Motorola Moto X (2014) review: the modest Moto goes mainstream
Back in 2009 (in the heady days of Motorola’s original Droid) the Star Trek science fiction franchise was on the ropes. Creative burnout, network pressures, and eighteen years of television saturation had exhausted creators and viewers alike, and in the eyes of the studio, only a fresh look by a relative outsider could save the property from total dissolution. But while J.J. Abrams’s re-imagining was a massive commercial hit, something of the original universe was lost in the process. Despite its mainstream success, the new movie was, to some, Star Trek in name only.
Unlike Trek, the original Moto X didn’t stumble thanks to audience fatigue. Rather, last year’s Motorola flagship suffered from a perception problem stemming from a spec sheet that some considered substandard. Despite its focus on worthy features over gimmicks and its refreshing refusal to compete on size, the original Moto X failed to find widespread success. In fact, judging from its near-constant price cuts, it barely managed to sell at all.
The new Moto X is Motorola’s gritty reboot. It retains the general look of its predecessor and builds on the features that helped that device age so well, but the specialized processor and smaller display of yore have been replaced by meatier components mounted to a heftier chassis. The result is a smartphone that looks and acts like a swollen Moto X but feels quite different in daily use, in respects both pleasing and not.
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
Moto X 2014 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
The new Moto X’s casing is a fusion of bold design elements that come together in a distinctive (if slightly kludgy) handheld. The curved fuselage of last year’s Moto X has been carried over: it narrows from 9.9mm at its meaty center to 3.8mm at the edges, where it’s bordered by an aluminum frame whose cool metallic touch brings a somewhat spendy feel reminiscent of the Lumia Icon. That frame doubles as the new Moto X’s antenna, which dynamically responds to how the phone is held to prevent signal dropouts. The faceplate speaker/earpiece grilles we saw on the Moto E have been ported over as well, though here they’re textured and (thankfully) symmetrical.
Probably the most distinctive aesthetic touch sits slightly above the center of the back cover: an expanded version of the finger dimple that’s become a Motorola trademark. This year’s “dimple” is perhaps better described as a “bowl”; it’s as wide in diameter as the camera lens directly above it. It feels almost like an unused expansion bay on a PC – a placeholder for a sensor, or a button excised from the design at the last minute. While its big footprint means you’ll have no trouble finding it with a fingertip, it’s big enough to seem garish. Also, the Motorola medallion on our demo unit wiggles slightly when pressed, which isn’t reassuring.
In its most visible concession to the pressures of the resolution race, the new Moto X bears a 5.2-inch display up front – a half-inch larger than its predecessor’s on the diagonal. It’s a full HD panel this time around, with 423 pixels every inch, and the vibrant colors and raven blacks we’ve come to expect from AMOLED screens are here in abundance. The flip side is that it’s not great in direct sunlight; with rivals like Samsung taking steps to ensure their S-AMOLED screens stay readable in all lighting conditions, this is something of a disappointment. Also, the bigger panel has resulted in a wider casing, making the new Moto X harder to use with one hand. But it’s a Big Display With Narrow Bezels –basically a requirement for true “flagship” status in 2014– and in a testament to Motorola’s consistent craftsmanship, the protective layer of Gorilla Glass 3 atop it seems to flow directly into the aluminum border beneath.
Speaking of craftsmanship: Moto Maker is still here to answer the call to customize, offering finishes from colorful composites to various wooden backs to the Harween leather of our review unit. The leather looks, feels and smells like the authentic product it is – and while it does show wear very readily, it also puts every synthetic analog to shame. Together with the aluminum trim, the leather backplate makes the Moto X feel much more substantial than its actual 144g; from a fit and finish standpoint, the new X is much more memorable than last year’s effort.
The Moto X’s other huge leap in capability is down in the engine room – which incidentally is shielded by a moisture-repellent nanocoating that protects the electronics, but not the leather, from water damage. Qualcomm’s 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974-AC if you’re nasty) is a popular choice among top-shelf smartphones these days, as is the 2GB of RAM supporting it – but here, the SoC works in concert with Motorola’s Mobile Computing System to make the new phone anything but typical.
The second-generation Moto X continues Motorola’s focus on delivering a smarter smartphone, not just a stronger one. The special features built into the new phone have been consolidated under a single hub called simply “Moto,” and they bear the fruits of a year’s worth of careful honing.
