Google’s trying to shift the Android conversation from specs to experience. Can its first in-house flagship do the job? Find out in our Moto X review.
- Overall Score: 8
- Hardware: 7.3
- Software: 8
- User Experience: 8.8
“Ah, so that’s the way a phone should work.”
That’s just one line from a series of company-crafted snippets on Motorola’s official website for the new Moto X, and it’s a great encapsulation of the company’s intent behind the new flagship smartphone. But the Moto X isn’t just another spec-laden super-device; it’s a petite handheld with modest metrics that tries to leverage its thinking power better. It’s an attempt at a smarter (instead of a beefier) smartphone that “operates on your terms.” And it comes in a bevy of colors with matching accessories to make sure you can “fit right in,” even when you’re “standing right out.”
The whole “it’s the experience, not the specs” angle has been seen before, of course, and it’s a potent argument: Apple’s iPhone is probably the most successful example of this applied philosophy, and it’s impossible to dispute its success. Windows Phone has (finally) started seeing some growth partially due to the same approach: it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood, but whether or not the overall experience is enjoyable. Google’s acquisition of the venerable phone-builder Motorola has provided the company with the perfect opportunity to try its own spin on the tactic. With the Moto X, Google is trying to change the Android conversation from “how much bleeding edge tech can we shove on a phone” to “how can we design a phone to solve real user problems?”
Does this tactic shift work in Google’s favor? Can the Moto X really become a kind of iPhone for the Android world? More importantly, is it something you should consider buying? Read on to find out.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
Let’s put on our detective hat for a minute. If a company is doing its utmost to shift the conversation away from specifications, it follows that we should check up on those specs out to see just what’s being omitted. Since this also has the effect of getting the wall-o’-numbers out of the way early, let’s take a peek inside the Moto X’s engine room to see what’s powering the new device. (If you’re not the spec type, just skip on down past the next paragraph and we’ll start talking normally again.)
The Moto X gets its processing ability from a unique hardware array Motorola is calling the “X8 Mobile Computing System.” It’s a nontraditional setup in that it uses an optimized Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro (Krait) mated to an Adreno 320 GPU and two additional, specialized cores: one for natural linguistics processing and the other for “contextual computing.” To the kind of people who like to play the “my phone’s better” game in comment sections, that S4 means the Moto X is a dual-core dinosaur – but to the folks who pay attention, it’s a highly specialized device built with a specific performance range in mind. The folks over at Ars Technica have a great rundown on what this specific chipset is and isn’t capable of; for our purposes, it’s enough to say this is a very intelligently designed system, and it enables some pretty cool functionality which we’ll talk about in a second. The X8 system is backed up by 2 GB of RAM and either 16 or 32 GB of storage, depending on which model of the Moto X you spring for. No, that storage isn’t expandable via MicroSD, but Google does furnish X buyers with 50 free gigs of Google Drive storage for two years, which helps to soften the blow somewhat.
Enough about the numbers. Let’s talk build quality.
Put simply: the Moto X is one of the most comfortable smartphones we’ve handled. Ever.
It’s tough to convey the experience of using the phone in photographs, because from the front the device heavily resembles LG’s Nexus 4, with medium-radius corners joining forces with a sleek Gorilla Glass faceplate untainted by carrier or manufacturer branding. It takes flipping the phone over to see just what’s different here – and there’s a lot. The conventional rectangle of the face gives way to a curved composite backside ranging in thickness from 10.4mm to 5.6mm at its edges. This gives the device a pleasantly plump feel in the palm, but the 134g mass means it doesn’t weigh down a pocket or a holster. The whole back surface is finished in a soft-touch coating that’s grippy without being sticky, and there’s a special dimple just below the LED spotlight that serves as a nice landing zone for a fingertip, preventing accidental smudging of the camera lens.
