Ever since LG exited the smartphone market early this year, Lenovo-owned Motorola has been quick to fill in the gap, nearly doubling its market share from 7 to 12 percent since the same period last year. Lenovo says its previous quarter was the best ever for its mobile business,“with profit reaching a new historic high of $89 million," which helped it officially become the third-largest smartphone manufacturer in the US behind Samsung and Apple.
The problem? Motorola might be making the right decisions to grow its business, but as WIRED’s resident smartphone reviewer, I’m finding it harder and harder to automatically recommend Motorola devices.
The company has been ruling the budget class with its Moto G series for years, but there are now seriously great budget-friendly alternatives from competitors like Samsung, OnePlus, HMD Global (Nokia), and Google vying for your attention. And of that lot, Motorola has the worst software update policy, often leaving consumers languishing with phones that are a year or two old but no longer receive security patches or critical Android updates.
Motorola has also not enabled contactless payments—the basic ability to pay at a retail store by tapping a card reader with your phone—when its budget peers have the feature. And it introduces so many phones in a year that it’s hard for even a tech-savvy person to choose one. All of this is true of the brand-new Moto G Power 2022, announced today as the $200 successor to the Moto G Power 2021, which was just released in January of this year.
Consider this a public service announcement and a plea. Buying a Moto? Well, know what you’re missing out on. And Motorola, if you’re reading this: With great market share comes great responsibility. It’s time to shoulder it.
Lackluster Software Updates
It doesn’t matter if you spend $200 or $600 on a Motorola phone, you’ll get the same software update roadmap: one OS upgrade and two years of security updates. Pay $700 for the company’s high-end phones and you’ll get two OS upgrades. It wasn’t too long ago that this practice of promising fewer software updates on cheaper handsets was normal, but times have changed.
The OnePlus Nord N200 ($240) gets one OS upgrade and three years of security updates. The Nokia G20 ($200) matches the latter but adds an extra OS upgrade. Samsung promises two OS upgrades and four years of security updates for its Galaxy A32 5G ($280). And let’s not forget Google with its Pixel 4A ($350) and Pixel 5A ($450), both of which receive three years of support. The story is even better for high-end phones; the Pixel 6 ($599) currently leads the pack with five years of security updates. (And that’s without mentioning Apple, which supports its devices for six years on average.) Motorola lags behind here. By a lot.
Software updates are important. They squash bugs, enhance device security, introduce new features, and potentially help you hold onto your phone for a longer period of time. (And people are holding onto their phones for longer.) What’s the distinction between a version upgrade and a security update? Upgrading versions is when you go from Android 11 to Android 12, so you get a whole set of new features on your phone. Security updates are more important and more frequent (Motorola tries to issue them bi-monthly); these patches keep your device secure from the latest threats.
“We know OS and security updates are important, and we’re constantly evaluating our strategy," a Motorola spokesperson told WIRED. “Unfortunately, phones cannot be upgraded indefinitely, and it isn’t practical for us to bring every upgrade to every device in our portfolio.”
No one is asking for phones to be upgraded indefinitely. But it’s sad when a 2020 Motorola phone won’t be as secure in 2023 as a Nokia or OnePlus. Both of those companies have a far smaller presence here in the US and sell devices that cost around the same. As for version upgrades, Google (like Motorola) says it’s been issuing new features through the Google Play Store. But upgrading to a new OS version can still be very important.
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“Security updates are important and should be made [in a timely manner],” writes Wenliang Kevin Du in an email. He's a cybersecurity researcher at Syracuse University. “In the version upgrades, many small security problems are also fixed. The security update usually goes hand in hand with the software update, because new security updates are typically based on the new version. It is hard for a company to keep providing the security update to the older versions.”
