The ultimate low-cost Android phone showdown is here!
How much difference does $200 make in the smartphone market? What about $100? At some point, these figures become both fundamental and meaningless to a person's buying decision, especially when tacked on to phones categorized "mid-range" or "entry-level".
It is with this lens that I approached a comparison I was initially reticent to do: the OnePlus 3 and the Moto G4 Plus. Why would it be necessary, given the $150 difference between mainstream models? And what is gained by trying to push some sort of narrative from two devices aimed at increasingly diverging markets?
A lot, in fact. Because, like the OnePlus 3, the Moto G4 Plus is a great phone at $199, $299, and $399. But coming in at the lower end of that spectrum means that it will inevitably come into the purview of those who are "just buying a phone," which not only expands its potential audience but challenges its place in the enthusiast market — where OnePlus sits comfortably.
How do these two devices compare? And would there ever be a world where we'd suggest the Moto G4 Plus over the OnePlus 3 (tl;dr: no, but almost)? Let's take a look.
Before we get started, a quick note on options. Unlike the OnePlus 3, which graciously is offered in only one 6GB RAM/64GB storage/$399 option, the Moto G4 Plus has two:
- a 2GB RAM/16GB storage/$249 option
- a 4GB RAM/64GB storage/$299 option
But things get complicated when you consider the model I'm using, which is neither of those, but a Canadian-specific 2GB RAM/32GB storage/$400 CAD option. Here's how we can hedge: all Moto G4 Plus models use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor, and while I am confident an extra 2GB of RAM would offer some performance legroom, I am also sure, based on my extensive experience with Android in general and Motorola devices in particular, that the processor is largely the bottleneck here.
Anyway, let's talk hardware, because other than the processor this is where the bulk of the differences are. The OnePlus 3 is beautiful, crafted with a single piece of aluminum in a way that belies it's true price. There are chamfers on the back edges and nicely-calibrated buttons on the sides. It feels robust, significant, but not heavy.
The Moto G4 Plus is, while better than its predecessors in most ways, very plasticky. Its buttons rattle in their sockets, and it's very clear from the moment it is picked up that the sides are plastic. A removable back cover, also plastic, smudges easily, though after many a removable and reapplication it re-adheres with a nice snap.
The two devices are roughly the same height, though the OnePlus 3 appears considerably wider due to its less rounded corners. But the more expensive device is also thinner, lacking the roundness of the Moto G4 Plus's back. That they both have 3,000mAh batteries is interesting, because, as you'll see later they perform quite differently.
Another similarity is the size and resolution of the two devices' screens: 5.5-inches at 1080p, making for a pixel density of 401ppi. Now that OnePlus has resolved the controversy around the OnePlus 3's Optical AMOLED screen, releasing an over-the-air update to address the inaccurate and unnaturally wide color gamut, we can use the new SRGB mode to compare to other devices. But be careful what you wish for: the new setting mutes the display's vibrancy and, to my eyes, isn't nearly as pleasant as the default.
The Moto G4 Plus is, while better than its predecessors in most ways, very plasticky.
Comparing the two devices' screens side by side, as impressed as I was by the OnePlus 3, I was even more struck by the bright, vivid and responsive panel on the Moto G4 Plus. For a device that starts at $249 ($199, in fact, for the regular Moto G4, which has the same screen), it's one of the better displays I've interacted with.
Both phones also have fingerprint sensors below their displays, but the OnePlus 3's is far better: wider, faster and considerably more accurate. Don't let that impugn the G4's too much, though: while small, and slower, it still gets the job done, despite its awkward square shape.
Around back, the both phones have centered 16MP rear camera sensors, jutting slightly from their respective casings. And while we'll see later on that both cameras are more than capable (though one is clearly better), I far prefer the OnePlus 3's design, its over-sized square module fitting better with the phone's overall aesthetic than the G4's oblong protrusion.
One area of differentiation is the OnePlus 3's mute toggle, which my colleague Andrew Martonik loves, and I, frankly, do not. As I said in my previous comparison, I just don't see the point when, for years, a combination of volume buttons and intuitive software have done a fine job.
Software and performance
In software, the phones are remarkably similar, with each taking Google's stock version of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow and augmenting it ever so slightly.
On the Motorola side, we get what is still the G series' pièce de résistance, Moto Display. While most phones have some sort of ambient display feature built in these days, the G4's is actually useful, pulsing notifications that can be activated or dismissed without unlocking the phone. Motorola has refined Moto Display to near-perfection, and to this day it's one of my favorite smartphone features, period.