The sturdy, robust feeling the hardware conveys despite its light weight is exactly in line with the quality we’ve come to expect from Motorola, and it’s heartening to see the company didn’t throw out the good stuff during the transition to Google ownership. Also thankfully retained from past Motorola phones: the three-microphone CrystalTalk noise reduction system, and the splash-resistant nanocoating that keeps the device safe from rainstorms.
Back around front, there’s yet another surprise: Motorola has used bezel slimming (and presumably some black magic) to shoehorn a 4.7-inch display into the Moto X’s petite frame. Size-wise, it’s everything we’ve been asking for: a large smartphone screen housed in a casing that makes one-handed use a breeze. Motorola has eschewed the trend toward 1080p flagship displays, opting instead for a 720p panel here – but unless you’re holding the device up to your nose and straining your eyes, you’re not going to catch sight of any pixels on the 316ppi display. Since it’s AMOLED-based, colors are highly saturated and blacks are truly black on this screen, and the RGB subpixel arrangement will please those who hate the PenTile alternative. It’s a beautiful display in normal conditions, and it’s even fairly readable in sunlight.
Motorola has also used the patriotic out-of-box wallpaper to remind buyers that the Moto X is assembled in the USA, at the company’s new plant in Fort Worth, TX. That’s partially an appeal to patriotism -a smart move given the brand’s American roots- but it also speaks to a more practical consideration: the Moto X needed to be assembled stateside in order to support its customizable nature.
While the stock white and black editions of the X will be stocked at carrier stores, customers will also have the option of designing their own device. An online phone-builder called MotoMaker will allow buyers to choose from a broad palette to customize not just the front of the phone, but the back and accent colors as well. Given the choice of two faceplace color options, 18 possible backplate colors, and 7 accent shades, the X features over 250 possible color combinations – not including the special ebony, teak, bamboo, and rosewood devices slated for Q4.
But Motorola didn’t stop there. The company really wants customers to be able to make every aspect of the X their own, and so the customizability continues: buyers can choose between a white or a black charger, they can pick up color-matched headphones from Sol Republic, and they can engrave their phone’s hardware with a message of their choice or garnish its software with a custom boot message or a preloaded wallpaper. And thanks to the stateside manufacturing, American customers can expect to receive their customized devices within four days of placing an order.
The options are truly overwhelming. While not all of them are the most useful (we’d be interested to see how many folks go for the resale-value-destroying engraving option) it’s nice to finally see a manufacturer take customization seriously, rather than just paying lip-service to the concept.
The Moto X may run a close-to-stock version of Android 4.2.2, but it’s in no way a Nexus phone. It’s not for tinkerers and it’s not for enthusiasts looking for a “pure Google experience,” nor indeed anyone who knows what that phrase means. This is a mass-market phone designed to make ordinary people fall in love with Android. As such, it features some pretty hefty software modifications to take advantage of the Moto X’s custom hardware.
Those modifications take the form of a suite of apps tailored to make the Android experience more accessible, more intuitive, and more fun. While we’ll be exploring all of them in the coming weeks, Google singles out three specific ones in its marketing material: Touchless Control, Active Display, and Motorola Assist.
Touchless Control is Google’s term for the technology lusted after by everyone who watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a kid – namely, the ability to operate a computer just by speaking to it. Not by pressing a button and then talking, mind you, but by just speaking a keyphrase out loud that tells the machine to listen up for a command. The difference with the Moto X: instead of “computer,” we say “OK Google Now,” and instead of 100% accuracy, it’s … well, a bit lower.
Touchless Control is turned off by default, requiring a user first to opt-in, then configure it by training the software to recognize a single voice. That’s a nice introduction to the new technology, and it also effectively allays any fears that the phone is listening to everything happening around it, all the time: to conserve battery power, the Moto X only “listens” with the dedicated linguistics processor mentioned above, and only the specific keyphrase can trigger it. Sure, “OK Google Now” is a little cumbersome, but it also prevents the false positives that would happen if a more generic term were used. As it is, the security is pretty lax: even someone with a voice that doesn’t sound much like yours can fool the phone into waking up to take a command just by mimicking your intonation, so it’s good that Touchless Control is an opt-in feature.
