You can save $50 on a budget-priced Android phone if you're willing to put up with ads on the lock screen and a bit of app drawer clutter. But is it worth it?

Amazon is no stranger to Android. With a fairly popular line of tablets in the Kindle Fire series, a pretty nice set-top box and their own Fire Phone that wasn't very well received, they know more than a little bit about getting a product running our favorite operating system out the door. And they are pretty MLGPro when it comes to writing software — they even have their own Android app store.

Amazon also knows how to grab the attention of millions of people and get them to buy stuff. Whether it's the stuff we were looking for or impulse purchases we'll never use, Amazon is pretty good at making us want it.

Enter the Amazon Prime version of the Moto G4 and the BLU R1 HD. Both phones started as budget models, and Amazon has made them ever more "budgety" by shaving $50 off the price of each in return for your eyes seeing their apps and ads on your lock screen. Is the $50 worth it, or should you buy the regular version if you're interested in either of these phones?

I've been fiddling with them both and am about to tell you what I think.

What you get

Amazon Prime phones

The Moto G4 and the BLU R1 HD aren't going to compete with something like the Samsung Galaxy S7 or the HTC 10. They weren't designed to fight for a spot on the top shelf where the high-end phones you see in commercials live. Instead, you get a phone that does just about everything you could ask it to do without parting with 600 or so dollars.

Quick specs

Category Moto G4 BLU R1 HD
Display 5.5-inch Full HD display 5-inch 720p display
SoC 1.5GHz Snapdragon 617 1.3GHz Mediatek MT6735
Memory 2GB RAM/16GB storage
microSD slot
1GB RAM/8GB storage
2GB RAM/16GB storage
microSD slot
Battery 3000mAh 2500mAh
Colors Black Black

The changes Amazon has made to these are all superficial and software-based. The hardware is the same as the more expensive versions without Amazon apps pre-installed and ads on the lock screen. Exactly the same. You even get the same manufacturer warranty. If you were hoping for some sort of Bezos magic or Washington Post headlines engraved on the back, you're out of luck. This is a really good thing.

Lenovo/Moto and BLU are companies who make electronic gadgets like smartphones — that's what they do. Amazon is in the business of selling them to as many people as possible. While I'm going to guess that Amazon doesn't care which phone you buy as long as you buy it from them, they realized that a $50 incentive means more people will buy a phone from them. And all the folks who were attracted by the price and ended up buying get to see the things that Amazon has for sale with targeted ads. That's a pretty good deal for Amazon — you can hardly put a value on a captive audience.

What you don't get

Amazon software channel

Neither the Moto G4 or BLU R1 HD offered as a Prime Exclusive come with any service or a SIM card. That means you can't walk into the AT&T store (or whichever carrier you use) and expect them to help you. It also means there is no contract to sign and no monthly obligation — feel free to switch carriers or stop service whenever you please. You are buying the phone itself, and it's yours to do whatever you want to do with it.

You don't get to be on the same software "channel" as the normal retail unlocked models. When BLU or Lenovo send out an update — whether it's an OS update or a security patch — you will have to wait for Amazon to give the OK after they make sure they don't need to make any other changes. Having said that, the Moto G4 had an update waiting when I took it out of the box and the BLU R1 has received an update as well during the couple of weeks I've had it. This also means that the Moto G4 Amazon edition isn't eligible for Motorola's bootloader unlocking program, though it was for the first week before anyone noticed. That's been "fixed."

And of course, you don't get to opt-out of target Amazon ads on your lock screen or get to remove the pre-installed Amazon apps.

The Amazon stuff

Lock screen ads

We've established that you're getting a decent little phone on the cheap, made even cheaper because Amazon will trade you $50 for your attention. But what exactly are they doing?

We'll start with the lock screen because it's the thing you'll be seeing plenty of times every day. That makes it a perfect place to put ads if you want people to see your ads. And Amazon wants you to see their ads. As you can see in the picture above, the entire background of your lock screen is an ad, and there is a button or link you can tap to go spend your money on the thing or place being advertised. That link or button doesn't seem to be in a spot where you'll accidentally tap on it, but I'm sure that will happen. If it does, I don't think it's intentional. When you unlock your phone and get past the lock screen, the ads are gone. There is nothing in your status bar, no pop-ups or any other horrible thing.

Amazon knows what you'll buy and they will show it to you on your lock screen. Sneaky, yet effective.

