Steadily advancing on flagship territory, but it’s not clear why


It’s been a few years since the Motorola that we knew and loved was replaced by what I like to call Lenovorola. Gone are the quick updates, Moto Maker, and a lot of other things that made Motorola great; instead, we now have a ton of different models, super slow (or potentially nonexistent) updates, and strange-looking camera bumps.

But after using the Moto G5S Plus, I’ve warmed up a bit to Lenovo’s Motorola. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely usable as a daily driver, even for someone who typically uses flagship phones. The gap between the mid-range and the high-end is rapidly shrinking, and Motorola is jumping on that wave with the G5S Plus. Unfortunately, the combination of an inferior camera and a significant price hike make this phone a bit hard to recommend without its current discount.

Design and display

Six months ago, the Moto G5 Plus added a metal body, but it… well, it was ugly. There were no real contrasting elements on the back, making it look like some sort of mutant one-eyed fish. The S (which is supposed to stand for “special edition,” by the way) adopts the generic metal-bodied design that devices like the older HTC One series and OnePlus’s products use, and though it isn’t anything special in that respect, it looks good. There are chamfers around both the front and rear, adding to the premium feel.

Looking around the phone, the G5 Plus owners among you may notice that the layout for buttons and slots is actually different. The headphone jack has been relocated to the top, and the microSD/nanoSIM slot to the left. Plus, there’s now a dedicated speaker on the bottom, instead of the earpiece combo unit used on the standard G5. On the right side, we still have a textured power button sitting below a volume rocker. And on the bottom, we sadly still have a microUSB port. It works, of course, but in a world where almost every other phone is getting Type-C, this is an issue.

 

Up front is a 5.5-inch 1080p LCD display, which is the same size as the one on the G4 Plus before (Motorola went with a 5.2-incher on the G5 Plus this year). This one is topped by 2.5D glass, adding a premium feel. I only have good things to say about it; colors look good but aren’t oversaturated, viewing angles are excellent, and it gets very bright, making outdoor use a pleasure. It’s no Samsung AMOLED display, but at least you won’t have to deal with burn-in issues like I do on my Galaxy S8+.

Oh, and we can’t forget about the fingerprint sensor that sits right below the display. It’s as good as a fingerprint sensor can get: easy to set up and quick to read. Plus, you can enable something called “One button nav” in the Moto app, which I’ll get deeper into in a bit.

Camera(s)

Take one look at the back and you’ll notice something interesting, especially for a mid-ranger: dual cameras. This is traditionally a flagship thing, but the tech is trickling down the market. Both sensors come in at 13 megapixels, and the dual sensors are used to create depth-of-field shots. On paper, this may sound like a big upgrade, but I’d much rather have one really good sensor than two subpar ones. Allow me to explain.

It all starts with the double-twist to launch, which is convenient as always, but the G5S Plus’s camera is a bit slow to launch. When your viewfinder comes to life, you’re greeted with a simple interface. Shots come out decently in regular light, but that’s true of any phone camera these days. The big differentiators are the smaller things.

In regular use, I’ve found that the camera is prone to glare, especially if your lens is dirty (which it tends to get easily, thanks to the hump). It also frequently overexposes shots; this isn’t a huge deal if you manually adjust the focus/exposure, which I usually do anyway. However, focusing takes a while, as there’s no laser autofocus or dual pixel autofocus system like the G5 Plus had on board. At least the shutter is near-instant – that is, as long as you’re not in low-light mode.

 

left: G5S Plus. right: Pixel.

And when you are, Motorola’s low-light mode is virtually useless, as it not only requires a significantly longer time to take and process pictures, but also produces images that generally don’t look any different. I took a shot in low-light mode that took forever to process, but taking the same shot in regular mode was near-instant, with little to distinguish the results. Either way, low-light images still come out darker and noisier than the camera on something like the Pixel – unfortunate, but expected for the price range.

left, middle: Depth-enabled. right: Normal.

