Moto X deep dive review: Hype aside, it's a really good phone

The Moto X Android smartphone may not be as groundbreaking as expected, but it offers consumers a great mobile experience.

The introduction of the Moto X last Thursday was accompanied by a great deal of hoopla from Motorola Mobility, which was acquired by Google a year ago, and no small amount of curiosity from the press and from users, who were eager to find out what the first phone designed after the acquisition would be like.

I've been using the Moto X as my sole smartphone since Thursday, putting it through its paces. And while the Moto X is not any kind of revolution in mobile technology, neither is it the complete disappointment that some are complaining about. Instead, it is an interesting attempt at a user-friendly and configurable mobile device.

Moto XImage credit: IDG News Service
The Moto X has been designed to be attractive to consumers.

First, the specs

The Moto X, which will be available at the end of August from all four major U.S. carriers, is lightweight and smaller than some of the more powerful smartphones out there -- or, for that matter, some of Motorola's recently announced phones. If you compare it with Motorola's upcoming Droid Ultra, which, like the Moto X, is priced at $199 with a 2-year contract, there are many similarities -- along with a couple of major differences.

To begin with, the Moto X, with its 4.7-in. display, measures a modest 5.09 x 2.57 in.; the back is curved (more on that later) and so its depth ranges from 0.22 to 0.41 in. It weighs 4.58 oz. On the other hand, the Droid Ultra, which comes with a 5-in. display, is somewhat larger at 5.41 x 2.80 x 0.28 in. and weighs 4.83 oz., only slightly heavier.

Both phones come with Motorola's X8 Mobile Computing System, which includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro dual-core processor and two additional processors that handle natural language and contextual computing. They both come with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage (although there will be a 32GB version of the Moto X for an extra $50).

The displays' specs are also similar. Both offer AMOLED Gorilla Glass displays with 1280 x 720 resolution, although the Moto X has a slightly better 316 pixels per inch (PPI) compared to the Droid Ultra's 294. And both have 10-megapixel rear cameras and 2-megapixel front cameras.

Both support Bluetooth 4.0 LE + EDR, can connect over 4G LTE networks and can be used as a mobile hotspot. Both also support 802.11n Wi-Fi, although the Moto X adds 802.11ac to the mix.

Even the software is much the same. Both cameras ship with Android 4.2.2 (instead of the more recent Android 4.3), along with a number of added features such as Touchless Control, which lets you activate the phone with your voice, and Active Display, which shows information on the screen when the phone is moved even slightly.

So what does the Moto X bring to the table that offsets the Droid Ultra's larger display? And, for that matter, how does Motorola/Google plan to complete with phones such as the HTC One or the Galaxy S4, with their 1080p displays?

Look and feel

To begin with, style. The Moto X has been specifically designed as a consumer-focused smartphone, and company representatives emphasize the device's look and ease-of-use features.

According to company reps at the press introduction, the Moto X has been purposefully made smaller in order to be more comfortable to hold and use. This is in contrast to what seems to be a general trend toward larger screens; as this was being written, rumors were spreading that Samsung was about to introduce a smartphone with a 6.3-in. display.

And the phone is very comfortable, although I'm not sure how much the rounded back has to do with that, since I tend to hold my phones by the edges. The case is made of a composite material with the feel of soft plastic, but I didn't get the impression that it was at all flimsy or fragile.

The general slimness of the phone is emphasized by the fact that the bezel around the 4.7-in. display is narrow and takes up as little space as possible. Motorola accomplishes this by not adding the capacitive hardware buttons that so many smartphones come with (unnecessarily, since current versions of Android come with onscreen versions of those buttons). In addition, the Moto X doesn't include any type of LED to signal new emails, messages or voicemails, something that the Active Display (more on that in a moment) makes moot.

Besides the front-facing and rear-facing cameras, there is the usual micro USB port on the bottom for power and a hardwire connection, and an audio port on the top. Both the power button and the volume rocker are on the right edge, an arrangement I've never been that fond of, since I occasionally hit the power button when I'm trying to increase the volume.

There are also three microphones for noise reduction. I have to say that, as far as simple calling is concerned, I thought the Moto X worked extremely well. I made and received calls in some fairly noisy conditions, and at no time did any of my callers complain of any problem in hearing me (nor did I feel the need to raise my voice). I also found the sound at my end to be very clear.

There is also a speaker on the back; because of the curve of the phone, the speaker is not muffled when the Moto X is face up on a surface. I found the sound quality to be quite adequate -- more so than with most of today's smartphones.

Touchless Control and Active Display

Two of the big selling points about the Moto X are software enhancements that are available in all its new systems -- the Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx and Droid Mini as well -- are Touchless Control and Active Display.

When you say "Okay Google Now" this screen appears, waiting for the next command.

Touchless Control lets you activate Google Now audio commands without having to actually turn on the phone by saying the phrase, "Okay Google Now." For example, if I say "Okay Google Now" the phone will light up, and one of several phases -- including "Yes," "Hello Barbara" or "Yes, Barbara" -- will appear, together with a pulsing red and gray circle. If I then say something like, "Call Jim at home," or "Directions to the Landmark Cinema in Manhattan" or "What is the weather today?" it will initiate the call, show me the directions or tell me the weather.

I found that Touchless Control worked well -- for the most part. It took only a couple of minutes to train it (by saying "Okay Google Now" three times), and after that, the phone reacted most of the time when I said the phrase, even in a fairly noisy environment. And when it did react, nine times out of ten, it got my request right.

