Moto X (2014) review: There is no justice in the world
If you're one of the relatively few people who comes to fully embrace Motorola's flagship Android phone, the Moto X, it will teach you things about the world – and I don't just mean that it will help you look up trivia without even having to use your hands via Google Now and Moto Voice, but that's fun too. Get to know the Moto X well and it will teach you that there is no justice in the world.
To explain, let's bring the bottom line up to the top here: The second generation of the Moto X is even better than its unappreciated predecessor from last year. Its specs and design quality are competitive with other top flight phones and it offers a few uniquely useful features and optional accessories you can't get elsewhere. It is less expensive than comparable offerings from Samsung and much less expensive than the iPhone 6. But recent history tells us that both Apple and Samsung's phones will likely outsell the Moto X by an order of magnitude (or two).
In the paragraphs that follow, I will lay out all the reasons why the most popular phones in my home over the past month have been (in order):
- Moto X (2014)
Yet, millions of people continue to ignore Motorola's offerings in favor of iPhones and devices from the Samsung Galaxy series.
So the question is, if you build one of the best phones ever and nobody notices, do you blame the marketing muscle of Samsung and cult of Apple? Maybe. Or maybe the world is irreparably unjust.
For now let's put aside the depressing existential quandaries and just consider the evidence that I've been gathering over the past month that I've spent with the 2014 Moto X since picking one up at Motorola's Chicago headquarters.
Upsized and upgraded
First, let's look at what's new in the second iteration of the Moto X. Essentially, Motorola has addressed all the main shortcomings of the original: particularly its underpowered specs and lackluster display and camera.
The Snapdragon 801 quad-core 2.5 GHz CPU in the new version is a big step up from the S4 Pro processor that already felt outdated when the first Moto X was unveiled last August. The 801 also powers almost all of the year's top new Android phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 and LG G3. That's an important bit of parity for the new Moto X to establish.
While I've found that the original Moto X actually performs pretty well with its last generation CPU, it can get bogged down or laggy on occasion. The new, more powerful Moto X, however, has handled all apps I've thrown at it over the past month like a champ, although I haven't yet attempted to run any virtual reality or other resource-hogging applications on it.
The display on the new Moto X has also been brought up to snuff with a 5.2-inch AMOLED 1080p retina blaster capable of 423 pixels per inch, a nice bump from the 316 ppi, 720p display on the original. You might find slightly better displays on other big name phones like the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S5 that are a bit easier on the eyes under direct sunlight or offer superior color accuracy, but the new Moto X is competitive enough in this area that most consumers shouldn't notice the difference.
But what about that new, larger size? Plenty of Android fans I talk to see it as a key selling point, and I'm typically a fan of phones that approach the increasingly common phablet size. But even as I was talking about my affinity for the bulky Galaxy Mega last year, I was also becoming quite accustomed to the feel of the original 4.7-inch Moto X.
In terms of how it feels in your hand, I've come to believe that 4.7 inches is actually the perfect fit for me, and the original Moto X's rounded back and that little dimple on its rear have made it my favorite phone to hold ... ever, even more so than the iPhone 6 with its remarkably thin profile. However, there are plenty of other advantages to a larger screen that must also be acknowledged. The new 5.2-inch Moto X does somehow feel like a more capable device with that extra half-inch of screen space delivering more pixels and more room for fat fingers to fly around the display.
The death of "clear pixel"
At the original Moto X reveal event in New York in 2013, Motorola's team put a lot of emphasis on something they called "clear pixel" technology that would be the key to making what was basically middling photography hardware great. There was no mention of clear pixel at this year's revealing of the successor, as the original Moto X camera has come to be seen as one of the most notable weaknesses on an otherwise notable device.
Instead, Motorola has finally given its flagship phone the top line camera it deserves. The new Moto X shooter is capable of taking 13-megapixel pictures with the help of a nifty ring flash. It also captures video with resolution up to 4K, which makes it seem as though the company is actually overcompensating a bit for the original shortcomings of the previous generation.
Here are a few samples of what it can do:
This was a very dark shot that utilized the flash on the Moto X:
A soft(ware) touch
What really sets the Moto X apart from other Android phones is that it takes the best approach out there to adding software features. It starts with what is essentially vanilla stock Android and then manages to refrain from adding most of the bloatware seen on Samsung devices.
Instead, Motorola has cooked up a handful of truly unique and useful added features, including voice control with Moto Voice, limited and simple but handy gesture controls, and Moto Assist, which tries to determine your current environment and help out by reading text messages while driving or silencing notifications at night and during meetings.
Thanks to its few years as a Google company and its minimalist approach to software, the Moto X has been able to receive the latest Android updates quickly. This is something that Motorola promises will continue with the new Moto X, but it remains to be seen how this will play out once Lenovo takes ownership of the company in the coming months.
For now, though, I like to think of the Moto experience as "Nexus plus." It comes with the feel of pure, unsullied Android but with key extras that have become more powerful and customizable over the past year.
What was called "touchless control" in the original is now "Moto Voice," providing the same access to Google Now using only your voice, but you're no longer forced to use "Ok, Google Now" as the trigger phrase. You can set it to awaken when it hears something like "Ok. Moto X" or "Watson, come here, I need you." The functionality of voice control is also expanded and the new Moto X now allows you to interact with certain apps like Facebook and Whatsapp without ever touching your device.
Other phones offer similar voice control, but while it isn't perfect, Moto Voice is the best execution I've seen. The new Moto X sports four microphones, adding an extra listening point over the original. Even Siri doesn't listen for your commands at all times: she only does so when your iPhone 6 is plugged in.
Another Motorola software tweak that's hard to live without once you've grown accustomed to it is Moto Display (previously called "active display"). As with the original Moto X, the display pulses on and off when locked and at rest, showing you the time and the three latest notification icons (the original Moto X just showed the single most recent notification). Touch any of the icons and you'll get more details without having to unlock the phone.
The new Moto X also uses new IR sensors on its front face to get even smarter about when to display that information – simply move your hand towards the screen and Moto Display will activate. The same system also silences incoming calls or alarms with a simple wave of a hand over the screen. In the past I've downloaded third party apps that add this function to Android phones, but they tended to drain the battery or affect performance in other ways, neither of which are a problem with the integrated "Moto Actions" on the Moto X.
Oh, and yes, you can still do that cool twist of the wrist gesture to load the camera app on demand, which was one of my favorite shortcuts on the original.
Sealing the deal
So, the Moto X provides competitive hardware with a delightful yet unappreciated design and just the right amount of cool software features to grab the interest of your friends at a dinner party. But what really makes it a device deserving of much more attention is the fact that all this comes at literally half the price of other, more popular phones that start with the letter "i" and rhyme with "tone tricks."
On a contract on the major American carriers, the new Moto X is available for just US$99, and it can be had unlocked for as little as $499. And of course, this comes with the ability to customize your phone's back panel and color scheme through Moto Maker, and even upgrade to unique materials like leather or wood. I've been using a leather-backed Moto X for the past few weeks and it certainly has a nice premium feel to it, although it seems weird to go for a jog holding a piece of leather in my sweaty palm.
In conclusion, the Moto X should be considered alongside the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 as one of the top smartphone options available today. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that it pairs nicely with the best smartwatch around, the Moto 360, or the upcoming Moto Hint smart Bluetooth earbud that we're still waiting to try out.
So if you believe in creating a more just and equitable world for devices from companies without the marketing budgets of certain Korean behemoths or the cultish following of those with fruit in their logos, please give the Moto X a long, hard look.