Review: Updated: Moto G

New Moto G

When the first Moto G arrived back in 2013, it was a revelation. It showed us that phones under £150 didn’t have to come with rubbish screens and dodgy performance. Now we’re onto the Moto G’s third version.

What’s new? A better camera is the highlight, while water resistance and a 64-bit CPU offer side attractions you don’t always get at this price.

There’s the one potential issue: price. The Moto G now goes up to £209/$219 for the 2GB RAM/16GB storage version, or £179/$179/$250AU for the plain 1GB RAM/8GB storage edition.

The kicker is that if you want the super-smooth performance the original Moto G was hailed for, you’ll need to get the more expensive edition. I’ll be checking out both editions of the phone in this review. I’m so good to you.

Design

No matter which version of the Moto G you choose, you get the same core design. This year’s version uses a removable plastic cover that blocks off the memory card and SIM sockets, providing one of the little guy’s key features: water resistance.

Moto G review

This is the first of the Moto G family to offer any weather resistance, and it goes all the way with IPx7 certification. That means you can dunk it in water up to 1m deep and leave it there for 30 minutes without having to leave it in a bag of rice afterwards, praying it’s not dead.

Look at the back cover and you’ll see that this is almost impossibly simple. A little border of rubber sits on certain parts of the backplate, sealing off slots that need protection.

What’s more impressive is that the sockets on the exposed parts of the Moto G don’t need this. I’m talking about the microUSB socket and the headphone jack. Like all the best waterproof phones, these are automatically designed not to let in water, and it takes all the pain out of water resistance.

Just a couple of years ago, even top-end phones like the Sony Xperia Z2 needed flaps to protect the ports you used on a daily basis. It got old pretty quick.

That the Moto G manages to side-step this annoyance, at this price, is commendable. And it’s going to make me come down pretty hard on any water resistant phones that don’t make the same moves in the future.

Moto G review

The other new hardware feature is customisation. Buy the Moto G from a network and you may only have a choice between white or black (network dependent). But order from the Moto Maker website and you can pick the colour of the backplate and the little metal ‘accent’ on the back that holds the camera lens. There are 10 colours of each part to choose from.

Water resistance and core customisation aren’t things I normally expect from mid-range phones. But that doesn’t mean the Moto G feels like it belongs in a class above. It doesn’t, and certainly not at £200.

The Moto G is a chunky, largely plastic phone. Some of you may not like the ridged style when compared with the various soft-touch and simple matt finishes Motorola used in its previous E and G-series phones. But, hey, it’s what we get.

The Moto G design is best described as ‘perfectly fine’. Pretty unexciting, right? It feels well made and its curved design helps hide its 11.6mm thickness. But it doesn’t feel expensive, and is a little large for a 5-inch phone. If you want it to stick out, be sure to have a look at Moto Maker before ordering.

Moto G review

Screen

Some of you may have expected Motorola to dramatically upgrade the screen in this third-generation Moto G. It’s begging for a 1080p screen, right?

Well, it doesn’t have one. The 2015 Moto G has a 1280 x 720 pixel IPS LCD screen just like the last version. If you’re willing to go with a lesser-known brand, you can get a 1080p screen without paying all that much more. Just look at the Honor 6 and Vodafone Smart Prime 6 for a couple of examples.

This remains a mostly satisfying screen, though. It’s large enough to be well-suited to playing games, browsing the internet and displaying media, rather than being for ‘the basics’ only. While the slight pixelation will seem obvious to the more eagle-eyed among you, sharpness is pretty good.

Moto G review

The real important question is, has anything changed? This is an odd one to tackle, as I discovered that the screens of the 16GB and 8GB version Moto Gs are substantially different.

The 8GB, 1GB RAM Moto G has a screen that looks a lot like the 2014 edition. It has relaxed, easy-going colours and a warm colour temperature that’s easy on the eyes, but gives whites a slight orange/yellow skew.

Conversely, the 16GB, 2GB RAM edition has dumped the warm skew in favour of much purer, whiter whites. While one approach is not categorically better than the other, this version does look a bit more striking.

The question is whether Motorola is using a different panel supplier for these Moto G subsets, or whether it’s just the luck of the draw which style you’ll get. Both are perfectly good, but I’d favour the punchier tone of the 16GB Moto G.

