What is the Motorola Moto E?

The Motorola Moto E is a slightly smaller, slightly cheaper alternative to the Moto G, the highest-selling _phone_ Motorola has ever made.

For around £80 you get a simple, pretty high-quality mobile with fewer cutbacks than you’d see in a Samsung _phone_ of the same price, and none of the odd design choices common to lesser-known brands like Huawei and ZTE. It’s not quite as market-shaping a device as the Moto G, but it is another bargain.

Motorola Moto E – Design

The Motorola Moto E is a very simple-looking, non-showy little phone. Its body is plastic, there are no particularly attention-grabbing design quirks and it cares much more about feeling comfortable in-hand than being super-thin.

At 12.3mm thick the Moto E is a chunky little mobile, but the smooth curves of the soft touch back are a delight. It’s a fair bit softer-feeling than the Moto G too.

Other than being smaller – but tubbier – than the Moto G, the main design difference is the use of little silver bars above and below the screen. These initially appear to be decorative – they’re not buttons – but they are actually outputs for the phone’s speakers.

The top one houses the earpiece speaker, the lower one the main speaker. It’s a cunning way to incorporate a front-facing speaker output without having to make the thing absolutely tiny. More on whether it’s any good later.

Thanks to these silvery bits, the Moto E has a marginally less slick look than its bigger brother, but this is still a phone that could easily pass for something twice the price. It’s more of a looker than the obviously bargain basement Samsung Galaxy Fame (a phone that is admittedly getting on a bit).


One of the Moto E’s big aesthetic wins is that it does not use separate soft keys. They’re built into the Android software instead. While this cuts into the available screen space, it helps give the phone a simple and pure look.

Well, that and Motorola’s refreshingly ego-free approach to hardware design. “Motorola” is not written anywhere on the phone, and there is just a small Motorola logo in a neat finger-friendly indent on the phone’s rear. Both the Moto G and Moto E have a simple design that doesn't come across as anonymous or boring: great work on Motorola’s part.

There are some very welcome finishing touches, too. The Moto E screen’s top layer is Gorilla Glass 3, a very strong toughened glass we don’t normally see in phones this cheap. And there’s a special coating to the phone’s exterior (its core part, not the battery cover) that provides some water resistance. As a result you can’t remove the battery, but it’s a compromise that makes sense for the sort of buyer the Moto E is aimed at: it’ll likely survive an accidental dunk in the bath or sink.

You only get 4GB of internal memory with the Moto E, and this becomes a serious roadblock when trying to install some data-hungry. However, there is a memory card slot under the rear cover. Still, not all games simply let you install to SD. It’s one of the phone’s more irritating compromises, making the card slot more useful for storing music and video files than anything else.


Motorola Moto E – Screen

One of the main cutbacks of the Moto E is the screen. It’s a 4.3-inch 960 x 540 pixel display, a little smaller and significantly lower-res than the Moto G’s 4.5-inch 720p screen.

Those used to high resolution phones will notice the slightly more jaggedy edges of text characters, and a lack of fine detail in games.


Is it a big sacrifice for the sake of £20 or so? Yes, but the Moto E display can still go head-to-head with phones that cost upwards of £150. At £80 it's class-leading. Many far more expensive phones than the Moto E ‘make do’ with a similar 960 x 540 pixel screen.

These include the Sony Xperia M2 (4.8 inches), the HTC Desire 601 (4.7 inches) and LG G2 Mini (4.7 inches).  All cost more than twice the price of the Motorola Moto E. It’s an eye-opener.

Image quality is good too. Colours are well-saturated among sub-£150 phones, contrast is good and viewed straight on black level is marginally better than the Moto G. Viewing angles are a bit weaker, though. There’s a bit of brightness loss at an angle, although we doubt many will try to share a screen this size anyway.

As much as there are compromises, once again Motorola has made the right choices with the Moto E display. Resolution is slightly limited but general image quality is well in excess of what we traditionally expect at the price. But, yes, the Moto G is better.

Motorola Moto E – Software

The Motorola ‘no bloat, no big ego’ approach to phone design continues with the Motorola Moto E’s software. It uses an almost untouched version of the latest edition of Android, 4.4.2, and Motorola promises it will get an update to the next major version of the system.

Vanilla Android is simple and performs well even with the humble hardware used by entry-level phones like the Motorola Moto E. When flicking around the interface, the phone isn’t really much slower than the Moto G. It is not the lag-fest seen in some other low-cost phones.


As it doesn’t have a load of extra apps installed, your main go-to bits of software will be Google’s own app suite – Gmail, Google Maps and so on. For other basics like Facebook and Twitter, you’ll need to take a visit to the Google Play app store.

