In 2020, Motorola made major changes to its beloved G-series lineup. Of those, the introduction of the Moto G Stylus is the biggest surprise. At $300, it finally gave budget-phone shoppers an alternative to the lackluster LG Stylo series. The newest version of the Moto G Stylus ($299.99) comes just nine months after the 2020 Moto G Stylus hit store shelves. From the battery to the screen, it’s bigger in just about every way. But bigger isn’t necessarily better, and with a dim display, downgraded cameras, and few real improvements over the earlier model, the G Stylus misses the mark.
Sleek Until the Fingerprints Come Along
This year’s G Stylus has a slightly more refined aesthetic than its predecessor. My review unit has a glossy blue back that’s less flashy than last year’s model but still loves to collect fingerprints. A white option is also available if you want to pretend you’re carrying an iPhone. At 6.7 by 3.1 by 0.4 inches (HWD) it is about the same size as the LG Stylo 6 (6.7 by 3.1 by 0.3 inches) but comes in a smidge lighter at 7.5 ounces versus 7.7 ounces. Both are heavier than the 7.3-ounce Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (our favorite smartphone with a dedicated stylus slot).
Although Motorola calls this color Aurora Black, it’s actually blue.
The lenses are housed in a single rectangular module that looks more thought-out than on the previous G Stylus. The fingerprint sensor has been moved to the power button on the right side of the phone; it’s a welcome change that makes one-handed use easier.
The top of the G Stylus is bare, but the bottom is packed. There’s a headphone jack, a USB-C charging port, a speaker, and a port for the stylus. If you ever had the misfortune of prying the previous version’s stylus out with your fingernail, you’ll be happy to know this one clicks in and out of the port.
There’s a SIM and microSD slot on the left side of the G Stylus. The power button and volume rocker sit on the right. For the small-handed, the volume rocker will be a stretch, but it provides an oh-so-satisfying click when tapped. The hybrid power button is well placed and even pulls up an app shortcut menu when double tapped.
Durability, as with all Motorola phones, is a concern. The G Stylus’s plastic frame and back are likely to withstand drops without much damage, but its strengthened glass display panel probably won’t fare as well. It’s also water resistant, so sweat or a little rain shouldn’t be an issue, but there’s no IP rating. If you drop the G Stylus in the pool, don’t hold out much hope that popping it into a bag of rice will revive it.
Big Display, Big Problems
Like many people, I spent most of 2020 moving from one room to the next while doomscrolling on whatever screen happened to be in front of me. The experience gave me a new appreciation for the gargantuan displays found on the likes of the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and perhaps that’s what Motorola was going for when it updated its G-series lineup.
Look closely at the Moto G Stylus’s display and you’ll notice shadows around its edges and hole punch.
On the G Stylus, you’ll find a massive 6.8-inch, 1,080-by-2,400-pixel hole-punch display. Sure, it’s bigger than the 6.4-inch LCD on last year’s model, but those extra four-tenths of an inch come at a cost. The display is crisp with no noticeable pixelation or ghosting around text, but it’s dim and hard to see in direct sunlight. Color accuracy skews cool, and the contrast ratio is poor. The viewing angles are good, but tilting the phone calls your attention to the biggest issue of all: shadows. They hide out around the hole punch and the edges of the display and are infuriating. Once you notice them, they’re impossible to ignore.
The Simple Stylus
One of my biggest gripes about the original G Stylus was, in fact, the stylus. The passive pen was thin and hard to pry out of the phone, and Motorola’s software didn’t quite meet the challenge. Luckily, things have improved with this year’s model, though there’s still room to grow.
The updated stylus is longer and easier to remove from its port.
The updated stylus is still passive, but it’s a little longer and has a clicky top like the one on the LG Stylo 6. It’s still thin, but easier to hold. The textured tip is good for quick tasks such as editing photos or marking off items on your checklist but is not as precise as the Stylo 6 for extended writing sessions.
In addition to some minor design changes, there are modest performance improvements. Latency appears to be a little lower. Palm rejection is still noticeably absent, but the new G Stylus doesn’t seem to pick up the stray marks from lefties who drag their hands across the screen.
Clear Calls and Fast LTE Speeds
The Moto G Stylus ships unlocked and works on all major US carriers. Band support is solid; a few bands are missing from the mix, but you’re unlikely to miss them unless you’re planning a trip to Japan. There’s also no 5G support, which seems like a missed opportunity, since the OnePlus Nord N10 5G sells for the same price.
I tested the G Stylus on T-Mobile’s LTE network around Chicago and recorded impressive averages of 62.2Mbps down and 38.7Mbps up.
