Motorola MotoSmart £99
12th Oct 2012 | 13:43
Do nice things ever come in very small and very cheap packages?
Motorola's MotoSmart is the Google-owned company's most affordable (it hates it when we say "cheapest") phone yet, with the small 3.5-inch model arriving on Pay As You Go for around the £99 (around AU$155/US$159) price point, or £7 (AU$10.98/US$11.25) per month on contract.
For that pretty reasonable sum you get a single-core 800MHz processor running Android 2.3.6, which works well and has loads of users around the world, but is rapidly falling out of fashion as Android users demand newer versions of Google's mobile operating system.
Still, for the low price, you can't expect a phone at the very cutting edge of the smart scene. But is there enough in here to compete with the likes of Android's current budget superstar, the Huawei Ascend G300?
First impressions of the Motorola MotoSmart - also known as the Motorola XT389 - are really quite positive.
Yes, it's a very boring-looking, generic black rectangle, but it has a weight (115g/0.25lbs, to be exact) and solidity to it that makes it feel a little more prestigious than some of the other budget clunkers that litter the cheaper end of the Android phone world today.
And impressions are improved a little more around the back. The 3MP logo on the camera sensor is a sign of further disappointments to come, but the metallic grille and similarly metal-made slide-off back cover again give the Motorola MotoSmart a nice little design edge, reminding us of the Milestone, the Defy and to some degree the Motoluxe.
Beneath this sits the Motorola MotoSmart's modest 1,400mAh battery, alongside a welcome microSD card for your legacy media files. Our unlocked model came with a 2GB SD card already fitted, so that's enough space for a few tunes and videos to be getting on with.
Four capacitive touch buttons sit beneath the display, offering a reliable way of accessing your Menu, Home, Back and Search options. There's a little bit of extra chin beneath the buttons to raise them up the chassis a little, making the Motorola MotoSmart easy to use with one hand. All quite promising so far.
The top-right corner houses the phone's power button and volume up/down toggle, which are pretty solid and presented with a little metallic sheen that matches the slim silvery bezel around the face of the phone.
Nobody's going to mistake it for a high-end Samsung phone such as the Galaxy S3, but it's inoffensive and chunky enough to convince you it'll survive the odd bit of tough love and the occasional drop.
But the rubberised metal back cover and compact form factor make it fit the hand well, with the smaller 3.5-inch display meaning it's easy to use with one hand. Even the skinniest of nerd fingers can reach the bottom buttons and top notifications area with ease.
Then you turn the Motorola MotoSmart on and it starts to go downhill pretty rapidly.
The 3.5-inch display is fairly bright, but the low and outdated 320 x 480 resolution means you immediately see a rather last-generation collection of low-res icons.
The capacitive display is quite sensitive to the touch, so navigating the home screen is pain-free, but you can't help but squint a bit at the fuzzy fonts.
So, we liked the Motorola MotoSmart, then we didn't like it. Who knows how the rest of this tale will unfold?
Motorola's one of the biggest culprits when it comes to taking Google's clean Android base and making some bonkers software and interface changes.
And its love of making changes for the sake of it continues inside the Motorola MotoSmart's tweaked version of Android 2.3.6.
The lock screen is a pretty poor introduction to the phone.
It's useful in that you can quickly access the camera, messaging system, dialler or unlock the phone, but it's slow to respond and pretty glitchy to use.
There are no music player controls here either, although you can mute the phone's ringing and notifications sounds through a toggle - but that won't mute the music.
Once unlocked, one nice touch you don't see on many Android smartphones these days is the option to flip the phone and use the home screens in landscape orientation, with Motorola adding a sideways option for people who want to be a bit awkward.
It's something we often ask for, since it's nice to have the choice of orientation.
Its other key additions to Android are a pair of widgets Motorola calls its Activity Graph and Social Graph.
These chunky little collections of icons are automatically populated based on your most used apps and most contacted people, and are very useful to have.
Motorola has also included the option for you to boost the number of home screens, with up to nine separate screens available for your apps, widgets and shortcuts.
Installing widgets and shortcuts to your home screens is also handled a little differently than usual in Motorola world.
A long-press on the home screen brings up the option to install widgets, shortcuts and folders.
However, apps can also be long-pressed within the app drawer and placed on your home screens through an "add to home" option.
Pressing the Home button while on the home screen pulls up an overview mode of all home screens, where you're able to long-press on a screen to delete it entirely, or pick one to focus on.
Only you probably won't, since this zooming about gets the Motorola MotoSmart a little bogged down, to the point where it starts buffering your presses and getting in a terrible state.
