It's been five long years since Motorola introduced the Moto G, a phone that would, after the ignominious rise and fall of the ahead-of-its-time Moto X, come to stand out less for its features than its legacy.
When Lenovo took over the Moto brand, "G" was the lone money-maker in Motorola's shrinking portfolio, so the new owners did what any corporate parent would do in such a circumstance: it expanded.
What was a single model between 2013 and 2015 bloomed to three in 2016 with the Moto G4, G4 Plus, and G4 Play, and four the following year with the Moto G5, G5 Plus, G5s and G5s Plus, all carefully designed to cater to various slices of the global budget phone market.
To avoid the pitfalls of other companies in such a low-margin business, Motorola has embarked on a ruthlessly data-driven quest to build phones for the existing needs of its incumbent countries, rather than waiting for customers to seek them out. That's why you'll find upwards of a dozen individual variants of this year's Moto G lineup, with different combinations of RAM, storage, camera resolution, NFC, fingerprint sensor, and digital TV support.
Moto G6 Play
The cheapest and least interesting of the new products, the Moto G6 Play is a pretty straightforward sequel to last year's Moto G5, though like all the phones in this year's lineup, it shares design language with the Moto X4 reboot — a reflective curved back and pronounced circular camera bump — with a few notable changes.
First, every phone in Moto's 2018 portfolio takes on the now-common 2:1 display aspect ratio found on flagships from Samsung, LG, Huawei, OnePlus and likely the upgraded Moto Z release coming this summer. The 5.7-inch LCD panel on the G6 Play is just 720p — 1440x720 pixels — but it's nice, and keeps the phone relatively compact for the amount of usable real estate.
The G6 Play doesn't have much new to say, but Motorola doesn't want to mess with its best-selling product.
The second improvement is one I've been requesting ever since Motorola neglected to do so in the 2014 Moto X2: a fingerprint sensor embedded in the rear Moto "batwing" logo. In 2018, some of Motorola's phones have made that long-awaited improvement, and it works as well as you'd expect. Internally, you have the same Snapdragon 427 platform from the Moto E4 series, up to 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (though some markets will get 2GB/16GB), and a massive 4000 mAh battery that Motorola says will achieve up to 36 hours of mixed use.
The $199 device is adorned with a single 13MP rear camera with an ƒ/ 2.0 aperture and phase-detection autofocus, an 8MP front-facing camera and flash (Motorola says most G Play users use their selfie cameras about as much as their rear counterparts), and plenty of LTE bands to work in most parts of the world. There's also CDMA support, so expect announcements from Verizon and/or Sprint in the coming weeks, too.
The G6 Play benefits from Motorola's light software touch, too, here running Android 8.0 Oreo with a flourish of Moto experiences like Moto Display that keep things interesting. Of course, being the most frugal passenger on the G train, the Play can be defined almost as much by what it lacks as what it has: there are no advanced camera features which, as we'll see shortly, are a mixed blessing. There's also no second camera, which Motorola sees as a sign of maturity in the lineup, and most frustratingly, the G6 Play is the last phone in the series to maintain a Micro-USB port.
On the other hand, Motorola readily admits that the Play variant is its best-selling phone, and that people seek it out when they are looking for battery life over features. The 4000mAh cell and no-frills software should get users to that day-and-a-half milestone Motorola enjoys teasing, and the capacity is impressive given the phone's lithe 9mm frame.
The Moto G6 Play arrives in late May for $199 USD.
The mainline G6 is the budget flagship for 2018, at least in the U.S. Where in 2017, Motorola decided to go all-in on the most expensive G in the United States, that phone, the Moto G6 Plus, is going to be reserved for markets that didn't get the Moto X4 in last year.
The sting is somewhat alleviated when you look at what you get with the G6. Sure, the Snapdragon 450 platform is, on paper, a less powerful chip than even the Snapdragon 625 found in the G5 Plus, but they're essentially the same chip — same eight Cortex-A53 cores, same Adreno 506 GPU, same ultra-efficient 14nm process. It is clocked slightly lower, at 1.8GHz compared to 2.0Ghz on the 625, and a less advanced ISP limits video capture to 1080p at 60fps, whereas the Moto G5 Plus could do 4K@30fps, but the day-to-day differences should be limited.
In exchange (and for the same $249 starting price), you get a much nicer plastic frame and glass back, with curved Gorilla Glass on the back, dual cameras, and a really nice 5.7-inch IPS LCD panel in that new taller aspect ratio. Holding the phone feels unlike any other Moto G to date, and it's interesting to see just how far Motorola has pushed the design and form factor of its most precious of brands without ramping up its price.
Of course, spending money in some places required paring back features in others, and the Moto G6 doesn't move the needle in a lot of ways I would have liked. Sure, it introduces a USB-C port to the Moto G line — OK, that's a pretty big deal — but you're still not getting features like wireless charging, waterproofing, or stereo speakers. The irony is that the lineup actually had two of those three at some point (the Moto G2 had stereo speakers and the Moto G3 was IPX7 water resistant) but gave them up in the name of design and cost-cutting.
Motorola would rather spend money on improving build quality and upgrading the camera than on features like wireless charging that wouldn't be used by everyone.
This generation is, once again, therefore all about design and camera, with a few nice software features thrown in for good measure. Let's talk about the design. Unlike the G6 Play, the mainline G6 (and the Plus for that matter) maintains its fingerprint sensor on the front because Motorola sees demand for its One Button Nav feature that replaces on-screen navigation buttons for gestures. Not only does Motorola say this year's gestures are more reliable than ever, but the sensor gives the impression that there is less bottom bezel than is actually there.
