Moto X $620
3rd Mar 2014 | 17:18
Google and Moto almost made a truly standout Android phone
Introduction and design
It was August of 2013 when Motorola released its first all-new phone under the stewardship of Google, and the Moto X caused quite a stir.
While the Nexus line of phones was always meant to be the showcase for Google's vision of the ultimate Android device, it felt like with Motorola it could show how influence rather than control would bring out the inner beauty of Android.
Five months on Motorolafinally gave the first progeny of its relationship with Google a wider release, so here it is on official UK release: the Moto X.
Without a doubt, one of the most widely discussed and generally lauded phones of the second half of 2013 has arrived, but how does it fare today in the ever-evolving smartphone market?
When it was first announced, there was an almost audible intake of breath as it became clear that Motorola was going to try and sell a phone with apparently mid-range specs at a high-end price.
However, this did something of a disservice to the overall aims Motorola had for the Moto X. It is not a device that cares about specs, it is all about the experience.
In the US, Motorola launched a novel concept called Moto Maker, which allows you to customise the look of your phone.
It is quite possible to get a white fronted, pink backed Moto X with blue buttons and a custom engraving too. Unfortunately, Moto Maker hasn't found its way to the UK - although it is tipped to arrive in March 2014.
This bold gamble does not appear to has paid dividends for Motorola with the Moto X, evidenced by its numerous price drops in the US.
Considering the track record, it's a little bit of a surprise that Motorola is bringing the Moto X in at a relatively high recommended retail price point of £389.
Considering the price of the better-specified and larger screened Nexus 5 is just £299, you have to wonder if this makes sense.
Pricing is not the only issue for the Moto X: it simply does not have high-end specs any more. The beating heart of the phone is essentially a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset backed by 2GB of RAM.
Compared to today's quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 rival, this is a little lacking, and definitely puts it in the mid-range, at least on paper.
A 2200mAh battery is sealed inside the body and there is no microSD expansion so the standard 16GB model - what you get for the £389 recommended asking price – will have to do. Motorola has not said whether it will bring the 32GB model to the UK.
The basic layout of the Moto X is highly conventional, with a microUSB port at the bottom, power and volume rocker buttons on the right and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack up top.
Talking of those buttons, they are really well sited. Lots of phones have their buttons in terribly inaccessible positions or just out of natural reach. Motorola has got this right on the Moto X, and made buttons that are responsive to use.
What is less usual is the SIM tray on the left side of the phone which holds the rarely used nano-sized SIM.
In the UK the Motorola Moto X is currently available in the white I had to review and black. I prefer the Moto X in black though, as the white highlights the major flaw in the industrial design that Motorola has employed.
There is a visible seam round the sides of the Moto X and the white plastic used to frame the screen is of a different shade to the white back. The white bezels around the screen, which sit behind glass, are of a third shade, making the front look a little messy.
Overall though, this is a very well designed and constructed phone and definitely has a premium enough feel to justify its price - even if there are some concerns about what is on the inside.
The Moto X blends into the background quite nicely most of the time, and the screen takes up the vast majority of the front, which is a great achievement.
One of the key features of the Moto X is its in-hand feel. It is quite hard to describe how relatively small it feels compared to most of today's large-screened flagship devices not to mention the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Note, which seems gargantuan in comparison.
Motorola has managed to squeeze a nice 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen into the Moto X despite it being only marginally larger than an iPhone 5S.
Relative compactness is not the only trick the design of the Moto X has up its sleeve. The back curves almost exactly to the shape of your hand, with its maximum thickness being just a little above the center of the phone making it feel molded to you when holding it.
This is most definitely a one-handed use phone, unlike most higher-end Android devices, and in many ways the Moto X is more comfortable in one hand than even the iPhone.
Material choices can often be highly controversial, but Motorola has done really well here. Yes, the Moto X is a plastic phone, but it uses good quality plastics. It feels warm and inviting unlike the cold calculated precision of the iPhone 5S.
The 10MP camera on the back sits flush with the casing, so there are no annoying camera humps to work your fingers around, but it does still present a slight problem as it is quite easy to end up touching the camera in normal use.
Motorola has used an unusual type of sensor including the use of a so-called Clear Pixel, which is meant to help in low light situations and generally helps in exposing pictures more accurately.
