(Pocket-lint) - The original Motorola Moto E is an awesome budget smartphone, but largely because, at £89, it's so cheap. Its follow-up, the second-generation 2015 model, makes a few nips and tucks to the original's design principles, adds a slightly bigger screen and faster 4G connectivity too. But these extras bump the price by an extra £20, making it £109.
At that price the Moto E 2015 is still affordable, especially on some of the contract deals available, but there's a subtle psychology in seeing a two-figure price tag compared to a three-figure one. And in the case of the Moto E 2015 that seems to work against it.
Thing is, this isn't just about Motorola. The company totally owned the budget market in 2014, which set competitors into a frenzy in creating equally affordable and quality budget handsets. Now we've got everything from Huawei spin-off Honor to network provider-branded handsets, such as the EE Eagle (again, funnily enough, a re-badged Huawei).
The big question: is the Moto E 2015 still the best budget smartphone that money can buy? Or, and like first- to second-generation Moto G models (the E's bigger brother), has it lost some sparkle? We've been using the second-gen Moto E for a week to find out.
Adding a touch of colour
To look at the Moto E is a fairly straightforward handset, all finished in black. This time around it's binned one of the two not-so-pretty silver-colour metal bars from the front panel, which is a good start, but we still don't like the look of the solitary top-positioned one that remains. Can't have it all, eh?
But perhaps the biggest positive new difference - ignoring the slightly larger size, which we'll come to in a moment - is the inclusion of interchangeable colour accent edges, which Motorola prefers to call "Bands" (yep, with a capital B). Shown here with the blue option, the added lick of colour - which also conceals the microSD and SIM tray gubbins within; the battery is not removable this time around - makes for an even more enticing handset than before. We can't say the same about the shell cases (not shown here), however, which are ill-fitting and, in a word, pants.
Now the next big (but not too big) change: the 2015 handset has a 4.5-inch screen, not a 4.3-inch one. In truth it doesn't make a huge difference in use, as the same 960 x 540 pixel resolution delivers a suitably low-end experience in terms of potential clarity. Size-wise, though, the resulting phone body's 129.9 x 66.8mm full front is only around 5mm taller and 2mm wider than last year's model, but retains the same 12.3mm in thickness.
To put that in context, the Moto E 2015 is bigger than an iPhone, but in a market with ever-increasing screen sizes it feels like a sensible size to us. Having just swapped from using a 6-inch device prior to this review, the Moto felt almost small - but then we tried the older iPhone 4 and immediately thought of that scene in Zoolander. To paraphrase: "What is this? A phone for ants?!".
The biggest issue, size-wise, is that it's just a bit chunky. Having a bigger screen is all well and good, but Moto should have concentrated on squeezing the thickness. As it stands it's as much as two thirds thicker than some ultra-slim handsets. It's not quite a brick, but it ought to be more trim.
If there's one thing that budget phones can't offer then it's exceptional screens. But that doesn't mean a £109 phone has to have a bad screen by default, and the Moto E 2015 gets the important things right given its price point.
The 4.5-inch size is a good scale to work with; from typing, to watching YouTube clips, even playing games, it's a sensible phone screen. The 960 x 540 pixel resolution, however, is somewhat lacking, but not to the point that it's like looking at 8-bit computer games from the 1980s.
Importantly there's ample brightness and viewing angles are solid, albeit not perfect. For comparison we happened to have a Samsung Galaxy S5 to hand, and while the higher-resolution Samsung has a cleaner, cooler-colour display, there's not a great deal of maximum brightness difference between the two. The Samsung, however, maintains excellent colour and contrast at even extreme angles of view, whereas the Moto E has a slight fall-off when tilted beyond 45-degrees from line of sight. It's not a total Death Star implosion, though, with everything on screen remaining legible, even if the perceivable contrast isn't up to flagship standards.
The surrounding bezel to the side of the screen is a couple of millimetres wider than the very best handsets, but the way the screen is arranged is neat and tidy. Just because the Moto E is £109 doesn't mean its display is a write-off - pound for pound it's every bit as good as can be expected at this level. There's even adaptable auto-brightness which can be switched on or off to suit your battery-saving needs.
With the original Moto E we had some minor issues with the load time of certain apps. With the latest 2015 model a jump from Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 to dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 aligns its ability with the original Moto G, plus there's the addition of faster 4G LTE connectivity.
In the real world that doesn't mean a huge leap forward by any means though; the raw power is similar to its predecessor. However, we found our experience to skip along nicely, largely thanks to the Android Lollipop (v5.0.2) user interface as pre-loaded this time around, with apps loading in an acceptable time frame.
