Monday, October 14, 2013

Motorola Moto X Review

Since the purchase of Motorola Mobility by Google in 2011, many in the mobile industry waited with bated breath for what the new partnership would result in. We saw the RAZR, RAZR HD LTE, Atrix HD LTE and other spinoffs of the RAZR brand but all of those were phones that were already in the Motorola production pipeline before or during the purchase by Google. Today, after a long 2 years following the acquisition, we get to see the first real fruits of the Motorola/Google partnership in our review the Motorola Moto X.

Overall Construction
Just like about every other Motorola phone we've had the privilege of reviewing at Android Bugle, the Moto X is an incredibly sturdy and solid device. With competing phones like the HTC One and iPhone 5/5S opting for metal we rank the Moto X up there with best built phones despite the fact that it is mostly made of plastic.

Unlike Motorola phones of old that were straight edged, monolithic, unapologetic and frankly very "masculine", the Moto X is a stark contrast in design with curves around the entire front edge of the phone as well as the back of the phone.

On the back the usage of curves continues with the heavily tapered curved back, not unlike the HTC One, that makes the Moto X quite comfortable to hold in the hand and give the illusion of thinness when in fact the phone is quite think by today's standards at 10.4mm thick at its thickest point but around 5mm at the edges.

On the front of the device is housed a 4.7-inch AMOLED display, and while that isn't anything ground breaking by today's standards, what is very noticeable on the front of the Moto X is the screen to bezel ratio. In our opinion this is a far more important in one handed usability than screen size alone. We've yet to see another phone with as little bezel aside from the Sony Xperia ZL.

On the topic of ergonomics and one handed usability, the Moto X is an astounding breath of fresh air when it comes to flagship Android phones today. With its curved back and more manageable dimensions, the Moto X is easily one of the nicest phones to handle in both two handed and one handed situations. At a feathery weight of 130g the Moto X, is on the lighter side compared to the likes of the Sony Xperia Z and HTC One. Add to this the soft touch rubbery back and you have the friendliest one handed use Android flagship phones on the market.

One thing that is noticeably missing is a notification light. Once a staple of Motorola smartphones there is a good reason why the light is gone but more on that later. One other aspect that is disappointing about the Moto X is that the much touted Moto Maker, that is available to US customers and really allows user to personalize their phone, will seemingly not be made available to Canadians so choice is unfortunately limited to the standard Black and White.

Overall, the Moto X is one of the best feeling devices and most well put together devices we've had the chance to try. Despite being made mostly of plastic, the Moto X proves that a well-built phone can use materials that aren't traditionally premium yet feel like a premium device.

Motorola Moto X

Motorola hasn't shied away from the use of AMOLED displays despite the fact that people will either love or revile the display. Most of the distaste for AMOLED is due to the use of the PenTile pixel arrangement in AMOLED displays of the past, and if you've read any of our past reviews you'll know we aren't fans of PenTile.

Thankfully with the Moto X, the variation of AMOLED tech used in its display uses a more traditional RGB matrix rather than PenTile. In fact it uses a very similar display to the one used on the Samsung Galaxy Note II which we liked.

Unlike many other Android smartphone flagships, the Moto X bucks the trend of increasing resolutions by sticking with the tried and true 720p resolution. Motorola claims that at 1080p the quality gains are negligible and are a burden to battery life. While we do agree to the latter, we firmly believe that there is an appreciable difference between 1080p and 720p.

As is customary with AMOLED displays, colors (especially reds) looked like they were going to pop off the screen with over the top saturation. Black levels were simply outstanding and contrast was fantastic. Viewing angles were pretty good but of course is accompanied by the cyan hue at extreme angles that go beyond usable degree with which to look at a screen.

Unlike previous Motorola smartphones, gone is the inexplicable gap above the bezel of the front of the device. Instead an almost gapless seam between the plastic rim and Gorilla Glass can be found which we found much more pleasant both aesthetically and design wise.

Additionally, we aren't sure if this was intentional or not, but the Moto X has more than a passing resemblance to the Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4. Being an "all stock" device with no buttons upfront and curved sides put side to side with any one of the aforementioned nexus devices and you'd be hard pressed to notice the differences.

With buttons, the general rule of thumb is that if there is much to talk about then either they are extremely bad, or exceptionally good. In this case the Moto X falls smack in the middle with some nice distinguishable buttons but nothing out of the ordinary. We would have preferred the volume rocker and power button to be on difference sides but that isn't a huge concern.

As a "Google Company" one would expect the Moto X to be rocking the much preferred software rendered buttons and as expected it does. This gives the user the most flexibility and instills familiarity with both users and developers on usability and design guidelines.

Battery Life
With the advent of sealed batteries, the Moto X is yet another phone that is going down the road of a non-removable battery. This presents the OEM, in this case Motorola, with the challenge of making sure to provide the phone with excellent battery life, and with the Moto X result was quite decent.

