Moto G4 Plus review: A memorable upgrade

The Takeaway

Lenovo's first full cycle with the Moto brand seems to be off to a good start, at least with the most powerful variant, the Moto G Plus. While the device shares a number of hardware specs with the Moto X Play, a slimmer, more approachable design, and the addition of a fingerprint sensor, make this one of the best devices in its class.

The Good

  • Nice, simple design
  • Fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate
  • Good camera quality and features
  • No-nonsense Android software

The Bad

  • Snapdragon 617 processor feels overworked
  • Lacks popular Moto Voice features
  • Loose, plasticky buttons and back cover
  • 5.5-inch Full HD
  • IPS LCD Display
  • 1920x1080 resolution (400ppi)
  • 16MP, ƒ/2.0 lens, PDAF, laser AF
  • 5MP front camera, ƒ/2.2 lens, wide-angle
  • 3000 mAh capacity
  • Quick Charge 2.0
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor
  • Octa-core (4x 1.5Ghz, 4x 1.2Ghz)
  • 2GB RAM
  • 32GB internal storage
  • microSD slot with adoptable storage

A sober, safe upgrade

Moto G4 Plus Full Review

The Moto G has gone through a fascinating journey since its introduction three years ago. What started as a bet on the burgeoning mid-range market by Google, Motorola's then-owner, has grown into the smartphone maker's most popular line.

Now fully ensconced under new owner, Lenovo, the Moto G family has expanded to include three handsets, the most capable of which is the new G4 Plus variant, which looks and feels identical to the regular G4 but offers more RAM, double the storage, and a higher-megapixel rear camera. Oh, and a fingerprint sensor. Together, these add up to a considerable upgrade over the previous generation, and, from a branding perspective, raises the G's pedigree close to the Moto X Play, which debuted last year.

About this review

I (Daniel Bader) am publishing this review after using an unlocked black XT1641 variant of the Moto G4 Plus for about a week, running Android 6.0.1 with the May 1, 2016 security patch. The build number is MPJ24.139-23.2.

Most of the review was written while connected to the Rogers 4G LTE network in Canada.

Plastic in a good way

Moto G4 Plus Hardware

The designs of every Moto G to date have been informed by the times: each year, the device has grown considerably in size, sprouting from a one hand-manageable 4.5-inches in its first venture to a more year-appropriate 5.5-inches today. In that time, as relatively battery thickness has flattened to accommodate the increased surface area, the product has remained largely the same weight.

What personality the phone has is directly related to its near-symmetrical austerity.

But that physical flattening has also affected the notable design flourishes Motorola was known for over the past few years: under new boss Lenovo, the Moto G4 Plus resembles any number of big-screen Android smartphones with fingerprint sensors and rounded corners. Even around back, the brand's personality has all but vanished.

Moto G4 Plus

What's left is a handset with, aside from the camera "strip" on the back, few differentiating features — which is perhaps the perfect way to broaden the Moto G's ascendent appeal to markets far beyond its core few. Like the previous models, the Moto G4 Plus features a removable plastic back with no access to the embedded battery, which has received a capacity boost of 21.4% to 3000 mAh.

Familiar placements for the power and volume buttons on the right side reveal the first evidence the G4 is firmly in the budget market: the plastic extrusions are flimsy and loose, not quite rattly, but awfully close. Elsewhere, the headphone jack and micro-USB ports are centred on the top and bottom of the phone, respectively, capping off a continued tradition of ultra-simplicity.

Moto G4 Plus

What personality the phone has is directly related to its near-symmetrical austerity. Unlike similar devices from HTC and Samsung, Lenovo flanks the centred fingerprint sensor with nothing but free space; the company continues to use Android's virtual navigation buttons as it has since the original Moto X in 2013.

Differing from its metal competitor, HTC's One A9, that fingerprint sensor doesn't even function as a home button, but despite its diminutive appearance, works well in most situations.

The 5.5-inch Full HD display on the Moto G4 Plus is also its biggest asset; vibrant and sharp, with ample brightness for most situations, it was likely lifted from last year's Moto X Play, with which the G4 Plus shares more than a few internals. Considering the same screen also graces the cheaper and more widely-available Moto G4, this is something to be celebrated.

Here's the thing, though: the Moto G4 Plus arrests the progress made by its predecessors in some important ways. Despite sufficient space for an HTC 10-like dual-speaker setup, the G4 Plus has only one, embedded in the earpiece above the display. (Stereo speakers debuted in the second-generation Moto G and disappeared a year later, but still.) Perhaps more importantly, the Moto G4 Plus lacks the IPX7 water resistance of its immediate predecessor, a feature that was unprecedented for the price. On their own, they're not big omissions, but together they, like the physical device itself, represent a flattening of features.

