Editor's Update, March 2015: read our review of the 2nd gen Moto E that replaces this model.
The Moto E, not unlike the Moto G, is meant to take the world by storm. Not because it has killer high end features or a huge display but because it's affordable enough to be within reach for many folks on the planet. When Google started the Nexus line of Android smartphones years ago, they wanted to show the world what a high end Android phone could be. Now that's taken care of and companies like Samsung, HTC, LG and Sony are covering the high line with fearless abandon. Really solid entry level Android smartphones? There aren't many on the US and EU markets, and quite a few of those are no-name brands that don't inspire trust.
The Moto E is just $129, no contract. Wow. For a phone with a nice enough design, interchangeable and colorful back covers, the latest 4.4 KitKat OS, a pleasing display and good voice quality, that's crazy. And Motorola's phone business, currently owned by Google but soon transitioning to Lenovo, is a brand you can trust in terms of quality and warranty. This is an unlocked GSM phone that comes in two flavors: worldwide GSM (works on AT&T 2G and 3G but not T-Mobile 3G) and the US GSM version that works on AT&T and T-Mobile 2G and 3G, but doesn't cover all the rest of the world's 3G bands (2100MHz is missing). Motorola says a CDMA version (the type of network used by Sprint and Verizon) is coming soon, but we don't have word on whether companies like Verizon will allow it on their network. So for now, think of the Moto E as a solid choice for AT&T, T-Mobile, wireless providers that piggyback off those networks and overseas GSM networks.
This is a $129, no commitment phone that's unlocked for use on any GSM carrier. It's not a $600 flagship. That means you get a decent but not super-fast CPU, a 5MP rear camera and a 4.3" qHD 960 x 540 display. There's no LTE 4G (uber-budget phones don't generally have LTE) and somewhat disappointingly no front camera. That said, the phone has 3G HSPA 21Mbps for very usable data speeds, a sharp and colorful display and the usual collection of wireless radios including 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, a GPS with GLONASS but no NFC. Honestly, for the price we're pretty impressed with the 256 PPI display, though viewing angles aren't superb and brightness is just OK. The Snapdragon dual core CPU is adequate for everyday tasks that don't include demanding 3D gaming or smooth streaming full HD video playback. The light, near pure Android build no doubt helps keep the phone fluid and responsive. We only saw it falter when playing Real Racing 3 and when streaming HD video (audio sync often was off, but playback was otherwise good).
Deals and Shopping:
Moto E Video Review
Design and Build
The Moto E looks a lot like a slightly smaller Moto G, which in turn bore a strong resemblance to the Moto X. This is a small phone by today's standards and fits in smaller hands and pockets. It's not bad looking nor is it stunning; though things improve if you opt for one of Moto's $15 back covers that come in tasteful colors like raspberry, royal blue and spearmint. The stock black model has a curved and comfy soft touch back that's tedious to peel off. You won't need to take it off to remove the battery because it's sealed inside. You might occasionally want to swap micro SIM cards since this is an unlocked traveller, and the microSD card slot is under the back cover.
The front face is available in your choice of black or white, and it has chrome accents above and below the display. One might mistake the lower chrome element to be a functional button (someone in our office tried pressing it), but it's simply eye candy on top of the speaker grille. The phone uses on-screen home, back and multi-tasking buttons, as is Google's preference.
Both the power button and volume controls are on the right side (power button toward the top) and the micro USB port for charging and data transfer is on the bottom. A charger and USB cable are included in the box. The 3.5mm stereo mic jack is up top. The phone feels solid and doesn't look cheap despite the low price, and the display is protected by Gorilla Glass 3.
Calling and Data
This is a GSM world phone with voice and 2G EDGE on the 850/900/1800/1900MHZ bands. 3G HSPA 21Mpbs bands vary depending on the variant you purchase. As mentioned, Moto says a CDMA model is coming soon, but we don't know if it will appear in the US and be approved for Sprint and Verizon's networks. Voice quality, typical of Motorola phones, is very good and volume is also good via earpiece. The mono speaker is surprisingly loud for speakerphone calls and multimedia.
Data speeds will vary by region and network, and on AT&T we averaged 7Mbps down and 1Mbps up according to the SpeedTest.net app, which is average for that carrier's 3G network in the Dallas, TX area. That's enough speed to load web pages quickly, download email and even stream video at 720p and modest to moderate bitrates. Since the phone doesn't have a 1080p display, there's obviously no need for speeds sufficient to stream full HD video.
Horsepower and Performance
The good news is that you get a name brand, decent dual core CPU. The Moto E runs on the 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 CPU. Our benchmark utilities report the graphics chip as an Adreno 305 rather than the 302 listed on Moto's site. Since Motorola has ordered custom chips before with upgraded GPUs, we'll report what the benchmark and testing apps tell us. In any case, the Adreno 302 is simply a slower clocked version of the 305, so the difference is moot.
The phone has a gig of RAM, standard for non-flagship Android smartphones and a paltry 4 gigs of storage with about 2.5 gigs free for your use. For the price, we won't complain, and this obviously isn't the phone for hardcore 3D gamers in terms of CPU, graphics or storage. The Moto E has a microSD card slot where you can store music, videos and files but not programs.
Motorola has a reputation for making mediocre cameras in their phones. Sadly, the Moto E is no exception, and the camera takes photos that I'd not call vivid or even colorful. Photos are mostly a tad murky and dull, though turning on HDR mode does wonders to improve contrast and color saturation. The camera can shoot 720 x 480 video at 30fps, which is surprisingly low resolution even for a 5MP sensor, though third party camera apps on the Google Play store can drive the resolution higher (not to 1080p, sorry).
The phone has a 1980 mAh battery, and that's a high capacity battery for a smartphone with a small display, lower end CPU and small body. To fit the big battery in a small phone, Motorola couldn't make it removable, so it's sealed in the casing (you can see its outline if you remove the back cover, but there's a plastic plate over the battery to prevent removal). Given the beefy capacity and low demands the Moto E places on the battery, we easily made it through the day on a charge. In fact, we've so far averaged 2 days of use with moderate use including streaming a few YouTube short videos, 30 minutes of calls, checking and sending email, browsing the web for 1 hour, playing Hay Day, reading an eBook for 45 minutes and playing music through earbuds with the display off for an hour.
Obviously the Moto E isn't for those who want all the latest smartphone bells and whistles like a large high resolution display or a fast quad core CPU. Like the $179 Moto G (soon to be released as an improved $219 model with LTE 4G and a microSD card slot), the Moto E is for those who can't or simply won't spend big bucks on a smartphone. The good news is that doesn't mean you have to skimp on build quality, warranty or the basics. The Moto E delivers on the smartphone staples with a clear and colorful display, responsive performance for everyday tasks and good voice quality. Better yet, you won't be tied to a carrier or have to sign a contract. The Moto E makes a great world travel phone, replacement for an in-contract broken or stolen phone or for those who want something reliable and solid at a low price.