Motorola’s Edge Plus is a contender, not a champion

After years mainly spent in the midrange phone market, Motorola burst back into the spotlight with the foldable Razr: it was bold, it was exciting, it was expensive, and it ultimately flopped. As interesting as it was, it simply wasn’t a very good phone.

The newly announced Motorola Edge Plus is a device in a different vein from the Razr. Instead of a unique form factor or feature set, it’s an Android flagship that’s very similar to every other top Android device that’s available in 2020. But while it might not be a head-turning phone, the $999 Verizon-exclusive Edge Plus succeeds where the Razr failed: it’s a great phone. But in today’s crowded high-end phone market, is “great” good enough to matter?

Hardware

The Edge Plus’ hardware here is high quality, if a little generic in design. If you’ve seen any other 2020 Android phones, the Edge Plus fits right in the lineup: tall aspect ratio, glass sandwiched between two fingerprint-acquiring slabs of glass, a hole-punch camera on the front, and barely any bezels to be seen.

If not for the Motorola logo on the back, it’d be easy to imagine the Edge Plus as another Samsung S20 variant. The specs are similarly on par with the best of Android today, with a Snapdragon 865 processor, Qualcomm’s best and fastest processor for phones. Combined with 12GB of RAM, it’s hard to find a task that challenges the Edge Plus. Performance, even when playing graphically demanding games like Asphalt or Fortnite, was excellent, and regular day-to-day email, social media, and messaging apps run smoothly.

At 6.7 inches, it’s not a small phone, but the 19.5:9 aspect ratio helps keep it narrow enough that it doesn’t feel huge in your hand. Despite the giant display, the Edge Plus is only as wide as a regular iPhone 11 Pro, which makes it comfortable to hold and use (except for when UI elements at apps are stuck at the top of the screen).

There’s an in-display optical fingerprint sensor, which is both fast and reliable, wireless charging (for the phone itself and reverse charging for other devices), and even a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is especially welcome to see on a 2020 phone. The stereo speakers are also excellent: they’re loud and clear, even at high volumes, to the point where I would skip the hassle of using a Bluetooth speaker while making dinner just to rely on the Edge Plus.

As a screen, the OLED panel looks great, with bright colors and great performance indoors and out, along with support for the HDR10+ spec. And the 90Hz refresh rate is smooth and continues to reinforce the idea that this feature should be standard.

That said, the Edge Plus does have a few compromises on the hardware side: the fast refresh rate screen is 90Hz, not 120Hz like Samsung’s S20 lineup or the OnePlus 8 Pro, and the resolution is a more modest 2340 x 1080 than the QHD+ displays.

Those trade-offs do help bolster the already-impressive life of the massive 5,000mAh battery. In a day of fairly constant use (including playing Fortnite, watching an hour-long live stream, and scrolling through more TikTok videos than I’d like to admit), I was able to make it to the end of the promised two days, even with the 90Hz refresh rate option always turned on. I couldn’t test whether frequent 5G usage would change those results, due to the scarcity of Verizon’s 5G network making “frequent” usage of it nearly impossible, but more on that in a bit.

The most frustrating omission is any real waterproofing. Motorola says that the Edge Plus has a “water repellent design” for the occasional splash, but it lacks any sort of IP rating. Every other phone in this price class has an IP68 water and dust repellent rating.

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Living on the edge

While most of the Edge Plus’ design emphasizes good hardware rather than uniqueness, one of the standout features that looks to separate it from the pack is the eponymous “Endless Edge display,” which curves around the sides of the phone at an almost 90-degree angle.

The curved panels are an impressive technical achievement, even compared to other “edge” display phones. But in practice, the screen doesn’t do much to justify the compromises it demands.

The first issue is that while Motorola is correct in saying that the display curves down the side of the device, about half of the “screen” on the side is actually the under-glass bezel. So for all the hype, you only get a small strip of usable interactive pixels on the sides of the device. And those side portions appear discolored when you’re looking at the phone straight on.

