Motorola's recent resurgence has come on a willingness to quickly learn from its smartphone releases. Last fall's high-end Moto X was a huge improvement over the original, and it's still one of the best Android phones on the market six months later. And while the stakes are lower and the tech less cutting-edge, the new second-gen Moto E is likewise a much better phone than its predecessor.
That's a relative statement, of course. While fancy flagship devices battle it out for several hundred of your unsubsidized dollars, the Moto E comes in at a very attractive $150 unlocked—no contract needed. That's for a 4G phone with a quad-core processor and near-stock Android 5.0 Lollipop, which is still a rare commodity amongst budget handsets. Expectedly, the phone comes with some compromises, but at this price, nothing is a deal-breaker.
Last year's debut Moto E was solid for a cheap smartphone, but still a bit underpowered. Thankfully, the new model bumps the specs in meaningful ways. The biggest is the inclusion of 4G LTE connectivity, albeit only via GSM networks for now (sorry Verizon and Sprint users). LTE is pretty essential at this point, even for a lower-end device, and it makes the Moto E significantly more worthwhile. I tested it on AT&T's network across Chicago and had expectedly great results throughout.
The quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 410 processor within provides enough power for most everyday needs. It's a jump up from the dual-core Snapdragon 200 in the last model, and getting around Lollipop is a mostly fluid experience. I noticed sluggish spurts here and there while flipping through the OS, but it's nothing that'll kill your flow. The Moto E is a much better gaming device than its predecessor, as well, now able to handle recent 3D games—but not always without small issues. Even a game like Crossy Road (not really a graphics powerhouse) had some hitches until I disabled shadows. Then it ran great.
Lollipop is a wonderful addition that sets this budget phone apart from a lot of its low-end competition. Some recent flagship phones still don't have the current version of Android, yet this $150 phone carries it out of the box. Google's superb Material Design aesthetic is sleek and smooth, notifications are more intelligent, and interface elements are often easier to understand than before. It's a big overall upgrade over previous versions.
And on the Moto E, it's very nearly stock Android. Motorola calls it "pure Android," which means it's almost entirely the core experience with just a couple of small, useful tweaks. For example, tapping or bumping the phone lets you peek at notifications, which you can view with white text on the black backdrop (which consumes little energy). You can also flick your wrist twice anywhere to bring up the camera app, which is handy when a photo opp suddenly appears.
The new Moto E packs a 4.5-inch display, although it's not a great one. In fact, it runs at the same resolution as the earlier model's 4.3-inch screen (960x540), but the larger size makes for a less crisp image. At 245ppi, it's better than some low-end devices, but text comes off jagged and images can be blurry. It's a noticeable drop compared to the 720p screen of the current Moto G (we reviewed the 3G version, shown pictured above on the right), and if you're used to higher-end devices, it may well prove the Moto E's biggest weakness. At least the contrast is on point and the colors are vivid, but I wanted more brightness.
The handset itself is a bit chunky and has a rounded back—but if there's one thing that immediately stands out, it's how dense and weighty the phone feels. And that's a good thing: it almost comes off like a rugged, wilderness-ready phone. While it may not be marketed for durability, the Moto E feels like it can take a beating. It's not the most stylish phone around, but at least you can swap out the grippable colored plastic band, which snaps right on and takes just a moment to replace.