This story was originally published 2021/01/28
7:00am PSTon Jan 28, 2021 and last updated 2021/03/14
10:31am PDTon Mar 14, 2021.
There’s something about using a stylus that’s just incredibly compelling. Sure, touchscreen hardware and finger-tracking algorithms are so good that few of us really need a stylus to successfully interact with mobile screens, but that hasn’t stopped a few select handsets from bundling one in — and those have become some of the most popular models you’ll find. While Samsung’s Note range sits comfortably at the top of the food chain with its active tracking and Bluetooth features, there’s also a lot of demand for budget-friendly stylus phones like the LG Stylo series. Now Motorola’s back with another of its own, upgrading the Moto G Stylus for 2021. Does this model strike the right balance between affordability and functionality? And more importantly, how satisfying is its stylus experience?
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
If you like big phones, the Moto G Stylus is immediately going to speak to you. It’s got an expansive 6.8-inch screen, but much more than that, this puppy is heavy, tipping the scales at 213g. On the one hand, that gives users a nice, broad canvas to interact with using the phone’s stylus, but it also makes for a phone that’s more unwieldy than I’d prefer.
The screen’s 1080p resolution is refreshing to see considering the 720p panel the other 2021 Moto G phones end up with, but it suffers from the same shadowing issues around edges that we complained about last year, especially up near the hole-punch camera — it’s not at all any better this time around.
The handset’s rear panel is plastic and starts off with a pretty attractive textured pattern. It takes about 7 seconds of use before that’s smudged to hell and back with your greasy fingerprints. Moving around the body, we’ve got our combo SIM/microSD tray on the left, and volume over on the right, atop the phone’s power button with its integrated fingerprint scanner.
Fast, reliable, and convenient — who needs in-screen fingerprint scanners?
I’m a huge fan of this kind of arrangement, and it absolutely delivers here — it’s far and away better than an under-screen sensor. The only thing I don’t love is that the phone’s sides themselves are tapered towards the back, and combined with the sheer size of this model, that can leave me feeling uncertain with my grip.
Moving down, the phone’s bottom edge is pretty crowded, housing the headphone jack, USB Type-C port, and speaker grille. I’m glad the headphone jack is there, because the speaker’s mono output isn’t very satisfying. Finally, tucked all the way over on the bottom-right corner, we’ve got the phone’s titular stylus.
A new pop-out mechanism aids removal of the phone’s stylus.
The stylus itself is a marked improvement from last year’s offering, ditching the awkward pull-out-with-your-nail mechanic for some nice spring-loaded action. Obviously, this is a capacitive model, so it’s got a soft, somewhat broad tip (at least, opposed to the narrow plastic points you’ll see on an S Pen). The shaft is quite narrow and the stylus has some good weight to it (5.48g), but really, it’s just a little too narrow for me to ever feel comfortable using it. And while a passive stylus has no need for a button on it, the lack of any kind of tactile feedback down on the business end here adds to the difficulty in getting a satisfying grip.
All you can expect to find boxed with the Moto G Stylus is a USB C-to-A cable and charger — nothing so elaborate as headphones here. And while the phone supports 15W charging, all Motorola includes is a paltry 10W unit.
Software, performance, and battery
The Android 10 experience here feels very familiar and stays comfortingly close to its stock roots. Yet at the same time, Motorola sprinkled in some extra features of its own that manage to feel right at home and genuinely enhance what you can do with this phone.
Moto’s Android software is full of customization options galore.
At the top of that list are Moto’s gesture controls, and the phone gives you a nice selection to choose from, enabling as many or as few as you’d like. Chop-for-flashlight remains the gold standard that I still wish could be baked into literally every Android phone, and others like swipe-for-split-screen make a strong case for themselves.
Because the G Stylus has a passive stylus, we’re not going to see nearly as much stylus-specific software support as we’d get on a Samsung device, but there’s still a nice smattering. A quick note-taking mode lets you jot down thoughts right from the lockscreen, and there’s even a handy tracker that can remind you when you last removed the stylus from the phone.
It’s been a long time since I had to color anything, OK?
With a Snapdragon 678 and 4GB of RAM, I was not expecting flagship performance, but it still feels like the Moto G Stylus should be putting on a better showing than it does. The interface as a whole feels jerky, and while things move at a brisk enough pace, it feels like the phone’s dropping frames in the process. Perhaps that would be better with a 720p screen like its Moto G peers, but those phones have similar performance issues, and I’d hate to imagine what that would look like at 6.8 inches; the 6.6-inch G Power is already noticeably blurry.
Stylus settings let you configure quick-launch options.
