Camera, Calls, and Conclusion
The 2015 Moto E has a 5MP sensor on the back, and a VGA resolution for the front-facing camera. The previous Moto E had no front-facing camera, and though the rear sensor remains at 5MP this 2015 version actually offers autofocus while the previous version was fixed-focus. And there is no flash, so lighting will be even more important than usual. So how does the main camera perform? To put it bluntly, it's one of the worst cameras I've used on a smartphone. Colors are washed out and the pictures have a dull appearance even in good lighting.
To quickly illustrate the differences between the Moto E and the other two phones tested, I snapped 3 identical photos on a bright afternoon indoors with my Grado RS2 headphones as the subject (and a backdrop of some classic PC games). The photos were taken within minutes of one another in the exact same location, and all were snapped with the current version of Google Camera (I did not use the Moto camera app).
Scene 1 – Grado Headset
|Moto E vs Moto X|
|Moto E vs Nexus 6|
|Moto X vs Nexus 6|
The disparity between the photo taken with the Moto E and those of the other phones will be very obvious when sliding between the comparison shots. To cover the differences in these devices briefly, I’ll start at the top with the Nexus 6, which features a 12MP Sony sensor and optical image stabilization (OIS). The image quality is good, though not quite up to the quality of some images taken with Apple and Samsung devices that I've seen (especially considering the amount of light when this photo was taken). Still, not bad at all. Next on the list is the Moto X 2014, and here we have a brighter looking image that is actually a little blown out. Also a 12MP Sony sensor (without OIS), the Moto X 2014 seems to apply gain to every shot which can help with low light but can make whites too pronounced and add noise. Finally, the Moto E. Yes, this dim-looking photo was actually snapped at the same time as the other two, though it looks like dusk given the low brightness. We are looking at a very poor quality 5MP sensor here, unfortunately. I don't have specifics as to the manufacturer, but it really doesn't matter. With this level of performance the Moto E camera is simply checking a feature box, and nothing more.
This almost seems like an afterthought at times when analysing a smartphone, but there’s a reason we’re able to carry one as a sole mobile device. While the phone aspect is not unlike any other app on the device the quality matters a lot, or the device will become frustrating to use. In the case of the 2015 Moto E call quality was OK, but while this might seem like a little thing, the microphone placement on the phone is at the very bottom, pointing away from the device. Needless to say this didn't help with fidelity at all. Overall I didn’t experience significant issues making calls, and the earpiece sounds very good, but it is very disappointing to have something as simple as the mouthpiece pickup implemented so carelessly here (it makes wind noise outside something of an adventure).
As to noise cancellation, there is a single dedicated mic for this and works fairly well indoors or in (still) weather outside. Other devices I compared it against such as the iPhone 6 fare much better in windy weather due to more advanced noise cancellation (iPhones currently use a 3-mic system), but I really think the mic placement is the one aspect that should be reconsidered to improve the overall quality of voice transmission from the 2015 Moto E.
We have reached the point where smartphone adoption has driven prices to very affordable levels. There are options on the market that provide a great deal of the functionality of a flagship device for 1/4 of the total cost, and though many Android phones are advertised on the strength of their specifications a more modest device can make sense for many. 8-core processors and 2560×1440 QHD resolution is great, but these specs just aren't necessary to provide a solid daily experience. The display is of course the most important aspect of a touchscreen smartphone, and this is an area where the 2015 Moto E still needs improvement. An upgrade to at least a 5-inch 720p screen and a couple of smarter design choices would transform the device from the harbinger of future low-cost phones into a legitimate contender as a daily driver for all but the most demanding users. The camera and microphone implementation can make the 2015 Moto E frustrating to use at times, but overall it wasn’t a bad phone in daily use (aided greatly by the stock Lollipop experience).
The Moto E doesn't wow on specs, but the SoC is quite capable and I didn't experience poor performance during my time with the phone. Sure it wasn't as snappy as the Snapdragon 801 and 805-powered phones I'm used to, but I wasn't expecting that from the Moto E. Overall the inclusion of LTE and the $149 unlocked price makes the 2015 Moto E tempting compared to Motorola's other budget smartphone, the Moto G. While it seems inevitable that the $179 Moto G will be updated with a new SoC with LTE by the end of this year (as such a version has already appeared overseas), as of right now the Moto E is still looking like a solid recommendation for an inexpensive LTE phone. I used a prepaid T-Mobile SIM in mine (as well as my usual AT&T SIM) during testing and considering the plans available at or below $50/month, a low-cost phone like this coupled with a prepaid plan becomes a very attractive alternative to contracts and phone subsidies.
While it would easy to point out flaws with the 2015 Moto E, judging this phone as a low-cost, carrier-unlocked device with a quad-core SoC and LTE connectivity provides context that makes it harder to fault Motorola for the device. The aggressive $149 price is actually the full MSRP for the unlocked version directly from Motorola, and a couple of operators have begun offering the phone for less, such as the $99 Verizon version.
Bottom line, if you can live with the screen and camera the 2015 Moto E provides good performance and the latest version of Android at a price that makes it a compelling option for a budget smartphone. LTE and a quad-core SoC check the right boxes for a modern device, and to sweeten the deal Motorola's aggressive OTA updates have been keeping even budget models up to date with the latest versions of Android. Yes, the screen isn’t great and the camera is downright poor, but it's hard to argue against the value regardless of its shortcomings.