Moto G4 – Good but not great
DIMENSIONS: 153 x 76.6 x 9.8 mm (6.02 x 3.02 x 0.39 in)
WEIGHT: 155 g (5.47 oz)
SCREEN: IPS LCD capacitive , 16M colors - 5.5 inches (~71.2% screen-to-body ratio)
RESOLUTION: 1080 x 1920 pixels (~401 ppi pixel density)
PROCESSOR: Qualcomm MSM8952 Snapdragon 617 - Octa-core (4x1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 & 4x1.2 GHz Cortex-A53)
RAM: 2 GB
MEMORY: 16/32 GB
SOFTWARE: Android OS, v6.0.1 (Marshmallow)
CAMERA: Geo-tagging, touch focus, face detection, panorama, auto-HDR
* Primary: 13 MP, f/2.0, autofocus, dual-LED (dual tone) flash
* Secondary: 5 MP, f/2.2, auto-HDR
BATTERY: Non-removable Li-Ion 3000 mAh battery
It’s not really realistic to expect the new Moto G4 to live up to the first one. That phone offered decent specs and prompt Android updates for a third of the price of most flagships, and the cheap-but-usable Android phone segment wasn’t as healthy in 2013 as it is now. It was the right phone for the right price at the right time, and no subsequent upgrade has quite nailed the same combination (though the third-generation model was a nice effort).
Now Motorola is owned by Lenovo, and a lot of the stuff that made the Google-owned Motorola a darling of reviewers (namely, prompt updates and good phones that weren’t obsessed with specs and superfluous features) is gone. Bear that in mind as we evaluate the Moto G4 and G4 Plus—they retain many of the selling points that made the first Moto G so good, but not quite all of them, and they’re no longer the cheapest decent phones you can buy even if they are still decent budget options.
Look and feel
That’s good, because at 5.5 inches these phones are much bigger than the 5-inch 2014 or 2015 Moto Gs (and the larger screen bezels typical of lower-cost phones don’t help). The power and volume buttons have been moved down the right edge of the phone to keep them easily accessible, but they don’t make any other concessions to one-handed use. They’re not exceptionally big next to every other Android phone, and the thinner design keeps the phone pocketable (at least if you’re wearing men’s clothes), but it’s a far cry from the original’s 4.5-inch screen.I really like the design of both Moto G4s, which is sleeker and less chunky than Moto Gs of years past (but unlike the Moto Z, they don’t do anything dumb like removing the 3.5mm headphone jack for no reason). The bulgy back is gone, but the phone is still curved around the edges in a way that’s comfortable to hold. And the lightly textured, rubberized plastic back is nice to touch and easy to hold. It won’t go slipping out of your hands.
The rounded edges of the phone are hard, smooth plastic that curves seamlessly to meet the rear shell, and that rear shell pops off to reveal the SIM tray and microSD slot (unlike a few flagship phones, the Moto G’s build of Marshmallow supports the adoptable storage feature). The phone claims to be “water-resistant,” which is to say it will stand up to the occasional spill or light rain shower, but unlike last year’s Moto G it is not fully waterproof and can’t be submersed in water. It’s an unfortunate step backward even if waterproofing still isn’t a must-have feature. There’s a standard micro USB port on the bottom of the phone—not all phones are ready for USB Type-C just yet, apparently.
The front of the phone is mostly screen, though if you have a Moto G4 Plus instead of the standard G4 you’ve also got a square fingerprint sensor at the bottom of the phone. It’s just a sensor, not a button; both G4s use Android’s standard onscreen navigation buttons in lieu of physical or capacitive buttons. This can occasionally be confusing when you hit the fingerprint sensor expecting a button, but I generally like the positioning more than the rear-mounted fingerprint sensors that the Nexuses and some other Android phones include. There’s less fumbling around and hoping your finger hit the sensor correctly if you can actually see the thing, and it’s usable if the phone is face-up on your desk.
There’s not much to say about the sensor itself, which seems about as quick and as accurate as the ones that LG and Huawei are using in the Nexus 5X and 6P. And while the “Nexus Imprint” branding isn’t there, Motorola is using Marshmallow’s standard fingerprint reader API, so setting it up and using it to unlock your phone and within supported apps is all exactly the same as what you’d get on a Nexus.
The display panel itself has moved up to 1080p for the first time in a Moto G, and it looks great—nice color with the option to turn the saturation down in the settings if the colors are too bright for you, nice contrast, none of the backlight bleed or purplish tinge that has affected Moto G screens in the past. For anything less than 6 or 7 inches, 1080p still represents the best compromise between display quality/pixel density and the Android ecosystem’s tiresome specsmanship. 2K and 4K displays in a smartphone (at least, any smartphone that you aren’t going to strap into a VR headset) is practically pointless and serves mostly to drain the battery rather than offer user-visible benefits. So on that score, the screen resolution was chosen well.
