Thursday, 12 November 2020

Motorola One Action

Yes, a bit late to the party for this device which was released in autumn 2019 but I found out that these were still being sold direct from Lenovo for £80 off and £139 all-in. The Motorola One Octopus has many tentacles, most of which have been through the Salmagundi Filter at some point. At that price though, I couldn't resist! Want to know why?

Yes, you guessed it, AndroidOne! It was another of the (relatively) few devices made by Motorola which were a part of this fabulous scheme which guarantee users two OS and three years of Google Security Updates. I reviewed the Motorola One Vision back around then and was mightily impressed. The AndroidOne devices from the Motorola One Family that have come through my hands have been the Motorola One (revisited in 2020), One Vision, and now I'll see how the one I missed out on stacks up. There was also the non-One-family Moto G8 Pro which ran under AndroidOne which I also reviewed recently. That's the one with the stylus!

The Motorola One Action was aimed at a specific group of people on release. The Vision was for media-consumers, with that 21:9 screen for loads of Netflix watching on the move whereas the One Action they hoped would appeal to those who want to shoot action video. You know, skateboarders and snowboarders and surfer dudes! It has a wide-angle camera supporting this which was the first of the Motorola's to be placed deliberately sideways. If you hold the phone in portrait, it will shoot in landscape still. Motorola have since then ported this idea to various other phones, but this one started the trend. Compared to the Vision's 48MP main shooter and 25MP Selfie, the Action has a dumbed-down 12MP rear and Selfie - the emphasis is all about that wide-angle action-cam. And the price difference reflected this. We'll get to the camera later.

On release, the One Vision was £269 and the Action, £219. The bargain price I got it for now is a good saving, though I'm sure if you hunt around you could do as well elsewhere on this year-old phone, certainly picking one up second hand. It seems like the natural comparison to make here as I've already considered and reviewed the Vision.

The dimensions of the two phones are identical apart from the fatness, the Action being a few millimetres more - presumably for that 'action cam' - but it's also lighter by a few grams, perhaps because of the back being plastic and not like the Vision's glass. They both have plastic frames but only 'water repellent coating' and no IP-rating, which is a surprise for the Action particularly, aimed at outdoor use and adventure. What's possibly more interesting is that it's almost an identical size to the Sony Xperia 5 which, as we know, is also a 21:9 device and which I reviewed during 2020. The Sony is a different £699 flagship beast of course (with pretty much better everything inside and out) and is indeed slightly smaller in all directions than this Moto, but it's very similar in the hand. Makes you think though - £560 cheaper!

Back to the Moto phones and both Vision and Action have pretty much the same box contents, being an included TPU (well done Moto), power brick (though this one is 10W and the Vision's was 15W), papers, pokey-hole key and USB-A to USB-C cable. Touring the phone, there's a 3.5mm audio-out up top, volume & power on the right, speaker, USB-C port and microphone on the bottom, SIM Card Tray on the left, camera island, flash and capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back. All looking very much like the Vision. Only difference is that the back is plastic here and the Vision had glass (and the TPU covers it anyway), though both have the plastic frame. The phone feels solid and sturdy with some weight, not premium, but certainly not cheap'n'plasticy. There's an IPX2 rating for environment, so splash proof basically. You'd think they would have majored on this for the target adventurous folk.

The phones share the exact same 6.3" 21:9 1080p LCD front panel returning 432ppi with that over-sized selfie top-left in portrait. Because it is 21:9 it makes the 6.3" really more like 5.3", so actually feeling much more dinky than the figures suggest. The screen on 100% manual brightness is very good. Perfectly usable outdoors in sunlight, which there was here unusually today! Comparing with the Pixel 3's OLED panel there's really not much in it for brightness, but both of them seem brighter to my eyes than the iPhone SE (2020)'s LCD. The iPhone has a 'warm' cast whereas the Action has a blue one and the Pixel sits somewhere between. Colour can be shifted to 'saturated' in settings to make them 'pop' a bit more, apparent in primary hues more on this LCD. The brightness 'slider' seems to need to be up to about 60% for me for indoors use, which is certainly more than OLED screens and a bit more than the iPhone's. It's a very good screen which few would complain about.

As I fired the device up and got it going for the first time, I'd not realised that of course, it would still be on Android 9 (Pie) and yes, sure enough it was, with July 2019 Android Security Patches! I tried to quickly get Android 10 on-board but this little blighter was going to do all that at it's own pace! Through the months, one-by-one (presumably one security update hanging on changes from the last/next) until it got to November 2019, then along came Android 10. Hurrah! Again, slowly but surely, month-by-month it got as up-to-date as is reasonable for an AndroidOne device just now, October 2020. Wow! This is a 3-4hr long process! When it was all done, I executed a new factory reset for good measure.

