The ultimate budget smartphone: The Moto E

I wanted to like the Moto E, for sentimental reasons. The Motorola who made this phone isn’t the same Motorola who made the MC68000 CPU in my Amiga, and it’s not the same Motorola that built the hulking briefcase-sized bag phone Dad toted around in the 1980s, but the logo is the same.

The stingy Scottish miser in me wanted to like the phone too, because it costs $129. A few short months ago, the only phones you could buy new for under $130 were cheaply made no-name phones like the Blu Advance with half a gig of RAM, a low-visibility screen, a low-end processor you didn’t want and an Android that was a few versions out of date, encased in lots of cheap plastic. Next to the Moto E, the Blu phones lose what little appeal they had.

The Moto E comes with a reasonable gig of RAM, a 2-core CPU running at 1.2 GHz–probably less than you want–but a reasonable GPU, only 2 GB of onboard storage but it sports a micro SD slot, a nice screen with glass covering it, and a plastic back. And one of the first things it will want to do after you turn it on is upgrade to Android 4.4.3. Motorola made some compromises to get the phone’s price down to $129, but they managed to give you a couple of nice things for the price.

Oh, and that $129 price is off contract. You pay $129 and you own the phone outright. I took the phone to T-Mobile–be sure to get the US GSM version if you want to use it with T-Mobile–and put it on their cheapest plan. For $40 a month I get unlimited talk, unlimited text, and a reasonable data plan. Not bad.

The user experience is pretty smooth. If you’re used to a high-end smartphone you won’t be impressed, but if you’re moving up from a single-core phone, it’s a lot faster and smoother. Antutu Benchmark gives it a score of 12,000, which is fairly unimpressive, but you’ll have to pay nearly 50% more to get something better. Granted, that 50% more nets you a Moto G and it’s a phone with a lot fewer compromises, but the Moto E delivers a good experience at a price that’s unheard of.

The performance really is pretty good. Motorola delivers a nearly-stock Android experience, aside from adding a couple of apps that offer to tweak the phone based on your usage habits, which I don’t find objectionable. A midrange Samsung phone won’t keep up with a Moto E in spite of its better specs, due to the bloat that Samsung and the carrier will bolt on, and you’ll pay a lot more for it in higher monthly phone bills that hopefully will only last until you pay the phone off. I’m sure Cyanogenmod will make it to the Moto E, but the majority of people won’t need or want it, at least until Motorola stops providing upgrades to the newest Android version.

When I connected it to T-Mobile, the calls were clear. The data plan is strictly 3G–you don’t get LTE for $129. But that’s usable. This is a basic phone for casual use, not a status symbol.

And you want Android 4.4.3. Its biggest new feature helps you find your phone if you lose it, which is helpful. It’s optional if you’re concerned about privacy, but if you lose your phone, this will help you find it, or wipe your data remotely if it’s out of reach.

My only gripe is the lack of a USB mass storage mode, which gave way to a “media device” MTP mode that my car stereo isn’t compatible with. That seems to be an Android thing, not a Motorola thing. So I’ll have to get a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm audio cable so I can listen to podcasts in my car with it. That’s irritating but I can live with it.

For the right person, the Moto E is a fantastic choice. It’s not going to keep up with the high-end phones of 2014. But someone who finds a Blu Dash or Blu Advance to be enough phone for their needs–and there are a lot of those people out there–is likely to be thrilled with the Moto E. It’s a little more rugged than a Blu phone, more modern, and more polished. I hope it turns into a best-seller for Motorola.

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