There's also a profiles section, accessed by touching the Menu key while browsing your home screens, which enables you to choose between three separate collections of apps, so you can in effect have three entirely different Android home screen setups on the go at once on the Motorola MotoSmart.
That's a nice thing to have.
Motorola's also tweaked the standard Android Notifications pull-down pane, adding in one of Google's software additions that was introduced in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich - the ability to dismiss individual notifications, which, in Motorola's case, is done by pressing the little red icon to the right of the notification.
You also get a music player control section in here, along with a list of your recently used apps along the top, should you need another way to quickly access your favourite phone tools.
Contacts and calling
The Contacts section hasn't been fiddled with by Motorola, meaning you get the rather bland, grey, functional collection of people and phone numbers we've seen on Android phones for the last few years.
It works perfectly well, mind, giving you a tabbed screen with support for smart dialling, so you can start to type a name and it looks up the number for you.
It also shows your call log, the entire list of everyone in your address book, plus a convenient collection of Favourites, populated by people you've pressed the little star icon beside in the main list.
One useful Android feature here comes via Google's awesome data sharing options, which enables you to export contact data by Bluetooth, email or MMS, making it dead simple to share phone numbers with friends.
There's also a detailed filtering section, where you're able to choose exactly which people from which sources show up in your Contacts listing.
The most useful of these is the option to remove contacts that the Facebook app has sucked in from the social network, which can be hidden by the tick of a box within the Display Options menu.
The dialler is again more functional than glamorous, although the predictive text smart dialling option shaves several seconds off the tedious process of pulling someone's number out of your big list of numbers.
Once connected, we found the Motorola MotoSmart offered good call quality, with a loud enough earpiece volume that was quite natural sounding and wasn't overly digitised or harsh on the ears.
The messaging system on the Motorola MotoSmart is again rather familiar to anyone who's ever touched an Android device.
It offers simple text messaging, with the contact's details, and a photo if you've added one, of the person you're contacting along the top of the display, above your message.
SMS messages are nicely displayed in a colourful threaded manner.
Plus you're able to long-press a message to lock it and protect it from accidental deletion if it's important, or you can delete entire threads of chats via the SMS app's main list, if you prefer to leave no trace of them.
Sending messages to multiple recipients is straightforward.
Opening up a new text window and touching the Contacts icon enables you to select as many people as you like from your list of saved numbers, plus there's even a Select All option for spamming everyone.
There's no attachment option within messages though, so the only way to text a photo is to look at it in the gallery and share it that way.
If you do try to share a message via SMS, the Motorola MotoSmart will automatically resize it for you, so it'll send.
Try to shift a video through MMS and it'll come up with an error message about it being too big rather than attempting a resize or asking you to crop it.
The text entry system is a simple QWERTY keyboard, with a useful selection of numbers along the top, accessed through a longer press.
Android comes with a voice recognition option too, which does an occasionally useful job of translating your speaking into written words.
But often this comes back with a not-quite-right selection of text that requires editing to stop you looking like an incomprehensible moron. So it's best not used.
Advanced text editing tools that you'll find when typing are nice.
As well as predicting your word, previously typed words can be easily edited by plonking the cursor inside them, with Android then popping up a list of alternatives to select and automatically replace.
Email is again handled by the standard Android app, which supports multiple accounts, manages to automatically set up email access through most common providers, and enables you to set options for checking frequency, data download limits and more.
Again, it's not particularly visually appealing, but it gets the job done and is versatile enough that it won't nuke your battery through constant checks.
The Motorola MotoSmart's single-core 800MHz processor is bumping along the bottom end of what you'd expect to find in an Android smartphone these days, although it doesn't completely embarrass itself when it comes to internet use.
The browser is the rather ageing option we've been seeing in Android models for some years now. This means drab grey menus and simple list-based presentation of your History, open tabs and Bookmarks.
Plus there's none of the fancy desktop bookmark sync found in the more advanced browser found in today's Android 4.0 powered models.
But it gets the job done. Pages load and draw quite well, text reflows with a double-tap on a dense area of words, while multi-touch pinch-zooming enables you to manually resize pages in a slow, but bearable manner.
What's missing here is support for Adobe's Flash Player, plus the BBC's new standalone Media Player won't work on the Motorola MotoSmart either, so it's rather left out in the cold when it comes to BBC video support and other Flash applications, of which there are still many.
Text isn't great on the low-res display, either. It's readable, but the 3.5-inch screen and 320 x 480 output combine to make words appear less than sharp.
It will do, but if you're seriously into mobile web use, the Motorola MotoSmart won't be the phone for you.
