Motorola One Action Hands-On Review: This Budget Phone’s All About Video

A camera phone made for action

While many phone makers are working to bring flagship-quality photography to lower-priced handsets, few have extended the same focus to video. And that’s quite odd when you think about it, because these days, we capture video with our phones as often — if not more so — than we do still photos.

Motorola hopes to address that oversight with its latest midrange handset. Called the Motorola One Action, the new device has a triple-lens system at the rear that’s been optimized for video, as well as an extra-wide 6.3-inch display roomy enough to fit the entirety of the content you capture.

We don’t yet know how much the Motorola One Action will cost. However, if priced competitively against budget champions like Motorola’s own G7 Power, the Nokia 7.1, Pixel 3a and Samsung Galaxy A50, the One Action could carve out a niche for itself. Here are our first impressions ahead of the handset’s release later this fall.

(Image credit: Future)

All about video

The Motorola One Action isn’t the first (relatively) cheap phone with a trio of cameras on the back; the recently-launched Galaxy A50 again springs to mind. That said, I can’t recall another device that’s used triple shooters quite the way Motorola’s does.

The main camera, backed by a 12-megapixel sensor and ƒ/1.8 aperture lens, is boosted by a 5-MP depth sensor for shallow depth-of-field photography. But the third lens, rated at 16 MP, is used exclusively for video. What’s more, it has an ultrawide, 117-degree field of view, and utilizes pixel binning to better expose low-light recordings.

Dubbed the Action Camera, Motorola envisions this lens being well-suited for capturing and sharing your surroundings. Zoom out of the standard, 78-degree perspective, and the feed within camera app will automatically shift to that wider vantage point, allowing you to include more in the frame. Pricier phones with dedicated ultrawide lenses already do this, though it’s nice to see this sort of functionality arrive in a more accessible device.

(Image credit: Future)

Still, I’m concerned whether third party apps will actually be able to utilize the full scope of the Action Camera. On the Pixel 3, for example, pinching to zoom out when taking a selfie (or selfie video) in Snapchat doesn’t switch to that phone’s secondary, wider-angle lens the same way it does in Google’s own camera app.

This isn’t Motorola’s fault — rather, it’s a limitation of Android that app developers haven’t been able to take advantage of the myriad hardware and software enhancements phone makers bake into their imaging stacks. Google is developing a tool called CameraX that’s designed to bridge that gap. However, until CameraX is widely adopted, companies like Motorola that aspire to have customers use their phones' cameras in new and interesting ways will continue to meet resistance from apps like Instagram and Snapchat, that have little incentive to keep pace.

That would be a shame, too, since Motorola is doing some innovative and useful things on the video capture front. A small, yet critical new feature is the ability to record landscape, 21:9 video on the Motorola One Action even when holding the device in a portrait orientation. In these instances, the camera software simply rotates what it’s capturing by 90 degrees. It’s a brilliant little trick, because holding your phone right-side-up makes for significantly easier for one-handed operation.

(Image credit: Future)

Premium-looking design, sorta-premium hardware

Camera aside, the Motorola One Action feature other noteworthy touches. The large 6.3-inch, 21:9 LCD display extends all the way to the top edge of the glass, and incorporates a front-facing camera within the screen, much like Samsung’s Galaxy S10e and its Infinity-O display. Unfortunately, the bezel around the camera lens is quite thick, which in turn makes the status bar pretty large — so it’s not quite as seamless an integration as you may have seen on pricier handsets.

The Motorola One Action is crafted from polycarbonate all around, though the plastic does a decent job masquerading as glass when you hold the device in your hand. There’s a fingerprint sensor on the back, and the phone will be offered in three colors: Denim Blue, Pearl White and — outside of North America only — Aqua Teal.

(Image credit: Future)

Inside the phone beats not one of Qualcomm’s chipsets, but a Samsung-sourced Exynos 9609 CPU. This silicon is comparable in power to the Exynos 9610 in the recently-released Galaxy A50, and likely just shy of the Pixel 3a’s Snapdragon 670 in terms of raw grunt. That chip is mated to 4GB of RAM, and Motorola has generously included a whopping 128GB of storage onboard. The latter can be expanded by up to another 512GB with the use of a microSD card.

While the Motorola One Action will ship with Android 9 Pie, Motorola has decided to forgo Android One software for the North American configuration. (The device Motorola supplied us to photograph was a European model, which is why it has an Android One logo on the back.) For this reason, the phone will only see one major software update during its lifespan, to Android Q, likely sometime next year. It also probably won’t receive security updates on the same monthly basis as Android One devices do.

Motorola One Action specs
PriceTBA
Display6.3-inch LCD (2520x1080)
CPUSamsung Exynos 9609
RAM4GB
Storage128GB
microSD Slot?Yes, up to 512GB
Rear cameras12 MP main (ƒ/1.8); 5 MP depth; 16 MP video-only ultrawide (ƒ/2.2)
Front cameras12 MP (ƒ/2.0)
Battery3,500mAh
OSAndroid 9 Pie; Android One outside North America only
ColorsDenim Blue, Pearl White, Aqua Teal
Size6.3 x 2.8 x 0.36 inches
Weight6.20 ounces

While Motorola made it clear to us that the shift away from Android One in this instance doesn’t mean the company will never build another Android One device again, it is nevertheless disappointing. Motorola’s typical Android front end is already borderline identical to stock Android, so the user experience is unlikely to suffer much there. However, the loss of long-term support is concerning.

In fact, you could argue that the North American variants of the One Action will have shorter lifespans than their counterparts overseas, as a consequence of the lack of updates. It also doesn’t help that Motorola couldn’t provide us with a convincing reason for turning away from Android One, simply stating that the company "decided to test how [the phone] performs without Android One and re-invest taking into consideration [its] consumer’s needs."

Outlook

While it’s nice to see Motorola build out its budget range in a new direction with the Motorola One line, there are a few peculiarities with the One Action that give us pause.

We like the dedicated ultrawide video camera and how the phone's design evokes that of pricier handsets. We also like the specs, which look to be in line with other midrange offerings. Yet Motorola distancing itself from Android One could be detrimental to its users, and we’re interested in seeing how the Action Camera plays with third-party Android camera apps.

We’re also curious about the Motorola One Action’s price. If it’s too high, it could sink an otherwise respectable, compelling Motorola device. Only time will tell, so hang on for our full review in the coming weeks.