Motorola Moto G Stylus review (2021): a Galaxy Note for the rest of us

The 2nd gen Moto G Stylus offers a rich experience but with poor cameras

Motorola Moto G Stylus review 2021
Moto G Stylus review
Bottom Line
The 2021 Moto G Stylus is a large, affordable 4G phone with a stylus. While it provides a wonderful user experience, it suffers from lackluster cameras and lacks NFC.
Pros
Beautiful display
Solid battery life
Headphone jack
Superior user experience
Almost stock Android
Cons
It’s really big
Plastic build
Middling cameras
Mono speaker
No NFC
3.7

The $300 Motorola Moto G Stylus was first introduced early 2020 with — you guessed it — a small built-in capacitive stylus, plus a few related software tweaks. It was well-received, so it makes sense that Moto decided to launch a sequel for 2021. But what’s the 2nd-gen 2021 Motorola Moto G Stylus like? It costs the same, so what’s changed? Does it live up to the G-Series legacy? Is this the affordable Galaxy Note you’ve been waiting for? Let’s dive in for our Motorola Moto G Stylus review.

What is it?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Moto’s G-series by now. These excellent mid-range smartphones have been very popular for years now — especially in the Americas — thanks to a combination of decent specs, clean software, and affordable prices. While initially consisting of a single model, the lineup quickly grew into a range of handsets with suffixes like Fast, Play, Plus, Power, and Stylus.

With a 6.8-inch display, this year’s G Stylus is a really big phone (vs. 6.4-inch last year). It measures 169.8 x 77.9 x 9mm and weighs 213g. That makes it slightly larger and heavier than Samsung’s mighty Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Other than the glass front, the mid-frame and back panel are made of plastic. While faux metal and glass are pretty standard at this price tier, it’s a step down from last year’s real aluminum mid-frame.

Strangely, the G Stylus’ design language has more in common with the Moto One series (side-mounted fingerprint reader) and the competition (Samsung and OnePlus-like rectangular camera pod) than other G-series handsets. At least the stenciled Moto logo, rectangular LED flash and dimpled pattern under the faux-glass are on-brand. My review unit is the Aurora Black version, but the G Stylus also comes in Aurora White.

In front, the G Stylus features a 6.8-inch FHD+ IPS screen (2400 x 1080 pixels, 386ppi) with a 20:9 aspect ratio. There’s a punch hole in the top left corner for the 16MP f/2.0 1-micron selfie camera (which carries over from last year), and a thin earpiece above the display. Bezels are reasonably small, except for the chin, which is more pronounced. Then again, this is to be expected for an IPS panel in this category.

Motorola Moto G Stylus 2021 backside
Motorola Moto G Stylus 2021 backside

This new G Stylus inherits its predecessor’s 48MP f/1.7 0.8-micron main shooter (with PDAF) and 2MP f/2.2 1.75-micron macro (with AF), but makes due with a basic 8MP f/2.2 1.12-micron 118-degree ultrawide (vs. 16MP last year). It also swaps the laser AF module for a 2MP f/2.4 depth sensor, bringing the rear lens count up to four. There’s no OIS here — overall, this camera system is par for the course for a $300 phone.

Next, let’s take a tour around the edges. On the right side, you’ll find a volume rocker and capacitive fingerprint sensor, which doubles as the power/lock button. Along the bottom edge there’s a stylus silo, mono speaker, primary mic, USB Type-C port, and headphone jack. The left side is home to the nano SIM / microSD tray, and the secondary mic is located on top. Other than the Stylus silo, this is Moto’s usual layout.

Speaking of the stylus, it’s a little fancier this year. It’s still capacitive (passive) but there’s now a spring-loaded push-pull release mechanism similar to what you’ll find on the end of a ball-point pen. By contrast, last year’s stylus didn’t have any moving parts. And despite having a stylus, this handset boasts a water-repellant design. On the power front, the G Stylus packs a 4000mAh battery with support for 18W charging (USB PD).

