Motorola are now a Google company, but what does that mean to the average consumer? The first product of this slightly unexpected union that wasn't hampered by the rather masculine Droid branding was the Moto X. If you have used previous generation Motorola phones, then you are in for a bit of a shock. There is no carbon fibre, no edge to edge branding, no Maxx version and no sharp corners. This time, Motorola have given us something that is soft and curved, but is it any good?
There is one piece of bad news to get out of the way immediately. Unless you are reading this from the comfort of North America, you cannot official purchase the Moto X in any form. The device I have here was very kindly loaned to MoDaCo by an American!
I have wanted to try the Moto X since its announcement. While it can be hard to quantify why, I will make an attempt now. Firstly, the form factor seemed perfect to me. I am not a fan of larger phones normally, but the Moto X seemed like a great size right from the off and has a relatively large screen in a relatively small body. This combination is something I appreciate more than anything, if I am going to carry a larger device, don't make me carry a ton of bezel. The shape of the device intrigued me with its curved back as did the idea of trying to prioritise the experience over and above the specs on offer.
Motorola are doing the right thing in my view by enhancing a fairly stock Android experience with their own software rather than skinning the operating system to the point where you would’t even recognise it. I believe this offers the best of both worlds, the stock Android experience for those who demand it and some added functions for those who want a bit more.
Having explained some of the reasons why I wanted to try the Moto X so much, does it live up to expectations? The answer to this has to be tempered by the fact that we have had around five months between its launch and the writing of this article with many new devices launched. Nonetheless, I think the Moto X very nearly lives up to its billing as a high end device despite its more mid-range specs.
Does the experience matter more than the specs?
It is important to explore the experience over specs argument very carefully in order to understand what Motorola is trying to achieve. In the Android space, it is quite simple today to spec a phone with a high-end CPU, 2Gb RAM and an amazing high end screen but still end up with a poor experience. There have been many examples of phones lagging despite these specs and I mentioned so in both my Samsung Galaxy S4 and LG G2 reviews. Anecdotally it appears that the Samsung Note 3 also suffers.
The Moto X however, does not lag. In fact, it offers the smoothest Android experience I have ever used and specs be damned. So in reality, are the specs important? That is for each person to decide for themselves, but I would argue that Motorola have made a mockery of the ever present spec sheet by offering mid-range specs and high-end performance. The problem was that Motorola launched the Moto X at a high-end price. Whether that was justified or not can only be answered once people have used the device for the duration of a two year contract and seen if it holds up over that period and it is not a question I can fully answer after using a phone for a month or so. Just to put my cards on the table, I think Motorola are justified to charge based on the experience not the specs.
Competition can be great, if you can keep up
Motorola priced the device against high-end phones and pitched it directly into that space. I personally believe the Moto X was a high-end phone when it was announced and Motorola were justified to put it into the market in that position. But many people disagreed with me and supposedly sales have been fairly poor. It is clear that the Moto X was deemed as too expensive by many people.
The Moto X has an uncomfortable juxtaposition of personalities. It is quite possibly the best and nicest Android phone of 2013 and yet has been flatly rejected by consumers, quite possibly due to its pricing.
So what of the phone? Well, the hardware is quite different to most other phones. I am not talking about a difference in design and experience that LG brought about with their G2, but rather the overall concept of how to think about building a phone that still ostensibly tracks within the homogenous design principles of almost all Android phones of 2013. It is worth noting that the in-hand feel of the Moto X is truly superb due to its gently curved back and sides.
Specs do matter after all
The Moto X contains Motorola’s X8 system which is in essence a dual core Snapdragon 600 class CPU running at 1.7Ghz with an Adreno 320 GPU and additional low power cores to monitor various aspects of the phone that I will discuss later. The X8 is paired with 2Gb of RAM and 16 or 32Gb of storage. These specs are different to most flagship devices of the time which were quad core Snapdragon 600 based.
The screen on the Moto X is a 4.7” 720p Super AMOLED unit. Most flagship phones in mid-2013 used 1080p screens. This was a bold move by Motorola who decided not to produce a massive phone but to use a slightly smaller screen by flagship phone standards and to make sure the bezels were as small as they could be. This is a very compact device. The resolution is perfectly acceptable and the screen is still pin sharp whilst the lower pixel count helps make the most of the processing power of the Moto X.
Whilst it is true that the experience of the phone matters more than the specs, the specs do still matter and the Moto X does fall short in this regard. It simply does not compete with other flagships and the buying public are now savvy enough to be able to understand that even if it is a crude measure of where something is worthwhile or not.