Unfortunately, as we will see later on, this hasn't worked. On release in the US, the Moto X was panned for taking very poor pictures. It has had a series of updates since then, and this UK model has the very latest camera software. Motorola has unfortunately not managed to live up to expectations though.
Almost uniquely amongst the Android manufacturers, Motorola has taken a very simple approach to the software on the Moto X. What we have here is essentially stock Android 4.4.2 KitKat with just a few Motorola enhancements.
The changes are almost entirely positive, and Motorola has clearly thought about how people use their phone on a daily basis.
To a great extent, these changes are possible due to the unique hardware customisations Motorola undertook when designing the Moto X.
While the basic chipset is a Snapdragon S4 Pro-derived dual-core design, Motorola has added two contextual processing units.
One of these is for natural language processing and the always listening feature of Touchless Control and the other allows the Moto X to use all its sensors to understand when the phone is out of your pocket, for instance to show Active Notifications as well as to enable the camera flick gesture.
Touchless Control is Motorola's name for one of the most interesting features on the Moto X. Even with the screen off, the phone is listening and waiting for you to say "OK Google Now" - at which point the screen will light up and you can tell it to perform various actions including sending a message, making a call and providing directions through Google Maps.
Before using it, you must train the phone to understand your voice, and once that is done, in theory, it only responds to you.
I found it works very reliably, and is a lot better than expected. I had very few false positives where you would find the phone ready to accept a voice command even though you hadn't asked it to do anything.
Active Notifications makes use of one of the great properties of an AMOLED screen, the ability to light up just part of the screen without having to power the entire display.
When a notification comes in, if the screen is off, the Moto X will flash up on the screen the app icon that the notification came from.
This icon breathes, with the screen going on and then off and then on again over a period of a few seconds. It is a very low-power way of showing on screen notifications.
Perhaps the best part of Active Notifications is that the Moto X will also monitor a motion sensor in the phone, and if it senses you picking the device up off the table, the screen comes on so you can unlock it.
It uses the light sensor to know when you take the phone out of your pocket and does the same thing. All this means I has hardly ever had to use the power button to switch the phone on, it is on and ready for me like magic.
The other main trick that the Moto X performs is when using the Motorola Assist app, it can sense when you are driving and start to read out your text messages. I found this to be fairly reliable but a significant battery drain. Nonetheless, another useful addition from Motorola.
Interface and Performance
There were some thoughts that the first Motorola phone produced in conjunction with Google would go on to become a Nexus device. While it is not a Nexus in name, in many ways it is like a Nexus device.
Here in the UK, the Moto X arrives with Android 4.4.2 and, beyond the exclusive Nexus 5 launcher, it looks identical - at least at first.
The status bar has the same white icons but is also the first place where something different – and slightly annoying – is found.
Your mobile network's identifier is shown top left of the screen all the time, taking up some of the space normally available for notifications.
Being a stock device, the monochrome Android theme is ever-present, and the gentle gradients that can be found in screens such as the settings are there as well. Unfortunately the screen on the Moto X can display a little banding spoiling the effect very slightly when compared with a Nexus 5.
The standard back, home and task switch buttons are exactly where you would expect at the bottom of the screen and the immersive mode introduced in KitKat works just as well here to remove those buttons when an app is setup to do so.
On the home screen, the attractive color fades from the top and bottom of the display really frame the interface nicely and make Android appear much classier.
As the new launcher introduced with the Nexus 5 is not part of the Android 4.4.2 build on the Moto X, the older app drawer is present with its second tab for widgets.
Google Now is available by swiping up from the home button just as you would expect and the task switching screen is the standard Android affair. The quick settings introduced in Android 4.2 are of course present on the Moto X in their usual place on the flip side of the notification drawer.
Motorola has added a number of items to the settings, each reflecting one of the additions that you will find on the Moto X.
There are settings for the aforementioned Touchless Control and Active Display but also for Motorola Connect, which is a service that connects to a Chrome desktop browser plugin and allows you to receive notifications and send text messages. This is a useful addition, but there are other apps in the Play Store that do the same thing.
Inside the security settings, there is a particularly interesting feature, trusted Bluetooth devices. In essence, if you pair a Bluetooth device with the Moto X and then choose to secure your phone with a PIN or a pattern lock, whenever the chosen Bluetooth device is in range, your phone remains unlocked. Move out of range, and it is secured once more.
