To put it bluntly, Motorola has never created a true flagship ubersmartphone on the level of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. But the company aims to change that with the Moto X. The $199 smartphone is Motorola’s first handset fully developed under the auspices of its corporate parent (and Android godfather), Google. And it’ll be available on most major U.S. carriers when it hits stores later in August.
Make no mistake; the Moto X isn’t a fire-breathing mobile monster that will blow away the competitors in a spec sheet battle — the screen isn’t cutting-edge, and there’s no expandable storage. Storage is the phone’s biggest weakness: with just 16GB in the $199 model (the 32GB Moto costs $50 more) and no SD card slot for adding more, it’s got an uphill battle on the value scale versus the HTC One (32GB by default) and Galaxy S4 (expansion slot onboard).
Storage qualms notwithstanding, though, the X is a nimble, compact handset with advanced capabilities that targets ordinary phone users. The Moto X boasts many of the same features that Motorola’s new trio of Verizon Droids flaunt — especially always-on Google Now voice control — plus a few slick extras. Better yet, they’re all crammed into a highly customizable design built for maximum comfort. This is a scrappy smartphone with enough going for it to bring the fight to the big boys.
Editors’ note, October 3, 2013: This review has been updated with experience using the Sprint version of the Motorola Moto X.
A more thoughtful design
Under the thumb of Verizon’s macho Droid brand for years, Motorola’s smartphone industrial design has been well, industrial. Ever since the original Droid device hit the scene, Motorola has cranked out flagship machines sporting sharp angles, Kevlar coatings, and hard metallic trims.
To be fair, that’s not a bad thing; those devices have been very popular. Plus the company’s upcoming Droid mobile machines are less stark than their predecessors, featuring smoother curves and no metallic highlights. All three devices, though, the Droid Mini, the Droid Ultra, and the Droid Maxx, keep the traditionally aggressive red or sober black color scheme that’s in keeping with Verizon’s intimidating robotic franchise.
The Moto X, however, pushes this history aside and attempts to turn an all-new page and gain broader appeal. Instead of harshly chiseled lines, the Moto X is sculpted with softly rounded curves. The phone’s back is gently rounded for a more comfortable grip. It’s an approach many hardware makers are taking these days, including HTC with its One and One Mini. The Galaxy S4 handset is also similarly contoured, but unlike Samsung’s slippery, smudge-prone runaway hit, the Moto X has a textured soft-touch finish.
Motorola takes this contoured design a step further, shaping the back of the Moto X with left and right edges that slope at a sharper angle than the middle of the device. Motorola claims that this careful molding fits your hand better than a simpler uniform arc. The handset even uses a specially formed battery (2,200mAh, embedded) to match the Moto X’s unique curvature.
I have to admit that when I picked up Motorola’s latest creation, it felt pretty damn good, its rounded frame fitting my fingers and palm like a glove. While I experience a similar reaction when I grip the HTC One, the Moto X’s contours and solid chassis exude just as much quality and luxury to me. I also like how the phone’s soft-touch backing wicks away moisture and fingerprints and has an almost metallic rigidity.
These colors don’t run
A huge part of the Moto X’s design story is its made-in-America (or at least designed-and-assembled-in) moniker. As Motorola has explained earlier, it will design, engineer, and construct all Moto X units in the United States; Fort Worth, Texas, to be precise.
Consumers will have a choice of two basic colors to choose from when purchasing a new Moto X handset, white and black. Motorola, however, will offer buyers the option to personalize their phones with custom hues, patterns, and engravings crafted to order at Motorola’s new Texas factory.
These tweaking options, done through the Moto Maker online studio, include two front colors, 18 on the back, and seven accents. Motorola claims that this variety allows for thousands of permutations. There will even be custom wallpaper designs and cases to gussy up your device with. And thanks to the plant’s Fort Worth location, shoppers who order the gadget can expect it to hit their doorstep within four days. Be advised that Moto Maker will be available for AT&T versions of the Moto X exclusively, at least at first.
