Moto G5 and G5 Plus review: Still the best budget phones

With upgrades including great cameras, these phones are the best at this price.

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    The year was 2013, the company was Motorola, and the device was the Moto G. It set a new standard for affordable smartphones, offering a user experience that left the existing sea of cheap, crappy Android handsets in the dust. Years later, it seems the Moto G bloodline can do no wrong. As another generation of G emerges, can Motorola do with the G5 and G5 Plus what it does best, striking an ideal balance between hardware and price point? Of course it can.

    Gallery: Moto G5 & G5 Plus review | 33 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Good camera
    • Smooth performance
    • Very cheap
    Cons
    • Lackluster design
    • No NFC
    • Poor sunlight visibility

    Summary

    Another year, another pair of great affordable handsets from Motorola. The smaller, 5-inch Moto G5 offers reliable performance thanks to Android 7.0 Nougat, and a surprisingly good 13-megapixel camera. The design is a little uninspiring and the display is hard to read in direct sunlight, but this little smartphone does everything you need it to for a bargain price.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Solid performance
    • Flagship-grade camera
    • Decent battery life
    • Highly affordable
    Cons
    • No Moto Maker customization
    • No NFC in US model
    • Low-power display

    Summary

    Motorola's new Moto G5 Plus is easily the best affordable smartphone out there right now. It features the same great camera as the Galaxy S7 and its octa-core 2GHz processor paired with Android 7.0 Nougat make it a slick performer. It's a bit dull on the design front and the US model doesn't include NFC for some reason, but when you can pick one up for a mere $185 (with lockscreen ads through Amazon Prime), one can hardly complain.

    Hardware

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    Every year since Motorola released the first G, it's made relatively minor tweaks to a common design language. Last year's G4 series represented the biggest shift at the time. The domed back was abandoned in favor of a flatter, boxier shape, making for a more serious look compared to past G models. With the G5 and G5 Plus, Motorola has continued down that road to the extent that its latest smartphones bear little resemblance to their storied predecessors. But I'm not convinced that's a good thing.

    The Moto G concept has always been about putting affordability first. That hasn't changed with this generation, but the value proposition now includes metal, a premium building material that hasn't featured on any previous models. For me, though, this is little more than a gimmicky selling point. Motorola has been careful in its description of the new phones' "metal finish." That's important because you aren't getting an aircraft-grade aluminum unibody (which would be a significant leap in construction) but a lone metal panel that fills the majority of the back plate on both devices.

    This is most obvious on the G5, as you have to pry off the back piece to get at the SIM and microSD slots. Looking at the entire rear panel inside-out, you can clearly see where a thin metal sheet has been bonded to an otherwise all-plastic frame. The G5 Plus uses a drawer to absorb all your little cards -- a clever double-sided one that accepts two SIMs and a microSD, in fact -- so the limited amount of metal isn't as conspicuous. There's also virtually no discernible difference in texture between the metal and plastic parts, which further disguises the marriage of materials.

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    I've probably labored the point enough already, but my final word would be to ignore the marketing spiel. The G5 and G5 Plus are not metal phones; they're plastic with a sliver of metal glued to the back. That said, I don't want you thinking they're flimsy or fragile. Both are solid, well-built handsets that laughed off my feeble attempts to bend and twist them.

    There are other things to like about the design of the G5 and G5 Plus. For starters, both are small enough that you can easily use them one-handed, with no sharp corners digging into your palm. I'm also a fan of the bold black ring encircling the primary camera and companion flash on both handsets. It reminds me of the old Nokia Lumia 1020, though it's actually a design element borrowed from Motorola's higher-end Z line.

    On the G5, this camera enclosure is flush with the back plate, whereas on the Plus it's elevated by roughly two millimeters. This hump is actually quite attractive, highlighting what's arguably the phone's only eye-catching accent. Aside from this obvious difference, the G5 and G5 Plus look almost identical. You can barely tell the G5 Plus is a couple of millimeters taller and one millimeter wider than the G5 (all in the name of accommodating its slightly larger display). The standard 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top edge of the G5 and on the bottom edge of the G5 Plus, next to the micro-USB charging port, but that pretty much covers the exterior differences.

