Motorola's first phone designed and brought to market since becoming a wholly owned part of Google, the Moto X, is finally here. I've had one in my hands for almost a week now since snagging a loaner to review for Gizmag at Motorola's press event in New York City. It's traveled with me from the Big Apple back to the American Southwest and on a short road trip through Colorado's southern Rockies in that time, and as I've grown more familiar with what it can do across such varied geography, I can comfortably say that although the Moto X might not be a revolution, it is quite an impressive step forward.
Early rumors about a Motorola "X Phone" hinted at mind-blowing next generation specs and secret new features that could be used to reassemble your brain only to blow it to pieces again with their awesomeness. The bit about the next generation specs turned out not to be true – the Moto X packs what's essentially a middling dual-core processor married to a nice GPU and a raft of sensors – but it does have a couple of killer features that have kept me reaching for it again and again the past few days.
Let's dig in to the whole package, and whether or not the Moto X is likely to impress you in a similar manner.
Looking at the face of the Moto X, you'll notice hints of the iPhone's design with regards to its shape and size. That's likely no coincidence. In speaking with Motorola's product team in New York, they hammered home the point that this phone was designed with the mass market in mind. Comparisons were drawn specifically to Google's Nexus devices, and Motorola sees a clear distinction between the Moto X and, say, the Nexus 4, which it considers to be for more die-hard Android early adopters.
Motorola's emphasis on the Moto Maker program, which allows consumers to pick a custom colored and accented backplate, and even have a personalized message added to the back of the phone, seems to be evidence of its effort to appeal to the everyday phone shopper concerned with the aesthetic value of a device just as much as those of us who might be more interested in meaty specs and cutting edge features.
Another marketing point that Motorola reps like to mention is that the Moto X is being assembled in the United States (in Fort Worth, Texas, to be exact) rather than at a massive factory in Asia or Latin America. According to Motorola product head Rick Osterloh, resources were relocated from Asia to Texas so that those customized Moto X orders could be fulfilled and delivered to American doorsteps within just four days.
Built to be held
The Moto X bucks the growing smartphone trend that smartphones should grow. While the display of some competing Samsung smartphones like the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note exceed five inches, the Moto X sports a 4.7-inch screen. It's also lightweight at just 130 g (4.5 oz), but what makes the device feel particularly comfortable in the hand is the curved back.
This might seem like a trivial detail, but the Moto X's elegant shape complements the shape of the palm in a way that's surprisingly pleasing. Motorola even created a custom-shaped battery to fill the space under the curve that adds an extra 31 percent capacity, according to the company.
The materials certainly have a plastic (but definitely not cheap) feel to them, but Motorola will only say that they're "approachable and durable." Very subtle texture on the back keeps it from being too slippery. While the rumored wrap-around molded Gorilla Glass design is not part of the phone, regular Gorilla Glass is.
Finally, when it comes to the build of the Moto X, it's been given a water-repellent coating on many surfaces, including internal parts. Product head Osterloh stressed that this provides extra protection in the rain, but he doesn't recommend dunking a Moto X in the drink for fun.
While the Moto X feels nice in the hand, perhaps its most notable feature is that none are required to operate it. The phone features what Motorola calls a "contextual core" which does double duty managing a number of internal sensors and constantly listening for a user's custom voiceprint to activate Google Now's voice assistant.
When you first opt in to this service (Motorola calls it "touchless control"), you'll be asked to get to a deathly quiet space to record yourself saying "Ok, Google Now" three times. Moto X then continuously listens for this specific phrase in your specific voice. When it hears it, it "wakes up" and awaits further commands.
As I mentioned earlier, I've been road-tripping with the Moto X, and have found touchless control invaluable for navigating, finding the nearest place for brunch, making calls, sending texts and even adding calendar events. At one stretch, as I was driving out of Durango, I was able to set navigation for our destination high in Colorado's San Juan mountains, listen to a voice mail and then add a meeting with the caller to my Google Calendar, all in just a few minutes and without ever having to take either of my hands off the wheel to so much as awaken or unlock the Moto X.
