Sunday, 24 March 2019

Motorola One

The Motorola One is an attempt by the firm to bring an Android One device to market, with all the benefits of regular updates and clean Vanilla that brings along with the Moto signature. It started off in asia as the P30 Play, smaller brother of the better specified Motorola One Power or P30 Note. The China version had a different front-end for that market. Hope you're keeping up at the back! When it got to the UK as the One last year, it was released at £269 but is now available at just £199. That's a congested place in the market, but not when you consider only devices as close to Vanilla as this one.

If you can see past those claiming that it's a clear iPhone clone with Apple design language (after all, everyone's doing that), I think they've done pretty well here. But let's get that one out of the way. Yes, it does look kind of like an iPhone of the day, with the general shape and positioning of the camera islands on the back, but unlike the real clones produced by the likes of Honor, Xiaomi et al, that's where it ends. Where some others also infiltrate the system and settings with iOS-style options, colours and buttons, Motorola here certainly does not - beyond those adopted by Google for Pie.

This handset reflects a mixed parentage of Motorola and Pixel - and actually looks very much like a Pixel. It has the general shape of the smaller of the Pixels, but with one big difference - the screen is usefully that much bigger. I've always said that the Pixel devices have been small one, too small, big one, too big - and this unit sits right in the middle - in the same way as various Nokia devices. The Goldilocks Zone.

Tough Plastic
First to the physical, for 'tis where we usually start, and we find a device made mostly of plastics - hard and tough-looking plastics, which doesn't seem to detract from the robust feel of the device. It oddly feels like it's glass in the hand because of the look of the back, which has been carefully covered with a layer of clear plastic on top which is very reflective and glass-looking! (Very much like the front covering of the keys on the Nokia 6680 family - remember those!) Added to which, I have the black version here, this adds to the 'more classy than price reflects' look and feel. Those who have said that it feels less that great because of plastics seem to have been handling the white version.

Moto M
There's the word 'Motorola' on the chin on the front, which is slim and would have acted with symmetry taking in the forehead, if there was no notch and ears - we'll come to that. Bezels left and right are 'just right' - balancing minimalism with enough space to avoid accidental touches. There's an earpiece speaker in the forehead with a Selfie camera and sensors but no Notification LED. On the right is a volume rocker and power button, plastic again, but feeling plenty sturdy enough. On the top is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, left side SIM/microSD Tray and bottom, USB-C port and two grilles - one of which is a mono speaker. Lastly to the back and a circular fingerprint scanner with a Moto M in it, just in the right place 75% of the way up in the middle. This works perfectly well, registration is short and sweet and it works blazingly fast every time.

Large Box
The One feels very much like the size and weight of a Pixel 3, but when you put them side-by-side you realise that the Motorola is significantly bigger - but it feels like it's all screen in comparison - though of course the chin of the Pixel has to house one of the two faux stereo front-firing speakers. Motorola claim that the device is splashproof, but there's no IP rating - much like the rest of their current range of devices. In the (strangely oversized) box you get (in usual Motorola style these days) a thin and floppy TPU, which is perfectly usable and grippy but many will want a better quality one. There's also a USB-A to USB-C charging/data cable, a 15W TurboPower charging plug and the usual papers and SIM Tray ejector tool.

Dot Notch
The front glass is protected by Gorilla Glass 3, which makes it better for protection from micro-scratches but not so protective against shattering. I'll take that payoff, having recently marked a GG5 screen. It's an LTPS IPS LCD screen underneath, 5.9" in a 19:9 ratio, making it tall and narrow compared to 16:9. There's a very wide notch at the top. There are sensors, speaker and a camera taking up that space, but you really get the feeling that it could easily have been smaller - or at least that in software there was the option to hide the ears and bring the Notifications down more (but I suppose that's not the Google Way). There's hardly any room for Notifications and I constantly have a Dot on both sides telling me that there's more to see.

Hawk Eyes
The panel is a 720p one and on the face of it, you'd think that's a big problem - and it might be for those with younger eyes or people who want to use the device for specific graphical purposes, but actually it's just fine. The colours are reproduced very nicely and can be switched between Standard and Vibrant in Settings with a warm/cool slider for fine tuning. Text in web pages looks absolutely fine to my eyes, clear enough and I see no edge issues with characters. Why we need 1440p screens, I don't know. 287ppi in my world is perfectly usable. Putting this LCD screen up against (what is still, I think, best in class) the Nokia 8, both on 100% brightness, yes the Nokia is brighter, but that only really rears its head in practice when out in bright sunshine. Watch out if you live in Libya, or somewhere else with sun! Actually we do have the sun out here today and the screen remains perfectly usable in bright direct sun, if not quite so good as the Nokia.