As it’s topped with Gorilla Glass 3, the screen also provides good fingerprint resistance (an oleophobic coating), and outdoors visibility is perfectly fine too.

Key features, interface and performance

The Moto G 2015 isn’t a features powerhouse, but that’s not the idea. Just like all the Moto G models, it includes the bits it thinks you’ll appreciate while leaving out the ones Motorola thinks you probably won’t need. Or even notice.

It’s not a Samsung, that’s for sure. On the hit list, the Moto G has all the usual things like GPS, Wi-Fi and so on, but it doesn’t have NFC or an IR transmitter. I get the feeling most people don’t know what the latter is for (it generally mimics a home entertainment remote), but NFC’s omission is a bit more contentious.

Moto G review

It means hooking the Moto G up to certain wireless accessories (speakers, headphones, cameras) will be a bit fiddlier, and also rules out being able to use Android Pay, the Google equivalent to Apple Pay. This would let you pay for a packet of crisps and a coffee with your phone. Sounds a bit like fluff? Exactly. Those are the bits the Moto G leaves out.

However, you do get 4G mobile internet and the neat faff-free waterproofing I talked about earlier. It’s all about priorities, and the Moto G’s are roughly in the right order.

What else do you get? Well, there are two main flavours of Moto G. There’s one with 8GB storage and another with 16GB. The more expansive version will give you room for a handful of apps and games as well as an Instagram account’s worth of mobile phone pictures. You’re much more likely to need a microSD card if you pick the smaller-storage Moto G.

Performance

While both phones have the same Snapdragon 410 CPU, the 8GB version has 1GB RAM and the 16GB version 2GB.

Here’s a bit I need to stress: there are palpable performance benefits to the 2GB version. You’ll feel them throughout the interface, but obvious examples include a smoother camera preview, less time for apps to load when the phone is doing other tasks, and fewer disjointed transitions when the phone is ‘catching up’ with itself.

There’s none of this in the 1GB Moto G. Its performance is charmingly smooth, but there is mild creakiness. Tellingly, though, it’s nothing like the performance hit I’ve heard from multiple first-hand sources and experienced myself in older Moto Gs since the move to Android Lollipop.

Moto G review

To put it bluntly, many old Moto Gs are slow these days. Is it planned obsolescence? Or are the older phones simply unable to keep up with the new Google software?

There are reasons to believe both stories. On the cynical, “Motorola is desperate for us to upgrade so it has killed the old Moto Gs” front, the Snapdragon 410 CPU used in the new model isn’t much more powerful than the Snapdragon 400 used in 2013’s Moto Gs.

Both are quad-core 1.2GHz chipsets with modest Adreno GPUs that won’t challenge top-end mobile CPUs from the past few years. The difference is that where the Snapdragon 400 uses 32-bit Cortex-A7 cores, the Snapdragon 410 uses native 64-bit Cortex-A53 ones.

These are from the same family of cores used in top-end Snapdragon 810 devices like the HTC One M9, but there they are used for everyday ‘low-power’ tasks before the meatier cores kick in.

The Geekbench benchmark results tell you about the progress made in the two-and-change years since the Snapdragon 400 was the king of cheapo phone CPUs. Where you can get 1390 points out of a Snapdragon 400, the Moto G (1GB) scores 1590 points.

Moto G review

So has Motorola done a number on older Moto G owners? A big point in Motorola’s favour is the common lag affecting many Android Lollipop phones that would have performed perfectly well with Android 4.4. Until this year, unless your phone had a poorly optimised UI, 1GB RAM and a Snapdragon 400 were enough to guarantee very solid performance.

No longer, though, with many 1GB RAM budget phones suffering from mild-to-severe performance issues. I’m looking at you, LG G4c, EE Harrier Mini, Moto G 2014, and so on.

Given some of the issues in this company, the performance of both models is pretty great. I’d naturally pick the 16GB/2GB model if I had the choice, but would be happy to live with either.

Software

Motorola’s decision not to load down Android with lots of custom UI bits and apps is a positive one. The look of the Moto G’s interface is pure Android Lollipop, with just a few tweaks here and there to add the odd juicy feature.

The visual design of Android Lollipop is great. It’s simple, friendly-looking and has cut out all extraneous interface elements so that your screen is filled with content rather than buttons, boxes and lines.