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    Whereas past iterations have been colorful and playful, this year's models are just a bit boring by comparison. The little dimple on the back of previous Gs where the Motorola logo sat (also serving as a natural finger rest) is gone, replaced by a raised, shiny plaque that has as tendency to collect hand grime. I get that Motorola is going for a more mature look, but it lacks a certain refinement. There's a significant amount of dead bezel framing the displays, for instance.

    Furthermore, the G5 and G5 Plus don't allow for Moto Maker customization, meaning you're torn between either the drab two-tone gray/silver color scheme or the slightly ostentatious gold. A "sapphire blue" model has begun hitting some markets and is the best-looking option from what I've seen online, but it's not widely available yet. In general, I feel the signature characteristics of the G line are progressively being eroded. The peak, for me, was the 2015 Moto G, which was the first model to offer Maker personalization and the only member of the lineage to boast true waterproofing.

    Display

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    The G5 and G5 Plus both sport full HD (1,920 x 1,080) LCD displays, which is the best resolution you can reasonably expect at these prices. Last year's G4 models offered the choice of 5- or 5.5-inch panels, but this time you have your pick of either a 5-incher on the regular G5 or the 5.2-inch screen of the G5 Plus -- at least you do in some parts of the world, anyway, as only the G5 Plus is sold in the US.

    Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better and I actually prefer the display of the G5 over the G5 Plus, though it's worth noting that the latter is protected by Gorilla Glass 3 and the former soda-lime glass. Blacks are excellent on both devices and white balance accurate, but colors appear a bit more vibrant on the smaller model. You need to see them side by side to catch this slight difference, though, and colors are still nicely saturated on the G5 Plus.

    This discrepancy is likely due to the fact the G5's display has a bit more power behind it. Neither panel performs particularly well in bright sunlight. You can still check the time and read your emails, but even at maximum brightness, glare is very obvious.

    Software

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    The next version of Android, simply called "O" for now, is already available for developers to poke around. It would be slightly disappointing, then, if your new phone didn't have a relatively fresh public release out of the box, which is something I've experienced recently. Thankfully, both Moto G5s are running Android 7.0 Nougat. It may not appear to be lightyears ahead of Marshmallow, but many of the tweaks are hidden, designed to improve performance and stability, among other things.

    If you're not familiar with the functionality specific to Nougat, there's little to catch up on. You can now run apps side by side, similar to how the deceased Xbox One Snap feature works. Except here, running two apps on a 5-inchish display isn't particularly useful; switching between full-screen apps typically gets the job done more comfortably. This leaves the richer notification drawer as the only genuinely useful improvement. The way it groups notifications and allows you to expand your recent emails (as an example) so you can see progressively more info after every tap is neat. This means you can do more micromanaging within the drawer, instead of having to go into individual apps.

    Motorola has never been one to stray too far from stock Android, and the G5s are no exception. Better yet, the few customizations the company included are all much appreciated. Motorola's circular clock widget, which shows the time, date, local weather and remaining battery charge is gorgeously minimalist. Also, the icon to bring up the app drawer has been removed and replaced with an arguably more natural up-swipe gesture, giving you an empty spot for another homescreen shortcut.

    With one-button navigation, you can also free up space on the screen by using the fingerprint sensor as all three standard Android keys. You tap it as if it's a normal home button and swipe left for back or right for recents.

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    The handy little tweaks continue on the lockscreen, should you choose to enable Motorola's special notifications feature. Move the phone to any degree after it's been left alone for a few seconds and the time plus a record of any unchecked notifications will briefly flash on the screen. Hold your finger on any of the bubble icons signaling something unseen, and it expands to show more info. From there, opening it fully or dismissing it is only a swipe away. It's not a revolutionary new take on lockscreen notifications by any means; it just looks prettier than the white bars you get when you fully wake your phone.

    By far the best feature contributions by Motorola are the whole-phone gestures you can enable. Without needing to unlock the G5 and G5 Plus, two successive chop motions turns the flashlight on, while two wrist twists opens the camera. They may sound gimmicky but the camera quick-launch feature is genuinely the first I've found myself using naturally, probably because it's so physical (as opposed to more fiddly implementations like entering the Konami code on a volume rocker). It certainly made grabbing camera samples on both phones while strolling around London much more spontaneous.

