When the original Motorola Moto G arrived back in September 2013, it shook up the smartphone market from top to bottom. It didn't just make people realise a smartphone a fifth the price of a flagship could offer decent performance, it also forced the budget players to up their game.

And respond they did. The smartphone market is now overflowing with more-than-capable budget and mid-range handsets, which couldn't be said two years ago. However, while the original Moto G was the budget handset to beat, Motorola's subsequent follow-ups – which have introduced a larger build, bigger screen and 4G connectivity – haven't always hit the mark in terms of design.

The third-generation Moto G (which is also the fifth model in this series, confusing we know) looks to set the record straight. It's a touch more expensive than the previous model, but also adds water-resistance, an improved camera experience, and all-important optional Moto Maker customisation.

We have been living with the new Moto G for a little over a week as our day-to-day phone to find out if it's a refined return to form. Is this the best budget phone on the market right now?

We adored the original Moto G, but its follow-ups have felt bulky in comparison and the introduction of silver bars above and below the display were certainly not welcome. The third-gen Moto G is still bigger and chunkier than the original (a given with its 5-inch screen being bigger than the 4.5-inch one of the original) but those silver bars have been replaced with black speakers, decorated with a super-slim silver-colour rim. It's a lot better looking.

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The whole device has a more pronounced tapered curve compared to the smooth rear of second-gen model, which makes it look and feel altogether slimmer, despite the third-gen model actually being ever so slightly bigger and thicker. The new model measures 142.1 x 72.4mm front-on, with a curve thickness between 6.1 and 11.6mm, compared to the second-gen model's 141.5 x 70.7mm measure and a curve between 6 and 11mm.

Despite the shift in dimensions both models weigh 155g, but the new model gives the impression of feeling lighter in the hand. Strange, but just goes to show that numbers aren't everything.

The dipped edges to the top and bottom of the new Moto G aren't as steep either, which helps it look smaller and more refined. This also means that when you look at the new handset head-on you can't see the 3.5mm headphone jack so prominently, which you were able to on the second-gen model.

The biggest design change of all is the new textured rear, which is warm-to-touch and delightful to hold, giving the new Moto G a more premium look. Our review sample came in a cherry finish, but using Moto Maker you can pick from a total of 10 different colours (cabernet, blue, raspberry, turquoise, black, gold yellow, white, lime, navy, or the usual black or white).

Motorola has also added IPX7 water resistance, so a serious splashing is no issue for this budget handset. Sony was one of the first to introduce waterproofing to its mid-range handsets – such as the M4 Aqua – so it's not a unique feature at the lower end of the smartphone market, but it is a useful one to have.

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The third-gen Moto G features the same 5-inch 1280 x 720 display as its predecessor, which delivers a pixel density of 293ppi. It isn't the sharpest display on the market, with Full HD dominating and QHD becoming more and more common. But as we said, numbers aren't everything, and seeing the display in the real world over the last week of use has proved the most important factor. 

You'll have to look fairly close-up to the Moto G's screen to catch out individual pixels, and even so text couldn't be accused of being too jaggy in appearance. Look hard and it's possible to notice things aren't as crisp as they are on higher-resolution devices and when compared to, say, the iPhone 6, the Moto displays a slightly warmer colour cast that's especially noticeable when looking at white backgrounds.

Still, the new Moto G's viewing angles are ample, colours are vibrant enough (but not with the most pop in its category) and the brightness is more than good enough to tackle even sunny days (although not as bright as some mid-level competition, such as the LG G4c). Unlike some budget competitors it's also possible to vary the brightness, which is a feature that certainly shouldn't be taken for granted.

Overall the Moto G's display is more than adequate. Yes, we would have appreciated a bump to a Full HD (1920 x 1080 resolution) panel, but at this price point that would be a luxury rather than a necessity – and the kind of feature that, right now, would probably drive the price point even higher.

Under the hood of the new Moto G is a 1.4GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, coupled with Adreno 306 graphics, making for a slight improvement over the second-gen model. And if that's all a load of number gibberish to you then all you really need to know is that everything runs smoothly in operation, or it does 99 per cent of the time anyway.

We experienced the odd stutter and a couple of frame-rate drops when playing Candy Crush Saga, as well as a slight lag when switching between tasks and apps at times. We had a similar experience with the second-gen Moto G when it came to Candy Crush, so perhaps that app is the culprit, as other games like Angry Birds run without a hitch. Other more standard apps, such as the camera, load without any delay at all though. 

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Motorola has added a couple of pretty clever little shortcuts for some tasks too, which work without any issues. A double flick of the wrist will launch the camera instantly, with a second double flick switching between front and rear snappers. There's also a double shake gesture to turn the torch on or off.

