The Moto X is new species of Motorola phone for a couple of reasons: first, it has been designed under a new management since Motorola Mobility was acquired by Google for $12B. Secondly, it is a phone that has received an intense design focus on the user experience, which is very different from the typical (and proven) strategy of going for high-end “specs” and new (or more) software features.
Of course, the Moto X does bring its share of software improvements, but instead of merely adding functions, sometime for the sake of it, Motorola is aiming at the most important use cases that we encounter daily.
Last but not least, the Moto X has been created so that you can make it your own: it is much more customizable that any other Android phone that came before it. So, is this paying off for Motorola? Let’s take the Moto X for a spin.
Moto X Specs
Just to shed some light about its relative positioning in the market, let’s take a quick peek at what’s in the Moto X so we can move on to the good stuff.
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As you can see, Motorola has chosen to use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro hardware platform on all of its recent smartphones, including Moto X, the new Droid RAZR Maxx and Droid Ultra. They all use the Snapdragon S4 Pro, which was first introduced with the LG Optimus G. Obviously, this is not the latest hardware, especially since the Snapdragon 800 has just popped on the radar with the LG G2. If you are curious as of “why” the decision was made, check what Motorola’s CEO has to say about this, but keep an open mind until the end of the article.
If you are curious, there is about 12GB of free user storage in the 16GB version of this handset. We haven’t played with the 32GB version, but it’s fair to assume that 28GB would be available to users.
Just before we jump into the actual review, let me tell you how I use my phone. It’s clear that each reviewer has his or her opinion, and that point of view is formed from specific usage models that each of us have. It is important to recognize this.
I mostly use my phone as a computer, and I don’t call much (maybe 5mn a day, if at all). Email and Facebook are the apps that I open the most, followed by the web browser and the camera. Next to that, I have a few productivity apps like Evernote, sound recorders etc. I rarely play games because I don’t like the virtual controls, but I’m often up for a bit of late video streaming, mainly on Netflix and Google Play.
Moto X: Design (Feels good, customizable)
It is fair to say that the design is a major reason why people choose their phones, so this should not be underestimated. Motorola has done a good design work with the Moto X for many reasons. Let’s start with the “plain” versions that you can get in store: it is back or white, and looks quite good. Visually, the white back plate has a lot of “texture”, but upon touching it, you realize that it is smooth (otherwise it would catch dirt pretty quickly. The surface also looks to be resilient against scratches.
The Moto X feels very good in the hand, thanks to its gentle curve in the back. The phone weight is identical to the Galaxy S4’s, so most people will find it to be completely reasonable. The sides of the phones are pretty minimalist and clean. There is little to disturb the clean lines here. The only design element that I’m not convinced about is the front rim that surrounds the screen. The white plastic feels a bit “cheaper” than the rest of the phone, so the integration could have been better here.
Things get a lot more interesting when you consider how much buyers can customize their handsets if they choose to buy their handset online. Among the phone features that are customizable, you can find the back plate, the side accents and even the camera ring – just to cite a few. As a result that are hundreds of possible combination, and Motorola has also managed to avoid picking Lumia-looking colors. Personally, I really like the wooden back plates. Update: we tested Moto Maker, the online tool that allows buyers to customize their handset before placing an order. Check out Moto Maker hands-on.
"THE MOTO X IS ASSEMBLED BY 2000 WORKERS IN THE U.S"The Moto X is “assembled” in the USA (Texas) in a plant where 2000 workers will be busy building custom phones that will reach their owners four days after they were ordered online. The word “assembled” is used because the components are sourced from abroad, but for those who care, Apple manufactures its products in China (although there are changes there too), while Samsung and LG have a mix of Korea and China based manufacturing. We never know if the U.S-based manufacturing is part of the marketing plan or if it is a long-term approach to building devices, but my guess is that it is both.
Building in China is convenient since the know-how has moved there, but also because manufacturing contractors there are willing to do some real, sometime “hardcore”, R&D if the need arise. This is something that is often not reported about: it is not always about cheap labor. Fortunately, it is possible to organize the production to have “some” manufacturing in the U.S – that’s what Motorola is trying to do here, and I think it’s great.
Moto X Display (gorgeous)
The Moto X comes with a classic 4.7” AMOLED display, but don’t let yourself fooled by the specifications: the screen is gorgeous and when you watch movies or play games, it has nothing to envy other AMOLED handsets on the market. It is only when you are looking at photos, or text, and only if you have a 1080p smartphone next to it that you will perceive a small difference. The screen is also very bright. At the office (with 6 large windows next to me) I typically put the brightness to 45%-55%. I don’t use the automatic brightness because I found it to be a bit aggressive and too dim.
When you pick up your phone, Moto X senses the action and it will fire a small portion of the screen to display time and/or notifications. Given that users check for time dozens of time a day on their smartphones, the fact that you don’t have to explicitly turn it on is very handy and much appreciated. Sometime, it’s the little things that make all the difference.