Perhaps the most obvious visual change in Lollipop, compared to KitKat, is that the apps menu is now presented on a ‘blank page’ of white rather than a patterned background. It may sound like a step backwards, but it offers great clarity. Despite lacking interface signposts and labels, it’s the most intuitive Android yet as long as you know basics, like what the soft keys do.

And who among you doesn’t these days, right?

Moto G review

It’s worth noting that the Moto G is expected to get an upgrade to Android Marshmallow before too long, which will add some new Google Now features, greater app permission controls and should boost the battery life.

Moto customisations boil down to the Migrate app, camera app, Moto app, and the active display feature. The rest is pure Android.

Let’s start with the boring one: Migrate. This helps you move content from your old phone. Useful, prosaic, fine.

The Moto app brings together a bunch of features that previously had separate apps in Motorola phones. It’s a smart move to squish them into the one box; no-one likes bloatware. This lets you control the extra features Motorola has added, like a Do Not Disturb mode that will silence your phone in situations of your choice. Again, this is pretty common, but also useful.

The active display feature is one part that’s a little out of the ordinary. It’s a toned-down version of the always-on display of the Moto X, which shows the time and other bits of info on-screen while the phone is in standby.

Moto G review

In the Moto G it turns part of the screen on when you get a notification and when you pick it up (most of the time, anyway). It gives you a brief glance at what’s going on with your phone without needing to bring it out of standby. Plus it gives you the time.

So why isn’t it on 24/7? It’s down to the sort of display the Moto G uses. It has an LCD screen, which uses a universal backlight. LEDs fire across the screen and their light passes through a matrix that spreads it over the display. Voila, the screen’s nice and bright. However, it means you can’t just light a tiny part of the screen.

OLED screens, on the other hand, have light-emissive pixels, letting them light up just a fraction of the surface, thereby using just a fraction of the power. As much as the Samsung Galaxy S6‘s OLED screen soundly outperforms the Moto X’s, all OLEDs have a few neat tricks up their sleeves.

What we like about the Moto G’s approach to side-order features like the active display is that they come across as very low-key. They don’t get in the way, and that’s great.

Battery life, media and the essentials

One aspect of the new Moto G is sneaky. The design appears to have dual, stereo front-facing speakers. These became all the rage after HTC put them into the original HTC One, reminding us that good phone speakers are absolutely worth having.

However, these aren’t stereo speakers. Only the bottom one acts as a main music/films/whatever speaker, with the top one used for calls only.

Moto G review

Before you scream at the internet that Motorola is duping us, their performance is perfectly fine. The earpiece speaker is loud and clear, with a fuller tone than we get from a lot of lower-mid range phones. Calls sound good.

There’s been a marginal improvement made to the main speaker too. Side-by-side with the 2014 Moto G, the 2015 version sounds slightly louder and has a little more mid-range ‘body’ to it.

It’s not HTC One M9-grade, though, and it becomes a little brash and harsh-sounding at top volume. In this more affordable class, the Alcatel OneTouch leads the pack when it comes to rich sound quality. The Moto G speaker does at least appear improved since last year, if by a tiny amount.

I also appreciate that Motorola has substantially toned-down the design of the speakers. The last Moto G had great big silvery bars signposting the speaker units, and they looked quite toy-like. They are more subtle in the 2015 Moto G, not to mention water resistant.

Moto G review

Without stereo drivers, the Moto G can’t achieve a stereo image when you hold the phone on its side to watch a film. It’s a shame. If video-watching and game-playing is a big hobby, be sure to consider the Huawei Ascend G7. It costs the same amount as the 16GB Moto G, but has a 5.5-inch screen, more power, and a metal body.

This being a Moto phone, you’ll want to download your own media player app before getting stuck-in. The Moto G only has Google’s standard services preinstalled, and none are much cop at playing your own videos.

That’s the idea, though. The Moto G is a blank slate, and you can keep it blank if you like, or fill it up. It’s not as if other preinstalled apps give us something we can’t get on Google Play for free anyway, right?

Once you’re tooled up with the right app, you’ll find it lasts longer as a video player than any Moto G to date. In TechRadar’s standard battery test, playing a 90 minute MP4 file at full brightness, the 2015 Moto G lost 19% charge. That’s down from 26% in the (non-4G) 5-inch model from last year and 23% in the original 4.7-inch Moto G.

Moto G review

This is because of the larger battery, rather than the amazing efficiency of any new components used. The 2015 Moto G has a 2470mAh battery, while the older models have 2070mAh units. The 4G version of the last model bumped that up to 2390mAh, though, so should perform closer to this new one.

