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Moto X Pure Edition REVIEW: The smartphone for everyone

by Brandon Russell | September 22, 2015September 22, 2015 10:29 am PDT

I loved the original Moto X. It didn’t follow the trend of big and fast, instead focusing more on user experience and how a consumer actually interacted with their device. At a time when Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense were more obnoxious than ever, the Moto X left Android untouched, and introduced some of the most intelligent software we’ve ever seen. It was an Android device done right, and even showed Google a thing or two.

Motorola stuck with that same formula last year to great success, with a few hardware upgrades here and there. But the company still failed to impress in one key category: the camera. For how good Motorola’s software can be, its camera technology has never been able to compete with the likes of Samsung and Apple—something Motorola is well aware of. In fact, at the device’s announcement in July, the company promised its new flagship would feature a camera better than any other smartphone. That’s a huge claim.

Combine a “best in class” camera with the phone’s $399 price tag (unlocked), and the Moto X has never been more tempting. So is it the device to beat? Not by a long shot, but it’s still a very terrific Android phone.

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Once again, Motorola has decided to go bigger, upgrading to a 5.7-inch display, which is up from last year’s 5.2-inch screen (which, in turn, was up from a 4.7-inch display). This time, however, the resolution has been bumped from Full HD to Quad HD, falling in line with most popular flagships on the market. Motorola opted for an IPS TFT LCD panel, too, rather than AMOLED; it’s a change most people won’t notice or care about, but it basically means that Motorola can no longer turn on individual pixels with Moto Display, so when a notification does arrive, the entire screen needs to turn on.

The screen is sharp and colorful and looks great outdoors. But it’s nowhere near as good as what you’d see in a Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 Edge Plus. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Moto X’s screen bad, because it’s not. But it doesn’t make your eyeballs smile quite as wide. This isn’t a display you stare at for no reason and admire. For what it’s worth, you do get options to tweak the color mode (normal and vibrant), but the differences are almost indistinguishable.

As a result of that big screen, the phone’s overall footprint is larger, though it isn’t nearly as big as I thought it would be. Certainly nowhere near the gargantuan Nexus 6. Frankly, I prefer smaller devices; I was disappointed when last year’s Moto X hit a growth spurt, and I felt the same after learning this year’s model was going even bigger. However, Motorola has found a way to keep the size manageable.

The subtle curve of the rear shell rests nicely in the hand, while you’ll find your index finger constantly gravitates toward the phone’s dimple. Meanwhile, the aluminum shell gives the Moto X a nice durability, and the buttons are placed conveniently on the right side. Otherwise it’s about as you’d expect from a Motorola device; the company hasn’t evolved its design all that much over the past few years, though I wouldn’t consider that a bad thing. It’s plain as can be, but patently Motorola.

That said, I can see some people complaining about the Moto X’s thickness, and it’s one of the heavier phones I’ve held in the past few years. I came to like the size a lot after extended use, but compared to something like the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, there is a clear difference in quality. The Moto X is premium in its own way, but Samsung’s newest lineup is on a completely different level.

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In addition to the pleasant ergonomics, buyers can still take advantage of Moto Maker, which, after three years, still remains one of the coolest services out there. We had the opportunity to design our own, and it turned out even better than expected. We went with a red leather, gold frame, and gold accent; if you look closely, you can also see TechnoBuffalo scrawled on the back, though it’s only barely visible.

My only major gripe with the design is how many sensors there are on the front. When we went with a white front, I didn’t anticipate it being such a problem, but they’re eyesores. The sensors are included for features like Moto Display—just wave your hand over and the screen with come to life. But I don’t know how many times I thought the bottom two sensors were back and multitasking buttons. Coming from the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, there were too many occasions to count when I thought I could press on them to navigate the software. I’m kind of a bonehead, but it was annoying nonetheless.

I suppose that’s what we get for going with a white front, but it’s definitely worth mentioning if you decide to go with the same. The technology is not nearly as visible if you go with black, though you won’t be able to choose gold as the frame color, which is disappointing. And no matter what color you go with, the front-facing flash will always be visible. Call me old fashioned, but I miss the days when we didn’t post selfies as every Instagram photo. A front-facing selfie flash just isn’t needed.