Motorola has also included a lost phone feature, something that Google has been doing for a while now with Android Device Manager. I don't understand why Motorola felt the need to duplicate this feature, but thankfully it is the only feature that is a duplicate on top of stock Android and is simple to turn off.
It is well worth make sure you are using one or other of these lost phone security features, just in case!
The performance of the Moto X is stunning. In Geekbench 3, it scored 681 on the single core test and 1281 in the multi-core, but that only tells part of the story.
Motorola has done a fantastic job optimizing the software on the Moto X to make it lag free, fast and a complete pleasure to use. Apps open immediately and multi-tasking is a pleasure, no doubt helped by the 2GB of RAM on board.
When developing the Moto X, a premium was clearly placed on performance and having particularly fast storage helps it. Motorola was the first Android manufacturer to use a new file system optimised for the type of activity typically found on a smartphone. This has paid off, the Moto X's performance is great.
Battery life and the essentials
The Moto X has a lot of active features, so battery life becomes a major concern. To start with, I had a look at the basic battery life by running our NyanGareth video test for 90 minutes with the screen set to around 280 lux and from full, the battery only dropped to 83%, which strikes me as a decent performance.
This result can only tell part of the story though, and unfortunately it is not entirely positive. The Moto X is incredibly sensitive to signal strength, and in a weak signal area I would find the battery getting totally chewed up in no time at all.
Sometimes 50% would vanish overnight with the phone idling but with weak signal. This problem is especially prevalent when connected to a 4G network.
Even with a strong signal the Moto X can eat through its juice very easily. Under some stress, browsing the web, listening to music etc I found the battery to be slightly below average, but it is the standby time that was most disappointing. Frankly, the battery life is fairly poor.
Motorola has done well to fit a 2200mAh battery in a body the size of the Moto X, but the downside of that is a slow charging time.
It seemed to take many hours for the Moto X to get any charge and then it runs down too quickly for my liking. It does last a day, but when most phones will last me at least a day and a half, the Moto X was a disappointment.
One thing that helps a lot and something I did on days when I needed to trust the battery to see me through a heavy day is to switch off the Active Notifications, Motorola Active and Touchless Control.
I gained at least a quarter more life and perhaps even more with those features disabled. It is a shame that to get good battery life you have to disable some of the unique features of the phone, but at least it is an option.
Motorola has a long history of making mobile phones, and that shows when making and receiving calls with the Moto X. It puts in a flawless performance. Noise cancellation from the secondary mic worked perfectly and all callers said they could hear me clearly.
The single speaker on the back of the Moto X is very loud and clear. Truly excellent.
The Moto X comes with the new dialer and contacts app that debuted with the Nexus 5 and it is excellent. It does not has the ability to provide local search results like the Nexus 5, but it is still attractive and very functional.
Google's stock Android keyboard is a strange omission from the Moto X, but it does come with its own version, which is still the Android keyboard but an old version.
Thankfully the updated keyboard can be installed from the Play Store and selected as the default.
The new Hangouts app is compatible with the Moto X and can be used for sending and receiving text messages too if you like. I'm not a fan of how Google has integrated SMS into the Hangouts app so am pleased to see the standard messaging app as an option too.
Text messages and Hangouts messages are stored in separate threads which always seems odd and makes it harder than it should be to know what type of message is being sent.
Motorola made a big deal about the Moto X camera at launch, especially its use of RGBC. The C in RGBC stands for Clear Pixel, which in essence is part of the color filter sitting on top of the sensor.
The theory here is that with part of the filter being clear rather than filtering to a specific color, one of red, green or blue, Motorola can claim a 75% increase in light sensitivity.
This unusual filter sits atop a 10MP sensor which has 1.4µm sized pixels – relatively large, especially compared to the 13MP sensors found in many high-end cameras today.
Larger pixels means that more light can be captured and therefore better pictures produced in a wider range of settings.
There is a relatively fast F/2.4 lens sitting on top of the sensor with a 4.5mm focal length – equivalent to 30mm on a full-frame camera.
Despite an impressive array of imaging hardware, the Moto X struggles to take consistently high quality pictures. When the conditions offer any sort of challenge, the camera will typically disappoint and even in perfect conditions it is a little inconsistent.
On the front of the Moto X is a perfectly serviceable and simple 2MP camera, which will take as good a selfie as you might expect. This front-facing unit is actually pretty decent, and shows that a simpler approach can bring bigger benefits.