The other issue is more intrinsic to the idea of putting screens on the side of a phone. Because the sides are what we use to hold the phone, making it part of the display means that you’re almost always in contact with the screen — for better or worse. Sometimes, it’s useful. For example, I got used to scrolling through Instagram or a website in Chrome by sliding my thumb along the side, and it’s a nice experience. But I would also frequently trigger accidental taps through the side of the screen just by adjusting my grip.

Exacerbating the issue is that the side of the screen is simply not responsive at times, an issue that only gets more problematic when important screen elements are on the edges. Moving apps from one home screen to another page requires some finger gymnastics, and exiting out of full-screen applications like games or streaming apps (which move the Android gesture bar directly on the edge) often took a few tries to actually work.

Cosmetics aside, Motorola does actually utilize the curved screen for a few neat software applications. When the phone is face-down, notifications will cause the sides to light up. Plugging it into a charger makes blue bars shoot up the side, giving a quick representation of the current battery life. Putting it into reverse wireless charging mode will similarly light up the sides of the phone where the coil is to help you align your devices properly.

More unique to the edge is an “edge touch” action bar that can be positioned on either side of the phone, which offers a variety of swipe gestures and shortcuts. Swipe down, and you’ll open up the notifications shade — a genuinely useful function, given that it’s a stretch to reach with one hand otherwise. Swipe down again, and you’ll open Android’s quick settings buttons. You can also swipe down on the action bar to open the app switcher, double tap to switch back to your most recent app, and swipe out to launch a customizable shortcuts bar. It’s all very well-thought-out, and it’s the best use of the unique display on the phone.

The other interesting software addition is the option to add customizable software shoulder triggers on the edge for gaming through Motorola’s updated Gametime. It’s a neat trick, and Motorola’s remapping software for linking the overlaid shoulder buttons to virtual ones in-game worked surprisingly well. But the feature requires that the expanded screen be turned off to take advantage of it, which means you lose out on the cool factor of having your games stretch from edge to edge.

None of these are particularly deal-breaking features since the sides of the screen can be disabled in most apps and cases (although the home screen, settings app, and other system-level features are exceptions). But the phone is called the Edge Plus, and turning off one of the primary features feels like a waste.

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Camera

If the display is one-half of Motorola’s declaration that it should be taken seriously again in the high-end phone space, the new cameras are the other half of the equation.

The Edge Plus has a total of four cameras (along with a time-of-flight sensor on the back used for depth sensing): a 108-megapixel main sensor, a 16-megapixel ultrawide sensor that also shoots macro shots, and an 8-megapixel telephoto sensor that offers 3x optical zoom.

Motorola is making a similar argument as Samsung with the S20 Ultra, claiming that the combination of the physically larger 1/1.33-inch sensor that lets the Edge Plus gather in more light, along with a “pixel-binning” technique that combines four pixels into one larger one for 27-megapixel shots that offer less resolution but better overall image quality.

Put all that technical info aside, though, and the Edge Plus is a fun and enjoyable smartphone to shoot with. If you’ve got good lighting, the shots from the main camera look great, with crisp details and accurately balanced colors.

The other two cameras are more of a mixed bag: the relatively low-resolution telephoto lens isn’t particularly impressive (you’re almost better off just taking a picture with the main lens and cropping in). But the ultrawide lens is great for getting a slightly different perspective on a scene, and the macro mode it offers was surprisingly impressive for shooting close-up details.

Motorola does have a dedicated “night mode” feature, but even with the new sensor, it’s not on par with similar modes from devices like Google’s Pixel lineup or the iPhone 11. There’s also the various additional Motorola-added shooting modes, like a spot color mode for pulling out specific color highlights (which works well) and a cutout mode for completely separating a person from a background (which doesn’t work as well). They’re fun, even if it was hard for me to imagine using them much.

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108-megapixel crop (left) compared to 27-megapixel crop (right).

Lastly, while the Edge Plus can technically shoot at the full 108-megapixels, which is a cool trick, it’s not really worth using the mode. Nearly every shot I took at the quad-pixel 27-megapixel setting came out better than its full-resolution counterpart, with richer colors, brighter lighting, and deeper shadows. The only places where the 108-megapixel shots won out were in capturing tiny details. If you really want to crop in and read text on a distant sign, the high-resolution mode wins out (full resolution sample 1 versus pixel-binned sample 1 | full resolution sample 2 versus pixel-binned sample 2 | full resolution sample 3 versus pixel-binned sample 3).

