It's always fun to root for the underdog and the new Moto X is nothing if not a surprise champion.
No hype. No world firsts. No gimmicks. No queues around the block. And yet, this is one of the finest Android smartphones ever made.
How? Almost pure Android. A gorgeous 5.2in Full HD display. 13MP camera. Touchless voice controls. And - how could we forget - even more customisation than last year's original X.
Can all its touches, tweaks and specs add up to a big win for Motorola? Yes, yes they can.
DIY Design done right
With the iPhonification of Samsung (see Galaxy Alpha) and the Samsungisation of the iPhone (see the iPhone 6 Plus) the Moto X stands out. It has personality - if you want it to.
Moto Maker, Motorola's pre-order customisation service, has got bigger and better thanks to more options, international orders and photo realistic renders. With lovely soft-touch plastic, real leather and FSC-certified wood rear panels to choose from, plus thousands of accent colour combinations, three iPhone options starts to look stingy.
Whatever you choose, you get an impressively engineered sleek and solid build, white or black front panel, the Motorola logo dimple and a new aluminium frame that's lighter on the white model and a darker titanium on the black model. If you’ve really converted to Moto this year, like us, that means you can pair your Moto X with a similarly hued Moto 360 smartwatch. You fashion darling, you.
It's worth noting that the regular black resin model is a bit of a steal at US$500 (S$635) but other materials cost more. Both the real leather and wood versions start at US$525 (S$670). You won't regret it if you splash out, though we hear that the leather model needs a bit of TLC to keep it tidy.
This is a big phone that doesn't feel big. From the front it looks a bit like an LG G3 - another smartphone that's serious about not wasting space. Neither are truly "edge to edge" but with bezels this skinny we're not complaining. The G3's screen is a touch bigger, at 5.5in, but the Moto X does come in both slightly smaller and slightly lighter at 145g. And as Moto points out, it's the same width as the Galaxy S5 with a bigger screen.
As with the first Moto X it feels well made. It's also splash-resistant - not quite waterproof but better than nothing. Thanks to a shallow curve it sits nicely in the hand despite the fact that the 2014 edition is bigger in both dimensions.
But this could be the first 4.7in plus phone that smaller hands find manageable. You can just about get a thumb across to the top corners. It's perfectly stable and balanced in the hand and the microUSB socket, nanoSIM slot and headphone jack are located top and bottom, leaving the tapered sides clutter-free. Only the power button and volume rocker grace the right-hand edge, with the power button textured to make it easier to identify with only your digits.
So Motorola outclasses both Samsung and LG in the design department. And boy does it compete on components, too.
There's simply no weak link in the Moto X's spec sheet. Unlike last year when the Moto X's admittedly lovely 720p display was outgunned by Full HD screen after Full HD screen, this year it matches many of the flagships on pixel count.
OK, LG and Samsung have raced ahead with 2K screens on the G3 and Note 4. But many others including HTC and Sony have stuck with 1080p and these by no means feel like second class screens. The Moto X is 424ppi so text looks seriously smooth and pics look sharp. The LG offers more detail in hi-res photos and video but you'll only notice it with your face right up to the screens, eyeballs flitting from one to the other. In which case you may get odd glances on the train.
This is an AMOLED display and you should know what that means. Colours are on the punchier side of the spectrum, without looking too alien; deep, deep blacks put the iPhone and LG to shame and viewing angles are great. The pixels look very close to the glass too - not quite iPhone-close but close.
The downside of AMOLED colours is that from certain angles whites can look a bit yellow. If you spend a lot of time on emails and webpages this will start to grate, though we have heard promising whispers on the web of different units having slightly different colour temperatures.
Our favourite bit about the screen, though? What it does when it's off. Really.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review
This is the future: simple, smart and sensorific
Motorola’s always-on sensors, controls and software debuted on the first Moto X but have really come into their own on this year’s specced-up hardware.
If you love Google, you’ll love the Moto X. This phone is all about making Google's powerful services constantly available and useful. The scarily clever Google Now launcher can be accessed with a swipe to the right from the main homescreen, as with the Nexus. Motorola (unlike Samsung and Sony) keeps things simple by not doubling up on media services - there’s just the Play Store, Play Music, Movies and Books. Nothing here is as pretty as the likes of HTC’s Sense 6 but with the incoming Android L update, Google’s new Material Design will spruce the aesthetics up.
