Meet Moto X: “The Best of Android” for everyone

Meet Moto X

The first Motorola phone with Google design input is here and according to Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, the Moto X handset offers “the best of Android.” I spent time with Google and Motorola representatives on Thursday morning to see the phone and understand what makes it different. I walked away with a very distinct impression that reinforces my earlier thought: Moto X is an Android phone for the masses.

Designed for you

To understand that theme, you have know how the Moto X was designed. Motorola says it’s the direct result of numerous studies it did on the average smartphone user. First, the company determined the most appealing handset volume consumers prefer to carry. From there, Motorola decided on the largest screen it could fit in that volume. And lastly, it rounded the back of the Moto X because palms aren’t flat.

Moto X and HTC One

From a design perspective, I like the approach. The phone has a 4.7-inch display, but is noticeably smaller than the HTC One that I’m carrying now — even though it too has a 4.7-inch screen. Moto X uses a 720p display, which works out to 312 pixels per inch: More would be overkill, a Motorola representative told me. I tend to agree and the screen looks very clear to me. [Here are more specs and a comparison between Moto X and Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 and Apple’s iPhone 5.]

The rounded back does fit nicely in my hand and Motorola using the roundness to help the phone’s run time. I was told to expect 24 hours of battery life — that’s very likely average use and I’ll report back once I formally review the phone — partially because the battery is layered to use the extra phone space. Just like the Moto Droid Ultra line, the new Moto X uses a tweaked Qualcomm chip that Motorola calls X8. The chip modifications also help with battery life as a low-power digital signal processor handles natural language input.

New features that other Android phones don’t have

Speaking of language, Moto X does offer a Touchless Control feature as expected. Essentially, this is a way to activate Google Now without having to touch the phone. The device is always listening for the “OK Google Now” command, just like Google Glass. I could see this as definitely handy while driving. I asked if Touchless Control was exclusive to Motorola and got a carefully worded answer that sounded like “Yes.” Motorola says Touchless Control works because of the X8 chip and software, so I’m not expecting this feature to appear in Android at large.

Moto X Active Display

Motorola also learned from its studies that the average consumer turns their phone on and off about 60 times per day. Much of that is due to checking for notifications or other little data points throughout the day. Moto X has a new Active Display feature that shows important notifications when the phone is in sleep mode. These appear momentarily and fade out to save power. They’re also interactive: Touch the screen for more information or swipe it to take action. It’s a clever use of Android and display technology.

The phone is also capable of taking pictures quickly thanks to sensor technology. Motorola says you can take the phone out of your pocket and snap an image in under two seconds. I’ve tested it and the claim is valid. Because of the sensors inside the phone, you can remove the Moto X from a pocket, twist it like a screwdriver to immediately fire up the camera app, and then tap anywhere on the display to take the picture.

That camera does use what Motorola calls “Clear Pixel” technology. It’s a 10 megapixel sensor that adds white pixels in addition to red, green and blue. This allows the camera to gather more light in a shorter time, which means shorter exposures. A demo action shot looked very clear to me as a result and the camera has an auto-HDR mode on by default. Here’s a quick photo I took from the GigaOM office in New York using the default settings:

Moto X sample image

Coming to a carrier near you, but you order online

Motorola says the phone will be available around the end of August or beginning of September on five U.S. carriers. That likely means the big four plus U.S. Cellular. You can buy the handset directly from the carriers but only the AT&T models can be customized for now. All other carriers will have black or while Moto X phones and Moto plans to add other carriers to the customization program later this year.

Customization is done through the MotoMaker website and I took it for a spin. Aside from choosing colors for the front face and back plate of the phone, you can even choose from a number of accent colors. That means the hardware buttons and the small ring around the camera. You can select a pre-determined wallpaper image as well. Phones can be engraved as well and there are a number of color matched accessories available: headphones and speakers from SOL Republic, for example.

Moto Maker

So how do you get your phone? It turns out that if you want a customized Moto X, you can buy a black or white one from an AT&T retail location. You’ll also get a PIN with the phone because the handset is just a loaner. Enter the PIN at the MotoMaker site, customize your phone and Motorola will have it shipped to you in four days or less. This is partly why the company is building the handsets in Ft. Worth, Texas: It can get them delivered faster.

Expect to pay $199 with contract for the handset, which includes 16 GB of storage and 50 GB of Google Drive space for two years. Moving to a 32 GB model will cost $50 more. For now, there is no official full retail price, but I was told to expect that information closer to launch. Update: AT&T reached out and told me its full retail price is $575 and $630 for the two models.

So what’s the vision?

I used to think Nexus phones offered the best of Android. For some, they still will. But Nexus phones aren’t aimed at the mass market and that’s a huge difference: Moto X is targeted squarely at everyday consumers. And although some will dismiss the phone because it doesn’t have the latest and greatest [insert spec of your choice here], Motorola has done some impressive work to balance features, usability, contextual intelligence and solid design.

I’ll be putting the phone through a full review, but for now, I’ll take any questions you have in the comments.

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