Moto Display (née Active Display) has been redesigned slightly: its notification row is larger now, and capable of previewing several alert types. It still “breathes” occasionally, pulsing notifications alongside the time when the Moto X is sitting idly on a desk, and it still wakes up when the phone is pulled from a pocket, purse, or backpack. The big change is the new Approach feature, which uses the phone’s four IR sensors to detect when your hand is nearby to illuminate the display with a wave. The sensors can also be used to snooze alarms and silence inbound calls without touching the phone – something we’ve seen before but which works far more consistently with the Moto X’s dedicated hardware.
Moto Assist, Motorola’s suite of automatic context-sensing features, has grown a lot in the year since the company introduced it. As we covered in our After The Buzz re-review of the first Moto X a few months back, Moto Assist doesn’t just dictate inbound text messages when it detects that you’re driving a car; now it allows you to respond via dictation as well. With the new version, you don’t even need to be driving: Assist can read your texts aloud when it knows you’re at home, or it can automatically silence your phone when you’re sleeping or in a meeting. The dictated replies aren’t always perfect, but it’s a great feature to have while washing dishes, playing a game, or when you just can’t bear to roll over in bed to grab your phone from the nightstand.
Moto Voice is the third proper leg of Motorola’s special features, and like the others, it’s better than ever before. The phone still listens for a keyphrase any time it’s powered on, meaning you can summon it to action without touching it – or even being near it, depending on how loud you can yell. That keyphrase is now programmable: instead of being confined to the cumbersome “OK Google Now,” you’re free to dream up your own trigger word (provided it has enough syllables; “Computer” is too short, but “Hello Computer” works just fine). The list of supported actions has been expanded too, so you can do everything from setting an alarm to posting to Facebook to taking a selfie without ever touching the phone. Asking “what’s up?” gets you a verbal rundown of recently-received messages; saying “good night” activates sleep mode. Probably our most-used feature is just shouting out the keyphrase when we can’t find our phone amid household clutter – the response chirp is loud enough to guide us right to it.
We’d still like Moto Voice to be faster and more reliable; even over WiFi, commands take several seconds to be processed. Also, any kind of background noise renders it practically unusable – an oddity, considering how good the phone is at screening out spurious sounds in voice calls. Overall though, the rebranded Touchless Control is fun, it’s useful, and it’s something you can only find out of the box on the Moto X.
The remainder of the software is fairly straight-laced. We’re looking at a very clean build of Android 4.4.4, using the Google launcher popularized by the Nexus 5. That means big icons, a paint job favoring whites and bright colors, and Google Now claiming a permanent position on the leftmost home screen panel. It’s a bit of a departure from last year’s darker palette, but it more closely associates the Moto X with Google’s preferred software aesthetic – ironic, considering the company’s pending sale of Motorola Mobility. Despite this more standard window dressing, occasional Easter eggs like Motorola’s augmented-reality Spotlight games periodically pop up from nowhere to remind you that you’re not using just any old Android phone – you’re using a Moto X.
You can’t have it all. They can’t all be winners. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Whichever cliche you choose, the message is clear: last year’s Moto X had a decidedly unremarkable camera, and this year’s isn’t much better.
First, the good stuff. The 13MP, f/2.25 shooter is notable for its distinctive ring flash, which uses dual LEDs built into a donut diffuser surrounding the lens and is positively blinding in its intensity, which helps with harshly backlit situations. The helpful trigger gesture has been retained as well: a quick double-rotation of the wrist launches the camera right from standby (usually, that is; it’s a little less consistent than last year’s incarnation). The stock viewfinder is the same Motorola build from last year: it offers almost no custom settings, but the basics like panorama mode, burst shooting and tap-to-focus are here, along with a continuous-capture mode meant to combat accidental blinks and other fleeting photo fails.
Photos can sometimes turn out very nicely indeed, with rich color and a fair amount of detail, especially in 13MP mode (the camera defaults to 10MP so you can shoot in widescreen instead of 4:3). Automatic HDR is still hit or miss, so we found ourselves forcing HDR in challenging setups, but most of the time it does the job it’s supposed to do. You can coax some great results from this camera given the right conditions and a little luck.
But it doesn’t take long to get to the rough stuff. The viewfinder’s focus is too slow and it drifts too often, and exposure swings violently depending on where you’ve placed the AF/AE reticle. The field of view is narrower than it was last year, requiring you to get further from your subject to capture everything in the frame. Colors are usually washed out, making for a “deader” scene than exists in real life. Low light performance is dim and noisy at best, and there’s no optical image stabilization either.
