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Moto X (2014) REVIEW: Bigger, Faster, Smarter

by Brandon Russell | September 18, 2014September 18, 2014 2:52 pm PDT

The first Moto X, which debuted last year to muted consumer enthusiasm, didn’t get caught up in the smartphone hustle. And that’s what made it so great. While other Android competitors ran rampant with features and specs, Motorola used its brain to create a new breed of smartphone; it made a phone for everyone, something intelligent and thoughtful. It was the phone companies last year tried so hard to make, and although some companies got close, the Moto X was our pick for best phone of 2013.

Twelve months later and there are some incredible devices on the market; this year has easily been the best in terms of quality devices. That means the stakes are higher, and the pressure is on Motorola to deliver an even better experience. Last year’s model, let’s be honest, wasn’t exactly the best seller, so the newest Moto X will be doing battle on multiple fronts.

Under new ownership, can Motorola’s device become part of that upper mobile tier? Absolutely, without question. It didn’t take long to realize that the new Moto X is an improvement in every way, and then some. At just $99 with a two-year contract, the second generation Moto X has a bigger screen, more premium design, enhanced software tweaks, and specs that (mostly) match today’s best and brightest.

Motorola brought its A-game once again, putting other companies on notice. You can pre-order the new Moto X now for $99 with two-year contract, or pick up the device for $499 without contract.

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Moto X (2014) Video Review

Design

For better or worse, the new Moto X now sports a larger 5.2-inch AMOLED 1080p display, which is pretty dazzling; it’s sharp and bright, and can even be seen in bright sunlight (imagine that). The market has become infatuated with larger-screened phones, and even the pristine 4.7-inch form factor of the original model wasn’t safe from an embiggening (is that a word?). What was perhaps in that rare Goldielocks Zone has hit a sudden growth spurt. We have mixed feelings about that.

I am among those who preferred the previous size, but I can still admire the lovely form factor of Motorola’s new prized possession; in fact, you hardly notice the device is bigger after a few hours of use (it just doesn’t fit quite as snugly in your pocket). Like the 2013 model, the new Moto X has fairly minimal bezels. Motorola has adopted the onscreen software buttons introduced in Android Jelly Bean, which allows the company to keep the bezels to a minimum. This, in turn, gives the device a more svelte look overall.

Compared to other flagships, the Moto X actually features a smaller frame; smaller than the HTC One (M8) and Galaxy S5, despite sporting a larger screen. That right there about sums up Motorola’s engineering prowess. Even with a smaller footprint, Motorola still managed to include a new speaker, a series of sensors for gestures and a front-facing camera. On the black model we reviewed, none of that technology is visible (save for the speaker), which is exactly the way we like our designs to be.

That improved quality extends across the entire Moto X design, which is much nicer than last year’s model. The 5.2-inch screen is surrounded by a metal frame (which doubles as the phone’s antennae), while the curved back tapers beautifully toward the sides, fitting comfortably in the hand. On the back, your index finger gravitates toward the device’s dimple, which is also larger than what it was on last year’s model; it actually feels a lot like the home button on an iPhone, except it’s plastered with a Motorola logo. (We wish Motorola would have done something more with this; maybe light it up when notifications come streaming in, or as a fingerprint scanner, but alas it’s just for show.)

Moto X (2014) review, design 001

Moto X (2014) review, design 002

Moto X (2014) review, design 003

Moto X (2014) review, design big

The device’s metal frame actually serves a double purpose. Sure, it looks and feels great, but Motorola also uses it to boost wireless quality, calling the feature Dynamic Tuning; it sounds like a gimmick, but call quality does indeed sound terrific. Motorola says the technology is capable of analyzing how the device is held, and then dynamically choosing which part of the antenna to use. I won’t argue against an addition like that.

The power and volume keys are of similar quality, the power button being somewhat textured so it’s easily identified when you touch it; the buttons themselves produce a nice tactile click, and are much improved over the original Moto X, which felt chintzy.

Finally, the back of the Moto X can be fitted with any number of custom backs (through Moto Maker), which now feature leather options in addition to wood and solid colors. We received a black leather model and while it does feel great, we’re not overly crazy about the way it looks. After a few weeks of use, it looks worn, scratched, faded, scuffed. Motorola told us it was aware leather would wear quickly, saying it gives the rear shells character. Maybe so.

One thing worth noting: one of the corners is already slowly peeling away, which I hope doesn’t foreshadow what other Moto X users who choose the leather option will experience.

