The Motorola Moto X is the first flagship smartphone from the inventor of the mobile since it was acquired by Google, and as such is a Google phone through and through.
Motorola hopes that the Moto X, together with the excellent Moto G budget smartphone launched in November 2013, will be enough to turn the company’s fortunes around from a sustained loss over the past six quarters since it was acquired in May 2012.
The Moto X was originally launched solely in the US in August 2013, and has taken almost six months to reach the UK. It was originally touted as the “self-driving” smartphone, due to its ability to respond to the keywords “OK Google Now” triggering searches, controlling music and making calls even while the screen is off.
Motorola says it spent several months fine-tuning the Moto X’s speech recognition to handle the varied accents around the UK – an important point if it is to function, as Andrew Morley, director of Motorola UK stressed, so you “really can use it without your hands, through the natural communications medium of voice.”
The Motorola Moto X follows the design language shown first by the Moto G in the UK. Its curved back bucks the flat-backed trend of most high-end smartphones such as the iPhone 5S or Sony Xperia Z1.
As a result, the phone fits well in the hand, with the back providing a reassuring grip so that the smartphone won’t fly out of your fingers like a wet bar of soap. It’s solidly built and has a quality feel, despite its plastic construction.
With its non-removable back and integrated battery, the Moto X weighs the same 130g as the slightly larger Google Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4, and is 18g heavier than the smaller iPhone 5S. (For comparison, a pound coin weighs 9.5g.)
At the thickest point it’s 10.4mm thick – more than the majority of the competition including the iPhone 5S (7.6mm), Samsung Galaxy S4 (7.9mm) and Google Nexus 5 (8.6mm).
It is for sale in the UK in two colours, black and white, but it is available in a myriad of colours and customisation options in the US. Motorola said these might come to the UK in the near future.
The 4.7in 720p HD AMOLED screen has a density of 316 pixels per inch (ppi) making text look crisp. Images and video look vibrant, with great contrast.
The Moto X’s screen has a lower pixel-density than the iPhone 5S (326ppi) and significantly less than the 445ppi screens of the Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 – but the difference is not appreciable during normal use. (Recall what Steve Jobs said: “the magic number for a retina display is about 300 PPI for a device held 10 to 12in from the eye”. So you can’t see the pixels on the Moto X.)
The screen is scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass, and there’s a nanotechnological waterproof coating on the inside and out of the Moto X – making it water repellent, in theory.
- Screen: 4.7in 720p HD display
- Processor: Motorola X8 computing system (1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, quad-core Adreno 320 GPU, plus separate natural language and a contextual computing processors)
- RAM: 2GB of RAM
- Storage: 16/32GB
- Operating system: Android 4.4 “KitKat”
- Camera: 10-megapixel rear and 2-megapixel front-facing camera
- Connectivity: 4G LTE, Wi-Fi (n/ac), Bluetooth 4.0 LE and GPS
- Dimensions: 65.3 x 129.4 x 10.4mm (5.7mm at thinnest point)
- Weight: 130g
Fast and lasts all day
The Moto X is pitched as a new type of premium smartphone that doesn’t play the numbers game with enormous, power-hungry processors.
Instead, Motorola’s new 8X multiprocessor system couples a traditional 1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with a natural language processor and a contextual computing processor, as well as a quad-core graphics processor.
The result is a responsive phone that is light on battery use and can keep multiple sensors running even when the phone is in standby, something high-end phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 struggle with.
Applications load in what feels like an instant, and swapping between running applications is about as fast as any flagship smartphone currently available. Multitasking is also slick and fast thanks to 2GB of RAM, while even graphically intensive games run smoothly.
For storage, the Moto X packs 16 or 32GB built in, depending on the model. There’s no support for external expansion via microSD. Instead Google has bundled an extra 50GB of Google Drive cloud storage for two years (though you’d have to pay for it after that time).
Obviously, you can’t use that cloud storage for apps or music you want to use on your phone immediately. Google does provide the Play Music cloud music service to store up to 20,000 tracks from your music library for free for streaming or caching on your device, however.
Active display, on show
One of the biggest differentiators over most of the other Android phones available at the moment is Motorola’s replacement of the notification LED light with what it calls “active display”.
James Soames, Motorola UK’s director of marketing, says that research conducted by the company found that users generally turned on their phone’s screen 60 times a day, but only for seconds, checking for notifications or the time. In the process they would fire up the screen’s backlight and wake the main processors out of standby, significantly reducing battery life.
To solve this issue and take advantage of the OLED screen (which unlike LCD screens doesn’t use a backlight; only the pixels that are lit demand power), Motorola developed active display.
When a notification comes in, only a small section of the screen lights up displaying an icon for what has just happened. A tap and hold gesture shows more at-a-glance information, allowing the user to assess whether it is worth turning unlocking the phone to access whatever just happened, be it a call, a text, an email or any other alert.
If you miss the notification, the icon will be pulsed on the screen every 10 or so seconds, but can be dismissed with a swipe gesture until the next notification comes in. It works very well, and allows you to immediately dismiss and check notifications without unlocking your phone every time. Equally, you can pick and choose which notifications will appear in the lock screen, and mute them at night so your room doesn’t look like a meteor shower.
The screen will not light up if the phone detects that it is face down or in a pocket, another saving on battery drain, but will immediately light up with the notification or time if it is picked up or removed from your pocket.
Battery life is something Motorola has been known for; like the Moto G, the Moto X continues the tradition. Motorola rates the Moto X as having around “all-day battery life” of around 24 hours, juggling web browsing, emailing and listening to music.
In my testing I found the Moto X far exceeded the battery life of most of the competition, including the Google Nexus 5. With everything switched on and frequent access to the phone, plus some graphically intensive gaming, the Moto X lasted about 18 hours on average.
