Gorgeous display • Giant battery • Versatile camera setup
Loaded with bloatware • Portrait mode isn’t great • Too tall in the hands
Motorola’s first attempt at a cheap 5G smartphone in the United States is a solid one, but a few missteps keep it from making the Pixel 4a or iPhone SE obsolete.
Now that 5G mobile networks are just present enough in the United States to be advertised during NBA game commercial breaks, it was about time someone made a cheap 5G phone. The Motorola One 5G thus rides into our lives like a knight in shining armor with a low $449 price point and the promise of faster mobile internet.
Not content to sell itself on 5G alone, the Motorola One 5G packs impressive specs into a budget-friendly price tag. It’s got big cameras, a big battery, a big screen, and big ambitions for a phone that costs relatively little. It might specifically appeal most to those like the promise of the iPhone SE, but prefer Android over iOS.
That said, specs are just numbers until the phone is booted up and doing its job. Does the Motorola One 5G deliver on its potential or should 5G-ready customers wait for another opportunity to buy in?
First, about that 5G support…
Before I get into the Motorola One 5G’s overall performance, it’s worth addressing the phone’s actual 5G functionality. The review unit provided to Mashable came pre-installed with an AT&T SIM card that connected to that provider’s growing 5G network. New York City in particular is supposed to get AT&T 5G service, even in my residential neighborhood, but my experience didn’t really sell me on the network.
I ran several network tests using Speedtest (which is owned by the same parent company as Mashable). The One 5G claimed to be connected to 5G both in my neighborhood and in the (somehow still) bustling streets of Manhattan, but I hardly ever cleared 100Mbps of download speed regardless of my location. Whether between skyscrapers or in more open areas like parks, AT&T’s 5G network was never much faster than 4G LTE. As you can see in the photo above, it never even came close to my home WiFi connection.
It’s not fair to hold this entirely, or even mostly, against the Motorola One 5G. Our friends over at PCMag have a useful guide to mobile provider speeds here, and AT&T’s 5G network appears to not be very good. Especially not in NYC, a city that’s already a war zone for wireless signals. Motorola plans to make the One 5G available on Verizon’s network, too, but I didn’t get to test that. If AT&T is your only option, 5G shouldn’t be a selling point for the Motorola One 5G.
The Good: Big-time display, versatile camera, beefy specs for the price
Thankfully, the phone has plenty of other selling points to tide you over until 5G networks in the U.S. aren’t useless anymore. Most folks will probably be most immediately struck by the size of the display. Motorola packed its newest mid-range phone into a 6.7-inch screen with HDR10 and 21:9 support, all with a smooth 90Hz refresh rate. It looks and feels massive, with what must be about 20 percent more height than my iPhone 8. That’s not always a good thing, as I’ll get to later.
It’s a pretty darn nice display for a mid-range phone, providing plenty of brightness, sharpness, and color if you feel like watching videos on your phone. Simple acts like web browsing and scrolling through Twitter are made slightly more pleasurably by the refresh rate, too. It’s time for phones to start getting away from 60Hz displays.
At most levels of the spec sheet, the Motorola One 5G packs a decent little punch considering how much you’re paying for it. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 5G processor keeps things moving at a nice pace, with basic daily tasks like browsing through apps and video streaming all working without a hitch. Motorola also threw in a 5,000mAh battery, which is significantly bigger than the 1,821mAh inside the iPhone SE and the 3,140mAh inside the Pixel 4a.
Motorola rates its own battery for two days without a charge. I wasn’t quite able to wring that much out of it, but making the phone constantly search for 5G connections probably didn’t help. Still, it’s a juicy battery that could easily get you through at least a day at home or at the office. The only downside is that it only comes with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, both of which are lower than you’d find in a more expensive flagship. That said, there is a microSD slot for storage expansion.
Finally, the Motorola One 5G comes with a quadruple rear camera array to go along with two lenses on the selfie side. A whopping 48MP main sensor on the back is joined by an ultra-wide lens, a macro lens (with its own ring light) for picking up small details when zoomed in, and a depth sensor. That means this sub-$500 phone can shoot pretty nice-looking HDR shots with portrait mode, and is great for nighttime photography. It even has a “spot color” option that lets you drain all color out of a photo except for one tone of your choosing.
In other words, the Motorola One 5G’s got a decently stacked array of camera options for such a cheap phone. There’s even an ultra-wide lens up front, too, for group selfies. I did not take any of those because we’re living in a pandemic right now, but hey, maybe someday that’ll be useful.
Serious photographers will probably favor a more pricey option like the iPhone 11 Pro or even the Pixel 4a, given Google’s excellent photography software. I prefer the in-camera exposure controls the Pixel 4a offers to the comparatively barebones viewfinder adjustments available in the Motorola One 5G, but this is more than serviceable for folks who just want to take nice social media shots.
The Bad: Too tall, underwhelming portrait mode, came with bloatware
The Motorola One 5G is a large phone. It’s just objectively huge, and while that’s going to appeal to plenty of folks, those with average or below-average hand size might have a tough time adjusting to its lengthy proportions.
This isn’t a horrible deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but the vertically oriented screen isn’t always comfortable to hold with one hand. Scrolling through Twitter, in particular, is a little bit of a pain. I almost never have this problem with technology (it’s usually the other way around!) so the fact that I noticed it as often as I did tells me the Motorola One 5G should’ve been just a little smaller.
And while the camera’s versatility is a strong suit, it’s not good at everything. Portrait mode, specifically, is not nearly as good at producing fake blurry backgrounds for single-subject shots as the iPhone SE. The blur effect is applied inconsistently to background elements, producing images like the one above where the background just looks off. Indoor attempts sometimes produced blurry backgrounds that almost looked fake.
Ideal lighting and background conditions can probably still make some nice portrait images, but don’t buy the Motorola One 5G hoping to rival your iPhone-owning friends in that regard.
Lastly, the AT&T version of the Motorola One 5G was loaded with bloatware when I first booted it up. Mobile games like Boom Beach and Game of Thrones: Conquest were joined by The CW’s streaming app on the list of things I instantly wanted to uninstall as soon as I saw them. This isn’t new or unusual for smartphones, but still. Cut it out.
Look, I know you might think now is a good time to jump on the 5G hype train. That term shows up so often on TV now that you could be fooled into thinking 5G is necessary in 2020. Unfortunately, the network infrastructure still has a long way to go in the U.S., but the Motorola One 5G shows that 5G phones don’t need to overdraft your bank account whenever the right time to upgrade comes.
Motorola jammed some quality specs and a humongous, vibrant display into this mid-range 5G phone, and the result mostly works. Its camera array might have taken the “quantity over quality” approach, at least when it comes to portrait mode, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had for Instagram purposes. Even with its awkward feel in the hands and a little too much bloatware, the Motorola One 5G can hold its own against the iPhone SE or Pixel 4a.
Just don’t buy it only for 5G right now because those networks still might not be useful for another year.