The phones' differences aren't as stark as they would appear on paper.
Unfortunately, Motorola didn't see fit to retain its Moto Voice feature for the G line this year, remanding it relative obscurity in the more expensive (and likely far less popular) Moto Z. Ultimately, though, it's not a huge loss considering the Google Now launcher supports "OK Google" hot-word support from any screen, but Moto Voice was/is a bit more robust and customizable. Thankfully, Moto Actions — double-chopping to turn on the camera, double wrist-flicking to open the camera — is in good shape, and works like a charm.
More importantly, the Moto G4 Plus performs beautifully for a phone under $300, and rarely feels bottlenecked — even on my 2GB RAM model — by the Snapdragon 617 processor. There were times I yearned for the camera app to open more quickly, or the shutter to engage a beat earlier, but those moments did not dampen my enjoyment.
The software on the OnePlus 3 has a bit more flair to it, with a number of gestures, shortcuts and display settings built in, but none of them are essential to enjoying the phone. What the company has been able to do with OxygenOS, especially after its false start on the OnePlus One and early bugginess on the OnePlus 2, is remarkable. Being able to use either the capacitive navigation buttons (which can themselves swap places with a toggle) or virtual makes for an ideal compromise, and OnePlus's gesture-friendly launcher is outstanding.
Obviously, when it comes to performance, the OnePlus 3 trounces the Moto G4 Plus. With the fastest processor on the market today and between 2GB and 4GB of extra RAM over the G4, there's just no competition. Games are buttery smooth; apps load considerably faster; keyboard lag is non-existent; and the camera never wavers.
But those differences aren't as stark as they would appear on paper. As fast as the OnePlus 3 is, the Moto G4 Plus never feels sluggish, even when tested with the most onerous multitasking tests. It's for this reason I believe it to be one of the better smartphone deals around.
Unfortunately, the Moto G4 Plus fails to compete with the OnePlus 3 in one more key area: battery life. Despite both phones having 3,000mAh batteries, the Moto fell behind the OnePlus 3 by at least two hours every day. Whereas I never worried about the latter going dead before bedtime, I often had to recharge the Moto G4 Plus during the day to keep it chugging. Like the OnePlus 3, it does boast fast charging — a variant of Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0 — which is certainly useful.
The cameras on these two devices are a lot closer than they have any business being.
While the OnePlus 3 has an optically stabilized 16MP sensor that excels in low-light situations, they are fairly evenly matched in daylight scenarios. In fact, the OnePlus 3 adds far more sharpening to its well-lit photos that, while resolving smaller details better, distract from the overall fidelity of the photos.
The Moto G4 Plus captures slightly cooler colors with its 16MP sensor, but does not inject its shots with much post-processing, resulting in softer, more neutral photos. It's an effect I prefer.
In low light, the OnePlus 3 does pull ahead, but not by much — the Moto G4 Plus holds its own, again impressing for such an inexpensive product. But whereas the Moto G4 Plus is limited to video capture at 1080p / 30fps, the OnePlus 3's Snapdragon 820 chip enables 4K capture at the same frame rate.
Their camera apps, simple as they are, expose some major differences in strategy. The OnePlus 3 has a powerful manual mode that allows for granular tweaking of ISO, shutter speed, exposure, and even focus; the Moto G4 Plus goes as far as adding a timer and HDR toggle, but not much else.
Speaking of HDR, the OnePlus 3's implementation is far more subtle than Motorola's, as seen in the shot below. While the company has come a long way to improving the performance of its camera app, in particular its HDR setting, don't expect shots that look overly-processed or vibrant. Whether that's a good thing will be a matter of taste, since the Moto G4 Plus swings almost completely in the other direction.
Like most aspects of these two devices, I prefer the OnePlus 3's overall experience, but the Moto G4 Plus, especially in daylight, manages to capture some unbelievably good photos that are impressive, period — not just at its price point.
Both of these phones represent the best of their respective price points, with the OnePlus 3 justifying its higher cost with a better design, stunning build quality, excellent performance, and great camera.
The Moto G4 Plus, though, manages to keep pace for most of the race, and does so between $100 and $150 less than its OnePlus counterpart. That both phones are available primarily online and unlocked in the U.S. also means they lack bloatware and other carrier-induced issues, and they are updated directly from their manufacturers.
Ultimately, what these phones prove is that the high-end Android market is no longer secure in its high-margin, $699 ivory tower, and companies like Samsung, HTC, LG and others are going to have to do a lot more to continue justifying those prices going forward.
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