Confused? Don’t be. The Moto G has solid battery life and Motorola has corrected the misstep of not increasing battery size when it increased screen size to five inches back in 2014.

In everyday use, the Moto G’s stamina is solid, but not class-leading. With carefree use you’ll get a day and a bit off a charge. But to get two days’ use out of it you’ll need to use it lightly or make good use of the Battery Saver mode.

Now a default feature of Android, Battery Saver cuts down energy-sapping things like background data and location/GPS so that the Moto G requires very little battery unless you’re actually using the phone.

Like last time, the Moto G’s battery is non-removable.

Camera

Camera quality was the biggest issue with the earliest Moto G phones. The first version’s camera was dreadful. But now Motorola has flipped that around, making it the single most impressive feature of the 2015 Moto G.

The Moto G has a 13-megapixel Sony IMX214 main sensor with an f/2.0 lens, and a 5-megapixel camera up front. This main camera sensor has been loads of times, most notably in the Nexus 6, OnePlus One and Huawei Ascend G7.

Moto G review

However, this might be one of the best applications of this core hardware I’ve seen. At the very least it’s immensely impressive for a phone that starts at £180.

For example, while similar hardware was used in the Nexus 6, the Moto G shoots a lot faster than the Nexus 6 did when TechRadar reviewed it. Shooting speed and low shutter lag are important factors in making a phone camera feel fun to use.

It also produces a lot more good shots than duds, and doesn’t take dull-looking pictures as soon as a cloudy sky appears.

In this respect the Moto G trashes two of its big-name rivals: the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua and HTC Desire 626. It both out-specs and out-performs the LG G4c too.

In daylight you get vibrant, natural colours. Punchy-looking photos that generally offer good contrast are the standard when shooting during the day. Detail is excellent too for a more affordable phone.

Moto G review

The Moto G impresses here because it matches a good sensor with solid processing. It doesn’t under-saturate colours in the way the OnePlus One tends (or at least tended) to, and is far quicker off the mark than the Nexus 6, as I’ve already mentioned.

As well as soundly beating similar competition from HTC, Sony and LG, I got to test the Moto G alongside the iPhone 6 and found that its metering system generally comes up with pretty similar results. That’s a very good thing.

The f/2.0 lens aperture also enables some neat shallow depth of field effects when you shoot close up, which is perfect for Instagram-bait nature shots. I was flat-out surprised with how great some of the Moto G shots look.

Moto G review

There is some room for improvement, though. If you switch the HDR mode to ‘on’ rather than leaving it on its (very solid) Auto setting, the high dynamic range effect is a bit too pronounced to look natural. The same is true of the original Moto G and the second-gen model. Motorola doesn’t seem to have updated its HDR algorithms much. Maybe it’s time, eh?

The Moto G’s low-light and indoors lighting abilities aren’t going to worry top-tier phone cameras either. Without OIS or super-aggressive low-light processing, dark scenes stay looking pretty dark, and the noise reduction algorithm tends to favour maintaining detail over making your images look super-smooth and noise-free.

There is a dual-LED flash, however, which keeps your shots from looking washed-out should you need extra light. Judging by test portraits, it works pretty well and maintains natural-looking skin tones.

Moto G review

Motorola has even put impressive work into the selfie camera. It’s surprisingly great, far surpassing most entry-level 5-megapixel selfie cameras. And it can spar with the most expensive phones.

Faces appear bright and clear no matter the light conditions, white balance is generally on the money and it’s able to render fine beard hairs more clearly than any other 5-megapixel selfie camera in a £200 phone. There’s even a simulated flash selfie mode, but it tends to make people’s faces look cool (in colour temperature, not the other cool) and introduce more noise.

I’m starting to see why Motorola has had to ramp up the price of the Moto G. After two years of listening to complaints about camera quality, it has clearly gone in all guns blazing.

Are there elements to improve? Yes, but for a £180-200 phone it’s great.

Camera app

As before, the Moto G uses the custom Motorola camera app, but there’s one big change this time. When you call up the touch focus control, you’ll see it features an exposure dial. In some ways the Motorola camera app can feel fiddly. It has a less straightforward style than, say, the Samsung Galaxy S6’s app, relying on a rotary menu that’s not onscreen all the time.

