Moto’s phone ranges are a bit like the BBFC’s film certification guidelines. Moto E? That’s a U certificate. Everyone’s invited but you might think they’re a bit naff if you’re 16 or older.
The Moto X is your 12 certificate movie. You get plenty of grown-up stuff, but there’s no axe murderer waiting in the wings to hack your bank account balance to death.
At £349, this latest Moto X a reassuringly affordable mid-range pick among the reassuringly, terrifyingly expensive iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy Note 8. It’s a great phone with one big problem: the Honor 9, which is similar but has more power.
DESIGN & BUILD: HEART OF GLASS
Lenovo just gave the budget Moto G series’s design a serious level-up with the G5S duo, but the Moto X4 goes a step further. There’s glass on the back and front, with aluminium on the sides as the filling in this smartphone sandwich.
It’s similar to what you’ll see in the iPhone 8 or Samsung Galaxy S8, just lacking the wafer-thin display surround we’re starting to see in more phones. From looks alone you could easily think the Moto X4 is a £500 phone, not a £350 one. It doesn’t have the ultra-shiny multi-level finish of the Honor 9, but not everyone wants a laser light show on the back of their phone.
Highlights? There’s a natty-looking ring around the camera that catches the light as the phone is turned, and the curvature of the glass on the back doesn’t half feel good in your hands. The phone also has great IP68 water resistance, able to survive a close encounter with a toilet’s U-bend.
Despite having normal-size bezels, the Moto X4 is also pretty easy to handle as the screen is “just” 5.2 inches across.
Bad bits? The camera housing sticks out, which annoys some people as much as a parking ticket. However, it does have a headphone jack. Apple has somehow convinced many of us that leaving one out isn’t the worst idea anyone’s ever had - but it is, obviously.
The Moto X4 also has a fingerprint scanner just like the one in the Moto G5S Plus. It looks good, and uses an oval-shape, slightly recessed pad. It’s not quite as fast as some, including the one on the Honor 9, but it does work well.
You can also use the scanner in place of the soft keys, left and right swipes replacing the “back” and “recent apps” buttons. The best bit is this leaves more room for content on the display, without that bottom inch taken up by the soft keys.
SCREEN & SOUND: magnificent mid-ranger
One of the key appeals of the Moto X4 is how close it gets you to the experience of a phone up to twice the price, until you really dig deep. The screen is a great example of this.
It’s a 5.2-inch IPS LCD screen with 1080p resolution. It doesn’t have the resolution of some more expensive phones, aside from soundly beating the iPhone 8.
However, my first impression was: blimey this screen looks good for a mid-ranger. The panel has richer colour than the Moto G5, looking pretty similar to what you’ll see in the most expensive Sony Xperia phones. They also have top-end LCD screens rather than OLEDs.
Contrast is great too. If someone had told me this was an OLED screen I’d have believed them until taking the Moto X4 into a pretty dimly-lit room. Viewing angles are also top, with less brightness loss at an angle than you’ll see in cheaper LCD mobiles. Side-by-side with the Moto G5S Plus you can see this phone handles motion much better too, with less image trailing.
There are also a few little extras, common among Moto phones. You can switch between “vivid” and “standard” colour profiles. Both look great. And, as usual, Moto Display is the most obvious software addition.
This phases the screen in and out when the phone’s in standby, displaying notifications, and there’s a mode that cuts down blue light in the screen towards bedtime. This makes it appear warm or orangey. You can switch these extras on and off in the Moto app, which, aside from the Moto camera app, is the one extra preinstalled app.
The Moto X4 also has a decent, if not exactly standard-setting, speaker. It’s loud enough to just about cut through the noise of cooking if, say, you play a podcast or some Spotify. However, there’s just a single speaker up by the earpiece. There’s no stereo effect, and you have to lay the phone screen-up to get proper sound.
OS & SOFTWARE: HELLO MOTO
As usual, the Moto series uses a very plain, mostly unedited version of Android. Right now it’s Android 7.1.1, but you can expect to get a boost up to Android 8.0 in the future.