Oh, and that second camera? It can produce a bokeh effect, but it’s really nothing that you couldn’t do in Google Camera’s Lens Blur mode. Even when maxed out, you still can barely tell that the image was taken with two sensors. Plus, it takes a while to shoot, so you’d better have steady hands. Yes, the dual cameras are a good marketing bullet for Motorola, but I’d much rather the company have taken the time and effort to improve the main camera’s quality overall instead.

Performance and battery

Like the G5 Plus, the G5S Plus has a Snapdragon 625, as well as 32GB and 64GB storage variants. But this time around, the 32GB model comes equipped with 3GB of RAM (1GB more than the G5 Plus’s 32GB model); the 64GB stays with the more-than-adequate 4GB. My review unit is the 4GB/64GB version and has been very smooth overall, and I don’t imagine the 3GB/32GB model being noticeably slower.

  

The Snapdragon 625 is perfectly suited for duty in this phone. Apps open quickly with smooth animations, and I really haven’t noticed slowdown anywhere other than the camera. The 4GB of RAM in my unit does a great job of keeping a bunch of apps in memory, but I’m sure that the 3GB model would be sufficient in this regard as well. I’d say the only thing to watch out for is gaming performance; the Adreno 506 GPU just isn’t very powerful, and it’s noticeable in 3D benchmarks. For comparison’s sake, the Pixel scores a 2331 in 3DBench; that’s much, much higher than the G5S Plus’s 464. Casual games should obviously be fine, but it’s the heavier 3D titles you should watch out for.

Thanks in part to that Snapdragon 625, the G5S Plus and its 3000mAh battery have no problem getting through a day on a full charge. Of course, that’s also attributed to the 1080p display and light skin. My use consists of social media, texting, web browsing, and some light gaming on mostly LTE and some WiFi, with occasional Bluetooth use. I was able to get between six and seven hours of screen-on time every day, which is squarely above average. This isn’t an endurance champion, but it’ll power you through a full day, and then some.

Charging is still done through a microUSB port, unfortunately. I get that it’s so that people with microUSB cables aren’t left in the dust, but come on; adapters are cheap, good USB-C cables are readily available, USB-C is already the mainstream, and it’s just infuriating whenever you plug the microUSB cable in upside-down. Even much cheaper phones have USB Type-C these days. Motorola really needs to get with the times.

Software

I have very few complaints about the software on the G5S Plus. After all, it’s pretty much just stock Android with Motorola’s helpful additions sprinkled on top. It’s also almost exactly the same as the G5 Plus’s software, so if you know what that’s like, feel free to skip this section entirely. In fact, the only difference I can see is a new ring around the software home button. But long story short: I like it a lot.

The launcher that Motorola opted for is a skinned version of Launcher3 with elements of the Pixel Launcher, such as the removal of the app drawer button and the “Search Apps” function in the drawer. The Google feed is even supported. But unlike the Pixel Launcher, there’s no permanent Google pill or weather/date display. Motorola does include its signature circular widget that combines battery level, weather, time, and date into one compact, aesthetically-appealing package, so I’ve been using that. I also appreciate being able to turn the screen off just by holding down on the fingerprint sensor, as the power button sometimes isn’t readily accessible.

Motorola’s helpful additions are virtually all found in one central place: the Moto app. Here, they’re grouped into two sections – Moto Actions and Moto Display. For Moto Actions, “Chop Twice for Flashlight” and “Twist for Quick Capture” are both familiar to Motorola devices, and they work as well as ever. I had an issue with the flashlight not turning on at all during my test period once, but a reboot fixed it. “Pick up to stop ringing” and “Flip for Do Not Disturb” are also pretty self-explanatory. “Swipe to shrink screen” lets you swipe from around the middle of the display to the bottom left or right corners to minimize it, but I feel like that gesture just doesn’t make sense, as many people scroll down in that fashion.