Motorola Moto G Stylus
The stylus housed inside of the Motorola Moto G Stylus

Peek under the hood, and you’ll find Qualcomm’s recently announced Snapdragon 678, mated here with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage (plus microSD support up to 512GB). This “new” 4G-only chip is basically a souped-up Snapdragon 675 (which launched back in early 2019). Still, it’s an improvement over last year’s Snapdragon 665, and is perfectly suited for affordable mid-range phones like the G Stylus.

Other specs include CAT 12 LTE, WiFi ac, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, A-GPS / GLONASS / Galileo, an FM radio, plus a bunch of sensors (proximity, ambient light, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and barometer). Unfortunately, the G Stylus lacks NFC for contactless payments. I’ve been complaining about NFC missing on Moto’s US-market G-series forever now, but one year into Covid-19, it’s simply unacceptable.

Design

Did I mention the G Stylus is big? It feels massive even to me, and I don’t have small hands. Once you get over the sheer size of it, this handset actually looks rather nice — in a generic kind of way. Aside from the Moto logo in the back, the design identity is derivative. The plastic build is also a little disappointing, primarily because some past G-series devices were glass and aluminum sandwiches (remember the lovely G6?)

Despite the darker finish being a bit of a fingerprint magnet, the G Stylus is well made. Plastic is also quite durable, so this phone is more likely to survive drops. In front, the chin is noticeable, but at least it isn’t an eyesore like on the OnePlus Nord N10 5G. The side-mounted capacitive fingerprint sensor is quick and reliable but probably less convenient if you’re left-handed (I’m right-handed). Haptics are good, especially at this price.

Display

That vast 6.8-inch display is definitely one of the G Stylus’ pros. It’s beautiful, with punchy colors, excellent contrast, and decent viewing angles. As a bonus, it’s also bright enough in direct sunlight. But now that I’ve used so many handsets with high refresh-rates, I wish this was a 90Hz screen like on the $300 OnePlus Nord N10 5G. Then again, Moto isn’t really known for pushing the envelope, so maybe next year?

Camera

Unfortunately, the cameras are one of the G Stylus’ cons. For years now, most of Moto’s phones have suffered from lackluster imaging performance due to middling hardware and a lack of software expertise. So while I’m not surprised, it’s still a bummer. The 48MP main shooter bins (combines) four pixels into one for better low-light performance, and outputs 12MP images. It’s the best of the bunch, but that’s not saying much.

Last year’s G Stylus featured a 16MP ultrawide that was only capable of video recording (what Moto calls an action camera). Instead, this year’s model comes with a more traditional 8MP ultrawide that supports both photo and video capture. While that’s a welcome change, there’s no night mode on this ultrawide, which limits its versatility. The macro carries over unchanged, and while the AF lens is a bonus, that 2MP sensor is just too small.

The 16MP selfie shooter is also identical to its predecessor’s, and supports night mode and 4-to-1 pixel binning, resulting in 4MP selfies by default (16MP in full-resolution mode). Video recording maxes out at 4k 30fps or 1080p 60fps with the main sensor, 1080p 30fps with the ultrawide and selfie cameras, and 720p with the macro lens — all stabilized (rear only). Sadly, audio is only captured in mono, unlike other modern handsets.

Motorola Moto G Stylus review 2021 camera
Motorola Moto G Stylus camera pod

Shooting modes are typical Moto, and include portrait, night, panorama, pro, macro, cutout, spot color, cinemagraph, group selfie, filters, slow motion (1080p 120fps or 720p 240fps), and time-lapse. Oddly, there’s no 48MP full-resolution mode on the main shooter, but spot color is available for both photos and videos. The camera app is also a typical Moto. It’s well laid out and pretty intuitive to use. I have no issues here.

Pictures taken with the 2nd Gen Motorola Moto G Stylus are fine in daylight, but quickly fall apart in low light — especially with the ultrawide. Zooming around 2-3x results in oversharpened images, and anything beyond that turns into a blurry mess. Night mode obviously helps, and turns photos that are otherwise dark and soft into something acceptable. Despite benefiting from AF, macro shots lack detail. Selfies and videos are alright though, so there’s that.

