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Moto X REVIEW: Finally A Smartphone That’s Actually Intelligent

by Brandon Russell | August 13, 2013August 13, 2013 3:00 pm PDT

A few years ago, it was never really about specs. Smartphones, in their relative infancy, were exciting because of the experience, how they suddenly made it possible to access information from anywhere, at any time. Fire up an app and you’re connected. But somewhere the industry hit an impasse, and companies soon lost focus on what’s important. We lost sight of what’s important. On came the growing pains of adolescents, and the boneheaded idea that bigger, faster and more automatically meant better.

It’s no secret that companies today abide by an unspoken formula, that is: flood the market with devices largely indistinguishable from the last, and see what sticks; it’s become a corporate marketshare Rat Race—and, as unfortunate as it sounds, it’s all so predictable. That’s not to say we aren’t being presented with great options. But the focus in recent months has been so narrowly on internal hardware buzzwords, that that’s all anyone ever cares about. We’re conditioned to always want the next beefy phone because what we have right now is never good enough.

And then we got the Moto X, which, on first impression, is more of the same, maybe even less so. Leading up to the device’s announcement, the Moto X was hyped by rigid executives as something to be reckoned with, an iPhone-Galaxy-S4-HTC-One killer from the labs of Motorola and Google. What we got, well, people were quite unimpressed by. But those people just don’t get it. The Moto X is unquestionably among the best handsets, Android or otherwise, that’s ever hit the market.

Moto X Video Review

A Different Kind of Flagship

Compared to current market standards, the Moto X is a “mid-tier” smartphone, equipped with a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor and 720p display. When you consider most flagship devices have already moved on to quad-core chips and Full HD screens, it’s easy to see why Moto X is perceived as inferior. But it’s not. At all. Make no mistake, Motorola’s new device is impressively fast and smooth—loading apps, playing video, using email, etc.—during day-to-day use. You won’t even care about what’s inside. That’s because the Moto X’s specs are secondary to the overall experience.

When Motorola unveiled its latest flagship recently, the company made it clear its new device was different—and not in the design-it-your-self way, though you have the option to do so. Through a series of onboard sensors and cloud-based services, the Moto X promises to introduce an experience smartphones have only hinted at over the years. Instead of sitting dormant on your tabletop, waiting for you to take action, to interact with it, Moto X is something that anticipates what you’re going to do next, what you need, what you want.

In many ways, Moto X is the most intelligent smartphone that’s ever hit the market. Rather of relying on weird gestures and software gimmicks, Motorola has created technology that actually improves how you use your device. One of the simplest and best additions is Motorola’s Active Display, which is described as a battery-friendly notification system that fades in and out when the screen is off. The company was very excited about the feature at its Moto X announcement, almost embarrassingly so, but the truth is is that it’s incredibly useful—for what it’s worth, I’m finding it difficult to use devices without the feature.

Active Display isn’t perfect; you can only see the most recent notification on the display, which you can access by swiping up. But it’s the most convenient thing I’ve seen added to a phone in the last few years. I’m constantly checking the time on whatever phone I’m using, which means I’m always pressing that device’s power button to wake up the display. All you need to do with the Moto X is simply pick it up. We’d like to see Motorola further expand on this idea, improve how it handles notifications, but right now it’s easily one of the device’s best features.

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Other additions include Touchless Control, which lets you trigger specific actions by saying, “OK Google Now,” whether your device is unlocked or not, and something called Motorola Assist, which controls your phone’s behavior depending on what you’re doing, such as driving or sleeping. If you’re in a meeting, Assist will automatically silence your phone completely, and even auto reply to missed calls from favorites. Likewise with driving: Moto X knows when it’s in motion, and will automatically read text messages and quick reply to contacts.

This is all done automatically, almost instinctively by the Moto X, and it shows that Motorola is actually thinking about how a smartphone should act, not just creating software features for the sake of it. You can even launch the camera—a 10-megapixel ClearPixel camera—without much effort, though the feature is easily Moto X’s weakest; simply twist your wrist like you’re using a screwdriver and Moto X will (in theory) open the app. Touch the screen and it’ll take a picture. We found the gesture didn’t always execute what it’s supposed to, but it did much of the time, and it was very convenient in many instances.

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On that note, the Moto X’s camera software is nice, intuitive, easy to use. But the overall quality of the 10-megapixel ClearPixel sensor isn’t up to snuff, especially with devices like the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5. Outside, pictures are adequate, nothing special; however, metering often struggled to properly expose a picture, and relying on tapping the screen to snap a picture limits the hardware and flexibility of shots. But it’s easy, we’ll give it that—just don’t expect incredible results, particularly in lowlight, where the Moto X struggled in comparison to Lumias and HTC’s One.