When it comes to storage the base level Moto G comes in an 8GB configuration, you'll need to step up to Moto Maker to get the 16GB storage option (which, interestingly doubles the on-board RAM from 1GB to 2GB; it also costs £50 more, starting at £209). You'll lose 4GB of that storage due to operating system and default app installs, but there is microSD support available for storage expansion up to 32GB, which is accessed by removing the rear.

In terms of battery, the new Moto G has seen a slight capacity increase to 2,470mAh. Motorola claims this will offer a full 24 hours of mixed usage, which we didn't quite manage but it'll more than see you through the day without any complaints.

The camera on the original Moto G could easily have been described as an afterthought. It wasn't the best by any stretch of the imagination, and although things improved with the succeeding devices, the Moto G was never really a smartphone to buy for its brilliant snapping skills.

Motorola has upped its game with the third-generation Moto G however, introducing a 13-megapixel sensor on the rear, along with a 5-megapixel sensor on the front. In terms of software, the experience is familiar and logical, sticking to the majority of same Android features, adding just one new function called Night Mode for better low-light shots.

The results are significantly improved compared to its predecessor too, despite some image noise visible in low-light shots – but the Night Mode can help here. Daylight shots are great, presenting lots of detail, while the front-camera doesn't take a bad selfie either (face depending, we suppose).

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Within the settings, you can access HDR (high dynamic range), Night Mode, control the flash, and record video rather than stills. This section is also where you will find the focus and exposure control, but it's limited so don't expect any pro-camera-like control.

We got much better shots using what Motorola describes as manual focus, which is actually just the (very useful) ability to move around the autofocus point, allowing you to tap anywhere to shoot. Exposure compensation is then controlled by moving a slider beneath the focus point, to make the image brighter or darker. Be careful, though, as it's easy to get carried away and lose lots of detail.

There is also a 4x digital zoom on board the Moto G, which requires you to drag up and down on screen whether shooting using rear or front cameras. It might have its uses, but digital zoom cuts into the available image resolution, resulting in a smaller file.

The new Moto G runs on Android Lollipop 5.1.1 and it's as close to pure Android as you'll get without buying a Nexus device. Rather than adding a skin on top of the Android system, like many competitors do, Motorola just adds a few of its own app-based bells and whistles, many of which enhance the overall experience rather than hinder it.

If you're swapping from an existing phone to the new Moto G then Moto Migrate, which has been around since the original Moto G, makes it easy to copy over all your information, apps, contacts and so forth.

Elsewhere there's a umbrella Motorola app, comprising Assist, Actions and Display. Actions caters for the gesture shortcuts to access the camera and torch, as we mentioned previously.

Display is new and allows you to see notifications at a glance, without waking up the phone's screen. You won't see notifications if your phone is in a pocket or handbag, face down or if you're on a call, but you will see icons, with more detail accessed by swiping up. It's also possible to ignore notifications by dragging your finger to the right or left edge of the display. Within the Moto app, under Moto Display, you can manage the apps you don't want to appear, as well as set how much of the notification content you want shown.

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Assist has been around since the original Moto G – used for setting up presets for you when sleeping, in meetings, or driving – but has had a little makeover this time around. The new version allows you to select places and activities in order to get the Moto G to meet your needs. For example, if you add Work to the list of Assist places and set the location, you can then setup various settings to activate when you are in that location – whether that's a loud or silent ringtone, for example. It's also possible to add any location and rename it, as well as choose specific settings for sleeping and meetings, which was available previously.

An app called Moto Voice was also demonstrated during the new Moto G announcement at the end of July, which is Motorola's version of voice interaction, much like Apple's Siri or Windows' Cortana. However, it isn't available just yet so we will update this review when it arrives and we get a chance to test it out.

Verdict

It's easy to look at specs and compare the third-gen Moto G to similar devices, but this phone isn't about numbers, it's all about the experience. And as affordable experiences go, it's a true return to the top.

Great software, including some useful Motorola-specific apps, make it a clean and clever device to use, while its decent battery life, water-resistance, improved camera, and the addition of Moto Maker personalisation options really make this Moto G stand out (the cherry finish of this review sample certainly helps too).

However, it's still a chunky device, particularly compared to some of the slender size zero devices available today. And with its highest price tag to date it's arguably slipped beyond the realms of being a truly budget handset. You get more, but you have to pay more.

Even so, the new Moto G is brilliantly refined compared to its predecessors – and we didn't quite love the second, third or even fourth iterations – making for a beautiful smartphone that is as good, if not better, than the original. It's just that better comes with a bigger price.