A glossy plastic back makes the Moto G Stylus a fingerprint magnet.
Test calls on the G Stylus were crisp and clear. With a peak volume of 86dB, it’s easy to hear calls on busy streets. Noise cancellation worked without a hitch.
Speakers are, unfortunately, one area where Motorola decided to cut corners. The Dolby-tuned stereo speakers of 2020 have been replaced with a single bottom-firing speaker and Moto’s Audio Effects setting.
Maximum volume clocks in at 96dB and audio is good, though the soundstage is boxy. Mids are pushed forward, but it’s not unpleasant in the least. At top volume, there’s a little distortion in the highs.
Bluetooth 5 is available for audio and wearable connectivity, as is dual-band Wi-Fi. NFC and wireless charging, however, are nowhere to be found.
A Decline in Camera Quality
When it comes to budget phone cameras, it’s best to temper your expectations. Though we run every phone through the same battery of tests, we only compare phones in the same general price range. Last year’s G Stylus fared pretty well in our camera tests, but this year is a completely different story.
The 48MP primary sensor does a good job with adequate light.
The updated G Stylus camera stack features a 48MP primary lens with an f/1.7 aperture and 4×4 pixel binning. This is the same setup as on last year’s G Stylus; there’s no option to turn off binning, even in Pro mode. The megapixel count for the ultra-wide lens has been cut in half, coming in at 8MP with an f/2.2 aperture, while the 2MP macro lens now boasts a slightly narrower f/2.4 aperture. The 2MP depth sensor appears to be the same.
Our daylight test shots with the primary lens were crisp with excellent depth of field. Color accuracy was spot on, though we noticed some loss of fine detail in the background.
Low-light photos were good overall, but we noticed some unnatural blurring in the foreground that can likely be attributed to over aggressive noise cancellation as well as lens flare. Motorola’s Night Vision mode manages to correct some of the problems, but it makes photos look overexposed.
The ultra-wide lens is capable of good photos with enough light. Daylight test shots had the same color accuracy and depth of field as the primary lens, but background details were fuzzy. Low-light photos, however, appeared muddy with significant noise. Several of our low-light shots also fell victim to pincushion distortion.
The macro lens underwhelms on all counts. Though our test shots appeared to look a little more natural this year, they were still flat, and object detection often blurred the edges of the subject.
The 16MP selfie camera has an f/2.2 aperture and bins to 4MP by default. You can turn the feature off in the Camera app. Our daylight test photos were excellent for social shares, but backgrounds get a little soft at full size. Low-light photos are flat overall and we saw noticeable foreground blur and edge noise. Night Vision is less helpful here, but it does manage to eliminate some of the edge noise.
Low-light photos with the primary lens are also good, though we noticed some loss of fine detail in the foreground, likely due to over-aggressive noise correction. Test shots with the secondary lens appear a bit flat, with intermittent noise. The macro lens performs poorly in low light, which isn’t a surprise.
Portrait mode is hit or miss. The depth sensor on the rear module helps to create a natural bokeh, but we still noticed some issues with subject mapping when there are multiple people in a shot. Portraits with the front-facing camera had noticeable issues with subject mapping even around the contours of a shaved head. Though Motorola’s updated camera software lets you adjust the bokeh, we noticed mapping issues on nearly every test photo.
Hardware Update Lite
The G Stylus is one of the first phones to ship with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 678 mobile platform. If you’re thinking that means significantly improved performance, I have some bad news for you: The Snapdragon 678 SoC is a very minor update to the Snapdragon 675 processor that shipped in last year’s G Stylus. It has the same Kryo 460 architecture as its predecessor, except the two Cortex-A76 cores are now clocked at 2.2GHz instead of 2.0GHz. The Adreno 612 GPU is also the same as you’ll find on the Snapdragon 675, though Qualcomm says it has been updated to perform better.
The Moto G Stylus sports a refined design, but not much else has changed.
In fact, the biggest change is probably the update to Qualcomm’s third-generation AI Engine. When people think about smartphones, many focus on CPU and GPU specs. However, phone performance increasingly depends on accelerators, DSPs, and other components that assist with AI tasks. Qualcomm’s mobile platforms use the baked-in AI Engine for image processing, task prediction, energy consumption, and natural language processing with Google Assistant and other virtual assistants.
The G Stylus ships with 128GB of RAM and 4GB of storage. About 112GB of storage is available out of the box. if you need more, you can add up to 1TB with a microSD card.
A 4,000mAh battery powers the G Stylus—again, unchanged from last year. It should easily get you through a full day between charges. In our battery drain test, which streams HD video at full brightness over Wi-Fi, the G Stylus eked out 13 hours and 7 minutes before powering down. That’s not quite as good as its predecessor (14 hours, 28 minutes), but it surpasses the LG Stylo 6 (12 hours, 9 minutes) by a healthy margin.