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A More Intelligent Experience

It’s not a device that’s meant to be strong or lightning fast, or get meaningless benchmark scores that will be outperformed in a month or two. The Moto X is something that presents you with the information you need without getting in your face. And it does so inside of hardware that’s incredibly nice to hold and touch, one of the best we’ve seen over the past few years. I was very surprised at how impressive the hardware feels, even the all-black model TechnoBuffalo received for AT&T.

In terms of size, Moto X isn’t particularly thin, nor is it particularly light. But it still feels pretty incredible, very premium, and substantial to hold. The phone’s rear shell is made of a rubberized, soft-touch plastic, with a conveniently placed dimple where the Motorola logo sits just under the camera. The back has more of a convex shape that fits in your hand perfectly; combined with Moto X’s weight and thickness, it’s one of the most handsome devices we’ve seen—the top spots obviously going to the HTC One and iPhone 5.

The most appealing consumer feature is the ability to customize Moto X to your liking—up to 2,000 potential combinations, from the rear shell, to the volume and power buttons, to the camera ring. As rumors of the Moto X filtered out, I wasn’t looking forward all that much to the customization options, but after seeing all of the possible options, I think it’s an awesome feature many consumers will enjoy. Customization is included in the price, too, so you can go with any combination you want at no additional cost. Moto Maker will be an exclusive feature to AT&T at launch and shortly after, but it’s great and exciting nonetheless.

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I’ve used this device for five days now, and not once did I notice stutter or lag. Opening email, browsing the Web, playing music and playing games (a lot of Temple Run 2. I mean, a lot.) was fast and fluid; never once did I stop to wish it was just a little bit faster. Moto X doesn’t quite open apps as quickly as a Galaxy S4, or HTC One, but I don’t care. That one second difference doesn’t bother me at all—the average consumer won’t even know the difference, and I’m guessing even the most fervent tech enthusiast won’t care.

From a software standpoint, Moto X runs a mostly stock version of Android 4.2.2, with the features I mentioned above as the biggest additions. There are some small Motorola modifications, but the experience is largely what you’d find on a Nexus or Google Play edition phone—maybe better, though, thanks to things like Active Display, Motorola Assist and Touchless Controls, which I already talked about. Motorola smartly decided against trying to substitute the look of vanilla Android with a heavy-handed skin, and the experience is better for it.

What’s important about the Moto X experience is that nothing feels forced, gimmicky. The software additions feel natural and unobtrusive—they aren’t things strangers will ohh and ahh over at an airport, but they’re incredibly useful and improve the device tremendously. That’s ultimately more important than having specs for the sake of specs, or including hand-waving gestures that needlessly replace a more intuitive action. Motorola found a way to play smarter with the Moto X, not harder.

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BUY

In many ways, the Moto X is the most complete Android experience ever—and I have no issue declaring this the most exciting smartphone we’ve seen so far this year.

DISCLAIMER: Motorola sent us a Moto X to review. Brandon used it his daily phone for five days before starting the written review.

In many ways, the Moto X is the most complete Android experience ever—and I have no issue declaring this the most exciting smartphone we’ve seen so far this year. When you consider the devices that are already on the market, you know that’s saying a lot. It’s a very handsome device, nice to hold, a joy to use, and battery easily last the day with heavy use. I really have no glaring complaints other than the camera could be improved, especially when other competing camera are getting so good. But, overall, all things considered, I’d choose this over any other Android handset out there.

Don’t get hung up on the Moto X’s specs, or even its $200 on-contract price. For the majority of people, this is the most appealing Android device in some time. You can dictate colors, it’s wonderful to hold, and it comes with some of the smartest software additions we’ve seen. Combine that with its always-listening Google Now abilities, and it becomes one of the most intelligent smartphones yet. Motorola clearly chose brains over brawn, and what a decision.

Having been an iPhone owner these past few years, and having the opportunity to use many of the most recent Android flagships under the sun—I used the Nexus 4 from January until I started reviewing the Moto X—never once have I wanted to switch. But I would switch in a heartbeat.

I can’t recommend the Moto X enough. With IFA coming up next month, companies will surely unveil devices with great specs and exciting hardware—and people will love them. But I guarantee none will be as smart as Motorola’s new flagship. Not when the focus is on cramming turbo-charged hardware inside something that’s ultimately no better than something that’s a year old. Hopefully people will one day realize it’s not about that. Hopefully the market will wise up and follow in Motorola’s lead.


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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