If you asked me three years ago what kind of smartphone you could get for a couple hundred bucks off-contract, my answer would have been easy: You could get one that, to put it delicately, is a total piece of crap.
My, how things have changed.
In my pocket right now is a phone that costs $220 -- unlocked and off-contract, with no carrier commitments or years of inflated service charges attached. This is the higher-end model of the device, too; you can actually get the same phone with less storage and memory for a mere $180.
And you know what? It's a damn fine phone.
I'm talking, of course, about Motorola's new third-generation Moto G. The original Moto G redefined how good a budget phone could be when it strutted onto the scene in 2013. With this latest generation -- announced Tuesday and on sale now from Motorola, Amazon, and Best Buy -- the phone is making the leap from being "good for the price" to just being good, period.
Hello, Moto G version three
The third-gen Moto G follows the formula established by its predecessor, only with several noteworthy new twists. The device is modest but attractive -- nothing like the premium and beautifully crafted smartphones at the top end of the spectrum, as you'd expect, but reasonably nice-looking and well-built. It's also water-resistant, with the ability to swim in up to three feet of water for 30 minutes without getting damaged (here's lookin' at you, toilet-droppers...).
The new Moto G comes in a choice of 10 differently colored plastic back panels, with hues ranging from a plain black or blue to a loud neon yellow or green. The panels pull off of the phone and are interchangeable, so you can always buy more and swap out colors later if you want. And a metallic strip on the phone's back -- which begins with the camera lens and ends with the trademark Moto dimple -- gives the body a bit of subtle pizazz.
If you buy the phone through Motorola's Moto Maker site, you can even customize the color of that strip as well as choose a default back plate color and pick from black or white for the phone's face. All of that is available at no extra cost, which is a pretty cool perk (and something that was limited to the higher-end Moto X phone up till now).
With a 5-in. screen, the Moto G is refreshingly comfortable to hold and use in a single hand. It's actually about the same size as the 2014 Moto X (which has a 5.2-in. display with smaller bezels), though chunkier and a bit less curvy. The textured back isn't the most pleasant surface to touch but does give the phone a grippy feel; I've yet to have a moment where the device slides off a table or feels like it's slipping out of my hand.
The Moto G's 720p display, meanwhile, doesn't pop in the way the high-res panels on higher-end smartphones do -- but while it's not phenomenal, it really is quite decent. You might not spend hours reveling in its brilliance and glory, but unless you're a display snob, you also probably won't spend much time complaining about it or giving it an ounce of thought. (And if you are a display snob, well, you're shopping in the wrong aisle, pal. Scooch over to the top-of-the-line technology section and quit yer gripin' already, wouldya?)
Moving beyond the surface
The Moto G uses a Snapdragon 410 MSM8916 proces...blah, blah, blah blah blah blah blah. Pardon me while I take a quick nap.
Still with me? Good. Look -- those types of specs really don't tell you much. All you need to know is that in real-world terms, the Moto G's performance is solid: I've picked up on some very subtle occasional jerkiness in animations over these past couple days -- the type of thing most "normal" people aren't even going to notice -- but all in all, the phone has kept up with everything I've thrown its way without ever feeling the least bit laggy.
It's a noticeable improvement over last year's model, though there is a caveat: Remember, the version of the device I've been using is the $220 model with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of local storage. The lower-priced $180 model has 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. (Both models have a microSD card slot beneath the back cover that lets you add up to 32GB of additional storage space.)
Either way, you're getting a setup that's a step above last year's already-acceptable standard, but that extra gig of RAM should make a meaningful difference when it comes to day-to-day usage. The same could be said for the doubled amount of storage; eight gigs goes pretty fast these days, folks. If $180 is all you want to spend, the lower-end model may be enough to get you by -- but if you can justify the extra $40, it's well worth springing for the upgraded option.
What else? Battery life on this sucker has been outstanding for me so far: I've made it through both of my days with the Moto G without worrying once about power. Even with as much as four hours of active screen-on use, I've yet to dip below the 50% mark in a single day -- which is impressive, to say the least. The new Moto G also supports LTE (on GSM networks, meaning AT&T or T-Mobile in the States), which was a glaring omission in previous versions of the device. It does not, however, support NFC for contact-free payments and data transfers.
Let's end with a couple of high notes -- first, the software: Just like every other recent Motorola phone, the Moto G shines in overall user experience. You're getting Google's clean and intuitive stock Android 5.1.1 Lollipop interface, without all the arbitrary visual modifications and self-serving bloat most other manufacturers bake into the mix. All that's added is the usual sprinkling of genuinely useful and non-invasive Motorola features -- things like Moto Display, which shows you the time and any pending notifications (along with the ability to control certain types of media playback -- a newly added touch) whenever you pick up the phone. It truly is Android at its best.
And finally, the camera: The third-gen Moto G packs a new 13-megapixel shooter that uses the same sensor as Google's Nexus 6 flagship. In my scattered sampling of point-and-shoot photos -- all taken with the phone's default settings -- I've found it to be quite impressive and not far from the level of quality you'll get from many more expensive devices.
Some random examples -- no editing here other than the photos being sized down to fit on this page (and you can click any of them if you want to see the full-sized original images):
Not too shabby, right? (And yes, I realize I need to do some dusting.)
So here's the deal...
The realm of affordable Android phones has grown in leaps and bounds since the first Moto G arrived, and these days, you can find numerous compelling choices that won't break the bank. But with its latest effort, Motorola has managed to keep up with the best of 'em while still maintaining the lowest price around.
After two days with the new Moto G, I'd say this: This phone is a total steal at $180 and a hell of a deal at $220. Moto's top-notch software goes a long way in setting the experience apart from the pack, as does the fact that the phone isn't enormous (something some of us still appreciate). Add in factors like the stellar stamina, customizable body, and commendable camera, and you've got a device that once again redefines what a $200-level smartphone should be.
If you want to spend more money, you can certainly find phones that are more feature-packed, more premium, and more powerful. If you aren't concerned about those kinds of niceties and extras, though, and just want a solid all-around smartphone with a great user experience, the Moto G is a tough act to beat -- at a price that's easy to swallow.