Motorola Moto X Pure Edition review: big deal
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
Back in 2013, the original Moto X came as a breath of fresh air to a smartphone community already growing fatigued of phablet overload. It was a smaller, humbler handheld that focused on usability rather than the latest features or supercharged specs. It was a product that we said wasn’t for “nerds like us.” It was, to borrow a phrase, a smartphone to restore sanity.
Sanity, though, is not a popular virtue in the smartphone space. Despite positive reviews, the first Moto X did not sell well, and Motorola was forced to make some changes in its second go-around. The sequel announced a year later stood much closer to its contemporaries in look and feel, with improved specs and significantly increased size and display resolution. But in inflating itself to appeal to a mainstream audience it lost some of the whimsy that had made its predecessor so compelling. It was proof positive that Motorola wasn’t content to cater to a niche crowd of smartphone purists.
One year later, the half-measures are gone entirely. With its 2015 flagship Motorola is finally (literally) making a play for the big leagues with a 5.7-inch, Quad HD monster of a mobile built to do battle with the fiercest phablets around. How much of the original Moto X intention has been left on the chopping block … and was the tradeoff worth it? The answers after the jump!
Moto X Pure Edition Review Video
Specs & Hardware
The first thing you notice when you take the Moto X Pure Edition out of the box is its big ‘ole footprint. At its launch event earlier this month, Motorola told us it wanted to build a product for people who use their smartphone as a media device for browsing and movie watching, and the requisite big display necessitated a commensurately big chassis. At 179g, the Moto X Pure Edition is more massive even than the all-glass Galaxy Note 5 – and it’s chubby too, measuring 11.06mm at its centerline. This is probably the biggest departure Motorola makes from the spirit of the Moto X family as a whole: the Pure Edition is as prodigious as its predecessors were pocketable. Fortunately, the new phone manages to hide some of its bulk via the magic of ergonomic design. The rounded curve of the backside means the body tapers to just over 6mm at the edges, and the centerline dimple serves as a comfortable anchor point for a fingertip. (Those who’ve grown accustomed to fingerprint scanners will be disappointed that the dimple doesn’t double as one; while this doesn’t bother us much –our ever-present smartwatches serve as Trusted Devices– our attitude might change once Android Pay picks up steam.) The bezels flanking the display are slim enough to make the Moto X a fairly narrow phone, much less cumbersome in the hand than its widebody cousin, the Nexus 6.
The display itself is, if you’ll pardon the pun, somewhat polarizing. On the plus side, it’s ridiculously sharp: Quad HD and 5.7 inches makes for a density of 515ppi – more than enough for even the most persnickety pixel pusher. Watching high-resolution video is a dream on the Moto X Pure Edition. But while it’s a very pretty screen, it’s also bound to be a disappointment to owners of the previous-generation Moto X. The move away from AMOLED technology has made it much less striking in terms of contrast: IPS LCD screens just can’t replicate the inky blacks of OLED. So where the stylized wireframes of the Active Display would seem to float in a pool of utter blackness on the 2014 Moto X, the Pure Edition’s LCD backlighting makes its version of “black” more like a dim gray-blue. This is more than minor quibbling: it makes the Active Display harder to see outdoors, and it may also contribute to the phone’s unimpressive battery life (more on this in a bit).
Fortunately, almost anything else you don’t like about the Moto X hardware you can change before you buy it – with Moto Maker. Motorola’s bespoke design system makes ordering a Moto X Pure Edition less like picking a boxed item off the shelf, and more like custom-building your own car. Backing material, accent and frame colors, and storage options can all be custom-selected for a total of 1,134 distinct designs – and that’s not even counting the custom engraving and software greeting options. Our review device features a silicone rubber backplate, which might be one of the grippiest materials we’ve ever encountered on a phone; in concert with the metal siderails, it gives the device a very solid, no-nonsense feel. If natural materials are more your speed, you’ve got options for wood finishes ranging from bamboo to charcoal ash, or Saffiano-treated Horween leather.
No matter which color you pick, the Pure Edition packs a nice surprise on the flip side of its nanoSIM tray. For the first time in the Moto X lineup, a MicroSD card slot sits ready to accommodate up to 128GB of additional storage. Considering the entry-level Pure Edition comes with a paltry 16GB, that’s great news. And in the same vicinity sits another surprise for phone geeks: a notification LED buried beneath the upper speakerphone grill. It illuminates briefly when the phone is first plugged in after being completely depleted, but at no other time does the Moto X software make use of it – and for good reason.
That reason: the aforementioned Active Display, part of the Moto software suite that’s set the Moto X apart since day one. Waving your hand over the phone or pulling it from a pocket will trigger the IR sensors dotting its faceplate, lighting up the screen to display the time and waiting notifications. Active Display makes the concept of a notification light all but obsolete: use it for a while and you’ll really miss it when moving to a phone that isn’t similarly equipped.