Once you get used to waking the phone up with a clear, loud voice command, the feature is pretty easy to activate. It’s buttonless nature makes it much more convenient than the iPhone’s Siri assistant: think about carrying groceries, or washing dishes, or doing any of a hundred other two-handed tasks. Truly hands-free voice command is much more useful than it might initially sound.
The downsides come once you actually get past that gatekeeping function. First, like Siri, Touchless Control requires a data connection, so you can forget about making use of it in fringe coverage areas. Second, while Google Now is a very powerful feature, it’s also not a terribly friendly one. Sure, there’s limited support for human-sounding phrases like “set an alarm for 8 a.m.,” or “how’re the Yankees doing?” or the classic “how tall is the Empire State Building.” But not all such phrases are supported, so you’re sometimes left talking to your phone like a robot (asking “what is the forecast for the rest of today” generates a link to the Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology, and inquiring “where can I get a drink” delivers some funny but profane Google search results). And beyond the varied greeting messages, the phone’s virtual consciousness is pretty stale in terms of personality.
To its credit, Google continues to rapidly expand the utility and reliability of the Google Now search service – and we do mean rapidly. In fact, Moto X commands that yielded poor results just yesterday are now functioning properly: saying “I want to rent a kayak” now yields relevant local results instead of obscure websites, and “I want pizza” actually delivers a list of area Italian restaurants. So while Touchless Control still has a ways to go before it can match the friendliness and accessibility of Siri, the journey might not be a long one at all.
Active Display is a feature which does its best to make up for the Moto X’s lack of a notification LED. It does this by using a gently pulsating status block containing the time and a series of icons denoting what notifications have arrived since the phone was last unlocked. That in itself isn’t terribly innovative – most phones feature some kind of notification indicator on their standby screens. The difference here is in its delivery: by intelligently using the Moto X’s contextual computing core and the phone’s sensors, Active Display makes it much more likely that you’ll know when message is waiting.
It accomplishes this through persistence. Rather than hiding behind a lock screen and requiring a button push to appear, Active Display continuously flashes the info block on the screen when the phone is in standby mode. The information “breathes,” gently fading into and out of existence so it’s not jarring, and it appears about once every five seconds, using only the pixels it needs -and not lighting up at all if the phone is resting on its face- to preserve the battery. It’s also triggered by movement: take the phone out of your pocket and Active Display will be lit by the time your phone clears the cloth.
Maybe it’s a symptom of dealing with too many types of lock screens on too many platforms and devices, but it took us a while to get used to this particular feature. Not the “display” part -that’s pretty handy no matter what- but the action of managing the alerts is a little counter-intuitive. When notifications are present, swiping left or right to bypass the lock screen doesn’t actually unlock the device; instead it clears the alerts and turns the screen back off. You’re required to either swipe down to unlock, or up to jump directly to the waiting notifications. It’s not what we’re used to seeing from Android, and we’ve accidentally dismissed quite a few notifications in our time with the device, but ultimately, Active Display is useful enough to make you want to learn it, rather than turn it off. That’s what we call a successful feature.
Motorola Assist is probably the least-developed addition to the phone, but one which has its uses nonetheless. It uses both of the phone’s special processing cores to make the device react more intelligently when it learns it’s in a specific situation.
When Assist detects you’re traveling in a car, for example, it activates “driving mode,” which prompts the phone to read incoming text messages aloud so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road. If you’re a frequent taxi or bus rider, this probably isn’t the feature for you – but if you do spend a lot of time behind the wheel, having your SMS messages read aloud is actually pretty handy. You’d think the company would have taken the next logical step of allowing you to reply to texts by voice, but no – all you’re given is the option to send a non-customizable “away message” of sorts. We’re all for safety behind the wheel, but we find this restriction (if that’s what it is) a bit over-the-top.