Moto X Software (clean)
"THE OPERATING SYSTEM IS VIRTUALLY BLOAT-FREE"I really like where Motorola is going with its software. First of all, the Operating System is virtually bloat-free and there are few pre-loaded apps in the phone. Secondly, Motorola has decided once and for all that it would not change the icons and other design elements for the sake of it. Instead, it will keep the stock Android design elements and focus on adding software only if it genuinely improves the user experiences. Kudos to them for that. Although Motorola has added a number of things that are not in the stock Android, the phone does feel like a “Google Edition” phone (read our Galaxy S4 vs HTC One Google Edition post).
Touchless Controls (friction-less)
This is one of the feature that Motorola promotes the most, so I’m sure that you will hear of it if you have any interest for this smartphone. The idea is that you often are in a situation where using your hands is not really convenient (or an option for that matter), so using either voice or simple gestures may help a lot. This is where voice control comes in.
"MOTOROLA IS MAKING THE VOICE CONTROL NEARLY FRICTION-LESS"To setup voice control, you just need to repeat “OK Google Now” three times, and that will allow your phone to store a voice reference for a better recognition of that fundamental command. After that, Moto X will listen at all times and will immediately act when commanded. For example, you could say “OK Google Now, set an alarm for 11pm”, and Moto X will do exactly that for you.
Note that you will need to manually unlock the phone if there is a PIN or pattern lock, which defies the purposes somewhat but you have to choose between convenience and security — that said, what about using your voice biometric data as a key? Probably not secure/reliable enough today. On other phones, you first need to turn the phone on, possibly unlock it, launch Google Now, then speak your voice command. Moto X just saved you three steps. I love it.
Google’s voice recognition abilities have been way ahead of Apple’s Siri, and Android users have access to a wealth of relevant information. Google/Moto also did a great job of not “over-selling it”, like Apple did with Siri. Motorola is making the voice control nearly friction-less, and I have to admit that I am much more likely to do a search, not because I care about the voice command, but because it’s easy. “OK Google” would have sufficed, but overall, this is brilliant.
Motorola Assist (efficient & low-maintenance)
Assist is an app that will make the Moto X more aware of the context you’re in, and will push some things in the background to help you focus on what’s supposed to be important at the time. For example, if you are driving, Assist will talk to you to read SMS messages and tell you who is calling.
"ONCE SETUP, ASSIST MAKES SURE THAT YOU FOCUS ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT"By looking at your calendar, Assist knows when you are in a meeting, so it can quiet down your phone for that specific period. You can set it to only use vibrate, or to show down all notifications. It is also possible to specify important contacts who always get through this. To make things a bit nicer, Assist can optionally send a polite message to tell the caller that you are currently in a meeting.
Finally, you can set the phone to go in quiet mode during your sleep hours. This will shut down the email and social media notifications (yes!) along with the ringtones. Again, it is possible to define a number of contacts who will not be silenced. For example, I specified that if the same person calls twice, the second call should ring. Once this is setup, you don’t have to think about it, which is very nice.
Entertainment (very good)
By now, nearly every phone worth reviewing is very much capable of playing high-quality music and movies. The Moto X is no different, and it does so very well. When it comes to movies, it’s all about the display and sound.
Since we are talking about a 720p, 4.7” display, the specs on paper aren’t particularly impressive, but as I hinted earlier in the Display section, the image quality is very high and at this size, the lack of 1080p support doesn’t matter for movies as it may with text and photos. The Moto X is as good as, or better, than any other 4.7” handset for watching movies.
The sound quality is very good too. I have heard more powerful speakers before, but overall, I would rate the speakers with a “Good+”. The HTC One and iPhone 5 remain ahead in terms of sound quality, so I doubt that the difference would sway most prospect buyers.
Since Moto X doesn’t run on the latest and fastest hardware, one may be tempted to dismiss its gaming capabilities, but that would be a mistake. As we have seen recently with devices like the Nexus 7 II tablet, devices using the Snapdragon S4 Pro are still very much potent when it comes to running games. And that’s even truer when you take into account that games running on the Moto X have less pixels to render when compared to 1080p handsets (921,600 pixels versus 2,073,600). Less pixels means higher framerate in games – it’s that simple.
Moto X Camera / Video (fast)
The Camera App
The Moto X was designed to be a fast shooter. The reality is that most of the time we pull our phone out to take a shot without any particular artistic intention. We just want to capture what we see. Motorola has optimized that process with its recent line of smartphones.
"THE CAMERA APP IS FAST, AND FAST IS GOOD"First, you can start the camera app with a double twist gesture. It’s very simple and the camera app should be up and running in about 2 seconds, even when the phone if off or locked. There is no tap, and this is probably one of the fastest way to do it. I find the gesture to be adequate but not optimum. Arguably a double-shake may have been a more natural motion to use, but I wonder if Motorola chose the twist because it would yield less false-positive. Anyhow, this is a good idea.
Once the camera app is up and running, you can just tap anywhere to take a photo. You don’t need to tell it where you want to focus since the auto-focus is always on. It is fast and does a relatively good job, so most of the time, you don’t need to worry about a thing. Just tap and snap.
Now, there are times where you may want to focus on something specific, so you can activate a tap to focus feature in the settings. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to have a specific light metering point. This means that where you focus isn’t where light is measured to adjust the camera. This may be counter-intuitive if you are used to an iPhone, but in most situations, the Moto X Camera app will do just fine.
