This week Google shocked the tech world by announcing that it was selling Motorola Mobility to Lenovo. While that raises lots of questions about future Motorola phones, it doesn't take anything away from the company's current flagship, made entirely under Google ownership. Read on, as we use our first hands-on with the wood-backed version as an excuse to revisit the terrific Moto X.
If you're a hardcore Google or Android fan, then this week's news might have felt a little like hearing about a beloved rockstar or actor dying young. Google's Motorola may not have been profitable (quite the opposite, actually), but it came out with guns blazing and achieved something that had once seemed impossible. It made an innovative smartphone in 2013.
UPGRADE TO NEW ATLAS PLUS
More than 1,200 New Atlas Plus subscribers directly support our journalism, and get access to our premium ad-free site and email newsletter. Join them for just US$19 a year.UPGRADE
Sometimes we review products that seem fresh and innovative at the time, but then we look back just a few months later and realize that the novelty quickly faded. Not the Moto X. When Motorola had announced the phone, many were disappointed that it didn't have the rumored cutting-edge specs or a rock-bottom price. But that quickly evaporated as we got our hands on it and realized that the phone's "mid-range" specs didn't require any compromise. Five months after its launch, the Moto X's innovative software and sensor-based features still lead to a richer overall experience than damn near any other phone out there.
I recently got my hands on one of the wood-backed versions of the Moto X (I opted for Ebony), and I think it looks and feels amazing. I haven't had this much organic material on a phone since I dropped my iPhone 3Gs in a toilet, but trust me, this one looks (and smells) much better. The wooden Moto X looks much more striking in person than it does in pictures. I personally think the wood back is well worth the extra US$25. It's unique, classy, and brings a rustic charm to a smartphone. Can't say I've ever seen that before.
Apart from the extra cost, the only tradeoff to the wood back is the extra weight that it adds. The standard Moto X weighs a feathery 130 g (4.59 oz), but my Ebony one weighs 137 g (4.83 oz). That's only five percent more heft, but it does feel noticeably denser in hand.
There isn't a lot else to say about the wood back. It feels smooth (no splinters in sight), is only a little heavier, and oozes style. If you like the look of fine wood grains, then I recommend opting for this over the standard (plastic) one. If that's your thing, you're going to love it. I know I do.
As for the phone itself, well, you could easily argue that it's still the best smartphone out there. When you compete on specs or gimmicky features, your phone is practically guaranteed to be surpassed within a few months. But when you come up with something truly different, with the little things that delight customers and make things more convenient, then your phone can continue to shine long after the fact. That's what we're looking at with the Moto X.
In case you missed this the first time around, its innovation comes from things like Active Display, which subtly pulses basic lockscreen info onto your sleeping phone's screen. The phone has sensors baked in that let it know whether to pulse – and how often. If it's in your pocket, it'll save the juice and stay off. But if it's sitting face up on your desk, it will occasionally pulse. Pick it up, and it will instantly start pulsing. See? It's those thoughtful little things that Samsung, Apple, and HTC never thought of.
It's also things like Touchless Control, which lets you summon Google Now without even touching your Moto X. Train your phone to recognize your voice, and anytime you say "OK Google Now," Google's voice assistant will spring into action, ready to help you send a message, check the traffic or a sports score, or play that new album you added in Google Play Music.
There are other little touches too, like twisting your phone a couple of times to instantly activate its camera. Or the Moto X's built-in "Trusted Devices," which lets you skip your passcode security when it's connected to a trusted Bluetooth device (like, say, a car stereo, a smartwatch, or Google Glass). Or Motorola Assist, that detects when you're driving, in a meeting, or sleeping, and lets you customize how the phone interacts with you based on those conditions.
These are the things that make you realize how silly the race to have the biggest and best specs is. It's not that we don't love a good Snapdragon 800-running phone like the Nexus 5, but I think smartphone specs hit a "more than good enough" threshold over a year ago. We used to focus more on performance in our reviews, but now, at least with high-end phones, it's usually barely worth mentioning. Now they're almost always going to be fast enough for just about any conceivable use. So why not skip spec overkill and opt for a phone with something truly revolutionary, like the Moto X?
That's why there's such a sadness hanging over Google's unexpected decision to sell off Motorola. Lenovo could continue the company's trajectory, and do innovative things with future phones. Or not. It's that uncertainty that puts a damper on the Moto X's achievement. It's as if The Beatles had broken up after Revolver. We'd just seen something great – with glimmers of something much greater on the horizon – but then it was suddenly over. Maybe Lenovo will make Motorola's equivalent of Sgt. Pepper or The White Album. Or maybe it will make something more like Ringo's latest solo album.
While there's a temptation to see the once-fascinating Motorola brand as damaged and stained, Google's sale shouldn't have any effect on the Moto X that you can buy today. And fortunately it can be had for some of its best pricing yet. Motorola now lets you design your own Moto X – assembled at its Texas plant – for just $330 off contract. Snag a coupon code from someone who took advantage of a recent promotion, and you're only paying $300. Of course you still add $25 if you want the wood back, but that's still one hell of a deal. It's standing toe-to-toe with the Nexus 5 as the best smartphone value around right now.
We don't know what the future holds for the Motorola brand, but the Moto X is still one of our most highly-recommended smartphones. After reading our initial and extended reviews of the standard version, you can roll your own Moto X at the product page below.
Product page: MotorolaView gallery - 11 images