While the longevity of the Moto X won't come near the caliber of a Galaxy Note II, it certainly faired as good if not better than the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. Getting through a day's worth of use wasn't too difficult and even when pushing the device could probably still get most power users through a day.

At 2200mAh, the Moto X isn't going to break any records in battery size nor does it need to as Motorola made design choices with battery life in mind. One obvious choice being the 720p display versus the 1080p of other smartphone flagships which allows the Adreno 320 GPU to push less than half the pixels that other phones do.

One other design decision was to go with a dual core processor rather than a quad core. But this decision is rather hit or miss, as pointed out by Brian Klug in his review of the Moto X, if your typical smartphones usage consists of using heavily multithreaded applications like Chrome, you offset the benefits of fewer cores with needing to keep them at a high clock rate for longer since work is divided to two cores rather than four.

Since everyone's usage patterns are different we still think that most apps will not be as thread optimized as Chrome so it's safe to assume that there is some slight benefit to the dual core vs. today's quad core offerings.

Internal Hardware
With the Moto X, Motorola is obviously stepping out of the specs arms race (for who knows how long) but that doesn't mean the specs are bad either. While it's clear that on paper it looks like a midrange device, it certainly didn't perform like one.

- 1.7 GHz X8 Mobile Computing System (a modified Dual Core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Processor)
- 2GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal Storage (32GB version not available in Canada)
- Adreno 320 Graphic processor
- 4G LTE and HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 10 MP camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

In day to day usage the Moto X was an absolute joy to use. Whether credit is due to Android maturing to the point where it doesn't need that much brute force to run beautifully, or the fact that the Moto X comes with not a speckle of pre-loaded bloatware (more on that later), the responsiveness of the phone was absolutely phenomenal for the hardware it's packing.

In synthetic benchmarks, the Moto X faired pretty well holding its ground against other smartphone flagships (although given the whole controversy about synthetic benchmarks it might mean less to you). In particular the Moto X did well in 3D rendering as we mentioned earlier the Adreno 320 has less than half the pixels to push and as a result can produce higher frame rates.

One thing we are disappointed to see is that the 32GB version isn't available from Rogers and there seems to be no sign of that changing. With only around 11GB available to the user and apps ballooning in size as they get more complex, we wish there were more options available.

LTE 4G Capabilities
The Moto X is yet another phone in the Rogers lineup that takes advantage of Rogers' 2600MHz LTE-Max network. Given that AWS LTE in Canada is now becoming more congested with iPhone 5/5S as well as all the Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry LTE capable handsets, 2600MHz on Rogers has the potential to really demonstrate incredible speeds.

That's exactly what we got with the Rogers Moto X. In 2600MHz covered areas of Montreal the Moto X reached absurdly fast speeds of 90Mbps! Of course on a smartphone the loading difference will not vary between a phone pulling down 20Mbps and 90Mbps given that the phone's hardware will probably be a bottleneck, but for those times where you need a lightning fast hotspot, it can be a godsend (or a curse if you have a small data cap but that's a story for another day).

The 2600MHz LTE-Max isn't rolled out in every market in Canada yet so we expect that many people considering the Moto X will probably get the more conventional 12-20Mbps that regular AWS LTE will provide (which we got in some pockets of Montreal without 2600MHz coverage). Nevertheless we were very satisfied with LTE speeds in Montreal and as usual we have to warn you that your mileage will vary on coverage in your home market.

Speaker and microphone
Call performance of both the microphone and earpiece on the Moto X was solid, as we expect from most Motorola phones. What was a very pleasant surprise however, was the performance of the loudspeaker. While we were spoiled like no other phone by HTC's Boomsound speakers on the HTC One, the Moto X's loudspeaker is one of the best we've heard despite being a rear facing mono speaker.

Sound was loud and pretty clear to our untrained ears and easily matched the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4. We can say with confidence that we would have no problem on conference calls or video chats with the Moto X.

Motorola has struggled with camera performance in just about every smartphone we've tested at Android Bugle since the Motorola Atrix 4G. Sadly, it's no different with the Moto X. When Motorola unveiled the Moto X the camera was one of the important improvements with a new 10MP "ClearPixel" camera which with its RGBC pixel sensor should theoretically be able to take in more light than competing smartphones.

Admittedly, the Moto X does a pretty decent job in low light situations, but in our experience photos came out noticeably worse than the low light performance king the HTC One. While shots obviously proved that the sensor absorbs much more like than other flagships, the post processing noise present in the picture decreases the quality significantly and this is without mentioning the drab colors of stills.

In good lighting the Moto X actually does deliver good pictures with nice detail, good color reproductions and some good sharpness. Unlike in low light situations we think that the same processing, more specifically HDR, actually helps pictures in good lighting look pretty good.

