Motorola Defy full review

The Motorola Defy represents the resurrection of an 11-year-old ruggedised phone sub-brand. 2010’s original Defy was notable for its unusually tough exterior, and this 2021 reboot stays true to that heritage.

Having partnered with British tough-phone specialist Bullitt Group, the new Motorola Defy wraps entry-level smartphone components in a military-spec (MIL-STD–810G) casing. With a 720p LCD display, a Snapdragon 662 CPU, a 48Mp main camera, and a 5000mAh battery, this is more of a blunt instrument than a sharp tool.

Such a specification might seem a little expensive at £279/$279, but genuine smartphone toughness doesn’t come cheap.

I'll be comparing the Motorola Defy with some non-rugged alternatives at various points for context, but they’re not really the competition here. For a certain type of person working or playing in extreme physical environments, the Motorola Defy provides a highly accessible brand of ruggedness.

Design & Build

  • 10.9mm
  • 232g
  • Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) casing

While 2015’s Moto X Force and 2017’s Moto Z2 Force attempted to incorporate toughness into what were, at the time, modern smartphone designs, the Motorola Defy makes no such concessions. This is a phone that looks as tough as it claims to be, with not so much as a nod to the curvy-screened hole-punch camera-bearing brigade.

At 169.8 x 78.2mm, the Defy’s footprint is taller and wider than even supersized flagship phones like the Sony Xperia 1 III, and at 232g it’s even heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s way thicker than any other regular phone you’re likely to come across at 10.9mm.

And yes, that latter measurement relates to the body rather than the camera module, which has actually been recessed slightly for better protection. If there’s one design feature that we’d like to see carried over to more mainstream phones, it could well be that.

Motorola Defy thermoplastic polyurethane

The real protection comes from a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) outer casing, which is a material that basically fills the gap between rubbers and plastics. It’s strong, flexible, and absolutely not sexy to look at in any way.

Motorola and Bullitt Group has really leaned into this rugged aesthetic, with pronounced rubberised ridges that aid grip. They’ve also included a heavy-duty lanyard, with corresponding built-in corner mounting, for extra drop prevention. It can also be cleaned with soap or sanitiser.

Other noteworthy external elements include a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge, and an old fashioned but reliable rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. There’s also a programmable button on the top-right edge, which can be set to a walkie-talkie-like ‘push to talk’ function using Motorola’s Mototalk app.

Rugged features

  • MIL-STD–810G certified
  • Drop-proof to 1.8m
  • IP68

The Motorola Defy really can stand up to a clattering. Though it’s said to be drop-proof up to 1.8m, I was encouraged to drop the phone from 1.2m as part of my testing process. This is intended to replicate a drop from a bike, but it’s also roughly the height most people will hold their phone at when walking about.

Motorola Defy lanyard

I did what was were told (albeit with an almighty involuntary wince) onto a concrete slab. Sure enough, the phone emerged in full working order, with only a light scuff on the load-bearing corner to show for it.

I needn’t have worried, given that the Motorola Defy has attained a US military MIL-STD–810G specification. This involves being put through a series of torture tests that involves exposure to thermal shocks, high and low temperature extremes, tumble and vibration tests, as well as salt mist conditions.

It’s not just the outside of the phone that’s tough either. Motorola and Bullitt have turned their intention to the phone’s modest internals as well, with a structurally reinforced printed circuit board (PCB) lending improved rigidity.

It probably doesn’t need saying given all of the above, but the Defy is also IP68 certified. It’s fully dust, sand and waterproof up to 1.5m for 35mins. Not an unusual spec for a smartphone these days, but certainly uncommon in a sub-£500 device.

Plus, the Defy goes further. I was encouraged to subject the phone to repeated spills of 58°C brewed coffee. Rather than waste good coffee, I boiled a temperature-controlled kettle to around 60°C and poured several extended glugs of the hot liquid onto the phone, both front and back. After a quick towelling off, the slightly toasty Defy worked perfectly.

Motorola Defy rugged case

Indeed, operating at extreme temperatures is another of the Defy’s big claims. Motorola says that it can withstand a variance of between -25°C (–13°F) and 75°C (167°F) for up to 30 minutes, which is well outside normal smartphone parameters.

Screen

  • 6.5in, LCD
  • 720p HD+
  • Corning Gorilla Glass Victus

As anyone who’s ever dropped a phone before will know, it’s the display that’s the weak point. To that end, the Defy is fronted by 0.7mm-thick Corning Gorilla Glass Victus which, like the camera module, has been recessed for added protection.

Just to reiterate, there wasn’t so much as a scratch on the screen when I deliberately sent the Defy for a tumble onto concrete. This is a decidedly high-grade component.

There’s a reason I’ve continued the ruggedised chat into the display section... There really isn’t all that much to say for it otherwise.

