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 large and cheap smartphones with outdated software and no guarantee of software updates, but with features like SD card slots and standard headphone jacks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.

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