On the topic of HDR and camera options Motorola has completely paired down the camera app, to the point where it's dead easy to use the camera. In fact, we'd even say they simplified it a bit too far. For one, there are no options for ISO, White Balancing, or even something as simple as resolution. Pictures are dead easy to take as it's just a screen tap away and functions like zooming is a simple swipe up anywhere on the screen, options are a swipe from the left and the gallery is a swipe from the right.

While this simplification helps making the camera app more usable to novice users, it's a pretty big loss in functionality to users who are more comfortable with tweaking their camera settings. In the grand scheme of things, the changes make the camera app more usable to the general populace but have some terrible compromises in the outcome of the pictures and the usability to power users.

Video quality was fairly good on the other hand, with 1080p footage being clear and detailed but suffered a bit of the same dull colors that plague still images. There are a few more tweakable options for the video mode, such as 720p at 60FPS.

At the end of the day the camera is what I'd call adequate, as compared to previous Motorola offerings the Moto X is actually a significant improvement but compared to competing offerings like the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020 it sadly falls short. For most people there shouldn't be a huge problem, but for the shutter bugs the Moto X's camera experience can be a non-starter.

We had the fortunate benefit of trying out the Moto X right as the "Camera Fix" was pushed out to Rogers Moto X owners via OTA update. We've posted the results below and as you can see there are some improvements but no dramatical changes low light is a bit better but colors still lacks punch. Video gains slight improvements as well.

Sample Pictures (before update)

Sample Pictures (after update)


Stock Android 4.2.2 (Almost!)
Usually in our reviews, the software section of the review takes up a significant amount of content as OEMs go out of their way to modify the Android OS to their liking. Considering that the Moto X is running an (almost) stock version of Android 4.2.2, there isn't a whole lot to write home about.

For one, the user experience is exactly as you'd expect on a Nexus device with the Lockscreen, Home screen, Settings page and App/Widget Launcher behaving exactly like in stock Android.

We are very happy to finally see an OEM commit to a full stock Android experience. While it took Google buying Motorola for it to happen and we don't expect other OEMs to follow suit, we do believe that Motorola can leverage this as a differentiating factor for their handsets moving forward.

Most of the differences between the Moto X and a Nexus device fall within sandboxed apps that can be updated outside the firmware through Google Play. We think that this a very effective strategy that can payoff in the long run as they can keep features fresh with new capabilities without having to lump them into major firmware updates.

On the topic of major framework updates the Moto X is unfortunately running the older Android 4.2.2. We had hoped that now that Motorola is now a Google company that updates would be done in a more timely fashion, without considering the fact that the Moto X is running a very barebones version of Android, but that isn't the case unfortunately with both companies continuing to conduct business as separate entities.

Other OEMs have shown that updating from 4.2 to 4.3 isn't a huge endeavor with the HTC One with Sense 5 getting Android 4.3 before any other OEM flagship devices despite running Android with heavy modifications. We hope an update to the Moto X is on the way sooner than later with leaked 4.3 firmwares hitting the popular modding forum XDA Developpers.

One last aspect of the Moto X's software that we mentioned earlier that is also refreshing change is that the Rogers version of the Moto X is singlehandedly the most pristine installation of Android we've seen outside of a Nexus device with almost no pre-loaded software. The only trace of Rogers customizations are 3 simple shortcuts to Rogers My Account on the Google Play Store, Rogers One Number and Rogers AnyPlace TV shortcuts to webpages, that's it. We have to give full credit to Rogers and Motorola for settling on the limiting of pre-loaded apps.

Active Display, Camera Software/Gestures, Motorola Assist and Touchless Controls
The bulk of Motorola's additions to the Android OS come in, what we believe to be, useful usability enhancements. The goal being to make interactions with your phone more natural. This is where the Motorola X8 computing system's contextual computing and Natural language processing cores come into play.

The first and most eye (or ear) catching feature is Motorola's Touchless Controls. By saying the activation phrase "OK Google Now" out loud the Moto X's Touchless Controls kick into action no matter if the phone is on or sleeping. You then can give the same set of commands that Google Now is capable of handling such as asking for Sports scores, setting alarms and asking random trivia.

This persistent awareness does mean that the Moto X is technically "listening" to you all the time, but rest assured that we don't believe that this is in any privacy invading manner given that constant surveillance would be obvious in phone stats like battery life and data usage. We found the Touchless Controls to work about 80% of the time. Usually failed attempts were due to the use of a different intonation than the one taught to the phone at setup or due to excessive ambient noise. We can't stress how important the intonation precision has to be to get this feature to work well and hope that Motorola can remedy the situation in future updates.

Camera Gestures in addition to the already mentioned software changes are also a stark divergence from the Stock Android experience. Instead of having to activate the camera by unlocking the device and launching the Camera app, a double flick of the phone (as if one were opening a doorknob) will open the camera app from any state either awake of asleep.