The ads themselves are targeted towards you. You'll see items you've looked at on Amazon, items related to them and items Amazon thinks you'll want to see based on your history. And Amazon doesn't need you to buy one of these phones to track what you look at and where you go on the internet so that conspiracy theory can be put to bed. Amazon is a master of consumer profiling. Most times, the ads are for the same types of products as the emails you'll get from time to time as a Prime member, or for the same products you'll see in an Amazon shopping widget on your favorite website. Amazon knows everything.

If looking at targeted ads is a problem, you can use either phone without signing into Amazon — there is an entry in the settings for your Amazon account — and see generic ads. So far, nobody has seen any evidence that Amazon is doing anything nefarious or watching your every move when you use a Prime Exclusive phone.

amazon apps

And then there is bloatware. We all hate bloatware, even when the apps are ones we would be likely to download and install anyway. Besides the Amazon Underground (such an edgy name) app store and video player, the following apps are pre-installed and can't be removed:

  • Amazon Kindle
  • A special Amazon Prime Video player app
  • Amazon Music
  • Amazon Photos
  • Audible
  • Amazon Drive
  • Prime Now
  • Alexa
  • IMDb
  • Goodreads

And of course, any apps the manufacturer has installed as well as the ones Google forces on us.

I'm torn on this. I would download and install five of those apps if I were to use either of these phones and having a dedicated Amazon Video app (like iOS but mysteriously missing from Google Play) is pretty nice. On the other hand, I don't need (or want) an Amazon Echo so the Alexa app is useless to me, and I hate hearing Susan Sarandon or anyone else reading aloud to me so forget Audible. If you're an Amazon user — and you need to have an Amazon Prime subscription to buy either of these phones — you'll probably have a similar list of apps you like and apps you don't.

In the end, this is no different than what Verizon or Sprint or any other carrier does, or even what companies like Samsung and HTC do when they partner with other companies. Most of the Amazon apps can be disabled, so you can stop looking at them and forget they are there then move on. Or you could hit Google and look for a method that does eXactly what is neeDed to remove the Apps and lock screen ads.

Enough! Should I buy one of these phones?

Amazon Prime Moto G4

That depends on whether or not you're looking for a cheap and reliable phone. As mentioned above, these aren't a replacement or substitute for a Note 5 or Nexus 6P. They will run all the apps and things you want them to do, but they aren't known for their barn-burning performance. They are a decent communications device that can play some light games or help manage your calendar. They aren't a miniature computer and won't ever run Crysis.

And then there's the Amazon Prime factor. You can't buy one without a Prime membership, but your friend could buy one for you — you don't need to log into anything Amazon to use them. If you're not an Amazon regular, you'll find little use for any of the pre-installed apps and be unable to buy that Nivea skin lotion that you keep seeing on your lock screen. If you do use Amazon services, you'll probably find some of the stuff — and some of the ads — useful. I certainly did, and besides using some of the bundled apps I've bought a couple things I saw on my lock screen. Things I probably wouldn't have bought otherwise or even thought about looking for. Amazon probably loves that idea and it's why they are there in the first place.

If you use Amazon services, you'll not be too bothered with the bloatware.

What about your carrier network? Both phones are designed to work only on cellular networks in the United States, including resellers like Simple Mobile. The Moto G4 will work on Verizon (I did it with a friends SIM card and everything worked) but folks are saying that activating a new line is a mixed bag because the IMEI number isn't in Verizon's database. I was unable to try and get Sprint working on either phone, but Amazon and Motorola both say the G4 is compatible and will work — chances are you drop in a SIM card and it just works. The BLU R1 HD is a dual-SIM GSM only device and isn't compatible with Verizon or Sprint.

Finally, and most importantly to many, is the price. The Prime exclusive Moto G4 will run $150 for the 16GB version and $180 for the 32GB version. The BLU R1 HD checks in at $50 for the 8GB (1GB RAM) version and $60 for the 16GB (2GB RAM) version. That's not a typo, and it's not special time-sensitive pricing. That's what they cost.

If I didn't work here and have (literally) dozens of working Android phones, I'd buy one. I'd probably buy the 8GB BLU R1. It's only $50 and when I break something, I have a decent backup in the drawer. Also, if I were looking for a cheap mid-range phone for daily use, I'd definitely pick up the Moto G4. I'm OK with the ads on the lock screen and use half of the apps provided, and like it love it when I can save $50. Either phone is a really good deal for the money as long as you don't expect too much from the hardware or think you'll be getting monthly security patches.

See the BLU R1 HD at Amazon

See the Moto G4 at Amazon