Review: Motorola Moto E
It’s really not fair. The flagship smartphone always gets its turn under the bright lights. People stand in line with furious anticipation awaiting an iPhone 5S’s first sale. Billboards plaster city streets and subway platforms with high-resolution, macro imagery of a Samsung Galaxy S5’s angles and curves. Millions of dollars are spent promoting the LG G3 on airwaves and broadband.
The promises of these flagship smartphones tend to be all the same: a faster processor, more storage, an improved camera, a glittery new cloud service. These electronic stars surely burn bright, but for the majority of phone users around the world, they are simply out of reach—far too expensive to consider, with high purchase prices and burdensome contracts.
The next half-billion new smartphone users will come mainly from emerging markets such as India and Africa, according to the market research firm IDC. Which means the real business action—and challenge, but also opportunity—is found at the low-end.
The Moto E, a $129 no-contract phone that Motorola formally introduced in mid-May, is intended to address this market. It won’t shock you with its hardware specifications, but that’s the point. Sure, it has a 4.3-inch display and version 4.4.2 of the Google Android operating system like its more expensive peers. But its processor is a step slower (a Qualcomm dual-core chip, versus the quad-core version found in today’s top-flight devices) and its connectivity a bit weaker (it lacks LTE 4G) than the devices in the front of the pack.
These are the kinds of components that flagship phones had two to three years ago, of course. (The commoditization of the high-end market has spared no one.) But they could be Motorola’s ticket to growth after a particularly turbulent time in its history in which the storied American company’s mobile business split from the rest and was sold twice over. (It now awaits the closing of an acquisition by the Chinese electronics manufacturer Lenovo.)
So what is it like to use a phone that most of the world could conceivably own? Surprisingly pleasant. In testing, I found the device to be quite capable of meeting my usage demands. Though I did experience some sluggishness when I quickly switched between multiple apps or opened a graphic-intensive website, the Moto E in general kept up with me.
The screen is clear and sharp, though it lacks full high-definition capabilities. The battery—arguably the most important part of a pocketable computer—lasted for more than a day’s worth of normal use, a feat that puts it ahead of many high-end devices. Its camera isn’t the fastest and its pictures aren’t the clearest, but that didn’t slow my ability to capture a moment.
One feature that is unique to the device is called “Motorola Alert.” It’s an emergency service that, when triggered, will update a predetermined emergency contact every five minutes with the whereabouts of the device, using the phone’s GPS sensor.
Another useful feature is called Motorola Assist. The tool will silence the phone at a set time each night or when your calendar has you scheduled to be in a meeting. It’s a feature that’s also found in Motorola’s more expensive Moto X (as well as a number of flagship phones), but with less capability, as the E lacks some of the X’s more advanced sensors.
The primary competition for the Moto E is the BlackBerry Z3, which the Canadian company also positions as a low-end smartphone for emerging markets, specifically Indonesia. Priced at $187 without a contract, the Z3 edges out the Moto E on paper. As we all know, though, paper matters little when it comes to the modern smartphone. (Do you know what kind of processor is in yours? Didn’t think so.)
Though the Moto E is aimed at the developing world, it can be quite handy in other situations. I found the phone to be a suitable backup phone, should you lose or break your primary device and suddenly realize you never ponied up for insurance. It’s also perfect for the first-time smartphone user, young or old.
The phone is sold in black or white with a customizable back plate. The phone uses GSM to connect (you can order Global or U.S.-specific versions) and comes unlocked, meaning that it will work on any GSM network. (In the U.S., that’s AT&T and T-Mobile.) A CDMA version (in the U.S., Verizon and Sprint) will be released at a later date, the company says.
The Moto E may not be designed to steal the show, but that’s not what matters. To put Internet access in the palms of millions and grow revenues in a cutthroat business? That’s a role that’s certainly worthy of a standing ovation.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.