Up close with the Moto G4 Plus, the best from a puzzling new lineup

Do we really need three Moto Gs?

I've been spending my time here at Google I/O hoping to catch a Google exec pull a supersecret VR headset out of a coat pocket. Instead I ran into one using Motorola's new Moto G4 Plus -- the highest-end of the three new Moto G models announced earlier this week. Said exec was surprisingly cool about letting me give a personal phone the full hands-on treatment too. After a few minutes of play time, I can say that Motorola once again has an impressive device on its hands. It's too bad, though, that a confusing lineup of Moto Gs suggest Motorola's priorities have shifted in some unsettling ways.

First things first: To quickly recap, the G4 Plus runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with an octa-core Snapdragon 617 chipset, and either 2GB or 4GB of RAM. The pricier 4GB model is paired with either 32GB or 64GB of storage, while the lower-specced version has only 16GB of storage. It's a good thing, then, that the microSD slot takes cards as large as 128GB. This particular Plus was a 4GB/64GB model, making it a terribly snappy little machine. Swiping through home screens, launching apps and some furious multitasking all felt instantaneous.

Two software factors probably helped here: Motorola once again used a near-stock build of Android, and fortunately the exec who loaned me his phone hadn't yet loaded up his device with many apps. This level of performance would've been flagship quality not that long ago, and now we're squeezing it out of a mostly midrange phone. The overall experience -- complete with mostly clean Android and useful extras like an always-on display -- make the G4 Plus a compelling choice compared with other Snapdragon 617-enabled phones, such as the HTC A9.

And, speaking as a phone-design nerd, the slim G4 Plus actually feels pretty great in hand. It's an entirely plastic phone with a nicely textured removable back (hiding a nonremovable 3,000mAh battery), and its surprisingly skinny frame reminds me a bit of the Galaxy S4. That's not to say, however, that every design choice Motorola made works well. Consider the square fingerprint sensor below the bright, 5.5-inch TFT LCD screen: It looks like a home button but doesn't work as one, making the placement feel odd and clumsy. This isn't something the old Motorola would have done.

At the very least, the 16-megapixel camera seems impressive. Besides the fingerprint sensor, this camera is the only difference between the G4 Plus and the regular G4, which instead comes with a 13-megapixel camera. DxOMark puts it slightly ahead of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus in terms of image quality. I wasn't able to snap photos with this phone -- mostly because I didn't want to accidentally look into this guy's camera roll -- but the phase-detect and laser autofocus worked remarkably well.

So yes, the Moto G4 Plus is a fine phone. It's also part of a confusing trio of Moto Gs, including one -- the Moto G Play -- that felt noticeably less powerful than the others. Potential Moto E replacement? Maybe, though Motorola said earlier this year it has "no plans to retire" the E. What was always nice about the Moto G was how uncomplicated its ambitions were: If you wanted an inexpensive, undeniably good Android phone, the Moto G was your best choice. That clarity is now gone. You'll be able to get a good Moto G, or a better Moto G or a slightly worse Moto G.

It's a sign of pragmatism, I suppose: The company can reach different customers with different needs, but it's also a sign that Motorola has lost some of the focus that once made it so special. With any luck, I'm totally wrong. Maybe everything is great under Lenovo, and Motorola President Rick Osterloh's return to Google doesn't mean the company's vision has been muddled. We'll see.

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