Apart from a few extremely useful, forward-thinking apps, which are helpfully bundled together in the Moto app, this is pretty much pure Android KitKat (until L arrives). You choose what to set up. There are a few tutorials that pop up on how to activate features but these are easily ignored.
As we just hinted, our favourite of the bunch is the battery-saving Moto Display, which shows monochrome notifications on the lockscreen when your hand approaches it, triggering up to three app icons. Touching each app bubble shows a preview of notifications at a glance and swiping down unlocks the handset. Being an AMOLED screen the black pixels, which fill the majority of the screen, don’t draw any power and it can’t be activated in pockets or face down. Combined with the Moto X’s subtle haptics, checking Moto Display makes for one of those addictive little habits much like Touch ID on the iPhone.
There’s more. Motorola uses its sensors much like Samsung does to turn the screen off when you’re not looking at it - here it’s called Attentive Display. Calls and alarms can be silenced and snoozed with a wave of a hand, too. That’s nothing entirely new but it’s worth confirming that both work perfectly.
Motorola has its own unique tricks. Touchless voice controls return so that the X picks up your voice commands even when the screen is off and you’re up to three feet away. A very cool tweak is that you can now change the command phrase from ‘OK Google’ to anything you like - as long as it’s a certain number of syllables. ‘What’s up doc?’ is too short, for instance, but ‘Hey Samantha’ is fine.
The most impressive thing is how seamlessly it all works together. The motion sensors register your hand hovering over the phone every single time so that by the time you’ve picked it up, Moto Display is onscreen. Voice works well with the different modes in Moto Assist, including home, sleep, meeting and driving - say ‘Good night’ to the phone and it will switch to a ‘do not disturb’ sleep mode. There’s plenty of further customisation to explore but it never descends into chaos. Lots of phone makers claim their Android skin is simple but here’s the thing, Motorola’s actually is.
All day battery will get better with L
Now, we're not saying smartphone makers should stop trying to improve on Android. For instance, we wouldn't turn our nose up at a power saving mode (Ultra or otherwise).
But with an all day battery life, helped by Moto Display, and Android L's battery saving software on the way, the fact that the Moto X goes without for now isn't a dealbreaker. We've been getting around 12 hours a day out of it and that's including a mammoth 3 hour commute.
In our HD video rundown test (looping a 720p video with the screen set to half brightness and WiFi and sync switched on) the Moto X's fairly small 2300mAh unit puts in a very respectable showing with 10 hours 30 minutes.
You can't get smoother than this
We haven't seen anything faster than the Moto X for moving around Android, opening and closing apps and generally getting things done. Even on powerhouses such as the LG G3 you get tiny bits of lag here and there - on the X Motorola has basically eradicated it.
Jumping around from Chrome to open apps to messages it's even a split second faster than the near flawless iPhone 6. The only thing Apple's finest is quicker at than the Moto X is firing up the camera app and finding focus. More on that in a bit.
Why is it such a joy to use? And how does Moto perform that much smoother with similar silicon? We reckon that’s the combination of Motorola's very limited and considered tinkering with Android and the Snapdragon 801 chip that's powering nearly every flagship smartphone worth buying in 2014.
It's not 100% ‘Pure Android’ - Moto has added voice and contextual bits and bobs here and there, as detailed above. But it's as close as you'll get on a non-Nexus, also bear in mind that the new Nexus is huge, and in day-to-day use it shines. The benchmarks back up our findings with the Moto X scoring an S5 and One M8-beating 44698 on AnTuTu - only the Note 4 bests it.
In short, there’s a select few gadgets that everyone trusts to just do the job reliably every time - the iPhone, the iPad, the Pebble, the Moto G. The Moto X joins that list.
