Moto G Stylus review: The highs and lows of a $300 smartphone

Moto G Stylus smartphone.
Moto G Stylus smartphone.
·Commerce Editor

Flagship smartphones get all the attention, but midrange devices can be just as appealing. Some will scoff at devices if they don’t have the fastest processors, 5G support, 90Hz OLED displays and other fancy features, but most people don’t need those things. That’s where the $300 Moto G Stylus comes in. It’s a midrange handset that along with its sibling, the Moto G Power, trades flagship features for reliable necessities, plus a few perks.

The Moto G Stylus, unsurprisingly, is defined by its built-in pen, but it’s anchored by not-too-shabby specs, including an FHD+ display, a 4,000mAh battery and a camera trio that includes a macro lens. It’s a testament to how far midrange devices have come in the past few years, but it’s also a good example of the sacrifices you may still have to make when paying less than top dollar.

All about that stylus

The stylus is the biggest thing that separates this smartphone from the Moto G Power. The thin pen lives in a holster at the bottom-right corner of the Moto G Stylus, and it’s easy to pop out of its home when you need to scribble a quick note. Let’s start with the good: The stylus is surprisingly weighty, and while it’s on the thin side, it’s sufficiently long enough for me to grip as I would a regular (albeit short) pencil. It also has a mesh nub at the end that glides nicely across the handset’s screen.

As soon as you take the stylus out of the smartphone, a pen menu pops up on the screen. From there, you can take a note in Google Keep or Motorola’s own note app, or you can take a quick screenshot to mark up. The menu is simple, and I like that it includes a shortcut to the pen’s customizable settings so you can quickly do things like turn on alerts for when the pen has been out of its holster for a long time.

Moto G Stylus smartphone.
Moto G Stylus smartphone.

When the screen is locked, taking out the pen triggers the quick launch of a new note so you can immediately jot down ideas, lists and to-dos. Motorola used software tricks like this to make it easy to use the stylus whenever and however you want. So far I’ve only talked about taking notes with the stylus, but you can use it as a navigation tool as well, moving between apps on the Moto G Stylus with more precision.

The pen is also used in a photo trick called a Cinemagraph that lets you essentially turn a picture into an animated gif by isolating areas of movement. Taking a photo with the Cinemagraph preset is actually more like taking a short video that can be up to 75 seconds long. Then, using the stylus, you can select the parts of the video that you want to move and freeze everything else in the frame. It’s a neat feature that I’ll likely spend a lot of time using to create animations of my cat -- and I can imagine other pet owners and parents doing the same with those they care for.

Now for the bad news: The pen isn’t the best writing tool. I wouldn’t handwrite everything on the G Stylus. I only used the stylus when I wanted to make a quick list or jot down an idea that I don’t want disappearing on me. As a result, I used the pen a lot when the handset was locked, making good use of its quick-launch note feature. It also made tapping tiny icons in Chrome a lot easier.

My biggest frustration came not from the pen itself but from the smartphone’s lack of palm rejection. If your hand is even barely touching the screen, the stylus often doesn’t work. Even when it does work, the smartphone registers both your palm’s and the stylus’ input at the same time, resulting in separate pen strokes on opposite sides of the note. I ran into this problem a lot while writing on the G Stylus when it was resting on my desk. There’s also some noticeable latency when writing with the stylus, but it’s not as much of an issue as the lack of palm rejection.

Unlike Samsung’s S Pen, Moto’s passive stylus doesn’t have pressure sensitivity, nor does it have Bluetooth support, so it can’t do fun things like control presentation slides or remotely snap a photo. Now, you might not care about those extraneous features, but they show that a smartphone pen doesn’t have to be just a writing tool. 

Hardware

As for the rest of the hardware, you won’t mistake the Moto G Stylus for a flagship smartphone. It’s made of plastic, and while it doesn’t feel cheap per se, it’s not as substantial as the metal-and-glass handsets we’re used to companies touting on big launch days. However, in a world where shiny pink and gold smartphones are the norm, I like the subtle dark-blue-to-black gradient on the back. It would look even better, though, if the back of the handset didn’t stubbornly hold onto fingerprints and smudges.