Pick a Card
This Motorola One was bought from Argos in the UK and is Dual SIM out of the box, so I can only assume that this is true across the board, but worth checking if you need that and you're in a different region. The two slots can both be used for non-data but you have to choose which of the two will work with data. The good news is that the microSD Card slot is available as well as the two SIM slots. Talking of which, I have tested my 512GB microSD card here and there's no problem reading/writing from that and the phone didn't want to format it first. The USB OTG also works perfectly, plugging in this big card - and the system sees it and uses it as an extSSD. Kudos! Incidentally, testing of the cellular and wifi aerials returned excellent connectivity as we'd expect from Motorola.

One Nice Pie
On release, the phone was running Oreo but in keeping with the spirit of Android One, was soon updated to Pie and this unit now has February 2019 Google Security on board. I feel confident going forward that this will be kept on schedule in the same way as Nokia is doing, but not the other (non Android One) Motorola devices, which seem to lag behind somewhat.

Not Underpowered
Another price-point decision taken with this phone was to equip it with a Snapdragon 625. Let's be clear here - this is no Snapdragon 400-series underpowered device. The Moto Z3 Play is working perfectly well with a SD636, behaving mostly like a flagship device with an 800-series chipset, and this 625 really doesn't feel much different. I honestly don't feel any delay in any processes running anything which I would normally ask of a phone. No doubt a heavy gamer this would not suit, but for most of the rest of us, I think it's just fine. Not to mention the power benefits. Strangely, the only single thing I noticed the device being slow to do, was to power-off. Compared to other Android One devices, maybe that is indeed a chipset thing.

Managing Fine
There's 64GB of on board memory here and, unlike the Pixel, a microSD Card slot, as I mentioned, so plenty of space for media and storage alongside hundreds of apps and their associated data. Yes, I'd much rather have 128GB but with USB OTG and 64GB, I can manage! Same as the Pixel, this has 4GB RAM and, again, I see no problem with this. Switching between tasks is just fine and I have had many, many apps open which the system (at least through aggressive RAM management) is not closing down.

The battery supplied in this phone is a 3000mAh one, which, on the face of it, is pretty mean, but with the SD625, less RAM, 720p screen all working together with the efficiencies of Android Pie, the return on daily use with this battery is really super. It's getting way past one day, mostly through the second. As always, it depends what you're doing with the phone - how demanding you're being, which means that I can only go on my average use. Like the Nokia 8 Sirocco, the battery capacity seems to be disproportionate for what I'm getting out of it in terms of longevity.

Coding and Decoding
I now come to my favourite topic, sound! There's a single mono loudspeaker here which although is no Razer in terms of volume or quality, Motorola has supplied what they're calling Dolby Audio controls. Now, this is an interesting topic as it's not the Dolby Atmos as supplied with the Razer Phone, nor is it the apparently stripped down version found in the likes of the Moto G7 Plus or high-end Samsung devices of late. The version in the Razer seems to have the most controls and options, this version here second with a similar layout but not quite so many and the latter, Samsung/Moto (for example) having some very basic on/off switches and three pre-sets. Apparently, it's all to do with the audio decoder and what that is capable of processing (2.1, 5.1) - and from there, the software supplied to control it. I shall have to learn more about all that but for now, this device has Dolby Audio, but with many more options available - more like an Atmos implementation.

Better Components
In practice, the speaker of the Motorola One with Dolby turned off, is still pretty loud and a fair quality. Much better than you'd expect for a unit of this size and price. Motorola still seem to ensure that they supply phones with better components than many others, even when cutting costs generally to hit a price-point. Turn on the Dolby Audio and the sound can be changed, tweaked and manually altered to improve and adjust high, mid and low end depending on the kind of music being listened to. Much like with the Razer, the options are near-limitless and really do make a good speaker into an excellent sounding device. There's no stereo of course, but if you need that there's a traditional headphone socket!

