Moto G5S

Many smartphone manufacturers set out to replicate the winning Moto G formula, and that includes Motorola itself. Following on from the Moto G5 Plus and the Moto G5S Plus comes a third Moto G5 spinoff: the Moto G5S.

This latest effort doesn’t take the leading budget smartphone line off in any radical new directions, but it does refine it for those willing to spend a little extra.

At £219, AU$349 (around $290, but it's not coming to the US), the Moto G5S is a good £60 dearer than the original model right now. 

Fortunately, Motorola has form when it comes to giving you more for more – the Moto G5S Plus being the best model in the series to date.

While the Moto G5S doesn’t offer quite the same level of clear differentiation as the larger Moto G5S Plus, it remains a fine affordable phone in its own right.

Flattering not to deceive

  • A largely premium experience at a budget price

With the Moto G5S – the ‘S’ stands for Special Edition – Motorola wants to create a premium smartphone experience for considerably less money than you might ordinarily expect to pay.

So, you get an all-metal design, a speedy fingerprint sensor, super-fast charging, a generous 32GB of internal storage, and a strong camera set-up.

Besides this you get Motorola’s endlessly appealing, super-light take on the Android OS, and also NFC for Android Pay payments (which the Moto G5 lacked).

Of course, this ostensibly generous approach is no longer particularly fresh or surprising. There are plenty of manufacturers doing the same kind of thing – the Nokia 6 being one notable recent example.

But most examples fall short on some area of execution. We’ve become increasingly aware of the telltale signs to look out for that a phone isn’t, in fact, the top level smartphone experience it appears to be.

While there are several such examples with the Moto G5S, they all appear to be thoughtfully taken compromises, and none of them are serious enough to rule out a purchase. Yep, this is another budget phone win for Motorola.

Design

  • All-metal build a big step up from G5
  • Fast and accurate fingerprint scanner

Like the Moto G5S Plus immediately before it, the Moto G5S considerably steps up the production values from the Moto G5. Where that phone merely pretended to be a premium metal handset, with a plastic body sat under a metal rear plate, the G5S is the real deal.

It’s an all in one unibody metal design from top to toe. You’ve got a single slab of glass covering the entire front of the phone and a glass camera cover, then it’s hard cool aluminium all the way.

This means that Motorola has had to include visible antenna lines to the top and bottom of the rear section, but we grew accustomed to such a workaround some years ago, back when such things were the sole preserve of flagship phones.

As with the G5S Plus, the best thing we can say for the Moto G5S design is that we moved to it directly from a phone worth double the money (in this case the OnePlus 5) and it didn’t feel like a huge drop in standard.

Part of the reason is that there’s a satisfying heft to the phone. 150 x 73.5 x 8.2mm is pretty average as far as dimensions go, but 157g is a good 12g heavier than the Moto G5. It’s still not excessive, but you know you’re holding it.

Motorola continues to place its fingerprint sensor on the front, underneath the display. Opinion varies wildly on this, but the Moto G5S sensor is easy to access at all times. More importantly, the sensor itself is fast and accurate.

This sensor essentially acts as a secondary, capacitive sleep switch, so aside from unlocking the phone it can be held to power the screen down. This can take some time to get used to, particularly if you’re used to using such a control to go home.

That won’t work here – you have a virtual home button just above for such a thing. At least, it won’t by default. It’s possible to change things so that the fingerprint sensor acts as a home button – alongside other functions, which we’ll discuss a little later.

Along the bottom of the phone you have a micro USB port, which is one of the first signs of compromise here. Most Android mid-rangers and above are switching to the reversible USB Type-C standard.

It’s a bit of a downer, but on the plus side you’ve probably got plenty of spare micro USB cables clogging up your drawers.

Display

  • Display is bright and crisp, but not perfect
  • 1080p resolution is fine at the size

The Moto G5S display isn’t a huge step up from the Moto G5’s by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the only boosted spec relates to its size – 5.2-inches versus 5-inches. Hardly a massive increase, but it’s a welcome one.

Otherwise, the G5S still employs IPS LCD technology, making for great viewing angles, generally accurate colors and decent brightness even outdoors. What it doesn’t have is the kind of eye-searing color contrast or deep blacks of an AMOLED panel.

It’s a 1080p display, which is just fine at this size and budget. The Nokia 8 recently went with a QHD resolution in its 5.3-inch display, and it hardly seemed worth the extra pixels.

423 pixels per inch (ppi) is just peachy in a display hovering around the 5-inch mark. Text is sharp, photos are clear, videos pop, and you can browse web content comfortably.

You can switch between a more realistic Standard color setting and a more vivid and saturated Vibrant alternative should you wish, which is always welcome – though the difference is hardly night and day.

One telltale sign of the Moto G5S display’s budget nature is an unsightly black border that runs around the display – and that’s before you get to those chunky bezels.