On the brighter side, there’s also music control functionality baked in to this driving mode: if you’re the type of person to stream music from your phone to your car stereo via Bluetooth, Motorola Assist can be set to automatically pause and then resume playing your tunes once your friends have said their piece via Google’s robo-lady voice.
Assist isn’t just for drivers, though; it also contains options for silencing your phone automatically when its calendar indicates you’re in a meeting, complete with options to allow specific callers to “break through” in case of an emergency. There’s also a similar answering-machine function here, letting all and sundry know you’re a busy busy person who can’t be bothered right now, if you so choose. If you’re not too creeped out by sharing your normal sleep schedule with your phone, you can also plug those hours in, so your slumber isn’t disturbed by texts from your drunk friends at 3am. Just like with the driving away messages, though, the Moto X can’t do anything about how well or poorly those messages are received.
Overall there’s quite a bit of innovation packed into the Moto X software – not Samsung-level feature spam, but a finely honed suite of five or six features that work reasonably well (including a few we’ll cover in future pieces). Are these add-ons perfect? No. But they’re smart, they’re valuable, and they’re constantly improving. Above all, the features are useful enough, on the whole, that you’d never think to call them “bloatware.” For normal folks looking for a smarter smartphone, there’s a lot to choose from in the X’s software load.
Optical performance is a hugely important aspect of today’s smartphones, one which device manufacturers have begun seriously refining – look no further than Nokia’s obscenely high-end 808 PureView and Lumia 1020 cameras for confirmation on that. It was no surprise, therefore, to see Google and Motorola proudly tout the performance of the Moto X’s new ClearPixel camera at the device’s NYC launch event last week. The 10MP shooter features an RGBC pixel arrangement to let in more light than other device cameras, and it uses a higher shutter speed to capture fast action shots while minimizing motion blur. And, to give credit where it’s due: the device does let in quite a bit of light, and it’s also capable of some pretty epic fast-action photos.
The camera software is simplicity itself, with a straightforward drag-out ring for options and persistent video capture trigger. There’s also tap-to-capture, tap-to-focus, and swipe-directly-to-gallery functionality, features we love on Windows Phone and which we’re happy to see make the jump to Android. The viewfinder is no-frills without seeming rushed, and it’s as smooth and responsive as you could want. It’s such a pleasure to use that we don’t even mind the lack of a hardware camera key most of the time.
The problem, unfortunately, is in the camera’s output. Frankly, the photos it produces (16:9 shots at 10MP in default mode) just aren’t terribly good, and that’s because of their color – or lack thereof. On the Moto X’s highly saturated AMOLED screen, they look okay, but send them to a smartphone, computer or tablet with an LCD screen and the color just evaporates. While toggling HDR on and off helps a bit in certain circumstances, most of the X’s shots come out pretty lifeless.
What’s worse: the phone fails to deliver in terms of low-light performance, the new must-excel area for flagship smartphones. While pictures come out a bit brighter than they might on other cameraphones, they also suffer from lackluster color reproduction and lots of noise.
The camera’s problems translate somewhat to video, though it does a better job here. While colors are still washed out, objects are at least sharply defined and auto-focus is quick to adjust to changing conditions in 1080p mode. What’s more, the 60fps/720p option allows for some very fun slow-motion capture: that’s not exactly a one-of-a-kind feature, as we’ve seen it on smartphones for years, but Motorola was smart to include it here as an offset to the camera’s lackluster performance otherwise (see video review above for sample 60fps footage).
