The Stock Lollipop Experience
Motorola was given a unique position in the Android phone space when the Mobility division was purchased by Google in 2011, and more recently when devices like the Moto G were released with stock Android I took notice. In the past the Nexus line had provided the most cost-effective method of running the newest, unaltered versions of Android, as a phone like the Nexus 4 and or 5 could be purchased for $299-$349 unlocked from Google’s Play store. I have personally developed an affinity for stock Android after experimenting with many mobile devices over the last few years, but I find that beyond personal preference the stock version can also provide a faster, cleaner experience. There are certainly advantages to some of the changes brought by various OEMs to their Android UI, but it’s also nice to have a consistent experience between all of one’s devices regardless of vendor. This is one aspect of Windows Phone that I really like, as (even before the Microsoft acquisition of Nokia’s Devices and Services division) these don’t suffer from the fragmentation that can easily occur when device makers and operators control the OS experience.
Beyond Google's Nexus the other stock Android option had been the so-called "Google Play Edition" smartphones, which were premium phones that sold for the full unsubsidized price of the device – often over $600. And when the Nexus 6 launched with a subsidized operator model and a $649 price tag (needless to say a disappointing development), I was surprised to see Motorola offering their Moto G with stock Lollipop for under $200 unlocked. Like previous Google Play offerings the Moto G and this new Moto E ship with the latest version of Android and have a reputation for quick OTA updates, much like the Nexus model. The 2015 Moto E ships with 5.0.2 Lollipop out of the box, and the 2014 Moto G now runs 5.0.2 via OTA update as well.
This Moto E arrived from Motorola’s web store with Android 5.0.2 installed, impressive considering my unlocked Moto X, also purchased directly from Motorola, still runs 5.0 (with my AT&T Nexus 6 stuck on 5.0.1 without tricking the phone into an OTA to 5.1, which I of course have done). Version number aside the Moto E does provide what is essentially a stock version of Lollipop, but there are several Motorola services running by default. One of these services in particular is quite visible, as "Moto Screen" replaces the default Ambient Display feature in Lollipop. The fact that Android 5 has this feature built in makes Moto Screen redundant, though simply enabling Ambient Display in system settings automatically disables the Moto version. Having Moto Screen enabled out of the box is a mistake in my opinion, and it frustratingly also replaces the unlock mechanism in Lollipop, returning to the orb on the screen from Kit Kat – only this version allows only a downward gesture to unlock the phone. It’s a simple matter to replace the default Moto camera as well, and I disabled this after downloading the official Google Camera app from the Play store.
While most of the additions to Android from Motorola are there to support various Moto services, which are completely unnecessary given the stock Lollipop featureset, these can be disabled by spending a few minutes in Settings. Ultimately the Moto E can provide a stock Android experience, even though it's based on a custom image. It is still remarkable to get this close to what I’ve come to expect from a Nexus device for $149, and this is far closer than you can get from other budget phones without installing a custom image. Using the Moto E is ultimately all about the hardware, as the other aspects of the device are all about Android. Motorola has no skinning or UX changes (other than the annoying Moto Screen mentioned above) to hamper the stock experience, and I for one much prefer this.
Next we'll look at the camera and briefly address call quality before wrapping things up.