Archive for March, 2018

Moto G5 first impressions

Cheap, cheerful, and competent

In January 2018 I found myself looking for a new mobile device. The main use cases were playing music, displaying a map offline, making phone calls, and sending short text messages. The timing was driven by going on a three-week trip abroad.

Devices currently available on the smartphone market generally fall into one of the following two categories:

  1. large and cheap smartphones with outdated software and no guarantee of software updates, but with features like SD card slots and standard headphone jacks
  2. large and expensive premium smartphones with newest software, sometimes with guarantee of software updates, taking less-is-more approach to features

A middle ground where one would hope for up-to-date software for under 400 EUR is rather hard to find. Phones smaller than 5″ screen are very niche.

I chose the first category, and bought a Motorola Moto G5 for 159.99 EUR including taxes (241.24 CAD at time of purchase).

It’s great. It’s cheap and cheerful. It’s plastic fantastic. It doesn’t feel premium and that’s awesome.

I don’t worry about dropping it, breaking it, losing it, getting a case for it. I just use it. It’s not everything I’d want, but for the price it’s just fine.

It’s grey and black and plastic and there’s not much more to it. There’s a “Moto” text on the front which isn’t too obnoxious, and an M logo on the back which I covered with a stick-on kickstand. It’s probably a bit thicker than a Nexus, but, whatever.

I have resolved the size issue by not carrying my phone as often. I won’t drop a phone taking it out of my pocket if I don’t have it in my pocket.

Quick intro to technology: It’s model XT1676, version PVT1. It’s got a 5″ screen, 1920×1080 IPS, you don’t need more. It’s got 16 GB of onboard storage, a microSD card slot, a microUSB connector, dual SIM slots, and a 3.5 mm headphone/microphone jack. It’s got 2 GB of RAM although you might want a bit more. It’s got a fingerprint reader on the front which works fine.

Here are a few catches: Because the bezels around the screen are quite large, so overall the phone is somewhat larger than a Nexus 5. As I initially wanted my next phone to be smaller, not larger, that’s not great, but a small cheap phone doesn’t appear to be a possibility in 2018. The camera is nominally 13 MP, but in reality is quite a bit worse than the camera on a 2015 Nexus 6P, and is only about as good as the 2013 Nexus 5’s 8 MP camera. 2 GB of RAM is not quite enough for Android running Maps.me and Firefox with more than one tab loaded. The SD card and the SIM cards are not hot-swappable.

The software situation is rather grim, as expected. In January 2018 I bought it with Android 7.0 (the latest is 8.1) and security updates up to August 2017. In late February it received an exciting update to Android 7.0 with security updates as of November 2017. A Nexus this is not. Of course, the economics of providing a 160 EUR device with timely updates are terrible, so it is unlikely anyone will do any better barring an industry-wide move to open source bootloaders and drivers for mobile devices.

Out of the box

Thankfully, the stock install is low on bloatware. Motorola was kind enough to just let Android do its thing. The complete list of software installed out of the box is:

  • Calculator
  • Google Calendar †
  • Camera
  • Google Chrome
  • Clock (standard Android alarm clock and timer)
  • Contacts
  • Device help (some Moto app, not obnoxious)
  • Downloads (Android’s “it’s not a file explorer we swear”)
  • Google Drive
  • Google Duo †
  • FM Radio
  • Gmail (also supports email servers other than Gmail)
  • Google search app
  • Google Maps
  • Messages (SMS)
  • Moto (configures gestures and ambient display settings)
  • Phone
  • Google Photos
  • Play Movies & TV †
  • Play Music
  • Play Store †
  • Settings
  • Voice search
  • Wallpapers
  • Youtube

As part of my attempts to degooglify, I’ve not logged in to my Google account on the device. In general, this works alright — better than I had expected. However, software marked with dagger † above doesn’t work without a Google account: Calendar (won’t start at all); Duo (the video chat app – it wants me to opt in to something on startup, I didn’t investigate since I don’t use it anyway); Play Movies & TV; Play Store. Google search app works just fine without logging in. Maps works without logging in, except for saving locations. Play Music works with music files copied onto the device.