Looking at the Google Pixel 2 XL, there are just a few differences between the Moto take on Android and the purest of pure versions. In the Pixel phones, the apps menu makes the background lighter, not darker. The soft keys look different. And there’s a Google search bar just above those keys in a Pixel phone.
In other respects, though, this is Android as the great green one intended. And it feels great.
It’s fast, it’s intuitive and there’s none of the awkward icon ugliness almost all third-party interfaces squeeze over Android like cheap squirty cheese.
Now we get to the bit that trips the Moto X4 up just a bit: the raw performance of the hardware. This phone has a Snapdragon 630 processor. That’s the upgraded version of the Snapdragon 625 the Moto G5S Plus uses, but it’s still in the same class.
The Honor 9 and OnePlus 5 are miles ahead in this respect, using true high-end CPUs that crush the Moto X4 in benchmarks. This phone scores 4106 (863 per core) in Geekbench 4. It’s fine, but it’s not ultra-high end.
Does it matter? Not really as general performance is very good and high-end games still run well on the Moto X4. However, it does make slow-down 18 months down the line more likely.
CAMERA: A DIFFERENT KIND OF DOUBLE VISION
There’s just a single annoying element to the Moto X4’s performance right now, and it’s one that is probably down to dodgy software rather than the processor. The camera is slow. It’s perhaps the phone’s biggest problem, and is something that affects the latest Moto G5S phones too.
This is a funny one, because the last Moto generation’s cameras were perfectly fine. Here there’s shutter lag after you hit the capture button, a delay after taking HDR photos and general annoying pauses as you switch between modes.
It’s a shame, because the Moto X4 otherwise has an interesting camera setup. On the back there are two cameras. Like the LG G6, one has a wide-angle lens, the other a standard field of view. The wide one has a 120-degree lens, so we’re not quite in GoPro territory, but it’s great for scenes that might otherwise need the panorama mode.
You simply switch between the two with the press of a button in the camera app.
The megapixel count and quality of the two cameras are totally different. The standard camera has 12 megapixels, the wide one an 8-megapixel sensor with smaller sensor pixels.
There’s no getting around it: the wide angle sensor is a lot lower-end than the main camera’s. You can often easily see the difference in dynamic range when the photos are side-by-side. However, the wide angle mode is really there for when the standard camera just won’t get you the shot. I’d use a 2x zoom more often, but this is perfect for those dramatic holiday vistas.
The 12-megapixel camera produces lovely shots in daylight, with good dynamic range and detail. However, at night the images are nothing too special. The phone doesn’t gave optical image stabilisation, and while the sensor has relatively large sensor pixels it’s not quite enough to make low-light photos look great.
Around the front the Moto X4 has a 16-megapixel selfie camera with a proper LED flash. It’s not as good as the pixel count suggests, though, and is destroyed by that of the cheaper “Selfie Expert” Oppo F5. Fine details like facial hair and eyelashes look as soft and vague as they would through the eyes of a much, much lower-res camera.
BATTERY LIFE: NO SURPRISES
The Moto X4 has a 3000mAh battery. This is reasonably large for a phone with a mid-size 1080p screen, and one of the Snapdragon 630’s upgrades is to energy conservation rather than power.
This is one of those phones that has good longevity, but not to the level of something like the Moto Z Play. That’s one of the few phones that can truly claim to be a 2-day battery mobile without remotely stretching the truth.
I managed to get the Moto X4 to last a full day even after getting close to OD’ing on podcasts, which is a good sign.
Unlike the Moto G, this phone has the newer USB-C style of charging port. It’s a good job as it’d seem completely out of place on a phone of this price.
MOTO X4 VERDICT
The Moto X4 is a one of those phones that gets you high-end style at a reasonable price. It’s not just about the look either, with extra features like useful dual rear cameras, a great screen, a good amount of storage and a smart fingerprint scanner.
It has a few issues, though, enough to stop it from reaching quite the heights of the Honor 9, which is only £30 more and comes with 64GB storage and a higher-end CPU.
The processor here is not much better than that of the Moto G5S Plus and the camera is surprisingly slow.
Just keep in mind that a software update could speed the camera up, which would make it much more of a pleasure to use all-round.