Still, I would have preferred the sensor on the back of the phone (in the batwing logo!) and relied equally on the new face unlock method, which in my brief testing works incredibly well. (I also would have liked an NFC radio, because mobile payments. Come on, Moto.)
Elsewhere in the software, Motorola is pushing its overhauled always-listening Moto Voice platform, which now plays half-Bixby, half-Google Assistant. To translate, it means that you can ask the phone to perform one of thousands of localized commands — "Open Netflix and play Jessica Jones," or "Turn on Bluetooth and connect to Jaybirds X3" — or, if connecting to the internet, defer to Google Assistant. This is the best of both worlds, and something I wish Samsung's more selfish Bixby would allow for, since Google Assistant is a safe fallback in the case of failure.
Don't call it AI, but Moto's camera is trying to be smarter about object and landmark recognition.
Motorola is also getting into the pseudo-AI game, though it is careful not to call artificial intelligence what is merely landmark and object recognition. The updated camera app not only looks and performs better, but there are a host of new modes, like face filters and portrait mode, if you don't want to let the "Smart Camera" do the work on its own.
I'm intrigued by Motorola's new dual camera setup: the 5MP secondary sensor is plain RGB, unlike the monochrome variety in the more expensive Moto Z2 Force, and the lens is standard issue, unlike the wide option in the Moto X4. It's there merely to gather depth data.
My problem isn't with the hardware or software itself but with Moto's legacy of underwhelming and at times plainly bad photo processing. While the core competencies of the single-camera Moto G5 were excellent for the price, I had very little nice to say about its dual-lens sequel, the Moto G5S Plus, which produced overly-processed, compromised regular photos and laughably bad portraits.
I was able to keep one photo I took during my demo time with the Moto G6, of Engadget's senior editor, Chris Velazco, and you can judge its fidelity for yourself.
Given that the Moto G6 is the top-line G-series device coming to the U.S this year (so far), some may be disappointed that it's not a direct step up from the Moto G5 Plus. Its bona fides are improved, but that you can't draw a straight line from last year's to this year's model may make some uncomfortable.
On the other hand, this is a lot of phone for $249, especially given that it will work, like its predecessor, on all four major U.S. carriers out of the box. And like every Motorola phone, its Android 8.0 build is clean, fast, and free of duplicative apps, with the company emphasizing its commitment to quarterly security updates and "regular" platform updates, though given that the Moto G5 Plus still runs Android 7.0, I don't have much faith in those words.
The Moto G6 arrives in late May.
Moto G6 Plus
The G6 Plus is ostensibly the flagship of Motorola's new budget lineup, bumping the display size to 5.9 inches from 5.7, adding an extra 200mAh of battery to the mix, and beefing up the CPU (Snapdragon 630), GPU (Adreno 308), maximum download speeds (600Mbps), Bluetooth version (5.0), and Wi-Fi support (AC). It also comes with between 4GB and 6GB of RAM, and up to 128GB of storage, which should bump up the price close to €400
Perhaps most notably, the camera is also improved; the 12MP sensor is better than the one in the mainline G6, and it features Dual Autofocus Pixels, which sound like a marketing gimmick but they actually work. Couple that with a wider, brighter ƒ/1.7 lens and you have a pretty potent dual camera system.
Of course, all of those benefits are moot for U.S. buyers, who are going to be politely pushed towards the Moto X4, which features nearly identical base hardware specs in a smaller body, and is available in both unlocked and Project Fi versions.
The Moto G6 Plus is going to cost €299 when it goes on sale in late May, which is already more than the Moto X4 in some markets. Were Motorola to have decided to bring the G6 Plus to the U.S., it would have butted up against an already-discounted X4, which can be found for under $250 on the right day. By focusing on the cheaper G6, Motorola can address a price-sensitive market without confusing potential buyers. Disappointing for me, the reviewer, but understandable.
Just know: once the Moto G6 Plus becomes available in late May, it will inevitably be importable to the U.S., but it won't be optimized for any of its carriers, nor will it work on Sprint or Verizon.
Moto G6 series Which should you buy?
Motorola is taking its time with its most important phone series this year. Despite the mid-April announcement, the Moto G6 line won't be available for close to a month, which gives the company enough time to build up a considerable inventory of product to ship around the world.
If you're looking for a great budget phone, none of these phones will disappoint.
And make no mistake, the Moto G is a global brand. Most popular in India and Brazil — the launch event for the new lineup was held in Sao Paulo — there is a reason the U.S. often feels like it gets overlooked by Motorola's budget phones. That's because, while the unlocked models sell relatively well Stateside, it's nothing like the deluge of demand that spills out of the heavily-populated, developing markets like the ones I mentioned.
Keep that in mind when you're looking at the spec sheet and wondering which phone to buy. The Moto G6 Play will likely be the most popular because it's the cheapest and simplest, and with a plastic body, may end up being the most durable. It's also the most boring.
Between the G6 and G6 Plus, I'd spring for the latter if it's available in your market. While base performance should be identical, there is a nice feature bump with the Snapdragon 630, including newer standards like Wi-Fi AC and Bluetooth 5.0, along with 4K video recording and twice the potential download speeds as the Snapdragon 450 in the baseline Moto G6.
Still, U.S. buyers — and anyone else for that matter — shouldn't feel affronted at having to consider the Moto G6. It's a well-built, attractive, functional device with a lot of positive traits. Let's just hope that the camera is ready for its own portrait.
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