Still the best budget phones

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Hardware

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Every year since Motorola released the first G, it’s made relatively minor tweaks to a common design language. Last year’s G4 series represented the biggest shift at the time. The domed back was abandoned in favor of a flatter, boxier shape, making for a more serious look compared to past G models. With the G5 and G5 Plus, Motorola has continued down that road to the extent that its latest smartphones bear little resemblance to their storied predecessors. But I’m not convinced that’s a good thing.

The Moto G concept has always been about putting affordability first. That hasn’t changed with this generation, but the value proposition now includes metal, a premium building material that hasn’t featured on any previous models. For me, though, this is little more than a gimmicky selling point. Motorola has been careful in its description of the new phones’ “metal finish.” That’s important because you aren’t getting an aircraft-grade aluminum unibody (which would be a significant leap in construction) but a lone metal panel that fills the majority of the back plate on both devices.

This is most obvious on the G5, as you have to pry off the back piece to get at the SIM and microSD slots. Looking at the entire rear panel inside-out, you can clearly see where a thin metal sheet has been bonded to an otherwise all-plastic frame. The G5 Plus uses a drawer to absorb all your little cards — a clever double-sided one that accepts two SIMs and a microSD, in fact — so the limited amount of metal isn’t as conspicuous. There’s also virtually no discernible difference in texture between the metal and plastic parts, which further disguises the marriage of materials.

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I’ve probably labored the point enough already, but my final word would be to ignore the marketing spiel. The G5 and G5 Plus are not metal phones; they’re plastic with a sliver of metal glued to the back. That said, I don’t want you thinking they’re flimsy or fragile. Both are solid, well-built handsets that laughed off my feeble attempts to bend and twist them.

There are other things to like about the design of the G5 and G5 Plus. For starters, both are small enough that you can easily use them one-handed, with no sharp corners digging into your palm. I’m also a fan of the bold black ring encircling the primary camera and companion flash on both handsets. It reminds me of the old Nokia Lumia 1020, though it’s actually a design element borrowed from Motorola’s higher-end Z line.

On the G5, this camera enclosure is flush with the back plate, whereas on the Plus it’s elevated by roughly two millimeters. This hump is actually quite attractive, highlighting what’s arguably the phone’s only eye-catching accent. Aside from this obvious difference, the G5 and G5 Plus look almost identical. You can barely tell the G5 Plus is a couple of millimeters taller and one millimeter wider than the G5 (all in the name of accommodating its slightly larger display). The standard 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top edge of the G5 and on the bottom edge of the G5 Plus, next to the micro-USB charging port, but that pretty much covers the exterior differences.

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Whereas past iterations have been colorful and playful, this year’s models are just a bit boring by comparison. The little dimple on the back of previous Gs where the Motorola logo sat (also serving as a natural finger rest) is gone, replaced by a raised, shiny plaque that has as tendency to collect hand grime. I get that Motorola is going for a more mature look, but it lacks a certain refinement. There’s a significant amount of dead bezel framing the displays, for instance.

Furthermore, the G5 and G5 Plus don’t allow for Moto Maker customization, meaning you’re torn between either the drab two-tone gray/silver color scheme or the slightly ostentatious gold. A “sapphire blue” model has begun hitting some markets and is the best-looking option from what I’ve seen online, but it’s not widely available yet. In general, I feel the signature characteristics of the G line are progressively being eroded. The peak, for me, was the 2015 Moto G, which was the first model to offer Maker personalization and the only member of the lineage to boast true waterproofing.

Display

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The G5 and G5 Plus both sport full HD (1,920 x 1,080) LCD displays, which is the best resolution you can reasonably expect at these prices. Last year’s G4 models offered the choice of 5- or 5.5-inch panels, but this time you have your pick of either a 5-incher on the regular G5 or the 5.2-inch screen of the G5 Plus — at least you do in some parts of the world, anyway, as only the G5 Plus is sold in the US.

Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better and I actually prefer the display of the G5 over the G5 Plus, though it’s worth noting that the latter is protected by Gorilla Glass 3 and the former soda-lime glass. Blacks are excellent on both devices and white balance accurate, but colors appear a bit more vibrant on the smaller model. You need to see them side by side to catch this slight difference, though, and colors are still nicely saturated on the G5 Plus.

This discrepancy is likely due to the fact the G5’s display has a bit more power behind it. Neither panel performs particularly well in bright sunlight. You can still check the time and read your emails, but even at maximum brightness, glare is very obvious.