Video performance is actually quite impressive on the Edge Plus, though. I didn’t encounter any of the focus-hunting issues that plagued Samsung’s 108-megapixel sensor, and the 6K video it can shoot (cropped down from the 108-megapixel main camera) is among the best out there from an Android phone.

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Performance and software

Motorola is perhaps one of the best, if not the best, Android OEMs when it comes to taking a light touch to Google’s stock operating system. The Android experience here is virtually unchanged. As is the case with most Motorola phones, the company’s suite of useful additions — like the the “peek display” feature for showing notifications when the display is off, the various gestures for opening the camera and turning on the flashlight, and the attentive display function for keeping the screen on when you’re actively looking at it — are still here, but they’re all helpful features, and can be disabled if you’re not a fan.

Unfortunately, that’s before Verizon gets its hands on it: out of the box, the Edge Plus is stuffed full of bloatware. I counted no less than seven preinstalled games, along with Disney Plus, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Apple Music, and a host of Yahoo apps — and that’s not even counting Verizon’s own carrier-specific app, like its Cloud, Smart Family, and Messages Plus services. The third-party apps are easily uninstalled (the Verizon ones are only able to be disabled), but it’s a tacky look for what’s meant to be a premium device.

5G

Like every Android flagship with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 processor, the Motorola Edge Plus supports 5G for ultra-fast internet speeds. But there’s a big catch, at least in the US: the Edge Plus is a Verizon-exclusive phone, which means that you’re limited to Verizon’s scant mmWave 5G coverage. On paper, the Motorola Edge Plus supports both the short-range mmWave flavor of 5G (which Verizon’s 5G network uses) as well as the wide sub-6GHz version (which it does not, but international versions of the phone can take advantage of it).

Motorola isn’t being shy about its speed promises here: its tagline for the phone is that it has “fastest 5G in the world,” with speeds up to 4Gbps. And speeds are fast: in my testing, I got download speeds between 250Mbps and 300Mbps when I was able to grab a 5G signal, which while not close to the advertised maximum speed Motorola says that the Edge Plus is capable of, it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of the 40–50Mbps speeds I got on Verizon’s LTE network. It’s fast enough to download a nearly 7GB copy of Star Wars: The Last Jedi on Disney Plus in just over five minutes — impressive even compared to most home Wi-Fi.

Unfortunately, Verizon’s network is incredibly limited. To even get a signal, I had to hike over to the closest 5G site, blocks away from my apartment. And that coverage only extended to a small portion of the street, to the point where you could take a few steps and lose the signal. Moving around at all — even within the 5G area — also saw speeds drop dramatically.

If you happen to be in the rare case of living directly under a Verizon 5G antenna, it’s something to consider, but don’t buy an Edge Plus just for 5G. Verizon’s network just doesn’t extend far enough for it to be useful.

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In many ways, the new Motorola Edge Plus is a phone that’s unlike anything Motorola has made before. But at the same time, it’s also a phone that’s very much like every other Android flagship on the market — from the Galaxy S20 to the OnePlus 8 Pro to the LG V60.

In the mid- to low-end market, Motorola was one of the biggest fish in the sea. But now it’s swimming with sharks and needs to make a compelling argument that the Edge Plus can hold its own against juggernauts like Samsung, LG, and Huawei, along with newer companies like OnePlus and Google’s own Pixel lineups that have been steadily gaining traction in the United States.

That leaves the Edge Plus in an awkward place: not as polished as the S20 lineup, not as flashy as the V60 and its second screen, not as cheap as the OnePlus 8 Pro, and not as revolutionary as the Pixel’s camera. It also certainly doesn’t help that it’s only available from one carrier.

Make no mistake, Motorola has built a great phone in the Edge Plus. But the issue is that in today’s super-saturated phone market, great isn’t quite good enough.

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