We found the gesture to work about 90% of the time after a bit of practice, so it's not a perfect solution just yet, but we do believe it's a superior solution to the lockscreen shortcut but an inferior solution to the dedicate camera button trigger.

In terms of usefulness we can definitely see use cases where the quick action can be the key to capturing a picture in the heat of the moment and most people who tried the gesture agreed. We weren't sold on the gesture at first but it did end up feeling like a nice feature.

Continuing on the idea of "more natural" interaction with the Moto X, Active Display is probably our favorite addition to the Moto X and also is probably the primary reason for Motorola choosing to go with an AMOLED display rather than a traditional LCD display.

With Active Display, when flipping the phone over, the Moto X displays your latest notification such as email and SMS as well as the time. This can be done since AMOLED displays can pick and choose which pixels to illuminate making this a very battery efficient affair. Active Display is basically is a replacement for the much vaunted notifications lights still found on many other flagships and past Motorola Phone.

Is it perfect? No, but we certainly believe it holds more potential than the notification light does moving forward. Once Motorola updates Active Display to allow multiple notifications to be navigated and makes the appearance of the Notifications less arbitrary this really has the potential to be the new standard for notification display.

The last and potentially the most life impacting improvement of the Moto X has to be Motorola Assist. Right now, it's limited to three sections, Driving, Meeting and Sleeping. When driving or in a meeting set in Google Calendars or sleeping Motorola Assist sends automated responses explaining your status, reads out your messages to you and does so in an automated fashion by detecting that you are moving in a car or referring to your calendar/settings to know that you are in a meeting or sleeping.

The reason we say it can be life impacting is that we all know the dangers of interacting with your phone while in the car. The more features on smartphone limit that interaction the better and Motorola Assist is a fantastic first step in the right direction.

Sadly, one of our favorite features from past Motorola flagships is gone as Smart Actions are not making a return on the Moto X. It's a bit surprising to us as Smart Actions fits in perfectly with Moto X's "hands-off" type improvements. We hope to see this feature make a comeback in the future through firmware updates.


We haven't seen a phone get as much pre-announcement hype as the Moto X in quite a while and finally getting to review it was an interesting experience. There were a lot of pre-conceived notions, from the hardware to Motorola added capabilities.

In the end, did the Moto X live up to the hype? In many ways it did, with a size footprint that is a breath of fresh air and a commitment to a stock Android experience that we haven't seen from any other major Android manufacturer, the Moto X is a unique experience. But in other aspects it's sadly behind the curve, namely in the increasingly important camera department.
What does Motorola's exit from the spec/feature wars mean for the end consumer? We believe it's a good thing on many fronts. The first is showing that the latest hardware isn't a requirement for a great Android experience. The other is that value and differentiation can be added to the Android experience without having to gut the entire OS like most OEMs do.

Motorola's goal was to appeal to the segment of people who just want a nice phone that works with no regard to all the hardware and software bells and whistles. Sadly we think that most of those people probably end up getting iPhones. Does this hurt Moto X's prospects of being a commercial hit? Probably, but what's most important is that this is a great new direction for a Google lead Motorola and just simply gets a lot of things right. We have yet to see the fruits of Google's $500M marketing campaign so there might still be hope for the Moto X to gain widespread adoption.

If you're looking for the most compact Android flagship phone, while still having a luscious 4.7-inch display with great features added on top of a solid Stock Android experience, look no further than the Moto X.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9/10
- Extremely solid feeling despite plastic construction. Fantastic ergonomics thanks to minimal size and minimal bezel which allows for great one handed usability despite relatively large screen.

Screen: 8.5/10
- Pretty good screen that like most AMOLED is a tad oversaturated when it comes to colors, sporting last year's 720p resolution that is noticeably inferior to 1080p displays. Great Screen to bezel ratio.

Buttons: 9/10
- Nice tactile hardware buttons. Great to see software buttons that follow Google's conventions.

Internal Hardware: 9/10
- X8 Mobile Computing System shows that you don’t need four cores to have a great Android experience with performance that’s in the same realm of other flagships.

Battery Life: 9/10
- Good battery life that will last a day's use for just about any usage pattern.

Speaker and Microphone: 9/10
- Good speaker/microphone and outstanding loudspeaker performance.

Camera: 7.5/10
- Disappointing camera performance, easy (in some cases too easy) to use camera software.

UI Changes: 10/10
- Nothing to write here, stock Android means no significant changes to the core OS experience which is a huge plus, less is more.

Addition Enhancements: 9 /10
- Active Display, Camera Software/Gestures, Motorola Assist and Touchless Controls are fantastic additions, sad to see Smart Actions not make a comeback.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 10/10
- Pristine installation of Android, only three shortcuts to Rogers apps. Great job done by Motorola and Rogers.

Final Score: 9/10

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