Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus review: No longer the best budget smartphones available

Make no mistake: These two devices are Lenovo phones through and through, and the end of Motorola's budget brand as we know it.

A year ago, I would have enthusiastically endorsed you bringing home a third-generation Moto G if you wanted the best budget Android device. But after a few days with its successors, the Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus, I’m now preparing for the beginning of the end of what was once Motorola’s best smartphone.

These are the first Moto G phones developed with Lenovo at the helm, since acquiring Motorola's mobile business in 2014. While It hasn’t completely steamrolled over everything that Motorola has established for itself over the past couple of years, Lenovo’s quantity over quality ethos appears to be slowly creeping through.

The Moto G was the best budget smartphone on the market because it was compact, responsive, and offered all the basics for a measly starting price of $179. But now, we have what Lenovo considers to be the flashier, re-imagined Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus: They have bigger screens, thinner bodies, and better specifications, but they hardly feel like Motorola’s Moto G.

Design: A thin and basic chassis

motog4 g4plus  7 Florence Ion

The Moto G Plus (pictured here) and Moto G are exactly the same size.

Before we get into what’s disappointing about the Moto G4 and G4 Plus, let’s talk about what Lenovo managed to get right: chassis design. These two devices are both comfortably svelte and they hardly feel like budget devices. At 9.3mm, they’re a little more than two millimeters thinner than their predecessors, and their thin edges match the design that Lenovo’s got going on with the Moto Z.

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Frankly, not feeling this color scheme, though the matte is sure nice.

I am not entirely fond of the color scheme I was sent for review. Black on black is boring, and the G4 and G4 Plus appear to outfitted in the same bare-bones, let’s-get-down-to-business attire as Lenovo’s ThinkPads. Thankfully, if you buy either model unlocked, you can customize the look through the company's Moto Maker site.

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The G4 and G4 Plus are two very svelte devices.

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Again with the black matte back.

Like last year’s devices, the Moto G4 and G4 Plus are both covered in a water-repellent coating, though it’s meant to protect the phones against rain and spilled drinks rather than dunks in the pool. There’s also a removable back cover that allows unfettered access to the SIM and memory slots, though the battery is bolted in.

Both of the new Moto G4 devices feature 5.5-inch IPS LCD displays with 1080p resolutions and fantastic viewing angles. They’re even nicer to look at than Sony’s considerably costlier flagship, the Xperia X Performance , especially with regards to color balance. And if you don’t like either device’s color-saturated displays, you can turn off automatic vibrancy in the Settings panel. It’s nice to have the choice.

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The G4 Plus’s fingerprint scanner on the front is capable, but not as fast as what you’d experience on a flagship.

The Moto G4 Plus is the only model that comes equipped with a front-facing fingerprint scanner. It’s not the fastest fingerprint scanner I’ve used, but it works. I wish Motorola would have added more functionality to the button, however, since I found myself habitually tapping it to return to the Home screen.

Performance: A meek, shaky sheep in wolf’s clothing

The Moto G4 and G4 Plus both run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617. The G4 is only available with 2GB of RAM, while the G4 Plus can be configured with 2, 3, or 4GB of RAM. Our review model featured 4GB of RAM.

moto g4 benchmarks 3dmark

The Moto G4 and G4 Plus both outranked the One A9, which runs the same Snapdragon 617.

moto g4 benchmarks pcmark

The G4 and G4 Plus also outranked the OnePlus X in terms of day-to-day smartphone performance.

Both the G4 and G4 Plus performed on par with the rest of the devices in its class in our extensive benchmark tests, beating out last year’s HTC One A9. But things took a turn after I started using the devices out in the wild.

First off, It appears that the G4 Plus suffers from intermittent touchscreen recognition issues. There’s no warning when it happens, and it’s only once in a while, but when it does it’s incredibly frustrating. It also appears to only occur when I’m actively inside an app, rather than futzing around on the system interface. I searched the web to see if anyone else had experienced the same issues, but could only find a mention in The Verge’s review of the G4 Plus. Regardless, this sporadic nuisance has me on the fence about whether or not the G4 Plus could be considered a worthy buy, even with 4GB of RAM.

The G4 with 2GB of RAM, on the other hand, performed as I expected. It was generally smooth sailing as I transitioned between screens on the main interface, the settings panel, and Google Now, though I did experience some slowdowns after launching memory-intensive apps. Snapchat, for instance, would lag, and it was difficult to record a video without much stuttering. And casual games like Sailor Moon Drops experienced occasional choppiness.

moto g4 benchmarks battery

The Moto G4 managed almost 7 hours of on-screen time in Geekbench, while the G4 Plus almost hit 8 full hours.