Turning to headphones, then, and doing my usual test with firstly music and my AKG K701 reference 'phones. The sound produced is pretty low volume and flat without Dolby. There's no extra amplification going on here or fancy DAC stuff, but, like with the speaker, the use of Dolby makes a huge difference and allows for all sorts of enhancements to the sound. Again, near-limitless control and options. Now, plugging in my Razer DAC dongle (into the USB-C socket instead of using the 3.5mm) the volume and quality is transformed, as we might expect. Furthermore, the employment then of the Dolby Audio settings make a supporting hardware combination working with the phone's software, produce an amazing sound. But maybe that's true of any old phone!

Around the Edges
You probably have worked out by now that I'm no physicist, nor audio specialist so I dabble around the edges of understanding all this stuff, focusing much more on the experience, reporting what I hear and how it sounds. What sounds poor to my ears and what's great. Testing 5.1 audio via YouTube now - and I can, once again, hear helicopters coming over my head sounding like they're from behind me, as if sitting in a room full of speakers and Surround experience. I'm sure it's all tricks, but it sounds just fabulous. So - long and short is that the speaker is very good. Punches well above its weight. It's no Razer, nor bluetooth speaker, but is much more than adequate. Put on some headphones and things sound great with Dolby to help. Add a DAC dongle in the mix and immerse yourself!

Wireless Love
Things seem simpler when Bluetooth headphones are used - all the above goodness with no dongles or DACs or cables, of course. It seems that there's no aptX support here but even without, it still sounds fabulous, though that, I suppose, would only be tested with bigger and better kbps audio files anyway. I'll leave all that to the experts! FM Radio is also amazingly included, just like with various other Motorola handsets - kudos to them for continuing to support his - and here it's the recording version which can also be used via the speakers, again with system-wide Dolby Audio support for tweaking sound. What's not to like!

Snipped Snaps
The supplied cameras will win no awards but are are perfectly functional used in tandem with Motorola's camera app. It looks and feels very much like the app present on the Moto G7 Plus, Z3 Play and others. It has a sprinkling of bells and whistles but draws the line before adding options for kids and teens playing with daft effects. Feels much more adult! There's clearly no OIS at this price-point and options with 4K are limited to 30fps, but what you expect for under £200 with a SD625! The main lens is a 13MP f2 unit, Google Lens is baked in - and Portrait Mode works pleasingly well with the secondary 2MP f2.4 depth sensor and a slider for live appraisal. Close focus in Manual mode Macro gets a reasonable shot at about 3 inches. It's a perfectly good camera for the masses of people using the phone for social media purposes. Pixel Peepers - away!

Now to the UX and near-Vanilla Pie experience. This is where it gets spookily similar to the Pixel and Essential Phone again with homescreen elements laid out just the same way but with, as I said earlier, more space via the larger panel. The fixed elements are present top and bottom, At a Glance and Search tube, right-swipe for Google Feed baked in, swipe-up from Home for Recents cards and longer swipe for Apps Drawer. The Pie-style Notifications drop-down with the bog-standard editing and colour scheme is employed. Settings too, mostly as stock as you can get. No Motorola adjustments anywhere in sight.

Moto Adds
In order to find the Moto stuff, you need to launch the Moto App within which you get access to some of the Moto Actions, Security and Display controls, but not all. The Voice stuff is missing completely, this being a stock experience mostly. Sadly missing is the one aspect which raises Motorola devices above most others - the Approach in Display. Instead of this, and replacing it, is a very similar scheme to the one most Nokia devices on Pie have adopted - in that you have to nudge or lift the device to fire up screen information. Immediately a Notification comes in, you do get some control over how to use that information and execute quick-interactions (to a degree), but only that first time. If the screen goes off again, that's it - chance gone. The much more interactive version of all this is available in the other Moto phones, but they've obviously decided to keep it very Vanilla here, as adopted by Nokia. Shame.

Cute and Neat
The bottom line is that there's an awful lot of phone here, particularly for the Android purist for £199. It's clean, very Pixel-like with great battery and sound options. It's cute and neat - certainly pocket-friendly, has a perfectly adequate camera for the vast majority and defies the mid-range chipset through efficiency, performance and longevity. Yes, the phone is made of plastic but let's face it - you're going to have a TPU on it anyway - and plastic makes it lighter than it could be with all metal and glass.

Great Value
The main attraction for me is the purity of Android One and the fruit of the growth of the scheme. The Motorola One is a perfectly good option for anyone looking for the simple approach with some Moto goodness thrown in. Motorola are going great guns and I for one, armed with £199 would much, much rather have this clean and great sounding experience over any one of the upcoming Chinese firms' offerings. Highly recommended.

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