To put it bluntly, Motorola has never created a true flagship uber smartphone on the level of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. But the company aims to change that with the Moto X. The US$199 smartphone is Motorola's first handset fully developed under the auspices of its corporate parent (and Android godfather), Google.
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 US$199 model (the 32GB Moto costs US$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 on-board).
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 customisable design built for maximum comfort. This is a scrappy smartphone with enough going for it to bring the fight to the big boys.
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 colour 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 chiselled 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 that 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 farther, 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 moulding fits your hand better than a simpler uniform arc. The handset even uses a specially formed battery (2200mAh, embedded) to match the Moto X's unique curvature.
We have to admit that when we picked up Motorola's latest creation, it felt pretty damn good, its rounded frame fitting our fingers and palm like a glove. While we experience a similar reaction when we grip the HTC One, the Moto X's contours and solid chassis exude just as much quality and luxury to us. We also like how the phone's soft-touch backing wicks away moisture and fingerprints, and has an almost metallic rigidity.
These colours 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 colours to choose from when purchasing a new Moto X handset, white and black. Motorola, however, will offer buyers the option to personalise 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 colours, 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.
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 (1920x1080 pixels), translating into massive views that still manage to offer high pixel densities.
By contrast, the Moto X's 4.7-inch 720p (1280x720 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. We must stress, though, that unless you've had bionic eye implants or carry a jeweller's loupe, you probably won't pick up on any lack of detail. Additionally, the Moto X's OLED screen technology produces vivid colours, deep blacks and wide viewing angles.
Of course, a display's impact isn't based on just resolution, brightness and colour 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 centres, one for contextual computing and another for analysing spoken language. OK, so this may help the Moto X's total "core" tally reach the magic number, but we're sure we're not alone in crying foul.
When we think of numerous CPU cores, we 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 our book.
That said, its power is nothing to sneeze at, either. The question remains on 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, we were surprised to learn that it doesn't come with the freshest flavour 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. 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 emails 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 said 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 centre 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.
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 said its new device, equipped with a 10-megapixel "Clear Pixel" RGBC sensor and LED flash, can snap pictures with speed, and can grab 75 per cent more light than competing smartphone cameras. That results in lower shutter times and clearer images under dark conditions.
After taking it for a few spins, I can certainly say I'm pleasantly surprised by the Moto X's camera, which is nimble enough to snap photos of my restless toddlers without missing a beat. The vaunted imaging system also appears to take the dim lighting of my cave-like apartment in stride.
Indoors, the phone took clear images of our studio still life, with both crisp detail and proper exposure. Colours looked accurate as well, but we did run into one annoyance: the tight field of vision. Because the Moto X's field of view was noticeably small, it was difficult to capture the entire still-life scene in the frame. Outdoors, the Moto X performed admirably, as well. We saw plenty of detail and vibrant colours evident in flowers, leaves and the clothing of strolling pedestrians.
The camera app, called Quick Capture, has been revamped to be cleaner and more efficient. With it, the Moto X will go from pocket to image capture in under 3 seconds. Just grab the phone and twist it twice in your hand horizontally, and the camera launches without your pressing a button.
We found that the feature works as advertised, and we were able to jump to the X's camera app in a flash. The double wrist-twist gesture was also very intuitive, and we mastered the procedure after just a few attempts.
If you're used to tweaking resolution settings yourself, though, you might go mad trying to find a way to adjust them (we almost did). Save yourself from a wild goose chase, because the Moto X doesn't let you toggle image size. Instead, it always captures pictures and video at maximum pixel count.
Other than that, using the camera is dead simple and enjoyable. Just touch any part of the screen to snap a picture. Tapping the camcorder icon in the top right starts recording video, while hitting the camera symbol below it switches between front and back lenses. Likewise, touching the display while shooting video nabs still shots.
Camera settings such as HDR mode, flash, slow motion and panorama are hidden in a circular dial on the left side of the screen. Swiping your finger from left to right brings this wheel into view. Dragging from right to left handily slides open the gallery. All this means there's a minimum of clutter obscuring the camera view, a user interface goal that Motorola takes pains to point out.
We confess that we're pretty impressed with the Moto X's handling despite its dual-core processor. The phone feels very lively and responsive, whether flipping through Android's menus and home screens or when launching apps. After subjecting the device to our usual gauntlet of benchmarks, we've found that our results so far back up our impressions.
The Moto X notched a Quadrant score of 8519, which, though not as high as the astronomical scores of the HTC One (12,194) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381), is still respectable.
We tested the Moto X on Verizon's CDMA network in New York, and enjoyed good but not outstanding call quality. People we dialled with the handset described our voices as clear and loud, but flat and lacking warmth. They also noticed some clipping and dips in volume, especially at the beginning and ends of sentences.
This could be due to the X's complex noise suppression and voice-recognition system, which leans on three microphones and its X8 hardware, but that's just speculation on our part.
Spoken words came through the Moto X's earpiece with plenty of oomph on my end. In fact, we had to dial the loudness down or risk eardrum pain. Another bright spot was the speakerphone, which sounded virtually identical to a regular phone call to our callers and belted out lots of volume.
Runtime doesn't seem to be a problem. We were able to get the Moto X to perform a preliminary run of the CNET labs video battery drain benchmark. The handset happily hummed along for quite a while, playing our sample HD movie for 10 hours and nine minutes before calling it quits.
This places the Moto X in good company as far as longevity is concerned. The HTC One managed 9 hours and 37 minutes on the same test, while the Samsung Galaxy S4 persevered for an even longer average of 10 hours and 30 minutes.
Where can you get the Moto X?
Motorola will also push its new device hard in the US, pledging that its enticing gadget will be sold by five US wireless providers in late August. However, Australian availability has yet to be announced.
Motorola's most impressive handset yet certainly packs in plenty of notable capabilities and functionality. But it's worth noting also that hard-core Android enthusiasts and spec junkies likely won't find the Moto X awe inspiring. The 4.7-inch AMOLED screen is "only" 720p, and the non-expandable 16GB of storage in the US$199 model is a stumbling block; big-time media hounds and app addicts will burn through that quickly. In the absence of an expansion slot (like the Galaxy S4 has), we would've preferred that Motorola delivered 32GB in the baseline model, just like the HTC One — or that the company had priced the phone at closer to US$149 instead.
That said, Motorola took an unconventional tack with this handset. Instead of the traditional tactic of beating potential customers over the head with powerful components and every feature under the sun, Motorola decided to cater to shoppers' softer side — focusing on how they use their phones every day.
To that end, the Moto X succeeds. It packs a great camera, has swift enough performance to satisfy all but the most demanding Android fanboys and offers battery life that goes the distance. Throw in its superb, compact design, and the Moto X doesn't even need to woo potential customers with its fancy Buck Rogers voice-recognition skills. That's merely the sweet icing on a mighty tasty cake.