Moto G4 and G4 Plus review: Paying a premium for a flagship is getting harder to justify

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At what point does buying an expensive flagship no longer make sense? Motorola may challenge your thinking with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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Motorola's latest Moto G (4th generation) follows the industry trend of releasing two different versions of one phone: standard and plus. Only in this case the "Plus" has nothing to do with size; instead it's a slightly more expensive model with a superior camera, better memory options and a fingerprint sensor. If the Moto G4 is a standout mid-ranged phone, the Moto G4 Plus starts to blur the lines between mid-range and high-end. Read on for our review.

We love how the Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus feel in hand. We sing the praises of all-metal, all-premium unibody phones as much as anyone (for good reason ... they look phenomenal), but these two plastic phones are a pleasure to hold. It helps that they don't feel at all like cheap plastic: The back is an almost leathery-feeling material with fine cross-hatched detailing, while the side is a faux-metal plastic that, in hand, can almost pass for aluminum.

Motorola had to take shortcuts somewhere to keep these prices down, and going with a plastic build – albeit one that's attractive, light and feels more comfortable in our hands than most premium phones – is probably the smartest place to start.

Displays, which are identical on both handsets, look terrific. They give you 5.5 inches of real estate (the same size as the iPhone 6s Plus' screen) and their 1080p resolution looks very sharp. They aren't as ultra-sharp as QHD phones, but for this price range it's outstanding. Overall display brightness, color richness and contrast are also terrific.

The one area where the displays falter slightly is color gamut, as the range of colors you see is a bit narrower here than what you'll see on the best flagship displays. It doesn't by any means detract from the overall experience and you probably won't even notice it unless you put it side-by-side with something like an iPhone 6s, Galaxy S7 or HTC 10. Like build quality, this is a perfectly acceptable compromise for this price range. It cuts a minor cost corner in a way that only geeks who review smartphones are likely to pay much attention to.

Of course you don't get a cutting-edge processor with the Moto G4 or G4 Plus: They both use Qualcomm's mid-ranged Snapdragon 617 chip. The octa-core CPU won't benchmark anywhere near its high-end 820 sibling (or, for that matter, the iPhone's A9 silicon) but it still provides a fast and smooth all-around experience.

It's been a while since every new smartphone that came out blew away the performance of its predecessor (we're referring to regular daily smartphone use, not benchmarks). In fact, we rarely talk much about performance in our smartphone reviews anymore, just because it's a given that they're all going to blaze through the simple tasks that most of us use our phones for. The cutting-edge processors that we have in our US$650-750 and up flagships, while expected for the amount you pay, are overkill for most people and the things they do with their phones.

With the high-end being redundantly fast, that opens the door to mid-ranged phones like these two that handle surprisingly smoothly for their price range.

If you're willing to let the price creep up to $300, then the higher-end (64 GB storage) version of the Moto G4 Plus is the only model of these two phones that jumps up to 4 GB of RAM. We didn't notice any difference in regular use (including multitasking) between it and the 2 GB models of either device, but it's possible you'll eventually run into areas where the lesser RAM shows itself.

We have no complaints about storage. While both phones' base models give you a mere 16 GB internal storage, you can jump up to a 32 GB Moto G4 for just $30 extra and you can get a 64 GB Moto G Plus for an extra $50.

You might be able to get away with the 16 GB models, though, because both phones have microSD slots (adding up to 128 GB). They also support Android's Adoptable Storage, which formats the card so the phone sees it as extra internal memory rather than separate external memory. Not all apps support this (Spotify is a notable exception), but it's still a great option.

Battery life is terrific. In my daily use, both phones have had awesome standby times and better-than-average in-use times. And our benchmark lined up with that: Streaming video over Wi-Fi at an absolute brightness (measured by a lux meter), it dropped just 8 percent per hour. That ties our previous best score from the LG G5, and beats the Galaxy S7 (9 percent per hour), HTC 10 (11 percent per hour) and the latest iPhones (13 percent per hour).

They also both have quick-charging tech built-in, something you won't always get in this price range.

Both phones run Motorola's (more or less) stock version of Android Marshmallow, with no custom skins, bloatware or gimmicks. The only major changes from Google's Android are handy gestures like twisting the phone twice to open the camera, or chopping it twice to fire up the flashlight. Otherwise the software looks and handles just like a Nexus device.

