You are now entering the world of inexpensive smartphones. You're in the bargain bin, the bottom end, the cheapest of the cheap. Dispense with your expectations of blistering fast processors, pixel-heavy cameras, premium metal bodies, or 2K screens. Also, while you're at it, do away with the notion that "cheap" means "bad." I just tested the new Moto G, and it's surprisingly excellent.

What Is It?

Living in the shadow of Motorola’s Moto X flagship smartphone, the new Moto G is a $180 off-contract lookalike running Android 4.4.4 on a 5-inch screen. I can’t stress this enough: $180, and the phone is completely yours to use on any GSM carrier, no contract shackles whatsoever. Since a replacement won’t take a massive bite out of your bank account, you can live without a constant fear of dropping your phone onto hard surfaces, into washing machines, etc. Go ahead, live a little.

Why Does It Matter?

The new Moto G is the second generation of a smartphone that did incredibly well for Motorola despite its lackluster hardware. The company even called it “the most successful, highest-selling smartphone in Motorola's history” at Mobile World Congress in February. So yeah, it’s a big deal for them.

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But for you, this update may make our favorite cheap phone even more desirable. The new Moto G is larger, it features dual front-facing speakers, and it's a pretty great deal. Plus, Motorola also still offers its first-gen handsets, so you can still get that smaller screen if buying a year-old smartphone doesn’t bother you.

What's Missing?

As with many budget smartphones, some corners have been cut. For one, the new Moto G doesn’t come with LTE, meaning you’ll be forced to use generally slower 3G (HSPA+) networks. Honest talk: with T-Mobile’s service in New York City, spending most of my time at work or home tethered to Wi-Fi, I never spent much time staring at loading screens. You might check to see what 3G speeds are like in your area before committing to slower speeds.

Don’t expect this to have all the bells and whistles of the Moto X, either. Some of the most useful features are missing due to hardware restrictions. You can’t say “OK Google Now” to start voice commands when the phone is sleeping, because that requires a more advanced Snapdragon processor. Since the Moto G doesn’t use an AMOLED screen, it also can’t send you notifications by selectively lighting up pixels when the phone is locked.

Now that you know what you’re getting, let’s get started.

Design

Smartphones are getting bigger, and the new Moto G is following the trend. It comes with a 5-inch display, a full half-inch bigger than the original. It’s surprisingly comfy, and the phone makes a good first impression. Still, I soon began to see why the Moto G can be priced so competitively.

Moto G (left) side-by-side with the Nexus 5

Many adjectives could describe Motorola’s new budget phone—simple, thrifty, sturdy—but “slim” isn’t one of them. Much like the original, the new Moto G is a bit chunky. At 11mm thick, it shaves a fraction of a millimeter from last years model, but the plastic-heavy exterior retains plenty of girth. Thanks to lightweight materials, it’s not as heavy as you’d imagine before picking it up, but it is still a good 20 grams heavier than the Nexus 5 (our go-to off-contract smartphone).

The materials also leave something to be desired if you’re coming from higher-end smartphones. The rim of the device is noticeably separated by two different types of plastic, one with a glossy veneer and another with a matte finish, and the mismatch feels weird after a while. Worse are the power button and volume rocker: the faux-chrome keys are tough to push, feel cheap, and generally look like they belong on a toy phone from Fisher-Price.

Still, the Moto G is a pretty attractive device once you get past the materials. Much like the Moto X, the aesthetic is simple, the branding minimal, and everything feels very symmetrical. The back has the same subtle curve that makes the Moto G incredibly comfortable in my average-sized hands, and I actually appreciate the increased screen real estate compared to the original.

Speaking of that screen, the Moto G retains the same HD resolution as last year at 1280x720 with the same IPS LCD technology, but stretches it out to five inches. That stretch means a lesser pixel density, 294 ppi if you’re keeping track. The display still looks pretty great, but it can get pretty dim too. I needed to jack up brightness manually once in a while.

The dual front-firing speakers on the Moto G aren’t amazing, but I love them all the same. They don’t really have any low-end to speak of, and at high volumes, the quality becomes a little muddled. But these things are loud, which often is enough. It’s just surprising that the new Moto X does better with one speaker than this budget phone does with two of them.

Using It

The Moto G was a completely stress-free setup. I popped out my T-Mobile SIM card from my Nexus 5 and slotted it into the Moto G, then fired up Motorola’s Migrate app to easily transfer my messages, photos, video, and music. Mere minutes later, I was ready for action.

In fact, as soon as I downloaded essential apps, tweaked settings, and installed my favorite Final Fantasy 4 background, it practically felt like I was still using my Nexus 5. Motorola runs a nearly unsullied version of Android with only a few Moto-specific apps, and it’s delightfully free of bloat. (Hopefully, it will also mean quicker Android updates.)

