Yet again, Motorola has the chance to hijack the industry-wide road map for mobile development and design. Its latest creation, the Moto X, was destined by birthright alone to make headlines as the first smartphone fully conceived and nurtured under the wing of Motorola’s new parent, Google. Still, few expected the type of heir that was eventually unveiled
That’s because the Moto X refuses to compete in the specifications arms race currently occupying the rest of the Android market, (arguably sparked by another Motorola Device — the original Droid) and instead dares consumers and competing manufacturers alike with another question. Is a top-notch mobile user experience really still dependent on top-notch specs?
It’s a familiar concept for Apple devotees. But to somehow dismiss the X’s accomplishments as a simple grafting of Apple’s strategy onto the Android platform is a serious misjudgment. This phone blazes several important new trails, including taking the crown as the first smartphone to be made (or more accurately, assembled) right here in the U.S.A.
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Born from a Different Stock
The Moto X looks fairly anonymous in its standard black and white form — especially when you consider metallic lookers like the HTC One traipsing about the streets. It takes a few minutes of holding the device to fully appreciate its precise construction and the extra care Motorola took to nail the design details; for example, they’ve ensured no carrier logos will mar the front of the device.
While you won’t find a piece of “premium” metal on its exterior, the X’s combination of plastics, soft touch composites, and a seamlessly blended Corning Glass screen exudes quality. Its gently curved back, derived in part from hundreds of sample hand measurements, naturally hugs the palm and feels great to hold. Pressing the power and volume rockers on the side of the device is equally satisfying. It’s reasonably thin at 65.3mm, but not the thinnest on the market. Like the iPhone, there’s a substantial, reassuring heft to the X that fits its frame and doesn’t go so far as to feel heavy.
Unlike the iPhone, or any other other flagship mobile device to date for that matter, the Moto X is also assembled in Fort Worth, TX, in a factory employing roughly 2,000 workers — a distinction that’s soon to be hammered home to consumers through a rumored dedicated $500 million marketing budget. The ability to capitalize on a renewed sense of consumer patriotism certainly doesn’t hurt the phone’s chances for success, but Motorola’s execs have also sincerely expressed that they think it’s “the right thing to do”. They’re also quick to point out that the move provides distinct business advantages.
Besides being the first phone assembled in the US, the Moto X holds another distinction as the first mobile device that consumers can tailor to match their own personal aesthetics. A new online service called Moto Maker allows consumers to select from a rainbow palette of back plates, a pair of different front plates and a handful of accent colors for the phone’s volume rocker, power button and camera ring. Users can go even farther down the rabbit hole by adding a personalized message to the back of the phone, setting a “designed by” message that appears every time the phone is powered on, and selecting their phone’s wall paper before they ever hold it.
The result is 252 different possible combinations for consumers to choose from, a number that is likely to grow as Motorola continues to experiment with new materials and textures — such as the wood-backed prototypes they teased during the phone’s launch. Think of it like a NikeID for smartphones, because that’s what inspired the company to try it.
Opting for a customized Moto X doesn’t cost a penny more than the standard retail version’s 2-year contract asking price of $199, unless you opt for the upgrade to 32GB of storage for an extra $50. What’s even more impressive is that Motorola claims a customized X will arrive at the buyer’s door in no more than 4 business days — one immediately tangible benefit of its U.S.-based production. And should your creation horrify you after arriving, a 14-day no-questions-asked return policy means you won’t have to live with the consequences. It’s a bold and potentially market-changing strategy, built around the notion that today’s so-called personal devices today really aren’t identifiable as such.
Unfortunately, AT&T customers will have exclusive access to the Moto Maker service initially, even though standard versions will be offered on Verizon, T Mobile and Sprint. (Motorola says this shouldn’t be the status quo for long.) Standard color options will likely change, too, if Motorola’s Facebook campaign asking users to vote on their various styled Moto Xs is any indication.
The Specification Question
Motorola isn’t being coy about its decision to ignore the tech-obsessed in favor of “average” smartphone users, and it shows in the phone’s specifications. On paper the Motorola X’s 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen, 16GB of standard storage, 2GB of RAM and 10MP rear camera with a matching 2MP front shooter are nothing to swoon over, especially when you consider the phone costs as much as other top tier devices boasting the latest hardware under the hood. Yet the Moto X’s resume isn’t an accurate reflection of its skill set. Tradeoffs were definitely made, but all for seemingly good reasons.
720p isn’t 1080p, but the X still boasts a respectable ppi of 316 (the “retina” display of iPhone five is 326ppi in comparison). In practical use, the X’s lack of resolution isn’t a noticeable issue. Text looks crisp, colors are vibrant and blacks are deep. In fact, our only real gripe with the screen is that its contrast is somewhat heavy handed and colors look slightly over-saturated. The white balance skews slightly red as well.