That goes for the rest of the Moto features too, which are largely unchanged from previous Moto X iterations. Turning the phone sideways and performing a “chopping” gesture will turn the flashlight on and off, while twisting it twice in quick succession will launch the camera. The phone will read your text messages aloud –and let you respond by voice dictation– if it detects you’re driving. It will silence your alerts if your calendar says you’re in a meeting or the time suggests you may be asleep. It will also obey custom rules based on location, so you can set different notification levels for work, gym and home. Moto Voice is back too, allowing you to ask questions and give voice commands completely hands-free using a custom keyphrase of your choice. In addition to being useful when your hands are wet or dirty, Moto Voice is handy if you frequently misplace your phone in your home or office: you just call out “Okay Moto X” (or “Okay Jarvis,” or “Hello Computer” or whatever keyphrase you’ve come up with) and listen for the acknowledgement tone.
One of the few truly “new” corners of the Moto suite is one that comes disabled by default. “Discreet Moto Voice” is a variation on the standard Moto Voice that requires no keyphrase: you just raise the phone to your ear like you’re making a phone call, and after a second the acknowledgement tone prompts you to speak. The raw functionality is identical –you tell the phone what you want and it does it– but it’s all carried out through the earpiece instead of over the speakerphone. While the potential applications are as broad as voice command will allow, we’ve found it most useful for a rather archaic purpose: voice calling. Rather than hunt and peck through a contact list to call someone, it’s much easier just to place the phone to an ear and say “Call Hayato Huseman,” or “Call 481-156-2342.” It’s so intuitive, it only takes one or two tries until you start to wonder why every smartphone doesn’t do this.
Naturally, some of these features are better in concept than execution. Discreet Moto Voice only works reliably when raising the phone from waist height – it doesn’t always activate when picking it up from a desk, for example. Dictating text messages in the car is still hit and miss: one morning, it misconstrued “too late, bro” as “28, bro,” and it also ran into some bad conflicts with our car’s Bluetooth audio system. Those shortfalls aside, these are intelligent improvements that add value to the smartphone experience without falling back on intrusive bloatware. And underneath it all is a very close-to-stock build of Android 5.1.1, which runs quite well on this hardware.
Motorola didn’t go with the standard Google software for the Moto X camera, instead returning to its custom-built viewfinder app for the third year in a row. In some ways, that’s a letdown: if you’re a fan of one-handed shooting, it can be really hard to change settings or focus on the fly, and there are precious few manual controls here to help out when taking photos in challenging lighting. The focus reticle likes to toggle on and off on its own, and there’s no tap-to-focus in video mode. Worst of all, the Moto X really seems to hate shooting in 4K: it almost immediately slows to a crawl and heats up dramatically, making it quite literally a hot mess.
Fortunately, the hardware makes up for those low points. The Moto X packs a Sony IMX230 camera sensor with an f/2.0 aperture, a color-correlating dual-LED flash, and a maximum resolution of 21MP. Phase-detection autofocus makes it pretty easy to get a clear shot –a perennial sticking point on older Motorola phones– and color reproduction is significantly better than on last-generation Sony sensors. While there’s no optical stabilization aboard, the digital system is quite good, approaching the quality of the stabilization used in Sony’s newer Xperia devices. If one of your shots does come out blurry, odds are the viewfinder will let you know: the Moto X seems to take multiple exposures with every photo, providing the opportunity to jump backwards and forwards, frame by frame. As with all smartphone cameras this one is much happier in broad daylight; turn the light down and the quality usually goes with it. But the Moto X does better than any of its predecessors in this regard.
That’s doubly true in camcorder mode, where the new sensor and software work together to make for some really excellent footage. The software warns you that shooting in 4K is likely to make mincemeat of your onboard storage – but of course, that’s where the MicroSD card comes in: you can record directly to the card using a toggle in the camera settings.
Improvements have made their way to the front side of the Moto X too, with the selfie cam now boasting 5MP resolution, a wide-angle lens, and yes, an LED flash of its own. But as novel as such an accessory may be, we’re not terribly impressed. The front-facing flash washes out faces; it doesn’t work in anything but the darkest rooms; and third-party apps like Twitter and Snapchat can’t yet access it because it’s such an uncommon feature.
Much more compelling is the Moto X’s new auto-scanning feature. The camera will now automatically recognize bar codes, QR codes, and business cards within its field of view, allowing you to add the relevant information to your contact list, send it to someone else, or just copy it to the clipboard. It’s a little slow to read most codes, but we can live with that in light of the convenience of having the feature built right in to the camera. There are no modes to switch, no apps or lenses to download; it just works.
On the whole, this camera’s up-sides far outweigh its negatives – and that’s something we’ve never been able to say about any previous Moto X.
