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That the Moto X doesn’t feature the absolute fastest mobile processor doesn’t matter much. It’s all about simplicity, comfort, and some forward-thinking features. It’s a friendlier Android phone for people who would typically go for an iPhone.
It is, in many ways, the anti-Droid.
In 2009, Android needed a killer phone, and the Motorola Droid was it. Together with a $100 million ad campaign from Verizon, the Droid was presented as the more powerful, masculine alternative to the effeminate iPhone. It was the first big Android success story (Verizon capitalized on the expensive Droid branding with models from other companies), and it paved the way for Samsung to swoop in to make a mark with its Galaxy S series.
Today, the hyper-masculine Droid branding feels a bit puerile. So it’s no wonder Motorola is aiming for a much broader audience with its first phone built under Google. That’s also the message we’re getting from just about every Moto X ad, which typically focus on how it can fit into the average person’s life — for $199 and a two-year contract.
I’ve spent the past day putting the Moto X through its paces, and while it may not beat my beloved HTC One in terms of specs, I’ve been consistently intrigued by the ways Motorola is trying to push the very idea of a smartphone forward.
Empowering voice commands
“Touchless Control” is one of the Moto X’s biggest selling points. It’s always listening for voice commands, so you can just speak out loud to make a call, get directions, or perform just about anything Google Now (the company’s Siri-esque virtual assistant) is capable of. It’s a useful feature for any time your hands are full, like when you’re holding groceries or driving. I can imagine it also being a great selling point for mainstream consumers. Where other phones require you to hold down a button for voice commands — including Apple’s Siri — the Moto X functions more like a tiny digital assistant.
With most phones, a feature like this would easily eat up your battery life. To counter that, Motorola developed its X8 computing system with one low-power core dedicated to language processing.
In my testing, I found the Moto X’s Touchless Control to be just as effective as using Google Now on any other modern Android phone. Simply by saying “OK, Google Now” (you have to train the phone briefly for it to recognize your voice), I can check on my calendar events for the day, map directions, or dictate a text, all without looking at the phone. It’s honestly a bit empowering — it makes you feel as if you have direct command over the digital world. The phone typically recognizes my “OK, Google Now” commands about 80 percent of the time. It’s not perfect, but it works often enough that I can have faith in it.
Comfortable build quality
The Moto X feels comfortable as soon as you pick it up. It’s curved — a big departure from the sharp corners of the Droid lineup — so it rests in your hand naturally. The front half of the phone is made up of a strong plastic, while the rear half is a Kevlar shell (a strong material Motorola has been working with for years).
It’s clear that Motorola was obsessive about every element of the Moto X’s design. The Kevlar rear feels smooth-yet-strong, and there isn’t much wasted bezel in the front. It’s a design that should work well for a variety of hand sizes — something I fear the growing market of big-screen phones has simply given up on.
The phone features a 4.7-inch OLED screen, which is a good balance between size and portability. During a media briefing yesterday, Motorola senior vice president of product management Rick Osterloh snagged my HTC One (also with a 4.7-inch screen) to point out how much fat they cut from the Moto X’s design. The One is slightly taller and wider than the Moto X (though it also packs in stereo speakers), and I know a few people with smaller hands who’ve had trouble holding it.
Quality-wise, the Moto X’s screen looks sharp, if a tad oversaturated (something that feels far too common with OLED displays). Its 720p screen resolution is lower than the 1080p displays from the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, though I can’t imagine any human will be able to tell the difference. With screens of this size, 720p is more than enough to reach “Retina Display” levels of quality, or the point where you can’t discern the pixels. By going with a lower resolution, Motorola also manages to conserve processing power and battery life.
Motorola claims the Moto X’s battery lasts 24 hours, the same as its latest Droid model. I’ve had the phone on for around 18 hours as I tested apps and took photos, and its battery life is only down to 70 percent.
Thoughtful notifications and camera design
While it’s not exactly groundbreaking, I appreciated how much consideration Motorola took in designing the Moto X’s notification alerts and camera. As the phone is resting, the display fades in and out with the time and recent notifications. You can swipe up from the notifications to get more information or act upon them.
Specifically, Motorola aims to squash the obsessive habits so typical to smartphone owners. Now there’s no need to wake up your phone just to tell the time or to keep an eye on incoming messages and alerts.
I also dug the simplicity of the Moto X’s camera. Even when the phone is in standby, you can just flick your wrist twice to launch the camera immediately. Motorola also simplified the clunky Android 4.0 camera interface: Now you can tap anywhere on the screen to take a photo or hold your finger down for a burst shot.
The 10 megapixel camera takes decent photos, but it’s too soon to tell if it’s significantly better than the iPhone 5, Galaxy S4, or HTC One. I haven’t seen anything particularly amazing from the “Clear Pixel” sensor that Motorola developed for the camera, which it says lets in significantly more light than other smartphone cameras.
Is this enough to save Motorola?
The Moto X is clearly positioned to be a phone that appeals to everyone, but it’s tough to tell if consumers will actually bite. Google is reportedly ready to spend up to $500 million to market the heck out of this phone, so there will definitely be more awareness around it versus something like the Nexus 4.
The phone also has a few unique selling points: Buyers will be able to customize their phone on Motorola’s website, and it’s actually being built in the U.S..
At the same time, it’s also clear that the Moto X is Google’s stab at mimicking the iPhone’s success. Motorola is working closely with the carriers for its launch, and it’s not launching with the latest and greatest version of Android. System updates will likely be left up to the carriers, which haven been notoriously slow with rolling out updates to other phones.
Perhaps more interesting than the Moto X itself is what it represents: a new smartphone strategy for Google, and a complete reboot for Motorola. That’s ultimately a good thing for consumers — though other Android manufacturers may not feel as kind.