Friday, 31 January 2020

Moto G8 Plus

The Moto G8 Plus has arrived for review and I shall be delighted to give it the treatment as I have it for the next week or so. It's tempting to compare it here and now with the Moto G7 Plus, but I think I'll leave that to Steve Litchfield who will have this after me and will have both to hand. I'm more keen to put it up against the Motorola One Zoom, as I have one here in-hand and compare directly.

The main complaint I've had for a long time about IPS LCD screens pushed out by Moto is that they don't do the 'Peek/Approach' thing as well as for the AMOLED-screened devices as for AMOLED. Which devices get the full-blown Moto Peek/Approach version and which don't is also variable based on whether or not they are a part of the AndroidOne programme. This is not. It's standard Android. I think I'm right in saying that this is the first LCD-screened phone from Moto which does have the full Approach/Peek thing available to the user, AndroidOne or not. It was a long time coming, but they got there - and this makes a big difference to me - and a good reason why I feel able to compare it with the One Zoom. First things first though, and the box.

In the Box
In the box we get a basic but perfectly adequate TPU case, USB-C to USB-A cable, fast-charging plug, a pokey-hole SIM Card/microSD Tray tool - and that's about it! The phone is available in blue or red and here, I have the blue one.

First Impressions
The phone is almost exactly the same size in all directions as the One Zoom but with the use of plastics around the device it doesn't quite feel as premium as the Zoom. It's not far off though! Plastics are being made to look very much like glass these days - and there's a clear argument for preference for some, based on weight and durability against trauma. The back of the phone has a 'shimmering' blue 'graduated' look, shifting with reflected light. It's attractive and seems like one of the ways manufacturers are interpreting and generating 'premium' look/feel.

On the Button
The back curves around pleasantly to meet the plastic surround, the right-side of which houses a volume rocker and knurled power button. These are clearly also plastic, but don't feel wobbly or 'cheap', rather like they'll stay the course! The volume rocker is arguably a little high up on the side for some users' hands, but the power button, just right. On the left-side, there's the SIM Card/microSD Card Tray which, in this case, has provision for 2xSIM or 1xSIM and microSD. Other variations are available in some markets. The Tray is made well - better in fact than the Zoom's. Up-top we have the 3.5mm audio-out socket and microphone, on the bottom another microphone, USB-C socket for data/charging and one of the two stereo speakers, so downward-firing. On the back, amongst all that sea of shimmering blue, we have a strangely undersized circular capacitive fingerprint scanner with a Moto 'M' logo filling it - and then a collection of cameras and lenses and flash, top-left viewed in portrait, travelling vertically, which I'll come to later.

No Protection
The front is an unspecified version of flat glass, assuming that it's not protected by Gorilla or any other system, user beware and, although I don't usually advocate such measures, maybe a protector of some sort might be in order. The Zoom is ahead here with GG3/PandaKing at least. All these whiskers are clearly shaved to hit a price-point. There's no IP-rating for either at this price point however, so take care! They do claim 'splash resistance' so presumably there's some component nano-coating going on inside.

Bezels
There's a bit of a 'chin' but really not much. For me, that's a good amount, to get a navigating thumb past the TPU and onto the controls. The top of the panel has a selfie-cam droplet in the middle, which really isn't an issue. As we've said before, brain learns quickly to ignore it when viewing media. Apart from that, the 'forehead' is smaller than the 'chin' and sits below the other one of the pair of stereo speakers. This also doubles up as the main earpiece for taking phone calls. Lastly, ambient and proximity sensors for Peek/Approach.

Balancing Act
The phone feels good in the hand, strangely 'better balanced' than the Zoom. It must be the weight of that huge camera-island on the back of the Zoom which throws the similarly totalled weight the 'wrong' way when clutched. Somehow, the G8 Plus is much more comfortable for extended use and certainly better for one-handed. It still maybe a tad big for some users, I could see, but not the modern young users who seem to think 'bigger is better' for consuming media and where, in many cases their phone replaces a computer! It might be a good balance for many between a giant phone, impossible to carry in the summer, and one too small on which to enjoy that media.