What I found really interesting was the “One button nav” feature, which takes your three default Android navigation keys away and transforms them into gestures on the fingerprint sensor. This isn’t new, but it’s surprisingly good. To go home, you simply tap on the sensor. To go back, you swipe left on it, and to go to your recent apps, you swipe right. It’s very straightforward, and very clever. Plus, if you keep holding on the sensor even after you get the vibration that indicates you can let go to put the phone to sleep, you activate Google Assistant. I’d say that the only downside is not being able to hold the recent apps button down to start multi-window, though that’s not a huge deal. This system will take you maybe a day to acclimate to, and then you’ll wonder how you’ve been living with all the lost real estate that software keys take up for all these years. It’s that intuitive.

Moving on to the Moto Display section, there are only two options: Night Display and Moto Display. Night Display is Motorola’s version of Night Light, and it really needs no introduction or explanation. Choose a specific start time and an end time, or have it activate based on sunrise and sunset. Moto Display is engaged when you move the phone, and a widget similar to the one on the homescreen comes alive with your battery level, the time, and the date. It’s handy, but I miss the dedicated sensors on other Motorola phones that allowed you to just wave your hand over the screen to trigger it.

I only have one legitimate complaint, and that has to do with multi-window. It seems like Google and Samsung are the only OEMs that allow for window resizing, and that needs to change. For instance, if I’m watching a YouTube video on top and scrolling through Facebook on the bottom, I’m forced to have YouTube take up half the screen despite the video being in 16:9. And while it might not seem like closing that gap would add any additional usable space, it makes reading whatever’s on the bottom a whole lot easier.

I suppose I’m also concerned about how long it’ll take for this device to get Oreo given how slow updates have been since Lenovo took over, but that’s another story.

Conclusion

The Moto G5S Plus is much more of an evolution than a revolution, but that’s what we expected given the “S” branding. It brings a nicer metal design, an excellent display, smooth performance, a long-lasting battery, and close-to-stock software. The only real downside is the camera; the bokeh effect is a novelty, and it could use some work in the speed and low-light departments. In fact, I’d go as far as to call it a downgrade from the G5 Plus’s due to the loss of dual pixel autofocus, which is very unfortunate.

Like with the G5 series, we’re not getting the standard G5S stateside. The 5.5″ display might be a little big for some, but I personally think the size is just right. My review unit is the $349.99 4GB/64GB model, but if it were my money and I had to have a G5S Plus, I’d go for the cheaper $279.99 3GB/32GB model. 3GB is enough RAM for a device of this nature, and the 32GB can be expanded upon with a microSD card (I have a 128GB card in mine).

This is still $50 more than the G5 Plus’s pricing for both 32GB and 64GB models, which is a steep climb for a nicer exterior, a larger display, an extra gigabyte of RAM on the base model, and an arguably inferior camera. But as a launch promo, both storage tiers are $50 off, effectively making them the same prices as the slightly older model. That might sound like a good deal on paper, but the fact that Lenovo feels the need to discount a brand-new phone right out the gate this significantly really says something about its confidence in the MSRP. Perhaps it realizes that the $349.99 model is stepping on the toes of the $400 Moto Z2 Play.

If you need to purchase a phone now and can get that launch discount, I’d recommend the 3GB/32GB model at $229.99, but otherwise, I’m not so sure. The G5 Plus, which is still only half a year old, can be had for as low as $179.99 when sales are being run. Plus, there’s still no NFC to be found, which is outrageous on this device in particular. I really don’t understand why something that costs a few bucks can’t be included on a device that is steadily moving upmarket, as evidenced by its $50 price hike.

I’m used to having flagship devices as my daily drivers, and despite its faults, I must say that the Moto G5S Plus gives the feel of a much more expensive phone. Of course, that can be attributed to the upmarket rise of the Moto G line. I used a Moto G4 Plus for a few weeks about a year ago and found it very impressive, but the G5S Plus takes it to a whole other level. If this thing had a better camera and better graphics performance, it might be staying in my pocket for another few weeks.

You can grab a Moto G5S Plus of your own from Best Buy, B&H, Newegg, or Motorola’s site.



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