Motorola Moto G Stylus 5G (2021) review

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CNN
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There aren’t many options for smartphone users who want a phone that includes a stylus to jot notes or sketch. On the high end, there’s Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 or S21 Ultra, both of which will set you back over $1,000.

The $399 Moto G Stylus 5G aims to make a productivity-focused smartphone available to the masses. Motorola delivers a lot of phone for that price — 256GB of storage, 5G connectivity and a 6.8-inch display. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s dive in.

Who this is for: The Moto G Stylus 5G is a solid choice for someone who wants the added functionality and productivity features of using a stylus with a smartphone, but doesn’t want to pay over $1,000 for Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra or Galaxy Note20.

What you need to know: At $399, the Moto G Stylus 5G cut some corners in order to hit the mid-range price. The stylus lacks any connectivity options or advanced controls, but Motorola has tuned the phone’s software to take advantage of what it does offer.

How it compares: The Moto G Stylus 5G is a respectable phone, especially at $399. It’s cameras take decent pictures and the display looks great. You’re going to have no problem using it for everyday tasks — including multitasking — but don’t expect the same high-end speed or performance that you would get from the Galaxy S21 Ultra. That said, if you don’t need a stylus, the Pixel 4a 5G is a better investment at $349. Between performance, improved camera and extended software support, it’s hard to beat.

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The Moto G Stylus 5G looks and feels like a modern phablet — half (smart)phone, half tablet — complete with four rear-facing cameras on the back and a large display. Also on the back of the phone is a fingerprint sensor, covered by the iconic Motorola logo.

And while the back looks like it’s made of glass, it’s actually plastic. The Cosmic Emerald color shifts through various shades of green to nearly black as you rotate the phone.

On the front, you’ll find a large and vibrant 6.8-inch Full HD+ display. It’s pretty modern, at least in features, with a 16-megapixel hole-punch selfie camera in the top-left corner. Volume controls and a power button live on the right, while a SIM card and microSD card slot are on the left. You can use the microSD card portion of the tray to add up to 1TB of extra storage to the phone.

And here’s a shocker for 2021 — the bottom of the Moto G Stylus 5G has a 3.5mm headphone jack next to a USB-C port for charging or data transfers, and the built-in stylus on the far right. To remove the stylus, you press in gently on the end and it pops up with a respectable click. To place the stylus back into the built-in holster, you push it all the way in until you hear another click. The built-in holder is convenient and works just like the built-in S-Pen in Samsung’s Galaxy Note line.

The stylus itself is very slim, if not too slim. We had a hard time finding a comfortable grip for the first few days of testing. There’s a stiff rounded tip that is used to interact with the display, and the other end of the stylus will click like a real pen (a perfect fidget toy), but doesn’t offer any extra functionality. In fact, there’s no Bluetooth connectivity or any other smarts built into the G Stylus 5G’s pen. Whereas the stylus on the Galaxy Note like can be used to remotely control slideshows and music playback, for example. Some corners have to be cut in order to hit the $399 price point, and the lack of a “smart” stylus is certainly one of them.

There’s no doubt the Moto G Stylus 5G is a big phone, but that’s to be expected for a phone with a screen that nearly spans 7-inches. Its size makes it too big to use one-handed at times, such as when you need to tap on a button or link at the top of the screen. However, it’s comfortable to hold — and is very manageable — when jotting down notes with the stylus or scrolling through your Twitter feed.

Interestingly enough, the G Stylus 5G lacks any formal IP-rating for water and dust resistance. Motorola lists it as having a “water repellent design” and if you read the fine print, you quickly learn that it can withstand an occasional splash or light rain. An accidental drop in the pool or sink, however, and you’re likely going to be shopping for a new phone.

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Arguably the star of the show here is the Stylus and Motorola put a lot of work into optimizing the software to take advantage of the digital pen. For example, when you remove the pen from its housing while the phone is locked, the Moto Note app opens and is ready to store whatever’s on your mind. Super handy.

When the phone is unlocked and you remove the stylus, a small circular icon with a pen inside of it shows up on the screen. Tap on the icon to view a shortcut menu to common tasks you’d want to use a stylus with, like taking a screenshot, opening the Note app or using the coloring book. You can customize the app icons or shortcuts that show up in the menu to your liking as well.

It’s a very similar approach to what Samsung has done with the Note lineup over the years, instantly providing a notepad or a shortcut to more actions depending on whether the phone is locked or not.