As long as you have some basic tech knowledge, this is no bad thing as it gives you more of the Moto E’s limited internal memory to play with. Of the 4GB storage, about 1.6GB is left for apps, games and the rest. It’s less than 50 per cent of the total, but more than you’d get with some other 4GB phones.

There are just three apps added by Motorola, two of which were in place when the Moto G launched in 2013. A closer look:

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Migrate

This app takes content and settings from your old phone to your new one. The way it works is pretty simple. You install Motorola Migrate on your old phone, and run the app to identify it as your ‘mobile to be replaced’. Then you run Migrate on your new phone and select what content you want sent over wirelessly.

You can transfer contacts, messages, photos, videos and music. It’s a neat idea for less experience mobile users, and is executed well.
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Alert

This is the latest Motorola app. It lets you identify emergency contacts, who you can send a message to upon signalling an emergency through the app. You can also let the Moto E share your location with your emergency contacts when you’re in certain pre-specified places. You might want an alert to go off when a Moto E-owning child reaches school, for example.

Alert makes a good deal of sense when you look into a core potential audience for the phone – kids.
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Assist

Another app also seen in the Moto G is Assist. It’s probably the most useful of the three apps for most people. It lets you set certain times when notifications won’t go off (most likely at night), and can also cross-reference with your Google Calendar to disable notifications when you’re in meetings.

This won’t work for everyone – people use calendar events for things other than meetings – but setting a “bed time” for your phone should appeal to many.
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Despite being a cheap phone, you should be able to use virtually any Android app with the Moto E. It use of specs seen in many other phones (more expensive ones too) and its virtually guaranteed destiny as a super-popular mobile mean you don’t have to worry about compatibility.

Motorola Moto E – Performance and Games

It’s only really with games that we start to see some of the compromises of the Moto E’s reduced specs – it has a dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 200 chip, a low-end processor.

While perfectly capable of playing some very impressive-looking games at full speed, those that are quite taxing or not well optimised for lower-end phones will chug a bit. Dead Trigger 2 looks great on the Moto E – surprisingly so - but the frame rate drops when there are multiple enemies on-screen or when the environment opens up a bit.

Similarly, if you up the draw distance in Minecraft to max you’ll see the frame rate drop to distractingly low levels occasionally if there are a lot of objects on-screen to render. Much like our observations of the Moto E’s screen, we think these sorts of performance trade-offs are acceptable in an ultra-budget phone, but keen mobile gamers should think about spending a bit more to get the Moto G, which has far less obvious performance restrictions thanks to its quad-core CPU.


The Moto E can hack high-end games, with occasional slow-down

Benchmarks make the reasons for the performance dips obvious – the Snapdragon 200 is not a super-fast processor. In Geekbench 3, the Moto E scores 600 points (323 per core), around half the score the Moto G achieves. The Galaxy S5 scores around 2850 points, and is a good top-end bar-setter.

This disparity is exactly what we’d expect too as the Snapdragon 200 and Snapdragon 400 (used by the Moto G) have similar Cortex-A7 architectures, but where the Moto G uses four cores, the Moto E has just two. When power is needed, the Moto E hits the wall far sooner than the Moto G.

With just 1GB of RAM, you can expect to see some more general performance issues creep in if you’re not careful about keeping a good amount of memory free too. This is a phone that can only take so much of a beating before the bruises start to show. But keep its duties light and you'll have no problems, and virtually no performance issues.

Motorola Moto E – Camera

The Motorola Moto E has a very basic camera get-up. There’s no front-facing camera and no rear flash. This means no selfies, no video chat and any photos you take at poorly-lit parties will probably look dreadful.


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Just as important, the Moto E’s main 5-megapixel camera has a fixed focus, rather than an autofocus lens. You can’t make the camera lock onto a specific subject, just point and shoot. Moving the ‘aim’ reticule in the camera app only affects exposure.

It has been a while since we’ve seen a fixed focus phone camera, and despite the low £80 price we find this a little disappointing. A fixed camera means the Moto E cannot take close-up photos at all – the subject will simply be out of focus:

Image quality is acceptable given our limited expectations of a 5-megapixel camera these days, but it is most definitely a serious compromise. Pictures are often a little glum-looking, with somewhat anaemic colours and low contrast, but you can just about scrape together some share-able shots with the phone.

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Colours slightly muted, detail limited. The Moto E camera is not great.

It’s largely a triumph of processing, the Moto E’s software really making use of what the basic 5-megapixel sensor can provide. As is so often the case in affordable phones these days, the star of the show is HDR, a mode that merges multiple exposures to increase shadow detail and get rid of overexposure.