Software

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The next version of Android, simply called “O” for now, is already available for developers to poke around. It would be slightly disappointing, then, if your new phone didn’t have a relatively fresh public release out of the box, which is something I’ve experienced recently. Thankfully, both Moto G5s are running Android 7.0 Nougat. It may not appear to be lightyears ahead of Marshmallow, but many of the tweaks are hidden, designed to improve performance and stability, among other things.

If you’re not familiar with the functionality specific to Nougat, there’s little to catch up on. You can now run apps side by side, similar to how the deceased Xbox One Snap feature works. Except here, running two apps on a 5-inchish display isn’t particularly useful; switching between full-screen apps typically gets the job done more comfortably. This leaves the richer notification drawer as the only genuinely useful improvement. The way it groups notifications and allows you to expand your recent emails (as an example) so you can see progressively more info after every tap is neat. This means you can do more micromanaging within the drawer, instead of having to go into individual apps.

Motorola has never been one to stray too far from stock Android, and the G5s are no exception. Better yet, the few customizations the company included are all much appreciated. Motorola’s circular clock widget, which shows the time, date, local weather and remaining battery charge is gorgeously minimalist. Also, the icon to bring up the app drawer has been removed and replaced with an arguably more natural up-swipe gesture, giving you an empty spot for another homescreen shortcut.

With one-button navigation, you can also free up space on the screen by using the fingerprint sensor as all three standard Android keys. You tap it as if it’s a normal home button and swipe left for back or right for recents.

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The handy little tweaks continue on the lockscreen, should you choose to enable Motorola’s special notifications feature. Move the phone to any degree after it’s been left alone for a few seconds and the time plus a record of any unchecked notifications will briefly flash on the screen. Hold your finger on any of the bubble icons signaling something unseen, and it expands to show more info. From there, opening it fully or dismissing it is only a swipe away. It’s not a revolutionary new take on lockscreen notifications by any means; it just looks prettier than the white bars you get when you fully wake your phone.

By far the best feature contributions by Motorola are the whole-phone gestures you can enable. Without needing to unlock the G5 and G5 Plus, two successive chop motions turns the flashlight on, while two wrist twists opens the camera. They may sound gimmicky but the camera quick-launch feature is genuinely the first I’ve found myself using naturally, probably because it’s so physical (as opposed to more fiddly implementations like entering the Konami code on a volume rocker). It certainly made grabbing camera samples on both phones while strolling around London much more spontaneous.

Otherwise, the G5s run the flavor of Nougat you know and like, with Motorola slipping in only helpful additions that don’t hinder Android performance.

Camera

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If there’s one thing I like about a camera app, it’s simplicity, being able to point and shoot without feeling like I should be picking a different scene mode for every snap. That’s why Motorola’s camera app is exactly my cup of tea. It boots up almost immediately and has a clean interface, with HDR, flash options and a countdown timer the only settings you can fiddle with from the viewfinder. In addition to familiar modes including panorama and slow-mo video, there’s a “professional” option that puts additional settings in the viewfinder. They allow you to manually adjust ISO, white balance and exposure — standard stuff. I’ve never been one to labor over settings when I just want to grab a quick snap, so it’s fortunate that Motorola make it easy to ignore them.

That’s because, even in the regular point-and-shoot mode, if you tap the screen to select your focal point, a little exposure slider appears around the perimeter of the reticle. It’s a stroke of genius. How often do you look at the viewfinder and question the white balance setting? Likely never. But I bet you’ve been in a situation where you frame your shot and the exposure meter picks up a bright blue sky and hides your subject in darkness.

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It’s normal — auto-exposure is a fickle beast — but Motorola solves that problem with one, simple slider. Between that, the wrist-twisting quick-launch gesture and the uncluttered interface, the camera app is a joy to use. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention you can use the camera to scan QR and bar codes. Not something you’ll be doing all that often, I imagine, but it’s convenient you don’t have to install another app for this.

Though the G5 and G5 Plus carry different cameras, there’s little that separates them where image processing is concerned. Shutter and focus response are basically immediate across both devices; and even in low-light conditions, or when you force HDR mode (it’s set to auto by default), you’re only waiting an extra few milliseconds for these photos to process before you can grab your next shot. In short, both handsets lend themselves well to moments you have to be quick to capture.

Both devices have the same front-facing 5-megapixel camera with wide-angle lens and f/2.2 aperture. You don’t find many front-facers with lower resolutions than that these days, but it does the job if you’re the type who doesn’t demand selfies or video calls of the highest quality. There’s a beautification mode if you prefer your skin homogenized, an HDR mode that works as expected, and the display will double as a makeshift flash in a pinch. So, not a great number of megapixels, but all the features you might want.

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