When most Americans think about buying a major brand of smartphone, like Apple’s iPhone 5s or the Samsung Galaxy S5, they imagine paying about $200. But that’s not the actual price — far from it. It’s a price that’s subsidized by the phone carrier, and to make up the subsidy, you have to agree to a two-year contract and accept that the phone will usually be locked to that carrier until the full cost is paid off.
In fact, the actual, unsubsidized price of the latest iPhone at T-Mobile — the only major U.S. carrier that no longer subsidizes phones — is $648 for the 16 gigabyte base model. For the latest 16GB Galaxy S, T-Mobile charges $660. T-Mobile offers monthly payment plans that reduce the upfront cost, but the total cost is the same. Plus, these costs don’t include a cellular voice, text and data plan.
You can buy a good laptop or tablet, free and clear, for less.
And in much of the rest of the world, where subsidies are rarer, these top-of-the-line smartphones are seen as costing their full price, not a subsidized price, and that full price can be even higher.
As a result, most of the world’s mobile phone users are still using vastly cheaper, so-called “feature phones,” which can’t run many apps or engage with the Internet to nearly the extent that smartphones can. Even in the U.S., it’s estimated that around a third of cellphone owners are still using feature phones.
So Motorola, which has its own high-end smartphone, the Moto X (about $400 unsubsidized), is on a mission to capture the market for people moving up from feature phones, by offering smartphone models based on Google’s Android operating system that sell at greatly reduced prices without a subsidy.
This week, I reviewed the company’s latest and most radical weapon in that effort, the new Moto E, which sells for just $129, unsubsidized and unlocked. It’s available at Motorola.com and Amazon.com.
Once you buy one, you have to separately purchase a SIM card and plan from a carrier that works on the GSM standard, which is used in most of the world. In the U.S., the best-known such carriers are AT&T and T-Mobile. My test unit ran on AT&T’s network. The company says it hopes to also have a version of the Moto E that works on the CDMA standard, mostly used in the U.S., by Verizon and Sprint.
The Moto E is Motorola’s second attempt at a lower-cost Android smartphone. The first, last year’s Moto G, starts at $179. But it had more in common with the Moto X, albeit with fewer features. The Moto E is a significantly more ambitious effort to tempt feature-phone owners, something that’s a high priority for the company’s current owner, Google, which is in the process of selling Motorola to Lenovo.
Of course, if you’re going to slash the price of a name-brand Android phone so dramatically, you can’t include all the usual features, and the Moto E lacks some key elements. For starters, it doesn’t work on the fast LTE cellular data network, only on the older and slower 3G network. There’s no front-facing camera, and the rear camera, a five-megapixel model, is mediocre.
Also, it has just 4GB of internal memory, only a fourth of what the base models of the latest iPhone and Galaxy S offer, and half of what even the very first iPhone boasted back in 2007. (However, you can add a 32GB memory card for under $20.)
Still, the Moto E has a solid, quality feel, and in my tests, it worked reliably and well. It’s far better than a feature phone, and I can recommend it as a starter smartphone for feature-phone owners or for a teen’s first smartphone.
The Moto E is a chunky plastic phone with a rounded back and a 4.3-inch screen that’s much lower-resolution than costlier smartphones, but adequate, and is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass. It comes in black or white, and for an added $15, you can snap on colored backs.
It felt good in the hand, even though it’s heavier and thicker than some more expensive smartphones, and the sound was clear when making voice calls.
There’s a removable back with two slots. One is for the SIM card that authorizes the phone on a network, and the other is for an optional memory card. In some overseas markets, the memory slot is replaced by a slot for a second SIM card, since people in some countries prefer to switch between networks, numbers and plans on the same phone.
The phone runs the latest version of the KitKat edition of Android, and Motorola is pledging that it will be able to accept the next edition, as well. But, unlike many other Android phones, it lacks any special user interface overlay, so you get pure, stock Android, which I prefer.
In my tests, the Moto E was able to handle all the basic tasks — calling, texting, emailing, Web browsing, viewing photos and videos, and listening to music. It uses a slower, less capable processor than its costlier rivals, but didn’t seem sluggish.
It was weaker at taking photos. Compared to nearly identical shots taken on an iPhone 5s, photos from the Moto E looked washed out, with fuzzier details and colors that were less vivid or slightly off. Asked about this, a Motorola official simply said that it would be unrealistic to expect a $129 phone to take photos as good as those from a nearly $700 iPhone.
Another drawback: The 3G network. In my trials in New York City and Washington, D.C., the Moto E struggled to reach even two megabits per second in download tests, compared with the mid-teens typical of phones using LTE.
So, downloading websites and app data over the cellular network was sometimes frustratingly slow. However, the phone was fast over Wi-Fi, and Motorola pointed out that LTE — now common in the U.S. — isn’t even available in much of the world, and 3G speeds can be better.
I also tested another claim for the Moto E: Splash resistance. While the phone isn’t built to be submerged in water for long periods, the company says it was designed to survive brief, shallow immersions, such as a quick drop in a puddle or having a glass of water spilled on it briefly. I tried the latter, dried it off, and it kept on working fine.
I didn’t do a formal battery test, but in my moderate usage the Moto E easily met the company’s claim of all-day battery life.
There are some other smartphones that sell for less, unsubsidized — some for around $100. I asked Motorola why the Moto E couldn’t have sold for, say, $99. The company asserted that it costs more than some others because it uses better materials (like that Gorilla Glass), and can be upgraded to the next version of Android.
I wouldn’t trade my iPhone or Nexus 5 Android phone for the Moto E. But I’d take it over a feature phone.