Motorola has given us a unique way of accessing the camera on the Moto X. Even with the screen switched off, a double flick of the wrist will cause the phone to vibrate and the screen to come on straight to the camera app.
It is a neat gesture that only sometimes makes you think the phone will fly out of your hand and across the room. In practice, I managed to hold on to it every time.
Once the camera interface is loaded, it is immediately clear how simple it is. Even tap to focus is something that needs to be switched on.
You swipe in from the left to view the settings which are limited to HDR mode (on, off, auto), flash settings, manual focus selection, slo-mo video, a panorama mode, location tagging, shutter sound and a setting for the flick gesture. Swiping from the right takes you to the gallery.
To take a picture, tap anywhere on the screen and the camera will choose where to focus. But if you activate the manual focus selection, then you can move a square around the screen to choose the focus point and then tap it to take the shot.
In practice, it is nice and quick and simple to use, but in reality, a bit more control would be nice.
Zooming is performed by dragging up and down on the screen, which is rather odd, pinch to zoom would seem to fit a little better.
Tapping the video icon in the top right starts video recording with no options at all. This can be quite frustrating but it does the job most of the time.
So while the hardware sounds great, the output is generally a little disappointing.
Being a pretty uncluttered and stock Android device, the Play Store and Google services are the pre-installed options when it comes to video and music.
The Google Play Music app is a fairly well integrated offering where you can listen to streaming or downloaded songs using your Google Play All Access subscription should you have one, or from the 20,000 songs Google allows you to upload to your account.
Music stored locally is also browsed through the app and can be played simply and quickly.
When music is playing, the track artwork populates the lockscreen background, with pause and skip track controls also available. It is a really bold and attractive effect.
The actual purchasing of music is done through the Play Store, so you will get taken there if you want to buy some tunes.
If you want to listen to music through an alternative service, the Moto X will handle that just fine and as more and more apps support the placement of artwork on the lockscreen, it normally looks just as good too.
When listening to your music, the single mono speaker does a decent job, being loud and actually of reasonable quality.
It is easily good enough to listen to podcasts through if that is your thing. Quality through headphones is average with minimal noise but the biggest issue is that the volume simply does not go high enough.
There is a graphic equalizer in the Google Play Music app on the Moto X which also has a few effects such as 3D stereo and Live Stage. Frankly, it is rather basic and generally does more to muddy the sound than improve it, but at least the option is there.
The Google Play Movies and TV app, besides being a mouthful, is where you go to get movies and TV shows. Again, it takes you to the Play Store to make your purchases, but then the media can be streamed or downloaded for offline viewing.
Video quality is high, and the screen on the Moto X lends itself well to watching movies. Obviously a tablet will give a more immersive experience, but I would be happy to watch for hours on the Moto X if I had to.
Despite apparently older hardware in the Moto X, it has no issues playing any games you can find in the Play Store at the time of writing. Gaming does take a heavy toll on the battery but everything works nicely and the phone doesn't get uncomfortably hot. Google Play Games is pre-installed on the Moto X, but it remains sparingly used by game developers.
The biggest issue with all media work on the Moto X is its limited storage capacity. In the UK, only the 16Gb model is currently available and with no expandable storage, it can fill up fast especially with larger games and movies.
The Moto X supports USB OTG which allows you to plug in a USB memory stick if you buy the right cable, so that could be an option if you want to watch lots of movies.
So what else can be had in the same segment of the market as the Moto X?
The Nexus option
The Nexus 5 was released just a few months ago and represents Google's vision for Android in its fullest. It checks every possible box on a dream spec list with its 5-inch 1080p screen, Snapdragon 800 chipset, 2GB of RAM, totally stock Android and attractive build.
The 8MP camera with optical image stabilisation is a step ahead of the Moto X and it is a significantly more capable device all round with its much faster chipset.
On the downside, the Nexus 5 has a fairly poor battery, not that the Moto X is any better, and it is a little bulkier and less ergonomically perfect than the Moto X. You also lose the Motorola software enhancements, which I consider well worthwhile but you do get stock Android with the promise of fast updates.
It comes down to whether you value that more compact feeling and the software tweaks that do genuinely add to the experience. To make it even harder to choose, the Nexus 5 is cheaper and comes in a 32GB flavor in the UK.
The Mini option
HTC took the fantastically well-designed One and made it a bit smaller to produce the One Mini but with largely the same looks. Unfortunately, HTC couldn't quite make it as premium as its flagship One with the plastic edge around the screen a disappointment, but it still looks and feels fantastic.
