Motorola Moto X Handset Review

Before I jump into my review of the Moto X, I need to explain that Motorola took their time launching this handset in the UK. It finally arrived in February 2014, six months after it’s been available in the United States of America. I’ve been waiting for the Moto X since it was announced and then released; getting my hands on the Moto G made the delay almost insufferable!

And so the Moto X, which is Motorola’s 2013 flagship device. Motorola have taken a different approach to much of the competition with their flagship handset and instead offering a device that is accessible by a large number of people. It runs the risk of upsetting the Android “power users” because it doesn’t offer the most advanced processor or screen technology, or a laser rangefinder or whatever the next great feature is that we are all going to want. Instead, the Moto X is a compact, unassuming handset with what Motorola hope are going to be excellent real world killer features.

During this review, I’m going to be comparing the Moto X more with the Nexus 4 than other devices. This is partially because the Nexus 4 has become my daily driver but also because the Moto X feels like Motorola’s take on a good quality mid-range Android smartphone, which is also where the Nexus 4 fits in.

On that bombshell, let’s take a look at the Moto X specifications, then. The handset application processor is a Qualcomm S4 Pro dual core processor clocked at 1.7 GHz, a cousin to the processor in the Nexus 4 (having half the cores but a higher clock speed). In other words, it’s two generations old, sitting below the Snapdragon 600 processor that sees service in the HTC One and the Snapdragon 800, which is used in the Nexus 5.

The processor is paired up to two low power additional processor cores, which I’ll come on to in a bit and a quad-core graphics set up; this makes up Motorola’s Moto X8 marketing badge. Eight cores, you see. The processor has access to 2 GB of RAM and either 16 GB or 32 GB of storage.

The screen is a 4.7” 720p AMOLED design and the handset comes with NFC, LTE and a 2,200 mAh fixed battery. There’s 2 GB of RAM and either 16 GB or 32 GB of storage, but no MicroSD slot and no wireless charging. The UK Moto X launched with near-stock Android Kit Kat 4.4.2 right out of the box, the very latest version of the software. And like the Moto G, the X has a water resistant coating. The camera has 10 MPixels and some clever light-enhancing tricks to help with low light photography.

I say it a lot, but the box specifications are only half the story. In the case of the Moto X, a dual core processor and a 720p screen sounds disappointing. And yet in normal use, the Moto X is beautifully smooth and fast thanks to Motorola’s software optimizations and a healthy 2 GB of memory. In day to day use such as moving between applications, the Moto X is usually quicker than my Nexus 4 and is close to the Nexus 5.

WP_20140217_018As I’ve written, the Moto X uses a 720p 4.7″ screen. It’s a little narrower than the Nexus 4’s display, but only a little. The stock launcher uses a row of four applications rather than five in the Nexus 4 (as a point of interest, the Nexus 5 has a row of four applications). This screen is an AMOLED so the colours are especially vibrant and it makes the Nexus 4 look pale and washed out in comparison. It’s a good screen even if my personal preference is for the less vibrant color reproduction. The Moto X has a special reason for using this type of display and again I’ll come on to this later.

In the hand, the Moto X is surprisingly small given the size of the display. It feels quite a bit smaller than the Nexus 4 thanks to the narrower chassis; it’s a good size. It’s a very good size, actually; slightly thinner than the Moto G.

I need to write about a couple of the Moto X’s special software features, which I know have been widely covered: always listening and active notifications. This is where those two extra processor cores come in, because the Moto X has a natural language processor and a contextual processor. These are designed to minimise battery power whilst providing the special features: once you’ve trained your Moto X to recognise your voice, you can talk to it without touching it and the feature doesn’t drain the battery.

I’m in two minds about the language recognition software of the Moto X. At first, I thought it would be a bit pointless, because if I am in earshot of my Moto X, I can likely touch it. Then I started really getting into it and now I’ve gone full circle. It’s a clever feature and there are some uses, such as calling somebody, but it’s not something that I use so much.

Part of the reason is that you have to use a single expression to trigger the service, which is, “Okay Google Now.” I’m disappointed that, “I say, Google dear boy,” instead, because that feels way more natural. 🙂 Most of the reason is because there’s a delay between telling the Moto X what to do and it responding, which depends on local network conditions as much as anything. It can take a couple of seconds before it responds, which when you’re trying to show off, it an eternity!

WP_20140217_010Active Notifications, however; that’s something else. Here, the device is more aware of what’s going on around it to let you know of things happening in your world but only when you need it. Pull it out of your pocket and it illuminates the clock on the lock screen and shows you any notifications that have happened since the last time you looked at it. You can also drag a notification up to see more detail, but if you decide to open it and have a security lock on the device, you do need to enter this first before accessing the event.

Here’s where the AMOLED screen comes into play, because this only illuminates the pixels that it needs to, rather than firing up the backlight for the whole screen. This saves battery: it turns out that I use my cell ‘phone to see what the time is an awful lot despite wearing a wrist watch.

Comparing the same experience with my Nexus 4, if I see that the notification LED is flashing, I have to power up the screen to see what type of notification it is. Then I have to unlock the handset to see details in the Android notification tray It’s an easy way to use the device until you see how Motorola have an easier way! Active Notifications is a very good feature, especially when combined with the Trusted Bluetooth function, which means that the screen security lock is disabled when a known and trusted Bluetooth device is with you.

Motorola specify that the Moto X should provide “twenty four hours of mixed use” battery life. That’s a wonderfully open statement, because my mixed use will be different to yours. I was especially interested to see how well the Moto does because one of the disadvantages of AMOLED screen technology is that white draws the most power as the display. White backgrounds are especially hard on the battery, so viewing Gmail, webpages or documents usually shows up AMOLED device batteries. I was a little wary of how good the Moto X’s battery would be for my typical use, which involves a lot of application use with a white background.

I’m not disappointed; the Moto X has good battery life. In daily use, it’s somewhere close to the HTC One but not as impressive as the Moto G. It’s not the battery champion that the Moto G is but then it doesn’t need to be. As a direct comparison, the Nexus 4 has a higher battery drain when idle but lower drain when in use.

IMG_20140216_083553187_HDRThe Moto X has a 10 MPixel camera. Reading online reviews of the Moto X’s camera, it gets a bit of a bad rap but I need to tell you that in my use it’s pretty good, actually. It probably won’t replace a proper camera, but using one of my kitties as a benchmark, I’d say it passes!

And then there’s call quality. Motorola have done something wonderful with the Moto X. The Nexus 4 has been my voice quality champion until now but the Moto X is slightly clearer. The Motorola has three microphones rather than the more usual two for high end devices, plus a good quality earpiece and decent signal strength.

For productivity tasks, the Moto X is a good device. Battery life is good, the screen is decent and it’s fast too. For editing documents and reading websites, it’s not much different to the Nexus 4 and Moto G, which is not a bad thing but it doesn’t bring anything new to the party. The slightly smaller screen compared with the Nexus 5 is a little black mark and it’s ever so slightly less responsive too. Plus it’s a little more expensive.

It’s a superb smartphone for, well, the smartphone role of keeping in touch with people. Is it worth it? That’s a difficult question to answer, because the geek in me would prefer the Nexus 5. But I also have a more pragmatic side of me, where I use a smartphone for smartphone things and I use my tablet for my productivity things. Not that the Moto X is in any way a bad productivity device.

Six months after the Moto X was launched in North America and with a soft, quiet launch in the UK, the Moto X has just become the best Android ‘phone I’ve used. Partially, because it has superb call clarity and partially because it does the things I need it to do really well without any baggage. It’s a little bit too expensive but I imagine the price will fall during the first few months of 2014.

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