Flipping over to the front of the device, you’ll find a new infrared system, which Motorola says will register gestures more naturally and accurately; things like waving your hand over the Moto X to dismiss a call, or waking the screen as your approach it with your hand. The sensors are able to recognize gestures at about 4 times the distance of similar systems, and you don’t need to be exactly over your devices for gestures to register. That means when your alarm goes off, you can easily snooze it with a simple wave. Sounds almost too easy.

Also on the front is a speaker, which sounds absolutely terrific; it’s loud, crisp and almost rivals the quality of the HTC One (M8). Speakerphone is also loud, and very usable outdoors.

Moto X (2014) design, slim

Roadrunner Fast

The thing most die-hard Android fans will be keen on is that the Moto X now comes with great specs, and is miles ahead of last year’s model. Under that 5.2-inch Full HD display, the Moto X includes a 2.5GHz quad-core CPU (Adreno 330 @ 578 MHz GPU), a 2300mAh battery, 2GB of RAM, 13-megapixel camera and Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box (with a guaranteed upgrade to Android L). Other little knick-knacks includes four mics and turbo charging support, which Motorola says will get you 8 hours of battery life in just 15 minutes; suddenly the lack of wireless charging doesn’t seem so bad.

These specs would be great on any new handset, but they’re even better on the Moto X. Why? For one, users get nearly vanilla Android out of the box, so there’s no resource-intensive skin slowing things down; it’s just you and Android the way Google intended. As a result, users get a silky smooth experience that rivals the best Nexus devices, and definitely bests devices from the top Android manufacturers. It’s not a night and day difference, but you won’t notice any sluggishness simply browsing through your homescreens—something that can’t be said for a lot of other Android devices.

Not only that, but apps open up without hesitation, and switching apps is fluid and fast. Put it this way: if the first Moto X was able to run a sub-7-minute mile, the new Moto X improves that time to a sub-6-minute mile. The difference isn’t astronomical, but it’s definitely not unwelcome. It just means an already zippy experience is even better, and who can complain about that? In classic Motorola fashion, the company claims the device can maintain a solid number of frames per second with some hardware optimizations, and that seemed about right after extended use.

The optimization also helps with battery life, though it’s definitely not the best out there. We were able to get through a full day without having to charge, though you’ll definitely want to do so overnight. Compared to something like the OnePlus One, which has a 3100mAh battery, it doesn’t quite match up. It always depends on your daily usage; if you constantly watch video, share photos and are otherwise using it constantly, you’ll obviously run out sooner. But an average user will get through the day without issue (maybe about 8-10 hours).

Unbeatable Software

The Moto X’s software features are, without a doubt, the very best on the market (in any ecosystem). A big reason why we fell in love with the device last year was because Motorola included some really intelligent enhancements, and they’re even better this time around. They’re the kind of enhancements you don’t even realize you’re using, which is what makes them so great; they fade into the background, and appear at exactly the right time. This is in addition to stuff like Google Now, which is embraced by the Moto X, not hidden under other alternatives.

The thing I enjoy most is Motorola’s Active Display, which has been rebranded as Moto Display. The feature is super simple, but incredibly effective. Like last year’s implementation, Moto Display will subtly wake your screen as your approach it showing you important information like the time, date, battery of your phone, and your latest notifications—all without having to wake your device up. Believe me: for how often we glance at our phones throughout the day, Moto Display is incredibly handy; so much so that you won’t want to live without it.

Moto Display has been improved, too; now you’ll see up to three notifications fade in and out on your display. To address one, just tap and hold, and you’ll see more information appear at the top of the screen. If you want to peek at the other notifications, just drag your finger left or right; to open the associated app, just drag your finger up, and your device will open directly to the notification you received. All of this works with a PIN set up, too, so you don’t need to worry about security (although people will still be able to see a bit of your notifications) when Moto Display is activated.

Motorola has also enhanced Moto Voice, which is the Moto X’s always-listening feature—and it’s really, really cool. Instead of saying, “Ok Google Now,” you can actually customize the prompt. So, for example, you can make the Moto X respond to, “Don’t Taze Me” or “Call me Ishmael.” It adds a touch of personality to your device, and makes a great feature even better. Once your prompt your device, you can ask it questions, like where’s the nearest pizza joint, or even post right to your favorite social network, such as Facebook.