The Moto E very successfully ramps-up the effect as needed – oddly enough it only appears to actually judge the level needed when you first look at the photo in the phone’s gallery, rather than at shooting. This may be to reduce processing time when shooting, which is already quite lengthy. A couple of seconds are needed per shot.

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HDR can inject some life into the Moto E's dull-looking standard shots

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Here's another example of HDR in action

You need try and be still for a second or so when shooting in HDR, so it’s more for landscapes than action shots. And some more extreme HDR effects show quite a difference in contrast between areas of an image, making them look slightly odd.

In low light, the results are predictably fairly poor too, but the Moto E has a fair stab at using noise reduction to stop shots from becoming a grainy mess. Low in detail? Certainly, but they are not flat-out ugly.

On the video side, you can only shoot video at 854 x 480 pixel resolution, which is not really high enough to warrant taking clips off the phone.

The Moto E uses the same style of camera app as the Moto G, a gesture-based system where you flick from the left or right of the screen to access camera settings and your gallery. It’s pretty slick, but I do think many people might actually get one better with a more utilitarian app.

Motorola Moto E – Internal Speaker

The Motorola Moto E has a crafty speaker. It’s mono, but unlike the vast majority of mono mobile speakers, it sits on the front rather than the back.

The sound pipes out of the near-invisible grille that sits under the silver bar towards the bottom of the phone’s front. Motorola has clearly put some effort into making it sound respectable too.

Top volume is great for an entry-level speaker like this, and while sound quality is not exemplary (it lacks a little smoothness, and like all phone speakers is bass-light), the speaker holds its composure even at high volumes. Low-cost phones like this often crackle or distort at high volume – a sign that a bit of care and attention has been sacrificed to shave off those pounds. Not so here.


Motorola Moto E – Battery Life

The Motorola Moto E has a fairly chunky battery of 1,980mAh. That’s a mite smaller than the 2,070mAh unit of the Moto G, but the difference is accounted for by the smaller, lower-resolution screen.

You can pop the plastic cover off the back to see the battery's footprint, but it's locked in place. You can't replace it easily.


With light use you'll be able to squeeze about a day and a half out of the phone, but so far we've struggled to get the near two day's performance we commonly get from the Moto G.

Part of the reason may be that the Moto E's Snapdragon 200 chip is rather less efficient that modern chips like the Snapdragon 801 - the opposite of what you might expect. We're trying to find out from Qualcomm whether the Moto G's Snapdragon 400 has slightly more advanced power efficiency measures.

Battery still drains down a bit overnight at a rate of a few per cent an hour. This precludes getting the sort of 15 to 20-day standby some pricier phones claim.




Battery sapping of over 10 per cent overnight with Battery Saver mode engaged shows the Snapdragon 200's efficiency limits

There's also no dedicated motion processor hardware, so use a fitness tracker and you'll see the battery drain reasonably swifly, demanding a daily charge. However, we find battery life to be generally more than acceptable. And with judicious use of the mobile data switch you should be able to reach the holy grail of two-day stamina.



Once companies like Qualcomm pack seriously good power management into their entry-level chips, we'll be onto something very special.

Under strain the Moto E doesn’t get too hot. Over several days of browsing, game-playing and other standard mobile activities, the phone didn’t once get too fired up. Our temperature graph shows that the phone rarely strayed above 40 degrees (according to the Moto E’s internal thermometer), which general operating temperature around 35 degrees or under.

There are some benefits to being a porker: that extra room makes heat dissipation easier.


Motorola Moto E – Connectivity

There are no particularly advanced connections in the Moto E. Leaving out things like Wi-Fi ac, 4G mobile internet and NFC is one way Motorola cut costs.

You do get the essentials, though, including GPS, Bluetooth 4.0 and an FM radio: something that seems to gain adulation and ridicule in equal measure.

Should I buy the Motorola Moto E?

The Motorola Moto E sits in a tricky spot. Among its sub-£100 peers, it offers better basics than the competition. The screen, software and design are great for the price.

But if you’re willing to pay a little more, you get a significant bump-up in quality by moving up to the Moto G. Its screen is better, its camera much more versatile and there are very real benefits in moving up to a quad-core Snapdragon 400 CPU from the Moto E’s dual-core Snapdragon 200.

However, we think that more casual users not obsessed with tech specs will find the Moto E a dream to live with. Motorola has picked its battles carefully with the Moto E, and as such it is almost as great a success as the Moto G, but one with a different audience in mind. That audience is not the typical TrustedReviews reader, but this is a phone even tech enthusiasts will be able to live with happily enough.

As long as you don't want a good camera. It's rubbish.

Verdict

It's not powerful and the camera is poor, but the Moto E offers a good baseline smartphone experience if the Moto G is that bit too expensive for your wallet.

Next, read our best mobile phones round-up