I had an opportunity to test the G Stylus for a little over a week. For the first few days, I kept thinking, “Wow, I don’t remember the old G Stylus having this much lag.” By the fourth day, I realized I still had last year’s model and pulled it out of storage to compare them side by side. The difference between the two is minor, but the new G Stylus just seems to be a little slower. Swiping up to switch apps takes a few beats longer. Scrolling through social media for a while, I noticed that the phone doesn’t quite keep up. These aren’t major issues, but they’re issues that don’t exist on the older G Stylus.
That said, the difference between the current G Stylus and Stylo 6 are night and day; the Stylo 6 is painfully slow no matter what the task while the G Stylus just takes a second to catch up sometimes.
Gaming is a mixed bag. I played Alto’s Odyssey for a few hours and noticed only a few skipped frames. On Genshin Impact and Legends of Runterra, however, I encountered long load times, lag, and more skipped frames than I could count.
To get a better idea of how the G Stylus compares with its predecessor and the LG Stylo 6, I ran new benchmarks on all three. Benchmarks provide an objective way to quantify performance, but they’re not indicative of overall user experience and often measure discrete components instead of looking at the device as a whole. Nevertheless, they offer some clues on how a phone will handle certain tasks.
It’s no surprise that both versions of the G Stylus blew the Stylo 6 out of the water on every benchmarking test, and a quick look at the specs would lead you to think the new G Stylus should outperform its predecessor as well. However, it’s not quite so simple.
On GFXBench, a synthetic benchmarking suite that evaluates gameplay, neither version of the G Stylus can break 10fps. A 2fps difference may be a 20% improvement numerically, but it makes no difference to the user’s experience.
Basemark Web 3.0, a web browser performance benchmark, tells a similar story: There’s a 15% difference between scores, but you’d be hard pressed to notice. In fact, I found the latest G Stylus to choke up on web browsing more often than its predecessor does.
Procyon, a comprehensive AI benchmark used by manufacturers and developers, yields the most useful information of the bunch. In addition to a score, it offers a granular breakdown for each test. The difference between the two devices is largely based on improved integer performance scores on Google’s Neural Network API and the CPU. The difference in inference times was within milliseconds, meaning these aren’t differences you’re going to notice while using the phone, and overall integer and float quality scores were identical across the board. GPU scores were nearly identical on every test as well.
The G Stylus ships with Android 10 along with Motorola’s My UX. Yes, that’s the same software that shipped on its elder sibling. To make matter worse, both will only get one Android upgrade. After Android 11, all bets are off. That said, Motorola offers two years of security updates on all its G-series phones, so you’ll get a little something extra if you opt for the newest phone.
For the most part, the G Stylus ships with a stock version of Android. Motorola takes a light-handed approach with My UX. Its custom skin is largely about user customization, though there are a few useful tweaks.
Moto Actions is an incredibly useful feature that allows you to complete common tasks with gestures. Want to take a screen shot? Place three fingers on the screen. Need to turn on Do Not Disturb? Flip the phone over.
There are also G Stylus–specific features. When you pull the stylus out of its port, a floating icon appears with frequent shortcuts. If you forget to put it away, your phone will remind you. Motorola also added a new shortcuts menu, which is helpful when you’re on the go. Simply select the apps you’d like to add, and whenever you double-tap the power button, you’ll see a small menu appear.
New But Not an Upgrade
Over the past several years, Motorola’s G-series phones have consistently received high scores and often earned our Editors’ Choice award. Sadly, the G Stylus merits neither. With the exception of its problematic screen, there’s almost no significant change. The hardware is nearly identical to what you’ll find on the 2020 G Stylus, save for a minor update to the chipset, minor stylus improvements, and the software is the same. If you’re a fan of Motorola, check out the Moto G Power; it’s a better value overall (though it’s also got several flaws). If you just want a good budget phone, the OnePlus Nord N10 5G is your best bet.
Motorola Moto G Stylus (2021)
The Bottom Line
The Moto G Stylus may woo those who want an S Pen–like experience for less than the cost of a Galaxy phone, but it falls short in almost every respect.
Motorola Moto G Stylus (2021) Specs
|Operating System||Android 10|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 678|
|Dimensions||6.7 by 3.1 by 0.4 inches|
|Screen Size||6.8 inches|
|Screen Resolution||2,400 by 1,080|
|Camera Resolution (Rear; Front-Facing)||48MP, 8MP, 2MP, 2MP; 16MP|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||13 hours, 7 minutes|