Hands on: What's different with the Moto G Google Play Edition?

Google caught most of us by surprise this week when it announced a new Google Play Edition of Motorola's budget-level Moto G phone.

Moto G Google Play Edition

Sound strange? It is: The whole benefit of a Google Play Edition phone is that the device runs unmodified stock Android software with a guarantee of speedy future upgrades. But the regular Moto G already runs a near-stock version of Android -- featuring the standard Android UI with just a small handful of feature additions -- and Motorola has thus far been delivering upgrades pretty close to Google's own schedule.

So what makes the Moto G Google Play Edition different? Good question. I've got the device in hand now. Here's what I'm noticing:

• First and foremost, it's very much the same Moto G we've met before -- completely identical in terms of body and hardware. No special branding or anything out of the norm. You can click over to my Moto G real-world review for a more detailed look at the phone and what it's like to use; since nothing has really changed with the basics, I'm not going to spend any time focusing on that here.

Moto G Google Play Edition Launcher

• The Moto G Google Play Edition uses the standard stock Android launcher you'll see on other GPE devices or on the Nexus 4 -- not the new "Google Experience" launcher used on the Nexus 5. The notification and navigation bars are not transparent. Curiously, the phone's packaging does appear to show the "Google Experience" launcher in place, with transparent bars -- as do the press renders Google has been sending out to the media -- but that's definitely not the case on the device.

• The Moto G GPE has the full KitKat-level Dialer app, which allows for in-app Web searches and Internet-powered caller ID by Google. That app has been (officially) limited to Nexus and GPE devices thus far.

• The Moto G GPE doesn't have any of the Moto-specific features from the regular Moto G phone. That includes the Trusted Bluetooth option for automatically bypassing your lock screen when a specific Bluetooth device is present; the Motorola Assist app for simple conditional programming; Moto Care for Motorola-based service and support; and the FM Radio app for, you know, FM radio use. If it was added into the OS by Motorola, it's gone on this model.

And for anyone wondering, if you look in the Play Store, the Motorola apps related to those features all show up as being "incompatible" with this device.

• The Moto G GPE uses the stock Android Camera app instead of Motorola's custom alternative. Photo Sphere, however, is not present. I actually find Motorola's app easier to use, personally, so this seems like a step down to me.

Moto G Google Play Edition Camera

• The Moto G GPE uses the standard KitKat boot animation instead of the custom (and seasonally evolving) Motorola alternative. This is because Motorola's Boot Services app is not present on the phone.

• One important data-related distinction: Unlike the regular Moto G, the Google Play Edition does not support the 1700 MHz (AWS) band that's required for much of T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. That means if you're using this phone with T-Mobile, there's a decent chance you'll be stuck with painfully slow Edge-level data speeds. So in other words, the Moto G Google Play Edition is essentially only a viable option if you're going to be using it with AT&T's network -- or if you're confident you'll be using it only in the limited number of cities where T-Mobile now offers HSPA+ service on the 1900 MHz band.

Aaaaand, that's about it, folks: Network support aside, there really isn't a heck of a lot that separates this device from the regular model. It even costs the same: $179 for an 8GB version or $199 for 16GB. Best way to think of it is as a minor variation for Android enthusiasts with specific desires.

For most people, I'd say the regular Moto G remains the better option, as Motorola's feature additions are minimal, uninvasive, and genuinely useful. With the GPE model, you're losing out on that stuff and not gaining a heck of lot that's significant in its place. The GPE model may get future upgrades a bit quicker than the regular Moto G model, but if KitKat is any indication, we're probably talking around a month's difference at most.

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If you prefer a completely "pure" stock Android setup, though -- or want that added guarantee of extra-speedy upgrades direct from Google -- the Moto G Google Play Edition might be the budget-level choice you've been waiting for. Just as long as you're using it with AT&T.


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

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

The best Android phones you can buy right now

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