    Otherwise, the G5s run the flavor of Nougat you know and like, with Motorola slipping in only helpful additions that don't hinder Android performance.

    Camera

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    If there's one thing I like about a camera app, it's simplicity, being able to point and shoot without feeling like I should be picking a different scene mode for every snap. That's why Motorola's camera app is exactly my cup of tea. It boots up almost immediately and has a clean interface, with HDR, flash options and a countdown timer the only settings you can fiddle with from the viewfinder. In addition to familiar modes including panorama and slow-mo video, there's a "professional" option that puts additional settings in the viewfinder. They allow you to manually adjust ISO, white balance and exposure -- standard stuff. I've never been one to labor over settings when I just want to grab a quick snap, so it's fortunate that Motorola make it easy to ignore them.

    That's because, even in the regular point-and-shoot mode, if you tap the screen to select your focal point, a little exposure slider appears around the perimeter of the reticle. It's a stroke of genius. How often do you look at the viewfinder and question the white balance setting? Likely never. But I bet you've been in a situation where you frame your shot and the exposure meter picks up a bright blue sky and hides your subject in darkness.

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    It's normal -- auto-exposure is a fickle beast -- but Motorola solves that problem with one, simple slider. Between that, the wrist-twisting quick-launch gesture and the uncluttered interface, the camera app is a joy to use. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention you can use the camera to scan QR and bar codes. Not something you'll be doing all that often, I imagine, but it's convenient you don't have to install another app for this.

    Though the G5 and G5 Plus carry different cameras, there's little that separates them where image processing is concerned. Shutter and focus response are basically immediate across both devices; and even in low-light conditions, or when you force HDR mode (it's set to auto by default), you're only waiting an extra few milliseconds for these photos to process before you can grab your next shot. In short, both handsets lend themselves well to moments you have to be quick to capture.

    Both devices have the same front-facing 5-megapixel camera with wide-angle lens and f/2.2 aperture. You don't find many front-facers with lower resolutions than that these days, but it does the job if you're the type who doesn't demand selfies or video calls of the highest quality. There's a beautification mode if you prefer your skin homogenized, an HDR mode that works as expected, and the display will double as a makeshift flash in a pinch. So, not a great number of megapixels, but all the features you might want.

    Gallery: Moto G5 camera samples | 30 Photos

    The regular G5 plays host to a 13-megapixel primary camera with f/2.0 aperture and phase detection autofocus. And for a device as cheap as this, it's a pretty impressive shooter. I recently spent time with a succession of affordable devices (for review purposes) that had 13MP cameras or better (on paper), but the G5 is on a completely different level. Images are full of detail and color reproduction is almost always accurate. The HDR mode does what it's supposed to, adding a bit more depth to already well-saturated images. White balance is on point, and only infrequently does auto-exposure require manual correction, which is easy thanks to the reticule slider I mentioned.

    Camera performance falls off in low light, but it's not useless in unfavorable conditions. As you'd expect, shutter speed declines and images lose that crisp definition as graininess creeps in. Auto-exposure and white balance settings struggle a little more than they do in the spring sun, but in spite of all this, you can still squeeze some decent photos out of the G5 in low light. Sometimes they're borderline good if you have a steady hand and enough contrast in the frame. Way better than I've experienced on plenty of phones, anyway.

    Video clips filmed on the G5 are good enough, but not great. At 1080p/30 fps, you get a fair amount of detail, but focus can be a bit fidgety when panning, while the audio is muffled and one-dimensional. Auto-exposure works well and holds steady, though, which is something I often find to be problematic on smartphones. In low light, video performance stands up pretty well even if you do lose a significant amount of detail and take on a lot more grain.

