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Android Refined: Moto X Smartphone Review
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Date: Sep 04, 2013
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications
If not for Apple's impending launch of the next-generation iPhone, the Moto X would be one of the year's most notable smartphone launches. And honestly, that's saying something. 2013 has also been a year where the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 came to light, but no Android phone has captured as many eyes as Motorola's simply-titled "X." The reality is that Motorola has not been a force in the mobile arena since the days of the original RAZR. Believe it or not, that iconic flip-phone was released nearly a decade ago, and it goes without saying that a whole lot has changed in the years since -- not just in the smartphone arena, but in terms of Motorola itself.

Now owned by Google, Motorola Mobility is conjoined with one of the world's most innovative companies. And, as it happens, it's the company that makes the world's most prolific mobile operating system: Android. Google promised long ago to not play favorites with Motorola, and the Moto X is proof of that. It's not exactly a Nexus phone, but it's one of the most bloatware-free OEM models to ship without the Nexus logo. In other words, fans of the stock Android experience will find plenty to enjoy here.


The raw specifications of the Moto X leave a little bit to be desired. A lot of the pre-launch hype pegged the Moto X as a true iPhone killer -- a phone with cutting-edge internals, a host of new sensors, and new functionality that no other Android phone could match. Now that it's out, the truth is a little different. It's a high-end device, but not perhaps not the top echelon. On paper, it's not the most powerful Android phone you can buy, but as we learned in our testing, that's beside the point.

Let's give you quick hands-on demo tour and then take look at what's inside its shell...

Moto X
Specifications & Features
Processor and memory
1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU
2 GB RAM
16GB or 32 GB internal memory

Operating System
Android 4.2.2
Connectivity
LTE, HSPA+ 42Mbps, quad-band GSM / EDGE
CDMA / EVDO (CDMA devices only)
802.11a/b/g/n/ac (Dual-Band)
Mobile Hotspot

Bluetooth 4.0 LE+EDR
aGPS
GLONASS
sGPS
eCompass
NFC, Miracast, USB 2.0
Ports and expansion
3.5 mm audio jack
nano-SIM
micro-USB 2.0

Display
4.7-inch RGB AMOLED (1,280 x 720) Display
Size and weight
5.09" x 2.57" x 0.22" (HxWxD)
 4.59 ounces

Cameras and multimedia
2 MP HD Front-Facing Camera
10 MP Rear-Facing Autofocus Camera, Full HD Video Recording
Other features: Active Display; Google Now; Touchless Control; Quick Capture; Migrate & Assist; Wireless Display

Battery
2,200 mAh Li-Polymer
Availability
AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile:
$199.99 with contract and discounts


When we mentioned that it's "beside the point," here's what we mean.  For example, iPhone doesn't have the most impressive specs either. But the iPhone is built for the masses. It's quick enough to satisfy most people, it works fluidly, and it hits the right notes for most people. As it turns out, the Moto X feels like it mimics that formula, but with Android.

The screen isn't huge; it's designed for the majority. The specs aren't insane, but the usability will suit the masses. And, interestingly, the Moto X is assembled in the United States of America, in a plant located in Texas. The build quality is excellent, and there's no question that many American phone buyers will have their heartstrings tugged on by the whole "Made In The USA" thing. Does it all add up to a winning device? Find out in the pages ahead.
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Design and Build Quality
"Designed and Assembled in the USA." It's something that you've probably seen on a high-end truck or power tool, or perhaps some giant wooden table in your grandmother's attic. But seeing such a phrase on a piece of gadgetry is practically unheard of these days. Nevertheless, the Moto X has such a phrase gently pressed on the rear of its casing, proving that this Android phone is actually put together by a group in Texas -- not in Asia. We harp on this because it's so incredibly unique. No other smartphone in recent memory has been assembled in the US, which puts this particular handset in a class of its own, at least for high tech devices.

The good news is that the phone feels exceptionally solid, and it could mark the start of even more consumer electronics being built stateside. Google's ill-fated Nexus Q was hand-built in America for a few short months, and Apple has stated that some of its iMacs are built here as well. But every single Moto X that rolls off of the assembly line is rolling out of a line in Texas, and that's a huge accomplishment. Moreover, there's only a slight price premium associated with it, which we'll touch on later.

For now, let's focus on this: the design and built quality of the X is top-shelf, through and through. In every regard, it's just solid. It's casing dense enough to feel substantial, without feeling overly heavy; the rear material is just soft enough to provide a textured grip; and the front of the phone is all black and delightfully understated. In fact, the Moto X as a whole definitely feels simplistic. It's not using a space-age design; it's classic, but it's done well.


