Moto X review: The Android phone that does surprisingly more with less

Meet Moto X

By now you’ve likely heard of the Moto X: The first smartphone available with direct design input from Motorola’s parent company, Google. So far, it’s priced like a flagship phone — starting at $199 with 16 GB and $249 with 32 GB from AT&T on contract, but no pricing has been announced from other carriers — and has some mid-range hardware components along with some interesting new features. You can customize the phone in your choice of colors and even add an engraving: Motorola will assemble your handset and ship it to you in four days or less.

So how is the Moto X and does it live up to expectations? I’ve used a review unit for the past several days and have answers to that and other questions.

Concept: Smart compromises and the “best of Android” for the masses

It makes sense to understand what Motorola — and essentially, Google — is actually trying to do with the Moto X. At the phone’s private media event, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman suggested that Moto X offers the “best of Android” and that makes sense. Samsung, HTC, LG and others make their flagship phones better by adding unique features on top of Android.

Moto X front topDuring my testing, I found that the Moto X generally does compete against the competition because its engineered to do more with less. I’ll explain in the following sections, but bear in mind that mobile technology is all about compromises: You generally can’t get the fastest phone to also offer the longest battery life. Building a bigger screen often creates a bigger phone that’s harder to use with one hand. And if you shrink down a phone, it becomes a challenge to fit in every possible chip required for certain features.

After using the handset as my primary phone, I think the Moto X is made with a very smart use of compromise. It’s an asset, not a liability, in this case.

Hardware that will appeal to many

The phone has few buttons and ports. There’s nanoSIM card tray, microUSB port, volume rocker and power/wake button. The front face is taken over by the display, save a 2 megapixel front camera, microphone and speaker. The front glass transitions into a smooth side frame. On the curved back of the phone is a 10 megapixel sensor, LED flash and single loudspeaker.

As evidenced by strong iPhone sales, not everyone wants a big phone. At 5.09 x 2.57 x 0.4 inches and weighing 4.58 ounces, the Moto X isn’t that much bigger than an iPhone 5 which is 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.3 inches and weighs 3.95 ounces. As a result, Moto X will generally fit in the same pockets and can be used with one hand by most people. As a point of reference: I’m 5′ 5″ tall and have small hands; I can use the Moto X with one hand without a problem, just like I can my iPhone 5.

Moto X v iPhone 5

So it’s a “small” phone, right? Not exactly: It’s smallness is an illusion of sorts: Motorola fit a 4.7-inch display into handset, which gives a “big” phone experience. The company says that 70 percent of the front face is taken by the screen and that this is the smallest phone with a 4.7-inch display: A good example of Motorola defying the mobile tech compromise where small phones mean small screens.

Here’s another compromise: Motorola chose to use a 1280 x 720 AMOLED display for the Moto X, so this isn’t a 1080p screen. You’d be hard pressed to know it because the pixel density is 316 pixels per inch, nearly the same as Apple’s “retina display” on the iPhone. I compared the Moto X screen many times with an HTC One handset that uses the same-sized screen with a 1080p display and I can’t tell a difference without putting both phones very close to my eyes. I suspect most consumers won’t be able see the difference either. Colors are rich and saturated, but not overdone.

Moto X screen

The benefit of using this screen gets back to the compromise point. By using a suitable but lower-resolution screen, the Moto X doesn’t tax the GPU as much, which can translate to longer battery life. And AMOLED screens don’t light up the black pixels, which brings even more battery life benefits.

Inside the phone is a modified 1.7 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro; the original architecture is from last year, but Motorola has worked with Qualcomm to modify it. The company has added low-power chips to support very specific features and paired the device with 2 GB of memory. The result? I see little to no performance difference in every day use between the Moto X and flagship phones that use more current silicon.

For those interested in benchmarks, I ran a few just to get an idea of comparative performance between the HTC One Google Experience handset and the Moto X. In both tests, which are JavaScript tests in the Chrome browser, the Moto X actually came out on top by a very small margin: 993 ms for Moto X in Sunspider 1.0 v. 1198 ms for the HTC One. A smaller number is better in this test which shows how fast the processor completes the testing tasks.

Running Google’s own Octane test, where a higher number is better, the Moto X scored 2441 over the HTC One’s 2285. Others have run overall test suites and graphics tests — I recommmend these found at Ars Technica —  finding that the Moto X performance is either on par with or slightly behind the newest flagships, but real world usage is where performance counts.

Of course, the power of flagship phones often comes at the cost of relatively lower battery life. Motorola claims active use of 24 hours and it’s a fairly accurate claim. Power users may burn through the Moto X during daylight hours, but the masses will likely have plenty of juice to spare when the sun goes down. The lowest battery level I’ve witnessed at bedtime, after a full day of typical use, has been 41 percent.

Moto X battery

The loud speaker has some intelligence too. It’s extremely loud without distortion, likely due to a chip and software from NXP. It can monitor the temperature and movement of the speaker membrane to safely boost sound up to 6x more than normal without risk of blowing the speaker out. That’s helpful on hands-free calls. And in standard phone use, I found the handset to work well for voice calls as well: It actively cancels out background noise making calls loud and clear.

Software with smarts

Motorola ships the Moto X with Android 4.2.2 and not Android 4.3. That may sound surprising since Google owns Motorola, but it makes perfect sense. Google has always maintained it would treat Motorola like any other hardware partner so it didn’t get early access to the software. Motorola plans to upgrade the handset to Android 4.3 although it hasn’t yet provided a specific time frame.

So the software is generally the same that comes on Google’s Nexus devices and Experience phones. Because the phone is sold through carriers for now, there can be some carrier apps installed. I have an AT&T model Moto X and there is barely a hint of AT&T on the phone. I found three pre-installed apps: myAT&T for account management and AT&T Address Book, which I simply ignored and Visual Voicemail. The Quickoffice app is also pre-installed but I suspect that’s a Motorola decision because it’s also present on the Verizon Moto X.