We’ve used the Moto X Pure Edition over a week in Greater Boston and Eastern Long Island, predominantly on T-Mobile US. What’s nice about a phone marketed as compatible with any network, though, is that switching carriers is literally as easy as swapping SIMs, at least when it comes to GSM operators. The Moto X doesn’t even need a reboot; it just registers on the new network, switches to another preloaded APN set, and poof, you’re connected. Voice quality is solid, as we’ve come to expect from Motorola.
(Editor’s note: at presstime, Verizon Wireless customers are still experiencing Moto X activation issues thanks to an IMEI database issue. Also, if you’re a T-Mobile customer who relies on LTE Band 12, you may be waiting a while for Motorola to enable support thanks to an e911 conflict.)
How long you’ll be able to talk is another story entirely. A 3,000 mAh power pack, it seems, is not enough to keep pace with all the Moto X can do. The only way we could make it to the end of the day on a single charge was to aggressively limit our usage, rationing power with the help of a third-party app like Battery Doctor – and even then, we only once surpassed 4 hours of screen-on time. Using the Moto X under more realistic loads (which is to say, using it heavily) usually resulted in the battery being depleted in just five hours. Here’s what such a day looked like, from the vantage point of our reviewers’ notes:
On the plus side, the new 25W TurboPower Charger earns its souped-up branding. It replenishes the phone ridiculously fast, blasting it from empty to 32% in just 15 minutes while powered off, with a full charge in a little over an hour. It still sucks to be a wall-hugger, but at least with this charger you don’t have to be one for long. While a single TurboPower 25 adapter comes with the phone, you may want to factor in the cost of a second one if you don’t want to tote it to and from the office every day.
The Moto X Pure Edition’s general performance is quite good, with its Snapdragon 808 SoC capable of running even taxing games like Asphalt 8 and Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy just as smoothly as higher-rated processors like Samsung’s Exynos 7420. Also, the 3GB of RAM does a reasonably good job keeping apps active in memory during card-juggling. What’s more, the twin front-firing speakers are almost as impressively loud as on the Nexus 6, and we haven’t encountered any of the popping or clicking reported by some other users. Just don’t go thinking that performance comes for free: the Snapdragon 808 may pack two fewer cores than the infamous 810, but it seems just as adept at kicking out BTUs to go with its MHzs. The Moto X Pure Edition is a hot-running device, getting warm enough to make for sweaty fingertips under even a moderate load.
+ Outstanding value
+ Best camera yet on a Motorola smartphone
+ Moto software is smart, lightweight
+ Extensive customization options
– Mediocre-to-poor battery life
– Heavy, bulky hardware
– Runs hot
Pricing and Availability
Motorola’s decision to adopt “Pure Edition” as this year’s go-to-market branding in the US (rather than the “Moto X Style” positioning used elsewhere) is almost certainly an effort to highlight the phone’s carrier-free status. In a break from tradition, this year’s Moto X is not available to purchase from any wireless operator in the States; instead, buyers must order a custom Moto Maker edition from Motorola, or pick up one of several color combinations available at Best Buy and Amazon.
Also a break from tradition: the new Moto X’s outstanding value. The Pure Edition starts at $399.99 for the 16GB version, with 32GB and 64GB trims adding $50 and $100, respectively. That’s $100 cheaper than the Moto X 2014’s debut pricing, and between $100 and $200 cheaper than the going rate of Samsung’s Galaxy S6. Considering the potent blend of utility and customizability Motorola’s bringing to the table here, that’s very competitive pricing – enough to make it our new go-to recommendation for anyone in search of a high-end unlocked smartphone.
Still, we feel obliged to remind potential buyers of the old adage about getting what you pay for. Our Moto X Pure Edition review device has exhibited a few strange behaviors we didn’t encounter on earlier models, such as the Active Display sometimes failing to trigger on hand waves and the digitizer interpreting touch inputs incorrectly. While these are minor inconveniences, they’re troubling on a new smartphone; we’ll keep an eye on them and report back when the Pure Edition’s turn comes up for the After The Buzz treatment.
If you’ve been a fan of the Moto X family since the beginning, the Pure Edition will be only superficially familiar. Instead of a smart-yet-humble handheld, it’s a spec-packed phablet – the very antithesis of the sensible restraint the original Moto X represented. A subtle smartphone this is not.
But this phone wasn’t built for appreciators of subtlety, or those who pine for the small phones of yesteryear. It was built to stir the blood of people who want something big and bad and burly, for a few fewer Benjamins. Like Google’s Nexus line, the Moto X brand has evolved over time and now stands for something entirely different than it once did: in 2015, it stands for a husky handheld with uncommonly smart features and enough power to keep up with almost anyone. By those metrics, the Moto X Pure Edition is a really good smartphone. When you factor in the class-leading customizability and the fact that it can be purchased –unlocked– for significantly less money than most of the competition, it’s easy to overlook its otherwise-frustrating flaws.
It may not be the phone that Moto X fans deserve, but it is the phone that the rest of the world seems to want. And in that respect, the Moto X Pure Edition succeeds.
Scored for Me