Google Photos initially used to show images on the device just fine. Since the February update, it continuously sends notifications that it won’t run unless I update Google Play services (which I can’t do without logging in to Play Store), but seems to actually still run fine.

“OK Google” always-on-listening works by default in launcher, without a Google account; it can be disabled in settings. There is a default widget for weather from AccuWeather.

None of the default apps are removable, but they can be disabled. This hides them from the launcher app list, which is enough for my purpose: avoiding distraction.

This being Android, software installs fine from APK files. In particular, Firefox and Maps.me run well. More on third-party software later.

My usage

  • Playing music: works fine. An SD card slot means I didn’t have to overpay the manufacturer for onboard storage. When used mostly for music a couple hours a day, the battery life is about a week.
  • Running an offline map: competent in Maps.me, which uses OpenStreetMap data. The phone came on a three-week trip with maps of Vietnam and Hong Kong, and worked well. Offline search was mostly fine, occasionally laggy, but that might have had something to do with Maps.me downloading all of Guangdong to cache Hong Kong.
  • Making phone calls: competent. Dual SIMs were nice for staying connected just-in-case when we had a local SIM on the trip, but I don’t use them day-to-day now.
  • Sending short text messages: yep, it does that, with a standard Android keyboard.

It’s a functional enough little computer, and it makes phone calls, too. I am satisfied.

Nexus 5 exit review

Or, it is not a good idea to make a thing you’re likely to drop out of glass.

In 2015, I wrote a review after ten months of using the Nexus 5. As I wrote then, I had bought the Nexus 5 based on wireless networks supported, size, software hackability, input methods, software updates, storage size/options, and the camera in roughly that order; it was the most expensive phone I had bought to date, after I previously bought both my Blackberry Pearl 8100 and my Nexus One lightly used.

The big reason for writing the review in 2015 was my reaction to breaking the glass over the Nexus 5 screen. I continued to use the phone; a few more drops broke the glass on top left of the device but didn’t impact the screen greatly. In December 2016, I dropped it one last time trying to check directions while cycling. This time the liquid crystals in top left broke, and the touchscreen stopped responding. That does mean that the phone ultimately survived two years with cracked and weakened top glass, so that’s something.

After two and a half years, I still agree with most of my ten-month review: it did look nice; the screen was nice; reliability and durability of the all-glass front is not good. Size is too big for single-handed use and not suited for use on the go. The enclosed, non-field-replaceable battery didn’t end up being a problem in the end. I really liked wireless charging with Qi. I hardly ever used NFC.

It wasn’t critical, but I would have liked a bit more storage space, or upgradeable storage space. The camera was workable and automatic panorama stitching was neat. The keyboard was alright when using two-hands, not suitable for single-handed use, and not suitable for typing without looking down at the keyboard. It’s still silly to think that a phone has 2 GB of RAM.

By the way, when sitting idle with the screen off, a two-year-old Nexus 5 has a battery life of about a week.

Some changes from the older review: I have ran into some really annoying edge cases with MTP mounting and am wishing for direct USB mass storage mounting to make a return. The soft-touch finish has aged better than I thought it would, which makes the fragile glass front all the more annoying. The missing stickers from within the “Nexus” cut-out logo on the back are not a huge problem visually, though I still think they could have been omitted in the first place.

I wonder how much more durable the phone would have been if the plastic casing extended into the front face a tiny bit, instead of the front being edge-to-edge glass. The screen cracks propagated from the edges inwards, and I noticed my old Nexus One had many scratches on its front corners that didn’t impact the glass.

One other issue I have noticed is hairline cracks in side bezels around the SIM card slot on the right hand side, and around the volume rocker on the left hand side. These look like stress from falls and bumps breaking the thin side pieces at their narrowest.

Ultimately, two and a half years of use is shorter than I’d like, but I guess not terrible. It would probably feel a bit more acceptable if this was a $200 purchase, not a $400 one.

Perhaps my foremost problem was that I wanted the Nexus 5 to be a phone: a device to use single-handed, on the go, designed to account for the reality that it will sometimes be dropped. The Nexus 5 is not that kind of phone.