In terms of general web options, though, Google's got most things covered.
URLs can be shared to Facebook via email and SMS or via Twitter and Bluetooth using the Android sharing menu.
Plus a long-press on the page pops up the text copying tool, complete with start and end tabs for easily nicking someone else's well thought out opinions, and copying them to the clipboard, or directly sharing the highlighted words.
The Motorola MotoSmart comes with a 3 megapixel camera around the back, making it one of the lower-spec Android phone snappers out there today. And there's no flash or front-facing camera for video chats, either. It's not a great phone for those who are into photographing things.
The camera app has been tweaked a little by Motorola, although it's still very, very basic. You get a face detection option, white balance and EV sliders, with the choice of two scene modes - Night and Auto - and a toggle to switch geo-tagging on and off.
Other options are seriously light. There's a collection of your standard and rather pointless filter options, plus Super Fine, Fine and Normal photo quality options (not that the Motorola MotoSmart needs encouraging to make photos look any worse).
Images come off the camera at 2048 x 1536 resolution if you wisely choose to leave it at maximum resolution, although the images are quite poor. Organic parts of the shot are reduced to unidentifiable mush, with a serious lack of colour on show.
The Motorola MotoSmart's sensor is a fixed-focus thing, so there's no option to fiddle with the focus or wait for it to give you a clearer shot. You point, shoot, look at the end results and feel a bit sad.
Indoor shots are OK if the sun's out and your curtains are open...
...but when it's a little darker you'll notice a big increase in picture noise.
Close-up shots of plain things where nothing's moving produce the best results, so if you like photographing notice boards and posters, you're in luck.
The Motorola MotoSmart's camcorder app, like the stills camera, is rather light on options.
You have the same white balance, EV and scene modes for videos that you had when taking still photos, accompanied by the usual sepia/negative/mono image filters if you go mad and decide to ruin your clips.
Those, and a 50/60Hz flicker reduction tool and audio mute, are your only video options.
On the video side of things, maximum file resolution is 720 x 480, with video lacking colour and vibrancy like the still images, but emerging at a smooth frame rate (a solid 30fps) and with a good level of detail.
The Motorola MotoSmart produces better video than some budget Android phones, but it's still not really anything to be particularly proud of.
The music player provided with the Motorola MotoSmart is the very aged default Android option.
You can create and edit music playlists on the Motorola MotoSmart simply enough, with the phone automatically building a customised Recently Added tab for quick access to the newest tracks you've chucked on there.
What has been added here is a good selection of sound property editors, with stacks of ways to alter the output.
And despite its small size, the Motorola MotoSmart's built-in speaker is surprisingly loud, generating more bass and general volume than a lot of the more expensive smartphones manage to churn out.
There's also the standard Android home screen music controller widget, which enables you to play, pause and skip tracks directly from the home screen.
Not hugely exciting to look at, and there are no lock screen music player controls, and no music buying tools pre-installed.
But in terms of music playback quality, we have no complaints.
As well as the standard Android music player, Motorola's added an app called Music+.
It's a basically the Android TuneWiki music player, which attempts to augment the music-listening-to process by adding in live streaming lyrics, some social networking features plus Shoutcast internet radio integration.
Motorola's put in an FM radio as well, for stealing music out of the air.
The video player is one area where Motorola has made some nice changes to Google's Android base in the MotoSmart.
It comes with a smart interface that includes a timeline, complete with mini preview images, a screengrab tool that takes stills from whatever's playing and saves them to an SD card, plus a little favourites button that enables you to add shortcuts to favourite scenes.
We had no luck playing MKV files, but the Motorola MotoSmart happily played back a 624 x 352 resolution AVI. A moderately high-res MP4 encoded at 720 x 404 worked, but dropped a few frames here and there.
It'll do for most media, as long as you're not obsessed with HD material and smooth frame rates.
Battery life and connectivity
The Motorola MotoSmart contains a pretty modest 1,400mAh battery, which copes well enough with its smaller screen size. Motorola claims a 3G continuous talktime of up to approximately six hours.
We were able to get a full day of use out of it, although part of the reason for that is down to it being so clunky to use that we didn't fiddle with it as much as we tend to do with the more glamorous Android phones.
But still, in real use terms, if you're careful with the Motorola MotoSmart, it should get you through a full working day without fuss.
So that's at least one feather in its cap when compared to some of the monster Android handsets that cost five times as much money.
In terms of connectivity, the Motorola MotoSmart supports Bluetooth, plus the usual Wi-Fi options.
