Hands on: What the Moto E is actually like to use (and who should buy it)

Just when you thought unlocked smartphones couldn't get any cheaper, Motorola came along and -- oops! -- they did it again.

I'm talking, of course, about the company's new Moto E -- the $129 entry-level phone introduced last week. Motorola's making it crystal clear whom it's going after with the Moto E, and news flash: If you're a regular reader of this blog, it probably isn't you. But that doesn't mean the device doesn't matter.

Moto E

The Moto E is designed to appeal to flip-phone holdouts -- folks who haven't yet made the leap to smartphone territory. Think parents or possibly grandparents here, along with those for whom cost is a major consideration (including people in developing countries).

At a price of $129 unlocked and off-contract, the Moto E is about as cheap as you can get -- but unlike most budget-level phones, that low cost doesn't mean you're sentencing yourself to a pitifully painful experience. I've been using the phone for a few days now, and while it's not gonna blow any of us away, it actually does a really nice job for what it's intended to do.

So what's the Moto E like to use? In the simplest possible terms, it's basically like the Moto G -- only another notch down in quality. First things first, you've got a 4.3-in. 540-x-960 LCD display. Flagship-caliber? Of course not. But at 256 pixels per inch, it's perfectly respectable and looks quite decent -- almost shockingly so for a phone of this class. (The Moto G, for comparison, has a 4.5-in. 720p LCD display with 329 pixels per inch.)

Moto E Display

The Moto E is pretty similar in form to the Moto G, too -- kind of like a cheaper and chunkier Moto X. It's a little shorter than the G, thanks to its sized-down screen, but the two devices are pretty comparable other than that. The E feels solid and sturdy in the hand, and its plastic casing has a warm and comfortable if somewhat pedestrian feel. Like the G, the phone's back also pops off and can be replaced with a variety of multicolored shells (which Moto sells for 15 bucks a pop).

Moto E Shells

The E packs a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon 200 processor with 1GB of RAM. It's not what you'd call a speedy or particularly snappy phone, but it also doesn't feel laggy or at all unbearable to use. If you're coming from a flagship-level device, it's gonna be less zippy than what you're used to -- no question there -- but it also won't make you want to gouge your eyes out like most low-end phones do. It's perfectly usable and an interesting reminder of how much difference proper software optimization can make.

The Moto E has a mere 4GB of internal space, which isn't much -- even compared to the 8 or 16GB you get with the Moto G. It does have a micro-SD card slot, though, so you can tack on up to 32GB of extra local storage with that.

What else? The phone's got good battery life and the usual excellent "stock-plus" software Moto's known for these days. And speaking of software, while most budget-level phones are abandoned by their manufacturers as soon as they're released, Motorola's guaranteeing "at least one" upgrade to the next version of Android for the E (the phone ships with the current Android 4.4.2 KitKat release).

You won't have LTE with the Moto E but can connect to HSPA+ networks on AT&T or T-Mobile in the U.S., which should give you solid data connections in most areas. I actually rely on T-Mobile HSPA+ for my own personal phone and frequently get speeds around the 18 Mbps mark, which is higher than what you'll see on LTE in a lot of places here in the States.

So all said and done, who should buy the Moto E? Simple: Someone who's ready for a smartphone but doesn't need anything more than the minimum. If you're interested in technology but trying to keep costs low, I'd go ahead and drop the extra $50 to get the Moto G, which starts at $179; for anyone who's reasonably tech-savvy and can justify the extra 50 bucks, the difference between the two phones -- in performance, storage, and display quality (not to mention the inclusion of a front-facing camera, which is lacking on the E) -- is meaningful enough to be worth that chunk of change.

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But the type of person who should get the Moto E is the type of person who genuinely doesn't care about those differences -- and who consequently doesn't have any reason to pay more than $129 for a basic but solid starter smartphone experience.

I ordered one for my mom this weekend. She's pretty excited to leave her old flip-phone behind.


Moto G real-world review: The best budget phone money can buy

Moto G vs. Moto X: Which model is right for you?

What makes the Moto X so special

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