Talk to Me Moto XMotorola added three specific software titles that take advantage of the phone’s sensors and help users with phone support and moving data from an older Android phone.

With Assist, the phone can take smart actions when you’re driving, in a meeting or asleep. Incoming phone calls or text messages are read aloud, for example, when driving. The ringer is automatically silenced when Moto X sees a meeting on your Google Calendar or during the night. And the phone can send auto-reply texts in many of these cases. A Chrome extension can put Motorola phone notifications on your desktop as well.

Migrate is a simple app move data from one Android phone to the Moto X. Using a QR code or NFC, the app pairs the two phones and begins to wirelessly transfer photos, videos and contacts. Moto Care is a support application that offers Moto X tips, forums and the ability to contact a support representative.

Touchless Control without lifting a finger

Thanks to a dedicated low-power chip to handle natural language processing, Moto X is always listening if you activate the Touchless Control setting. Simply say “OK Google Now” and the phone will fire up Google Now and await your command. This differs from all other non-Motorola Android phones which require you to touch the phone for Google Now.

OK Google NowYou have to train the feature to your voice, which helps minimize the chance of someone else “taking over” your phone by saying “OK Google Now”. In practice, the feature worked really well for me, although a day after dental surgery, the phone didn’t recognize me all of the time, likely because I sounded a little different from the training phrases. The solution doesn’t involve true voice authentication; instead, Motorola’s software and chip use an algorithm to voice match.

At various points throughout the day, I use Google Now and no longer need to reach for my phone, which is often sitting on my desk or nightstand. I used it to set alarms, do web searches, start up the Google Play Music app and play specific music, and set reminders to do errands at certain times. It takes the personal assist software to a new level and is already a huge part of the Google Glass interface. I think the average consumer will be impressed by the feature.

Related to Touchless Control is the Active Display function. Instead of having to turn the phone off dozens of times a day to see notifications — which wastes power — the Moto X shows notifications in a pulsing mode: They appear for a few seconds and then disappear only to reappear a few seconds later. The phone is only lighting up a small part of the screen, making the process power efficient. Touch the notification icon during the process and more details appear, allowing you to ignore or take action on them. And the phone is smart enough to shut this feature off when its face down or in a pocket.

Camera is quick but not always pretty as a picture

Motorola is using what it calls a 10 megapixel Clear Pixel sensor, saying it has been used in digital cameras before but not in smartphones until now. What makes it different? Instead of the camera sensor capturing just red, green and blue colors, it also captures clear or white pixels. The company says this captures up to 75 percent more light in a shorter time, which means faster shutter speeds and better low light performance. How does it work in practice? That depends.

Most pictures I took were acceptable while a few looked outstanding. But some were generally mediocre.

reba moto x

At times, I had to take the same shot two or three times because the camera wasn’t properly auto-focused or the lighting looked off. Auto HDR is on by default as well, which may not be optimal in every case. In general the phone can take solid pictures but I’ll be looking to Motorola to improve the camera quality through software improvements.

From a usability standpoint, the camera is easy to use: Tap the screen anywhere and it snaps an image. All controls are off screen and appear with a simple swipe. Controls are a little limited when compared to other phones such as the Lumia 1020 or HTC One. And there are far fewer scene modes than in the Galaxy S 4: Just a panoramic image capture and a slow motion video camera function, which works really well.

I also like the Quick Capture feature: Motorola wants the camera to be able to take pictures in under two seconds when the phone is in a pocket. And it can.

Quick capture Moto X

Remove the phone from your pocket, twist it in the air two times and the camera app immediately launches. Tap anywhere on the screen and the image is snapped.

Creating your own Moto X

The final piece to the Moto X puzzle is the ability to create a custom device. At launch only AT&T customers can do this, but other carriers will adopt it later this year. Using the site, you can choose colors for the front face of the phone, back cover and accents such as the hardware buttons and camera rim. Pre-determined wallpapers can be chosen on MotoMaker there are color matched headphones and other accessories available. You can also have the phone engraved with a custom message.

My test drive of the MotoMaker site was simple and fun. The best part is what happens after you order: Motorola will build the phone in Ft. Worth, TX and deliver it to you in four days or less. Non-AT&T customers can choose from black or white models. And AT&T customers that can’t wait for a Moto X can take a black or white model home as a loaner until their custom Moto X arrives.

Conclusion and who is the target market for the Moto X

Motorola calls this phone a “flaghip” phone. On paper, that’s questionable since it doesn’t use the latest processor, has a 720p display and has a camera sensor that’s unproven in practice. But in my experience, it offers a “flagship” experience and that’s really what counts.

It also may be the best small Android handset on the market. Unlike the mini versions of other leading phones which cut both corners and size, Moto X offers an outstanding overall experience while not being a huge handset. And while some of its advanced features can be replicated through third-party apps, Motorola is smartly making them native to the phone. That makes for a solid blend of hardware, software and usability; something that the iPhone has done for years but few Androids have been able to accomplish.

If you have to have the latest hardware on the market, perhaps the Moto X isn’t for you. For those that care more about the experience, Moto X is a must look. The iPhone’s popularity proves there are far more people in the latter camp and that’s why I think Motorola is onto something with this phone.

I was actually about to buy an HTC One Google Experience device but held off until the Moto X launch. I’m glad I did because I’ll be purchasing my own Moto X once the phone is available later this month.

Moto X and HTC One

The way I see it — for my personal usage habits — I’m getting the performance and features of the HTC One GE phone in a smaller package that runs longer on a single charge and has advanced useful features.

You’ll have to make your own choice of course: Just remember that choice is all about compromise.

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