Prior to the Lenovo takeover, Motorola had a reputation for making flagship phones at very competitive prices. Since the acquisition was finalized, Moto’s high-end phones have been a bit less attractive, but the cheaper phones are still good options. However, it’s been a while since Motorola took the super-affordable Moto E seriously. After a very limited third-gen release in parts of Asia and Europe, Motorola is again making the 4th gen Moto E a mainstream product. It’s available as an unlocked phone, and on carriers as a cheap prepaid device. But “cheap” here doesn’t mean it’s a bad phone. It’s definitely not offering an experience on-par with something like a Pixel, OnePlus 5, or even a Moto G5. Yet, this is an impressive phone for the price.
Design and display
If you spy the Moto E4 from a distance, it can be hard to figure out which Motorola phone you’re looking at. It has the same oval fingerprint sensor under the screen, and the big, round camera module on the back. Up close, the differences become clear. The Moto E4 is smaller than most Moto devices, and the frame is plastic rather than aluminum. However, when you actually get it in your hand, the Moto E4 feels surprisingly solid.
The back and sides are covered by a single-piece soft plastic surround that snaps on. There’s a tab on the bottom to pop it off, which reveals the removable (!) battery, SIM slot, and microSD card slot. The plastic cover is fairly thick and has a texture to give it some grip. There’s a shallow Moto dimple in the middle, which actually irks me a little. There are no Mods for this phone, so there’s no reason it can’t have a real dimple, Motorola. Stop being stubborn.
On the top edge is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and over on the right are the power button and volume rocker. The power button is a touch far down for a smaller phone like this, but it’s textured and tactile. I also appreciate the volume buttons are a single rocker unit rather than the individual up and down design used on Moto’s more expensive phones. They’re far too easy to confuse with the power button.
On the bottom of this phone is the microUSB port. It’s a bummer this is yet another phone that lacks Type-C, but I suppose I can give Motorola a pass on it in this case. Moto is looking to sell this phone in markets that have very low Type-C deployment. People still have a lot of microUSB cables laying around, and some versions of this phone don’t have fast charging anyway. Those that do max out at 10W. Any old micro cable will do.
I cannot stress how wild it is to have a fingerprint sensor on a phone that costs as little as $70, but here we are. Performance is similar to Motorola’s other phones, but it does seem to misread slightly more often. The sensor is still accurate and fast enough that I like using it. You only have to press for a moment to get it to read your fingerprint. It’s a bit slower than the OnePlus 5, but much faster and more accurate than the Galaxy S8. This phone, by the way, costs just 9.3% as much as the GS8.
The earpiece doubles as the speaker, which means it’s on the face of the phone rather than the bottom as so many phone speakers are. It’s not particularly loud or clear, but at least it’s not going to be covered by your finger all the time. The vibration motor in the Moto E4 bothers me a bit. It feels “loose” and not very powerful. There’s also no NFC in there, but I think we’ve learned not to expect that in budget phones. One pleasant hardware surprise is the presence of dual-band (2.4 and 5GHz a/b/g/n) WiFi.
The display is a 5-inch LCD, but the overall device is less compact than some 5-inch phones because of the rather large bezels. The LCD has a resolution of 1280×720, so it’s not the sharpest thing you’ll ever see. That said, I think it looks good enough given the price. The colors are accurate—actually much more accurate than I would have expected for a cheap LCD panel. The brightness is barely good enough. The Moto E4 is usable in bright light, but it’s not a pleasant experience. The black levels are good for an LCD, and I’m not seeing any significant light bleed.
The camera tends to be a pain point, even on mid-range phones. So, you can imagine how bad they tend to be on ultra-budget phones like the Moto E4. I’ll say upfront that the 8MP camera on the Moto E4 is better than other phones in this price range, but it’s not a very good camera objectively.
Capture times are fast in good lighting, but any time HDR comes on you get about a half second of shutter lag. That makes action shots difficult or impossible. In poor lighting, the lag is even worse. Focus is also very poor when there isn’t ample light.
A phone like the Moto G5 Plus can take a nice outdoor shot, but the Moto E4 has issues with exposure in bright light. I’m seeing a lot of areas that are completely blown out and others that are too dark. HDR helps somewhat, but not enough to save many of these shots. Lens flare is an issue as well—even when a bright light is well out of frame, you get bright shafts of light in your photos. The Moto E4 also seems prone to washing out colors in certain brighter settings.
The best photos come from well-lit indoor settings, which lack the harshness our outdoor light. Exposure is even, and there’s not too much noise. When light starts to dip, the ISO ramps up quickly and there’s plenty of noise (the aperture is only f/2.2). This makes photos taken in anything by perfect light look very soft compared to more expensive phones. In poor light, the Moto E4 is basically useless. It can’t focus, and images are so dark as to be unusable.
The front-facing 5MP camera has the same f/2.2 aperture, but it does have the unexpected bonus of a front-facing camera flash. That’s not something you usually see on a phone this cheap.
Performance and battery
The Moto E4 has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, paired with a Snapdragon 425 in most models. A few variants will come with the Snapdragon 427, which is equipped with a faster X9 LTE modem. Motorola has traditionally been able to squeeze an impressive amount of performance out of modest hardware, but there’s only so much you can do with the SD425. The Moto E4 is capable, but it’s not fast.
