Motorola One Action review: Right in the name

When you think of the word “action,” what comes to mind? For me, I immediately see someone on a mountain bike blazing through a forest filled with hills, rocks, tree stumps, and challenging pathways that the biker handles with ease. The person’s exciting, unexpected in their ways, and cool to engage with.

That’s why I think Motorola’s One Action phone is a bit misleading. It’s a simple mid-ranger that costs $349.99 and is decent enough to use every day. It’s nothing to write home about, and it certainly doesn’t remind me of the ruggedness and durability its name hints at.

Plus, you can sum it up using just the words in its name. The Moto One Action has one action: a video camera that’s been rotated 90 degrees. Besides this, the phone is very bland and uninspiring, even though its screen is unusally tall.

It’s also not even that great of a mid-ranger. I’ve used phones that feel faster, feel more pleasant to use, and aren’t as confusing at $350. The One Action is fine, but it’s nothing more.

Cheap build, oddly tall screen

When you first pick up the One Action, you’ll realize that Motorola wants you to be impressed by its looks. And at a glance, they’re perfectly fine. It has a super bright white back that’s made of glossy plastic, and the side railing give off the impression of stainless steel. It kind of looks like my iPhone XS, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is a bad thing is how cheap it feels. For $350, as odd as it sounds, I was expecting a bit more from the feel-in-the-hand department. To be honest, I was kind of let down when I unboxed it. I’m sure it’ll be fine for most people, but at least to me, it kind of feels weird, especially at $350. It does feel sturdy, though, so don’t expect any creaking from the plastic.

Update: Yeah, so, while I was typing this review, I noticed a nice scuff at the top of the rail on my One Action. It isn’t that bad, but you’re gonna wanna use its included case. Like I said, this is a plastic phone, and it will get scuffed up quickly.

Around the device, you’ll find clicky volume and power buttons (yay!); a downward firing speaker that’s pretty terrible (nay!); a USB-C port; and at the top, a headphone jack. This is a $350 phone, so of course it has a headphone jack. I will say, though, that I never used the port during my review period simply because I’ve moved on from wired headphones. But if you still have a wired pair of EarPods or something, you’ll appreciate it.

As a final note, the One Action does have a feature that’s reminiscent of the whole “action phone” idea: it has an IPX2 certification, good for water that hits the phone at a 15-degree angle. It’s kind of a pointless rating and Motorola could’ve just said it’s “splash-proof” like it’s done in the past, but I guess any IP rating is a good rating.

When you pick up the One Action, you’ll notice that it’s pretty easy to handle thanks to its slim width. That’s because the device comes with a 6.3-inch LCD 2520×1080 21:9 display. Typically, with taller phones, you get an aspect ratio of around 19.5:9, but some manufacturers have decided to experiment with 21:9 for “cinematic” content playback.

While Motorola has hopped on this bandwagon, I don’t think it’s for the “cinematic” part. I think it’s so that’s it’s easier to handle the phone, which we’ll get to next.

As far as quality is concerned, the screen’s fine. It doesn’t get very bright and colors are pretty saturated, but it’s totally fine for everyday use. Viewing angles are pretty impressive, and I didn’t notice any light bleeding. You can tell the glass is pretty far away from the screen itself, but it’s hard to avoid that at this price point.

What I don’t like is the touch response. Things just seem off with the One Action compared to other budget phones I’ve interacted with. For whatever reason, tapping things feels extra stuttery and not as responsive as I expected. Scrolling also feels pretty choppy with this phone. I thought at first it was becasue I got used to the Pixel 4’s 90Hz panel, but I can definitely tell it isn’t the refresh rate since animations still look normal.

Maybe it’s just a software bug or something. At least I’m hoping it is, because if it’s not, that means the hardware is designed this way, and this way is not a good way.

I’d also like to add I’m not a big fan of the 21:9 aspect ratio. Everything feels a bit too crammed together for my taste. This is a pretty subjective opinion so you might like its slim, candy bar nature. But for me, I want something wider like 19:9 or even 18:9, especially when I’m trying to watch videos or play games.

Basic cameras with one action

Of course, the principal reason the One Action comes with a 21:9 display is so that the phone’s easier to hold in portrait mode, and that’s where we get to the camera section.

Why? Because with the One Action, you get a rear camera that’s physically rotated 90 degrees so you can take landscape video without turing your phone sideways.

The sensor in question is a 16MP f/2.2 lens that sports an ultra-wide 117-degree viewing angle. Like I said, it’s been rotated 90 degrees, so when you switch to the camera in the camera viewfinder, you get a tiny viewing strip of what the camera’s looking at. This lets you record wide-angle video while your phone is being held vertically.

This is the only thing worth noting out of the three cameras on the back. The other two, a main 12MP f/1.8 lens and a 5MP depth sensor, are fine. Meanwhile, the “action cam” is also fine, but also confusing.

Why is it confusing? Because you can only take videos with it. For whatever reason, Motorola isn’t letting users take wide-angle photos with the camera, and I have no idea whether it’s a hardware issue or a conscious software decision. Either way, you’re gonna have to really enjoy taking ultra-wide videos to justify buying this phone for its camera setup.

For the record, none of the lenses are any good at nighttime, daytime photos are pretty bland, and portrait mode kinda sucks.

As for selfies, there’s a hole-punch cutout at the top of this tall phone where a 12MP f/2.0 sensor lives. It takes photos and 4K video, but neither are very vibrant or pleasant to look at. The selfies are at least okay for Instagram.

