We're rather spoiled when it comes to mobile phones. The latest flagships have heaps of top-end features, many of which mean they double as a portable PC, camera and music machine to some degree. But not everyone can afford such devices, which is where the Moto E Play comes into being.

The Moto E series has long been a budget handset range. From way back when we reviewed the first one in 2014 we rather fell in love with the little handset - because, then at least, it wasn't millions of miles away from what other more middle-weight handsets offered.

Times have changed a lot, though, so as we step foot into a new decade, is there still space for a ~$100 phone - and is the Moto E Play the one to fill that gap?

Design & Display

  • 5.5-inch LCD display, 18:9 aspect ratio, HD+ resolution (720 x 1440)
  • Dimensions: 146.5 x 70.9 x 8.3mm / Weight: 140g
  • Finishes: Turquoise Blue, Anthracite
  • Fingerprint scanner to rear
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

First impressions of the Moto E Play are that it's a small handset. But that's because most phones have grown exponentially over the years. While we first thought it's about the size of the original iPhone, the E Play is actually a fair bit larger than that. Shows how times have moved on.

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Now you won't get the most up-to-the-minute in design from the E Play, but it's not a bad shout in most departments. The main screen is 5.5-inches in size, which is perfectly ample, although it has a lot more bezel around it than most current handsets - which sort of makes it look a couple of years out of date.

That screen isn't the most resolute, but it's got enough pixels across its elongated HD surface to supply ample detail for what you'll need. It's never hard to read emails and such like, even if images clearly don't have the same bite as higher definion panels. Brightness and colour is also fine, with auto-adjustment for the former and warm/cool adjustment for the latter also present if you want to tweak the visuals.

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Despite its entry price point, there's some more advanced features present too. Flip the phone over - here shown in its shiny Anthracite finish (which is a terrible fingerprint magnet, it must be said) - and that little batwing 'M' logo contains a fingerprint scanner for rapid logins. It works just fine, too. Or, if you'd prefer, the front camera can register your face for automatic login that way instead. Cheap phones don't always mean being stingy on the features, eh?

There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack up top for plugging in wired headphones, which is handy as it's lacking in so many modern handsets these days.

Performance & Battery

  • Mediatek MT6739 processor, 2GB RAM
  • 3,000mAh battery, Micro-USB charge
  • 32GB storage, microSD expansion
  • Google Android 9 Pie software

While this small-scale phone ticks the boxes on the basic features front, it's not exactly turbopowered on the inside. That's kind of the point. You pay little, you don't get a lot of power.

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The Mediatek processor inside will let you open multiple apps and even, to some degree, run lightweight games. Fire up, say, Candy Crush, and it'll run - just not with the deft and fluidity that you'll find on other, more advanced handsets. Don't expect to be playing more advanced titles with 3D renders either.

Not that there's much space to download apps. The 32GB on board storage is very limited by today's standards. Again, not a surprise at the price, but if you want to snap and store a lot of photos, store iPlayer and Netflix videos, and such like, then you'll want to buy a microSD card to expand that storage capacity - which will cost about a tenner. At least that's offered here, though, as many flagship phones forego the opportunity to even buy a card.

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We thought the limited processing power and not-Full-HD screen resolution might go easy on the battery life, but as this is a relatively small device the battery within isn't the largest available. That results in it cutting into life pretty heavily if you're running heavier tasks. An hour of playing South Park: Phone Destroyer took the battery from 48 per cent to 15 per cent, so about three-and-a-half hours of gaming might crunch this battery to zero.

Go light on your tasks - which is probably your intention if looking at a device such as this - and we've found the idle time, with Wi-Fi on in the background, to be very steady. A full day with the phone sat aside before we began reviewing it proper saw the battery steadily decrease by only about 15 per cent in a day. The software is good for that, it would seem, so if you're a rare phone user who only wants to plug into emails, Facebook and WhatsApp messages, then this could be a solid choice as a 'background phone' for a non-techie type. 

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When it comes to charging, the E Play uses an older style Micro-USB cable, not the up-to-date USB-C format. That's fine, although it means slower charging overall, but again this comes down to balance of features to price point. Fast-charging isn't on the agenda in the same way you'll get from the latest and greatest that's for sure.

Software wise you'll find Google's Android 9 (Pie) operating system here, all present and correct. There's zero Motorola bloat or additions - it doesn't even offer its typical voice, display and actions controls here, as it does in the G8 series - making for a very easy-to-use system with the typical alerts, notifications and controls.

Cameras

  • Single rear camera: 13MP resolution, f/2.2 aperture
  • Selfie camera: 5MP resolution, f/2.2 aperture
  • Video: 1080p at 30fps max

As we said up top: many flagship phones are a photographic tour de force. The Moto E Play? Not so much. This phone's single rear camera isn't going to set the world alight, but it's usable enough. 

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To the rear is a 13-megapixel main sensor, paired with an f/2.2 aperture. We found it's struggled with shooting close-ups, while that aperture, being a little smaller than the best-in-class options, doesn't let as much light in - so we've had blurry photos in middling lighting conditions.

In more direct light the lens' limited quality can be seen too: the trees in our outside shot, for example, show purple fringing around them.

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Low-light is a struggle with softness, grain and even a lot of processing texture in so-so lit scenarios. There's no dedicated night mode as many phone cameras now offer. But, yes, it's not a surprise in a budget phone such as this.

Around the front there's a 5-megapixel snapper for selfies and facial recognition login.

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Overall, then, the Moto E Play has cameras in the right places, which can take passable photos, but which aren't great by any stretch of the imagination.

Verdict

Not constantly glued to your phone? Perhaps you just want a background burner capable of doing the basics with ease, which is where the Moto E Play fits the bill rather nicely. It's low powered, so don't expect supreme performance, but it is low price too - which is its key sell.

If you want to game, this isn't the phone for you. But if you just need idle time, some email and other apps to plug into life's organisation, then the Moto E Play certainly ticks the boxes - albeit not with as much gusto as the E series in its heyday, despite the 'playful' name.

Also consider

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Moto G7 Power

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Released in 2019, this phone has a beast of a battery which means it lasts way longer, while delivering just enough extra oomph to see it soar to greater heights than the E6 Play. Problem is, of course, it's about 75 per cent pricier, which could be a significant hurdle.