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ALAN ZISMAN ON TECHNOLOGY

Is the world ready to buy a less-than-superphone?      
- a review of Motorola's Moto G

By Alan Zisman
22 January 2014

How old is your mobile phone?

Mobile devices remain on the fast-track to obsolescence. My 2010 first-generation iPad doesn't qualify for last year's iOS7 update - or the previous year's iOS6. The result is that I increasingly can't install the apps I want onto it. Three years old and increasingly limited.

Many US and Canadian mobile phone customers have gotten in the habit of getting a new phone every time their mobile contracts came up for renewal - typically two years in the US and (until recently) three years in Canada. Not just because the technology has moved forward - there's a lot of wear and tear on a mobile device in pocket or purse and after a couple of years the screen is scratched (or broken), buttons no longer work, and more. Time for a refresh.

When it's time for a new phone, what do you get? Not what platform (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry) and not what manufacturer (Apple, Samsung, Nokia, RIM, whatever).

In general, regardless of mobile network, phone manufacturer, and platform, you've had three choices for a new smartphone:
  • a top of the line superphone - currently models like Apple's iPhone 5S or Samsung's Galaxy S4
  • a previous year's top of the line model still on sale at a discounted price - Apple's iPhone 4 or Samsung's Galaxy S3
  • a low-end model that was never top of the line
US and Canadian customers have had a warped view of this process compared to mobile users in the rest of the world. In most cases, North American mobile users lock into an expensive monthly plan for several years but in exchange get a phone which appears to be low-cost.

For instance, at Canadian mobile network Rogers, smartphone customers opting for a two-year contract can choose between 56 smartphone models, at prices starting at CDN$0. 16 GB Apple iPhone 5s for CDN$229 or a Samsung Galaxy S4 for CDN$180. Older models like an 8 GB iPhone 4S or a Galaxy SIII Mini are 'free'. Also free are a variety of models with much less name recognition - A Samsung Galaxy Ace IIx, for instance. From time to time, a current high-end model will go on sale - making them seem to be even more affordable.

(Don't want to commit to a multi-year contract? Rogers will sell you that same iPhone 5s for its real price - CDN$719 or that Galaxy S4 for $699. That 'free' Galaxy Ace IIx will cost you $225).

About the low-end models - most of these are pretty low-end. Take the Samsung Galaxy Ace IIx (released in 2012) that Rogers offers for $0 (on a two-year contract), for example. Several year-old Android 4.0. 800x400 pixel screen with 256,000 colours. Not necessarily a bad phone - it compares well to Samsung's original, 2010 high-end Galaxy S - released June 2010.

Other than the three categories listed above, is there a mid-tier? A phone that could offer a modern design at a mid-range price-point?

Apple has traditionally accompanied new iPhone models by offering previous years' models at reduced prices - this time around it released a lower-priced iPhone 5c alongside its high-end 5s model. But in many ways, the 5c is really last year's iPhone 5 repackaged in a (cheaper to manufacture) colourful plastic case rather than a new design.

Recently, Motorola - now owned by Google - released a phone that's aiming for what it hopes will be the untapped sweet spot - a modern, new design aimed squarely at the lower end. No cutting-edge features and no high-end price. But also not simply a re-launch of a two year-old model with two year-old specs.

The Moto G follows up on last year's Moto X, Motorola's first phone designed since the company was acquired by Google. Last September, I suggested that the Moto X might be 'the best smartphone ever'. The Moto X focuses more on usability than high-end specs resulting in a phone that is comfortable to hold and easy to use. (Motorola recent lowered its price - to US$399 off-contract (and $49 on-contract with many US and Canadian mobile services, perhaps an indication that sales have not been as robust as they might have hoped).

I have to compare the (under US$200 full-price) Moto G to its $400 Moto X sibling. What do you give up in moving from the high-end?

With its curved plastic back, the Moto G closely resembles its more expensive sibling - but lacking the Moto X's extensive customization options. Sorry, no design-your-own, no wooden back options for Moto G customers, though 6 coloured back-pieces are available ($15 online) from Motorola, at least in the US. (Is there Canadian availability?)