This did start me thinking though about how long the phone had been sitting on a shelf, battery inactive. The battery had about 50% charge when I opened it. I checked on the box and the manufacture date was April 2020. So even though all that software was outdated by some months, the battery was only six months or so sitting. When I test the battery, we'll see how it performs against what I got from the Vision, which I got back then new, with little sit-time.

No time like the present as they say, so my first couple of tests on the battery are very good indeed. I've run my 10% screen-on test a couple of times now and have got results much better than the Vision, which was around 1hr 20mins. This Action is more like 1hr 40min. I have run this from 100% to 90% and also 50% to 40% and it remains consistent. I have no idea why the Action should do better than the Vision in this respect - I really was expecting the same result - although I do have thoughts coming along about Android 10.

The 10% screen-on test is not very scientific. The strength is that it's always me doing it and I do the same things during the time with the phone. Screen on, adaptive battery, adaptive brightness, indoors, reading social media, news feeds, scrolling, no video, no sound - just basic reading with the screen on. I mark the percentage shown at the start and finish, allow for variation within fractions of percentage points, then time when the 10% drop occurs. I do this from fully-charged, then repeat the test 50% to 40% and do this a few times during the first week of use as it gets used to my pattern of usage then take an average at the end. Not scientific, but consistent over hundreds of phones over the years.

The good news is that the battery is really very good for a seriously heavy day and beyond. We're talking 36hrs with 6-7hrs SoT between charges if pushed. Again, that feels like it is better than the Vision was - so maybe all these battery improvements are to do with Android 10 - I had sold the Vision on before it got updated. Anyway, the 3,500mAh battery clearly is a winner in this combination and even though the Action comes with a lesser charger in the box than the Vision (10W instead of 15W) this really represents no problem with charging up fairly quickly for real-world use - 5/7 hours of power from 15/20 minutes charge and full from flat in just over 2 hours. No wireless charging of course but I have a Qi Receiver plugged into the USB-C socket, pad under the TPU and wireless charging is working beautifully.

The use of Samsung's Exynos 9609 chipset was a surprise for me for the Vision, but I remember saying that it out-performed the similarly-priced and placed Samsung model of the time and presumed this to be because of all the Samsung software and back-action going on against the clean and stripped-down AndroidOne version of Android there. This seems to be just the same. It's operation is fast across anything I'm using it for, even resource-heavy car-racing games as tested here. Laying gaming aside though, there's not a jitter that I can see for normal everyday use in all other functions. Task-switching is good and fast with nothing dropping out the other end of the 4GB RAM that would worry me over time. Who needs 12GB RAM, eh!

The storage is the same as the Vision, being 128GB which is great when supported by microSD memory cards via the hybrid SIM slot. The SIM slot will either take 2 x SIM Cards or 1 x SIM and microSD. Copying data to the phone was relatively fast though of course nothing like the speed that the Sony Xperia 5ii demonstrated recently for me! But remember the price difference - especially with this special offer. Read/write times for external media is good tested here with the usual microSD Card adapter into the USB-C slot and also my Extreme 2TB SSD. Yes, it is faster on various flagship devices, but are we in such a hurry we can't wait - for the cost-saving? Last test is the HDMI-Out and not surprisingly, there's no support for this.

There's pretty much the same level of Moto extras on this phone as the Vision had, like the Moto Peek (but not Approach, rather lift/nudge to get the interactive dialogue), chop-chop for torch, twist-twist for camera, 3-finger screenshot - you know the form. The only bit missing that matters for me is the Approach really - as there's not even double-tap-to-wake, you do have to move the phone to see the time, date, battery % and Peek notification array. I guess that's not such a big deal for people who have the phone in their pocket - more so on a desk/table or stand.

The security aspects of the Moto suite include the face unlock which is quick to register and seems to work well - lifting the phone up from the table or from a pocket and looking at it gets the user straight in. No mucking about with sub-screens and lock-screens to swipe away - straight in. Great. Others could learn from that. Only thing to be said though is that if you're lifting it up anyway, your finger is round the back so you might as well use your finger to unlock! Which brings us to the rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner. This works really well as you'd expect rather than under-glass arrangements. Only problem being that it has to be lifted up to use of course, so desk-use is out. Nudge and Peek or pattern I guess!

The speaker output is, much like the Vision, punching above its weight. Moto seem to use a better quality component than many out there, even if it is mono and singular. It may not be the loudest, but there's no complaints here about tinny top-ends. The tone is very pleasant and just enough bass so as not to complain. I'm guessing that it is the exact same setup as the Vision as we also have the 'minimalist' Moto Audio tuned by Dolby which is system-wide but is stuck on Smart (auto) for speaker use.

