We were extremely surprised by the low-light performance. The sensor sucked up every bit of ambient light it could manage, and didn't falter even when faced with brutally dark challenges. The end result often looks way better in the gallery than it does in the viewfinder, too. Shutter response is almost instant under normal conditions, but HDR or low-light shots can extend that to more than a second. Burst-capture mode, which is triggered by holding down on the screen as opposed to tapping for single shots, also takes a second to start up; it'll snap three to four shots per second thereafter.
As good as the camera is, it sometimes struggles to focus in macro shots, or when pushed to its low-light limit. The LED companion flash washes images out with its power, and the guide light creates similar problems for the autofocus. Video recording (720p) is a little disappointing, too. The sensor still gobbles up a lot of light, but clips are noisy when stationary and significantly worse with motion. Focus and light metering are inconsistent, and audio quality is average. On the up side, recording begins as quickly as you hit the video icon, and the quarter-speed slow-mo feature is pretty neat. Well, when you're viewing clips on the 4.5-inch display, anyway.
Performance and battery life
Performance: the judging criteria every budget handset dreads. Luckily, rather than opting for a several-year-old chipset to help profit margins, Motorola chose the spritely quad-core 1.2GHz version of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 400 SoC (Adreno 305 GPU), paired with 1GB of RAM. The Moto G is the first handset we've reviewed with a quad-core 400, and in the words of our own Ben Gilbert: "It's bananas." In short, this does not perform like a $179 phone. The speed at which you can cycle through the app drawer is the first indication of the G's quad-core competence. Perhaps it's not quite as responsive as some higher-end handsets with bigger, badder Snapdragons, but it's close enough.
Most apps load in a second or less, though larger games took longer, as you'd expect. It is possible to confuse the phone into stuttering and hanging momentarily, if you're jerks like us and rapidly switch between menus, apps and the home screen in a completely unrealistic usage scenario. The G performs well already, but should only improve with KitKat, given Google's optimized Android 4.4 for lower-end handsets -- a term we're hesitant to even use when describing the Moto G.
One way we really like to challenge handsets is with an old-fashioned gaming session, and sure enough, the Moto G's got some mettle. We started off with a few quarters of NBA Jam. Our three-pointer percentage wasn't the best, but the G handled it with ease. That Snapdragon 400 didn't even break a sweat during an online multiplayer round of Shadowgun: DeadZone (on the highest graphics setting, no less). Next, we hit the tarmac in Real Racing 3, which has taken some smartphones out of their comfort zones in the past. We gave up trying to find the phone's breaking point after a few smooth laps. If it dropped any frames, it wasn't noticeable, so we headed back into Tiny Death Star to restock our levels, and called it a day.
After being thoroughly impressed with the Moto G's gaming prowess, we were puzzled by hiccups with web browsing. Mobile and desktop sites loaded extremely quickly on good connections, and we didn't have any problems with tiling. What we noticed, however, was a perceptible lag while navigating up, down and around web pages. It's not a huge turnoff -- the delays are fairly minor -- but nonetheless, this isn't something we were expecting.
Our standard benchmarks show the age of the Moto X's dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, in that the Moto G's quad-core Snapdragon 400 SoC produces comparable stats, even besting the X's score in CF-Bench (which measures processor/memory performance). The Moto G tests remarkably well against the Nexus 5, considering that handset packs a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 800 chip. When stacked up against the miniaturized HTC One and Galaxy S 4, the Moto G outperforms both substantially in some tests, and takes a minor beating in others. This tells us that while the G's quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 may be better equipped for some tasks, the dual-core 1.7GHz 400 variant used in the other two phones is far from inferior.
The Moto G comes with either 8GB or 16GB of built-in storage. On the 8GB model we tested, only 5.52GB was user-accessible. That fills up pretty quickly, especially when you're taking a ton of pictures, installing lots of apps and transferring over music and movies. It's just something you'll have to live with, we're afraid -- and it's also part of the reason the device is priced so low. One consolation is that Google is giving away 50GB of free Google Drive space for two years (that's a total of 65GB when combined with the 15GB you'll receive just by dint of having a Gmail account). Still, it's no substitute for on-board storage, as you can't, say, run applications from Google Drive. If you stream most audio and video content from the cloud, though, or have a PC that you can use to manage handset space effectively, you'll get by as I did. The whole Moto G package considered, a microSD slot would've just been the cherry on top of the icing, on top of the cake.