The superb 4.3-inch 720p screen is one of the nicest displays out there and makes the Moto X feel a bit behind the times while its all metal body has the looks to match.
While you may not get the latest Android version on the HTC One Mini, it does come with HTC Sense, generally considered one of the best Android skins and a genuinely useful addition to the stock operating system. It particularly shines with the camera and gallery apps, I never tire of the fantastic highlights videos it is capable of magically producing.
Talking of the camera, the One Mini wades into battle with the same four-ultrapixel unit that the flagship One does, but without OIS this time. Unfortunately this camera setup cannot compete with the best but it remains more capable than the Moto X.
At around the same price as the Moto X, this is a harder choice and it comes down to how much you value the HTC software enhancements and superb build quality and materials, not to mention Boomsound which gives the One Mini the accolade of the best speakers in the business outside its bigger brother.
The other Motorola option
Since the US release of the Moto X, Motorola managed to get a new device out in the UK and now fairly widely on a global scale too, the Moto G. This is a phone that brings most of what is best about the Moto X but at a much cheaper price point.
The same basic industrial design has been used on the Moto G to make it feel just as fantastic in the hand, but underneath that skin there are a lot of changes. For starters, the screen has dropped in size to 4.5-inch but still with the same 720p resolution. It is also an LCD screen now although I would say it is just as good as the Moto X's display.
Powering the Moto G is a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 chipset, which despite its lowly sounding specs delivers fantastic performance, almost matching the more powerful Moto X.
The camera is downgraded to a 5MP shooter, but given the shortcomings on the Moto X, it is actually not much of a downgrade and ultimately offers quite a similar overall performance.
Many of the software enhancements are missing on the Moto G including Touchless Control and Active Notifications, but you still get Bluetooth trusted device support and Motorola Active.
Storage is the biggest issue though as the Moto G only comes in 8 or 16GB flavours with no expansion. This could be a deal breaker for many people.
Before writing this budget phone off, it is worth noting that the 8Gb model is available from just £129 with the 16GB model coming in at £159. This is amazing value for a phone which very nearly matches up to its much more expensive cousin.
The Moto X brings some unique software enhancements to stock Android wrapped up in a superbly designed body with a surprisingly large screen. It is a very easy phone to handle and is extremely fast. If only the battery life and camera quality were a bit better.
At its current recommended price of £389, it feels like an expensive indulgence, but being available through some retailers at around £300 already, it makes a lot more sense. Motorola genuinely enhances the familiar stock Android and the Moto X beats any rival for in hand feel.
The fantastically designed shape makes the Moto X fall into your hand easily and more comfortably than most. This is a very easy phone to use one handedly and is a great size.
Touchless Control and Active Notifications are great additions to the software on the Moto X with the former meaning you don't has to touch the phone to get things done and the latter almost rendering the power button redundant. If only all software was this clever.
The Moto X performs like a high-end flagship whatever its spec sheet says. There is almost nothing to choose between it and even a Nexus 5. Motorola certainly knows how to optimise its software.
No matter how efficient the software, the battery life of the Moto X is simply not good enough if you keep all the software features on. I don't want to has to disable some of a phones best features just to be sure of making it through the day.
If photos are important to you, the Moto X is not a great choice. Despite Motorola talking up its camera, it simply has not delivered. As an all round shooter, it falls short and really needs ideal conditions to produce photos that get close to its competition.
By only bringing the 16GB model to the UK, Motorola are leaving those that need plenty of storage high and dry. Even with the 32GB model, that might not be enough and with no expansion available, space is at a premium.
Despite some flaws, I really like the Moto X. It has a lot of charm and offers up a great Android experience. Motorola has brought all its engineering expertise to bear and it shows in how well the phone is constructed and how thoughtfully the software is executed.
Unfortunately, it missed on two of the most important features in a phone these days, battery and camera. With both being such a weakness, the Moto X becomes a hard device to recommend.
When it was launched originally back in August 2013, it would has been much easier to sing its praises and indeed most people did, but all these months on and the market has moved forward. Motorola has also not stood still and with the release of the Moto G it seems to has almost negated the need for the Moto X.
The Nexus 5 remains your quickest route to the best all-round stock Android experience while the Moto G is the cheapest and best value.
First reviewed: January 2014