Call quality

I tested the G Stylus primarily on AT&T’s 4G LTE network in and around San Francisco, and didn’t experience any problems. With broad support for LTE bands (and even legacy CDMA bands) in the US, it also works fine on T-Mobile and Verizon. Calls were loud and clear, and data speeds matched other devices on these networks. The lack of NFC can’t be overstated though. Moto needs to rectify this ASAP.

Motorola Moto G Stylus review 2021 camera
The stylus resting next to the Motorola Moto G Stylus

Audio

On the audio front, the new G Stylus gets downgraded to a simple mono speaker. It’s okay for calls and the occasional YouTube video, but nothing more. That’s disappointing because last year’s version packed some of the best stereo speakers I’ve heard on any phone — ever. At least the headphone jack sounds great. The DAC is clean, and the amp is powerful enough to drive even finicky headphones and earbuds.

Performance

Performance is good overall. The Snapdragon 678 ran my usual roster of apps (mostly productivity and social media apps) without breaking a sweat. Clearly, the G Stylus isn’t flagship quick, but it stayed nice and smooth no matter what I threw at it. And with 4GB RAM being the bare minimum to run Android properly, memory wasn’t an issue. Basically, gamers aside, most people will be satisfied with this handset’s performance.

Battery life

Battery life is solid too. The G Stylus will easily last a day and a half on a full charge — even two days, depending on usage. While I’m happy with this, it’s a bit strange that Moto settled for a 4000mAh cell here. Surely, there’s room for a bigger battery in a device this large, especially when smaller phones like the Poco M3 boast a 6000mAh cell. Also, the G Stylus supports 18W charging but only ships with a 10W charger in the box.

Motorola Moto G Stylus review 2021
Motorola Moto G Stylus review 2021

Software

Moto handsets always deliver a wonderful user experience, and the G Stylus is no exception. It runs an almost stock build of Android 10, augmented by a few helpful tweaks. This software is clean and responsive, and everything’s where you expect it to be — from the launcher to the settings to the recent apps. Ditto Moto’s features — from the awesome clock/weather/fitness widget to Moto Actions and Moto Display.

Whether you’re using face unlock, turning the flashlight on/off with a double hand chop, or double-tapping the side-mounted fingerprint reader to activate the Power Touch shortcut menu, it’s the small details that make all the difference. Moto’s also added some functionality to take full advantage of the stylus, including apps like Moto Note (productivity) and Coloring Book (fun), plus some stylus-specific settings.

By default, if you remove the stylus when the G Stylus is unlocked, a customizable shortcut menu appears, but this can be changed to a specific app instead, or none at all. If you remove the stylus when the phone is locked, it creates a new note in Moto Note by default, but this can be changed to launch Google Keep, or do nothing instead. There’s nothing too crazy going on here, but it certainly makes the stylus more useful.

Moto Gametime (a standard game mode) is also present, in case you need some peace and quiet while playing PUBG Mobile. My only concern with the software is that the G Stylus isn’t shipping with Android 11 out the box. On the plus side, there’s no bloatware here, no pre-installed carrier or partner apps. All you’ll find is Google’s familiar apps plus a few Moto apps — and that’s it.

Motorola Moto G Stylus review 2021 verdict

On the surface, the 2nd gen Motorola Moto G Stylus is a pretty good phone. It bundles a lovely display, decent performance, and strong battery life in a nice, affordable package — all while delivering a wonderful user experience. Dig a little deeper though, and the flaws become more obvious. The middling cameras, mono speaker, and missing NFC make the G Stylus significantly less compelling. And then there’s the $300 price tag.

See, here in the US, the OnePlus Nord N10 5G also costs $300, and while it lacks a stylus, it boasts 5G, more RAM (6GB), a 90Hz screen, stereo speakers, and NFC — plus similarly excellent software. So here’s the question: are you willing to sacrifice all of that for a built-in capacitive stylus? I don’t think so. Thankfully, the price of Moto’s handsets usually drops quickly, so when the G Stylus gets below $250, it’ll be a different story.

In the end, though, it feels like Moto’s just cruising along. I’ve been complaining about the G-series’ underwhelming shooters, missing NFC, and bloated initial pricing for years now — and I’m not the only one. Is anyone at Moto listening?

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