Thursday, December 10, 2015

My $100 Motorola moto E Android phone - the startup experience

I needed an Android phone for a book project. I don’t have any other use for an Android phone, and my 2012 Nexus 7 experience was unimpressive, so when the Lenovo moto E price dropped to $100 unlocked I bought one from Amazon. This device would be a typical device for many in the community I’m writing for. It runs a now obsolete version of Android and is unlikely to be updated; it comes with known security vulnerabilities.

I’ve ordered an H2O (a rock bottom service) SIM Card and a $10 32 GB microSD card from Amazon. I didn’t pay too much attention to what I was ordering, I ended up with an 8GB LTE device. There’s a US GSM non-LTE device for $15 less that might work as well for my purposes.

(I dug through my bins looking for an unused SD card, I thought I’d found a 16GB card. On closer inspection it was 16MB. We live in interesting times.)

I’ll write some more about my experience with this ultra-cheap device a bit later. These are first impressions on unpacking it.

  • It is a bit stunning to get the equivalent of a basic computer and communication device backed with Google’s full power for as little as $85 (I’m sure Hong Kong has cheaper ones.)
  • It has the build quality of cardboard. I put a kink in the base of the edge band while removing it. The SIM card slot is mildly misaligned. There’s a weird slot on one side that seems to have a piece of folded paper in it. I kid you not.
  • It comes in a pseudo-iPhone box with a clunky pseudo-iPhone charge.
  • The default startup setting gives China’s Lenovo full access to everything you do. You can change this. Theoretically.
  • I configured it, for better or worse (Lenovo), to use my primary Google account. It was the best choice for the book work but it does make me nervous. I don’t like using Google credentials on a relatively untrusted device. I tested Android Device Manager, it worked well.
  • It includes an FM radio (uses headphones as antenna). That’s just weird.
  • It has both Settings and Google settings
  • I had to use Google search to figure out how to update all the apps (via obscure menu in Google Play Store)
  • The included documentation pamphlet is well done
  • It doesn’t include any significant crapware.

The places where this phone is clearly better than my $700 iPhone 6:

  • Multiple user profile support - Apple’s inability to do this on the iPad is simply sad
  • I can add 32GB of storage for $10 (I’m sure there’s limited use of this storage, and it degrades reliability and adds complexity, but it is there)
  • The screen doesn’t have a pop problem.
  • TouchID aside, Google service authentication and integration, including Authenticator support, are much better than Apple’s hot mess.
  • Google Now is impressive and Google’s voice recognition is astounding. So much better than Siri. I primarily navigate and control this device by voice.
  • I love the ability to quickly view and limit cellular data use 
  • I won’t cry if it’s lost or broken.
A bit more on the cellular data use. Swipe down with two fingers to get first screenshot tap on H2O to get the second. I set those very low limits to match the ultra-cheap H2O wireless service I’m using for this book project device (see Update in this post for how I got data working).
Screenshot 2015 12 18 12 15 21

Screenshot 2015 12 18 12 15 28Update 12/18/2015

And this excerpt from an online manual I dug up explains why the phone experience is so inferior to the cheapest ($450!) iPhone:

Screen Shot 2015 12 18 at 11 04 16 AM

I went looking for the manual because I was having trouble inserting an SD card. The image in the manual is correct, but the text description is wrong. It says put the SIM card in “gold contacts up” and the MicroSD card “writing facing up”. They both go in with contacts “up” (camera side). It’s also quite easy to put the SIM card in upside down; it will fit but the eject feature won’t work.

The pamphlet that came with the phone is correct however.


Skater said...

If you get out a tweezers and pull out that bit of paper in the slot, it will have the phone ID number.

The FM radio is for people who want music but don't have unlimited data. It needs a better antenna than you can hide in a phone so the headphone wires work.

JGF said...

Wow. I'd never have guessed that about the paper. That is delightfully low tech.

"Weird" is the wrong word for the FM radio. On the one hand it is weird to have something so "retro" in an ultra high-tech device -- like the paper slip. On the other paw it is delightfully subversive. I should have added something about the subversive bit.

This $100 China-Google fusion is the most 21st century future-slice device I've seen. The Apple Watch is old school by comparison.

Andrew W said...

Hey John,

I worked on this phone. All Motorola phones have a barcode, generally behind the back plate. We still need a barcode for this phone, so hence the little pull-out slip. You'll find these pull-outs on many devices that don't have backs. Paper is pretty low-rent, though. It's a cheap phone! (For the price I generally think the build quality is pretty stunning.)

I suspect the manual error is due to it being a Sprint booklet. They probably got the original manual from us, but never updated it.

FM radio is a must-have for some of the major markets this phone targets. Many countries still have expensive data, so FM radios still serve the purpose they served here thirty years ago. Here FM radio seems most important for gym use, where the TV audio is broadcast over FM.

These phones are designed and developed in Chicago and Sunnyvale, and they should still be getting security updates. I personally haven't worried about adding my Google credentials (I've added them to hundreds of devices with various OS versions). I'm not aware of any credential leaks or security breaches from any major vendor that resulted in the bad guys getting access to Google accounts. Just stay away from non-Google app stores or installing apps from web pages.

JGF said...

Thanks Andrew, is delightful to have insider perspective. I've written elsewhere how amazing this product is.