The sub-$200 smartphone market in 2013 was pretty barren, buyers on a budget had only a few good options to choose from. Thankfully, “good” is underselling them – there were some excellent cheap phones from that period.
The Motorola Moto G comes to mind. It launched at $180 and reviewers and users alike sang its praises. It made for a good second in command to the highly customizable Moto X and we still remember it fondly today. But how much of that was true excellence and how much is it rose-tinted glasses?
Moto G next to its flagship sibling, the Moto X
We need some historical context to answer that question. The Nokia Lumia 520 may have outperformed any equally-priced Android, though there were few $100 Androids to begin with (and pretty soon the Lumia fell to $50 or so off contract). At the same time the likes of Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 were a whopping $300.
So, the Moto G sits right in the middle of them price-wise – especially if you opt for the $200 version with 16GB of storage instead of the usual 8 GB (which was recommended, more on that in a bit). Let’s compare the phones to see what each had to offer.
Motorola Moto G • Nokia Lumia 520 • Samsung Galaxy Ace 3
The Motorola impressed with its 4.5” IPS LCD with 720p resolution. 2012 flagships had 720p displays, so such a resolution was out of reach for most 2013 mid-rangers. Not only was the Moto display sharper, it was larger too (4.5” vs. 4.0” for the other two) and had Gorilla Glass 3 protection (as did the expensive Galaxy S4, for example).
The 4.5″ IPS LCD with 720p resolution was a marvel for its day and price
The phone ran Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and was supported up to 5.1 Lollipop. This was two years after Google acquired Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Fans were optimistic that with hardware and software finally under the same roof, Android could rival the iPhone. That optimism was cut short a year later when Google sold Motorola Mobility to Lenovo for $3 billion.
Back to the Moto G. It was no iPhone killer, but it was at a price point that was hard to hit even on the second hand market if you wanted an iPhone. Motorola had to cut some corners to get there, though.
For starters, the G used the decently powerful Snapdragon 400 chipset with four Cortex-A7 cores (1.2 GHz) and an Adreno 305. This chip was also used in some variations of the pricier Galaxy Ace 3. However, the Moto lacked 4G LTE connectivity and (unlike today) sticking with the older networks was more of a pain with slower speeds and higher latency.
Connectivity wasn’t the only issue either. The base 8GB model reserved quite a big chunk of memory for the system and Motorola skimped on a microSD slot. This meant that the $20 upgrade to 16GB storage was highly recommended.
Back then Google was giving Moto G buyers 50GB of Google Drive storage (on top of the usual 15GB) for free, so the microSD situation was a less than subtle nudge to use its cloud storage.
The removable cover only gave you access to the SIM slot – no microSD slot, no removable battery
The camera wasn’t great either – the 5MP module with autofocus, LED flash and 720p video recording did quite well, actually, and was comparable to what the Lumia 520 and Galaxy Ace 3 had to offer (not high praise, in case you were wondering). But it certainly didn’t punch above its weight like the screen.
Moto G camera samples: 5 MP sensor, f/2.4 aperture, autofocus
Moto G camera samples with HDR enabled
Measuring 11.6 mm thick and weighing 143g, the Moto G wasn’t exactly petite, but it had a clean, minimalist design and Motorola had some fun with it. A Moto Maker customization service like the one for the Moto X would have been too expensive to run for such a cheap phone, but the design was customizable.
The back cover could pop off easily and there were plenty of cheap, colorful covers to choose from. You could order one online for €10 and have a new panel to freshen up your phone – it’s wasn’t just the new color, any old scratches would be a thing of the past too.
Okay, this wasn’t a cover, really, it was a panel – removing it did not give you access to the 2,070 mAh battery. As for the battery itself, it wasn’t small though it might seem that way given the thickness. The efficient hardware was the more important factor and the phone offered solid battery life.
As part of the cost-cutting measures, the Moto G shipped in “the tiniest box we have ever seen”. It contained only the phone and a USB cable – you might say that Motorola was ahead of the curve.
A minimalist retail package – just the phone and a USB cable
It’s interesting to compare the Moto G with the Nexus 4, a value for money champ the likes of which are rarely seen. It launched in 2012 for $300 and had fallen to $200 by 2013, this is for an 8 GB phone. It had a larger 4.7” display that edged out the Moto with 768 x 1,280 px resolution.
The Nexus also lacked LTE, but it did have a beefier Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset that had double the RAM (2 GB) and could record 1080p video (with its 8 MP camera). And don’t forget that the Nexus 4 was the first Android to offer Qi wireless charging.
The falling price of the already affordable Nexus 4 made it an appealing alternative
This comparison flatters both the Moto G and the Nexus 4. The Nexus was the better phone, while the Motorola stood up to what was essentially a year old flagship. Both had their peculiarities that could make you pick one over the other. And both were some of the best smartphones that $200 could buy in 2013.
The Moto G series continued with several well-liked launches, though after the sale to Lenovo dreams of vertical integration were dead. There was a lull in the intervening years, but now the G-series is staging a comeback with powerful and reasonably priced devices like the Moto G200.