People who bought the Moto G Power in 2020, for example, will not be able to upgrade their phones to Android 12. They’ll be missing out on key enhancements meant to protect their personal data. For example, in the operating system’s latest version, when a third-party app asks to track a device’s location, users can choose to provide it with a precise or approximate location, affording them an extra layer of privacy if they want to just share their city or region instead of pinpointing the exact spot where they’re standing. It’s a shame that anyone who bought this Motorola phone just last year can’t take advantage of this privacy-friendly feature.
One hard truth to consider is that most people don’t care about security updates. “Motorola/Lenovo kind of understand that their customer is a much less picky buyer and that as long as they have the right features, the right performance, they can grow—which they have consistently done quarter over quarter,” says Anshel Sag, a principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "If you look at how the average user behaves, a lot of users don’t even bother updating their apps—let alone the operating system.”
But you should care! And I’m here to tell you that phones like the Galaxy A32 5G get you more or similar features with the added peace of mind that comes with long-lasting software support.
No Contactless Payments
Speaking of features, none of the phones in the Moto G lineup—including this new Moto G Power 2022—utilizes a near-field communication (NFC) sensor, which is required for contactless payment services like Google Pay to work. “We always evaluate the needs of local geographies when developing our smartphones," a Motorola spokesperson says about the omission. “This is most clearly evident in the Moto G family, where we offer a curated selection of the full range depending on consumer needs in each region.”
Apparently, Motorola thinks you don’t need to make contactless payments. Digital payments can be more secure than traditional credit cards, and they’re more convenient. I never bring my wallet when I walk my dog, but if I want to grab a quick cup of coffee, I can pay for it with my phone. It’s not a huge problem if I can’t do that, but of the dozens of $200+ budget phones I’ve tested in the past three years, only those from Motorola have lacked this feature. That’s not to say that no Motorola phone supports it—you’ll just need to pay $400 or more to get a model that supports contactless payments.
This is increasingly hard to ignore as the pandemic fueled the growth of touch-free payment systems. In-store mobile payments grew by 29 percent in the US in 2020, according to eMarketer, and more than 101.2 million Americans are expected to use some form of contactless payment by the end of the year. The research firm forecasts half of all US smartphone owners will regularly use this method of payment by 2025.
“For the average consumer, they might not even understand what NFC is exactly unless you explicitly market it to them,” Sag says. “In the US, we’re just starting to see credit card companies use contactless; we might not be mature enough as a market, outside of Apple, to really pick up enough momentum for NFC to be a deal-breaker for the average consumer.”
Just like with frequent software updates, there aren't a great number of people clamoring for NFC. But we recommend several great mobile phone options in the low-to-mid price range with the capability. You'll be really glad to have it when you accidentally leave your wallet behind. Motorola, it’s time to finally add it to the Moto G lineup.
Flooding the Market
Buying a smartphone is already complicated in the US, thanks to carriers’ policies of locking devices to only work on their respective networks. (That’s why we recommend only buying unlocked phones). It’s worse when the market is filled with dozens of phones with confusing names and few features to distinguish them. Motorola isn’t alone in this practice (looking at you, Samsung and Nokia), but it might have an easier time issuing updates if it had a more uncluttered product line.
Should you buy the Moto G Stylus 2021 or the Moto G Stylus 2021 5G? Or the Moto G Power 2021 from January or this new Moto G Power 2022? The answer isn’t always clear-cut. There’s now a MediaTek processor inside the new G Power instead of a higher-performing Qualcomm chip, and based on my brief hands-on time with the phone, its performance is noticeably slower. It also launches with Android 11, so you’ll have to wait several months for Android 12.
Motorola is clearly succeeding as a business by selling smartphones to eager customers. But even if people aren’t asking for it, Moto should lengthen its software update window so buyers aren’t left holding out-of-date devices after only a year or two. Give people the choice to pay for coffee or groceries with their smartphone like nearly every competitor. And you, the buyer, have some power here too. Take a look at what else is out there. By voting with your wallet, you might be able to convince this rising giant to start making more consumer-friendly decisions and potentially save it from the fate of so many legacy brands before it.
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