    Gallery: Moto G5 Plus camera samples | 34 Photos

    The G5 Plus features exactly the same primary camera as the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. That is a 12MP sensor with "dual autofocus pixels" and f/1.7 aperture. And credit where credit's due: it's a flagship-grade camera that spits out the same quality of images as the Galaxy S7 line. Quite simply, it takes gorgeous, vivid images with heaps of detail. You can also leave the phone to take care of white balance and exposure, because it's rarely wrong.

    There are a couple of reasons why the camera on the G5 Plus is just a bit better than the one on the G5. Firstly, it takes better pictures in the macro range, with the f/1.7 aperture allowing for a shallower depth of field that results in softer background blur (bokeh). But more importantly, the G5 Plus has superior light metering and dynamic range that shows in images as improved contrast. The G5 Plus automatically employs HDR mode much more regularly than the G5, but even when you forcibly turn it off, the Plus captures more texture in any given scene.

    Similarly, the G5 Plus picks up more detail and contrast in low-light situations, which is expected given the points I just covered. Images aren't quite as grainy, but the G5 Plus also isn't immune to slowing shutter speeds and the odd, questionable choice of white balance and exposure setting. All told, it's a solid nighttime shooter.

    Video performance is comparable across the devices. Audio is slightly crisper on the G5 Plus and focus holds steadier, but there's no marked improvement in quality at 1080p/30 fps. Well, just a little in low-light conditions, with the G5 Plus sucking up a few more photons. The Plus is also capable of shooting 4K video, however -- a feature you won't find on the G5. Ultra HD clips are beautifully detailed, though they should be, really.

    Regardless of whether you pick up a G5 or a G5 Plus, you won't be disappointed. These are some good cameras, and not just good for the price points, either.

    Performance and battery life

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    The Moto G5 runs on a 1.4GHz octa-core Snapdragon 430 chip and Adreno 505 GPU, while the G5 Plus steps things up a notch with a beefier 2.0GHz octa-core Snapdragon 635 processor and Adreno 506 GPU. Beyond that, there are bunch of different configurations. In the UK, there's one G5 option with 2GB of RAM and 16 gigs of internal storage, as well as a dual-SIM, Amazon-exclusive config with 3GB of RAM and the same amount of memory. There's just one G5 Plus variant, with three gigs of RAM and 32GB of storage.

    The G5 Plus is the only handset you can buy in the US, and you have the choice between two variants. One with 2GB of RAM and 32 gigs of storage, and another with double both those values. Other territories have different builds, too, like the 4GB/32GB model available only in Asia. Storage isn't something you need to focus on that much, since both the G5 and Plus support microSD cards as large as 128GB. And in terms of RAM, you're probably going to want to get as much as you can afford.

    It's all about future-proofing. Choosing a G5 Plus over a G5 doesn't just get you a faster chip -- it also means your phone stays faster for longer as OS, app updates and general use begin to take their toll on performance. Similarly, more RAM simply means there's more to tap, whether that be to support multitasking or resource-intensive apps.

    I can only comment on the review devices I have on hand, both of which carry three gigs of RAM. Whether you're jumping in and out of popular apps -- from your text messages and Gmail accounts to YouTube and Chrome -- or poking around the homescreen, settings menu and app drawer, both devices are extremely slick. Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors are de rigueur for smartphones, of course, but Android 7.0 Nougat has a lot to do with this.

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    I've recently used phones with Snapdragon 430s running Marshmallow and though I felt they offered a great user experience (especially for the price), they weren't without gremlins. But not once during my time with either the G5 or G5 Plus have I seen an unexplained hang, an app crash, a laggy response to a swipe or tap, or any other hiccup. Both devices are extremely pleasant to use, so much so that they've reset my expectations for how affordable phones should perform.

    There are minor speed differences between them. In general use, apps that load as fast as you need them to on the G5 boot up even faster on G5 Plus, though we're talking improvements in the milliseconds. And when you're playing a 3D game like the zombie blaster Unkilled, both phones run it perfectly well at the highest graphics settings, but it was a little smoother on the Plus thanks to a higher base frame rate. None of my go-to games posed any problem for either device. That said, I did notice something strange when playing Asphalt 8: Airborne on the highest detail setting. The Plus definitely had the G5 beat on max frame rate, but performance was more consistent on the G5, hiding any evidence of dropped frames.

