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The Moto X was my favorite Android smartphone of 2013. A year later, and the landscape’s changed. So too must the Moto X. For the second-generation model, which we’ll refer to as the Moto X (2014), Motorola decided to improve on the fronts that market trends have shifted towards.

Bigger screen with higher resolution? Check. Better camera? Check. Metal body? Check. High-performance processor and GPU? Check. More customization options such as wood panels and leather options? Check and check.

With so much to be excited for in this device, is the Moto X (2014) the Android smartphone to beat this year? Read on for my full review.

Context

Everybody uses their smartphone differently. I consider myself a power user; I use my smartphone for lots of email, messaging via various apps, checking Facebook and Twitter, browsing the web and taking lots of photos for posting to Instagram.

The amount of time I use my smartphone for actual voice calls has decreased over the years, but I still log in about an hour total in a week. I’m a gamer, but don’t play too many mobile games, unless I’m on a long train or bus ride.

Design (Fantastic)

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The Moto X (2013) may not have been made from aluminum or another type of metal, but its design was one of the best. In sculpting the Moto X (2013), Motorola was after a form factor that fit comfortably in your hand, with a screen size that wasn’t too small or too large. The front display panel and sides were plastic, the buttons metal, and the rear back a soft matter rubber texture with just enough grip.

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Plastic is now out of style and big display is in. The Moto X (2014) has a metal frame with antenna breaks along it. Together the design is still undeniably the Moto X, only not as cheap-feeling. Centered up to is the 3.5mm headphone jack and to its left is the nano SIM card slot.

The devices overall size is rather massive, and it’s still impossible to use with one hand comfortably, but it is one of the better “phablet-sized” devices out there. It size is something you’ll have to get used to if you want a larger display.

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On the right side is a small stripe-textured home button and below it a volume rocker. Moving over to the bottom is a lone Micro USB port.

The front display facade is a thing of beauty as well, tapering to the edges and creating a gentler, rounder edge that feels great to the touch. If you’ve ever used a Galaxy S3, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

There are two ribbed stripes that sit along the top and bottom bezel; the top one the ear receiver and the bottom is a front-facing speaker. But don’t be fooled, the dual arrangement gives off the illusion of stereo speakers ala HTC One (M8), but they’re not (you can buy a Moto G (2014) if you want stereo speakers).

My review unit came in black Horween leather and it feels great. As I mentioned in my hands-on, the leather is bound to get scuffed and look more “aged” with more time. I’m not sure how long it’ll hold up, but the leather back is already starting to show signs of light tears and indentations where my fingernails dug into it and from being rubbed against my keys and pocket lint.

On the back of the device sits the 13-megapixel camera with LED flash ring (more on that below) and an equally-sized Motorola logo just below it. This “dimple” is larger than the one on the Moto X (2013) and serves no purpose other than as a place to put your finger. It’s almost a shame Motorola didn’t turn it into a functional button, or do something similar to LG’s rear-positioned power/volume buttons first presented on the LG G2.

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While Moto Maker isn’t available on every carrier, in the U.S., AT&T and Verizon will both have the customization website ready at launch. With it you’ll be able to pick from 17 colored backs (soft polycarbonate), 10 accent colors (for the buttons), 4 wood finishes, and 4 leathers.

Display (Amazing)

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The leap from 4.7-inch 720p to 5.2-inch 1080p is huge. The difference in clarity isn’t immediately noticeable if you’re used to a 720p display, but it is when you’re streaming 1080p HD video from a six-inch distance or viewing more content on a web page.

The resolution is 1920 x 1080 with 423 pixels per inch crammed into it is damn sharp and the fact that it’s an OLED panel means it produces some of the deepest black levels on any mobile device.

As with the Moto X (2013), the display is actually quite bright and has excellent viewing angles. I had no problems seeing content on it with brightness set to 50 percent most of the time. It’s no Quad HD display, but it’s plenty crisp.