It’s a shame the Moto X’s camera turned out the way it did. With optical performance so critical to the modern smartphone experience, and manufacturers racing to outdo one another in this arena, it would have been nice to see Motorola finally break free of its reputation for mediocre mobile shooters. We’ve got a bit of hope that a software update might correct this, but we’re not holding our breath. For now, we’ll just say that if all you’re doing is Instagramming and posting to Facebook, the Moto X should serve you adequately; but expect to have to work harder than your iPhone-, Galaxy S 4-, and HTC One-toting friends to get solid shots – and don’t even go near anyone carrying a Lumia.
Thankfully, the Moto X makes up for its optical deficiency in nearly every other performance regard. Despite the much-maligned “midrange” processor, the software is incredibly snappy, with near one-to-one responsiveness across the entire interface. Menus flick, browser pages slide, and launchers expand and retract with a liquid smoothness rivaled by few in the Android space. The only place where the phone feels a bit pokey is when it’s executing specialized and processor-intensive tasks, like stitching panorama photos together.
The Moto X also delivers one of the best voice-calling experiences we’ve ever had on a smartphone. Not just an Android phone, mind you, but a smartphone, period. The phone’s rounded casing and finger-dimple make holding it to the ear a very comfortable affair, and the earpiece generates a nice, loud sound with the warm, comforting sidetone Motorola fans know well. During our five-day test period, the X’s three-microphone CrystalTalk noise reduction made us audible over the whipping wind of an open car window on the highway, and even over the roar of a boat engine six feet away. The only complaint our callers had was that the sound from our end sounded too quiet.
Motorola claims an endurance rating of 24 hours of “mixed usage” for the Moto X between charges, a bold claim that made us wonder just what was going on inside the phone’s embedded 2200 mAh battery. It turns out the answer is “nothing special,” as we were only able to get 12-15 hours from the device between charges with moderate-to-heavy usage. Granted, that’s in a fringe coverage area alternating between LTE and 3G fairly frequently, with a lot of photo-taking thrown in, and 15 hours under those conditions is actually quite a feat.
Still, Motorola said 24 hours at the NYC launch event, and made a big deal of clarifying that that figure took LTE and all the fancy new features into account. Maybe that claim was dreamed up by the same folks who shaved 3 or 4 grams off the actual weight of the device on the spec sheets – who knows. In any event, while the phone’s endurance isn’t as legendary as Motorola claims, it’s still quite impressive. Road warriors should feel reasonably comfortable taking this phone on a long jaunt or two between charges.
+ Comfortable, durable build quality
+ Elaborate customization options
+ Innovative, valuable features
+ Excellent voice performance
+ Top-notch software responsiveness
– Camera delivers sub-par color reproduction
– Not all new features are fully baked
– Some customization options are carrier exclusives
Pricing and Availability
The Moto X will be available on all four U.S. national carriers later this month, with rollout moving to smaller carriers through the beginning of September. The device will be made available to other countries later in the year, with variants such as the wooden line and special North America and Verizon Wireless developer editions coming later on as well. All carrier variants will feature unlockable bootloaders.
Interested buyers can sign up for updates at Motorola’s website. The suggested retail price for the Moto X is $199.99 with a 2-year contract.
The Moto X isn’t necessarily what we expected when we learned of Google’s plans to reboot the Motorola brand. In some areas, like its underwhelming camera and subdued hardware design, the phone gives off a decidedly midrange vibe. In others, like its futuristic software features and best-in-class voice performance, it feels more like the high-end phone Motorola wants us to believe it is. Still, if you don’t care where your electronics are made, the price might be a little high.
But if you’re looking for a phone that bears the slogan “assembled in the USA,” now you have an option. If you’re looking for more than a handful of color and customization options on your smartphone, now you’ve got hundreds. If you’ve been wondering when Google’s platform would start sprouting some of the real-world usefulness its competitors have been churning out, without the hassle of a third-party UI on top, wonder no longer. The Moto X is here, and for better or for worse, it’s “Google’s iPhone.” If you think of yourself as a “regular person” and you’re looking for the best possible Android experience at a reasonable price, without all the frills, the Moto X just became your best possible option.