If anything, Motorola's dead-simple shooting interface is the camera's saving grace. Quick refresher if you haven't used it before: Snapping a photo requires just a single touch anywhere on the screen, which means it's nearly impossible to screw up in the heat of the moment. Sliding my finger up and down the screen to digitally zoom in and out feels remarkably graceful too, even if digital zoom by nature makes for lousier shots. You may not absolutely love the shots you end up with, but I suspect you'll at least enjoy the process of taking them. My only major niggle is a strictly personal one: Despite using the E for over a week, I still had trouble remembering that touching the screen snaps a photo instead of focusing the camera where I wanted. That's a particular sort of muscle memory that's only really taken hold after a (shortish) career manhandling high-end phones, so the Moto E's target audience may not have the same trouble.
Video leaves much to be desired too, which is hardly a shocker. The Moto E is incapable of shooting HD video -- resolution maxes out at 854 x 480, which is good enough for Instagram, but slightly less so when trying to capture important moments as they unfold.
Performance and battery life
Ah, now we're getting to the meaty part -- what's the Moto E actually like to use? Despite a spec sheet that looks like it was pulled from the headlines two years ago, the E has more than managed to keep up with my daily grind. I can't in good conscience call the Moto E a speed demon, but it's still been a worthy companion during my week of testing.
And what exactly did that week consist of? Plenty of frenzied swiping between pages of apps and widgets, to start. The whole process was consistently and pleasantly buttery, with nary a hint of stuttering or visual slowdown to be seen (though in fairness, KitKat probably deserves some of the credit for that). Scrolling down long websites was generally smooth, too... most of the time, anyway. An abundance of images on a web page (like Engadget!) occasionally threw the E's modest brains for a bit of a loop. The act of actually firing up apps usually took a few seconds more than on some premium handsets, but that's just par for the course considering what we're working with. The games I did manage to install on the Moto E (I'm looking at you, Minecraft: Pocket Edition) fared rather nicely considering the dearth of sheer processing power they had to work with. This is all anecdotal, of course -- here are some hard numbers, if that's more your speed.
||HTC One mini
|SunSpider 1.2 (ms)
|GFXBench 2.7 Offscreen (fps)
|SunSpider: lower scores are better
The funny (or sad) thing about downloading games for testing was that, well, it was more troublesome than it should've been. It had nothing to do with network connectivity (though I only hit down/up data speeds of 1.82 Mbps and 0.84 Mbps, respectively in San Francisco over AT&T's HSPA connection). Those headaches were all because of a dearth of storage space. Like I mentioned before, the E ships with just 4GB of internal storage, and only about half of that is available for your stuff right out of the gate. It didn't take long to almost completely fill up that modicum of space with just our usual suite of test apps and files. And those two-stage game downloads from the Google Play Store? The ones (like Need For Speed: Most Wanted, for instance) that prompt you to download an installer that then downloads more stuff once it's in place? Yeah, good luck with that. Picking up a microSD card is damn near a necessity, and even then, you can't move all of your apps from their current homes onto an external card. I get that it's a concession Motorola made to keep the E's price under a certain threshold, but I can definitely see some cost-conscious consumers ruing that decision.
On the upside, the Moto E's modest spec sheet means that its 1,980mAh battery can hang in there longer than you might think. When Motorola says it's got an "all-day" battery, it actually means it. I spend my days dealing with a barrage of emails, chatting with colleagues, taking phone calls and generally running my device into the ground. There wasn't a time when the E failed to hang in there for a full 12-hour day, despite my best efforts. Things were a bit more subdued when it came time for our standard video rundown test (screen brightness set to 50 percent with a 720p video set to loop indefinitely): It stuck around for 5:45 before it needed to be lashed to a wall outlet.
There's no shortage of cheap hardware out there, and more than a few competitors may wind up duking it out with Motorola over first-time smartphone shoppers. Take older, pint-sized versions of high-end phones like the HTC One mini and the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini -- both of them offer more oomph, but even now they'll cost close to twice what the E does. Speaking of Samsung, you can nab a dual-SIM Galaxy S Duos 2 for close to the same price as the E-- you can juggle multiple phone numbers and enjoy a camera with a flash, though TouchWiz could bog things down a bit. There's the LG L40, too, a cheapo device the Korean company showed off at MWC. It hovers around the same price range as the Moto E, but its screen is markedly worse and a shortage of RAM doesn't exactly bode well for performance.
The Nokia X will also give the Moto E a run for its money in certain locales. It's a curious little thing with its peculiar Finnish pedigree, offbeat launcher and €89 (about $141) price tag, but a weaker spec sheet and Nokia's control over its own app store means the experience it offers is limited in some key ways. Not all of the E's competition comes from outside Motorola, either. The Moto G packs more power and performance into a bigger body, and it's still only $50 more than its little brother. I'd wager that a decent number of shoppers on a budget will gravitate toward the more impressive G, but the difference in price could be too much for some to swallow.
There's no two ways about it -- the Moto E is exciting, if not in the way most mobile buffs would like. You really shouldn't underestimate the sort of world-shaking power that can come from making something that's both very good and very cheap. So what if the spec sheet is a bit passé? For all its minor shortcomings, the Moto E still represents a level of power and quality that's become even more accessible to people the world over, and that's something worth celebrating. If all you need is a smartphone that can take you to Facebook, capture fodder for Instagram or fire off missives on Twitter (or WhatsApp or Weibo), the Moto E will make a worthy sidekick. Not every important device has to be a flashy flagship.
If Motorola ever manages to offer the $129 Moto E for under $100 (and I bet it will eventually), we could be looking at a game changer; a device that could really help bring the next billion people into an age of connectedness most of us already take for granted. Until then, the E's value is obscured a touch -- the superior balance of performance and price means the Moto G will be worth the extra $50 for most people.
Daniel Orren and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.