moto e, round 2

So despite my antipathy towards Verizon for a.) instituting an utterly made-up, just another reason to extract money from your pocket “activation” fee and b.) not turning on the FM chip in virtually any of its Android phones and c.) not letting you just buy a pre-paid phone and add it to your regular post-paid account (what you have when you get a bill each month), despite all that, I got another Moto E.

It is a shockingly good phone for a low end device. No, scratch that; for an ordinary person – and when it comes to cell phone use, I am one – it’s a good phone, period.

The thing was on sale through walmart.com for $27, tax included. Not as good as the $9.99 deals Best Buy has offered in the past, but given that the phone has a fictitious full price of $199 and Verizon sells it every day for $79, not bad.

However, in order to use it on your regular account, you have to buy a month of pre-paid service. I bought the absolute lowest end plan for $30, activated the phone, waited a few hours and swapped the SIM card from my hand-me-down Galaxy Note II. Worked like a charm.

So what does $57 get you? In my case, it got a phone running Android 5.x, which is mildly useful for my work, since I need to look at my company’s app and mobile web site, and this gives me a proper, modern verson of Android for the job. Motorola puts no junk on the phone, though I’m not using its Moto Assist functions – which are said to be genuinely useful. For that matter, I’m also not using Google’s “Ok Google” spoken word interface. Tried it this afternoon and even on this modest phone, it runs well. But I’m old and stubborn so I disabled it and then waded into the thicket of Google permissions to shut down whatever Google does to make voice recognition work. I have no idea if I got it all.

The interface is almost stock Android, but I can’t stand having the search bar at the top of the page, so I installed Nova Launcher, got rid of the bar, got rid of animations, tried to make the phone as plain as possible. I also downloaded some solid color backgrounds and went from a colorful picture of a bright yellow record on a turntable with a black tone arm to…gray.

(Aside: whether it’s Apple or Google or Amazon, why don’t companies ever include simple, solid color backgrounds? Zebras, butterflies in extreme close-up and piano keys in late afternoon sun I can live without; a nice deep blue or gray, I can’t.)

The phone itself is a little small. I would be happier if the display was maybe three-tenths of an inch or so bigger; mind you, I’m not a fan of the phablet-sized displays that dominate the market now. Even though I have bigger hands than 99 percent of the human race, I don’t want to haul around what amounts to a small tablet. A lot of people are now skipping tablets entirely and relying solely on their phones. I get it, but I’m not interested, at least not so far. But the E is small like iPhones (before the 6) were small, minus the resolution.

In fairness, when I put it up next to an iPhone 5s, I can see the Moto E is bigger, but…it still feels small. Not crowded, not cramped – which is how iPhones make me feel, pre-6 – but small. I feel it most reading a book; my Note II is a pleasure to read on. This feels like I’m reading each page a few paragraphs at a time. But I’m getting used to it, as I do, and my guess is in another week or so, I won’t notice.

I do notice other things, all good: call quality is loud and clear, something you can’t say about many cell phones. The Moto is as responsive, in most ways, as the Note II. Doing a virus scan is slower, but that may be because I switched my scanner of choice to Malware Bytes. Android 5.x, in the context of a phone (I’ve only ever used it on tablets) is really good. I think material design – or whatever it’s called – is a huge improvement over everything that came before it on Android, looks-wise. And even though it’s smaller, using the keyboard is as easy as it was on the Note II. The battery isn’t removable – which I hate – but the one in the phone gives somewhere between 14 and 20 hours of up time, it appears. I haven’t stressed it yet, but I wouldn’t expect battery life to get much worse in normal use.

And of course, it has FM. Far as I can tell, it’s the one and only Verizon Android phone that does, and I have no idea how it slipped past Verizon’s net. I can compare it to four Windows phones I’ve owned that had FM, and early on this is significantly better. NCPR comes through stronger, with less background noise, than any of my Winphones. I haven’t checked WRVO or WCNY, my other two regular haunts, but I suspect I’ll get the same result with them. And it is such a pleasure to have FM; the weather has finally turned in my little town and I started walking this week. I had The World and Snap Judgment for company on two of my evening walks, Morning Edition early in the day. Yes, I could use TuneIn or NPR One or something, but FM is free – which is weirdly valuable this month since we accidentally went over our data cap. Anyway, it’s silly – this is the cheapest phone I’ve ever owned, but for my purposes, it may also be the best.

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