Although I was experiencing Nexus 5 deja vu, performance differences helped clear my double vision. A 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM are still the underpowered muscles behind the Moto G, and in some instances, they show. When tapping to load bigger apps like Dead Trigger 2, I found myself waiting a few seconds longer for the app to actually show. Every once in a while, I’d return to a completely empty Android home screen only to have all my apps pop up a second later. In the grand scheme of “shit that is messed up,” this might be somewhat minor, but it’s a clear advantage for the Nexus 5 and other devices with more expensive components.

Once apps load, the Moto G performs without a hitch. I played the graphically intensive Dead Trigger 2 on high settings on both the Nexus 5 and Moto G, and it was hard to see a difference. But again, attempting to intensely multitask caused a few hiccups and jitters. If I had to pop out of a game to make a phone call or shoot off a text, the Moto G would often completely close my game and I’d have to reload. (The Nexus 5 doesn’t do that.) If you’re constantly dancing among applications, you might feel the Moto G’s constraints more sharply.

Camera and Battery

Last year’s Moto G wasn’t a particularly good cameraphone, but the new Moto G is a little better. It’s got a new 8 megapixel sensor, up from 5 megapixels, and it holds up well against its budget-conscious brethren, with decent clarity in low light and overall more accurate color reproduction. Just don’t expect it to out-shoot the higher-end competition. In a few shots, lighter colors tended to have a glow around them, which could speak to a less-than-stellar lens. The shutter also has a bit of a lag, but it’s not too sluggish.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Motorola’s camera UI is simple, intuitive and closely resembles Android's stock option. Swiping in from the left pulls up your camera features, such as HDR, flash, manual focus, slo-mo video capture, and panorama, and swiping in from the right pulls up your picture gallery. Overall, it keeps things free of icon clutter so you can focus on the image in front of you.

So how long can you expect all these good times to last? Well, the Moto G still comes with a 2070 mAh battery, which for a phone its size isn’t amazing, but the phone was able to last more than a full day in my test. Unplugging from the charger at 8 a.m., I used the Moto G in the morning and afternoon for Spotify-listening, notification-reading, and text messages. Once off work, I really put the phone through its paces. I fired up Google Maps to get me to the nearest subway station, snapped pictures and video along the way, watched cached TV episodes on the commute home, and surfed the web for an hour or so before bed. Under these normal circumstances, the Moto G should get you through the day, though it never hurts to keep a USB cord handy.

Like

I’m going to say it—I like the bigger size. There are a few reasons why I finally left Apple for Android, and size played its part. In my personal experience, a 5-inch screen just seems like the sweet spot for most phones. The Moto G doesn’t make watching movies an eye-squinting experience, yet I’m also not juggling the phone.

Honestly, the biggest restriction on this phone is its price, trying desperately to meet that $180 mark. With a phone this cheap, you have some real freedom. Don’t you need a case? It’s OK, this phone is really cheap. But aren’t you worried about nicks, cuts, and scrapes? Not really, this phone is really cheap. What about a cracked screen, though? You see where I’m going with this.

No Like

The Moto G is seriously lacking in storage. Right now you can only buy an 8GB model through Motorola’s online store with MicroSD expansion up to 32GB. After downloading essential apps, I only had 3GB left to work with. This means I’d have to actually think about the next time I record an interview or save a Spotify playlist for offline listening. I just hate thinking.

The display is adequate for watching movies or playing games, but it’s a little dim compared to my Nexus 5. The auto-brightness setting keeps the screen much dimmer than I’d like.

The phone may have a removable back, but it doesn’t come with the convenience of a removable battery, which is a pretty common and desirable feature on many midrange phones.

Should You Buy It?

Do you really want a Moto X but hoping the Moto G would suffice? Then, no, you shouldn’t. I would even be hard-pressed to recommend this over the Nexus 5 as LG’s Google device comes with a faster processor in a slim package. But the Moto G is incredibly cheap, and within that frame of mind, there’s no reason this phone should be this good.

If you’re moving down the smartphone ladder from a previous flagship to the Moto G, you might notice its sluggish performance in some spots, but you'll still be satisfied using it as a temp until that next bank-destroying handset comes along. If you’re moving up from an even cheaper phone, updating from a 3- or 4-year-old flagship, or finally ditching that flip phone, you’ll feel like you’ve hit the jackpot.

Moto G Spec Sheet

  • Network: Any GSM network (HSPA+)
  • OS: Android. 4.4.4
  • CPU: 1.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400
  • Screen: 5-inch 1280x720 IPS-LCD display (294 PPI)
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 8GB + 32GB MicrosSD expansion
  • Camera: 8MP rear / 2MP front
  • Battery: 2070 mAh Li-Po
  • Dimensions: 5.57 x 2.78 x 0.43 in
  • Weight: 5.26 ounces
  • Price: $180 (8GB) off contract