Moto G4 Plus

Simple, stock

Moto G4 Plus Software

Like most devices with the Moto moniker, the Moto G4 Plus runs what can only be called a barebones version of Android — specifically Android 6.0.1, with the May 1, 2016 security patch — with all but the most minor of changes over what you'd find on a Nexus phone.

Indeed, from the Google Now Launcher to the removal of Motorola's own Gallery app in favor of Google Photos, the only recognizably "Moto" piece of software is the app of the same name, which controls what we've come to know as Moto Display, and Moto Actions.

Lenovo has clearly influenced the Moto G's external design, but has left the software experience alone.

The former is put to good use here, and has received an upgrade over previous versions. While the Moto G4 Plus lacks the infrared sensors of its more expensive Moto X Style counterpart, it engages the phone's accelerometer to determine when to pulse the latest three sets of notifications. As in years past, these bubbles can be previewed by merely tapping on them — though this year they are more information-dense, and show color — or engaged by sliding up to unlock the phone. This always-on display is now standard across flagships, from the LG G5 to the Samsung Galaxy S7, but Moto devices still do it best.

Moto G4 Plus

Moto Actions are a bit more idiosyncratic, but no less useful: you'll be double-chopping the phone to engage the flashlight, and double-twisting it to quickly enter the camera. Pick up the phone upon receiving a call to change the ringer to vibrate, or flip it onto its face to silence it altogether.

Still, as far as the G series has come, it still lacks Moto Voice, the ability to engage the phone with a key phrase like "OK Moto" and be read emails, texts, or Google Now responses. That it was present on the less-powerful Moto X Play means that either Lenovo is phasing out the feature (we'll see when the new Moto X/Z products launch in early June), or wants to use such it to differentiate its flagship line from its budget one.

Moto G4 Plus

Though Lenovo has clearly influenced the Moto G's external design, it appears the company has left the software experience alone. (Unfortunately, the Chinese OEM didn't take the opportunity to demand the Moto team change its awful default ringtone, which is so dissonant and jarring it may be illegal in several countries.) From the the notification shade and quick settings to the standard Marshmallow multitasking menu, Android largely gets out of its own way, paving the way to engage in Google's services (by default) and the thousands of other Android apps in the Play Store.

Moto G4 Plus

Another area the Moto G4 Plus shines is in the integration of expandable storage into the operating system. Employing Adoptable Storage feature, a microSD card up to 128GB in size can be formatted to seamlessly work alongside the 32GB of internal storage. I did just that, formatting a 32GB SanDisk card to augment what shipped with the phone, and the OS silently began installing apps and storing files on the new partition, with no detriment to performance.

Moto G4 Plus

A spec bump stutter

Moto G4 Plus Performance

On paper, the jump from a quad-core Snapdragon 410 chip in last year's Moto G to a Snapdragon 617 in this year's is a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, said chip is only slightly more capable. With eight Cortex-A53 cores instead of four, the 617 is derived from the Snapdragon 615, which is nearly two years old by now, replaced by Qualcomm's own 650-series lineup.

For a mid-range phone with a value-first pedigree, this shouldn't be a problem — and in my testing I found no show-stopping performance issues — but the Plus moniker is betrayed somewhat by the phone's anemic spec sheet. This is compounded by the bait-and-switch presence of just 2GB of RAM alongside the 32GB of storage (Lenovo advertised two variants upon announcement, 3/32 and 2/16) and the phone's long-term performance outlook becomes a bit murkier.

To say that I am impressed by the G4 Plus's rear camera would be an understatement.

On more than one occasion, a background process jammed up the foreground app, requiring me to manually end them one by one until I found the culprit. Worse, the camera app was consistently slow to open, forcing me to wait up to three seconds before the shutter button would respond. Once loaded, the camera app was a dream, but this all speaks to the fact that the Snapdragon 617 doesn't solve a fundamental issue of Qualcomm's low-cost chips: Cortex-A53 just isn't very powerful. Adding an extra four cores at 1.2Ghz doesn't address the A53's lackluster single-core performance.

Still, for 95% of people 90% of the time, the Moto G4 Plus has more than enough horsepower to get the job done.

Moto G4 Plus

A delightful surprise

Moto G4 Plus Cameras

Before Lenovo purchased it, Motorola spent a lot of time emphasizing that camera quality was one of the main areas of investment in the Moto G line. Improving from a 5MP lens in the first generation to 8MP and then 13MP in the second and third respectively, Lenovo split the difference this time around, giving the plain Moto G4 an improved 13MP sensor and its Plus counterpart a brand new 16MP module. Paired with a sharp f2.0 lens and a brand new camera app, the Moto G4 Plus has proven to be a superlative filmic companion.

Part of the G4 Plus's photographic prowess comes from its dual autofocus system, a now-perfunctory Phase Detection Autofocus (PDAF) system, along with a rare-in-this-price-bracket laser focus assistant, both of which function to reliably find subjects near or far in any measure of lighting conditions.