No Perfectly Dark 10
The G8 Plus arrived with Android 9 and September '19 Google Security. This was immediately updated to November '19, thus matching what's on the Zoom - and presumably entering the usual Motorola non-AndroidOne 2/3 monthly cycle of updates. One of the advantages of being part of the AndroidOne programme is that these do tend to slide out quicker, but really not by much it seems - in Moto's case. If the user throws the switch in Display Settings to Dark Device Theme - and in Developer Options to Night Mode Always On, pretty much the whole UI is rendered dark, save for a quirk here and there awaiting Google's switch - like GMail and Settings.

Glorious Stereo?
It maybe not be too much of a level playing field to compare the sound output from the camera-centric Zoom's mono speaker with the sound-centric G8 Plus' stereo setup, but here goes anyway! No doubt we'll get more mileage from this when Steve has the G8 Plus alongside the G7 Plus. What's a little annoying about the Zoom is that not only is there no Dolby of any description, but also the baked-in version of audio control is only accessible via Google Play Music. And then, you get some basic controls which don't really do an awful lot to the sound. Furthermore, getting to the controls whilst music is playing means backing out through layers and layers to find the menu, then in again! Consequently, I've long since switched to another Music Player with it's own controls.

Baked-In, System-Wide
On the other hand, the Dolby Audio on the G8 Plus is indeed baked-in, system wide, with access-toggle and Settings for any application, via Settings or Notification Shade. When you get there, it's a half-decent set of controls as well, which can be adjusted beyond the basic Smart/Music/Film, enabling the user to drill-down into Music/Film and access a further bunch of equalisation options - and a sound virtualiser - which really do make a difference to output. This is no Razer Phone full Atmos, but next-best thing. Very often these kind of controls are only usable with headphones, but not here - speakers too. Plugging in a set of headphones to the 3.5mm audio-out socket enables a further option called Manual, within which access is opened to equalisation sliders and a few other auto settings. The sound really can be manipulated very pleasingly. There's no extra amplification going on here or fancy enhanced DAC stuff, but actually for these ears anyway, it really isn't needed. Yes, a dongle could be added to blow your head off but I think that most users will be perfectly happy with the quality and volume they get out of the box. Not that there are any earphones in the box! Bring your own!

Real Stereo
The big difference for some here is of course that the G8 Plus has two speakers and unlike many, many others, including notable expensive flagships, this unit retains 'real' and not 'faux' stereo, just like the Razer Phone, for example. No software fixes for different frequencies. This is the real thing (if you forgive the fact that one speaker points at right-angles to the other)! I'm finding that it does indeed work well, the closer to the face the better, which kind of excludes we folk who can't focus that closely, even with glasses! My usual test track which exploits stereo beautifully picks out the channels as it should. Turn it over (in landscape) and the 'left' switches to the left, turn over again and 'left' switches to what was the 'right'! On the fly, it 'gyro-dynamically' knows which way the phone is up - particularly useful for video - but many phones only work one-way-round. Kudos Moto! Pull back to 18" from the face and the stereo effect is lessened of course - and so on, until there's little point! Might as well, at that stage, have a mono speaker! Put on a pair of headphones, however, cue up a Dolby Stereo test YouTube video, and it sounds fantastic - as you'd expect. Stereo is great and even some half-decent 'surround' effects.

Bluetooth
There's a recording FM Radio on both phones which appears to work well and can be switched to loudspeakers or earphones. Bluetooth 5 is also present including the adoption of aptX, missing from the lineup of the Zoom. As you may expect, the output over Bluetooth is excellent, depending as always on the quality of the the receiving equipment. Tested here with various speakers and headphones and it performs perfectly well for the vast majority of people likely to buy this phone.

