The Moto E is one of those curious devices that's unassuming and yet immediately recognizable at the same time. That sounds a tad paradoxical, but hear me out. Its face is spartan, to put it politely, and the E's 4.3-inch qHD screen (swathed in Corning's Gorilla Glass 3 no less) is bounded by some unobtrusive bezels. Your eyes can't help but be drawn to the two silver strips that run in parallel above and below the screen, comprising the speakers and microphone. Together, they make for a very tasteful touch of personality that gives the E a sense of self without much extra visual noise.
Flipping the Moto E over reveals that the company's design DNA hasn't been diluted at all. The recessed Motorola logo, the swooping curve around the 3.5mm headphone jack -- if Superman took hold of a Moto G and compressed it a bit (you know, without turning it into a diamond or something), you'd basically have the Moto E. Meanwhile, a 5-megapixel camera sans flash sits high on the E's rear and selfie fanatics will be crushed when they discover there's no ego-stroking front camera here. The E skews toward the chubbier end of the size spectrum (compared to the lithe Moto X, at least), but its curved rear means it'll fit quite comfortably in your mitts. During my testing, I actually found myself cursing at my otherwise trusty iPhone 5s and its prominent edges. The E is awfully nice to hold, even when compared to premium gadgets like HTC's One M8.
Our review unit pairs a glossy, black plastic face with a curvaceous, matte rear. Those of you itching for something more chromatically pure can pick up the white-on-white model, and you can replace those default backs with more colorful ones for another $15 a pop. Prying off those back plates reveals... not much, aside from the non-removable 1,980mAh battery, the SIM slot and the microSD card slot. That expansion slot is downright crucial, too, since this little guy comes with a paltry 4GB of internal storage -- easily the surest signifier of the Moto E's wallet-friendly ambitions. Once you factor in all of the preloaded bits, you're actually left with just north of 2GB of open space for your apps and media; suffice to say, a hefty memory card (the E can handle up to an additional 32GB) should be on your shopping list too. Diving further still reveals the E's brains: a dual-core Snapdragon 200 clocked at 1.2GHz, paired with 1GB of RAM and a single-core Adreno 302 GPU.
The North American version I've been playing with is slightly boring compared to some international variations. Models for other markets include a digital TV tuner or dual SIM slots. The vanilla US model is pretty sparse in terms of niceties, though it does (like the Moto G) have a built-in FM tuner for when you need some music that didn't come from the Google Play Store. There's no LTE to be found here, alas -- just a GSM radio that plays nice with the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands, and UMTS/HSPA+ support for 850/1700 (AWS)/1900MHz frequencies. Really, though: For $130 off-contract, what did you expect? It's less than half the price of the Nexus 5 and the Moto X, but as you'll see, cheap doesn't always equate with crappy.
For a phone of such humble means, the 4.3-inch IPS LCD sitting front and center still manages to impress... even if it's the lowest-resolution display I've laid eyes on in a long time. In a bid to keep costs as low as possible, Motorola ran with a qHD (960 x 540) screen -- if you're doing the math, that works out to a pixel density of 256 ppi. The number by itself isn't very exciting, but I think we can agree that the quality of a screen hinges on more than just how many pixels a manufacturer can squeeze in there.
Sure, you can pick out individual pixels if you peek closely enough. Taking a step back offers up a different, more positive perspective, though. The display itself is plenty bright, with crisp whites and passable blacks (we're not in AMOLED territory, after all), though I wish it fared better under the blazing sun. Colors are vivid and manage to pop without dipping into lurid, oversaturated territory. Viewing angles are similarly solid -- just be warned: Images can take on a peculiar cast when you peer in from an angle that's oblique enough. You'll also have a tough time trying to obscure that screen with your greasy fingers thanks to the anti-smudge coating Motorola has liberally applied. Is this screen perfect? Hardly, but its strong showing helps make the entire Moto E package that much more enticing.
Like its brethren before it, the Moto E runs a nearly stock build of Android 4.4.2 KitKat, which means there isn't anything terribly exciting to report on the software front. That's just fine by me -- I hate clunky, overwrought interfaces and "features for the sake of features" as much as the next elitist nerd. What you're ultimately left with is a clean-ish slate that stays true to Google's mobile vision, but still retains a few of Motorola's curious software fingerprints.
Take Motorola Migrate, for instance. It first appeared on the Droid Ultra, and it still lets phone switchers transfer their existing data (e.g., contacts, messages) to their new E's once the app has been installed on the original phone. Assist is still around too, though it lacks some of the smarts it packed when it first appeared on Moto's most recent Droids. As always, it can monitor your calendar to deflect callers at inopportune times, as well as let only VIPs reach you in your slumber, but there's no way for the E to detect when you're driving and auto-respond to folks texting you. As it happens, though, Motorola's newest preloaded app is also its most curious. The new Alert is of two minds: You can use it to blast your location so a curated list of friends will know where to meet you, and it packs an emergency mode that starts reaching out to those contacts (and emergency services) if you find yourself in trouble. Alert is a surprisingly thoughtful addition to Motorola's software mix, but with any luck, you'll never need to touch that emergency feature.
Motorola also promises that it'll get the next big version of Android in a timely fashion, even with a divorce from Google on the horizon. We'll see just how well Motorola can keep this promise soon enough -- for now, it's heartening to see a budget smartphone running the latest and greatest version of Google's mobile OS.
Smartphone cameras are tricky enough to get right when you're trying to cobble together a top-tier device, so you've got to have the proper expectations when you go downmarket. In the case of the Moto E, I expected very little and I got it. That may sound a bit harsh, but the Moto G's camera was a pleasant surprise and I was quietly hoping for the same to happen here. Instead, the 5-megapixel rear shooter consistently turned in soft shots with colors that seemed muted at best and downright lifeless at worst. That last issue can be mitigated a touch if you fire up HDR mode -- it's set to auto by default, so you'll occasionally find a vibrantly colored photo mixed in with the rest of the mud. Low-light performance left plenty to be desired too: The E's camera isn't great at sucking up photons, so there's smudginess and grit all over the place, a situation that isn't helped by the lack of a rear flash. Oh, and in case you already forgot, there's no front-facing camera to be found at all here.