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Update: we have published our full review of the Moto X.

With the new Moto X, Motorola has found three ways to fundamentally change how we use a smartphone: a voice command to wake it up for hands-free voice control, a screwdriver-like wrist twist to wake up the phone and camera to capture a photo within two seconds, and Active Display to provide the time and other notifications without having to actually turn the phone on. Some of these, of course, work better than others.

Thanks to Apple’s Siri, we’ve all gotten used to the idea of talking to our phone – and then not when we discover we still have to push buttons before we can talk to it. But with the Moto X, you just pronounce “Ok Google now” to wake up it up, assuming you haven’t set the phone to unlock via a passcode. If you’ve set a pin, you’ll only be able to initiate or answer/end a call; otherwise, after saying “Ok Google now” you’ll then have to physically enter your pin. Bummer.

To train your Moto X to recognize your voice, you utter the “Ok Google now” phrase three time. This is a set “open sesame” phrase you cannot change, and the Moto X will recognize only one voice. Moto x includes three mics with active noise cancellation so it can hear you even if you’re not alone. “Ok Google now” not only seemed to work in demos with a moderate amount of background noise in the noisy demo area, but in quieter environments it even responded while buried in a pants pocket.

Once awoken, Moto X operates by voice similarly to Siri, with all the inherent limitations of all voice-controlled systems – a limited number of commands and operations. You can make a call, check your calendar, set a reminder, ask for a navigation route, play a particular music track, Google search, answer Web-searchable questions or boot a limited number of system apps. It won’t boot non-system apps, it won’t skip tracks in the music player, it won’t read emails or texts. It’s also unclear how the hands-free voice command works with wired or Bluetooth headsets with a built-in mic.

It was difficult to tell how loud the Moto X speaker is. If the phone was in a cup holder in your car – the premier hands-free environment – Motorola says Moto X will hear you, even above other passenger noise, and you could probably hear it. But my sense is you’d have to be holding the phone close enough to your head to hear it in more normal situations – and once you have it in your hand, the voice control becomes more cool than a more effective alternative to traditional touch control.

Camera, time shortcuts

More functional are Motorola’s other two shortcuts, Quick Camera, which instantly activates the camera from the phone’s sleep mode, and Active Display, which shows you the time and any pending notifications without waking up the phone on.

Quick Capture requires only you to turn your wrist a couple times, as if you were turning a doorknob to activate the camera, to boot the camera. And instead of aiming for a particular on-screen touchpoint to take the shot, just tap on the screen anywhere. Getting a shot in Motorola’s stated two seconds or less is possible, but I’d add in a second just to make sure your shot is in frame and focus.

Motorola also has scrubbed the camera app of all those unnecessary on-screen options. Instead, you have a nearly clean screen with just the camera/video and front/rear camera options. A swipe from the left perimeter provides a touch wheel containing all the other advanced photo options.

I found Active Display interesting but inconsistent. If you keep your phone facedown on a desktop, Moto X’s sensors quickly sense when you pick it up and turn it around. You see the time white-on-black along with icon notifications – not text – for missed calls, text or email messages.

But simply shaking the phone didn’t produce the Active Display. Removing it from a pocket sometimes did and sometimes didn’t activate it.

As with iPhone, sliding up on a particular notification takes you right to it – if you say “Ok Google now” the phone just wakes up instead of talking you to any of the notifications.

Oddly, once in Active Display mode, the time and notifications fade in-and-out rather than simply staying lit. You sort of have to play whack-a-mole and wait till the notifications to re-appear so you can act on them.

Plus, since seeing the time and some notifications on other phones requires merely the press of the on/off key, I’m not sure how much time or effort Active Display saves.

Physical look-and-feel

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Moto x is constructed from PET plastic (the kind used on soda bottles), which makes it light but not as slippery as the Samsung Galaxy S4, especially if you opt for a textured read panel. Even though it the same sized 4.7-inch screen as the HTC One, Moto X is considerably smaller.

Moto X’s concave shape and sloped perimeters also fit the hand more smoothly and naturally than the HTC One or the Galaxy S4, and lacks HTC One’s sharper edges.

Online customization

Aside from the physical improvements, Motorola has set a new trend in aesthetic customization with its Moto Maker Web site.

If you “buy” a Moto X from an AT&T store (other carriers supposedly to follow), instead of an actual phone you get a Moto X Card. You go home, rub off the redemption code which you enter on the Moto Maker Web site. You can now choose from 18 different rear cover colors, either textured or flat, seven accent colors for buttons and trim, and either white or black for the front. You can even add a “signature” – a phrase or your name, up to around 20 characters depending on letter width – to be printed on the bottom rear of the phone.

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You can also choose a wake-up screen phrase, configure your phone with your Google account, choose a wallpaper screen and order a case along with matching wired earbuds from Sol Republic ($100).

All the configuration is done in the U.S., and Motorola guarantees you’ll get your Moto X in four days or less. Or, forget going to an AT&T store – you can configure and order the phone completely online if you’d like.

First impressions summary

Taken by themselves, I’m not sure any of these Moto X advances, other than Quick Capture, provides a buying differentiator, especially since we have yet to do a full hands-on comparing its actual phone capabilities with other recent Android models.

And since the wake up phrase is “Ok Google now” instead of “Ok Moto now,” it’s likely this voice wake up will be added to a future upgrade of Android.

But when all these gimmicks/advances are combined, and considering the company’s track record in the mobile phone business – Motorola invented the cell phone back in 1973 – Moto X certainly presents a unique and intriguing Android alternative.

Official Moto X website

Filed in Breaking >Cellphones. Read more about Android, Google, Moto X and Motorola.

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