The problem is the GPU, which struggles a bit to drive 3D games on a display of this resolution. Modern-ish phone games like Shooty Skies are consistently a little choppy on this screen, and certain screens in Pokémon Go (herky-jerky on virtually any Android phone, even modern flagships) are unresponsive flipbooks. During general use, things are just fine—animations render smoothly, and the system UI is fast and fluid. But 3D performance leaves a lot to be desired, something we’ll examine a little more closely in the performance section.
Finally, Lenovo does still offer the Moto Maker customization service for both Moto Gs. You get to pick from among a handful of colorful rear covers, you can specify an accent color for the relatively unobtrusive camera bump on the back, and you can add a personalized message to both the back of the phone and the boot screen.
Software: Vanilla Android, crappy update policy
First, the good news: even the Lenovo-owned Motorola is gracious enough to continue shipping unskinned, Nexus-style Android on the Moto G. Motorola adds just a handful of apps and extra features, including one that brings up the camera if you twist your phone and an FM radio app (other apps like Migrate, Assist, and the handy, Handoff-esque Motorola Connect app were all unceremoniously retired late last year). As long as you buy the phones unlocked and avoid the version with Amazon’s special offers all over it, you get almost no preinstalled or duplicative apps, and it’s sad just how rare that continues to be across the Android ecosystem.
But every silver lining has a big ol’ cloud attached. Under Lenovo, Motorola’s once-sterling reputation for quick updates has been shredded faster than a Kleenex at a snot party, and the company has no plans to keep up with Google’s monthly security patches. Both Moto G4s ship with Android 6.0.1 and May 2016’s security patches, and their best hope for new patches (if they get new patches) is the likely-but-not-guaranteed Nougat update that ought to arrive at some point down the line.
It’s bad enough to be two months out of date, but the 2014 and 2015 Moto Gs show what the future holds: the former has Marshmallow with January 2016’s patches installed, and the latter has Marshmallow with December 2015’s patches installed. Even Samsung is doing better than this. This is by far the saddest thing about Motorola under Lenovo. The original Moto G was a bargain basement phone that got updates almost as quickly as Nexuses did. Not anymore.
As long as you’re buying the unlocked, non-Amazon version of the phone, Lenovo will also let you unlock the bootloader on the Moto G4s (the toggle to allow it is in the developer settings). Given the relatively low price and the relatively good specs on these phones, they’ll probably remain popular among the small-but-vocal audience of Android ROM builders.
Why no encryption?
There are a couple of weird things about the Moto G’s version of Android. For one, it’s a 32-bit build despite the fact that both phones have 64-bit SoCs and between 2 and 4GB of RAM. This doesn’t affect either phone in day-to-day use—even the 4GB phone doesn’t necessarily need 64-bit Android to be able to use all of that memory, most of the time. Motorola says that it chose to use a 32-bit version of Android to reduce the memory overhead—that doesn’t seem to be a problem for phones like the Nexus 5X, which also has 2GB of RAM, but in any case it’s not a huge deal.
More worrisome is the absence of on-by-default storage encryption, which according to Google’s own requirements (PDF) is supposed to be enabled out of the box on any Android phones that launch with Android 6.0 and meet basic performance requirements. Here’s the specific passage, emphasis ours:
9.9. Full-Disk Encryption
If the device implementation supports a secure lock screen reporting “true” for KeyguardManager.isDeviceSecure(), and is not a device with restricted memory as reported through the ActivityManager.isLowRamDevice() method, then the device MUST support full-disk encryption of the application private data (/data partition), as well as the application shared storage partition (/sdcard partition) if it is a permanent, non-removable part of the device.
For device implementations supporting full-disk encryption and with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) crypto performance above 50MiB/sec, the full-disk encryption MUST be enabled by default at the time the user has completed the out-of-box setup experience. If a device implementation is already launched on an earlier Android version with full-disk encryption disabled by default, such a device cannot meet the requirement through a system software update and thus MAY be exempted.
Motorola told us that the Moto G4 and G4 Plus don’t in fact meet that performance requirement, though the numbers from the Geekbench 3 test disagree—its AES subscores are 595.4MB per second for single-core performance and 2.14GB per second for multi-core performance. I’ve asked both Motorola and Google for more information about the tools used to measure this performance for purposes of the Android compatibility definition document.
If you buy a Moto G4 and you care about this, you’ll still need to take it into your own hands—it works the same way as it does in older versions of Android, and performance certainly didn’t seem to be a problem on the phone I encrypted manually. We’ll update this article if we can find out more about the metrics Google and Motorola are using—in any case, it’s frustrating that in 2016, two full years after Google promised encryption by default on all new Android devices, we still can’t assume that all Android phones will have encryption turned on by default.
