Motorola's new Moto E has been a long time coming -- it's a super-cheap smartphone from a historied and respected manufacturer that isn't terrible and doesn't try to offer the world. And, if you look at it in the context of its bargain-basement price tag, you'll be impressed.
What Is It?
The Motorola Moto E is the company's third major Australian smartphone release since the amazing Moto X worldwide unveiling at the end of last year. It's a markedly different phone to both the Moto G and Moto X in its specifications, but it doesn't have a hugely disparate feature-set.
The Moto E's internals are simple and reflect its low price tag: you get a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 and 1GB of RAM and support for 2G and 3G cellular networks. This is a far cry from any superphone you can currently buy like the Samsung Galaxy S5 or LG G3, but those phones cost anywhere between four and five times as much as the E's $179 RRP.
Only 4GB of internal storage makes for some compromises if you want to store music from your Spotify or Rdio account or if you want to install a lot of apps, but the Moto E has an internally-accessible microSD slot that supports up to 32GB of expandable storage. When you consider that a 32GB Samsung EVO microSD card is $22 with free shipping off DealExtreme, 4GB of internal memory isn't really an issue.
What Is It Good At?
The Moto E's design is simple and clean, and on a phone like this it's really an advantage. A single sheet of glass with chrome-accented cutouts for earpiece and loudspeaker on the front, and a single-piece rear shell. That rear shell can be removed to access the internal dual microSIM slots and microSD card (not the battery, which is nonremovable), and can be replaced with one of a dozen different coloured designs -- just like that Nokia 3310 you used to have. Everything is simply laid out -- power and volume buttons on the right, and on-screen back/home/menu controls -- and the Moto E is utterly inviting and unthreatening to use.
Not having the usual manufacturer swathe of Android bloatware and skins and superfluous features makes the Motorola Moto E surprisingly quick and responsive to use. The phone's interface is mostly stock Android, and the few additions that Motorola makes -- add-ons like Motorola Assist and Moto Care and Moto Migrate are all basic and unobtrusive and not mandatory. Being simple means the Moto E can be updated nearly instantly to the latest version of Android, and even straight out of the box it's running 4.4.3 KitKat. This is excellent and Motorola should be applauded for it.
For a cheap phone, the Moto E's 960x540 pixel, 256ppi 4.3-inch display is actually pretty good. Most importantly its ambient brightness detection and backlight adjustment works well and operates over a wide enough range to be useful, but it's also vibrant and has a good default black level. Detail levels aren't exactly as high as a 720p display like the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact's, but it's still a huge step up from even a three year old mid-range Android handset.
In an interesting move, Motorola has made the Moto E a dual-SIM smartphone in Australia, supporting 3G and 2G networking on both the SIM slots. While it's a feature that only appeals to a small niche of users, it means you could use the Moto E with a business and a personal SIM, or have a data-only plan and a voice-only plan in separate slots to save on running costs (subject to your finding these low-cost options, of course). You can tweak the purpose of each SIM slot in the phone's settings, and even use both interchangeably and simply for different voice and text contacts, so its inclusion is only a good thing and is one of the few added extras the Moto E can boast over competitors.
What Is It Not Good At?
Battery life from the Moto E wasn't excellent in my testing, but in some ways that's because I tested in on the same level that I have with Android smartphones that have much larger batteries and much more high-tech battery technology inside. For its price point, and for its feature-set, it's not bad, but the point remains that by the end of a working day receiving emails and text messages and the occasional phone call or tweet, the Moto E is running low on charge. Anecdotally, with regular use I got around 18 hours of active use from the Moto E before it was dead, compared If you're expecting days-long performance from this phone, you'll probably be disappointed.
There's no front-facing camera on the Moto E -- a cost-saving measure which I'm strongly in favour of -- but the 5-megapixel rear camera as well is an inclusion of necessity rather than actual utility. It's a very basic unit that supports HDR and supports video recording, but it's a fixed-focus sensor-and-lens arrangement that means you're not going to be doing macro photography or taking any pin-sharp snaps. It's a camera sensor of the mediocre level we're used to seeing on mid-range Android tablets rather than phones -- it'll do the job, but you won't be winning World Press Photo with it.
Some sample images from the Motorola Moto E are on their way; check back soon!
Being a smartphone with an entirely removable rear cover, the Moto E's build quality is merely OK rather than great. The Corning Gorilla Glass 3 front screen is an excellent inclusion -- it's hardy and can withstand all the necessary scratching and smashing attempts your everyday life will put it through -- but the rear cover is quite thin and flimsy and doesn't fit perfectly on the Moto E's rear chassis. It's not a big deal but it just reflects the general not-as-refined-as-the-Moto-X nature and price of the E.
Should You Buy It?
I've used the word 'simple' a lot in this review, and in every instance I mean it in a positive context. If I were to expand 'simple' to a few more words, it would be 'modest, but sufficient'. Apart from the mediocre rear camera, there is nothing about the Moto E that feels like an obvious omission or deletion at its penny-pinching price point. It has Bluetooth 4.0. It has 802.11n Wi-Fi. It has a great loudspeaker, a good screen, expandable memory, an acceptable amount of RAM, a smashproof glass front, a capable dual-core processor.
Unadulterated Android is the Moto E's calling card, and the adequate hardware to run it at responsive performance levels means that this smartphone is the one that does everything you need it to without including any of those fripperies you don't. The fact that you can find the Motorola Moto E cheaper than its RRP -- even $10 cheaper is a lot on a $180 handset -- makes it even more attractive. It's a properly budget smartphone, but it's playing on the level of phones that cost $50 and $100 more. If you want a cheap Android smartphone, I see no reason why this wouldn't be the one you'd get.