It also supports Android's built-in ability to function as a wireless hotspot, enabling you to tether a laptop or any other Wi-Fi device and use the Motorola MotoSmart as a little wireless modem.
The biggest weak point in the Motorola MotoSmart is the phone's shameful lack of onboard memory.
The phone comes with 150MB of usable memory for app installation, which means it will be packed to bursting pretty quickly.
With many of today's big-name Android apps coming in at around the 30MB mark, you'll soon run out of space for apps and will be cursing the "insufficient memory" warning that pops up every time something tries to update itself.
Yes, many apps enable you to move them to an SD card to save space, but sadly quite a few of the more feature-packed ones won't, due to restrictions with the way Android works.
This means the Motorola MotoSmart is rendered pretty useless for anyone who wants more than a handful of decent apps on it. 150MB simply isn't enough, and completely hobbles the phone.
Maps and apps
As with all phones running Google's Android OS, the suite of Google apps is a key part of the Motorola MotoSmart.
You get the YouTube app, Gmail, Calendar, Talk and the Play Store link for purchasing apps, plus the incredibly comprehensive collection of mapping and location apps.
Google Maps works well on the Motorola MotoSmart, doing a decent enough job of scrolling and zooming around locations.
You also get the integrated Navigation app, which takes your current map location and enables you to set a destination, before calculating a route for you and presenting it just like a fully-featured sat nav would.
The Motorola MotoSmart took around 30 seconds or so to get its initial GPS satellite lock, but from that point on it worked perfectly well as a serious little navigation tool.
As well as offering turn-by-turn voice directions (if you download the audio pack from the Google Play store), the Navigation app also hooks up with Google's Street View tool, so you can scan ahead to the next junction and have a little look at the turning before arriving. It's an amazingly useful tool.
Motorola's also put a file explorer on here, so you can find any stuff you've dumped on the SD card easily enough.
Plus there's a task manager app, to show you what's currently running and how much memory the apps are eating up.
There's also a battery manager app, although it's really just a shortcut to Android's existing power use tools.
The advanced power management tools we've seen on other Motorola handsets, such as the Razr, are missing, although there is a small selection of battery mode power profiles, where you can select from three power use presets or create your own custom options.
Hands on gallery
We don't totally hate the poor little phone. The Motorola MotoSmart is solidly made and can perform most smartphone tasks well enough.
But the combination of a low-res display, shockingly limited onboard app storage space, awful stills camera and a rather visually bland and outdated version of Android means the phone simply has no real reasons to recommend it over similarly priced Android competitors.
The Motorola MotoSmart feels surprisingly heavy and solid for its small size and budget price, with a really nice metallic sliding rear cover giving it a touch of class.
Some of Motorola's new widgets are pretty sweet. The Activity and Social Graph widgets are clever additions to Android, which generate their own list of apps and contacts depending on what phone features you use and who you call the most often.
The onboard speaker is loud and generates some decent bass, while the pre-loaded TuneWiki music player and its Shoutcast internet radio integration means you'll never be short of something to listen to.
The version of Android 2.3.6 Motorola's used here is pretty grim and grey when compared to what you find in many other Android phones today. The music player's ancient, and the menus are the bland old grey tiles Android used back in 2009. It's not pretty.
The camera is awful. Being rated at 3 megapixels meant our expectations weren't high, but the images that emerge are really terrible. Vague, blotchy, angular lumps replace grass and trees, plus it's so poor at reproducing colour you might think you've got some sort of retro black and white filter activated. But no. It's just rubbish.
The onboard memory limitation ruins the Motorola MotoSmart. With only around 150MB free for apps, you'll run out of space within minutes of firing it up and hitting Google Play. With some of today's essential apps hovering around the 30MB mark, only providing 150MB to play with is an amazingly dumb move.
The Motorola MotoSmart is physically a solid little phone, but it's let down internally by shockingly limited onboard memory, a poor screen and rather duff camera.
We understand there's a big market for cheap smartphones, but Motorola has cut so many corners with the Motorola MotoSmart it may as well come in an octagonal case.
The Motorola MotoSmart's £99 (around AU$155/US$159) Pay As You Go asking price could instead get you the awesome Huawei Ascend G300, which is vastly better across the board, as is the Sony Xperia Tipo, which offers a better spec and arrives with Android 4.0 as its operating system for the same money.
In the end, we can't help but think that the hobbled and disappointing Motorola MotoSmart only serves to dent the ambitions of Motorola and Google, because surely anyone who uses this will form the conclusion that Android's a load of rubbish and Motorola's a bit of a joke, and will therefore head off straight to the nearest Apple Store.