A $150 phone is both easy to love and hard to like. On one hand the bar is set low, so low that we're thrilled when the important bases are nicely covered: a solid quad core CPU, an IPS display and good voice quality. Throw in LTE 4G and a name brand you can trust, and you've got a phone it might be hard to dislike. But on the other hand, you can't expect greatness at this price: there's no cutting edge 2.5GHz CPU, no crazy high resolution display and no classy chassis. That's the story of the 2015 Moto E, the improved and updated version of an affordable Android smartphone we liked (for the price) last year too.
The Moto E is an unlocked GSM phone that will work on any GSM carrier (AT&T and T-Mobile are the two largest US GSM carriers, Verizon and Sprint use CDMA so the unlocked Moto E won't work on their networks). Thus that $149.99 price tag is the full retail price with no monthly payments or contract. Motorola sells it direct on their website, and we'll likely see it at other retailers like Best Buy and Amazon. Though we strongly recommend 4G LTE for faster web site load times, better streaming video and faster app download times, there's a 3G version for $119.99 (the 3G version also has a slower, older CPU). The 3G version is available in two variants, one for the US that includes T-Mobile's AWS bands and a global model that does not.
Like all recent Moto branded phones, the Moto E fits nicely in the hand and it has a curved back and a distinctive design. For a phone this cheap it doesn't look bad, especially when jazzed up with Moto's $20 pack of color bands and their $20 apiece snap-on colored covers. The E is available in matte white and matte black--your choice. It's unabashedly plastic and less stylish than the higher end Moto X and Moto G. The curves aren't quite as subtle, and there's no custom order system for the color or finish of your choice. Fair enough, at this price. The phone feels rugged in that impact-absorbing polycarbonate way, and the back is permanently affixed, so you can't remove the rather ample battery. The ring around the side is removable and swappable with the aforementioned color bands, and the microSD and micro SIM card live under the snap-on ring. The mono earpiece lives above the display and there are two mics for better outgoing audio quality. The phone has the usual 3.5mm stereo audio jack, a micro USB port at the bottom and an ambient light sensor that's a bit too reactive for our tastes (brightness shifts too often and easily, so we turned auto-brightness off). It also has an accelerometer and it works with a subset of Moto actions like quiet time, active display and snapping your wrist twice to launch the camera.
The exciting news is that the Moto E 2015 edition runs clean Android 5.0 Lollipop with no UI customization or added bloatware. Google used to own Moto until just a few months ago, and Google put Moto on the clean Android path. Lenovo now owns Motorola's phone division, and they're committed to clean Android and timely updates too. The CPU is better than expected and it even outshines the Moto G by a little--it's the newer 64 bit quad core 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 with Adreno 306 graphics. That's a midrange CPU in a bargain basement priced phone. The Moto has 1 gig of RAM and 8 gigs of storage with 4.5 gigs available for your use. You won't be able to install lots of high-end 3D games, but you can fit 1 or 2 of the largest, and several of the smaller titles like Dead Trigger 2. Performance overall feels good, and we noted occasional lag when launching an app or switching between running apps, but nothing that's horrid by budget phone standards. This isn't a flagship with a top of the line CPU or 2 to 3 gigs of RAM, after all. Note that the 3G model has the 1.2 GHz quad core Snapdragon 200 instead, an older and slower CPU.
The phone has a decent 4.5" IPS display running at a just OK qHD 540 x 960 (note that qHD and QHD are abbreviations for two different resolutions). That's 245 PPI, which isn't going to win any marketing competitions and keen eyed pixel peepers will see the dots, but again for $120 to $150 it's perfectly reasonable. All IPS displays aren't created alike, and viewing angles on the 2015 Moto E are just OK and not as wide as the best IPS displays (you can quickly see the brightness decline as you move it off angle). Still, it's easy enough to see up to 45 degrees off angle. Brightness is good and it's viewable outdoors, and it's brighter than the last generation Moto E.
The Moto E has single band WiFi 802.11n rather than dual band WiFi ac (again, fair for the price), and it has Bluetooth 4.0LE but no NFC. A GPS with GLONASS and an FM radio round up the wireless radios inside this budget Android handset. There's a front VGA camera that's at best passable and at worst better than nothing. The 5MP rear camera with f/2.2 lens and panorama mode can shoot 720p video and it's about what we'd expect from a 5MP phone camera: it has decent colors and sharpness in good lighting and it's a bit noisy and grainy in low light.
Battery life is a strong point. The 4xx Snapdragons aren't big power hogs, nor are low resolution displays, yet Motorola put a surprisingly large 2390 mAh battery in the phone. It's obviously not as big a battery as you'd find in a 6" flagship, but given the phone's size and power needs, it's plenty big. Motorola claims up to 24 hours, but that's a vague claim (do they mean screen- on time, likely not). Still, we couldn't find a way to kill the phone in an average workday running it 7am-11pm with moderate use throughout the day. Sure, if you play Dead Trigger 2 for 7 hours straight you can drain it dry, but in more realistic daily use, you likely won't have to top it up mid-day unless you use the GPS heavily for long trips or play games for hours on end.
We like it. In fact, for the price it's hard to find a better phone. Some of Blu's recent models come close but they're running an older version of Android (at least for now), have lesser processors and lack 4G LTE. Only some low to midrange Nokia Lumia phones put up a fight, if you're not wedded to Android. The 2015 is solidly built, has excellent voice quality, good LTE 4G speeds and it runs a clean Android build that helps keep speeds decent. No, it's not as fast as a flagship, nor does it have lots of storage or a giant better than full HD display, but you knew that going in, right?