There’s nothing like a £90 Motorola smartphone to make your full-price flagship seem less than essential.
The 4.3in Moto E does for sub-£100 smartphones exactly what last year’s Moto G did for sub-£150 smartphones. Namely, raising the bar, shaming under-powered budget rivals and worrying devices that cost three times as much.
It’s not perfect, but boy is the Moto E better than its just-as-cheap rivals. Unless 4G or a compact-rivalling phone cam are an absolute must, anyone on the lookout for a dirt-cheap device or second handset should be considering this smartphone.
This Screen Doesn’t Do Things By Quarters
The Moto E’s got a 4.3in qHD screen - that’s a little q, not a big one as in the LG G3’s QHD screen. But at £90 even a little q is seriously respectable.
It means a resolution of 540x960, which equates to a pixel density of 221ppi - higher than that of the Lumia 630 and the slightly bigger EE Kestrel. Overall it’s a lovely screen, a touch smaller than some of its rivals but arriving with a bonus coating of Gorilla Glass 3 to protect it from drops - a luxury on a budget phone.
It’s responsive, too, and that’s something else that’s not always guaranteed when you’re spending less than £100. Colours are nice and punchy, it’s easily readable outdoors and if you jack up the brightness, whites look clean.
The Kestrel does have slightly better contrast though and the Moto E’s relatively low resolution makes reading longform articles and ebooks a bit of a chore, as text looks pixelated. That’s right, you’ll see pixels. It’s also a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but that’s hardly critical.
We’d always recommend trying to stretch your budget to the 720p Moto G, but if that’s not an option, the Moto E’s screen is as good as you’ll find at this price.
Performance to get giddy over
Ah, the Moto E’s performance. It may not make for the most exciting headline, but it’s probably our favourite thing about this budget Motorola.
We could bore you with the mediocre benchmarks - 12,766 on AnTuTu, 1571.3ms on SunSpider - but they don’t tell the full story. On numbers alone, the Moto E trails old-timers such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One.
In use, though, we got on famously with it. Sure, if you tax it with an intensive game, the E might stumble - it only runs on a dual-core Snapdragon 200 after all. It gets a little warm at times, too, and you’ll need to invest in a microSD card sharpish, as there’s only 4GB of onboard storage to play with.
But 99% of the time, the Moto E is as smooth and fast as any “mid-range” handset and even gives the greater Galaxys a run for their money. So whether you’re switching between apps, browsing the web, downloading media files or playing future classics like Monument Valley, it’ll do a grand job.
How? It’s all down to the almost-stock version of Android it’s running...
READ MORE: HTC One Mini 2 review
Screen: 4.3in 540 x 960, 256ppi (Gorilla Glass 3)
Processor: 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200
RAM: 1GBOS: Android 4.4 KitKat
Camera: 5MP, 480p video @30fps
Storage: 4GB (microSD up to 32GB)
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, 3G
Dimensions: 124.8 x 64.8 x 12.3mm
Vanilla Android With A Splash Of Moto
This is as close to pure Android as anyone needs, a clean and uncluttered user experience that both helps speedy performance and makes it easy to customise - if you want to.
The Moto E even bests the Nexus 5 by refraining from shoving your text messages into Google’s Hangouts messaging app by default. And Motorola promises the latest updates sooner than most - the Moto E has just joined the Moto G and Moto X in getting the latest version of KitKat, 4.4.3, as an OTA software update.
There are a couple of app additions, but they’re all incredibly useful. Assist is a Do Not Disturb on steroids which enables the Moto E to pull in appointments from your calendar and auto-set your phone to silent at the correct times. It also lets you designate VIP callers who can get through to you at bedtime.
Alert works as both an emergency SMS-sender to key contacts and a quick way to tell your mates when you’re down the pub by setting up auto “meet me” notifications at regular locations. And apart from a phone protection app, in case of theft, and an optional Kid Mode via third-party app Zoodles, that really is it. Even local music files are handled through Google Play Music.
One niggle: there’s no compass/magnetometer, one of the only real compromises we’ve come across on the Moto E and an odd thing to leave out. There’s still GPS for maps though.
This is how you design a budget phone
We’re absolute suckers for chamfered aluminium and subtle design details. But we’re not above waxing lyrical about the charms of a neat, solidly built, and nicely curvy all-plastic smartphone either.
The Moto E is exactly that. It’s comfortable and easy to hold, fitting snugly even in small hands. And though it’s chunky at 12.3mm thick and the 140g weight isn’t the lightest, it feels just right. Sure, the large bezels on the front are a little retro and the faux-metal buttons and speaker grilles look a bit cheap. But the weight is reassuring, as is the fact that it won’t flex even if you really push. This is no creaky toy phone.
That front-facing speaker isn’t awful either. It’s not going to be troubling the HTC One (M8) anytime soon and it can be a little tinny, but it’s louder than expected and sounds just good enough that you’ll end up annoying people in the park. Call quality is decent too.
To return to the design, a lot of how premium it looks and feels will be down to which of the swappable, colourful Motorola Shells you choose. Our smooth, matte black case is inoffensive enough and we even found ourselves absent-mindedly picking it up for no reason, the sign of spot-on smartphone design.
Whatever you choose just remember, you’re not buying a Moto E to show it off. You’re buying it to feel smug at how much functionality and performance you’re getting for so few pennies.
Battery Life - No Spares But No Need
The bad news? The Moto E’s 1980mAh battery isn’t swappable even though you can tear off the rear cover and look at it. The good news? You’ll probably have no reason to even consider carrying a spare because the battery life is another big tick in the ‘yes’ column.
We’re not going to exaggerate and pretend it’s hugely better than rivals, but the Moto E charges quickly, has good standby performance and easily lasts a day on mid-brightness.
Of course, it’s tricky to be universal with battery-life predictions but even gaming on full brightness it only dropped 10% or so an hour, so the E will survive your commute home no problem.
READ MORE: The battery-sipping LG G2 reviewed
The Moto E Deserves A Better Camera
We hope you haven’t already hit the ‘order’ button.
Because the Moto E’s camera is the only thing stopping us wholeheartedly recommending it to any gadgeteer on a budget. Phone photography on the E just isn’t fun. Zooming (up to 4x digital) is a slow, annoying swipe up or down, it’s fixed focus and there’s no flash.
Images can be a bit smudgy indoors and it’s out-macro’d by the Lumia 630 too. Video maxes out at 480p and is disappointingly blocky and juddery, and there’s no front camera - not too much of a surprise at this price point but it could be one niggle too far.
But if phone photography isn’t a big deal for you, it’ll probably suffice. Outdoors, in good light, pics are perfectly passable for social media with bright, vivid colours and decent contrast. Google’s handy suite of editing, cropping and filter tools can help improve so-so snaps before sharing too.
And ultimately, the small advantage that smartphones such as the Lumia 630 hold in the camera department aren’t enough to sway us from our love for the Moto E.
Motorola Moto E Verdict
If a £90 Nexus existed, it would look a lot like the Moto E. This isn’t just Android for the masses, it’s tidy, reliable, loveable Android for the masses.
No, it isn’t perfect. But considering we’re yet to meet a mobile device that is, this Moto is £90 (£80 on O2) well spent. Its main flaw is its camera, but until you get to around the £200 mark, almost every handset disappoints in this department - including Motorola’s own Moto G.
If you want 4G, the EE Kestrel comes in at just £10 more. If a HD screen is a must, the original Moto G is now selling just above the £100 mark too, if you’re lucky. Bigger screen? The 5.5in OnePlus One will do just nicely.
But if price is the be-all and end-all of your smartphone decision, forget all those other smartphones and just buy a Moto E.