The Moto G4 uses a 13MP rear camera, and the G4 Plus uses a 16MP rear camera, the biggest point of differentiation between the two phones aside from the fingerprint sensor. Cameras in general and low-light performance in particular have never been strong points for any of Motorola’s phones, but the 16MP camera in particular does a decent job here.
Both cameras are a slight improvement over the Moto G3 most of the time, though both are still easily outmaneuvered by the Nexus 5X and iPhone SE. Those phones are both nearly twice as expensive as the cheapest Moto G4, but that’s the price you’ll pay for actually solid low-light performance and color accuracy.
Internals and performance
The Moto G4’s performance isn’t flagship-level, but it’s honestly pretty solid for something you can buy for $200ish. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 615, which combines a whopping eight ARM Cortex A53 CPU cores—four at 1.5GHz and four at 1.2GHz—with an Adreno 405 GPU.
A few key areas improve, at least as long as you’re willing to pay a little more. The $200 base model includes 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. You can jump to 32GB of storage for $230, or you can add the fingerprint sensor and improved camera (thus making it a Moto G4 Plus) for $250. $300 will buy you a G4 Plus with 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM, and the fingerprint reader, though you’ll want to be a little careful here since you’re creeping toward Nexus 5X territory price-wise.
Finally, all models add 5GHz 802.11n for the first time, giving buyers an option if they live in an area with a congested 2.4GHz band. 802.11ac would have been preferable, but you can’t win them all.
Of all of the available models, I’d probably recommend the $250 G4 Plus with a speedy SD card to expand the internal storage. In day-to-day use I didn’t notice any huge performance benefits from having 4GB of RAM—apps may be ejected from memory less aggressively, but it’s not really a problem on a 2GB phone, and it doesn’t affect the benchmarks at all. If you don’t care about the fingerprint reader or slightly improved camera, just get the base model. Marshmallow’s adoptable storage makes paying for extra internal storage much less important than it is in phones that don’t offer the feature or don’t have card readers at all.
Compared to last year’s Moto G, single-core processor performance stays basically flat, but multi-core performance goes way up; that’s what happens when you double the number of cores a phone has. It’s still not flagship-level, and not all apps will be able to keep all of those cores busy simultaneously, but the speed is theoretically there.
The GPU is a slightly different story. Looking at scores from GFXBench’s “offscreen” tests, which put all GPUs on even footing by making them all render the same 1080p scene, shows that the Moto G4’s GPU is in fact significantly faster than the one in the 2015 Moto G. But it’s just a fraction of the speed of what you get in a modern flagship like the Moto Z. Looking at numbers from past reviews, it’s only around two-thirds as fast as 2013’s original Nexus 5, which had the same screen resolution.
It’s not a dealbreaker. Moto Gs have never had fantastic graphics performance, and frankly the reviews that accuse the Moto G4 of being universally sluggish and disappointing have confused me; aside from gaming, I have no complaints about how the G4 actually feels to use. But one could easily argue that the screen and the GPU are a bit mismatched, something that future Snapdragons will hopefully be able to rectify.
Storage performance is good, helped along by Lenovo’s use of the F2FS filesystem (older Moto phones have also taken advantage of this filesystem to improve performance). It remains good if you encrypt the phone’s local storage, something that frankly ought to be enabled out of the box already.
Finally, battery life: it’s good. The midrange SoC plus the more sensible 1080p display keep the Moto G4 kicking for longer than most flagships despite the size increase, so there’s nothing to complain about here.
I come away from a week with the Moto G4 with two main thoughts. For one, the Moto G4 is more faithful to the Moto G’s legacy than the Moto Z is to the Moto X’s. The Moto Z is an expensive phone that’s all about gimmicks, but the Moto X was always about basic competence and bang-for-the-buck. Like the original Moto G, the G4 focuses mostly on what’s important, cutting out extraneous frills and focusing on being a good $200 phone.
For two, it’s hard not to lament what the G4 could have been if Google still owned Motorola or if Lenovo had been more serious about preserving the qualities that made Google’s Motorola the reviewer’s darling that it was. This feeling is mostly prompted by the software update situation, which in less than two years has gone from “improbably excellent” under Google to “on the crappy side of average” under Lenovo.
* Solid, no-fuss design and build quality.
* Really nice screen.
* Generally, performance is good.
* Cheap way to get a fingerprint reader.
* Wide range of configuration options.
* Decent if not amazing cameras for the price, particularly in the G4 Plus.
* Appears to break Google's rules about on-by-default storage encryption.
* High-resolution screen combined with weak GPU means that some games are jerky.
* Much larger than past Moto Gs.
* Multiple configs may be confusing for some buyers.
* Not as waterproof as the previous model.
* Updates are no longer a reason to buy a Moto phone; don't let Lenovo tell you otherwise.