Battery life was obviously a big factor in the decision to stick with a lower resolution AMOLED display; it can adjust the brightness of each pixel individually, making it an excellent solution for minimizing the power impact of the “Active Notifications” software enhancements discussed later in the review.
Motorola also clearly worked hard to maximize the screen-to-phone ratio with this device. Despite boasting a screen of the same size as Goliaths like the HTC One, the nearly edge-to-edge design of the Moto X’s display allows the phone to be much smaller and for easy use in one hand (an important usability goal in Motorola’s eyes).
On the processing front, Motorola proudly touts the X’s unique X8 Mobile computing system (also found on the company’s newly revamped line of Droids) as a significant improvement over existing processing architectures. Digging past the fancy labeling reveals that the X8 is technically a souped-up 1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 Pro Processor (found in many current phones) with Adreno 320 graphics combined with two additional dedicated low-power processing centers focused on voice commands and so-called contextual computing. Branding aside, the phone is snappy, handling resource-intensive tasks like gaming and heavy multi-tasking with ease in our tests.
The screen, X8 mobile computing system and a specially designed curved 2,200mAh battery that fills every inch of the X’s convex back all translate to a solid battery life that can easily take even the heaviest of users through a full day on a single charge. That said, it still doesn’t rival the ridiculous usage times offered by Motorola’s own Droid Maxx.
A 10MP “clear pixel” rear camera is a final notable enhancement. The Clear Pixel designation refers to an extra “c” pixel not found on typical RGB sensors that is dedicated to white (light). Motorola claims the result is a sensor capable of taking in up to 75% more light, which in turns results in better low-light performance and highly detailed images even in fast-motion situations. The phone is capable of capturing excellent photos complete with great depth of field, but aggressive software post-processing and unpredictable auto-focusing are definite draw backs. The combination makes imaging on the Moto X a bit of a wash in practice. It isn’t a reason alone to buy the device or to dismiss it.
Putting the Smart in Smartphone
Excellent software is the true key advantage of the Moto X. Geeks will lament that the phone ships with a slightly older version of Android Jelly Bean (4.2.2) instead of 4.3 — especially disappointing given Motorola’s role as a Google subsidiary. It’s not a Nexus device, but still sports what basically amounts to a stock version of Android with a few very valuable tweaks.
The biggest feature being pushed is so-called “Touchless Control”, which enables users to perform certain tasks via voice alone using the key phrase “OK Google Now”. You can ask the Moto X to set reminders, perform Google searches or send texts without ever touching a button even while the device is asleep. If not life-changing, it’s incredibly useful for drivers and a fun element to explore in other situations. Touchless Control’s value is greatly reduced if you prefer securing your phone with a lock screen (which you really should do), since it can’t perform tasks until your password is entered.
“Active Notifications” is another major tweak designed to help users make better sense of the barrage of alerts coming from their phone. Rather than fully powering up the screen in response to every update or time check by users, the service makes clever use of the phone’s accelerometer to intuitively flash a clock and a series of alert icons in the center of screen when the phone is flipped or removed from a pocket. Sliding a finger on the notifications icon also reveals a “peek” at the highest priority alert, which a user can then easily jump to with another tap. The entire process draws far less power than your typical phone ADD habit, thanks largely to the fact that the AMOLED display only draws power to light the notifications area of the screen.
Motorola Assist, which alters how your device behaves in a variety of situations, is the final and most under-the-radar software enhancement of note on the X. Using your calendar appointments as a guide, it can automatically silence and quiet your phone to avoid awkward interruptions (remember how badly your “Thong Song” ring tone went over during Aunt Sally’s funeral?). A sleeping setting works in a similar fashion based on the time window you set. The X also uses Motorola Assist to sense when you’re moving at driving speeds and switches to a hands-free experience where texts, calls and other phone tasks are all handled by voice.
All of these features worked well in our tests and together make the Motorola Moto X a remarkably smart smartphone that doesn’t require constant direct input from you to react to your changing needs.
Motorola’s Moto X is truly a new breed of smartphone. What it lacks in potential hardware horsepower, it easily makes up for through tangible user benefits like an all day battery life, remarkable software and creative custom aesthetics. It’s an intuitive, elegant and effective device, not to mention the strongest case for a holistic approach to smartphone design since the iPhone.
How it will age across a two year life cycle is one point of concern though — especially since it’s unclear how quickly Android updates will arrive to the device. Some of its key competitive advantages can also already be found on other phones from Motorola, and will certainly be imitated, if not blatantly copied by other manufacturers in the future.
Still, those who act now will find much to love about the Moto X, hopefully for years to come. Likewise, those who resist also win in the end, because a new bar for smartphones has been set.