A Worthy Competitor to the Xiaomi Mi A3

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Motorola announced its new One series last year with the Motorola One and Motorola One Power being the first devices representing the new lineup. The company later this year went on to launch the Motorola One Vision, targeted at the upper mid-range segment. While the device was praised for its hardware, it failed to garner much attention in the Indian market due to its high price point. Realizing this mistake, the company is back again with a new device called the Motorola One Action, which retains the DNA of its sibling while also bringing a few new tricks of its own. With a tall 21:9 display, an innovative wide-angle camera, and massive flash storage to boot, the Motorola One Action stands out from the competition. But how does the whole package fare in the real world? And, even more importantly, is it worth considering over other mid-range smartphones? We find out in this review.

Design & Display

The Motorola One Action retains the design cue of the Motorola One Vision, featuring a curved back and hole-punch display on the front. The device is made out of plastic, though; nonetheless, it looks quite premium (less so when you touch it). The glossy back is curved on its sides and features subtle crosshatch pattern around the borders which is visible when seen under direct light. The main highlight of the design, however, is the 21:9 display panel which lends the device an elongated look. The narrow width of the device takes the one-handed comfort to a whole new level and kind of spoils you in a way that it’s really hard to go back to anything 18:9 or 19:9 after using this device. On the downside, the tallness of the device poses some difficulty when trying to reach controls and toggles located on the top with one hand.

On the front, we have a 6.3-inch display with a selfie camera hole punch on the left side. The top rim accommodates the earpiece and the proximity sensor. The notification LED is missing which is a kind of bummer given the device does have a small chin to accommodate it. The microphone, USB-C port, and the mono speaker are lined up in the bottom. Meanwhile, the 3.5mm jack and the secondary microphone for noise-cancellation are on the very top.

Moving to the back, triple cameras are aligned vertically in the right corner with a dual-tone LED flash sitting just below them. Motorola’s iconic batwing logo is printed right in the recessed fingerprint scanner while the Android One branding can be seen on the bottom.

Moving to the display, the Motorola One Action uses an LCD LTPS panel with a resolution of 1920 x 2520p. The display offers punchy colors with excellent viewing angles. The max brightness is fairly bright for outdoor use but we found the lowest brightness setting to be way too bright for nighttime reading. The device offers three standard color modes to customize the color saturation to your preference.

Standard color modes

We enjoyed watching movies and videos on the wide 21:9 screen. While the YouTube and popular video players such as MX Player and VLC natively support 21:9 videos and allow stretching 16:9 videos to full screen, not all apps play nicely with the full-screen experience. Netflix, for example, puts a black status bar when you go full screen, preventing videos from filling the area surrounding hole-punch.

Most modern apps had no issues adjusting to the tall display but some older apps we tested didn’t scale properly, leaving a big chunk of empty blank screen on the bottom. This was the case with only a handful of apps, mind you, but since the software doesn’t provide a built-in app scaling feature similar to MIUI and EMUI, there’s nothing you can do about it other than waiting for the app developers to update their apps.

I don’t have any strong opinions about the hole-punch. It’s not that distracting as I presumed it would be and similar to other types of notches, you get used to it. While there’s no denying it draws attention when holding the device vertically, it’s less noticeable in the landscape mode as it gets buried in the bottom corner. As a side effect of the hole-punch, the status bar is also unusually tall – almost double the size of a normal status bar. This is a result of changes implemented in Android Pie regarding display cutouts which now require the status bar to extend to the height of the notch.

Overall, we’re pleased with the display performance and while the hole-punch can be distracting for some, it provides an immersive video watching experience.

Software

As part of Android One family, the Motorola One Action is guaranteed to receive Android platform updates for up to two years and monthly security updates for 3 years. Out of the box, the Motorola One Action ships with a pure version of Android Pie with a handful of Motorola’s exclusive features on top. These enhancements not only further extend the usefulness of otherwise bland stock Android, but they also lend uniqueness to the overall software experience to distinguish itself from competing Android One devices.

All Motorola exclusive features are nicely bundled within the Moto app. They’re divided into two categories: Moto Action and Moto Display. Moto Actions are a series of helpful gestures to simplify the way we perform our everyday, mundane activities like navigating around the device, launching the camera or taking a screenshot. For example, you can launch the camera app by twisting your wrist in two quick successions or do karate-like chops in the air to turn on the flashlight.

By default, the device uses Android Pie’s standard navigation system but you can replace them in favor of Motorola’s One Button Nav. Motorola’s take on navigation gestures is very straightforward. For the back function, you swipe the pill to the left, a simple press on it takes you back to the home screen while swiping to the right opens the last used app. Swiping up from the button reveals the recent screen and long-pressing the button triggers the Google Assistant.

