-left side of its back panel. The phone's sound quality is unremarkable but decent enough by smartphone standards: Music played through the phone is loud and clear and, thanks to the phone's sloped back, remains relatively unmuffled even when the device is sitting on a flat surface. The G's audio is a bit tinnier and less full-sounding than the X's, but we're talking a fairly faint contrast between the two.

Under the hood

The Moto G runs on a quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor along with 1GB of RAM. When you consider that it's a budget-level phone, its performance is impressive: The device never feels sluggish and is able to keep up with most common day-to-day tasks without any stutters or slowdowns.

Relative to the full smartphone spectrum, though, the Moto G's performance isn't perfect. There's occasional subtle jerkiness in animations, for instance, and elements sometimes don't stay in active memory when they're out of the foreground. That means if you load a Web page in Chrome or a document in Google Drive and then switch to another app, the page or document often takes a moment to refresh when you return to it.

Overall, the Moto G isn't quite as snappy as most high-end smartphones, but it's mainly noticeable only when you're pushing the device with heavy multitasking or resource-intensive processes. This is an instance where "less good" doesn't necessarily mean "bad" -- the Moto G isn't meant to be a high-end phone, after all, and within its class, it performs astonishingly well.

The Moto G also excels in the realm of battery life: The phone packs a 2,070mAh battery that's listed for "up to 24 hours" of mixed usage. In real-world terms, the phone more than holds its own and has consistently been able to get me from morning to night with no problem. Even with moderately heavy usage -- three to four hours of screen-on time consisting of a mix of scattered video streaming, Web browsing, social media use and phone calls -- I've managed to make it through a full 12 hours with around 30% of the battery still remaining.

The G is rather limited in local storage: The phone ships with either 8GB or 16GB of internal space, depending on which model you buy. About 4GB of that is taken up by the operating system, which leaves you with around 4GB or 12GB of usable space. There is no micro-SD card slot for external storage expansion, but the phone does include 50GB of free cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years.

Another limitation of the Moto G is its network connectivity: The phone doesn't support LTE, meaning you can connect only to 3G or HSPA+ data networks. Depending on your area, this may or may not be an issue: I've been testing the phone with an AT&T SIM and have been getting data download speeds ranging from 6Mbps, which is reasonable, to 1Mbps, which is downright painful.

The Moto G's imaging performance is best described as passable but not exceptional.

HSPA+-level speeds can sometimes be zippier: With T-Mobile-connected HSPA+ phones, I regularly hit download speeds anywhere from 12Mbps to 18Mbps in my area -- speeds that rival and in many cases beat what U.S. LTE networks deliver. It is worth noting that the Moto G works only with 21Mbps-level HSPA+ networks, though, and isn't able to connect to the higher-speed 42Mbps-level HSPA+ network T-Mobile offers in some parts of the country.

On the Wi-Fi front, the Moto G supports 802.11b/g/n but not the faster 802.11ac standard. It also lacks support for near-field communication (NFC) and wireless charging.

Cameras

The Moto G's imaging performance is best described as passable but not exceptional: Photos captured with the phone's 5-megapixel rear-facing camera tend to have a noticeable amount of detail loss and a good bit of noise in the background. The phone also struggles in low-light environments.

That said, the Moto G's auto-HDR mode goes a long way in making its images look presentable. This isn't going to be a phone you buy explicitly for its camera, but for a budget-level phone, it's not half-bad; if you tend to take photos primarily for online sharing, you'll be able to get fine-enough-looking images with a little practice (and perhaps the occasional after-capture enhancement, which the Moto G makes easy to do).

One area where the Moto G shines is in its camera software: The phone uses the same custom Motorola Camera app seen on the Moto X, which makes snapping pics refreshingly easy. You simply drag your finger up or down on the viewfinder to zoom and touch anywhere on the screen to capture a shot. Holding your finger down for an extended period of time causes the phone to enter a burst mode and capture multiple rapid-fire images.

The only thing missing is the handy twist-to-launch gesture implemented on the Moto X, which lets you quickly open the Camera app anytime by twisting the phone twice in your hand. The Moto G does not have that functionality.

The Moto G can capture 720p-quality HD video through its rear camera as well as through the 1.3-megapixel shooter on its front.

The software

Motorola makes a point of sticking with near-stock Google Android software on its phones these days, and the Moto G is no exception: The device currently runs the Android 4.3 Jelly Bean operating system and Moto has guaranteed it'll be upgraded to the newer Android 4.4 KitKat OS by January.

The near-stock Android approach means the phone's user interface is clean, intuitive and pleasant to use, with none of the messy modifications or annoying bloatware so many manufacturers add onto their devices. It also paves the way for timely OS upgrades, as Motorola's current KitKat progress has demonstrated.

At a Glance

Moto G

MotorolaPrice: $179 (8GB), $199 (16GB)Pros: Excellent display; comfortable design; great battery life; solid performance for its class; clean and intuitive user interface; exceptional valueCons: No LTE; imperfect performance with more resource-intensive use; mediocre camera; limited storage; no SD card; no NFC or wireless charging

The few changes Moto has made to the software are feature-oriented and actually add value to the user experience. The company has added a Trusted Bluetooth option, for instance, that lets you tell your phone to skip any lock-screen security when a specific Bluetooth device is present and paired.

There's also a system-level app called Assist that gives you an easy way to make your phone modify its behavior based on certain conditions, like the time of day or the presence of an active calendar event. The app's most useful function, unfortunately, isn't available: On the Moto X, Assist can let the phone recognize when you're driving and then automatically switch into a voice-controlled hands-free mode. The Moto G doesn't have that option.

Similarly, advanced Moto X software features like Touchless Control -- which lets you control your phone by speaking, even when it's asleep -- and Active Display, which flashes relevant notifications on the screen when you need them, are absent on the Moto G. Motorola Connect, which allows you to receive notifications from your phone on any computer via the Chrome browser, is also M.I.A.

Bottom line

It's hard not to compare the Moto G to the higher-end Moto X, but in doing so, you have to remember something: These are two very different types of phones -- and they're aimed at two very different types of buyers.

If you're looking for a top-of-the-line experience with all the bells and whistles, the Moto G isn't going to be the right device for you. That's simply not what it's designed to provide.

What the Moto G does provide, however, is an exceptional experience within the budget-level parameter. It has commendable performance, a comfortable design, and a clean and intuitive user interface. Factor in its great battery life and excellent display, and you've got a device that redefines just how good a budget phone can be.

If you want an unlocked smartphone for less than $200, there's really no other device you should even consider.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, Moto G real-world review: The best budget phone money can buy, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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