Motorola offers 16GB, 32GB and 64GB of internal storage, which is par for the course in today’s market. The big differentiator is the fact that the Moto X supports microSD up to 128GB—a feature that’s becoming increasingly rare. Motorola cleverly squeezed the SD card slot where the SIM goes. It blows my mind that more companies don’t do the same thing. Having microSD card support has never been on my must have list, but it’s great that the Moto X offers it.

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One final thing about hardware: the two front-facing speakers are great, though I think HTC’s BoomSound technology still might have the edge. Smartphone speakers aren’t typically a priority among OEMs, often relegated to the bottom of devices, but Motorola has been one of a few companies who regularly put speakers on the front. YouTube videos played loud and crisp, and calls on speakerphone were easy to hear, even with a lot of ambient noise.

But it’s not all good news. We’ve been so spoiled by phones with fingerprint sensors that’s it’s a darn shame the Moto X didn’t include the technology. Put it on the back, on the front, somewhere; the back seems like the most logical spot. Including a fingerprint sensor isn’t just a huge convenience, but it would tie in nicely with Android Pay, which just launched this month. And Android Marshmallow, Google’s next big update, is going to natively support fingerprint technology. The fact that’s one isn’t here seems like a missed opportunity. Maybe it was a cost-cutting measure, but then again, the OnePlus 2 had one.

There is no wireless charging support either, though I can take it or leave it. Wireless charging is slowly making its way to the biggest devices, so it’s only a matter of time before it’s standard, but I’m fine either way. The device does, however, support TurboPower, which Motorola says will provide up to 10 hours of battery from just 15 minutes of charging. It’s hugely convenient when you need to get juiced up in a pinch, but word of warning: you need to use the charger included with the device in order to take advantage of TurboPower’s benefits.

The battery included inside the Moto X is 3000mAh, which is decently sized for big phones. Unfortunately, battery life was less than stellar during our testing. I usually hovered around 15 percent toward the end of a workday, and that’s with medium to light usage. Really put it through its paces, however, and you’ll frequently be searching for that TurboPower charger. You can see some usage stats Jon posted on Twitter. Compared to what we’ve been seeing this year—which hasn’t been great—the Moto X’s battery is a disappointment.

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I want to say the main culprit to the mediocre battery life is the high resolution screen combined with the Snapdragon 808 processor, but I don’t know that for sure. Cell standby also seemed to take a huge chunk out of the battery even when I was on Wi-Fi; I’m on AT&T, and I get pretty good coverage in Huntington Beach, California, so it’s strange that the device would be so affected. Battery life is always hard to judge because it always depends on how you use your phone. If you text, email and occasionally look through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, then you’ll get through an entire day no problem. But play games, watch a few YouTube videos, use Snapchat regularly, and you’ll have a dead device before bedtime.

That Snapdragon 808 processor (and 3GB of RAM), by the way, is more than enough to keep the Moto X purring along at a smooth clip (here are benchmark scores if you still care about that sort of thing). I did run into a few occasional hiccups—multitasking was weird a few times—but by and large you shouldn’t be concerned about the Moto X’s performance. Phones today have become incredibly fast, and even though the Snapdragon 808 isn’t top of the line, you’ll still see flagship performance.

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Where the Moto X shines most is with the software. Since the first device launched in 2013, Motorola has always taken a less is more approach, and the newest Moto X continues that trend. What you get is pure Android—no added skins or unnecessary fluff. You can actually argue that Motorola makes Android better with the addition of a few apps, the highlight of which includes Moto Display, Assist, Voice and Actions.

Easily the best part about Motorola’s software suite is Moto Display, which lets you quickly preview incoming notifications on your lock screen without having to unlock your phone. And probably most important of all, it makes it super easy to check the time, which is an underrated feature of Moto Display. We check our phones hundreds of times throughout the day, a lot of times just to check what time it is. Moto Display will tell you at a glance without needing to press a button or completely wake your phone. I still can’t believe other companies haven’t tried to mimic the software in some way or another.

The feature is pretty much unchanged from last year; 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 open the associated app, just drag your finger up, and the Moto X will open directly to the notification you received. If you have security on your phone, like a PIN, Moto Display still works, and you have complete control over how much information is displayed.

