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

The Moto G provides an excellent overall experience at a low off-contract price -- but it's still a budget phone. So is it worth owning?

Quick -- when you hear the phrase "budget phone," what's the first thing that comes to mind?

If you're anything like me, it's a subpar, low-level experience you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy. That connotation exists for a reason: Smartphones that cost less than $200 off-contract have traditionally been pretty pitiful devices -- junky old phones with poor performance, disappointing displays and outdated software.

Moto G
Motorola's Moto G

With its new Moto G, Motorola is hoping to change that. The Moto G is sold unlocked and off-contract for $179 (8GB) or $199 (16GB) -- and while it's certainly not a top-of-the-line device, it delivers an admirable overall user experience that puts other phones in its class to shame.

So generalities aside, what's the Moto G actually like to use in the real world? I've been living with the phone all week to find out.

Note: The Moto G is currently compatible with GSM networks in the United States, which means it'll work with AT&T, T-Mobile or any of the prepaid carriers that utilize those networks. A CDMA version of the device (compatible with Sprint and Verizon) is expected to be sold via carriers starting in January.

Body and display

At a glance, the Moto G looks a lot like its higher-end brother -- the critically acclaimed Moto X.

The Moto G has the same basic shape and design as the X, with a narrow profile and curved back that fits nicely in the hand. The phone's soft plastic casing has a warm and comfortable feel.

Like the X, the Moto G has a dimple in the upper-center of its back that's a natural place to rest your finger while holding the phone. The dimple has a subtle silver-colored Motorola "M" logo, which is the only marking or branding anywhere on the outside of the device.

The Moto G's back can be detached from the rest of the phone. Behind it, you'll find a slot for the phone's SIM card but no removable battery. The real purpose of the detachable back is to provide a simple means of customization: You can buy a brightly colored replacement shell from Motorola for 15 bucks and give your gadget a little extra personality. You can also opt for a $30 "Flip Shell" that has a built-in screen cover with magnets that turn the display on and off.

I tested the phone with a turquoise shell and a blue Flip Shell. I liked the look of the regular shell but wasn't so fond of its material: It has a less smooth and soft feel than the default black panel and struck me as a step down in quality. The Flip Shell worked as advertised, but it has a textured vinyl-like feel that wasn't quite my cup of tea.

In terms of general form, the Moto G is chunkier than the Moto X: It's 5.11 x 2.59 in. and 5.04 oz. with thickness ranging from 0.24 to 0.46 in. The X, meanwhile, is 5.09 x 2.57 in. and 4.58 oz. with thickness ranging from 0.22 to 0.41 in. The differences in weight and thickness are the most noticeable of those measurements; the G looks and feels somewhat bulky next to its sleek sibling.

Moto G
The Moto G (right) is slightly larger and thicker than its high-end cousin, the Moto X (left).

While the Moto G itself is slightly larger than the X, its screen is actually smaller: The G packs a 4.5-in. LCD display compared to the X's 4.7-in. AMOLED display. The reason is that the Moto G has larger bezels than its brother, both on the sides and at the bottom of the device.

At 720p and 329 pixels per inch, though, the Moto G's Gorilla Glass-protected screen looks fantastic. Colors are vivid and true to life, text is sharp and the display is bright and easy to see even in glary outdoor conditions. Images on the Moto G are less saturated than what you'll see on the X, but that's largely just a result of the difference between LCD and AMOLED technology. The G's screen also has less deep blacks but more pure whites than the X's display, which is also typical of any LCD vs. AMOLED comparison.

A small LED notifier sits above the Moto G's screen, to the left of the earpiece. The phone has a sturdy-feeling metallic-colored power button and volume rocker on its right side, a 3.5mm headphone jack on its top edge and a standard micro-USB port on its bottom edge. There is no HDMI-out functionality.

As far as audio goes, the Moto G has a single speaker grille on the upper-left side of its back panel. The phone's sound quality is unremarkable but decent enough by smartphone standards: Music played through the phone is loud and clear and, thanks to the phone's sloped back, remains relatively unmuffled even when the device is sitting on a flat surface. The G's audio is a bit tinnier and less full-sounding than the X's, but we're talking a fairly faint contrast between the two.

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