It's been one hell of a year for the smartphone industry, and 2012 produced some of the biggest and most unique innovations to date. More important than the increase in pixel density or the additional processing cores, though, is the progress we've seen in the quality of non-flagship devices. Prior to 2012, shopping for a smartphone on a budget meant you were going to have to make some serious sacrifices in terms of both hardware and software, and if you were a customer of a small or regional carrier, you may as well just buy a Tracfone. All that has changed, though, and today we're seeing increasingly impressive internals and designs hitting the entry and mid-level market.
Motorola deserves a lot of recognition for this, as it single-handedly changed the way I thought of non-flagship devices with its recent Droid RAZR M. The RAZR M blew me away in terms of how well it performed and how stunning it looked for the price-- this was as a mid-level device with specs that could have easily landed it in top-shelf territory on any other carrier. Thankfully, Motorola thought the same, and brought a nearly identical and equally impressive package, the Electrify M, to US Cellular's increasingly impressive lineup.
At $150 on contract, the Electrify M offers mega bang for your buck in terms of both performance and style. Its Snapdragon processor can chomp through just about anything you throw at it, and the 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Advanced display with Motorola's edge-to-edge design is surprisingly phenomenal.
Like other Motorola devices, the Electrify M comes equipped with subpar cameras that fail to produce competitive images. The Electrify M's body is plasticky and lacks the flair that makes its close cousin, the RAZR M, so eye-popping. Ice Cream Sandwich still lingers here while many other Moto devices are beginning to receive Jelly Bean updates.
Inside this review
The Electrify M is a product of both the best and worst sides of Motorola, merging the power and sophistication of a RAZR device with the undeniably mid-level feel of the Electrify line. Design-wise, Motorola falls short of what it did with the RAZR M on Verizon in the sense that it has created nearly an identical product, but has failed to give it a finish that screams “wow.” Think of the Electrify M as a RAZR M that didn’t stick around for that last coat of paint and primer: whereas the RAZR M’s industrial, sturdy body flaunted chrome accents and Kevlar coating, the Electrify M is encased in a cheap silver plastic. It’s just a hair thicker than its Verizon brother at .34 inches, and feels just a bit flimsier at 3.92 ounces, compared to the RAZR M’s 4.44 ounces.
But the plastic shell is where the differences end. Aside from the body, both devices are essentially identical, down to the SIM card and microSD slot door on the left side and the power button and volume rocker on the right. Both feature a non-removable 2,000 mAh battery and 8MP camera around back, along with a 1.3 MP camera around front. The Electrify M is coated in a water-repellant finish, which Motorola says will ward off drips, splashes, and spills.
Most important, the Electrify M shares that gorgeous 4.3-inch display we first met on the RAZR M. It’s a Super AMOLED Advanced panel boasting a qHD 960 x 540 resolution with 256 ppi and a Gorilla Glass coat. Motorola has managed to squeeze excellent performance out of this display, as we've seen on the RAZR M, with rich and vibrant colors and top-notch viewing angles. At 4.3 inches, the resolution is enough to create just about the best qHD display you’ll ever lay eyes on.
Unlike other OEM's 4.3-inch displays, the Electrify M’s takes up a huge portion of the device’s face, thanks to Motorola’s newfound focus on reducing bezel sizes. It's just a hair short of true edge-to-edge, similar to the RAZR M, but it’s well executed nonetheless, and Motorola has managed to pack a whopper of a display in a highly-pocketable, small hand-friendly footprint. At 4.85 inches tall and 2.42 inches wide, you’re getting a 4.3-inch display on a 3.5-inch body.
Many of the RAZR M’s internals have carried over to the Electrify M, including the 1.5 GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM 8960 Processor, Adreno 225 graphics processor, and full gig of RAM. Both devices ship with 8 GB of internal storage, with support for up to 32GB of microSD expansion. The 2,000 mAh battery has also carried over, and still manages to squeeze out around 16 hours of moderate usage. Just like the RAZR M, I comfortably breezed through my workday, and only had to plug in before bedtime on the rare occasion that I decided to throw some serious abuse at this device.
These internals produce lightening fast performance, helped no doubt by the Electrify M's relatively low pixel count. This thing flies, and not just in terms of budget-friendly devices: operation is fluid and fast, and a mainly bloat-free version of Ice Cream Sandwich has an opportunity to shine here in terms of agility and speed. I was pleasantly surprised at the RAZR M’s performance, and even called it one of the best performing Android devices on the market today. I’m just as surprised here-- Motorola got this combination of ingredients right, and I have yet to throw anything at the Electrify M that it couldn’t handle with ease.
