The little phone that reaches past its price point
I've been excited to have a look at the Moto E since its announcement in the middle of May. At $129 US, the Moto E is about the same price as dinner and a movie, and the buzz about how well it performs in the entry-level smartphone domain put it at the top of my wishlist. I've had a little time with it, and have to say I'm not disappointed in the least.
Motorola is no stranger to budget-priced smartphones that perform well. I carry a Moto G (sadly, the generation one version with no LTE) as my backup should I do anything silly to the phone I'm using daily, and I chose it because it was cheap and would do just about anything I wanted a smartphone to do. After years of low-priced models that failed to deliver, Motorola found their niche. Now they have expanded it with an even lower priced model in the Moto E. Let's have a quick look at how it fares in daily use.
The Moto E looks very much like it's big brothers the Moto G and the Moto X — two phones I'm very familiar with. You've the same friendly rounded design with a scalloped top on the back, the same rounded corners and camera trim ring, and even the buttons and ports are in the same spot. The back is a removable plastic shell, and like the Moto G there are replacement covers in an assortment of colors. It's slightly smaller — especially compared to the Moto X — but aside from a few small cosmetic differences, the design language follows through the whole family. Ask anyone using a Moto X or one of the Droid variants on Verizon and they'll tell you that this is a good thing. It fits well in your hand, feels solid, and while not made of any fancy materials like wood or aluminum, it's very well built. Better built than the $129 price tag suggests.
The screen resolution takes a bit of getting used to
Internally, you have a dual-core Snapdragon 200 (compared to the Moto G's Snapdragon 400 and the Moto X's Krait-inspired X8 design) and 1GB of RAM. The storage is quite low, checking in at only 4GB, but the addition of an SD card will allow you to hold 32GB more media or documents. The camera is a 5MP model and not a standout, but Motorola's auto-HDR function helps a good bit if you want to snap some pictures. The display is slightly smaller than the Moto G at 4.3-inches and has a 256 ppi 960 x 540 resolution. Finally, the 1980mAh battery rounds out the unapologetic low-end specifications.
But don't let those specs fool you.
Unless you're loading up a graphic-intensive game (I tested using Badland by Frogmind) you'll not notice any severe slowdown or lagginess. I fully expected to be able to grind things to a halt by having a bunch of apps open, but it just didn't happen. the choppiness and ultra-low framerates we are used to seeing on budget models isn't there. Is the Moto E slower when under pressure than something like the HTC M8 or even the Moto X? Yes, it is. But it's not dreadful nor will it make you want to stop using it for all the things you're using it for. I came away impressed.
I came away impressed with the performance
The screen takes a bit of getting used to, as I haven't used a qHD device in quite a while. I notice it when reading black text on a white page, and wouldn't want to use the Moto E for my daily eBook reader. For things like casual gaming or general web surfing, it's just fine. For viewing images or video, you'll see how high ppi displays have spoiled you quickly. A budget screen is part of the budget price, but Motorola did fairly well picking out a bright and clear one. At $129, I've no real complaints.
The battery life isn't quite "all day" as advertised, but it's not horrible considering the small size. My personal battery test is the He Man Heyyeayea song for 10 hours video played through the YouTube app, and the Moto E lasted just about 6.5 hours with auto-brightness enabled. Compare this to the Moto G, which lasts a little more than 8 hours. Certainly this isn't the most scientific test (it is the most fun, though) but it should give you a general idea of battery life. And 6.5 hours of He Man is enough for anyone. Almost. Your battery life will vary based on your network and all the things you have going on in the background, of course.
Phone calls sounded OK and were clear enough to carry a good conversation, but didn't stand out like some other phones do. Bluetooth — both through a headset and a Jambox — was fine, with a range of about 20 - 30 feet as expected. Like the battery and the camera and everything else, it's not the best I've ever used but it also isn't the worst. It's certainly better than I thought a $129 phone would be.
I'm not one who needs a lot of internal storage, but the E is just barely enough for me
One weird thing worth mentioning, and this goes for some Moto G units as well, is that you should never let the battery go completely dead. If you do, the included charger won't be enough to bring you back. If you do drain the battery completely (listening to He Man or any other way) you'll need to find a 1 Amp or higher charger and USB cable to bring it back. It's a pity that Motorola didn't include a large enough power supply to revive the Moto E, but the bundled all-in-one wall charger isn't enough to kick-start things.
The software is very much like the Moto G, shipping with Android 4.4.2 KitKat and quickly updating to 4.4.3 just for fun. It's basically "stock" Android, with a few goodies like Moto Alert, Moto Migrate, and a slightly hampered version of Moto Assist (no car mode or home mode) included. You'll definitely be heading to Google Play to add a few apps like I did, and once the E was all set up and syncing 30 days of Gmail I had about 1.5GB of internal storage left. Keep that in mind should you be considering the Moto E, because that's not enough for folks who like to game or need a bunch of apps from Google Play. I'm not one who needs a lot of internal storage, but the E is just barely enough for me.
The software experience is where the Moto E shines, though. You'll swipe through home screens and the app drawer with nary a stutter, and the whole thing feels very fine-tuned to the hardware. Just trying a Moto E for a few minutes is enough to make you wonder why phones with twice the hardware inside can't manage to be as fluid as the E is when you're doing things like opening your messaging app or the dialer. Motorola deserves a bit of praise for the way the E feels and acts given it's decidedly low-budget internals.
The bottom line
I wouldn't recommend it over the Moto G
If you're trying to decide between something the LG G3 or the Samsung Galaxy S5, a phone like the Moto E won't be on your radar. It shouldn't be, as it's not in the same class of device as the 2014 powerhouses are and will be. But if you want the very best phone you can buy while spending the least amount of money for it, the Moto E fits the bill. Quite frankly, it's the best bottom-tier (and I hate using that phrase) phone from any manufacturer, and is better than most vendors give you at $100 more. It sets a mark that the folks at LG and Samsung and HTC and the rest need to strive for.
But I wouldn't recommend it over the Moto G.
At $179 ($219 if you want the LTE version) for the Moto G you're getting the one thing that Motorola can't fix with an update — more internal storage. You also get a better screen and better battery life. Unless you absolutely can't spend the extra $50 — and we know times are tough — you should probably step up to the Moto G.
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