Moto E5 Play Review: A Solid Sub-$100 Phone, with a Catch

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At $99, the Moto E5 Play is one of the best cheap phones you'll find anywhere. It's also one of the most modest, with a low-spec processor, a 720p display and a removable plastic shell.

For the price, though, Motorola's budget phone satisfies all the basic requirements of a handset — and it's our favorite option for keeping your phone's price tag down to double digits.

Price and Availability

The Moto E5 Play costs $99, but it's not offered unlocked. Rather, you'll have to buy it with service from one of three carriers: Cricket, Boost Mobile or Verizon's prepaid service.

As a result, the E5 Play's price differs from vendor to vendor. The Verizon model that we tested costs the full $99, while the $79 Boost and $69 Cricket variants are cheaper. You'll give up a fingerprint sensor on those two less-expensive versions, though.

Design: Keeps it simple

Using the Moto E5 Play transports you to a time when phone makers didn't worry about bezels and materials. Handsets were thick, black slabs encased in plastic, and if your battery died one day, it was no trouble — you'd just go to the store and pick up a replacement.

I don't look back fondly on those days, though that's not really the point of the E5 Play. Even if the design is unassuming and forgettable, it gets the job done. And that's really all you can ask for in a $99 smartphone.

The E5 Play's 5.2-inch display may be on the smaller side among modern devices, but it should be more than roomy enough for most users. The fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone (at least on Verizon's version of the phone) is also a welcome amenity on such an inexpensive handset. However, given all that space within the bottom bezel, Motorola would have been wise to stash the scanner there instead, to make for a better user experience when the E5 Play is lying screen side up.

Even if the E5 Play's design is unassuming and forgettable, it gets the job done.

Otherwise, the E5 Plus is comfortable enough in the hand, even if its finely textured backplate is more slippery than you'd expect. It feels kind of like nylon fabric and provides less grip than a soft-touch surface or even regular glass. Motorola was clearly looking to add a little value to the plastic build here, but I don't think it's helped the phone's ergonomics.

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The E5 Plus is not certified as water-resistant, but it has been dusted with a water-repellent nano-coating, which could help in the event of rain or small spills. There's also a headphone jack, and the device charges through a micro-USB port like most budget handsets do, rather than USB Type-C.

Display: Blurry and washed out

Don't expect to be terribly impressed by the E5 Play's 5.2-inch LCD display. With a resolution of just 720p, it's easy to discern individual pixels even at a considerable distance. This leads to blurry graphics, photos and videos that lack the crispness you get from other phones' screens — even those that cost about the same.

Using the E5 Play's dim screen in direct sunlight can be an exercise in frustration.

At least the screen's color calibration is pretty realistic. The E5 Play's panel registered a Delta-E accuracy rating of just 0.20. (Numbers closer to zero are better.) That's on a par with the ratings from a number of flagship devices, including the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Apple iPhone X.

However, the range of hues the screen provides is relatively limited. The E5 Play displayed 95 percent of the sRGB color space in our testing, even when the phone was set to the more saturated "Vibrant" profile. Practically every handset we test breaks the 100-percent threshold (the $129 Blu R2 Plus hit 119 percent by comparison), so our best advice is to look elsewhere if you want a phone with a display where colors pop.

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To make matters worse, this is a dim panel, too. Taking the E5 Play outdoors in direct sunlight can be an exercise in frustration as you struggle to read anything on the display. With a peak full-screen brightness of 401 nits, Motorola's latest ultrabudget offering is barely eclipsed by last year's Moto E4 Plus, which topped out at 408 nits.

Camera: Saturated shooter

With a single 8-megapixel, f/2.0 camera on the back and another 5-MP shooter up front for selfies, photography on the E5 Play is pretty bare-bones.

There's no dual-camera trickery here, nor are there any of the Moto G6's creative shooting modes for capturing cinemagraphs or scenes with partial color. However, Google Lens is built right into the camera software, which means you can easily search through the viewfinder for objects and landmarks without leaving the app.

In the right light, the E5 Play can take serviceable photos — like this one from New York City's Bryant Park on a picturesque June afternoon. The phone pulled out vibrant colors from the grass and sky, though some of the highlights and lowlights got either blown out or muddied over in the process. The $149 Alcatel 3V and its 12-MP camera turned in a sharper shot, but botched white balancing left the result looking dreary and almost sepia-toned by comparison.

The E5 Play doubled down on the boosted hues to capture a still image of a flower, and the result was a bit too loud for my liking. Additionally, some aspects appeared out of focus. That's because the flower was actually bobbing about in the wind, and the E5 Play had a difficult time locking onto it long enough to take the picture. The Alcatel 3V fared much better in that regard, and although its image is darker, it's also considerably more realistic.

I used both phones' front-facing cameras to capture selfies. While neither image is particularly impressive, the photo from the Alcatel phone is downright blurry compared to the E5 Plus' crisper portrait.

