Moto G Google Play edition hands-on (video)

If Google's strategy of releasing Play edition devices isn't working, the company is sure doing a good job of hiding that fact: In the space of a month the number of smartphones and tablets bestowed with that title has grown from two to five. None of these devices are brand-new; they're all existing devices created by popular Android manufacturers. The difference is that each one has been unlocked, stripped of custom firmware features/modifications and blessed with a stock version of the latest Android build. As a result, you get a Nexus-like experience on a wider variety of devices, and you typically receive updates much faster than any other Android gadget out there. Motorola's Moto G is the most recent device to be given this treatment, and at $180 (8GB) or $200 (16GB), it's the least expensive Google Play edition you can buy.

We're the first to applaud the opportunity (and ability to choose) to use flagship devices without pre-installed bloatware, unnecessary features and user experience that's been dictated by the manufacturer. That said, we have to wonder if the Moto G really needs to be turned into a Google Play edition -- after all, the GSM version of the smartphone already comes unlocked, uses a mostly stock Android UI, is void of needless bloatware and has only a few additional software features like Moto Assist, Migrate and a different camera interface. It even got an update to Android 4.4 KitKat shortly after the device's launch. How exactly does the Google Play edition differ from the original, and which one is the better choice? We just got our hands on the new version of the Moto G, so keep reading to find out.

If you've read up on any of the Google Play edition devices we've looked at before, you'll have probably guessed that the Moto G's hardware specs and dimensions are exactly the same as the original option. So yes, it's just as attractive and tempting a phone: It offers a 4.5-inch IPS LCD screen with 720p resolution, Gorilla Glass 3, 1GB RAM, Android 4.4.2, a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 paired with an Adreno 305 GPU, a 5MP rear-facing camera, 1.3MP front-facing cam and a more than reasonable 2,070mAh battery. For the money, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything better. The back cover is removable, but there's not much you can do under the hood; the battery is non-removable and you can't insert a microSD anywhere to supplement the limited onboard storage -- thus, we recommend you opt for the 16GB option to make sure you don't run out of available memory after the first day of downloading apps.

At first we had a difficult time telling the two devices apart, but the back cover of the Google Play edition features a black "M" logo, whereas our standard Moto G review unit has silver. However, back covers can be easily swapped, so we wouldn't rely on that minor variation too much.

On the firmware side, you'll see that the Google Play edition lacks Moto Assist and Migrate apps, although the latter is at least available in the Play Store if you'd prefer to take advantage of it. Assist is Motorola's contextual app that can automatically do certain tasks based on what time of day it is, where you're at and if you're driving, and unfortunately is only available on specific Moto devices. Additionally, the gallery app is now missing, so you'll need to use the Google+ Photos app to manage any precious memories you may take on the camera. Speaking of which, since the phone runs stock firmware, you'll also need to take into account the fact that the camera's user interface is also stock. We're guessing this won't bug too many people, but it's a small difference that may make or break your decision between this and the standard Moto G. Lastly, the Google Play edition will come with an unlocked bootloader straight out of the box, in case you prefer to play around with different ROMs. (You can technically unlock the bootloader on the original G, but you have to go through the proper steps to do it.) Update: it turns out that the Google Play edition's bootloader is just like the standard version -- it's unlockable, but not unlocked directly out of the box.

Finally, there's one important caveat you'll want to know about if you're planning on using the Moto G on T-Mobile. The GPe uses the same frequencies as the global GSM model (quad-band GSM/EDGE and HSPA+ 850/900/1900/2100), rather than the US-specific one (quad-band GSM/EDGE and HSPA+ 850/AWS/1900), which means you won't get AWS support on HSPA+. Granted, this isn't as huge a deal anymore as it once was, primarily because T-Mobile now has a large amount of refarmed 1900MHz coverage, but this may be a frustration if you live in an area that still relies solely on AWS. Conversely, if you do any amount of international traveling and want to take advantage of T-Mo's new global roaming plans, the GPe is a better option because of its support for 900/2100, which is used in many other parts of the world. If you're an AT&T customer and can't get your hands on a global version of the Moto G, the GPe is a valid choice because of its international support.

Aside from carrier and frequency support, will you get any sort of benefit from purchasing the Google Play edition of the Moto G instead of the original one? Only if you prefer the bootloader unlocked without the risk of doing something wrong, and there's always a small chance that this version will get Android updates earlier than its counterpart. On the other hand, is there any reason to get the original Moto G instead of the GPe? Yes, but only if you plan to use Motorola services like Assist. Usually the differences are a lot more significant, so we apologize in advance for not being able to make the decision any easier for you. That said, we still believe this is one of the best -- if not the best -- phones you can get for $200 or less, regardless of if it's the Google Play edition or not.