Motorola Moto G (Unlocked) review

The Moto G is the best-built, unlocked smartphone under $200 available today.
Photo of Motorola Moto G (Unlocked)

The $179 Moto G raises the bar for low-cost, unlocked smartphones. It’s not perfect; if you have $300 or more, you’ll want to buy a different phone. The lack of LTE here, especially, is a big asterisk on our recommendation. The $349 Google Nexus 5 is still the best buy among unlocked phones. But this is the first sub-$200 unlocked phone we’ve seen that doesn’t look or feel cheap, inside or out, and that’s a huge deal.

Physical Features
The Moto G looks a lot like a slightly thicker Moto X. It’s clad in soft-touch black polycarbonate, with the same comfortable dimple on the back that the Moto X has. If you look at the two phones side by side, you’ll see that the G is a little rougher around the edges—the speakerphone grille holes aren’t as precise, for instance—but that’s serious nitpicking. At 5.5 by 2.6 by .46 inches (HWD) and 5.04 ounces, the G is noticeably thicker than the competing Blu Life Play, but it’s made of very solid materials.

The 4.5-inch, 720p IPS LCD screen is very sharp at 329 pixels per inch, with excellent color fidelity and viewing angles. So far, so much like the Blu Life Play, just $50 cheaper than Blu’s lighter and slimmer model. My unit was black, but you can get eight brightly-colored, snap-on back covers for $14.99 each.

Call Quality and Networking
Here we get to the G’s first major lapse. There are three models. The U.S. GSM model, which we tested, works with AT&T and T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 21 networks, but drops to 2G EDGE overseas. The international GSM model works with AT&T and foreign carriers, but not T-Mobile. These unlocked phones also work with virtual carriers on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks, like Aio Wireless, GoSmart, H2O, Simple Mobile and others.

There will also be a Sprint and Verizon model, which runs on those carriers’ 3G CDMA EVDO networks. That model will be network locked.

That means the G will have pretty slow Internet speeds in this age of 4G. On AT&T’s network, I saw speeds of only 200-500kbps down on one block in midtown Manhattan, but 6-7Mbps around the corner. I’d generally expect speeds of 3-6Mbps on this kind of network. The Sprint and Verizon phones will be much slower, typically under 1Mbps.

So it’s good that the G has solid Wi-Fi performance. The phone handles Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n on the 2.4GHz band, and with that restriction, I found Wi-Fi performance to be just as good as on the Moto X. Bluetooth 4.0 is also on board, but no NFC.

Call quality was pretty decent, but a bit harsh and trebly. The earpiece gets loud. There’s some background hiss at top volume, but no distortion. Transmissions sound clear with very good noise cancellation, as befits a company that’s been coding its own noise cancellation software for the past seven years. The back-ported speakerphone is surprisingly loud, but completely lacks tone; it sounds like a walkie-talkie. I had no problem connecting the phone to a Jawbone Era headset, although the G doesn’t have the X’s “OK Google Now” voice activation.

The G had 9 hours, 5 minutes of 3G talk time, which isn’t spectacular, but it’s acceptable.

Apps and Performance
Here’s where Motorola pulls ahead of lower-profile manufacturers like Blu and Verykool: It pays off to use real Qualcomm parts and native English-speaking programmers. The dual-core, 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 outpaced the lackluster MediaTek processors in the Blu Life Play and Verykool S470, delivering significantly higher Web browsing scores and especially gaming frame rates.

The G also doesn’t rely on a microSD card for storage; instead, it has 12.92GB of available internal storage, and no slot. That means the G can’t handle as much media as a phone with an SD card slot, but it can load up many more apps than phones like the Blu Life Play with much more limited internal storage.

This isn’t a high-end smartphone. On our high-end benchmark game, Asphalt 8, there was a touch of control lag and frame rates weren’t perfect—but it was playable, which we can’t say about any other sub-$200 unlocked phone. I didn’t have trouble with any other aspects of the Android experience.

The Moto G runs stock Android 4.3 with an upgrade to Android 4.4 KitKat coming in January. It doesn’t have the X’s innovations like Touchless Control and Active Display, but it does have a few useful Motorola utilities in Assist (it mutes your phone when you’re in meetings) and Migrate (to get your data onto your new phone.) The fit and finish on the software, like the hardware, is perfect; there are no misspelled dialog boxes, just the true Google Android experience.

Camera and Multimedia
The Moto G has the usual Google media players, plus an FM radio that supports digital song titles. Audio is loud and sharp through the back-ported speaker, although it completely lacks bass; a good set of earbuds fixes that. The music and video formats supported here won’t deliver any surprises: The phone can play high-res MPEG4 and some, but not all DivX and Xvid files, along with MP3, AAC, WMA and OGG audio. Third-party players in the Google Play store can handle more formats. 

Motorola has a reputation for ho-hum cameras, and the G isn’t going to fix it. I wasn’t impressed with the images from the 5-megapixel main shooter and 1-megapixel front camera, especially in low light. Our indoor test images were noisy, with a pink cast. An image taken with the flash was way too soft. Low-light photos were dim, and outdoor photos taken on a cloudy day looked noisy and slightly blurry. The camera isn’t that fast, either.

Both the front and rear cameras capture 720p video, with mixed results. Outdoors, we got smooth video at 30 frames per second. Indoors with good lighting, though, both cameras dropped to a jerky 20 frames per second and had focus and color balance problems. So yep, the Moto X’s camera—the much-derided Moto X’s camera—is still better than this guy.

Comparisons and Conclusions
Let’s lay this down first: if you have $349, the LG Nexus 5 is still the best unlocked phone available. The faster processor and LTE support makes the Nexus 5 a no-compromise experience. I like the Moto X even more, but it’s only occasionally on sale for anything near the Nexus 5′s price.

The Moto G is a best buy in its very constrained realm: unlocked phones around the $200 mark. At that price level, we also like the Blu Life Play and Verykool S470, but the G offers better performance and app storage for less money. 

If you’re willing to go for a locked phone, even without a contract, you have broader options. The Nokia Lumia 520/521 on AT&T, T-Mobile, and MetroPCS has a great build and UI for as little as $99, although it’s slower than the G, still doesn’t have LTE and isn’t available unlocked in the U.S. For LTE phones, the $129 Huawei Vitria on MetroPCS is worth looking at, although the G has a better screen and better built-in storage.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS
Screen Resolution 1280-by-720 pixels
NFC No
Dimensions 5.5 by 2.6 by .46" (HWD) inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 720P
Battery Life (As Tested) 9 hours 5 minutes minutes
Available Integrated Storage 12.92 GB
Processor Speed 1.2 MHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 400
GPS Yes
Service Provider AT&T, T-Mobile
Total Integrated Storage 16 GB
High-Speed Data EDGE, UMTS, HSPA+ 21
Weight 5.04 lb
Screen Type IPS LCD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.3
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 5MP/1MP
Screen Pixels Per Inch 329 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 1700
microSD Slot No
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 4.5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4.0

Verdict
The Moto G is the best-built, unlocked smartphone under $200 available today.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc