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Motorola One 5G review: An emotional roller coaster of phone features

CNET logo CNET 10/1/2020 Patrick Holland
a laptop computer sitting on top of a table © Patrick Holland/CNET

Motorola has a history of releasing excellent budget phones , like the Moto G Stylus and G Power. And when the phone-maker launched its first 5G phone, the Moto Z3 in 2018, it was a bargain at the time, despite needing an additional 5G Moto Mod accessory to connect to the next-gen network. It makes sense, then, that for the new $445 Motorola One 5G  the company combined both its affordable phone wisdom and 5G connectivity smarts -- all without the need of an accessory -- to prove finally that 5G phones don't need to be expensive in 2020. (Google also recently announced two new 5G phones, both more expensive than the Motorola One 5G: The Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4A 5G.)

Similar to its nearly identical European cousin the Moto G 5G Plus, the Motorola One 5G has appealingspecs like a 6.7-inch full HD display, a Snapdragon 765 processor, a big beast of a battery, a headphone jack, a 90Hz refresh rate display and six cameras. (Though in my opinion, six cameras is a bit of overkill, and I'd rather have one really good camera on each side.) It also has NFC for Google Pay, which previous Motorola budget phones in the US have lacked. 

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But to hit that $445 price, Motorola made compromises. The screen is an LCD instead of OLED, so the colors aren't terribly accurate. It only has 4GB of RAM (compared to 6GB on the G 5G Plus). The battery has turbo charging, but it's only 15 watts versus being able to handle 27 or 30 watts. It has a plastic body, which isn't as premium as a glass design.

In addition, when you add everything up, the One 5G is a bit of a phone feature emotional roller coaster. It's not bad per se, but the One 5G lacks the cohesiveness like that of the Motorola Edge .

For example, the One 5G has a gorgeous blue finish but it's marked with a giant AT&T logo. It runs a nearly stock version of Android 10 with Motorola's useful gesture shortcuts (like twisting your wrist to open the camera or double chop to turn on and off the flashlight). But AT&T's bloatware and preinstalled apps soil that experience. The phone is affordable but will only receive one major OS update and two years of security updates. After that, you're out of luck. 

a cat sitting on a table: The Motorola One 5G might be the best most affordable 5G phone you can buy in the US. But if the Motorola Edge is on sale, consider getting it instead. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET The Motorola One 5G might be the best most affordable 5G phone you can buy in the US. But if the Motorola Edge is on sale, consider getting it instead. Patrick Holland/CNET

During my two weeks testing the One 5G, I enjoyed its excellent battery, high refresh rate and 5G connectivity (when it was good). It truly is a solid budget phone and the best option for affordable 5G in the US. But before you buy it, check to see how much the $700 Motorola Edge is going for. It's a superior phone compared to the One 5G, and it's usually more expensive, but at the time this is being written, Motorola is selling it for $500 unlocked. If you can swing that $55 difference, you'll get a much more solid build, better cameras, more RAM and twice the internal storage.

5G connectivity indoors and out

The One 5G comes in two versions. There's the $445 AT&T model that I tested and a Verizon model that still doesn't have a price or release date. Because they work on two different carriers, each support a different kind of 5G. The Verizon Motorola One 5G supports the carrier's mmWave flavor of 5G, and the AT&T model has sub-6 5G connectivity.

How well your 5G connectivity is really depends on where you live. In Chicago on AT&T's 5G network, I got 99.4Mbps download speeds and 41.7Mbps upload speeds when I was outside. But when I was indoors those speeds dropped to 25Mbps for downloads and 7.13Mbps for uploads.

a screenshot of a cell phone: I tested the Motorola One 5G on AT&T's 5G network in Chicago. Coverage was pretty good. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET I tested the Motorola One 5G on AT&T's 5G network in Chicago. Coverage was pretty good. Patrick Holland/CNET

For comparison, outdoors on my 4G LTE work phone I got 206Mbps downloads and 46.6Mbps uploads. Indoors, it clocked 71Mbps download speeds and 1.64Mbps for uploads. In general, there are times when the increase in data speeds using 5G isn't significant and other times 4G LTE speeds worked even faster than 5G.

As AT&T continues to build out its 5G network, those speeds and the consistency of coverage should improve. And if you're considering the One 5G because of the 5G connectivity, I recommend looking into AT&T's 5G coverage in your neighborhood and don't be fooled by the 5G E logo

The Verizon One 5G will likely launch in October, so be sure to check your 5G coverage before purchasing that variant too. Verizon's mmWave is capable of incredible speeds, but you need to be close to its 5G towers to really take advantage of it.

Motorola One 5G has a vampire-bite display

The phone has a hole-punch display with two cutouts for the selfie cameras. It looks like a vampire bite, and the best part is the subtle glowing ring that appears around the active selfie camera to help you or your friends know where to look. We saw this same attention-grabbing glow ring on the more-expensive Motorola Edge and Edge Plus.

The 90Hz refresh rate on the screen is also outstanding. You can set the rate to 60Hz, 90Hz or have Motorola's software AI alternate between the two refresh rates. It definitely makes the LCD screen pop, especially with games and animations, and scrolling text looks crisp.

a close up of electronics: If you look closely at the rear camera bump, the lens on the top right-side has a flash built around it. The idea is it helps brighten macro photos when your phone might cast a shadow over your subject. Patrick Holland/CNET © Provided by CNET If you look closely at the rear camera bump, the lens on the top right-side has a flash built around it. The idea is it helps brighten macro photos when your phone might cast a shadow over your subject. Patrick Holland/CNET

The One 5G has six cameras because seven would be too many

On the back of the Motorola One 5G are four rear cameras, including a macro camera. Surrounding the macro camera's lens is one of the coolest features I've seen: a ring flash to illuminate close-up photos and video. I don't take a ton of macro photos and videos, but that extra light source is handy. That being said, I wish the color temperature of the ring flash could adjust for white balance. Sometimes a photo's color temperature skewed green and other times blue even though the camera didn't move.

There's also a 2-megapixel depth camera that, along with the main camera, takes portrait mode photos. You have to be about five feet from your subject for portrait mode to work correctly, but when it does, photos look great and the camera does a good job separating the foreground and blurry background.

The main 48-megapixel camera uses pixel binning to combine four pixels into one. This helps reduce image noise and increase brightness. I'm impressed with many of the photos the Motorola One 5G captured. But nearly all of these photos were taken in bright lighting. As the light gets dimmer, the quality of photos becomes more hit-or-miss, and noise reduction makes the details in photos too soft. The One 5G does have a low-light mode called Night Vision that helps a little bit, but it leans too heavily on the HDR effect for me.

Lastly, there's the ultrawide camera. Its color accuracy matches that of the main camera, but its dynamic range isn't as good. Take a look below at some of the photos I took with the Motorola One 5G.

a sign on the side of a building: In good lighting, the Motorola One 5G is capable of some great photos. Patrick Holland/CNET

In good lighting, the Motorola One 5G is capable of some great photos. Patrick Holland/CNET
© Provided by CNET

In bright light, video from the One 5G is good and it can record up to 4K. But videos don't have the same dynamic range that photos do and over-exposes highlights into a solid, blown out white blob. In low light, details get super soft. Take a look below at some videos I shot with the One 5G.

On the front are the aforementioned vampire-bite cameras. One is a standard wide-angle camera and the other is an ultrawide-angle that offers a 118-degree field of view. In good light, both front-facing cameras are capable of some solid photos, despite the dynamic range being very limited. But when I'm in medium-to-low-light (like indoors), photos taken with the main selfie camera show a lot of noise reduction and my skin looks plastic-y, like a painting (and that's with beauty mode turned off). 

The One 5G has excellent battery life

The 5,000-mAh battery is great to power the phone's high-refresh-rate screen and 5G connectivity. I easily got through a day and a half on the phone. Initial testing shows that the battery life is excellent. We are currently conducting tests and will update this review with the full results soon.

The One 5G also works fast. I didn't experience lags or stuttered animations. Benchmark tests were in line with phones like the LG Velvet 5G, which has the gaming variant of the One 5G's Snapdragon 765 processor, and the Google Pixel 4A , which also has a Snapdragon 730G processor.

Having just 4GB of RAM seems fine now, and hopefully the phone retains its pep in a year, especially after a major OS update. But I do wish there was a 6GB option. Even if it were to bump the cost of the phone, say, $30 more, it'd be worth it.

First published Sept. 26

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