The rear camera is situated atop the rear backing and in the center, while a dimpled "M" logo (for Motorola) sits just beneath it. Strangely, this is probably our favorite part of the design. The slight indention was made on purpose, because it's exactly where the average index finger will rest when you're using the phone in one-handed operation. It helps to keep the device stable, and it gives you confidence when using it with just a single hand. It's such an incredibly minor detail, but it's appreciated.

Along the left edge, you'll find a flush-mounted nano-SIM tray -- of note, this is one of only a few phones on the market using the newer, smaller nano-SIM standard, but more phones will no doubt lean on it in the future. The bottom edge is home to a micro-USB 2.0 port; the right edge has a standard volume rocker and power switch; and the top lip has a 3.5mm headphone jack. Be aware, however, that there's no way to remove the 2,200mAh battery nor a way to add a microSD card. You have to order the phone with 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, and that's it -- no expansion, period.

While many will be put off by this, we're okay with it. In our experience with microSD cards and Android phones, these cards tend to get corrupted far too frequently; we much prefer the inbuilt storage approach. That said, having a 64GB or 128GB option for power users would have been nice.


The 4.7-inch AMOLED display offers a 1,280 x 720 resolution. That's not even 1080p, but it honestly doesn't matter. The panel is crisp, bright, and accurate. We never found ourselves longing for something more dense, and we think it was designed this way on purpose. Fewer pixels requires less power, and when push comes to shove, the masses would probably take extra usage over a few extra pixels.

As has become the norm, call quality was perfectly acceptable, and even without a case, the hardware is fairly rugged and rigid. There's a 2MP front-facing camera for video chatting, while a 10MP camera (plus flash) sits on the rear. You'll soon see that the 10MP camera isn't a barn-burner, but then again, no Android phone yet has ever shipped with a camera that lived up to the sensor on the iPhone 5 and certainly not the Nokia Lumia 1020. Samsung's Galaxy S 4 is a better effort and the Moto X likely is about on par with that device we'd say.

We also appreciate the overall lack of branding. There's not a single marking on the front, and there's only a lightly-etched carrier logo on the back. Subtle and simple. One negative we found is that the phone tends to get quite warm in the hand during prolonged gaming sessions or extended video shooting. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is noticeable at times.

We can't close this section without mentioning Moto Maker (see our preview on it here). It's a web-based design studio that allows AT&T customers to create their own Moto X, with their own color and accent options, and have it shipped within a week. We selected two shades of blue, but far more elaborate dressings are possible. The studio is easy to use and quite fun, and there's no price premium for building a phone that's uniquely for you. That said, it's only for AT&T customers who want a new phone on-contract. If you want the Moto X for Sprint, Verizon Wireless or T-Mobile, you're stuck choosing from the basic black or white units. This probably has a lot to do with AT&T angling for an exclusive here, but it's a let-down in our estimation. Hopefully, Moto will open up Moto Maker to all users soon.
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Software and User Experience
Software-wise, this is as close as you're going to get to finding a Nexus phone, without it being either a Nexus phone or a "Google Play Edition." To date, both the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 have shipped as Google Play Editions, with almost-stock versions of Android. Meanwhile, the LG Nexus 4 remains the latest Nexus phone, but it is beginning to show signs of age at this point. The Moto X ships with Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), which means that Google Now is installed by default. Motorola, now under Google's stewardship, has chosen to only gently touch-up the stock version of Android. When you boot up the phone for the first time, you may mistake it as vanilla Android -- and that's a good thing.
Motorola has only added a few nuggets to what Google assembled from the factory, and unlike some skins that go way, way overboard, these additions are actually useful. In fact, some are so useful that we would be surprised if Google didn't borrow them and make them mainstays in future builds of the Android OS.

  

Motorola Migrate is a useful migration tool that helps users of older Android phones pass along their text history, call history, videos, photos, music and SIM contacts to their new Moto X. Motorola Connect is a brilliant program that enables users to compose and reply to incoming text messages on their laptop -- using just a Chrome browser, regardless of whether you're on a Mac or PC. The only downside? Unlike iMessage, you can't use Wi-Fi to send texts; Connect still relies on your Moto X having a mobile signal. In other words, you can't use Gogo Wi-Fi in the sky to send messages as you can with iMessage, even while your phone is in airplane mode.


Motorola Connect

Motorola Assist is a great feature that actually gets more useful as you use it. It can detect when you're driving automatically, so it can read out who is calling or texting -- allowing you to keep your attention on the road. And, similar to Apple's Do Not Disturb function in iOS, Assist recognizes when you're in need of rest. After hours, it only lets important calls through, and you can set actions and exceptions so that they work exactly how you want them to.


Touchless Controls are what they say they are: they allow you to control much of your phone via voice. Right away, you're prompted to record your own voice to say "Ok Google Now." That way, you can use this prompt to have your phone unlock and listen to you, and only you. You can ask it to send a text to someone; ask it about your upcoming appointments; ask it about a score to a sporting event; ask it for the weather; and ask it to launch an app. In many ways, it's like Siri, but we've found Google's take far more flexible.