As a final note on the hardware for now, build quality is good with no discernible issues at all, but this is a plastic phone. The plastics used are of good quality and feel nice in the hand. They have a warm feeling and are in total opposition to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4 with its slimy plastics.
It’s what you do with it that counts
It is the software though that is the real news and it is here that Motorola have made their pitch that the Moto X is a high end device. There are four major enhancements to an otherwise fairly stock Android experience.
The first of these is Touchless Control which will see you shouting “OK Google Now” at your phone to activate it even when the screen is off. What is nice is that the phone will try and have a conversation with you as you give it commands such as “Send an email to Paul”. Unfortunately, voice recognition is not quite where it needs to be for this to work flawlessly, but it was useful at certain times to just be able to talk to the phone.
Active Notifications is a feature that does a number of very subtle things extremely well and is the only one of these software enhancements that I miss when not using the Moto X. When you get a notification, the screen will light up showing you the app that the notification has come from as well as a small preview of the details of the notification. You can swipe in different directions to unlock the phone to that app, unlock the phone normally or just clear the notification. If you do nothing, the screen will throb on and off repeatedly which is rather nice. If the Moto X is in your pocket, nothing happens, saving that little bit of battery.
When the phone has no notifications and is for instance sitting on a table, the act of picking it up will active the screen to an empty Active Notifications view. This means that I probably haven't used the power button to switch the screen on even once since having the device. Very cool.
You can pair devices using bluetooth to the Moto X and set them up as trusted devices. When your phone is connected to the device, the screen lock will be disabled but when disconnected, it will be enabled. This is a very useful feature for adding some extra security to your phone when you need it without getting in the way when you are at home for instance.
Finally, there is Motorola Assist which can scan your calendar and silence your phone when in a meeting. Or you can set it to silence your phone at night. It can also detect when it thinks you are driving and go into driving mode when it will read text messages aloud to you and ask you to respond using voice.
This is not an exhaustive list of software enhancements on the Moto X, but it does nicely show the creative ways that Motorola have approached the software here.
One of the biggest problems with the experience of the Moto X is its camera. The interface is incredibly simple with almost nothing on the screen. Touching anywhere takes a picture. Pull in from the left and you get a few simple settings. Whilst the idea of this is to allow you to focus on taking quick snaps rather than the interface in use, it might be nice to have some chrome covering up the rather poor output of the camera.
There is a wider question here of why Android device manufacturers cannot make an all round excellent camera between them, but for Motorola, it is enough to say that the camera is simply not good enough and is certainly not high end.
Motorola have added a gesture to quick launch the camera. You hold the phone in your hand and do a double flick at the wrist. The phone will vibrate in a slightly unnerving manner and the camera interface will appear. I never found this gesture to be natural or to work well for me, but others have, so your mileage may vary. Just be careful not to fling the phone across the room or you wont be able to tell what pictures you will get.
Where does all this leave us?
I said earlier that the Moto X might be the best phone of 2013 and it is right up there. But it is not the one I would have. And therein lies the problem for Motorola. They have made something absolutely amazing but ultimately people don’t seem to want it.
I wouldn't buy the Moto X because its camera is simply not up to scratch and its screen leaves something to be desired. It is the nicest AMOLED screen I have used, but it still falls short of IPS LCD screens. Of course, many people enjoy using an AMOLED screen and so this wont be an issue then.
To put the Moto X at the top of your buying list, you would have to really want the specific software enhancements that Motorola offer. It is stock Android with some enhancements which is generally a situation I would welcome, but other devices offer more features.
Ultimately, I just about prefer the Nexus 5, mainly for its screen and its performance, but the device that really kills the Moto X for me is the Moto G. It is significantly cheaper, has a camera that is worse but not by as much as you might expect and a screen that I find superior in every way. It has superior battery life and you can even customise the colour of the back cover.
Yes, the Moto X has nicer build quality and a more refined design, but the Moto G is so close you would never know. Yes, the Moto X is faster and smoother, but again, it is so close you would never know. I even made a video (below) to prove it. For me personally, the software on the Moto X isn't quite useful enough either.
And so in an unusual conclusion, I would recommend not buying the mid-range phone that performs like a high-end phone. I would recommend buying either the true high-end phone - the Nexus 5 - or save a bunch of cash and get a Moto G. It is also available outside of North America, which is nice.