Moto G review

However, this is probably the best use of manual exposure compensation control I’ve seen in a phone.

It just works, letting you quickly alter the exposure level with a quick flick of a thumb. The preview is generally accurate too, although it doesn’t show the results of any HDR processing pre-shot.

The camera upgrade also enables 1080p video recording, something not previously included. It uses software stabilisation, allows HDR during video and comes with a 720p slo-mo mode. It’s the full package.

Competition

Moto G (2014)

Moto G (2014)

As well as toning down the front-on design, the new Moto G makes a handful of fairly meaningful improvements. First, we get the more recent Snapdragon 410 CPU instead of the old 400 one.

Water resistance is in this year too.

The best bit, though, is the camera. The second Moto G’s was fairly good, but the new one is a whole league ahead. 2014 Moto Gs suffered from substantial lag, which doesn’t seem to affect the new models, particularly the 2GB RAM one.

LG G4c

LG G4c

It’s the baby version of the LG G4. Except it’s nowhere near as powerful.

The LG G4c has specs very similar to the lower-end Moto G, but with current software it suffers from very annoying interface lag throughout. It’s a bit of a pain to use.

Battery life is good, but that doesn’t really make up for the lag. If LG sorts out the phone’s performance, it could be a contender, but I don’t see it trumping the Moto G.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

Xperia M4 Aqua

The other low-cost waterproof phone. Its waterproofing is good, and its design is slimmer and perhaps a bit slicker than the Moto G.

Its processor is more powerful too, with eight cores instead of four, and battery life is pretty good. However, the camera is a lot weaker. The specs sound the same, but actual camera performance is far weaker in the Sony.

General performance is also slightly better in the 2GB RAM Moto G, despite the lesser CPU. However, the Sony outperforms the 1GB version. Be careful about which version of M4 Aqua you end up with: most in the UK have only 8GB storage.

OnePlus X

OnePlus X

OnePlus isn’t just making flagships anymore, with the OnePlus X presenting a very tempting alternative to Motorola’s budget blower.

It’s only a little more expensive than the Moto G, yet it’s more powerful, has a higher resolution 1080p screen and a stylish, almost flagship design.

Yet despite the beefier specs the performance is oddly lacking and with an invite system in place it’s trickier than we’d like to get hold of. The OnePlus X also lacks the Moto G’s waterproofing, so it’s not the clear cut winner, but it looks and feels like a more premium phone.

Camera samples

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Moto G review

Verdict

The 2015 Moto G takes a slightly different approach to its predecessors, despite its initial similarities. Motorola is slowly taking the focus away from sheer value by offering more customisation and a camera that’s unusually good at the price.

As the phone is a little heavy and chunky compared with some rivals, this may make it a bit of a tough sell. However, the more expensive version in particular is a pure joy to use, featuring none of the performance/camera/software issues seen in most of the rivals from LG, HTC and Sony.

Moto G review

There are carrier-branded and lesser-brand phones at this level also worth checking out, like the Honor 6. But the Moto G remains an obvious recommendation.

We liked

I’ve been full-on charmed by the Moto G camera. It simply outdoes the similarly-specced affordable phone cameras at the price, with far more consistent performance and better image quality.

The water resistance is almost as well-implemented as I could have hoped. While you need to make sure the seals are in place, most people will never need to take the backplate off. You can pretty much forget the water resistance is there, as the charge and headphone ports are water resistant by themselves.

I love the Moto G approach to software too. The vanilla Android Lollipop design plus a few Moto upgrades is a good combo, providing a very clean experience. Performance is near-flawless in the 2GB RAM version, and very good in the 1GB.

We disliked

I miss the days when we could talk about the Moto G like the bargain of the century. Those days are gone. While this phone is still among the very best, most companies offer similar specs within a similar price range.

I wish Motorola had stayed a bit more aggressive with the specs of the screen. A 1080p Moto G at the price of the 2GB RAM version would have been as aggressive as the original Moto G from 2013.

Moto G review

I would really have liked a bit more improvement in the speakers too. Despite appearances, the Moto G doesn’t have stereo speakers, and while sound quality has improved, more finesse and warmth in the sound would have been nice.

Verdict

The Moto G carries the series’ torch in style. It has shed the ultra-bargain style that used to be the main attraction, but hitting the mark in every category makes it superior to virtually all rivals.

First reviewed August 2015

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