Voice is also a big part of the experience, allowing users to control the Moto X without needing to touch it. The really cool thing about it is that you can train it to your voice, and you can customize the prompt, too. Instead of saying, “Ok Google,” you can say, “Ok Alfred,” or a similar phrase of your choosing. It adds a touch of personalization, and it makes for a pretty fun party trick. Once your prompt is set, you can ask your Moto X to do any number of things, from calling a contact, posting to social media, setting alarms, and you can even tell it to take a selfie. “Ok Alfred, take a selfie.”

There’s also Moto Assist and Moto Actions, the latter of which responds to gestures and whatnot, such as twisting the device twice to quickly launch the camera. Assist, meanwhile, kind of just fades into the background. Once you designate locations (home and work) and activities (driving, meeting, sleeping) Assist will intelligently react throughout the day. So if you’re driving, for example, Assist will respond to texts and calls, and even read messages out loud. I didn’t really take advantage of Assist all that much, though I can see this coming in handy for people who are constantly in meetings or on the road.

While all of Motorola’s added software is terrific, we haven’t seen it evolve all that much over the past few years. If you’ve used a Moto X before, the experience won’t be all that different here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’d love to see Motorola continue to make these features better, and think of new ways to improve on the wonderful foundation the company has already set. The one thing I will say is that Motorola can still update these experiences on an application level, which means users should get quick Android updates as they hit. You can bet the Moto X Pure Edition will be one of the first phones to be upgraded to Android Marshmallow when it hits later this year. Other flagships will probably be months and months behind.

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Finally, the camera. When we first got our hands on the Moto X here in the office, we immediately took it outside to snap some sample photos (you can see that post here). Motorola’s smartphone cameras have always been pretty mediocre—even the Nexus 6 was just OK. This year, however, the company has promised to offer “best in class” quality and performance, which is saying a lot considering how good phones like the iPhone 6 Plus, G4 and S6 are.

The good news is that the Moto X’s 21-megapixel sensor delivers excellent quality in daylight, producing detailed and evenly exposed shots. A picture we shot of some rocks is particularly impressive; you can see how the Moto X doesn’t over-process the scene, and the colors are nicely represented. A lot of phones today have a tendency to oversaturate colors as a compensation tool, but the Moto X keeps things pretty even and natural. Of course, you’ll probably smack a filter on your photos anyway, but it’s nice to know the device does a pretty great job out of the box.

Unfortunately, the Moto X’s results in low light aren’t so great, and while it’s not a deal-breaker by any means (for me), it’s a pretty big disappointment. In a few of the examples below, results are noisy and soft, and I often found that the device struggled to focus on subjects without ample light available. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Moto X doesn’t do much to escape its mediocre past based on low light performance alone. And there’s no optical image stabilization, for what that’s worth, so you can pretty much forget about getting crisp photos while moving.

I wanted to also mention the camera’s UI, which remains barebones and void of any major manual settings. You can run through the usual gamut of panorama, turn flash on/off, and more. But you can’t control things like shutter speed, ISO, and focus. There is an option to lock in exposure, but that’s about the extent of control Motorola gives users. Phones like the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 hand over a lot of the control to users, but I’m afraid Motorola erred too far on the side of caution by not introducing more manual settings.

The Moto X Pure Edition is a terrific phone for the price, but it’s by no means the strongest flagship on the market.

At $399, Motorola is offering a lot of phone at an amazingly competitive price. Among the affordable flagship market, which includes devices like the OnePlus 2 and ZenFone 2, I’d say the Moto X Pure Edition is the budget king. It has the best software, a wonderful camera, and Moto Maker is still something special.

The thing is, the more expensive Android devices currently available—Note 5, S6 Edge Plus—offer more in terms of overall quality, so it depends on how much you’re willing to spend. We’re also expecting new Nexus phones, and the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are launching on September 25. That’s some incredibly stiff competition.

What keeps the device from getting lost in the shuffle is how it treats Android, while managing to improve upon Google’s vision with the help of things like Moto Display, Actions, Assist and more. The Moto X has excelled because it’s the Android smartphone for everyone, and the Pure Edition retains that title. If you can’t afford to shell out $700 or $800 for a new phone, the Moto X Pure Edition is an excellent option.

Disclaimer: Motorola sent us a code to design the device. Jon used the device for 5 days on AT&T, while Brandon also used it for 5 days on AT&T.


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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