In many respects the Moto X’s display is a step down compared with what you get from the latest crop of premium smartphones. Competing devices such as the Sony Xperia Z, HTC One, and Samsung Galaxy S4 all have screens of 4.7 inches or larger. These gadgets also flaunt displays with full-HD resolutions (1,920×1,080 pixels), translating into massive views that still manage to offer high pixel densities.
By contrast the Moto X’s 4.7-inch 720p (1,280 by 720 pixels) OLED screen, while no doubt large, doesn’t serve up quite the same level of sharpness as HTC’s and Samsung’s mobile hot rods. I must stress, though, that unless you’ve had bionic eye implants or carry a jeweler’s loupe, you probably won’t pick up on any lack of detail. Additionally, the Moto X’s OLED screen technology produces vivid colors, deep blacks, and wide viewing angles.
Of course a display’s impact isn’t based on just resolution, brightness, and color quality. Case in point: the Moto X’s screen has an extremely thin bezel that lovingly hugs the front edges of the handset. Similar to those found on last year’s Droid Razr M and the company’s newly announced Droids, this helps the Moto X’s display appear larger than life and command your attention.
Motorola calls the engine that propels the new Moto X its X8 Mobile Computing System, the same electronics under the hood of its new Droids. Claimed to include eight distinct processing cores, the system sure sounds impressive. When you break it all down, though, the X8 essentially is really just a souped-up 1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 Pro processor paired with quad-core Adreno 320 graphics.
To bring the core count up to eight, Motorola also throws in two additional low-power processing centers, one for contextual computing and another for analyzing spoken language. OK, so this may help the Moto X’s total “core” tally reach the magic number, but I’m sure I’m not alone in crying foul.
When I think of numerous CPU cores, I envision multiple electronic brains of equal power and speed working in unison to tackle every smartphone task. Since not all of the X8’s cores are created equal and they are relegated to specific tasks (all but two outside of general number-crunching), the Moto X is no true octa-core phone in my book.
That said, its power is nothing to sneeze at, either. The question remains how it’ll compare with handsets with faster quad-core Snapdragon 600 chips. Hopefully the Moto X’s 2GB allotment of RAM will keep the performance gap from being too great.
Software and interface
Given that the Moto X was born of the union between Motorola and Google, I was surprised to learn that it doesn’t come with the freshest flavor of Android Jelly Bean (version 4.3). Rather, the phone runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. That said, Motorola has teamed up with Google to add plenty of neat tricks, the most notable of which is contextual computing, which the company refers to as “Touchless Control.”
That’s really a fancy way of saying that the phone runs a low-power microphone in the background with an ear continually trained on your voice. Just as with the new Motorola Droid Mini, Ultra, and Maxx, speaking a magic phrase at your Moto X tells the device to fire up the Google Now information app.
In the Moto X’s case, to begin you say, “OK, Google Now.” From there you can ask a number of questions to find your current location, the weather, sports scores, and the answers to other queries. You can also tell the Moto X to set up reminders in your calendar, and initiate calls, texts, and e-mails a la Siri — except you don’t have to press a button.
Aside from these slick voice capabilities, the Moto X’s interface essentially remains the same as stock Jelly Bean. The five home screens, application tray, and widgets are pretty much identical to what you’d see on Google-approved machines such as the LG Nexus 4 and the Google Play Editions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.
There are some slight yet important differences, though. The Moto X will softly pulse important notifications and alerts on the screen, even when asleep, as they occur. Motorola says this will help users conserve battery life since the phone won’t have to power up the display each time the notification light flashes. Holding your finger on the center of the screen (and notification) causes the Moto X to display additional details for the alert. Dragging your finger upward takes you directly to the corresponding message if you decide more action is required.
What follows are our first impressions of the camera quality of the Moto X; we’ll continue to update as we shoot more photos.
Apparently Motorola has finally taken camera capabilities seriously. Imaging has been an ongoing weakness of the company’s handsets, but it’s clear the Moto X is intended to address this deficiency. Motorola says its new device, equipped with a 10-megapixel “Clear Pixel” RGBC sensor and LED flash, can snap pictures with speed, and can grab 75 percent more light than competing smartphone cameras. That results in lower shutter times and clearer images under dark conditions.