Of course, this feature doesn't work in all environments. Response times from Google Now can increase dramatically when you're beyond the reach of a 4G or 3G tower. Unfortunately, touchless control is pretty worthless without a decent data connection, even for functions that are native to the device and don't require access to the cloud, like setting an alarm, for example.
Also, there's no way to control third-party apps like Spotify, and when I asked Osterloh about the possibility of an open API for touchless control so that those apps could tap into it, he told me "we have nothing to announce about that at this time."
For you privacy-minded folks, it's also worth noting that the Moto X does not listen to and record everything you say. It's only on the lookout for that specific phrase, "OK, Google Now" in your voice, which then activates the voice assistant.
While competitors like Samsung seem to favor the approach of flooding users with a cornucopia of (often gimmicky) features like those found on the Galaxy S4, Motorola has taken a simpler approach with the Moto X, adding a couple of particularly handy new ways to use some key smartphone functions.
First there's the neat tweaks the Moto X makes to the unlock screen called "active display." An unlock screen pulses on and off periodically, showing active notification icons for things like emails and texts. Simply touch the screen and more information is revealed, such as the beginning of a new message. If you want to see the whole thing, slide to unlock straight to that message.
Earlier I mentioned the Moto X's contextual core, which is always listening for that "Ok, Google Now" wake-up call and keeping track of other sensors. Osterloh explained that all those sensors help the Moto X to understand its environment and current state. For example, if the phone is turned face side down or stowed in a pocket, the active display will not pulse on and off.
Surprisingly, I've found it easier to flip the phone face down and then back up to bring up that pulsing unlock screen with notifications rather than the normal process of pressing the power button. A small thing to be sure, but it demonstrates the presence of more intuitive design in the Moto X than I've seen in previous Motos I've owned like the Droid Razr or Droid 2.
The camera is also instantly accessible on the Moto X. Pick up the device and make a twisting motion with your wrist twice, like turning a screwdriver, and the camera app launches, bypassing the unlock and home screens.
Spec highs and lows
If you're obsessed with specs, you might be a little disappointed with what the Moto X has to offer.
There's no retina display, although I have no complaints about the HD 720 x 1280 AMOLED screen. There's also no Android 4.3 (it runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean), just 2 GB of RAM and no SD card slot, which are all minor bummers, particularly the lack of expandable storage (although 50 GB of free Google Drive storage is included).
The 10-megapixel rear camera is quite nice and features a simplified control panel that curves in from the side of the screen and, again, which I found to be rather intuitive. Motorola touts its addition of something called "clear pixel" technology that basically allows the camera to capture more light, creating better images under low light conditions and sharper more detailed pictures in general.
The demo of the camera in New York was particularly impressive, but in my family over the past week, there's an ongoing debate over whether or not it measures up to the tricked-out camera on the Galaxy S4. I think I may side with the Galaxy S4 camp on this one.
Motorola also makes a big deal out of its "X8" set of chips, which includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro with a dual-core 1.7 GHz CPU, quad-core Adreno 320 GPU and two more cores for the contextual core. While it gets the job done and runs a snappy Moto ship, it's definitely not the most musclebound device out there, if that matters to you.
The Bottom Line
For five days now, I've been on the road with my family and a suitcase full of gear between us that includes the Moto X, a Samsung Galaxy S4, Kyocera Torgue (a ruggedized, military grade Android smartphone on Sprint's 4G network), a mid-range Android tablet, a Microsoft Surface Pro, a Dell laptop, an old Kodak Playsport HD camera, and a Motorola Droid Razr (arguably the company's last hit smartphone.)
So, no, tech journalists don't tend to travel light. But with all that gear, the Moto X has become the go-to device for nearly everything over the past few days as we navigated our way to Durango and the epic San Juan Mountains nearby. This is particularly surprising given my wife's near addiction to her Galaxy S4 and the fact that most of my data and apps are loaded onto my Razr. I'm using the Dell laptop to type this review and the Kodak camera to take pictures of the Moto X, otherwise, those other devices have barely even emerged from our luggage.
Priced at US$199 with a contract on the top five carriers in the US, and arguably less complicated but just as powerful and (perhaps more) useful as the HTC One or Galaxy S4, the Moto X has a good shot of becoming the Android phone to beat for the rest of the year.