Motorola Moto G review: first look

13 Nov 2013

The popularity of the Google Nexus range and Nokia's low-cost Lumias is proving that there's a great appetite for more affordable, yet high-quality smartphones, and that's something Motorola is hoping to tap into with its new Moto G.

Launched today in Brazil, the 8GB version of the Moto G will be available in the UK for a dirt cheap £135 SIM-free, and yet it isn't short on features.

The headline is the screen, which at 720 x 1,280 is beyond anything we've seen from a Nokia Windows Phone at this sort of price, and stretched across 4.5in gives a pixel density of 329ppi – that's around the same as the iPhone 5s. It's an IPS unit, and our first impression of its quality is highly positive. It's bright, boasting colours that leap from the screen with more verve than you've any right to expect on a phone this cheap.

It's a good start, and the Moto G has a string of other surprises up its sleeves, too. Topping that display, for instance, is a layer of tough, scratch- and shatter-resistant Gorilla Glass. All the components – as has become customary with Motorola smartphones in the past year or so – are nano-coated and so should resist a drenching without the phone going pop. There's a 5-megapixel camera on the rear, equipped with a single LED flash so you can take sharp snaps down the pub.

The design of the Moto G is pleasant enough, too, without screaming high end. The rear panel is gently curved and sports a matte finish, therefore sitting comfortably in the hand and offering plenty of grip. That rear panel can be removed pretty easily and replaced with a selection of coloured alternatives, similar to Nokia's replaceable backs, except Motorola also adds Flip and Grip "shells" to the range. The former integrates a cover that flips over to protect the screen, and the latter has rubberised edges, designed to add a modicum of ruggedness. There's no user-replaceable battery, though, and no microSD slot for expanding the storage.

Performance appears to be a bit of a mixed bag. Motorola says it's worked hard at tweaking the Moto G so basic tasks take less time and the battery lasts longer, and while we can't pass comment on its stamina just yet, it certainly feels slick in and around the OS, with Android's menus and various settings screens whizzing by, and apps leaping into life with impressive speed. It doesn't feel like most budget Android smartphones, and on paper the phone's CPU looks impressive: it's a quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400.

However, this processor is a long way behind the fastest on the market, such as the Snapdragon 800 found in the superb Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3. When scrolling and zooming around in complex web pages, it felt a little laggy, and this was backed up by the results of the two quick benchmarks we were able to carry out on it. A SunSpider score of 1,442ms is well below average these days, and a score of 11fps in the demanding GFXBench 2.7 T-Rex HD test proves it's a long way off when it comes to gaming ability, too.

As for software, it's better news, with Motorola adding very little of its own tweaks to the base Android 4.3 OS. The most extensive alterations are to the camera app: Motorola has removed the shutter button, leaving a minimalist front-end that requires a swipe from the left to access settings, a swipe from the right to access the gallery, and a swipe up and down to zoom in and out.

Preloaded apps include Motorola Migrate, which helps you transfer content from your old Android phone, and Assist, an app whose sole task is, it seems, to put the phone into silent mode while you're sleeping and do the same while you're in a meeting, based on information drawn from Google Calendar.

More usefully, Motorola is also guaranteeing Moto G owners an upgrade to Android KitKat 4.4 by January 2014, so you're not going to be left in the lurch while those with posher smartphones surge past you, and there's an extra 50GB of Google Drive storage (valid for two years), in addition to the 15GB Google gives away as standard.

This isn't a phone to set the world on fire, but we do like the direction Motorola is taking with the Moto G. For the money, it offers an awful lot of hardware – especially that lovely display and the waterproofing. In addition, the design is appealing and software is mercifully clean. It looks as if Android finally has something to rival Nokia's excellent Windows Phone-based budget Lumias – and we think the company is going to sell a boat load.

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