If this all seems rather familiar, it should: we had similar complaints regarding last year’s 10MP “ClearPixel” shooter on the first-gen Moto X, and it’s a shame to see that not much has been improved aside from the resolution. But keep in mind that most Pocketnow readers utterly failed to identify the Moto X camera in the first installment of our Guess Which Smartphone series, so maybe we’re making an Edsel out of an El Camino here. The selfie camera, at least, does a fine job (except in low light).
On video, things are a little better: while colors are still more watery than in real life, it’s not as shaky as you might expect from a camera with no optical stabilization. 4K recording and slow-motion are here if you want them, and audio is actually pretty great, probably thanks to the four microphones dotting the phone’s casing.
Despite the upsides (and the possibility that Motorola will address some of these deficiencies in a software update, as it did last year), we still wouldn’t choose the Moto X if the camera was our first priority. It’s not a total disaster, but it is a markedly underwhelming portion of an otherwise exceptional package.
That package brings some pretty great sound quality, too. Motorola’s CrystalTalk noise reduction benefits greatly from the addition of the aforementioned fourth microphone, resulting in much more effective noise cancellation than on last year’s Moto X. On the new phone, callers said they couldn’t hear any background noise even with our head squarely in front of a loud air conditioner output – noise plainly audible when using 2013’s model. In fact, nothing short of a motorcycle idling nearby managed to break through CrystalTalk’s protective acoustic buffer, which is impressive. Moving the loudspeaker around to the front also makes the new phone better at speakerphone calls and watching videos or streaming audio; while we’re a little disappointed that only one of the front-firing grilles –the bottom one– contains a speaker, we’re grateful it’s a loud one.
With processors so advanced, it’s tough to find shortcomings in gaming performance these days, and the Moto X handles basically any title we can throw at it: from Asphalt 8 to Modern Combat 5 to Sparkle 2 to Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, the phone barely ever blinks. The same goes for web browsing, though we’re a little frustrated with the new version of Chrome and its reluctance to load webpages on the first go.
The more pressing concern is battery life. An embedded power pack almost the same size as last year’s (2300 mAh vs 2200 mAh) powering a bigger, denser display sounds like trouble – and frankly, it is. As with most modern smartphones, we can get through a day of use on the new X, but only if we’re careful. The longest screen-on-time figure we’ve managed during our testing is four hours (with 18 hours of total uptime), which isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either.
A couple qualifiers here: Motorola updated several core-level software features over the air during our ten-day review period, so we’ll need some more time with the new software to see if those updates help at all. We also used Android Wear extensively during our test period in the course of reviewing the Moto 360, so the above figures represent only a short test phase with Bluetooth turned off. And finally: the new phone supports Quick Charge 2.0, with Motorola claiming 8 hours of added use after just 15 minutes of “Turbo” charging.
Still, we’re not hopeful about the prospects of using the Moto X heavily on a day-to-day basis. In our experience, manufacturers seldom under-promise in this area, and initial impressions rarely stray far from reality. It’s also probably no coincidence that Motorola launched its Power Pack Micro portable charger alongside this device. We’ll keep you informed.
+ Top-shelf specs
+ Unique, useful software features
+ Solid acoustic experience from earpiece to speakerphone
+ More hardware customization options than any other Android phone
– Mediocre battery life
– Unexceptional camera (again)
– Less comfortable to use than predecessor
Pricing and Availability
The Moto X is available in 16GB or 32GB variants and hundreds of trims from Motorola, though shipping times aren’t the 3-5 days they used to be when Motorola’s American manufacturing facility was up and running. Turnaround time for this reviewer’s 32GB leather-backed unit with custom trim and engraving is currently just shy of a month (though it’s possible that’s due to high demand).
The second-generation Moto X retails for a starting price of $499.99 (unlocked GSM/HSPA/LTE), with various carrier discounts available through AT&T and Verizon Wireless, Motorola’s US launch partners. Availability in Latin America, Europe, and Asia is forthcoming.
As the mainstream reboot of a niche product, the 2014 Moto X does what it needs to do. Like Star Trek 2009, it sacrifices some of the principles of its forerunner in its quest for greater mass appeal. The new phone’s bigger screen makes its casing more cumbersome, its battery less potent. Its quest to stand out from the pack has led to an aesthetic that cries out to be noticed, at the cost of some subtlety.
But these are handicaps also suffered by the very competitors Motorola’s trying to keep pace with. And with its newly-bolstered suite of unique and useful features, this phone uses its horsepower more intelligently than many of those contemporaries. For the second year in a row, the Moto X brings an Android experience you can’t find on any other phone – and for the first time ever, it’s got the specs to back it up.