Performance (Excellent)

As I constantly tell my less-techie friends, speed is not really an issue on flagship Android smartphones anymore. The perceivable difference is negligible between one flagship smartphone and another for daily tasks such as browsing the web, sending email and checking social media. The specs don’t matter as much to most people, but it does factor into a lot of buying decisions.

The Moto X (2013) had something called the Motorola X8 Computing System (essentially just a 1.7Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro rolled together with co-processors). The Moto X (2014) uses a powerful 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, Adreno 330 GPU, and 2GB of RAM. It’s very much in-line with what competing flagship smartphones are powered by, so it’s not surprising to expect similar performance within the same range.

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On the Geekbench 3 benchmark test, a test that grades single-core and multi-core performance, the Moto X (2014) scored a 973 and 2876, respectively. That’s faster than the 938 and 2836 the Samsung Galaxy S5 scored, and faster than the Nexus 5 as well. Compared to the Moto X (2013), the Moto X (2014) runs laps around it; the Moto X (2013) only scored a 669 for single-core and 1219 on the multi-core score.

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Additionally, on the GFXBench 3.0 benchmark, a test designed to measure OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics performance as well as render quality and power consumption, the Moto X (2014) scored 747 (12 fps), under the iPhone 5s’s 798, but higher than the LG G3’s 733 score and the Galaxy S5’s 731 score.

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On the 1080p Manhattan Offscreen test and a 1571 (28 fps) on the 1080p T-Rex Offscreen test, which puts in the same range as the Xperia Z2 and HTC One (M8).

The Moto X (2014) is a very fast device running Android 4.4.4 KitKat and I expect that to only get better once Android L comes out and provides a speed boost for apps.

Battery (Good)

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The Moto X (2013) had pretty decent battery life and so too does the Moto X (2014). Despite the larger, higher-resolution display and small 100 mAh boost from 2200 mAh to 2300 mAh, the Moto X (2014) still holds its own.

In my week of testing, H had the display set to about 50 percent brightness, 4G LTE on, Bluetooth 4.0 LE turned on and paired to the Moto 360 smartwatch, and I was still able to last a full 7-8 hour day out and about while constantly checking email, updating social media, taking photos and browsing the web with Chrome.

With 4G LTE and GPS turned on, the Moto X (2014) lost 16-17 percent while in standby for 8 hours, which is considerably more than double the 7 percent the Moto X (2013) lost while in standby with the same settings toggled on.

There are some optimizations you can do to conserve more battery, but it appears the Moto X (2014) is more power hungry than its predecessor. No surprise; there is a larger display and beefier processor on board here.

Camera (Better, but still faulty)

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The rear camera is a 13-megapixel shooter with a dual-LED ring around it (up from the 10-megapixel on the rear with single LED flash) and the front camera remains a 2-megapixel shooter.

The Moto X (2013)’s rear camera was universally considered trash. Image quality was awful, even with subsequent camera firmware updates that improved white balance, autofocus and speed. The Moto X (2014)’s camera is much, much better.

First, you get the higher 13-megapixel resolution. Boosted by the 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, the camera fires off super fast; it’s almost instant.

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To take pictures, you simply tap anywhere on the screen. Swiping in from the left still opens up a semi-circle ring of controls and swiping in from the right opens up the camera roll. Quick Capture, the weird twisting gesture that lets you fire up the camera with two twists of the wrist is still here and as great as ever.

For the most part, outdoor photos in areas with lots of sunshine or good lighting come out great. But move even indoors, and photos start to look discolored with off white balance and image noise levels increasing.

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Low-light performance is incredibly important these days since most people use their smartphone camera as their only camera. While Motorola has improved the low-light performance on the Moto X (2014), it’s still not as great as what you’d get with the LG G3. Low-light photos in dimly-lit places are still noisy and lack detail.

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Autofocus is also still problematic, often failing to focus properly and leaving me with a lot of blurry photos. In the above comparison, you can see the Moto X (2014) fail on one of many occasions to autofocus from a couple of inches away. Meanwhile, my two-year old iPhone 5 had no problems with the same tap-to-focus.