Basic tasks like browsing the web and listening to music are fine on the Moto E4. I have not yet come across any serious lag during light usage. Even flipping back and forth between apps using the quick switching shortcut in Nougat is fine. Games are an issue for the Snapdragon 425/427 due to the weak GPU. Anything with a lot of particles or 3D graphics will be sluggish.
When pushing the phone with a lot of background tasks and flipping between multiple apps, it’ll start to stutter and lag. That’s what you’d expect with this hardware, though. If you need a phone that can handle heavy usage, you’re going to have to spend more money.
The Moto E4 has a fairly large battery in comparison to its mid-range hardware, so you’d expect the battery life to be good. And indeed it is. I’ve been using the Moto E4 to browse the web, send messages, manage email, and snap photos. Everyone’s usage will vary, but I have no trouble getting through a day with the E4.
Light use over 2 days
Over the course of about 24 hours with moderate to heavy use, this phone has been hitting about seven hours of screen time. That’s solidly above average. If used lightly, you should be able to make it through two days on a charge to eke out five or more hours of screen time.
Motorola based its Google-powered reinvention on making a great version of Android. It came up with a number of clever features for the Moto X family, but there’s been less innovation since the Lenovo deal was announced. There are still a couple cool additions to the mostly stock software on the Moto E4, but its biggest selling point is that it’s completely up-to-date. The Moto E4 ships with Android 7.1.1, which some much more expensive phones still don’t have.
Launching with Nougat is a good thing, especially for a cheap phone. Odds are it’ll see one major system update if we’re lucky. The 2015 Moto E (the last one released widely) got the short end of the stick in this respect. Motorola/Lenovo promised one system update for that device, but it ended up counting the minor bump from 5.0 to 5.1 as that phone’s single update. Motorola eventually pushed Marshmallow to the Moto E 2015 in a few markets following complaints. At least this phone isn’t starting at a disadvantage.
The interface is almost completely unmodified, even on the Verizon version of the phone. It uses Motorola’s Pixel-like launcher with the Google Feed on the left and a swipe-up app drawer. The navigation bar has a second circle around the home button to indicate it has Assistant, and it even does the Google-colored dot animation when you press it like the Pixel.
The Moto E4 has a subset of the Moto-branded features you get on devices in the Z family. It’s limited to Moto Actions and Moto Display, and even then you don’t get all the goodies.
Under Actions, you only have one-button nav and swipe to shrink screen. One-button nav was introduced on the Moto G5 Plus, letting you use swipes and taps on the fingerprint sensor to navigate instead of having the on-screen nav bar. I kind of like this feature, but it’s not a make-or-break thing. The screen shrinking gesture is improved this time as it actually moves the UI to a corner rather than the middle, but this is a small phone that doesn’t benefit from one-handed mode. You don’t get the motion-based gestures like twisting to launch the camera or double chop for flashlight. That’s a bummer. Moto Display is off by default, but it’s the same as other Moto phones when you turn it on. I still really like this feature as it makes it easy to check notifications without waking the phone up.
There’s essentially no bloatware on this phone, even on the Verizon model—there are only five total Verizon apps. Perhaps this level of restraint is due to the limited internal storage. About half of the 16GB internal allotment is taken up by the software. You’ll want a microSD card for this one.
My ongoing gripe with Motorola’s software is that there’s not much new. The best customizations are the ones it has had since 2013, and several of Moto’s other custom features have been cloned in stock Android. On an ultra-cheap phone like this, I don’t think you can complain too much about the lack of software innovation. It doesn’t have the horsepower to run a bunch of fancy services. It’s more important that it’s reliable and covers all the basics, which the Moto E4 does. I hope Motorola comes up with some new tricks that don’t rely on expensive add-on Mods, and if if does, those features won’t debut on a Moto E phone.
The Moto E4 comes in three basic flavors; there’s an unlocked version on Motorola’s website that works on both GSM and CDMA carriers, an Amazon Prime version of the same unlocked device, and several carriers will be selling their own (mostly prepaid) versions of the phone. The unlocked Moto E4 will sell for $129, and the carrier versions are priced as low as $70. On Amazon, the Moto E4 is $100 with some Amazon pre-installed apps and ads. These prices are even more reasonable than the last Moto E released in the US.
You can’t expect miracles when you pay so little for a phone, but the Moto E4 has a lot to offer. The display is good, battery life is excellent, the fingerprint sensor is above average, and the build quality is solid. Even with the snap-on back and removable battery, there’s no excessive flex or creakiness. The software is definitely one of the main selling points—it’s based on Android 7.1.1 and has a few of Motorola’s cool extras. You might not get many updates, but it’s in a good place right now.
It’s not exactly a pretty phone, but it’s at least inoffensive. It’s also not a fast phone with the snapdragon 425 and 2GB of RAM. That said, it chugs along admirably most of the time. The biggest sacrifice here is the camera, which is disappointing in most lighting conditions. Even outdoor shots are plagued by blown out highlights and lens flare.
This is far from the best phone you can get, but it’s the best phone for the price. Motorola is offering an fantastic value in the Moto E4.