Aside from the assembly of cameras on the back, there’s also a fingerprint reader masked by the Motorola logo. This worked as well as you’d expect. Only a few ports and buttons live on the edges of the device: The right side has the power button and volume rocker, the left side has the combination SIM card and microSD card slot, and the bottom has the USB-C charging port and a headphone jack (#blessed). However, a disappointing yet unsurprising thing left out of the Moto G Stylus is support for wireless charging.

The 6.4-inch, 19:9 LCD screen running at HD+ (2,300 x 1,080p) ups the ante on the Moto G Stylus. It gets quite bright, produces vibrant colors and is generally lovely to use for watching videos and reading long articles on Pocket or Kindle. It’s not marred by a top notch either, as the front-facing, 16MP selfie camera is a simple cutout at the top-left corner of the handset. The Dolby-tuned speakers inside the Moto G Stylus get sufficiently loud, but sound quality suffers a bit when you crank it up to 100-percent volume. I wouldn’t use this smartphone to play music at a party, but it’ll be just fine for tiny desk concerts and while watching music videos on YouTube.

Software

The Moto G Stylus runs a mostly clean version of Android 10, just like Motorola’s flagship Edge Plus. Those looking for the purest version of Android (outside a Pixel) need look no further. I’ve never been a fan of the skins that some manufacturers like Samsung add to their handsets, and I’ve never met someone who likes bloatware. Motorola skips all of those faux pas and instead leans on a handful of software quirks tied to the phone’s hardware to make its mark.

We’ve talked about the stylus’ unique features, and we’ll get to the cameras soon. Moto Actions is the only other collection of Moto-specific things on this handset. Twist the phone in your hand twice to launch the camera app, karate-chop twice to quickly turn on or off the flashlight -- you get the idea. There’s a dedicated Actions menu in Settings that you can view at any time too, just in case you forget which gestures are available.

But Motorola did leave out a few other features that will disappoint some -- 5G and NFC. The lack of the former isn’t surprising on a midrange phone. However, the lack of NFC is much more disappointing. Contactless payments have become ubiquitous, and many consumers may assume that every smartphone has it. But they’ll be frustrated if they go to set up Google Pay on the G Stylus only to find that it’s not an option. 

Cameras

The camera array on the back of the Moto G Stylus is pretty capable, especially for a $300 smartphone. It has a 48MP f/1.7 main camera that uses pixel binning to let more light in, a 16MP f/2.2 ultrawide lens and 2MP f/2.2 macro lens. The first shooter is fairly standard and produced lovely images, even if those with the most natural light appeared slightly overexposed.

That’s the biggest difference I noticed between the G Stylus’ camera and those on the Pixel 3a and the new iPhone SE: The more natural light available, the more likely it was that the shot would come out slightly overexposed. Nevertheless, the camera was at its best when more light was available (graininess quickly crept in when light disappeared), and the pixel binning came in handy when taking indoor shots on overcast days or when lit only by sparse light bulbs. The best shots had colors that were similar to colors in Pixel 3a photos, but colors in the overexposed shots often appeared oversaturated.

The G Stylus’ camera includes a dedicated Night Mode, but unfortunately you’ll get better shots if you simply rely on the built-in flash. The problem isn’t the amount of light included in Night Mode photos; rather, it’s the amount of time it takes to process a Night-Mode photo. Similar to the Pixel 3a, it can take up to two to three seconds after hitting the shutter button for it to be fully processed and for the camera app to be ready to take another photo (that’s also at least two seconds more processing time required to take a regular photo in decent lighting). You must stay still during that lag time in order to get a clear shot, and that’s harder than it sounds on the Moto G Stylus. I’m not prone to jittery hands and I can stand still if someone asks me to, but I couldn’t get a single crisp photo taken in Night Mode -- but I could get a sharper, albeit darker, photo when taking the same shot in regular mode.

The macro lens is the oddball here, because you don’t see a dedicated, close-up shooter on smartphones often. It comes in handy when taking shots of something tiny or trying to capture small, intricate details. You’ll notice the difference between macro mode and regular mode shots immediately: The former brings out even the smallest striations in plant branches, whereas in the latter, those details are mostly blurred out (even when the shot is taken from the same distance away).

