Why don’t Snapdragon 800 phones support Moto-X-style listen-from-standby?

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When Motorola’s Moto X first launched, I remember not being too enthusiastic about the phone’s “Touchless Control” feature – the ability that, among other things, let the user interact with the handset using voice commands even when the phone was in standby mode.

I think a lot of my objection at the time was formed around a knee-jerk reaction to what seemed to me (at least on first glance) a pretty unsavory idea: that of your phone perpetually monitoring what you say. But in the months that have followed, I’ve found myself softening to Touchless Control – especially because I’m such a big fan of all those voice actions Google has built in to Now/Search.

In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that I’m starting to get a little jealous. While I’m largely pleased with my purchase of a Nexus 5 over the Moto X, why should (on paper at least) a less “advanced” phone get such a cool feature?

And the thing is – it shouldn’t. Or rather, there’s doesn’t seem to be any good reason why the same feature isn’t also present on the Nexus 5 – or any other phone running a Snapdragon 800 processor.

qualcomm-snapdragon-800Think back to last winter, when Qualcomm first announced the Snapdragon 800. Among the other features that Qualcomm really put front-and-center as the 800’s big selling points was the ability to enter voice commands thanks to a special low-power mode when the phone was in standby. So, essentially EXACTLY like what we see the Moto X pull off thanks to its X8 chipset. In fact, Qualcomm still seems to think that this voice-from-standby mode is a big deal, and it continues to feature it prominently when promoting the 800.

So… where the heck is it?

Well, for starters, it’s not ONLY the Moto X that can pull this trick. At least, others have managed to do something at least functionally similar, if not happening in quite the same way. For instance, we’ve seen Samsung phones wake from standby with S Voice – even before the Snapdragon 800 was even launched. And we’ve also seen Motorola bring the feature to other X8-based models like the Droid Ultra.

800-featuresBut in spite of that handful, there are all these new high-profile 800-based phones that just lack any implementation along these lines at all; like the Nexus 5, LG’s G2 runs an 800 but only starts listening for voice commands once the phone’s awake.

As I started looking around for answers, it quickly became clear that I wasn’t the only one a little puzzled about what was going on. Unfortunately, despite all the other minds wondering the same thing, it’s been difficult to get a straight answer.

One of the most interesting finds I came across was a correspondence between developer Jack Underwood and Qualcomm, where the company explained to him that access to this ability – specifically, using the 800’s Hexagon DSP in standby to listen for voice prompts – is only available to OEMs. Sure, that feature’s there, but Qualcomm is wholly uninterested in providing independent devs the documentation they need to take advantage of it.

Honestly, considering how little regard Qualcomm’s shown for the homebrew community in the past, that shouldn’t be surprising in the least; Qualcomm only wants to play with the big boys, and even then, only on its own terms.

Well, that at least explains why we aren’t seeing anything like this arrive from a custom ROM, but why aren’t OEMs taking Qualcomm up on that offer and including the feature in the software used on commercially available hardware? That’s a trickier question.

just-talkOne analysis suggests that licensing could be an issue. As it turns out, the Moto X uses voice recognition libraries from Nuance as part of its solution. The argument then goes that Google didn’t do the same for the Nexus 5 in an effort to keep costs down – except, Google pretty clearly has its own voice recognition software, and could presumably take advantage of the 800’s DSP without necessarily using the same Nuance libraries. So that doesn’t get us much closer to an answer.

Speculation really runs rampant, and I’ve come across a number of additional theories that also don’t seem to hold much water. For instance, I’ve seen it claimed that the Nexus 5 doesn’t support the mode because it’s already busy in standby mode working with the phone’s sensors to act as a pedometer. Maybe I’m hugely out of touch, but I imagine that about seven million percent more users would prefer a phone with advanced voice recognition to one that acted as a $5 pedometer.

In the end, here’s the best I can offer: the Snapdragon 800 absolutely does support Moto X-style voice control from standby. Heck, the way the Moto X pulls that off is thanks to a separate Hexagon DSP of its own. But for one reason or another – and here’s the part that really starts getting murky – OEMs just aren’t implementing it. Whether you’ve got a Nexus 5, G2, or Xperia Z1, your hardware is really just going underutilized. And with Qualcomm being such a jerk about the whole thing, independent devs aren’t going to get anywhere towards figuring this out for themselves.

Will current 800-based phones eventually gain this ability by means of future software updates? Anything’s possible, but given how long OEMs have had to develop code to support this mode, and the apparent lack of interest across the board, I find it hard to believe that any are too excited about revisiting the idea, post-launch.

Or maybe I should just get a Moto X.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!