Interface and reliability

  • Android Nougat
  • Motorola tweaks can improve quality of life

One of the most appealing things about Motorola’s phones over the years has been its commitment to a near-stock Android experience. The Moto G5S is no different.

You’re getting an extremely clean version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat here. The notification screen, settings menu, multitasking stack and app tray all look reassuringly familiar.

You must drag up from the bottom of the home screen to access the latter, but even that’s a feature you’ll find in certain vanilla iterations of Android.

Swipe left from the home screen and you’ll reach the ever-handy Google Now screen with contextual ‘cards’ containing relevant news and information.

Google has progressed more with its voice activated Google Assistant (available here with a hold of the virtual home button) of late, but we still have a soft spot for Google Now, and its easy-access presence is welcome here.

Motorola’s take on Android isn’t without its embellishments, but they’re generally understated and thoughtfully implemented. There’s a custom widget at the top of the home screen by default, which contains the weather, date, and time in a distinctive Moto circle.

You also get a handy lock screen notification system called Moto Display, which lets you preview incoming messages and emails by pressing and holding on the appropriate icon.

Then there are Motorola’s gestures. We’re still not convinced that twisting the phone twice in the air is the most instinctive or intuitive way to shortcut to the camera (a double tap of the power button seems to work best), but it’s surprisingly reliable.

You can also set the torch function to a double chop motion, flip the phone for ‘Do not disturb,’ swipe to shrink the screen for one-handed usage (more useful on the larger Moto G5S Plus than here) and pick the phone up to stop it ringing.

Both Moto Display and Moto Actions are fully tweakable through the bundled Moto app.

This also lets you play with the function of the fingerprint sensor. Flip the toggle and it will revert to a more traditional home button function, but swiping left and right on it will need to act as your back and multitasking commands as well, which feels a little odd.

Through all this, Motorola’s light touch with the Android platform leads to a fluid and stable experience even on the Moto G5S’s less-than-premium hardware.

One little curiosity we found was that the phone would often tell us that we had a much lower mobile signal than normal – or even none at all – but it never seemed to interfere with actual call quality.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Screen is great for media
  • Pure Google media offering

The smaller screen on the Moto G5S means that it’s not quite as good for video playback as the Moto G5S Plus, but it’s no slouch.

Full HD movies and YouTube content render well on the bright, balanced 5.2-inch 1080p screen.

The same holds true for games. Whether it’s a moody 3D shooter like Xenowerk or a stylish 2D racer like Data Wing, the Moto G5S’s bright and sharp display renders it well. Nothing we ran through the Moto G5S caused it to struggle either, barring the odd dropped frame.

The solitary bottom-mounted speaker is neither ideally placed nor particularly great, but it gets the job done for shorter videos and games. You’ll want to use the 3.5mm jack for any long-form content – or, needless to say, for music.

Motorola doesn’t provide any needless duplication on the media app front. This is a Google-only affair, which is just fine with us. Google Play Music is a decent music player (and a good subscription service should you need one), and the Google Play Movies app provides a whole stack of movie and TV content to buy or rent.

Any other service you wish to use (such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video) is only an app download away through the Google Play Store.

There’s also an FM Radio app here, which is really quite quaint. Maybe it could be useful if you have a limited data allowance and a hankering for old fashioned live radio over podcasts?

Performance and benchmarks

  • No advancement from the G5 on power
  • Real world usage is hitch-free

The S in G5S sure doesn’t stand for ‘Speed’. That’s not to say the phone is slow, as such. Rather that it runs on exactly the same Snapdragon 430 chipset with 3GB of RAM as the standard Moto G5.

It’s a shame that Motorola didn’t bump things up to the Snapdragon 625, as it did with the Moto G5S Plus.

Perhaps more important in terms of general navigation and smoothness is that the Snapdragon chip is backed by the same 3GB of RAM, which is seemingly the minimum requirement for a hitch-free Android experience these days.

You can see the processing gap between the two G5S models when you examine the Geekbench 4 results. While the G5S Plus yielded a multicore score of 4,312, the smaller G5S only managed 2,294. 

That’s in keeping with the results we got from the original G5, but it’s only half as good as its supposed brother.

There’s really no issue in real world usage, where the Moto G5S runs just fine. But know that you’re not getting any kind of a performance boost for your £60 premium.

Battery life

  • Excellent battery life will carry many through two days
  • 3000mAh battery charges quickly

Interestingly, the Moto G5S shares the same 3000mAh battery as its larger brother – which makes it larger than the similarly spec'd Moto G5.

The result is notably improved battery life compared to the original phone. We found that the G5S was frequently able to get through two days of light to moderate usage on a single charge. On one particularly noteworthy day, we noted that the phone lost just 25% in 12 hours.

Naturally, putting the phone to work with lots of media content, camera usage, and general screen-on time will knock that down a great deal. But you’ll be able to get through to bed time with plenty to spare, which is all most of us want at this point.