Peek Display is a close cousin of Google Pixel’s Ambient display. It shows time, date, battery level, and app notification icons when you pick up the display or receive a new notification. You can customize what level of notification content you want to allow on the screen and even blacklist apps that you don’t want to see any notification from. Attentive display is one of my personal favorites. Display going to sleep when we’re reading or viewing something is a very common scenario we all experience regularly. With Attentive Display, the screen never goes dim or sleep as long as you’re staring at it.

Apart from these Motorola experiences, we’re looking at a pretty familiar stock Android Pie experience. That includes a new colorful Settings app, revamped notification panel, Digital Wellbeing tools to curb your excessive smartphone usage, and material design refresh across SystemUI and Google apps.

If you’re a fan of Android in its purest form, the Motorola One Action provides exactly that with the bonus of Moto’s useful customizations.

Camera

The Motorola One Action’s triple camera setup consists of a 12MP primary camera, 5MP depth sensor and, the main highlight of the package: a 16MP wide-angle camera.

The Moto camera app is refreshingly different compared to the usual iPhone-style camera UIs we see on Redmi and other Chinese smartphones. Swiping right switches to the video mode while portrait mode, slow-mo, and other camera modes can be accessed from the grid menu on the left. The top of the viewfinder screen holds the quick toggles. Meanwhile, the gear icon in the top right corner gives access to the camera settings menu. From there, you can customize the image and video quality, enable watermark feature, control AI-related settings and more.

In terms of camera performance, the Motorola One Action churns out eye-pleasing shots in broad daylight. The dynamic range is excellent for a mid-range phone and images retain a good amount of details with accurate color reproduction. In our brief comparison with the Redmi Note 5 Pro running Gcam, the One Action’s shots repeatedly came close in terms of both the color reproduction and dynamic range capture — although the detail preservation was significantly better on the former. While the daylight performance is admirable, low-light performance is a different story. In low-light, images appear washed out and grainy with a high level of noise. Detail retention plummets and the dynamic range is quite limited, too. Unfortunately, there’s no dedicated night mode to aid the poor low-light performance. Quite frankly, the Motorola One Action fails to meet low-light photography standard set by the Redmi Note 7 Pro which continues to be the class leader in this area.

Moto One Action - Daylight Shots

Moto One Action - Low-light & Night

The portrait performance follows the same story; it’s reasonably good when lighting conditions are favorable but fails to deliver under low-light. The subject separation is pretty accurate if you show some patience and give the camera some time to estimate the depth. You can also control the strength of bokeh and apply different lighting effects in real-time before taking a photo. The portrait mode doesn’t seem to be very stable though as we faced camera crashing and force closing on numerous occasions when taking portraits. This issue was only observed when using the portrait mode as we never encountered any camera crashing when taking normal photos or shooting videos.

 

Moto One Action - Portraits

Selfies are handled by the 12MP front camera which delivers one of the most natural-looking photos without applying any unnatural skin smoothing. The focus is fixed but that’s the deal with most front cameras on the market — flagships included. In terms of quality, images are sharp with on-point exposure and very natural skin tone rendering. Low-light results aren’t the sharpest around but they’re still serviceable. Portrait mode is available on the front camera but it’s purely software-based so results are a bit hit-and-miss. Interestingly, the front camera can also shoot 4K videos.

Moto One Action - Selfies

 Video performance

The video department is where things get exciting. The primary camera and Action camera can both record videos in 1080p at 30/60fps. However, only the main camera supports recording videos at 4K resolution.

The Action camera is the highlight feature of the device. It uses an ultra-wide lens with a 117-degree field of view which Motorola says lets you fit 4x more of the view in your frame compared to the standard lens. The wide-angle sensor is pretty unique in itself in that it’s mounted at 90-degree angle. That means you can shoot landscape videos while holding the device comfortably in vertical mode. It’s a clever piece of tech and completely changes the way you normally record videos. Oddly enough, it’s exclusive for shooting videos only — you can’t take photos with it.

Action camera interface

Electronic Image Stabilization on board does a really good job stabilizing handshakes and walking movements. Videos look sharp, smooth and free from any uneven jerks. Autofocus tracking is very stable, too, and we didn’t encounter any unnecessary refocusing while panning.

If you’re someone who records a lot of videos on their phone, you’ll appreciate the ease and comfort of shooting landscapes with just one hand. On the other hand, for those of us who rarely shoot videos, the ability to use that wide-angle sensor for still images would have been much appreciated. It’s a shame that you can’t use the sensor for taking photos (you can only take low-quality 3MP snaps while recording video). Under its current implementation, the Action camera has a niche appeal owing to its limited use cases. We hope Motorola consider taking a more versatile approach and enables taking wide-angle photos in a future update.

The video performance of the primary camera is slightly behind in terms of stabilization and smoothness. We also observed some jitters while panning and oversharpening of water and leaves on trees. We recommend you stick to the Action camera for your most video needs and only switch to the primary sensor when shooting 4K or vertical videos.