Moto X (2014) Hello Brandon

Moto X (2014) voice

The Moto Voice technology is essentially Google’s excellent Google Now service, so you know the quality is there; it’s just a neat little touch being able to customize the prompt. The technology works very well, too, and there was never a time when I had to repeat myself, even when in a noisy restaurant.

There are other Motorola tweaks, such as Moto Actions (mentioned earlier), and Moto Assist, which is one of those handy features that stays out of the way when you don’t need it, but is there at exactly the right time. With Assist, you can control the Moto X to behave a certain way in different situations. If you’re in a meeting, for example, your device will go into silent mode so you aren’t interrupted; it can do this automatically, scrubbing your Google Calendar throughout the day and silencing your device when necessary.

There are also sleeping and driving modes, which automatically turn on depending on what you’re doing. When you’re driving, the Moto X can read text messages aloud, and even tell you who’s calling, and when you’re sleeping, the phone will go completely silent so you’re not rudely awakened by a drunk call or text from a friend. Calls from favorites can still come through (only if you want them to), so you can get notified in case of an emergency.

Motorola has included some other intangibles, including Motorola Migrate, which makes the hassle of switching phones a little bit easier, Motorola Connect, and a Trusted Devices feature. Nothing here is overly flashy, and they all greatly enhance the overall experience, just as they did last year, elevating the Moto X to a tier no other handset can touch. Manufacturers have improved quite a bit over the past several months, so it’s not like the Moto X is the only device that offers useful features. But Motorola is the only company that seems to get consumers, and it shows.

Camera

Cameras are important, right? And we can all agree that the camera on last year’s Moto X wasn’t the greatest, right? This year, Motorola has bumped last year’s 10-megapixel shooter up to 13-megapixels and… things are improved, but it’s not giant. Colors are noticeably more saturated, and there’s a crispness to the images that you didn’t get with the original Moto X. But, for the most part, it’s pretty average. It certainly doesn’t match the quality of some of the better mobile cameras from Samsung, Nokia or Apple.

In medium to low-light situations, photos can be grainy and noticeably blurry; focus can be inconsistent, and even useless under certain circumstances. Outside in bright light, the camera is quick to focus, zippy, and images aren’t so bad—sometimes great. If you want to get a look at what the Moto X images from last year look like compared to this year’s model, you can hit up the link here. You can make the final judgement call; things are improved, definitely, but in a significant way? Maybe not.

The camera software, however, is still pretty fantastic, though it does take a minute to get used to if you’re unfamiliar with how everything works. When you fire it up, the entire screen is essentially empty of clutter. All you see is your focus bracket, a button to flip the camera to selfie mode, and a button to quickly switch to video. Beyond that, a simple swipe from left to right will bring up the settings ring, where you can turn on/off flash, HDR, resolution, Panorama and more.

In addition to the usual fare, Motorola has included some new camera software that ensures you get the best possible shot. When you take a picture, the Moto X will cache a photo before and after, so if you missed a moment, the Moto X will suggest a better shot for you. Just check the box at the top to keep the one you prefer, or even keep all of them and choose later.

There’s also a new Highlight Reel feature, which collects all your pictures and videos into a fun collage that you can set to music, and then send off to friends and family. You can edit the length, content or music. If you just went on a nice vacation, or maybe a wedding, the Highlight Reel feature is a neat little touch that stylizes your content.

Finally, video looks pretty darn nice. You can shoot in 1080p, slow-motion and 4K UHD, which is on a par with some of the most recent smartphones.

BUY

The new Moto X is better in every way, making it a strong contender for one of the best phones this year.

When the Moto X came out last year, many people dismissed it because it didn’t have the greatest specs. But, for a lot of people, it offered a solid and intelligent experience that warranted a place among competing devices like the Galaxy S5, iPhone 5s and HTC One (M7). With faster specs, a better design and smarter software, does it surpass today’s cream of the crop? Motorola is very close.

There’s no question the Moto X has the best software, and the design (along with Moto Maker) is top notch. But the camera is just average, and the battery life is just ok. What’s more, you can’t replace the battery, and there’s no expandable storage, which is a huge deal to a lot of people. That said, the Moto X is once again the Smartphone for Everyone, a device you should really consider if you’re fed up with the unnecessary software tweaks from other manufacturers.

There are some great handsets on the horizon, including the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, Galaxy Note 4 and (probably) a new Nexus, so there are some amazing options out there. Now, more than ever, Motorola needed a juggernaut with great specs, and that’s exactly what the company delivered.

Brandon used the Moto X for 5 days before drafting his review.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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