Against the Pixel!
One last test, then, which I thought was really going to be a bit unfair - up against the three and a half times the price Pixel 4, which, on review, I held aloft as a phone which creates a super sound in quality and volume only beaten by the Razer. I'm staggered to report that the sound from this Moto G8 Plus (whilst employing Dolby) is louder and better quality than the Pixel 4. I'm amazed as I really thought this year's Google offering was the new benchmark (outside of gaming phones). Now, to be clear, if the Dolby is turned off, the pendulum swings back the other way in favour of the Pixel quite markedly, but that was also rue of the Razer. So a combination of good quality hardware components and smart software make this the winner in my book! The phone has clearly been pitched as a sound-centric one following in the path of the G7 Plus. The options are good, the sound is good, equalisation via the built-in Dolby tools can make a real difference and it's an all-round pleasing experience. Why they can't roll in all the good bits of all their phones to make one flagship superphone, I don't know. But now I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's press on.

LCD vs AMOLED
I'm actually very pleasantly surprised by the LTPS IPS LCD 6.3" 1080p 19:9 screen which is, give or take, pretty much the same size as the Zoom's. Even the 400ppi is near identical. Putting the two together, set to 100% manually, looking straight-on, there's not much difference in brightness. There is a different 'cast' on each, the AMOLED being very slightly more blue. Viewing angles makes a bigger difference however, and as the angle of the eye increases, phones become more angled, the AMOLED is the winner, maintaining a brighter panel at more extreme angles. However, both remain more than usable, as I nit-pick. Heading into the bright sunshine (which we seem to unusually have some of today in North Wales) and switching to Adaptive Brightness, both screens are more than usable under those conditions. If I had to pick, the AMOLED is a tad brighter, so a Zoom win.

Saturated
Changing the colour pre-sets doesn't do anything to change to above, but I can report that with both set to Saturated, the AMOLED wins again with more punchy colours, cleaner shadow rendering and sharper edges. They come a bit closer if set to 'natural' but I can't imagine anyone choosing that, especially when out of the box it's Saturated by default! Again, nit-picking, because the user without a test-bench and comparison units in front of them would be more than happy. It's a good panel and interesting to see how well LCD has evolved.

Storage Matters
I'm delighted to see that Motorola continue with microSD Card support and it has no trouble reading and writing to my 512GB card here. It's a bit slower accessing my 2TB SanDisk SSD but it gets there. One of the things which really shows between the screens is that when watching a film, which I do a lot of, the picture on the Zoom's AMOLED is so much better, brighter, cleaner, deeper darks and so on. All the things that we know about the screens seem to come together in this scenario - and resulted in me being very pleased to get back to the Zoom for that function. I now stumble into another difference between the two - and a surprising one given the media-centric nature of the G8 Plus - HDMI-Out fails to work, so no cabling up to the TV. Again, this can only be a cost-cutting exercise as it works perfectly well on the Zoom. Shame. Another example of the budget-targeting is that there's only 64GB of built-in storage, unlike the 128GB of the Zoom - and unusually, there doesn't seem to be a 128GB version floating out there which we often see, particularly for the South American market. 64GB is not enough for me, personally, but pragmatically, we can boost it with a card and further, those who, unlike me, are not serial SIM-Card swappers/phone reviewers, will be OK with the arrangement. I'm disproportionately happier knowing I have the 128GB and microSD!

Under the Bonnet
The chipset employed here is the Snapdragon 665, compared to the 675 of the Zoom. Laying aside that read/write time in my extreme storage test above, there really isn't much difference to be seen here. Most of what people are likely to do across the UI rolls very quickly and not many will be upset. I'm not much of a gamer, but I have tested one or two and I don't see any slow-down as I go. Maybe over time this might be an issue for some, but also looking at YouTubers testing this phone being satisfied with all-but serious gaming. For most people reading this I doubt it would be significant. Both phones have 4GB RAM and again, I see no slow-down app-switching though, again, maybe over time this could change as the reboot gets further away over weeks and months. I have had the Zoom here for weeks into months and, yes, it's not been a day-in, day-out main phone, but in testing I have seen no issues. The 600-series SnapDragon, I've said for a long time, is more than adequate along with 4GB RAM for the vast majority of users.