It’s kind of a shame I’ve run out of things to talk about in the camera department for this phone. After all, it’s the reason the phone exists. But I just can’t say many nice things. Yes, it’s cool to be able to take landscape videos without rotating your phone, but I’ve never found it a nuisance to do so.

Also, if Motorola was gonna include this feature on a phone, they could’ve at least done it on a phone that’s rugged and reminds you of a GoPro. That way, they could market the “action” part as an element of an entire package built for rough bike trails, hiking trips, and other outdoor activities.

But they didn’t. Instead, they ran a weird experiment with a run-of-a-mill mid-ranger to see whether people wanted such a sensor on a phone, and unfortunately, that experiment failed. It’s cool to have, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely not worth making a purchase decision over.

Uninspiring performance, decent battery life

You also shouldn’t buy this phone for its performance. Mid-range to low-end phones don’t have the best performance anyway, but the One Action can’t pull off the same tricks the Moto G and Pixel 3a do with their performance.

I blame this solely on the hardware. The Moto One Action is powered by Samsung’s Exynos 9609 processor. It’s a pretty low-end chipset with an octa-core architecture, and surprisingly enough, it can’t keep up with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 and 600 series chips. Things feel much slower on this phone thanks to the 9609, even compared to the Moto G7 from last year. The worst part? The chip’s powering a $350 phone, not a $200 one.

You get 4GB of RAM in the One Action which, y’know, is fine for basic use. Motorola definitely thinks you’ll take plenty of videos with this phone, so it ships the device with a minimum of 128GB of storage. I took no more than a few sample videos, and even then, I couldn’t be sold on the rotated camera gimmick, so 128GB is way too much for me. That being said, if you plan to have this phone for a few years down the road, you’ll appreciate it.

In a nutshell, the One Action is fine for very casual usage like social media and email. Do not expect to play games that rely on good graphics or AR experiences with this phone. You’ll be pretty disappointed.

Inside the One Action, Motorola includes a nice sized 3,500mAh battery. With such low-end internals and a non-performance demanding screen, the One Action manages to last me a full day and then some. Typically, I’ll end days with about 45 percent left in the tank, which is pretty good. I could probably get into the first half of the next day, but I’d have to turn airplane mode on since standby time is pretty terrible.

The phone comes with a 10W charger which, while isn’t fast, is at least enough to demolish the speed of any 5W charger which, shockingly enough, still comes with some $700 phones.

Fast fingerprint reader

In the security department, Motorola includes a fingerprint reader on the back of the One Action. It’s embedded in the M logo, and while it’s pretty tiny, it’s a speedy little guy. I’ve had about a 95 percent success rate with the sensor, and I can unlock my phone in a really short amount of time. If there’s one truly impressive aspect of this phone, it’s the fingerprint reader. I was genuinely surprised to learn how good quality it is.

If you don’t like fingerprint sensors, there’s face unlock, but it’s powered by the selfie camera and takes a photo of you, only to match it to some stored value and assume it looks similar. It’s incredibly insecure since anybody who might look remotely like you could unlock your phone. I’d steer clear of this feature if I were you.

Android 9 Pie

I was gonna write a heading for this section based on the fantastic software experience of the One Action. On one hand, you get a clean and minimal UI with no heavy skins or customizations. You also get Motorola’s fantastic gestures like a double karate chop to turn on the flashlight and a double twist of the wrist to activate the camera. On the other hand, the entire experience is based on Android 9 Pie which… why?

The “One” in Motorola One Action means this phone is a part of the Android One program. That program guarantees a clean and minimal Android experience with speedy software updates and regular security patches. During my testing, I’ve received one software update, and it was for the December 2019 security patch. And like I said, it’s still running Android 9.

Maybe the One Action is some exception to the meaning of Android One. Or maybe this is the norm. And if it is, you shouldn’t buy phones that are a part of it anticipating timely upgrades. You won’t get them.

I’ll update this review when/if I get Android 10. Stay tuned.

Should you buy it?

No.

That’s a little harsh.

You should not buy this phone anticipating a great camera experience, good performance, or timely software updates. Everything Motorola’s promoting about the One Action is, unfortunately, way too overhyped. Yes, the phone’s usable and yes, you can take ultra-wide video. But the entire experience feels too confused to justify its $350 price tag.

It’s a weird mix of some decent specs, some not-so-decent specs, a glossy design that’s meant to look stylish but isn’t durable, an “action” camera that can’t take photographs, and a ton of storage that hints at the intention of using it for two to three years down the line. That’s a lot of conflicts all in one package, and at least to me, it’s pretty appalling.

If you want to buy a Motorola One Action, I think you should wait. You should wait because there’s a sliver of a chance Moto will bring that rotated camera to another phone, and that phone might be a better overall package. But if you want the One Action today, your best bet is to either hold off or wait until it drops to, like, $230. Even then, though, you might find something better.

My verdict? Stay clear of the One Action. It’s a shame to say, but there’s really not a single group of people I can say this phone was designed for. Like I said at the top of my review, if the action camera were strapped to an ultra-rugged Android phone, it would make a lot more sense. But it’s not, and because of that, you shouldn’t buy it, at least until Motorola can figure out what to do with its camera tech.

Motorola One Action

$349.99
Motorola One Action
5.6

Design

6.0/10

Display

5.5/10

Performance

4.0/10

Camera

5.5/10

Battery

7.0/10

Pros

  • Good looks
  • Speedy fingerprint reader
  • Reliable battery life
  • Headphone jack!
  • Plenty of storage

Cons

  • "Action" cam is extremely limited in functionality
  • Mediocre performance for the money
  • Software's great, just not the version or update frequency
  • Display is pointlessly tall and not that good looking
  • $350 is too much money