Motorola also has a history of pushing major updates fairly quickly once new versions of Android land (usually within a couple months after release). If past is prelude, then the Moto G4's Android Nougat update shouldn't follow too far behind the OS's initial launch.

One disappointing omission is NFC. Two or three years ago, this would have been a fine trade-off, but with mobile payments finally catching on in the window since then (retailers that support it are quickly becoming the norm) and with the low supplier cost of NFC chips, we think this was one of the few mistakes Motorola/Lenovo made with these phones. Without NFC, Android Pay isn't an option – and never will be.

So we have these two phones, with incredibly high value for their price points. But what are the differences between the two?

First, the Moto G4 Plus has a fingerprint sensor. Sitting below its screen, you'd expect it to double as a home button, but that's not the case. It will, however, wake up the phone from a sleeping state after you hold your finger on it.

There are also the memory differences we already mentioned: The Moto G4 ships in 16 GB and 32 GB storage variants, while the G4 Plus offers 16 GB or 64 GB. And that 64 GB Plus is also the only phone in this group with 4 GB RAM; the others have 2 GB.

That leaves the rear camera as the last big difference between the two phones (front cameras are identical).

Here are some samples of both phones' rear cameras, in a variety of settings, using the standard camera app settings (including both originals and close crops to show finer detail).

Outdoors, brightly lit:

Outdoors closeup, shade:

Indoors, brightly lit:

Indoors, medium light:

Indoors, poor light with flash:

The Moto G4 Plus' shots have much finer detail and better performance in shadows and indoor settings. Especially when you zoom in, the standard G4's photos often look a little muddy compared to the Plus'. With that said, both cameras are excellent for this price range.

Unfortunately neither phone has Optical Image Stabilization, so no matter which way you go, you'll need to pay more attention to keeping your hands steady than you would on phones with OIS.

The standard Moto G4 is an outstanding mid-ranged phone, with a camera that's very good for its $200-230 price point. But jump up just a smidge higher, to the $250-300 price point, and you get the Plus' superior photo quality, which could, in many settings, pass for high-end.

If camera quality is important to you (it probably is) and you can afford to pay a little more than the base price, then we think the entry-level ($250) Moto G4 Plus is the best all-around recommendation from these phones. You get the better camera along with fingerprint sensor, and there's little reason to worry about the mere 16 GB internal storage since you can just pop in a microSD card. We only recommend going with the more expensive version of the Moto G4 Plus ($300/64 GB) if you really want that extra RAM and internal storage. If your priority is keeping the cost down, we think you can live without it.

If it weren't for the weaker camera, the standard Moto G4 would be an absolute steal, starting at $200. As it stands, it's still a great bargain – just not quite as easy to recommend when a mere $50 more will give you a phone that takes much better shots.

If we're going to keep playing the for just this much more you can get ... game, then you should also know that you can get a phone that not just feels high-end, but is high-end, for only $399 in the OnePlus 3. It too runs a mostly stock version of Android (though its update schedule isn't likely to be as good as Motorola's), while adding a cutting-edge processor, 6 GB of RAM, nearly as good battery life and (mostly) high-end specs everywhere else. If you're already considering the 64 GB version of the Moto G4 Plus, then the OnePlus is going to be tempting for just an extra Benjamin.

No matter which way you go, though, the Moto G4 series serves as an eye opener for those who think having a great phone always means buying the latest premium flagship. High-end phones with cutting-edge specs will always get the most attention – especially from us nerdy tech reporter types – but this is a great time to stop and ask yourself how much of those premium specs and features you really need. The Galaxy S7 adds water resistance, wireless charging and an always-on screen; the HTC 10 adds Hi-Fi audio support; the iPhones have 3D Touch and the seduction of Apple's walled garden ...

But how much of that do you really use enough on a regular basis to be worth it? Make no mistake: We love the high-end flagships and will be drooling over some exciting new phones between now and the holidays. We just think most people would get everything they need out a smartphone – and enjoy using it just as much – with one of the Moto G4 phones.

Maybe the best recommendation we can give is that I haven't used anything but a high-end flagship as my daily driver for years, but I'm going to stick with the G4 Plus for a while: It's a terrific phone that gives me everything I need, with an unbeatable price.

The Motorola Moto G and Moto G Plus (4th generation) are available now, starting at $200 for the standard version and $250 for the Plus.

Product pages: Moto G4, Moto G4 Plus

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