A new feature on the Moto X (2014) is called “Best Shot.” Its whole purpose is to suggest better photos. For example, if you’re in a moving car or taking pictures of fast-action sports, the picture you captured may have come out of focus. In this case, if you scroll over to the Gallery, you will find some images with a star next to them; these are called “Best Shots” and are frames usually before or after your actual shot. In my testing, this feature works sometimes, but not all of the time. It’s unclear terrible of a photo taker you have to be in order to trigger this “Best Shot” mode.

The 13-megapixel rear camera also is capable of 4K resolution video recording. You can see a sample of it in the video below. It’s not stabilized or anything and in low-light, the video quality does get noisy, but it’s there if you want it.

Software (Great)

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Motorola’s sticking with a “pure Android” experience, which means Android 4.4.4 KitKat is as Google intends it to be, like on a Nexus-branded device. All of the extra Motorola services and add-ons are now separate apps, which also means the road to getting new OS updates is faster than before.

Due to its pure Android nature, the Moto X (2014) will be one of the first Android smartphones to get updated to Android L.

Motorola’s own additions include Moto Voice (formerly called Touchless Control), Moto Display (formerly called Active Notifications), Moto Actions and Moto Assist. These still work perfectly and integrate well in tandem with pure Android 4.4.4 KitKat.

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There are a few small changes — all for the better, of course. Moto Voice is now even more accurate and detached from feeling too Google-like. For instance, you can now create your own “launch phrase” to activate the Moto X (2014) such as “Hey Moto X” or “Hey Terminator” instead of only being able to say “OK Google”.

Moto Assist is smarter as well. Thanks to the myriad of mics, the Moto X (2014) knows exactly when you’re in a moving car by analyzing the amount of ambient traffic/car noise around you and can switch to a voice-activated mode where it can do things like read you your text messages. Location and time awareness means it also has the ability to switch to certain settings (like turning on Wi-Fi) when you’re at home and automatically switching to a don’t disturb mode when you’re sleeping.

Moto Display, the lock-screen notification system that lets you preview up to three notifications at a glance by touching its icon is still as brilliant as ever.

New is Moto Actions, a gesture system that lets you hover your hand over the display to silence incoming calls and snooze alarms. It works accurately and while it isn’t quite as “advanced” as the gesture system that lets you scroll through elements on the Samsung Galaxy S4, the two actions it can do are really effective and work every time.

There are some pre-installed bloatware apps on the Moto X (2014); these will depend on your carrier model choice. On my AT&T review unit model, there were a bunch of apps such as AT&T Live, AT&T Locker, AT&T Mail, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Ready2Go, Caller Name ID, Lookout, myAT&T, ISIS Wallet, Quickoffice and YP pre-installed. There’s no way to remove these apps permanently without hacking it (and voiding your warranty). Just remove them from your homescreen and never look at them again, unless you actually use them.

Conclusion (Really Great)

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This year has been a great year for premium Android smartphones. There is the HTC One (M8), the LG G3, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The Moto X (2014) is easily part of the group, too. Motorola’s flagship is no longer a “mid-range” device. Its metal frame is gorgeous, its 5.2-inch 1080p display is large and sharp enough to rumble with any other 5 to 5.5″ display, the 13-megapixel camera brings significantly improved photos, and the performance is finally on-par with top-tier devices in its class.

At $99.99 for a 16GB model with a two-year contract and $499.99 for an unlocked, no-contract device, the Moto X (2014) is a hell of a deal.

All of this doesn’t even include the fact Motorola is double-downing on customizations through its Moto Maker website. In addition to 17 plastic rear colored backs and 10 different accent colors, you also get 4 wood and 4 leather finishes to pick from.

Overall product rating: 8.8/10

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about Android, Moto X (2014) and Motorola.

Display
5.2"
1920x1080 AMOLED
424 PPI
Price
~$285 - Amazon
Camera
13 MP
F2.2 Aperture
Weight
144 g
Battery
2300 mAh
Non-Removable
No Wireless Charg.
Launched in
2014/09/01
System
2GB RAM
Snapdragon 801 + None
Storage (GB)
32
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