Both Moto models come with a near-stock version of Android; while Motorola has customized Android to work well with the Moto models' hardware (especially the cameras), the user experience is close to the pure Android experience - in my opinion a good thing. This also means that users can hope for more timely updates than is typical with the Android phones from many manufacturers. While my review Moto G came with Android 4.3, recently-released Kit Kat 4.4 is currently rolling out for both Moto models - sooner than for Samsung or HTC models.

And users migrating from an Android or iPhone model to either Moto model can make use of the Motorola Migrate app - install it on your old phone and you can use it to transfer photos, videos, SIM contacts, and more. Worked fine in my tests.

It shares another useful Motorola app with the Moto X: Motorola Assist. This sets the phone to behave differently in different settings - at home vs at work or when it thinks you're sleeping, for instance. The useful setting where the phone knows when you're driving isn't available on the Moto G, however. Pity!

The Moto X uses 8 different processors for different functions including several low powered ones laying low (and using minimal power) waiting to for their chance to make the phone useful; one for instance fires up Google Now when it hears your voice (and just your voice) speak "Okay Google Now". Not the Moto G. Again, pity!

The 4.5" LCD display is not as bright as the AMOLED display used on the Moto X and many other higher-end models, but it's clear with good colour fidelity.

You will get pretty good battery life, however, partly due to having a relatively low-powered processor (a quad-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon 400) and a display that - while hi-def - features good-enough 720p rather than the over-the-top 1080p display available on several higher-end models. Battery life was good for all day use plus some in my use. (Your use may vary).

The camera's a modest 5 megapixel model that's okay - nothing special. It does include an auto-HDR mode that can take quite rich photos of sunsets and the like.

No high-speed LTE data connection. (One more thing that helps the battery life, though). GSM-only, meaning it won't be usable with some US (and a few International) mobile providers (like US Verizen and Sprint) that use CDMA. (A CDMA-version has been promised) And even in the GSM space, it doesn't support the AWS frequencies used in Canada by budget mobile providers Wind and Mobilicity.

Conclusion - a nice but not killer Android smartphone.

But wait - none of this means anything independent of price and availability. The Moto G isn't priced as a competitor for high-end phones like the iPhone 5S or Galaxy S4. It's not even competing with the (somewhat) lower-priced iPhone 5C. Potential US customers can order it from Motorola, for instance, for $179 - half the price of the Google Nexus 5 or Moto X, a quarter the price of the iPhone 5s. Unlocked, off contract. (That $179 gets you a somewhat modest 8 GB storage; upping that to 16 GB ups the price by a reasonable $20. No 32 GB model, however, and no support for removable memory cards. Pay the extra $20 for the 16GB model - you won't regret it!)

So the Moto G is really competing with the low-end phones like that Samsung Galaxy Ace IIx - and it's $50 cheaper than that model - at least if you're paying full price. And comparing the Moto G to the Galaxy Ace IIx is no contest - the Moto G is by far the best of the low-cost pile. Its features and performance put it on a par with high-end models of a year or two ago, say the iPhone 4 or Galaxy S3 - both of which are still on sale for about double the Moto G's price.

On contract, you can't get much cheaper than $0 - which is what Canada's Rogers asks for the Galaxy Ace IIx. And that's what Canada's Telus (and Telus's junior brand Koodo) charge for the Moto G on contract. $0. A free phone. At least that's what you can tell yourself. (Or CDN$200 off-contract).

It's the only low-end phone I can recommend - at least if it'll run on your prefered carrier.

In Canada, it's only on Telus (and Koodo) (though if you can get your hands on an unlocked model it should run just fine on Rogers/Fido or Bell/Virgin. In the US, the 'International GSM' model will work on T-Mobile's network, while you'll need the 'US-GSM' model for AT&T. A CDMA model for other US networks has been promised.



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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to alan@zisman.ca are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter for notice of new blog postings.
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