At least the battery performance of the G4 and G4 Plus didn’t take a hit. Both phones are powered by a 3,000 mAh battery. The phones managed about 7 hours of screen-on time in the Geekbench battery run-down test. The G4 and G4 Plus also utilize Moto's Turbo Charger so that you can charge up enough juice in an hour to last you through most of the day.

Camera: You get what you pay for

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The Moto G4 Plus’s 16-megapixel camera (left) shot clearer, sharper photos than the G4’s 13-megapixel camera (right).

I don’t expect much in the camera department from a pair of phones that start at $200 or less, but I do expect that whatever photography they manage is either good enough to share to the Internet, or decipherable enough to stow away as a memory. Fortunately, the Moto G4 and G4 Plus’s respective rear-facing cameras fit within that criteria.

The Moto G4 utilizes a 13-megapixel camera, while the G4 Plus comes equipped with a 16-megapixel one. Both shoot with an aperture of f/2.0, but only the G4 Plus features Phase Detection Autofocus (PDAF), which helps keep the photo and its main subjects in focus.

moto g4 highlight

The Moto G4 performed alright in our high light tests.

motog4 lowlight

It wasn’t too bad with the low light test in our lab, either, though there are other phones with similar megapixel counts that perform better.

Let’s start with the Moto G4. In our lab, the smartphone’s camera shot better photos in bright light than some of the more pricier phones out right now. Unlike the Xperia X Performance, for instance, none of the G4’s brightly lit test photos came out overexposed. They were nicely color-balanced and I was able to zoom in and clearly read fine text.

However, the G4 wasn’t completely without fault. Notice it couldn’t catch up with the metronome in the top right-hand corner, and check out its low-light performance above: The G4 clearly struggles, and it pales in comparison to what the One A9 or OnePlus X could muster with the same f/2.0 aperture.

motog4plus indoors

The G4 Plus (left) is substantially better in low light than the G4 (right), though both struggled to produce photos without any noise.

The G4’s low-light performance gets worse in the real world. The camera struggled to illuminate most dimly-lit scenes, and when it did manage to shoot a photo in poor lighting, it produced a grainy product that was too noisy to edit after the fact.

motog4plus lowlight

The Moto G4 Plus performed a little better in our low light lab tests.

The G4 Plus’s 16-megapixel camera fared a bit better in our lab tests. I also noticed that it tends to over sharpen the end-result in an attempt to produce a clearer photo. It definitely helps make the scene pop out a bit and, if nothing else, it helps bump up the quality of a camera that’s decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Like its sibling, the G4 Plus also suffered from a few follies out in the real world. For instance, the camera had a tendency to blow out background objects and scenes unless I adjusted the exposure with the app’s limited manual controls beforehand. It’s not the quickest at capturing moving objects, either, and pictures shot while walking came out blurry.

Software: Still sportin’ stock

If it’s one thing that Motorola’s known for, it’s keeping Android relatively free from bloatware and excessive interface changes. It continues that tradition with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus, which is quite the relief considering Lenovo’s reputation for overstuffing its smartphones and tablets with superfluous apps.

motog4 screenui

The Moto G4 and G4 Plus both have the same interface as the Google Launcher.

The G4 and G4 Plus both run Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with only one application for adjusting Motorola’s special add-on features, including its ambient display and gesture controls. I’m not sure what Lenovo is planning to do with apps like Moto Assist, but it appears to signify the beginning of the end of the Moto brand.

Should you buy these phones?

It used to be so easy to award the Moto G with the title for the best budget smartphone, but I’m wary to do so this year. The Moto G4 and G4 Plus are two average smartphones with solid hardware and slim bodies, but there are too many little annoyances in the software.

If you’re looking for a budget device that you can use unlocked on all four major carriers in the U.S. and overseas, the Moto G4 is a solid choice. It works fine, and even though its camera is mediocre, it’s substantial enough for a $200 device.

The G4 Plus is a different story. I’ve requested another review unit in an attempt to get down to the bottom of whether the interface glitching and unresponsiveness spans across all models. But until then, I’d warn that you’re gambling if you’re considering bringing home this $250 device—which shoots up to $300+ if you get it with 4GB of RAM.

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