You’re looking at a 6.5in LCD display. That’s actually quite big for a rugged phone, but no one’s going to get excited about a basic LCD panel when there are £300 phones with OLED screens out there. This one doesn’t get especially bright either, which is a bit of a bind in a phone that’s supposedly equipped for an outdoors life.

But the real kicker is a resolution of just 1600x720, aka 720p, aka HD+. I’ve complained about such a resolution in sub-£200 phones before, so guess what I think about it in a £280 handset. Both the CAT S62 Pro and the Doogee S88 Pro go Full HD+, so it’s not a rugged phone thing either.

Motorola Defy screen

Adding to this low-end vibe is a bog-standard 60Hz refresh rate. Again, it isn’t uncommon to find 90- or 120Hz displays in cheap phones, though this isn’t a spec that you’d necessarily associate with reinforced handsets like this.

In all this, I need to bear in mind that the average use case scenario for the Motorola Defy is going to differ greatly to that of, say, the Poco F3 with its FHD+ 120Hz AMOLED. The Defy is clearly intended for active sorts who need to be able to do the basics in inhospitable environments, so there isn’t likely to be a lot of Netflix-and-chilling going on here.

To that end, the display does its job reasonably well. While motion feels a little laggy, colours are reasonably accurate, and the lack of pixels isn’t readily apparent when navigating through home screens and menus. Load up a web page or open Google Photos, however, and those thumbnail images and smaller fonts are a real eyesore.

Specs & Performance

  • Snapdragon 662
  • 4/64GB
  • Limited to 4G

At the risk of sounding reductive, it feels suspiciously like Motorola handed Bullitt Group the ageing Moto G9 Play and told it to build a tank out of it, like some kind of smartphone Robocop.

I say this because the core specs are identical. I’ve talked about the display, and I’ll go on to talk about the camera and battery, but the Defy’s Snapdragon 662 CPU and 4GB RAM allotment are also exactly the same.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to entry-level performance across the board. An average Geekbench 5 multi-core score of 1401 falls well below the similarly priced Realme 8 Pro and the OnePlus Nord CE 5G.

It’s a similar story in the GPU stakes, with GFX Bench test scores that amount to between 3 and 11 frames per second behind both of those aforementioned rivals. See all the scores below.

Humble processors are a regular occurrence in the rugged phone sphere, though. The aforementioned CAT S62 Pro lays on an even older and slower version of this chip in the Snapdragon 660, while the Doogee S88 Pro goes with the much less mainstream Mediatek Helio P70.

Gaming on the Defy isn’t a complete write-off, but it’s still one of the poorest performers you’re likely to find for this sort of money. PUBG defaults to Smooth/Medium Frame Rate, which is almost the bare minimum setting, and it runs merely adequately at this setting. You’ll get a better gaming experience out of the £200 Poco X3 NFC, which says it all really.

While general performance is perfectly fine, you should be under no illusion where the budget has been spent. It might be tough, but like its rugged brothers, the Defy ain’t so smart or fast on its feet.

64GB of internal storage looks more than a little weedy, too, given that rugged and budget rivals alike have started offering 128GB. You do get a microSDXC card slot, however.

Finally, there’s no 5G connectivity here. In terms of hardware compromises, this is both the least onerous and the least surprising, as adding such network readiness takes up a fair proportion of a cheap phone’s hardware budget.

Cameras

  • 48Mp main sensor
  • 2Mp depth & macro
  • 8Mp selfie camera

I'm not dead sure on every last component used, but the Motorola Defy’s camera also looks suspiciously similar to the Moto G9 Play’s.

It’s led by a barely competent 48Mp wide sensor, while calling the two back-up sensors ‘bare-bones’ would be an understatement. There’s no ultra-wide and no telephoto sensor here, only a pair of 2Mp sensors covering macro and depth duties so don't get too excited by the look of a triple camera array.

Motorola Defy camera

That 48Mp main camera isn’t terrible, but you might have expected more for the money and that pixel count. I found that I was able to take reasonably even-toned shots in good natural lighting. And even when stepping into a well-lit cafe at around lunchtime, the shot looked reasonably balanced. Just don’t go pixel peeping, or you’ll uncover a world of fuzziness.

Night shots are incredibly grainy and indistinct, with Motorola opting to artificially brighten at the expense of clarity. These are the kind of low light shots that promise much with seemingly on-point thumbnails, only to let you down badly when you blow them up on a larger display.

Still, if you’re the kind of person who mainly views their shots back on the device you took them on, they’ll look pretty good on that 720p screen.

Motorola Defy camera test

The rest of the Motorola Defy’s camera offerings are a write-off. 2Mp macro shots simply are rarely worth the effort in our collective Tech Advisor experience, and that’s certainly true here. Just getting as close as you can (which is still reasonably close) with the main sensor yields much richer shots.

