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Motorola delivers a lot for a little with the $199 Moto G4

TechCrunch TechCrunch 11/07/2016 Brian Heater

In a world of me-too handsets, Motorola hasn’t had much trouble setting itself apart. Often times that comes in the form of some specific but important feature like crazy battery life or an ultra-tough exterior, but the company does a good job with the plain-old-garden-variety handset, too.

With its Moto G line, the now-Lenovo-owned handset maker has posited the admirable question of precisely how good one can make a budget phone. The answer, it turns out, is pretty good these days. With this latest version, less than $200 gets you an octa-core processor, a solid screen and a pretty nice-looking piece of hardware customizable through MotoMaker.

The G4 isn’t an attempt to go head to head with flagships, but it’s also not about cutting corners. It’s a solid phone designed to give cash-strapped users some solid bang for their bucks.

At a glance

  • 5.5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 display
  • 1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor
  • 16/32GB of storage, 2GB of RAM

Good looks for a budget

Motorola’s always prided itself in its ability to offer up something outside of the smartphone design mainstream. The impulse is sometimes positive and sometimes not — but at the very least, it’s always interesting. The G4’s standard design is a bit more staid than other models, but that’s not a bad thing.

The version Lenovo sent us is black and subtly textured — not nearly as flashy as other Moto devices we’ve played around with (the white one is similarly subdued), though the swappable back plate means never having to settle for a single color. As with past models, the G4 is a far cry from the unibody ubiquity of most of the competition.

The front of the phone is devoid of branding and physical buttons. The 5.5-inch display is surrounded by skinny bezels to the left and right and more sizeable ones on the bottom and top, the latter of which houses the phone speaker and front-facing five-megapixel camera.

The sides of the device are encased by a sturdy and smooth metal bumper, similar to the kind seen on earlier Moto models, with a headphone jack up top and microUSB charging port down below (no USB-C yet, mind). The power and volume rocker on the right side are the phone’s only two physical buttons.

It’s a nice-looking phone, all said. It doesn’t have the premium feel of an iPhone or even a OnePlus, but it’s a solid bit of machinery that feels nice in the hand, with a good fit for a 5.5-inch handset and a build that can sustain a few more bumps and jostles than more premium devices. And while it’s slimmed down notably from older models, the 9.8 mm thickness doesn’t qualify as “thin” by most standards.

Nice little touches

Beyond the interesting visuals, Motorola’s done a good job standardizing non-standardized features. Beyond the relatively bump-resistant build, the company’s built water repellence into the device. It’s not let’s-go-scuba-diving waterproof, by any stretch, but it shouldn’t run into any major issues if you like piña coladas, getting caught in the rain, etc.

The back, as mentioned above, is removable, so you can swap it out. The handset is also MotoMaker compatible, so you can choose from a slew of different options through Motorola’s site, including two front options, eight backs and five accents — and you can add customized engraving, if that’s your thing. It’s not the most options the company has offered on any handset by any stretch, but it still blows most of the competition out of the water.

The company did cut a few corners here, for the sake of keeping things under $200; notably the lack of a fingerprint reader — you’ve got to shell out the extra scratch for the Plus in order to get that.

What’s inside

The phone’s internals are pretty solid, as well. Motorola’s standardized the 2GB of RAM (an upgrade option from the standard 1GB of the previous generation). Storage-wise, you get either 16 or 32GB built in, and, thanks to the microSD slot hidden behind the back, you can expand things up to a generous 128GB. All of the above gets a boost if you opt into the Plus.

The battery’s a solid 3,000mAh. It’s a bit of a bummer that the battery life focus of other models like the Droid Maxx hasn’t become a standard feature across the line, but as it stands, you’ll be able to more than make it through a day with the G4. And the company has once again included quick charging, if you use the proprietary adapter, promising six hours of life after plugging it in for 15 minutes.

On the processor front, you get a 1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 on both the standard G4 and G4 plus, which is zippy enough to make the unskinned version of Android 6.0 zip along nicely.

A/V club

The screen, too, is quite good for such a low-cost phone, knocking 2015’s 294 PPI up to a far more robust 401. It’s bright and it’s sharp, at a Full HD 1,920 x 1,080, putting it at the exact same resolution as the significantly pricier (but still reasonably cheap) OnePlus 3.

The speakers, not surprisingly, aren’t really built to impress. They sound tinny and thin and have the tendency to distort when things get loud — more or less what you would expect on a budget handset that doesn’t make any particular claims with regard to it audio prowess.

The camera, on the other hand, isn’t bad, though the experience isn’t hugely improved over the last generation. Those whose photography is limited to quick snapshots and selfies will get along just fine, particularly with some easy shooting features like Quick Capture, which jumps into camera mode with a couple of flicks of the wrist.

Upgrading to the Plus will bump things up from 13  to 16 megapixels, but that alone is probably not reason enough to warrant an upgrade.

Heck of a deal

Every bit of information above ought to include a mention of the price. Sure, the Moto G4 won’t be able to go head to head in all of the spec and design categories with most flagship phones, but that’s not really the point. This is a $199 unlocked handset we’re talking about here. For that price, you’re getting an extremely well-rounded phone with some nice additional features. And another $50 will get you a solid spec bump. It’s a deal that’s pretty tough to beat.

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