Performance

The Motorola One Action is powered by Samsung’s Exynos 9609 octa-core chipset – same as the Motorola One Vision – built on 10mm FinFET process. The chipset itself is quite capable, featuring 4x Cortext-A73 performance cores clocked at 2.2GHz frequency and 4x Cortext-A53 efficiency cores, paired with ARM’s Mali GPU.

In day to day usage, the performance is admirable. Launching multiple apps at once and jumping between opened apps doesn’t seem to slow down the device. We didn’t encounter any heavy stutters or unresponsiveness throughout our review period. Over prolonged heavy usage, the device retained its speedy performance without any sign of throttling or choppiness.

App opening times are remarkably faster thanks to the speedy UFS 2.1 storage solution. The difference is especially apparent when launching heavy games such as PUBG which gets to the main screen in a much shorter time compared to devices that employ eMMC 5.1 storage. The UI performance is impressive and one of the smoothest we have seen on a device of this price. In-app UI performance is also quite impressive with a very low number of frame drops observed across Play Store, Gmail, and YouTube in our brief testing.

Memory management is good, if not the best. At most system was able to hold up to 8 to 9 apps in memory — introducing any new app beyond that limit resulted in initially opened apps being kicked out of the memory. On a few occasions, we also noticed apps restarting unexpectedly as soon as you switch to a new app, resulting in loss of unsaved data and progress. We expected more from a device running vanilla Android as we have seen much better RAM management on devices using custom UIs such as MIUI.

To asses graphics capabilities, we tested PUBG and Asphalt 9 and were pleased with the overall gaming performance. PUBG defaults to HD graphics as recommended settings but the gameplay remained surprisingly smooth even when we maxed out graphics (HDR) and framerate (Ultra). Although the device does get hot when you game for an extended period, the gameplay remains smooth without any sign of thermal throttling. We didn’t get a chance to try out other titles but seeing how well it performed in PUBG and Asphalt, we’re quite positive the device will not let you down when playing other graphics-intensive titles.

Battery

The Motorola One Action packs a 3,500mAh battery which is below par compared to the established standard, with most devices in this price range at least offering a 4,000 mAh unit. The device supports fast-charging via a compatible charger but inside the box, you still get the same old 5V / 2A brick. Using the bundled charger, the device takes two hours to fully charge from the dead state.

The battery performance of the Motorola One Action is average. Mostly it got me through a whole day comfortably on moderate to heavy usage. This involved the usual mix of social media apps like Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter along with a heavy dose of web browsing in Chrome and streaming Spotify and YouTube. The average screen on time clocked in at close to 5 hours under the aforementioned usage patterns.

Audio, Connectivity and Unlock Speed

The Motorola One Action uses a single bottom-mounted powered by Dolby Audio. It gets decently loud and doesn’t show any distortion even when exposed to high volume levels. You can use the bundled Dolby Audio app to have the audio automatically tuned based on the type of content you’re listening.

Call quality is among the best we have seen on a mid-range phone with calls sounding loud and clear even in really noisy environments. Interestingly, the device also comes with NFC connectivity. It’s not useful for making contactless payments here in India since most stores and outlets accept payments through QR codes. However, it comes really handy if you own headphones or speakers that support on tap NFC pairing. In terms of unlocking speed, the rear-mounted fingerprint scanner is not the fastest we have tested but it’s reasonably quick. Unless your fingers are wet, it rarely fails to recognize your fingerprint. For more convenience, there’s Face Unlock too. There are no infrared sensors or dot projectors so it entirely relies on the front camera. It’s pretty fast and reliable and you can also pair it with the Lift to unlock feature so you don’t have to press the power button to initiate the face unfrocking.

Conclusion

The Motorola One Action stands out from the competitors with its unique form factor and innovative action camera. This also marks a solid return of Motorola after the Moto G7 series failed to put up a good fight against the Redmi Note lineup. The company seems to have learned from its previous mistakes and has priced the device very competitively this time around.

The Motorola One Action may not be the ultimate mid-range king but it still has a lot riding on it. The immersive 21:9 display provides a great viewing experience for binge-watching while the huge 128GB of storage gives enough room to store a massive video library, photo collection, and gaming titles. The multimedia capabilities make the device a perfect fit for heavy media consumers. Furthermore, guaranteed software support gives the device an edge over competitors when it comes to future-proofing.

However, the low-light camera performance is not up to the mark when compared to devices like the Redmi Note 7 Pro and Realme 5 Pro. We also feel that the battery performance is a weak link of the device – especially for a device which boasts multimedia experience as its key strength. If you can look past these weaknesses, there’s still plenty to like about the device.

The Motorola One Action will face stiff competition from the Xiaomi Mi A3. The fact that both devices retail for the same price makes the decision for buyers all the more confusing. The One Action enjoys an upper hand over its rival in the display and storage areas but loses out on the battery and low-light camera fronts. It’s tough to predict a clear winner as both devices have their strengths and weaknesses and hence we would advise you to make a decision keeping in my mind your individual needs and priorities.

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