I love macro photography, so I probably used this mode more than the average person. Is it better than my DSLR camera with the appropriate macro lens? No. But it’s good enough that I’d be happy taking the Moto G Stylus out on a hike or a walk around my neighborhood with the intention of taking many nature shots.

I didn’t forget about the ultrawide camera: This lens is only used when shooting video, and it came in handy, as it lets you shoot landscape clips while holding the phone vertically. This happens automatically when you swipe to the video option in the Camera app, but you can quickly switch to the regular camera and “standard mode” by tapping another icon on the screen. Shooting horizontal video for long periods of time is much easier when you only have to use one hand. However, even though you have the option of shooting vertical video with the ultrawide camera, you must do so by holding the G Stylus horizontally -- and the ultrawide effect is totally lost, so there’s no point.

By default, videos shot with the ultrawide camera record at 1080p 30fps, but you can raise the quality to 1080p 60fps. The main camera, on the other hand, can shoot 4K video -- so if you want that ultrawide view, you’ll have to sacrifice overall quality. I ultimately preferred shooting video with the main camera, because it also lets more light in than the ultrawide lens does, resulting in brighter, clearer video. Ultimately, the ultrawide lens is best when using it for the first purpose I mentioned -- shooting landscape video without tiring your hands out. I’d probably use this most while at concerts or other live events where I want to capture as much as possible in the video frame, but otherwise I’d stick to the main camera for both photos and video.

Moto G Stylus smartphone.
Moto G Stylus smartphone.

Battery life and the competition

As with any smartphone, we can’t talk about the Moto G Stylus in a vacuum -- but it would be particularly remiss to do so in this case, because the handset debuted along with the Moto G Power. The G Power is a pared-down version of the G Stylus: It doesn’t include a pen, nor does it have as advanced of a rear camera setup, and it starts with 64GB of storage (the G Stylus has 128GB by default). However, the G Power includes a 5,000mAh battery whereas the G Stylus, precisely because it needs room to house the pen, only has a 4,000mAh battery.

This means the Moto G Power is for those who: 

1. Don’t care about a stylus.

2. Want as big of a battery as possible in their smartphone. 

However, the G Stylus’ battery life isn’t too shabby: It lasted an average of 14.5 hours on our battery test, which involves playing 720p video continuously on a loop with the display at 50-percent brightness until the phone dies.

The G Stylus will also produce better photos than the G Power, but they aren’t impressive enough to overshadow those from another big competitor, the Pixel 3a. Google’s budget device produces excellent images with its combination of a solid Sony sensor with machine learning features. The G Stylus, even with its macro lens and gimmicks like Cinemagraph, just doesn’t match up. Also, Pixel phones are known for having some of the best cameras you can get in a smartphone, so if camera and image quality are super important to you, Pixel devices are the way to go (in the Android realm, at least).

Wrap up

I can’t understate the number of good things the Moto G Stylus has going for it. It’s a solid, midrange smartphone that will be an intriguing option for stylus lovers, and it’s made even more appealing by things like a fun macro camera, a bloatware-free version of Android 10 and more than 14 hours of battery life. I give props to Motorola for packing a lot of value into a $300 smartphone. But in the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen a number of budget handsets come out, and the competition is fierce. The Moto G Stylus has price on its side, because $300 is still cheap even compared to the $400 Pixel 3a and the new $400 iPhone SE. But things like lack of NFC and the ability to take semicrisp photos in bad lighting will be dealbreakers for some, and they are a reminder that you’ll likely always have to give up something when choosing a budget smartphone.

Key specs


Moto G Stylus

Processor

Snapdragon 665

Internal storage

128GB

Main display

6.4-inch HD+ LCD touchscreen

Display resolution

2300 x 1080

Rear cameras

48MP f/1.7 main, 16MP f/2.2 ultrawide (video only), 2MP f/2.2 macro

Front-facing cameras

16MP f/2.0

OS

Android 10

Ports

USB-C, microSD/SIM, headphone jack

Battery

4,000mAh

Fingerprint sensor

Yes

Dimensions

158.55 x 75.8 x 9.2mm

Weight

192g

NFC

No

Wireless charging

No