Endlessly browsing Reddit and Twitter for hours on end? Check. Catching up on Community after work? Easy peasy. Navigating to Manhattan for a leisurely electric bike ride on the weekend? No problem.
For most of June, I managed to do all my usual tasks with a pair of cheap smartphones; one costs $200, the other costs $150. It’s just further proof of an argument I’ve been making for a while, that budget phones can deliver a good experience. In fact, if there’s ever a moment to stop and consider why you need to spend $1,000 on a smartphone, it’s now.
The two Android devices come from Motorola: the Moto G Fast ($200) and the Moto E ($150). Both provide capable screens, nearly two days of battery life, and satisfying performance. The only flaws are the ones you’d expect at this price point: Notably, the camera isn’t great. Photos come out decent only when there’s enough light. But subpar cameras alone can’t sink this duo; the value is pretty unbeatable.
The Moto G Fast shares more in common with the two other G-series phones Motorola introduced earlier this spring, the Moto G Power and the Moto G Stylus. The G Fast is the runt of the litter, but it has the same Snapdragon 665 processor as the bigger phones, only with 3 gigabytes of RAM instead of 4. That doesn’t mean it’s slower, but it’s also not very fast at all. (Yes, that’s antithetical to its name).
However, I had an ever-so-slightly smoother experience on the G Fast than I did on its pricier siblings. Opening apps and switching between them didn’t seem as choppy on the G Fast as it did on the G Stylus and G Power, and the new phone even scored a tad higher than those other Motos in benchmark tests. But again, it’s still not a fast phone. You have to wait a second or two for apps to open, and the screen will stutter when you quickly scroll through Twitter. Otherwise, this phone will be able to run most apps just fine. It had no trouble keeping up with an hour-long sandboarding session in Alto’s Odyssey too.
Moving on to the cheaper Moto E, I was pleased to encounter mostly the same story. It uses Qualcomm’s lesser Snapdragon 632 processor with 2 GB of RAM, but I didn’t have much trouble running my usual slate of apps. I just experienced some slightly longer app load times.
Both phones do share more direct similarities. They each come equipped with headphone jacks, MicroSD card slots, and 32 gigabytes of built-in storage. Plus, they’re both made of plastic, so they’re a little more durable than pricier all-glass slabs like those from Samsung and Google. Better yet, these budget-minded Motos have fingerprint sensors on the rear—a first for Motorola’s E-series phones. Not having to input a password for an app or use a pin code to unlock the phone is a blessing I’ve gotten accustomed to, and it’s great to see this modern convenience finally trickling all the way down to the sub-$200 tier.
Of course, there have to be compromises somewhere on phones this cheap. What didn’t make its way to the Moto E? A USB-C charging port. Don’t worry, it’s present on the Moto G Fast, but you’re stuck with MicroUSB on the $150 phone. It’s not a problem, but the ability to use a universal USB-C connector to charge the phone would have eliminated the need to have yet another cable plugged into my power strip. Ah well, perhaps Motorola will make a complete switch to USB-C in its 2021 lineup.
Rounding it all out are the screens and batteries, which are more than adequate. The G Fast has a 6.4-inch LCD, and the Moto E sticks with a 6.2-inch panel, both of which have relatively slim bezels around the screen, giving the phones a modern look. Neither phone feels too big in my hands, either. The former has a hole-punch camera floating at the top of the display, the same kind you’ll see on pricier phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20.
The screens themselves are colorful and get just bright enough to stay visible outdoors in direct sunlight. The only snag is the relatively low 720p resolution, but you’ll have to pay close attention to notice any pixely edges. Oh, and if you’re not plugging in headphones while watching a video, just know that it’s very easy to block the bottom-firing speaker and muffle the sound when holding the phone in landscape mode.
The G Fast and Moto E are kitted out with 4,000-mAh and 3,550-mAh batteries, respectively, which are large enough to easily push these phones past a full day of use. I frequently made it to 7 or 8 pm on the second day before I needed to plug them in. With average use, daily charging is not needed.
Risk of Exposure
Photograph: Julian Chokkattu
It’s not all rosy. The biggest drawbacks of these two phones lie in their camera experiences. The Moto G Fast has a main 16-megapixel shooter, a 2-megapixel macro camera, and an 8-megapixel ultrawide-angle camera, whereas the Moto E sticks with a 13-megapixel sensor and 2-megapixel camera that provides the depth information required for the bokeh effects in portrait mode.
You’ll need to keep your hands very steady to avoid a blurry shot, and you may as well put the phone away in low-light conditions, because the results are always mediocre. (Unlike on the Moto G Stylus, there’s no dedicated night mode.)
In daytime shots, it’s difficult to say whether the G Fast is better than the Moto E. Its photos can often feel flat, with nonexistent shadows, and the Moto E compensates by boosting saturation and contrast, giving it an edge on some occasions. What surprised me the most is portrait mode on both phones—it’s pretty decent, even with notoriously tricky subjects like dogs. It might take multiple tries while your dog decides on a pose, however. Any movement will result in a blur, since the shutter is just not fast enough.
The other problem? Software upgrades. Don’t get me wrong, the Android 10 interface is great. It’s clean, lightweight, and simple to use, with almost no bloatware installed. But Motorola is only promising one Android version upgrade for the G Fast and none at all for the Moto E. Both will likely get sporadic security updates, but likely for only one year.
Updates are crucial, as they can squash bugs and keep your devices secure. But apparently for Motorola, user security is only important for the ones who shell out for its $1,000 Moto Edge Plus, which gets regular updates for two years. If you want an inexpensive phone with two or more years of software support, buy a Nokia or a Google Pixel instead.
Another sad note is that neither of these Moto phones has NFC (near-field communication) capability, which is what enables the use of contactless payment services like Google Pay. I’ve been using Google Pay more and more, because it’s a great way to minimize touching other surfaces at the grocery store checkout during this pandemic, and it’s a shame I can’t “tap to pay” with these devices.
The Fairer Phone
The $200 Moto G Fast is quite easily the better buy over the $150 Moto E. The promise of one Android version upgrade and the USB-C port is worth the extra $50. And overall, I think it’s the better pick over the rest of the Moto G lineup too. The $300 Moto G Stylus is tough to recommend, because it’s much closer in price to significantly better phones like the iPhone SE or the Google Pixel 3A.
But at $200, pickings are slim, so the Moto G Fast stands out (though definitely take a look at the $250 TCL 10L as well).
The cheaper Moto E is still fine if you’re strapped and are looking for the cheapest good option. Whether it’s for you, a teen, or grandma, the Moto E will satisfy the need for a basic smartphone. Maybe just also invest in a compact camera if you want quality photos.