Bearing in mind the flood of emails that pass through my devices, and the constant connection to servers across 4G, the Moto X is likely to last much longer than that in most consumers’ hands.
Android optimised for speed
As with the Moto G, Android on the Moto X is as close to the standard software offered by Google as possible.
Most of Motorola’s efforts in software have been focused on optimisation, aiming for a smooth, lag-free experience. You get the Google Play store and its 1m apps, and the latest version of Android – presently 4.4 “KitKat”, which very few smartphones and tablets besides the Google Nexus series currently run.
Motorola has made a few small tweaks to the standard Android experience. One of the first apps you notice is Motorola Migrate, which helps you move to the Moto X from other Android smartphones by transferring contacts, call history and text messages, photos and videos wirelessly to your new phone.
Android still hasn’t got a consistent built-in system for migrating other data such as apps, settings, photos and videos over from old phones.
This is something where the mobile OSs do differ. Migrating from an old to a new iPhone is simply a matter of putting in your iCloud account details and choosing which of the automatic backups to restore (which will then download all the apps, music and video you’ve bought, as well as settings – excepting email and social network passwords). Windows Phone is similar, though backing up your phone is optional, and it doesn’t save app data.
On Android, apps sometimes need to be manually re-installed, either on the device or via the Play Store website; other times even if you ask Google to restore apps on setup, some apps won’t download. Photos might – or might not – be restored, depending on whether the setting to automatically backup photos to Google+ was previously enabled. For all those reasons, Migrate is useful. (Third-party apps such as Helium which do the same task, backing up your data to a cloud provider or local storage of your choice, are available. Of course, you’d need to have installed it on your previous phone.)
Motorola Assist is another handy addition made to stock Android. Assist reads your calendar and automatically silences your phone when in meetings, automatically responding to calls with a rejection text message. It will also mute your phone between preset hours at night, and set up lists of favourite contacts that allows a phone call through if the caller rings twice in quick succession. (This is the same as the iPhone’s “Do Not Disturb” system.)
While driving, Assist can also detect your speed via the GPS and will automatically talk to you, telling you who is calling or reading your text messages aloud, allowing you to respond via voice.
Finally, Motorola has built in a smart “trusted devices” feature into its Bluetooth settings, which allows you to keep your Moto X unlocked if its in the presence of certain Bluetooth devices, such as a pair of headphones or your car’s stereo.
‘OK Google Now’
The most novel feature of the Moto X is its “touchless control” feature, which effectively allows voice control of the phone at any point, even while the screen is off.
Using the built-in natural language co-processor, the Moto X is permanently listening for the keywords “OK Google Now”, which can be used to initiate a search, get directions, play music, make a call or play music without having to touch the phone.
Touchless control also integrates into the Google Now app, and is capable of pulling your alerts and learning your route, putting Google Now’s predictive information system at the control of your voice at any time.
However if you use a screen lock then certain functions are disabled until you unlock your phone, but calls can still be placed to people in your address book that you have called in the past 30 days, among other smaller functions.
After training the Moto X to recognise your (and only your) voice, for the most part the voice control functions well, and is an asset while driving further enhanced by Motorola Assist’s “driving” mode. But you still end up feeling a little silly shouting at your phone in public.
Twist and shoot
As with the Moto G, Motorola has focused its efforts on the camera application. It has simplified the user experience to an easy-to-use point-and-click process, hiding the majority of the interface and settings behind slide-out menus.
Capturing a photo is as easy as a tap anywhere on the screen, with advanced features such as high-dynamic-range photography, the flash settings, panorama mode and slow-motion video as well as auto-focus settings, revealed by a simple sliding gesture out from the side.
The Moto X packs a 10 megapixel camera, which Motorola claims is capable of taking photos up to twice as quickly in bright light compared to “other leading smartphones” (which are unspecified), while performing well in low-light conditions.
On the whole the camera snaps decent images with good colour saturation and detail, while low-light performance was impressive and easily as good as most of the competition.
One of the best features is the quick capture gesture, however, which saves the fumbling usually required to quickly shoot a photo.
Simply twisting the phone like the twist-grip accelerator on a motorbike a couple of times will invoke the camera ready for shooting, whether the screen is off or you’re in another app. It works very well for the most part and is a lot quicker than trying to unlock your phone and find the camera app, or even the lockscreen cameras that quite a few smartphones have these days.
The Motorola Moto X costs £380 SIM-free – far cheaper than competition such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5S, but £80 more expensive than the Google Nexus 5. (The 3G-only Moto G costs £135 or less.)
The Motorola flagship can can be had for free on contracts starting at £25 per month.
Verdict: one of the best Android smartphones available
Given that Google owns Motorola, and the Moto X directly competes with the Google Nexus 5, why does the Moto X exist? Ignore that for now – Motorola has made a terrific smartphone.
While it is not quite as disruptive as the budget Moto G was before it, the Moto X is very solidly built, feels premium in the hand, and has an attractive 4.7in screen.
It is also smaller than most flagship Android smartphones (which tend to have 5in screens), making it easier to hold and control if you’ve got smaller hands; the ergonomically curved back helps.
The voice control, active display and camera quick-start features are excellent additions to the standard Android experience, and Motorola’s commitment to optimisation and speed is evident as the device is lag-free.
However the Nexus 5 is cheaper, and offers all the same features; it’s better value. If that didn’t exist, this could have been considered the best (in terms of value for money) all-round Android smartphone going at the moment.
Pros: All-day battery, advanced voice control, quick camera activation, ergonomic design, lag-free experience, latest version of Android
Cons: Rear speaker is quite quiet, no expandable storage, water-resistant rather than waterproof
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