Peek/Approach
One area in which the G8 Plus wins is with the rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner over the Zoom's optical under-glass variant. The only caveat there is that if the phone is laying on a table, you have to get your finger round there somehow, so pick the phone up. Fortunately, as I said at the earlier, Moto have included the full Peek/Approach service and that does make a huge difference to flat-phone working.

For those who are new to this, I'll explain again. You just have to wave your hand over the sensor on the front of the phone and the lock-screen comes up with clock, day, date and battery % remaining. Underneath are shortcut icons to any notifications waiting. Rest your finger on any of them and a summary pops up in place of the clock. You can then slide your finger to various on-screen buttons to dismiss, play (if apt.), or all the way up to read. At this point, previously, you'd have to open the phone up somehow if you want more than just the item's 'headline'. However, the only plus point of the under-glass fingerprint reader on the Zoom here is that you can 'slide' the item 'onto' the fingerprint scanner and it authenticates and opens it right up.

...that's the bit missing from the G8 Plus, as at that point, you need to put in PIN, Pattern or lift the phone to get round the back to the fingerprint scanner. Both phones are supported by Face Unlock and that is another way in. In fact, that works slightly better on the G8 Plus, as the Zoom then requires a swipe-up on the screen iPhone-style. It's all swings and roundabouts, but I'm very pleased to see Peek/Approach make an appearance here - as I am to see the rest of the suite of options in Actions. Chop-Chop Torch, Twist-Twist Camera, One Button Nav (The Long Pill), Three-Finger Screenshot, Auto-Scrolling Long Screenshot, and so on... The full suite. Great!

Clean Launcher & No Bloat
The standard Motorola Launcher negates the need for a 3rd-party solution. Widgets all size perfectly and adaptably, Google Assistant Cards are off to the left if you like, layout grid choices, Icon Shape choices, Notification Dot choice, swipe-up from anywhere for the (correctly vertically scrolling) App Tray, swipe-down from anywhere for the Notification Tray with completely standard Pie layout...on and on we go and further kudos to Moto for sticking so closely to Vanilla Android - as it is supposed to be - by design! Furthemore, no a sniff of any bloat, added apps - no social media pre-installs - very refreshing. What you get is from Google and Motorola. End of.

Photography
As usual I'm going to leave the testing of the camera to Steve, but it does seem to be an odd little mix of features compared to the Zoom. The Zoom is clearly more capable and this, more of a bolt-on for a media-centric phone. Apart from the Zoom button and AR Stickers as a (kids) Mode, the camera interfaces look identical. The Zoom can be properly switched between 1x (normal), 3x (telephoto) and 0.5x (wide-angle). The G8 Plus presents with a 'normal' camera angle, the same Quad-Bayer Sony 48MP f1.7 unit which everyone is using, then a 16MP f2.2 wide-angle which seems to only be available for use in video shooting, not photos. (The reason for this seems to be an attempt by Motorola to stop people shooting stupid videos in 'portrait' orientation, as when the user tries to do that, the camera swings round and forces it round the correct way! That'll show 'em! Though that still doesn't explain why it couldn't also be used for snaps - perhaps software will fix that in time.) These are supported by a 5MP f2.2 depth sensor, for portraits (via a 5-stage button array rather than slider) and the like. The very same 25MP f/2 Selfie seems to have also been employed performing just the same tasks. It will be interesting for Steve to get this on the test bench to see if anyone has yet made enough use of supporting software to maximise the potential of the 48/12MP camera arrangement. I'm guessing not!

No Fraud Checks
I'm failing you all now as a reviewer by not testing Google Pay on this phone as I keep getting in trouble with my bank for registering too many phones - and it raises flags for fraud etc. So Sorry, but I just can't keep doing it. I have a great deal of confidence that it works though, as others have reported and the spec. sheet and Settings indicate NFC present etc. Certainly my other Motorola phones across the months, when I've set them up with all my 'real' data, work perfectly with payments and seem to connect well at Tesco!

