Hands on with the $129 Moto E: A nice first smartphone for feature phone owners

Motorola announced the low-cost Moto E on Tuesday morning and I just left a meeting with the company where I got a chance to get a first look at this new Android(s goog) 4.4.2 phone. Motorola provided me a loaner device that I’ll be reviewing over the next week or so, but I can already share some first impressions and additional information on the Moto E.

moto e back

The Moto E is aimed at those around the world still using a feature phone. The company notes that includes around 70 percent of people around the world and 45 percent of those in the U.S. Clearly, the market opportunity here is big. That’s why Motorola held press events today around the world: In New York City, India, Brazil, London and Mexico to name a few. If you already have a smartphone, it’s unlikely you’ll be interested in the Moto E. For everyone else, however, Motorola has put together a solid little handset at first glance.

Here are some first thoughts in no particular order:

  • The phone design is very similar to the Moto X and G handsets; more so like the latter. I think that’s good. The back has a nice grippy feel and is rounded, fitting nicely in my hand. This doesn’t feel like a $129 phone when you hold it.
  • The rounded back serves another purpose: It helps fit a 1,980 mAh battery which Motorola says should be good for 24 hours with normal use. Obviously, I can’t test that claim just yet but will over the coming days. Because of the hardware choices Motorola made, I’d be surprised if the phone doesn’t meet the run-time claim.
  • I expected a dual-core Snapdragon(s qcom) 400 chip inside but Motorola opted for a slightly lesser piece of silicon. The phone runs on a 1.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon 200, which is Qualcomm’s least capable smartphone chip. Motorola smartly put 1 GB of memory in the phone but only 4 GB of storage capacity, of which around 3 GB is user accessible. Remove the back cover of the phone, however, and you’ll find a microSD card slot for up to 32 GB of additional storage. I think this is a good compromise to keep costs down.
  • It’s a bit early to discuss performance as I haven’t used the phone much. And clearly, it’s not going to be as fast as flagship phones that cost three or four times more. However, for a first-time smartphone owner, it’s fairly impressive so far. There’s a slight delay when switching between apps, as expected. It’s not a painful delay if you’re coming from a feature phone and paying $129 though. I took Facebook(s fb) for a spin and browsed some web pages in Chrome: Yes, it’s a slower experience than on my Moto X but again, it should suffice for the intended audience
  • The overall performance is likely helped by Google’s recent re-write of Android 4.4, which allows it to run better on devices with lesser hardware. And Motorola is guaranteeing that the Moto E will get the next major Android upgrade: An outstanding promise of future-proofing, at least for some time to come.
    moto e android
  • The 960 x 540 display is bright and sharp. The screen is optically-bonded to reduce glare and uses an IPS panel so viewing angles are excellent.
  • The 5 megapixel rear camera seems sufficient. Pictures aren’t going to wow people if compared to images from a higher-end Lumia, iPhone or other expensive Android phone. Surely they’re better than what a feature phone can capture, though. The Camera app allows for 4x digital zoom, burst mode, auto HDR, tap to focus, panorama pics and one-tap image capture.
  • Video capture appears fairly limited: 30 fps at 854 x 480 resolution.
  • At this price, you’re not getting LTE. Instead, the GSM Moto E supports 21 Mbps HSPA+ on 850, 1700 (AWS) and 1900 MHz bands. There’s also a CMDA model supporting 850 and 1900 MHz EVDO 3G service. I’ll do proper speed tests for my review. The phone also supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and (surprisingly!) Bluetooth 4.0 LE so it will theoretically work with various wearable devices. A GPS radio is also integrated in the phone as is an FM radio.
  • Unique to the Moto E at first is a nice app called Motorola Alert; after launching on the phone, Motorola will release it to the Google Play Store. The app provides geo-fenced location status of contacts — great for those with kids —  has meet me and follow me features, and an emergency mode to place calls quickly.
  • While the advanced features of the Moto X aren’t present – think touchless controls and active notifications — Google Now works relatively well, if a bit slower than I’m used to. Still, if I were coming from a feature phone, I’d be in shock when my phone speaks back to my spoken questions. It’s nice to see Motorola Assist software which detects when you’re driving or knows you’re in a meeting; it then replies to incoming calls and messages for you.
    moto e assist
  • Motorola is selling different colored shells to change the back of the Moto E. These will retail for $14.99.

At first blush, it looks like Motorola has accomplished its goal of making a phone that’s “Built to last.” and “Priced for all.” With the right marketing, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Moto E outsell the Moto G which is already Motorola’s best-selling smartphone of all time. There’s a huge market around the world for a first smartphone that actually provides a decent experience and the Moto E just may lead the pack with tens of millions of sales based on my first impressions. Stay tuned for a full review of the Moto E.