Even though the 4,000mAh battery here is smaller than we get on the Moto G Power, this handset is still an endurance machine, and I don’t think you’ll have any problems seeing two days of usage between charges — with lighter operation that can easily extend even further. Sure, losing the stylus would mean room for a larger battery, but right now the phone’s not hurting for deeper reserves. The relatively anemic charging pace isn’t great, but with how infrequently you’ll need to top up, it’s not the end of the world.
Speaking of charging, there’s no wireless support to be found here. And there’s no NFC, either, for what it’s worth — casualties of a mid-range spec sheet. Those trade-offs continue when we look at the situation concerning software updates. The phone ships with Android 10, and Motorola has committed to bringing an update to 11 at some unspecified date, but that’s really not much to say when it comes to planning for the future.
Don’t let the fancy flash package fool you; this is a bog-standard LED.
I’ve got to hand it to Motorola: the camera package on the G Stylus looks pretty impressive. With four lenses and an elongated xenon-style flash, it evokes a kind of retro-futurism that I really dig. Of course, in actuality that’s just a regular old LED flash under an unusual lens, and the camera hardware within this package is less fabulous than functional.
The trick to getting a good photo of moss is the element of surprise.
The main 48MP component really isn’t half bad. This is the same setup we get on the Moto G Power, where you can bin that resolution down to 12MP — and here’s where the camera really shines. Colors can come off a bit muted, but sharpness is good, and low-light performance is passable (though processing takes a moment or two).
Moto throws in the same utterly forgettable 2MP depth and macro cameras (the latter somehow does a worse job at up-close pics than the main camera) but we do get the addition of an 8MP ultra-wide-angle option here. It’s nice to have that kind of flexibility, but it really doesn’t add a ton of value.
Should you buy it?
Moto G Stylus
Maybe. There’s a lot to like about the Moto G Stylus. It’s got great battery life, useful software, and a very affordable price tag, at just $300. In a vacuum, that might be fine, but out here in the very competitive smartphone market we’ve got phenomenal devices like the Pixel 4a selling for just a few bucks more. And when you consider that the Moto G Stylus is only looking at one big Android update in its future, is it worth giving up so much just to save a few dollars?
Still, for a specific user I can see how this phone makes a lot of sense. If you’re buying hard into this “my phone is a notebook” idea, the combination of the built-in stylus and this very large screen can make for a compelling pair. It’s not necessarily for me, but if that use-case really resonates with you, you can probably learn to get a lot of satisfaction out of what the Moto G Stylus is able to offer.
Buy it if:
- You’ve got the Note envy bad, but also can’t be dropping a grand a phone.
- You don’t want to be charging your phone every day.
- You don’t care about NFC, 5G, or any of the latest connectivity.
Don’t buy it if:
- You’re not a stylus die-hard.
- You can afford to spend $50-100 more on a much better-equipped phone.
Where to buy:
One month later
It’s been a month since I last shared my thoughts on the Moto G Stylus — not much of a month, mind you, February being the little runt it is. To be fair, I wasn’t exactly in love with the 2021 G Stylus to begin with, but I could still see the potential there, for people who craved the sort of fine control you get with a stylus, but just couldn’t afford something as extravagant as a Galaxy flagship. Has a little more time with the phone proved to be enough to make me a believer?
Well, let’s start with the good. While I initially took issue with just how toothpick-thin the phone’s titular stylus proved to be, I’ve started coming around to it a little bit more. The combination of the incredibly thin design and the absence of any helpful protrusions made finger-placement a little awkward for me in the beginning, and while I don’t know that I’m any better at holding the stylus now, it sure feels a lot more natural.
Still a bit too narrow, but feeling more comfortable.
I’ve also got to give Motorola credit for updating the Moto G Stylus’s software. While some of its brothers are still stagnating with 2020 security patches, the Stylus has managed to receive its January 2021 update. Granted, we’re solidly in March at this point, but that’s still substantially better than the rest of the Moto G family is doing. While that puts the Stylus at an advantage for the moment, the inconsistency does make me a little worried about what the long-term update situation will look like.
It’s worth noting that performance still leaves a bit to be desired, and while it’s great that Motorola’s made some effort to update the software here, you shouldn’t expect any big optimizations nor new features. Although the phone never outright fails to be able to do what I want, jerky scrolling continually leaves me with the impression that I’m working with a less capable device.
I may be a reluctant stylus … well, “convert” seems too strong — let’s say my mind’s more open to what this hardware offers — but even all the time in the world is not going to get me comfortable with the size of this phone itself. Clearly there’s a market for big phones like this, but I hate carrying a handset so wide that I never feel like I have a secure grip on it.
We’re probably still a way’s off from a meaningful price cut, and at $300 this model was already comfortably affordable. But nothing’s also changed about there existing much, much better phones that only cost slightly more than this hardware. Absent a super-strong affinity for a stylus, it’s still difficult to give the Moto G Stylus a strong recommendation.