Another useful feature you can enable is for the phone to record your current GPS location whenever you remove the stylus. That way should you lose the small pen, you’ll at least know where you took it out of the phone. Unfortunately, that’s as far as the locating feature goes. You won’t get a precise location of the pen as you would with a dedicated item tracker.

As for the writing experience — there’s some lag when drawing, and the tip of the pen gliding across the pen isn’t as smooth as, say, the Apple Pencil on an iPad, but we’d wager that after a few uses you’ll get used to its quirks and won’t give it a second thought.

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Out of the box the Moto G Stylus 5G is running Android 11 with a customized interface. And as we hinted at, corners have to be cut in order to release a smartphone with so many features and keep it under $400. Part of that includes the processor, which isn’t going to blow you away with impressive performance.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s more than capable of keeping up with most tasks you throw at it. Getting around the G Stylus 5G using apps like Twitch, Twitter, Slack, Gmail and Reddit was a smooth and pleasant experience. But when it comes to quickly multitasking or playing a resource-heavy game like Need for Speed No Limits, you’ll likely notice a hiccup every now and then.

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Inside the Moto G Stylus 5G is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 5G processor, 6GB of memory and 256GB of storage. There are versions of the G Stylus 5G that will come with lower memory and storage (4GB/128GB, respectively), however, Amazon and Motorola are both currently only selling the 256GB model in the US for $399.

There’s a 5,000 milliamp-hour battery inside the G Stylus 5G, which Motorola advertises as big enough to power through two days of normal use. We weren’t able to go two full days without reaching for a charger, but you’re not going to worry about battery during a typical day, even if you’re traveling and frequently checking email and using turn-by-turn directions. Included in the box is a 10W wall adapter for charging the G Stylus 5G, the max charging speed it accepts. Wireless charging is not supported here.

One feature that’s missing from the G Stylus 5G is NFC (near field communications). And that means you won’t be able to use the phone to pay at contactless terminals that are now commonplace. Motorola likely has data that shows NFC isn’t a make or break feature, but with the addition of next-gen features like 5G, mobile payments feels like a big miss.

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When it comes to 5G connectivity and the level of support for the new Stylus, it’ll depend on which carrier you’re using. On AT&T, the device won’t work with 5G, but on Verizon and T-Mobile it will connect to each’s sub-6 5G network (that’s the slower, but more reliable 5G standard).

As for the camera setup, the Stylus 5G is stacked… on paper at least. Let’s break them out:

  • 48-megapixel lens: This is the main camera on the G Stylus 5G. It’ll take clear, bright and vibrant photos, taking very little time to focus.
  • 5-megapixel macro lens: Ever want to take a close-up photo of a plant or even a coin? That’s exactly what the macro lens is for. Motorola suggests being about two finger widths away from the object you’re taking a picture of.
  • 8-megapixel 118-degree wide-angle lens: A wider field of view is perfect for family photos and ensuring everyone is in the photo. It’s also a handy camera to take landscape photos with, capturing the entire scene.
  • 2-megapixel depth sensor: You won’t take photos directly with this camera, but instead it’s used to add depth to photos and ensure all of the background information is included.

In our testing, the Stylus 5G takes good shots in brightly lit environments, such as outdoors. There’s a slightly overexposed look to some of the photos you capture, but overall you’re going to enjoy taking and sharing the pics you capture with this phone. In dimly lit or dark environments, expect similar but not identical quality.

On the front you’ll find a 16-megapixel lens which is perfectly fine for selfies and video calls. In our testing, it took decent selfies that we’d have no problem sharing on Twitter or Facebook.

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Jason Cipriani/CNN

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Jason Cipriani/CNN

Jason Cipriani/CNN

Jason Cipriani/CNN

Tough decisions had to be made in order to hit the mid-range price point, and outside of leaving out NFC, we don’t have any complaints about the end result. The Moto G Stylus 5G is a well-rounded phone that seemingly does it all. The stylus is an appreciated feature for taking notes and sketching; assuming you can draw.

The Moto G Stylus 5G is an impressive phone that competes with high-end Samsung smartphones, at least when it comes to supporting a stylus. From a camera that does a good job when lighting conditions are right, to excellent battery life to middle-of-the-road performance, there’s not a whole lot to complain about with this phone.

But there are some clear omissions that relegate it to a must-buy for only those who want a smartphone with a stylus, otherwise, there are more impressive options at mid-range prices, like the Pixel 4a 5G.

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