    The fact Motorola has included NFC in the G line for the first time should be a good thing, and it is. Hooray for Android Pay and similar services. There's just one problem: The useful little chip is present in the European model of the G5 Plus, but missing from the US version. Don't ask me why they decided not to include something that has such an obvious benefit to buyers, because I don't understand it either.

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    Another area where the G5s differ is battery capacity. You're looking at a 2,800mAh removable battery in the G5 and a 3,000mAh unit hidden under the G5 Plus' shell. Neither is big enough to get you through two days of frequent use, but they don't exactly disappoint. The G5 Plus got me through a good day and a half of moderately intensive tapping before crying out for a wall socket. The G5 wasn't too far behind either, and this is reflected in their battery rundown scores. Looping an HD video at 50 percent brightness, the G5's battery died after nine hours and five minutes on average (based on several runs). The G5 Plus bested that with an average result of 10 hours and 20 minutes. They don't break any records and will often require daily charge, but these aren't worst scores I've seen.

    The G5 and G5 Plus both use micro-USB for charging and data transfer instead of the newer USB-C standard. They still boast some form of fast-charging, however, though they only work when the battery is dead or close to it. It's called "rapid" on the G5 and "turbo" on the G5 Plus, and both promise hours of use from just 15 minutes of plug-in time. In my experience, 10 minutes gets you juiced up roughly 10 to 15 percent. Charging begins to slow as the battery fills and in total, the G5 goes from dead to 100 in a little over two hours. The G5 Plus' larger battery will achieve the same result in about an hour and 45 minutes.

    The competition

    This one's simple: There isn't any. If you're in the market for an affordable, off-contract phone, trust me when I say you want it to be running Android Nougat. But this seriously limits your options.

    In the US, the 2GB/32GB G5 Plus will set you back $229 while the 4GB/64GB version costs $300. The only phone that I'd consider in the running right now is the $250 Honor 6X. It has a comparable processor, 5.5-inch 1080p display, three gigs of RAM and dual rear cameras that let you play around with focal point and background blur, among other tricks. The only issue is that it's still running EMUI 4.1, which is based on Android Marshmallow. An update to the latest version of EMUI, which uses Nougat as its backbone, is coming in the relatively near future, though.

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    All roads lead to the G5 Plus at this point and that's even clearer if you're an Amazon Prime member. If you can live with lockscreen ads (and I imagine you can), you can grab a 2GB/32GB G5 Plus for just $185, or the 4GB/64GB variant for $230. If you want to go cheaper, then you still needn't look further than Motorola. Though it features slightly older components, the G4 is discounted to $180 right now on Motorola's site (this sale ends in May) and you customize your very own through Moto Maker. The G4 is also part of the Prime exclusive program, so if you're happy with a plain white or black model, you can snag one for a mere $130.

    If you're in any of the territories where the G5 is on sale, you might as well stop reading now and just go buy one. In the UK, you can pick up a Moto G5 for £180 (roughly $225 at the current exchange rate), and there's no point trying to recommend anything else at that price point. Better yet, grab the Amazon-exclusive model for £190 and give yourself an extra gig of RAM to work with. Have a bit more cash to hand? Upgrade to the £250 G5 Plus.

    Wrap-up

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    We at Engadget probably sound like a broken record now, but yet again, Motorola is showing the industry how to make great, affordable devices. I'm not a fan of the design direction Motorola has taken with the the G line, and don't pay attention to any mention of metal bodies -- a thin metal sheet stuck to a plastic frame does not a metal phone make. Also, why Motorola released the G5 Plus in the US without NFC when it's available elsewhere is beyond me. Surely, people would like the option of paying with their phones.

    The slightly boring design and that NFC issue aside, the G5 and G5 Plus both deliver unmatched value. With this generation, the camera on both devices is a highlight; solid performance courtesy of Nougat ranks a close second. I would have loved waterproofing and a brighter display, but I guess you can't have it all. The G5s aren't game-changing upgrades over last year's G4s. But when you make the best affordable smartphones around, all you really need to do is freshen up some of the components and voila! -- you've created another excellent pair.

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