There's more to a phone than just the specs, and all the other chips and bits are sometimes an afterthought in bargain handsets. We could have easily forgiven the Moto G for similar violations, but we don't need to. GPS location is fast and accurate, and the Bluetooth 4.0 module pairs with devices as quickly as it discovers them (that's quick, if you hadn't figured). The G's WiFi chip establishes strong, consistent connections and offers better-than-average range, even though you'll quickly see your bars drop as you move away from the router. Listening to music on the Moto G is a pleasurable experience; audio quality is crisp and you won't be left wanting for volume, but even with a decent set of headphones, bass junkies will miss that rich, low-frequency range. The loudspeaker isn't terrible, but it's not far off. Still, it's fine for hands-free calling.
It'll come as a punch to the gut for some: The Moto G doesn't have an LTE chip, so HSPA+ is as good as it gets (GSM/UMTS and CDMA models take care of all the bands). In the South London area where we conducted testing, download speeds averaged around 5.5 Mbps, with upload speeds ranging between 2 Mbps and 2.5 Mbps. We're sure it's capable of much more, but we're testing it on a congested network in a capital city, so that's all we could squeeze out of it. The Moto G is intended for the global market, so we doubt Motorola considered LTE a priority when a significant demographic of potential buyers doesn't have access to 4G networks. Plus, an LTE chip could have increased the device's price, and might have also taken a toll on battery life.
Speaking of the sort, the Moto G's 2,070mAh battery is non-removable, and is nothing to write home about, either. It'll support you through a full day of moderate to busy use, but no further. It performed as such in our standard battery rundown test, looping a 720p video at 50 percent brightness for seven hours and 48 minutes before blacking out. That's about 30 minutes more than the Nexus 5 lasted, and it's slightly better than average in the grand scheme, but we don't recommend going on a weekend hiking trip without a portable charger for topping up. You know, in case you need to call for help when a bear mauls your pal, or something.
We've already compared the Moto G to a couple of handsets with similar chipsets, but it's a little hard to call them "competitors," as such. An unlocked version of the HTC One mini retails on Amazon for more than twice the price of a 16GB Moto G. A Galaxy S4 Mini is closer in price, but we're not convinced an LTE chip and microSD slot is worth the $150 markup. The two-generations-old Galaxy S II is selling for more than the 16GB Moto G, and we could list plenty of other old handsets that cost more, despite their age.
Looking at Android smartphones in the same price range, the options are limited, and not particularly attractive, either. You could, of course, buy something from an unknown manufacturer on eBay, but we'd wager the Moto G offers higher quality and better specs. It's a similar situation with phones currently being offered on prepaid plans. The Samsung Galaxy Express on AT&T ($250), the Alcatel One Touch Fierce on T-Mobile ($210) and the HTC One SV on Boost Mobile (pre-owned; $200) all have two things in common. They are more expensive than the Moto G, and a generation behind it. At the moment, the G really stands alone.
We've said it in so many words before, but the price is what makes the Moto G a ridiculous proposition. It's just launched in the US in time for the holidays with an unlocked price of $179 for the 8GB model and $199 for the 16GB version. Verizon, for one, has confirmed it will sell the G with prepaid plans starting early next year, while Canada's Telus will offer it for free on a two-year contract. In the UK, you'll be able to pick up an unlocked 8GB model for £135 or a 16GB variant for £160 when they become available. Right now, Phones4u will give you an 8GB Moto G for free on-contract starting at £11 per month, or a one-off £120 payment for a pay-as-you-go unit. Although currently out of stock, Tesco Mobile was selling the 8GB model off-contract for £99. You could actually pick one up for the equivalent of £50 (around $80) using Tesco's Clubcard points, which is a crazy deal.
If you're even considering springing for a Moto G, stop thinking and just do it. Is the G the best phone you can buy? No, it's not. You won't win any National Geographic competitions with the camera, and the amount of on-board storage is a concern when there's no microSD expansion slot. The lack of LTE, too, is sure to put off customers who would've jumped at the handset otherwise. We'll have to wait and see whether any other phone makers can respond to the G and address what's missing, but for now, it stands alone. The carefully built handset is a great all-rounder, with particular credit going to the 720p display and hardware performance. Google has managed to repeat what it did with the Nexus 5: The Moto G is quite simply the best phone on the market in its price range.
Daniel Orren contributed to this review.