Another spec that helps speed along the Electrify M is its LTE radio, capable of connecting to US Cellular's relatively new LTE service. Unfortunately, despite the progress made in increasing coverage, I was unable to test LTE speeds, as the service has yet to hit New York City. I had access to US Cellular's 3G network, which is among the slowest 3G services in the city. It's hard to fault the carrier for this, though, as NYC is admittedly not one of US Cellular's "focus" markets.
One of the things I loved most about Motorola’s latest batch of RAZRs is the nearly-vanilla Android experience, and I’m thrilled to see it land on the rest of the manufacturer’s lineup. A year ago, the Electrify M would have launched with the ugly and bloated MotoBlur; today, it sports the limber and purist-friendly Ice Cream Sandwich we met on the RAZR HD and RAZR M. Aside from a few menu enhancements, “Quick Settings” to the left of your home screen, and some Moto and US Cellular-specific apps, this is as close as you’ll get to pure Android without a Nexus. And with any luck, Motorola will deliver on its promise, just as it did with the RAZRs, and bring the Electrify M some Jelly Bean goodness within the foreseeable future.
Among the very few bloatware apps that come preinstalled on the Electrify M, you’ll find Motorola’s hallmark “Smart Actions”, an amazing tool that might just ruin you for other Android devices forever. I can go on for days and days about how useful Smart Actions is-- you can automate little things like screen brightness or notification volume, or big things like wifi connectivity and data connections-- but for the sake of being concise, I’ll leave it at this: give it a few minutes of your time, and it will change the way you use your device.
US Cellular has also thrown in some of its signature apps, including the dreadful and obtrusive "Daily Perks". This little bit of bloatware is a one stop shop for news, weather, and other daily interests. Sounds fun and all until you receive the first popup-- unlock your phone, and you'll be faced with a movie trailer, a daily deal, or a news story that you can choose to consume or dismiss. US Cellular is one of the only carriers to dabble in smartphone popups, and thankfully so, as the windows are unbearably intrusive. Luckily, Daily Perks can be disabled through the Apps menu, though you'll have to re-disable every time you restart your phone.
The only other bloatware worth mentioning is US Cellular's Mobile TV service. For $10/month you'll get access to live channels including NBC Sports, Fox News, and the Disney Channel, as well as On-Demand channels such as CBS, ABC, and Bravo. For TV junkies the the service itself is well worth the monthly fee; however, you'll want to be on Wifi or LTE, as using the service on US Cellular's 3G service is an exercise in futility.
Motorola's optics have always been the lowpoint in its hardware, and the Electrify M's 8MP camera is no different. Performance here isn't a dealbreaker, but you're just not going to find anything that can compete with what has been coming out of Apple, Samsung, and HTC's kitchens. Photos are a bit grainy and underprocessed, and colors seem to be a bit washed out and bland. In less than ideal lighting, is it nearly impossible to snag an impressive shot.
The Electrify M's camera interface, however, is quite nice, and nearly identical to what you'll find on stock Android. Launching the camera is zippy and focusing is nearly instant. There are a few tools here to improve your shots, HDR being one of the more useful ones, but largely, you'll want to carry a real camera to those special events where the perfect shot is a must.
The Electrify M's 1080p camcorder has a few tricks up its sleeve as well, including modes for slow motion and MMS optimization, visual filters, and "audio scenes" for stereo, wind-proof, and concert quality sound. Again, quality isn't going to blow you away here, but the added features, especially the sound filters, do come in handy.
The only thing I love more than Motorola’s attention to detail, its lean UI, and its top-notch hardware is its decision to share these attributes with its entire lineup and not just its flagship devices. Case in point: the Electrify M, a device which could have easily been an afterthought in the hands of any other manufacturer. But to Motorola, even a non-hero device on a semi-regional carrier is worthy of a quality processor, boundary-pushing edge-to-edge design, and drop-dead gorgeous display. As I said, it lacks that last coat of paint that made the RAZR M so eye-popping and impressive, but nevertheless the Electrify M does the "M" moniker justice.
The Electrify M faces some stiff competition in US Cellular’s portfolio, including the flagship Note 2 and Galaxy S 3, as well as entry and mid-level devices like the HTC One V and the Samsung Axiom. Despite the crowded field, the Electrify M easily earns a recommendation whatever your budget may be. Simply put, when a mid-level smartphone can keep up with the top-of-the-line flagships, you know it’s a phenomenal device.