Meanwhile, the 8Mp selfie camera reduces faces to a blurry mush, and the selfie portrait mode eats into edge details with a weird smudged halo effect.

Battery Life & Charging

  • 5000mAh battery
  • 2-day life
  • 20W charging

There’s no use being as tough as a tank if you can’t get through the day on a single charge. Thankfully, while the Motorola Defy’s 5000mAh battery doesn’t hit Moto G9 Power levels of splendour, it’s more than up to the job.

It’s good for a long day of heavy usage with plenty of room to spare, and there’s genuine potential for a full two days if you’re not hitting the media too hard. And if anything I’ve said so far has registered, you’ll appreciate that you really shouldn’t be.

The PCMark battery test yielded an excellent score of 17 hours 27 minutes. To place that in context, the Poco F3 scored 14 hours 24 minutes, and the Realme 8 Pro scored 12 hours 51 minutes. Of course, with a dim 720p display, the Defy was always likely to be a power sipper rather than sucker.

Motorola Defy

Charging is quite slow from its 20W charger. We’re not looking at disgracefully slow speeds for the money, as with the Sony Xperia 10 III’s snail-like 7.5W power brick. But 0 to 32% in 30 minutes isn’t particularly impressive either.

Using those non-rugged contemporaries for comparison once again, the Poco F3 will get you to 72% in the same time, while the Realme 8 Pro will go all the way up to 82%.

Software

  • Stock Android 10
  • Moto apps
  • Promise of Android 11 in 2021

The Motorola Defy launches with Android 10, which feels a bit weird when stablemates such as the Moto G50 and Moto G10 are shipping with Android 11.

Yes, the Defy also ships with a guaranteed upgrade to Android 11 in Autumn 2021, as well as two years of security patches. But it’s another sign that underneath its tough exterior, the Defy lags well behind the modern mainstream.

Motorola Defy software

On the plus side, this is a virtually unadulterated take on Google’s operating system. It’s the Motorola way to leave well alone, apart from a handful of thoughtful additions stashed away in the Moto app.

Moto Actions are particularly useful, enabling you to do things like karate chopping to activate the flashlight, or double-twisting to boot up the camera. Otherwise, this is a Google-led experience, with stock Google apps taking on all the core functions, and no pointless duplication.

Price & Availability

The Motorola Defy goes on sale in European and Latin American markets over the coming months. It’s listed as ‘coming soon’ on the official Motorola Rugged website.

It’s priced at £279/€329, which sounds like a lot of money given the Defy’s internal similarity to the £160 Moto G9 Play. However, it’s actually quite cheap for a rugged phone.

Our current top-pick within this specialist category is the CAT S62 Pro (also made by Bullitt Group), and it costs £599 whilst offering inferior performance, albeit with a superior feature set elsewhere. Our top value pick, the Doogee S88 Pro, costs about the same as the Defy, but has its own internal limitations.

Check our chart of the best rugged phones for all the options.

This is where you really need to examine your needs and priorities. Unless you’re spending a substantial amount of time in a physically challenging environment, the Motorola Defy - or any rugged phone for that matter - probably isn’t for you.

For around £300 you can buy the brilliant Poco F3 with its far superior display, performance, and camera. Or the OnePlus Nord CE 5G, which adds 5G to the mix. Of course, neither of those phones would walk away from a tumble down concrete stairs with barely a scratch to show for it.

Motorola Defy phone

Verdict

The Motorola Defy is one of the most approachable rugged phones we’ve ever used. Its £279 price tag is reassuringly low, yet it can stand up to extremes of impact, temperature, and immersion that few phones can match.

Battery life is also exemplary, and Motorola’s light take on Android is especially welcome in such a no-nonsense package.

However, severe compromises have been made to hit that blend of price and ruggedness. The Motorola Defy is undeniably slow, and its 720p LCD display is a low-res disappointment. The camera system, meanwhile, is extremely limited.

If you’re someone who wants the ultimate toughness with the minimum of fuss at the lowest possible price, you’ll struggle to do better than the relaunched Motorola Defy.

Specs

Motorola Defy: Specs

  • Android 10
  • 6.5in, HD+, LCD, 60Hz, flat display
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor
  • Gorilla Glass Victus (front)
  • MIL SPEC 810H, IP68, TPU outer casing, reinforced PCB
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 SoC
  • 4GB LPDDR4 RAM
  • 64GB storage, microSDXC slot
  • 48Mp, f/1.8 main camera
  • 2Mp, f/2.4 macro camera
  • 2Mp, f/2.4 depth camera
  • Up to 1080p @ 30fps rear video
  • 8Mp, f/2.2 front-facing camera
  • Mono speaker
  • Dual-SIM
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • 5000mAh battery
  • 20W fast charging
  • 169.8 x 78.2 x 10.9mm
  • 232g
  • Launch colours: Black & Forged Green