Saying that, even basic apps such as the dialler and messages do take a second or so to load the first time. The main difference is that once they're being handled by the 1GB RAM on board the load time is cut down considerably, but a single gigabyte is less proficient than higher-spec devices - many of which come with 2GB or 3GB - so don't open too many apps for the best performance.
If you're an Android virgin or don't know the ins and outs of the Lollipop operating system then that's no problem. It's easy to use, arrives in its latest version, with a clean user interface and plenty of apps tuned to get the best possible performance and usability. We've covered Lollipop in greater detail in a separate piece, which you can dig through to fill your brain with geek-out top tips at your leisure. All you really need to know is that the Moto E is on the latest platform and takes benefit of such sweet software refinement.
It's with games and more considerable that load times are longer than their flagship competitors. However, the Moto E 2015 will run plenty of apps, and we've played through Angry Birds Go! without spotting too many skips and judders at all. The resolution isn't great, but that's intrinsic to this particular phone, but there's no need to shy away from a budget handset if you want a touch of casual gaming. That's the benefit of just how good processors have become.
The biggest change to show face in the latest Moto E is 4G connectivity. It was arguably the biggest absence from the original model, and in a world where available networks are getting faster and more proficient, it's a great feature to have on board. Initially we struggled to get a decent connection with an old SIM card, which we then realised had been deactivated. Signal with our personal Three SIM plugged into 4G speeds where available - although that can be patchy, depending on location and provider. Best to do some separate research on that one.
In addition to the usual Android setup, Motorola has its own settings. Broken down into three categories - Assist, Actions and Display - the Moto E can react to motion, time, and discreetly display alerts too.
Similar to the glance screen of some Lumia devices, it's possible to select apps which can display on the locked screen without needing to press anything. The Moto E will show a symbol, and it's up to you to swipe for more, then react by either ignoring or resonding. For example, an email will show as a symbol, a swipe up will reveal more information if your settings are set to do so, then a swipe to the side will ignore, while a swipe down will unlock the phone so you can respond. It's a handy feature.
Assist is there to keep things quiet in meetings or when sleeping. It's possible to set screen off, auto reject calls, and downtime settings to keep the peace.
Lastly there's Actions, which in its current state can open the camera by performing a twist motion. This needs to happen twice over to avoid accidental camera loading, but even so we didn't find it particularly practical - which sets the scene for the poor camera experience.
Another slight moan we had with the original Mote E was its camera. At a paltry 5-megapixels it's not particularly high-resolution, and the 2015 model adopts the same innards, producing results that are, in essence, much the same. And by that we mean not very good. However, there's now a front camera for selfie action, which was absent in the last generation model.
Load up the camera app and Android handles things swiftly, capturing a shot with a simple tap of the screen. By default the camera adjusts autofocus for you as it sees fit, but a side swipe brings up a menu which includes a focus and exposure option. Once selected, drag the focus area around the screen for more control than the original Moto E.
Overall the Motorola camera experience is lacking though. The low resolution screen shows its worst in this mode, there can be "milky" flare around bright subject edges, and apparent "judder" when moving (there's no image stabilisation), which all add up to a not-so-hot live preview experience.
The results don't please much either. There's a lack of detail and definition, even in good light, and the colours can look overly artificial. It will produce an image, which may serve its purpose, but as an out-and-out camera replacement the Moto E doesn't do a very good job. We were hoping for more this time around.
As the new Moto E's battery is fixed within - which we think makes for a neater design - there's no way to swap it out for a spare. In this new fixed format the 2390mAh capacity is around 20 per cent more than the original's 1920mAh offering, though, and that can definitely be felt in use - depending, that is, on how much 4G action you'll be using.
We've had a mixed experience throughout the week, but a generally positive one. Expectation may be at odds with outcome, but we've actually found the Moto E to hold up just as well as the so-so battery life of the Samsung Galaxy S5 that we've been using in tandem (as part of the Mobile World Congress show). That means a normal day's use is within reach, which is a few steps ahead of its predecessor. As ever, go in hard on the apps and you'll be reaching for the charger after getting back in from work.
Just like the original, the Moto E is brilliant for the price. It's a little more expensive second time around, but the addition of 4G, a better battery, smoother Android experience, a slightly neater (although slightly larger) design, plus added colour from the interchangeable Bands, are all plus points.
The problem is less with Motorola directly, more with the potential competition. With plenty of Chinese makers pushing for slimmer, smarter handsets, often with 4G connectivity as standard, the Moto E's soap bar-shape and chunky build feels less of the moment than it could have been. The camera experience is also poor, and we still can't learn to love that weird metal bar on the front of the handset.
However, for the money, there's arguably no better budget phone on the market. The Moto E offers plenty of bang for your buck and progresses the series forward enough to see it stand up and, often, stand out against its nearest competitors. Well worth a shout for those on a squeezed budget.