It's not until you plug in headphones to the 3.5mm audio-out socket that the other options open up - Music, Film and Custom - each with their own edit feature with manual adjustment of graphic equaliser sliders. The sound coming through headphones (tested here with AKG K701) is not very loud - I have it on full volume and it's just about fine for me - but it wouldn't have been when I was 16 years old and wanting to blast my ears! So an enhanced dongle would be a good idea for some folk. I personally think that most people would be satisfied though. 

And for those who are not, pairing up with Bluetooth headphones, as we've come to expect now, moves things to another level completely, depending on the quality of the connected equipment of course. Tests here transform the sound which is good enough for 57 year old me and more than good for 16 year old me! Bluetooth 5, pairs up quickly and holds a connection over a good distance - and through various walls as tested here. There's also a recording FM Radio which can be switched to speakers, headphones or Bluetooth output, channel favourites, sleep-timer and even hooks through to the Dolby from inside the app.

Talking of connectivity, I have taken a number of phone calls on the device and connection is solid over cellular, good sound each end as tested and strong signal even when tested here in previously tested dubious areas for dropout on Vodafone. NFC is present so Google Pay is a Go and although I have not been able to test that, others report it working well. Certainly the NFC functionality is working for quick device connections. Similarly the GPS - quick locks on Google Maps and reliable tracking as I move. Wifi connection seems good and strong too tested here on two household routers and two MiFi units. It seems that I rarely complain about any connectivity with phones these days. A few years ago, devices always seemed to have something not so good. I guess they're getting better at their game.

One of the few differences between the phones is the camera, as I have said. The Vision centred around a better 48MP Quad Bayer f1.7 shooter with OIS which actually turned out some half decent shots for the price-point whereas the Action's main camera is a 12MP f1.8 more usual and old-fashioned one. There's no OIS on the phone at all, though there is an electronic stabilisation function in the video camera, which seems to work to some degree. 

Both phones share a 5MP f2.2 depth sensor, but the difference comes with this 16MP f2.2 117-degree wide-angle video camera on the Action, designed for, well, action! It was the first Moto to dedicate a lens to this so that users could hold the phone in portrait (and not have to use two hands to hold it in landscape) but still shoot landscape video. So what you get on the screen is massive bars top and bottom with a slim landscape view of what's going on in front of the lens across the middle. Think YouTube video before you have turned your phone round into landscape and you're not far off. You can shoot this oddly-presented video at 4K@30fps or 60fps@1080p, so no records being broken there - particularly over a year later when even more boundaries are being pushed by other OEMs. There is now a button on-screen to switch the view back to full screen for those who want to shoot in landscape holding the phone in landscape, but by default it's the other way around.

Furthermore, this wide-angle lens can't be used to take photos - only video - which seems a bit odd to have not included. If the hardware is there to support wide-angle, why exclude it from the single-shot camera, I wonder. We've subsequently had this argument for other Moto phones which have adopted the same arrangement since the release of the Action and it is rather bizarre. However, the footage looks decent enough (to the untrained eye here) and I'm sure the adventurous mountaineer or sailor will appreciate the one-handed flexibility for their YouTube footage. 

Apart from that, the camera is very ordinary, shots taken with the main lens look good enough to me - not special, there's no telephoto so any zooming is digital. There's a Manual Mode to play with all the usual settings, which works rather well and the usual array of Moto add-ons in the camera app such as Spot Colour, Cutout, Portrait, Slow Mo, Timelapse, spirit-level, grid and Google Lens baked-in. There's no Night Mode, so you're on your own with that - and low-light shots are far from special. Lastly there's a 12MP f2 Selfie, whereas on the Vision there was a 25MP f2 one - only short-term problem being the big hole which is cut into the screen to accommodate it. It's quite hard to imagine what was behind the decisions about what to put in which, and why, when they share so much common ground.

This is an excellent phone for the money I paid now. Those who are going to be alright with the 21:9 aspect of the screen, being very tall, will get a bargain here. It's very comfortable in the hand, my finger and thumb meet well around the phone's waist, but yes, one-handed use means a stretch up to the top. Great for long scrolling through news and social media posts for those who prioritise that.

The action camera is well designed and looks like great fun for the right crowd, but even laying that aside, this is a very capable smartphone for lots more people than them. The engine room ensures a smooth experience, the screen is very good indeed once you stop seeing the big Selfie Hole and I don't think you can argue with the fabulous AndroidOne implementation of Android and added Moto bolt-ons. This one is coloured Denim Blue, but on release there was also Aqua Teal and Pearl White. It's a well-rounded package, even if you ignore the Action Cam thing and at this price shouldn't be missed! Check if you're too late here!

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