To say that I am impressed by the G4 Plus's rear camera would be an understatement. In sunlight, the G4 Plus takes photos with ample detail and plenty of color, promptly adjusting exposure in various lightning conditions with a tap on the screen. In Automatic mode, the G4 Plus makes the right decision most of the time, and engages HDR (which is set to Auto by default) only when absolutely necessary. Unlike the Nexus 5X, Lenovo errs on the side of keeping it off unless the scene absolutely warrants it.

What Lenovo has proven with this year's Moto G4 Plus is that super high-quality photos are now available in the sub-$300 market.

Lenovo has also revamped its HDR processing, both for better and for worse. It is now considerably more powerful, able to properly expose highly contrasting areas — such as the one above — without losing detail in the shadows or blowing out the highs. To do that, though, HDR is considerably slower than it used to be, prompting users to hold their hand steady during the shot. It's a thoughtful and reassuring addition, but won't alleviate the issues with movement that often ruin multi-exposure photos.

The Moto G4 Plus also has a couple of tricks up its sleeve to quickly get to the camera. In addition to the aforementioned double-twist gesture, users can press the power button twice to get to the camera and, provided there are no loading issues, begin taking photos quickly.

Moto G4 Plus

But this year, Moto's camera app has a new Professional mode, which adds manual controls in a fashion we've seen from the likes of HTC, Samsung and LG. The UI resembles HTC's Manual mode most distinctly, with drop-down tabs that can be adjusted on a vertical slider. Focus, shutter speed, white balance, ISO (light sensitivity), and exposure compensation are all here.

Shutter speed is adjustable from 1/5 s to 1/3200, so this isn't the phone for those looking to capture steadycam time-lapses of the moving night sky. Similarly, ISO is adjustable from 100 to 3200, though many daylight captures taken in Auto mode went as low as ISO64. The sensor itself is capable of some fine things, and shots taken in poor light are still more than usable at ISO2000.

What Lenovo has proven with this year's Moto G4 Plus is that super high-quality photos are now available in the sub-$300 market. Phones double that price reached that level a couple of years ago, however, and have since been packing in extra features to justify the investment. To wit, the G4 Plus lacks stabilization of any kind, and the Snapdragon 617's bandwidth-limited nature limits video capture to 1080p at 30fps. Quality itself is quite good — again, better than I expected — but unremarkable.

On the selfie side, the G4 Plus has a similar-sounding 5MP sensor and f/2.2 lens combo as last year, but the company reports improvements in both areas. Specifically, the lens is considerably wider than its predecessor's (around 100-degrees compared to 72-degrees) and it also supports autofocus, a dramatic improvement over the fixed-focus variety in the third-generation Moto G. And like many selfie-capable smartphones today, the G4 Plus mimics a front-facing flash by momentarily illuminating the screen prior to the shutter.

Moto G4 Plus

All-day companion

Moto G4 Plus Battery

Here's the thing: Lenovo packed a 3000 mAh battery into a device that's 7.9 mm thick and available for around $300. That's remarkable in itself, but there are inevitably going to be people who complain that the cell isn't as big as the X Play's 3630 mAh cell. To them, I'll say this: don't worry.

One advantage of the Cortex-A53 cores inside the Snapdragon 617 is their power-sipping nature. I used the G4 Plus for about a week as my main phone and never once had to recharge it in the afternoon for fear of it dying. But charge it I did, mainly to see how quickly the included TurboPower charger — Motorola's branding for Quick Charge 2.0-capable adapters — tops up the device. And it's quick: since the cell is actually smaller than the X Play, it takes less time overall — around 90 minutes — to charge it from zero to full, but a 20-minute top-up provides between 15 and 20% depending on the battery's state.

Moto G4 Plus

The bottom line

Moto G4 Plus? Buy it

Over the years, being the lucky fellow I am, I've rarely been happy transitioning from the inevitably powerful flagship in my pocket to testing a mid-range or entry-level device. The Moto G has consistently been the exception.

This year, the most powerful Moto G does away with some of the frills of its previous incarnations, including front-facing stereo speakers and water resistance, but it makes up for it in improved build quality, vastly better performance, and an awesome rear camera.

On its own, the Moto G4 Plus is easy to recommend, but it goes up against a number of incredibly competitive products, including the Nexus 5X, the newly-discounted OnePlus 2, and the upcoming Alcatel Idol 4. Indeed, Motorola (and by extension, Lenovo) no longer owns the low-cost, high-quality Android space, but if the Moto G4 Plus is any indication, it's not going down without a brawl.

Where to buy the Moto G4 Plus

The Moto G4 Plus have been announced in India and Canada so far, with more markets to come.

In India, the device is already available for ₹14,499.

In Canada, the device is coming in early June for around $400 outright, which usually translates to around $50 on a 2-year contract.

Daniel Bader

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central.