All Power
One of the highlights of the Zoom was certainly the battery, being a 4000mAh unit - and sadly a failing of the G7 Plus, which was stuck back on 3000. Great to see that Moto have upped this for the next generation G and brought it into line with the Zoom equalling the 4000mAh. Like the Zoom, the there's an 18W TurboPower plug supplied for when users can't charge overnight. Full charge takes about 2 hours and about a third in 30mins. So, I was expecting the G8 Plus to match the excellent performance of the Zoom on my 10% reading test (the Zoom scored 1hr 40min). And we have a new champion - again! Record keeps getting broken! The record holder here at the moment is the Xiaomi Mi A3 at 2hrs 6mins, but this beats it at 2hrs 20mins! I've only had this now for a coupe of days but can see already that based on my experience and the time elapsed so far, what I've been doing with it, this will be a real 2-day phone for my average use. Batteries are getting better. And about time too!

Verdict
I love this phone! So many things are just-right. Goldilocks, nearly. It's incredibly well priced just now in the UK at just under £200, the 'balance' of the phone in the hand is near-perfect, the rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner coupled with Face Unlock and Moto Peek/Approach is an absolute winner, the (real) stereo speakers sound splendid supported by the system-wide Dolby software, the battery is beyond best in class, the Virtual Vanilla Android could only be improved by the arrival of Android 10 (coming soon), the speed around the UI is perfectly good for most of us - as are the LCD's brightness and colours. The photography tools are an odd little collection but perfectly functional for the most of us again (prior to Steve ripping it to shreds!) and to top it all, everyone gets a case! Now... what I'd change! I'd like to see a 128GB version, though the microSD presence offsets that a tad, I'd like to see at least Panda King glass on the front, HDMI-Out wouldn't go amiss, and of course - always Qi Charging (though that's missing on the £379 Zoom, too). Once again we say, this is a mid-ranger with a budget-price. It would be churlish to complain really, given the wealth of features-per-pound in this package, particularly in terms of sound output.
Once again, Moto hit the nail on the head in my opinion. Thoroughly recommended.

9 comments:

  1. Great, in-depth review as always Ted. My wife is looking for a budget priced phone and I think that the G8 plus could be the front runner. Thanks for helping me out as always,
    Simon

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  2. Thanks Simon. Great to get some feedback - and knowing that this stuff I do for the love of it, actually is of help to some. Cheers :-)

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  3. Ted how do you conduct your 10% reading test..

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  4. It's not very technical - in fact it's not at all technical, nor clinical! But I do apply the same method to each phone I score, so it's something of a level playing field within my walled garden. Of course, your usage will be different so you'll have your own tests and results. But as far as I'm concerned, mine stand up against each other.
    So, I fully charge the battery, Adaptive Battery and Brightness selected, SIM Card in and logged onto a home wifi router. Then I start reading. Screen on for the whole time, some book reading, some news reading, watch a short news video if one comes up, deal with my morning emailing out and in, catch up on social media, which again may involve short videos and reading, commenting etc. So yes, every time *will* be slightly different but within general terms, over time, doing this 2/3 times when reviewing phones, I think it's a fair judgement on the battery. When the battery gets down to 90% I see how long I've been reading!

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  5. Great review and enough for me to visit my local Carphone Warehouse and pick up a Moto G8 Plus!
    It's my first Moto and so far I'm impressed with the device, so much in fact that it's my main driver now! The only worry is the durability of the front glass. I hate to add screen protectors to my phones, so can only hope it will not scratch too badly over time.

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  6. Yes unknown, me too. Time will tell, I guess. I hate screen protectors so will take the risk! Glad my review was of use to you.

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  7. Great review Ted. The X4 had LCD screen & full Moto approach.

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  8. Thanks Babul. Yes, that's quite right for the non-AndroidOne version for the rest of the world outside of the US. Good point. Good job I said "I think I'm right in saying..." eh!

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  9. The NFC on Google pay works fine.

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