In broad daylight, the Moto X captures very good photos. I found the colors to look very natural and the details are well preserved. That’s also true in more difficult lighting situations, when the light is coming from the back or when there are very bright spots next to darker ones. It’s not always perfect but Moto X does well and this is true for 1080p video recording as well.
"UNFORTUNATELY, THE LOW-LIGHT PERFORMANCE ISN'T THERE YET"In low-light, it’s not so hot, and although it’s hard for any handset, I found the image to trail the quality of other cameras in the same price range. Just to mention a few that I pitted Moto X against: HTC One, Galaxy Note 2, iPhone 5. They were mostly better in low-light photography. Here is an side by side example with the Note 2:
I think that Motorola is doing some post-processing to try removing the noise, but it may have gone (way) too far, and things look blurry if viewed at full resolution. I believe that for web usage (assuming 640 or 800 pixel width), things will look fine on Facebook or on Instagram. Low-light photos are otherwise bright, but I would recommend Motorola to revise the blur vs. noise trade-off. Until then, I’m unable to tell you how good the sensor is because there is simply too much post-processing.
Moto X Benchmarks (very good)
The Moto X smartphone is equipped with the “Motorola X8 Computing System”, which is in fact a 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro. Some people asked me if they should consider this to be an “8-core” chip, since this is the new buzzword, but I would say that it is a quad-core system that has additional co-processors, like many system on a chip (SoC) do. For performance purposes, it should be thought of as a quad-core + GPU. If you are interested by this topic, I would recommend reading my article “Are More Cores, Better?” in which I explain why you need to separate the marketing from the facts.
S4 Pro is a chip that arrived commercially in the first LG Optimus G smartphone in the fall of 2012. It may sound “old” in smartphone terms, but it looks like Qualcomm and Motorola have worked on getting the most out of this architecture that is after all, not so far apart from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 line of chips.
Frankly, I was very surprised to see the numbers that my Moto X unit got out of the graphics benchmarks like GLBenchmark 2.5 and BaseMark X where it gets higher scores than Snapdragon 600 phones like the Galaxy S4. It looks like there were some serious software optimizations, and if they were done by Qualcomm, other handsets may benefit from them at some point.
When you look at system performance (with CPU & storage being more important), things look more like what I would expect them to be: Moto X is a decent phone and falls in the top-tiers of mid-range phones. That said, recent reviews have taught us that extreme CPU performance is mostly useful only for games. If you don’t have a “real” need for absolute best performance, I don’t think that you would feel the difference in normal usage.
If you look at this only at the “perceptive” level, the Moto X is very fast, and very responsive. In fact, I’m under the impression that both Google and handset makers have made significant progress in 2013. On average, Android handsets are much more responsive than they were just less than two years ago.
Moto X Battery Life (very good)
When we left the Moto X in standby mode for 8hrs, with the GPS ON, it drained about 7% of the battery which is not a lot, since many phones would yield this type of overnight drain with the GPS OFF. In practice, it means that you can leave GPS ON nearly at all times and still get a fairly normal usage out of the phone. We’ll be running the same test with the GPS OFF, but it’s fair to expect the results to be pretty good.
For a more intense usage, we’ve watched movies on the handset with the display set at 50% brightness (which is very bright on this model). When streaming a movie from Google Play, a one hour movie consumed 14% of the battery, which translates to a maximum of 7.14hrs of movie playback. When playing a movie stored on the local flash memory, only 12% of the battery is drained, pushing movie playback to a higher 8.33hrs.
Overall, this is a very good battery life, and if you are a power user, you may also want to looked into the Motorola Droid Maxx, which has a comparable form-factor, but a larger battery.
Conclusion (very good user experience)
The Moto X delivers a great user experience. I really enjoyed the effort and the attention to detail that went into its software and settings. Thanks to Motorola’s efforts, Google Now is closer and more useful than ever, and it feels like every Android phone should work in such an unobtrusive way.
In terms of design, there are some great things like the customization options and the nice white back plate design. However, the front rim could have been better and more elegant. In many ways, I think of the Moto X as being a cousin of the Nexus 4 with which it shares a similar hardware ancestry and the (nearly) stock Android OS. For those who have not tried it for themselves, I think that the customization is ultimately what separates Moto X from the others – this is the design point that will or will not sway you.
"MOTO X FEELS LIKE AN IMPROVED GOOGLE EDITION PHONE"The $199 pricing of the Moto X is probably something that is going to be hotly debated by prospect buyers who are accustomed to weigh the price in relation to the hardware features. In this instance, the improvements in user experience are very tangible, but difficult to quantify. It is clear that part of the public will find it to be too expensive, especially since much more powerful handset are coming online now.
On the other hand, the market has shown us that hardware isn’t the answer to everything. In fact, the iPhone 5 is slower, has a smaller screen, less memory and still sells at a premium (esp. at 32GB) if you compare feature-for-feature. If pricing is the only thing holding you back, keep an eye for price drops in the near future, if you are still unsure, it’s probably best to at least check one out for yourself: it’s definitely worth a try.