- Screen: 5.2in 1080x1920 (424ppi)
- Processor: Quad core 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801
- RAM: 2GB
- OS: Android 4.4.4 (KitKat)
- Camera: 13MP rear 4K video, 2MP rear 1080p video
- Storage: 16GB, 32GB (non expandable)
- Battery: 2300mAh
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi, 3G/4G, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0
- Dimensions: 140.8 x 72.4 x 10mm
- Weight: 144g
How about the rest of those specs? More megapixels. Ring flash. 4K video. The second-gen Moto X pulls out all the stops with its new camera and is … almost, nearly, very close to matching the best superphones. So it's outsnapped by the best. But that doesn't mean the Moto X isn't capable of taking very, very good phone pics.
There's a new 13MP sensor with an f/2.25 lens, which is a big improvement on the first Moto X's decent but not jaw dropping images. It takes clear, detailed shots in good light, has a handy quick-access HDR mode and reproduces colours accurately. That said, it can struggle with tricky exposures and miss focus from time to time. In these cases, it's best to choose the manual tap to focus option in the basic camera app rather than relying on autofocus. Then for the best results, just keep snapping either by tapping again or using the volume button. The very best smartphone cams are slightly quicker to autofocus, too. This is no S5 when it comes to rapid fire shooting and real enthusiasts will want more controls to play about with.
Autofocus is much better when capturing 1080p video - with a maximum of 32GB storage, we wouldn’t recommend shooting much 4K footage, although it is an option. Slow mo video, at 120fps, is just as easy to play around with - as on the iPhone 6 there’s an idiot-proof slider to select the slowed down portion of your clip.
At night and indoors, it’s a mixed bag. The styled-up LED ring flash around the main camera is a new addition, designed to provide softer light than regular flashes. You’re left with images that are less obviously taken with a flash than the equivalent samples from rivals such as the G3 and iPhone 6 - it’s definitely kinder to your friends' faces.
Still, both of these phones do a better job in low light without flash. And that’s much more useful. Images taken with the Moto are usable, if a little desaturated, but can look noisy and a bit smudgy at times, which is a bit of shame. A software update to tweak image quality, a la the Nexus 5 last year, would be very welcome here.
For now, the Moto X detects faces and people/objects in motion (two tricky subjects) and automatically takes multiple shots before choosing which one it thinks is the best - in focus, no blinking etc. It doesn’t result in perfect images every time but in one or two instances, it’s proven its worth.
Elsewhere, Moto joins HTC and Sony with its own auto video creation tool, Highlights Reel, which is a bit hidden away but allows you to change the clip length and use audio from the videos or a choice of music tracks. Around the front a 2MP camera takes 1080p video and can be commanded by voice to 'take a selfie', completing the set-up. And the wrist-twisting Quick Capture feature returns from last year. It works well, when you give it a second, and helps to keep your eyes on the scene.
How to make the Moto X even better
If we had one plea to Motorola it would be this: bring out a 64GB model for the Android fanboy and fangirl power users. The seriously similar Nexus 6 gets a 64GB option and we reckon the Moto X needs it too.
Failing that, at the very least stick a microSD card slot in the next version. 16GB and 32GB are great for low entry prices but not enough for everyone after 12 months of offline Spotify playlists, games and photos.
While we're at it, push Android L out as soon as is humanly possible please. You've been very good at getting the latest version of Android onto your phones sharpish so hopefully Lollipop will be no exception. If the Moto X gets the update soon and drops in price, the Nexus 6 could have a very difficult time indeed.
Motorola Moto X Verdict
If you were doing a smartphone shortlist based purely on specs, the Moto X would probably make it on there but it wouldn’t be at the top. In use it’s a very different story.
Because after the Moto X you won't want to go back to any other Android. It's smart, it's fast and it's the kind of beautifully crafted handset you find yourself picking up for no reason whatsoever.
Motorola's software works seamlessly with Android to make your life that bit easier, while Moto Maker allows a mass produced phone to be personalised like never before. App fiends might prefer an iPhone and serious phone photographers perhaps the Xperia Z3, but the Moto X feels like it's built for everyone.
UPDATED 04/02/15: It’s pretty much priced for everyone, too. It's no ultra-bargainous Moto G, but at S$765 in Singapore, it’s very reasonable value next to the current superphone crop. It even comes with Android 5.0 Lollipop pre-installed and for a limited time, also with a screen protector and an AKG Harman Kardon headset.
Who could say no to that?