Besides, the regular TechRadar battery test of a 90-minute 720p looping video with the display brightness cranked up to max resulted in just 16% power loss.

That’s identical to the Moto G5S Plus – which is a little disappointing given that phone’s larger display – but it’s way better than the original Moto G5 on 22%.

On the rare occasion that you do find yourself caught a little short, Motorola’s TurboPower charging standard is here to help you out. It can provide 5 hours of battery life with just a quick 15 minute charge.

We’re used to fast-charging standards by now, but Motorola’s is impressive for being able to continue charging quickly even as it nears full capacity.

While the fastest charging spell always lies in the first 60% with smartphone batteries, we observed the Moto G5S battery moving from 64% to 94% in just 30 minutes.

Camera

  • 16MP camera capable of taking genuinely strong shots
  • Underwhelming in lesser lighting

The Moto G5S doesn’t quite get the same level of camera enhancement as the Moto G5S Plus does, with no dual-lens system on hand to bolster the depth of field effect.

However, it still represents an improvement over the Moto G5. We’re looking at a 16MP camera with an f/2.0 aperture, phase detection autofocus, and an LED flash.

It’s a very accomplished camera for a phone that’s right on the threshold between budget and mid-range. We managed to capture some genuinely impressive shots that felt like they could have been taken by a much more expensive phone.

The level of detail, clarity, and colour balance in well-lit scenarios was well ahead of most budget phones.

It does seem to struggle with metering though, as we noted a number of overly bright shots. There’s an auto HDR mode that should help balance this out, but it didn’t seem to kick in reliably for us. Force it through manually, though, and you can get some decent results.

Low light shots are a lot less impressive, with plenty of noise and the odd autofocus mishap.

The shooting experience itself is very pleasant thanks to some strong software. Motorola’s own camera UI is snappy enough, and we particularly like the ability to adjust the exposure of your image simply by dragging on the focus reticle. It helps counter those over-bright shots too.

Video recording is decidedly inferior to the Moto G5S Plus, which can manage 4K at 30fps and 1080p 60fps. The G5S can only manage 1080p at 30fps.

The selfie cam isn’t as good either, dropping to 5MP (like the G5). It does still benefit from its own LED flash though, which is far from a common component even in higher end phones.

Camera samples

Verdict

The Moto G5S offers a high degree of build quality improvement over the Moto G5, resulting in a phone that looks and feels very good for the price. Its camera is also capable of capturing some truly impressive shots, and NFC is a welcome addition.

It’s a shame, however, that it doesn’t bring quite the same level of overall improvement as the Moto G5S Plus. There’s still a fair amount of G5 in here.

Still, for what it costs the Moto G5S is another brilliantly well put together budget phone from the undisputed master.

Who’s this for?

If you have somewhere between £200/AU$300 and £250/AU$400 to spend on a phone but you want one that projects a much higher price tag, you won’t be disappointed with the Moto G5S.

It’s also a good bet for those who find most flagship Android phones just too darned big for their own good. The Moto G5S is eminently pocketable.

Should you buy it?

If you like the look of the Moto G5, but find yourself with an extra £60 to spend, you won’t go wrong with the Moto G5S.

Its build quality is a massive step forward, it’s got a better camera, the battery life is better, and NFC will allow you to make Android Pay purchases. You’re simply looking at a better, more rounded phone.

True, it’s not quite at the level of improvement of the Moto G5S Plus, but the Moto G5S takes a solid step forward without ballooning in size.

There are lots of other strong budget phones, such as the following three.

Nokia 6

Nokia’s return to the smartphone market has been a solid one, and the mid-range Nokia 6 is arguably the most competitive of the bunch.

It’s got a beautiful design, a solid camera, and a a large 5.5-inch 1080p display.

It’s just a very stylish, well spec'd phone for around the £200/$230/AU$400 mark. It’s arguably a more compelling package than the Moto G5S.

Moto G5

The original G5 continues to be a compelling package, and at heart it offers a very similar experience to the Moto G5S for a good chunk less money.

It’s got the same internals, a similar display, and the same sharp Android Nougat experience.

Okay, so you miss out on the all-metal body and Android Pay, and the camera isn’t a stunner. But for £160/AU$300, those might be compromises you’re willing to make.

Wileyfox Swift 2 X

The parallels between the Wileyfox Swift 2 X and the Moto G5S are extensive. This is another ‘super-budget’ phone with a sharp metal design, a 5.2-inch Full HD display and a Snapdragon 430 CPU.

There are issues with its camera, battery life and somewhat unsteady software however, so it would appear to lose out to the Moto G5S on sheer reliability.

If you want something that will really stand out, however, you could do worse than give this plucky British upstart a whirl.

First reviewed: October 2017

Jon Mundy
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