However, occasionally it does go on strike. On several separate occasions, the Moto X performed perfectly when I tried out the Touchless Control three times in a row, but after that, it completely stopped reacting to my voice. (It worked fine again later.)

The Active Display shows you the time and indicates (via icons) if you have any messages when you move the phone -- for example, pull it from your pocket. If you do have messages, it will also "pulse" the information on and off when the phone is not moving, displaying this info and then darkening the screen every few seconds. (You can decide exactly what services will indicate new messages, voicemails, etc., and you can set it to sleep between certain hours if you don't want it going at night.) Swipe up the display in order to see any messages.

The feature is handy -- it certainly does make it simple to see what time it is and to see if you have any new emails or missed a call. I found it rather eerie, though, to have the phone pulsing on and off like that.

According to Motorola, both of these "always on" features are made possible without serious battery drain by the two extra processors -- the natural language processor and a contextual computing processor. (The latter also allows you to set a feature called Motorola Assist, which will do things like silence calls during meetings.)

The company claims that, as a result, the 2200mAh battery will last up to 24 hours under mixed usage. I used it for several days under reasonable conditions -- doing a good deal of browsing, a few phone calls, some streaming music and an hour or two of streaming videos -- and while the phone certainly didn't last 24 hours, it did go an average of 12-14 hours before hitting the red zone. (Which means that heavy users may want to have a portable battery charger available; the Moto X's battery is not swappable.)

Taking a photo

One of the big consumer draws for a phone today is its camera, and the Moto X's camera did not disappoint. Motorola has included a "quick capture" feature that allows you to take a photo by simply touching anywhere on the screen. The camera then automatically focuses and shoots.

On the whole, the Moto X "quick capture" camera feature works well. This was taken in a moving vehicle.

I was a little wary of this feature, but I found it worked surprisingly well, making it very simple to take quick, effective pictures. I took a number of photos, several of them under fairly low-light conditions, and the resulting images were sharp and clean.

The only circumstances under which this did not work were when I used the zoom; in that case, the camera didn't seem quite sure what to focus on, and the photo came out blurry. (When I switched to the usual "tap to focus" method that comes with most Android phones, photos under the same conditions came out fine.)

The "quick capture" did sometimes have trouble coping with a zoom. However, it did very well, even in low light conditions, when the controls were changed to "tap to focus."

The phone comes with a number of other camera adjustments -- flash, HDR, geo-tag, etc. -- that are accessible by swiping in from the left; you can access your photo gallery by swiping in from the right. And there are a number of edits you can make to a photo after it's been taken, including cropping, adding color effects such as making it look like a vintage photo or making it black & white, changing the exposure, etc.

You can go immediately to the camera when the phone is off by, according to Motorola, "twisting your wrist twice." It takes a bit of practice and didn't always seem to work for me, but when it did, it was nice to be able to immediately start up the camera, touch the screen and take the photo.

Designing a phone

One of the other selling points of the Moto X -- and one of the things that makes it so obviously a consumer phone -- is the fact that it will be possible to "design your own" through a website called Moto Maker. Consumers will be able to choose from at least 17 colors for the back of the phone, choose black or white for the front, and choose from 7 complementary colors for highlights. They will also be able to add a name or short message to the back. The phone will then be shipped within 4 days; consumers will have 14 days in which to exchange it if they don't like the color combination.

As of this writing, AT&T is the only carrier to support the Moto Maker site; phones purchased through the other carriers (including Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile) will be available in only black or white -- for now. There were hints from the Motorola reps during the press event that this could change.

Bottom line

On the face of it, the Moto X isn't a revolutionary phone: There are plenty of phones around with bigger displays and higher resolutions; several (including Motorola's upcoming Droid Maxx) with longer battery life; others with more powerful cameras or more extensive features that appeal to technophiles.

(Incidentally, according to the company, Sprint, US Cellular and T-Mobile will offer unlockable bootloaders and there will also be a Verizon Wireless Developer Edition and a general North America Developer Edition.)

What this is, however, is a great all-around consumer phone. Some of the newer features add measurably to the experience and usefulness of the phone, yet are easy to learn. I've looked at a number of new phones, and in the case of the Moto X, I felt completely comfortable with it almost immediately -- something that isn't always the case with the more high-end Android phones.

At a Glance

Moto X

Motorola MobilityPrice: $199 (with a 2-year contract with AT&T, Sprint, US Cellular, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile); $250 for 32MB version (AT&T only)Pros: Slim, attractive design; very good display; useful features such as Touchless Control and Active Display; good camera; configurable body; long battery lifeCons: Comes with Android 4.2.2; rather expensive compared to other consumer-directed smartphones; batteries not swappable

For me, personally, the ability to say, "Okay, Google Now, remind me to call my mother at 5 p.m." and then just go back to what I was doing is becoming a habit. And I was impressed by the camera's ability to take a quick -- and in-focus -- shot, even from a moving vehicle.

Is it the perfect phone? Of course not. A higher-resolution display would have been nice, as would have been a lower price -- and it's unfortunate, to say the least, that it's not shipping with the latest iteration of Android. I'm always looking for a swappable battery for long days out of the house or office, and while the battery life on the Moto X is impressive -- especially considering the always-on nature of the phone -- it could still leave you looking for a power source toward the end of the day.

But if Google was looking for a way to attract consumers with some solid engineering, interesting and useful software features, and the kind of personalization that distinguishes it from the competition, it looks like it's definitely on the right track.

This article, Moto X deep dive review: Hype aside, it's a really good phone, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter ( @BarbaraKrasnoff).

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

This story, "Moto X deep dive review: Hype aside, it's a really good phone" was originally published by Computerworld.

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