Overall, Motorola has attempted to gloss over the E5 Play's disadvantage in camera hardware with software overprocessing. It's a popular trick among cheaper handsets, but the results are predictably garish most of the time.

Performance: You get what you pay for

The E5 Play will never blow you away with its performance. With just a Snapdragon 425 chipset and 2GB of RAM, this is one of the least-powerful new phones money can buy.

That said, even Qualcomm's modest 400 Series processors have enough muscle to navigate Android with ease these days, so the E5 Plus should satisfy most people's basic phone requirements.

If you want a cheap portal to social media, web browsing, navigation, streaming media and so on, the E5 Play covers the basics.

I put the E5 Play through its paces, summoning multiple tabs in Chrome, running Google Maps in split-window mode, and thumbing back and forth between background apps. I've certainly used snappier handsets, but the E5 Play still managed to get the job done in every instance.

Of course, if you want buttery-smooth animations and zero stuttering, this is not the device for you. But if you want a cheap portal to social media, web browsing, navigation, streaming media and other basics, the E5 Play has you covered.

You'll have to pick your spots with gaming, though. I tried to play a round of PUBG Mobile on the E5 Play, just to see if I could. I was surprised to find that the game was actually playable, with a serviceable frame rate on the most spartan settings. That said, it's an inconsistent and uninspiring experience. Make no mistake — this is no phone for gamers.

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Benchmarking in 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test only reconfirmed those suspicions. The E5 Play managed a score of just 6,118, compared with 12,616 for the $249 Moto G6. On Geekbench 4, which tests overall system performance, the E5 Play peaked with a multicore result of 1,789. Meanwhile, the G6 was more than twice as fast, scoring 3,934.

Moto E5 Play Specs

Swipe to scroll horizontally
OSAndroid 8.0 Oreo
Screen Size (Resolution)5.2-inch LCD (1280 x 720)
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 425
microSD SlotYes, up to 128GB
Rear Camera8 MP (f/2.0)
Front Camera5 MP
Battery Size2,800 mAh (removable)
Battery Life (Hrs:Mins)8:51
Water ResistanceNo
Size5.95 x 2.91 x 0.35 inches

Battery: At least it's removable

The E5 Play has a 2,800-mAh battery, which isn't particularly generous for a modern phone.

Therefore, it came as little surprise when the phone lasted just 8 hours and 51 minutes while streaming websites over LTE in our battery test. That's well short of the 9:50 smartphone average, as well as the runtimes from the Moto G6 (9:24) and the year-old Moto E4 Plus (14:48).

Additionally, because the E5 Play uses micro USB (rather than the newer, increasingly popular USB Type-C), it doesn't charge very quickly. That's somewhat expected given the phone's price. However, the one benefit of a device this cheap is that the battery is removable.

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On one hand, it's reassuring to know that, if the battery isn't getting the job done a year or two from now, you can easily replace it. Then again, the E5 Play isn't a device you'll want to hang on to for more than two years anyway — so that's kind of a moot point.

Software: Great, but don't expect updates

There are still plenty of Android phones out there running terribly outdated versions of Android. Thankfully, the Moto E5 Play isn't one of them.

The E5 Play comes with Android 8.0 Oreo installed, and it's quite a light installation of the software. Motorola doesn't really skin Google's software in any significant way, so the experience feels fresh and fast, without a deluge of gimmicks.

What few additions Motorola has made are housed in one easy-to-find app, called Moto. Here, you can switch on various functions, like Moto Display, which nonintrusively surfaces notifications to the screen even while the phone is sleeping. There's also a three-finger press gesture to quickly capture screenshots, as well as the ability to flip the device to instantly activate Do Not Disturb mode.

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Unfortunately, Motorola tends to skip software updates for its least-expensive phones. That means E-series owners shouldn't expect an upgrade to Android P, which is only a few months away from public release. That's disappointing, but it's also par for the course in this price range. You'll have to fork over extra dough for a Moto G6 if you want everything the upcoming version of Android has to offer.

Bottom Line

There's something to be said for modest handsets like the Moto E5 Play. It's admirable that Motorola continues to lower the barrier of entry to a modern smartphone running up-to-date software. Like previous E-series devices, the E5 Play is a leader in its segment.

However, this latest phone doesn't really set a new bar for budget phones in any meaningful way. Sure, the fingerprint sensor is an appreciated inclusion (at least on the Verizon version), but the E5 Play's dated design, chintzy materials and limited battery life make it a device few would be excited to own.

Just because you're spending less than $100 doesn't mean you shouldn't be enthusiastic about your purchase. If you can afford to upgrade, consider last year's Moto E4 Plus, which actually offers slightly faster performance and way better battery life for $179, or the Honor 7X, which gives you a full-screen design and small bezels for $199. But if those devices are beyond your price limit, the E5 Play is a great entry-level option — so long as you temper your expectations.

Credit: Tom's Guide

Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.