Touchless Control

Active Display is partly a hardware feature (enabled due to AMOLED technology's ability to display certain pixels while shutting the power to others), but it's also a great software feature. Essentially, the Moto X understands if it's in your pocket or face down, and won't throw up any displays on the screen if so. But, if it's face up on your desk and you get a new email, only a precious few pixels will light up on the display alerting you to it. From there, you can slide up to hop right into the app (messages, email, etc.). It drains next to no power, and it's our favorite notification innovation in years.


Active Display

Finally, there's Skip. Skip is a $20 NFC clip that's meant to be dropped over a pocket or belt loop, so that each time you remove your Moto X from your pocket, it brushes by your authenticated Skip and automatically unlocks the screen. Think about it: you probably unlock your phone's screen via PIN 50 to 100 times per day. Skip helps you save precious seconds by unlocking it as you pull it out to look at it. Skip is also being included for free for a limited time with all AT&T Moto Maker orders. This is the type of subtle, but useful innovation that we wish every phone maker would strive for -- Skip seems so minor, but it's so enjoyable to the phone out and not have to unlock it 100x per day.


Motorola Skip

In closing, there is a bit of bloatware. Each carrier partner in the U.S. has installed a few programs of their own. For AT&T, there's AT&T Visual Voicemail, for instance. On Verizon, there's VZ Navigator. The good news is that these are usually easy to shove away, and they don't run on first-use or drain resources. Still, this is one area where we much prefer the vanilla Android experience: no carrier bloatware makes the phone feel so much cleaner.
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Battery Life Testing and Camera Samples
When it comes to imaging, there's a 2MP camera up front and a 10MP camera (plus flash) on the rear. The 2MP front-facing camera is satisfactory for video chatting and little else, while the 10MP rear camera leaves a bit to be desired. This phone's is decent, but hardly awe-inspiring. The macro mode does seem to work quite well, but it can be finicky. When attempting to photograph something up close, for example, we couldn't get the camera to stop focusing on the background, even using the "Touch To Focus" feature.


On the plus side, Motorola has designed an incredibly slick UI for advanced photo controls. There's flash controls, HDR control, Slo-Motion control, Panorama mode, GPS on/off (for geotagging) and Quick Capture -- a unique feature that enables you to launch straight into the camera with two quick twists of the wrist. It's awesome for hopping into the camera when something spur of the moment is happening in front of you.

Photos in broad daylight turned out well, but dealing with confusing lighting scenarios is clearly not this sensor's forte. 1080p video capture was also above average (see our video demo on the first page of this review). If you're planning to use the camera just to snap moments for sharing on Instagram, you may not care about the extra noise incurred when shooting in low light, or the extra blur in photos taken as the sun sets. But, rest assured, this is no high-end sensor. It's one area of the Moto X that's decidedly middle-of-the-road.

  
  
  
Unedited Moto X camera samples; click to enlarge



On the battery front, there's a 2,200mAh Li-Polymer cell. Sadly, it's not accessible by the end user, so you can't just swap in a new cell if this one gets exhausted. That said, Motorola claims that it can last up to 24 hours for the average user -- no doubt a feat that is helped by a lower-resolution panel and a processor that isn't exactly on the cutting edge in late 2013.

In our tests, the phone managed to hold up to that. During average use -- daily texts, a few voice calls, hours of surfing, checking social feeds, having 4-5 accounts with Push notifications enabled, etc. -- we were able to stretch the phone's battery to around 23.5 hours. Heavier users will see that fall by a few hours, but still, that's impressive.



In order to text the Moto X's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we used AnTuTu's battery test. During the test, we set the screen to 50% brightness. For those unaware, this test taxes the CPU constantly in a bid to run the battery down in an accelerated fashion; this represents hardcore usage of the phone, in a sort of "worst-case scenario" depiction of battery life. In this particular test, it stacks up well against the GS4, which has a larger 2,600mAh battery.
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Performance and Benchmarks

Next, we'll take a look at how the Moto X compares to other smartphones by examining its performance in a few benchmarks that are currently available in the Android Marketplace.

General Compute, Javascript and Web Browsing Performance{Title}
  General purpose workloads

Here, it's clear that the Moto X isn't packing the sort of high-end, raw horsepower that we see in phones such as the LG Optimus G Pro and Samsung Galaxy S 4. Of course, not much real-world use requires this sort of grunt, but this is the benchmark that proves that the phone isn't trying to simply out-gun its rivals on the proverbial benchmark track.


In the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, the Moto X notched a very solid score. It's not quite the top dog here, but it's close -- and that's an impressive feat given that it's not packing the very latest and greatest innards. This speaks to just how well engineered the hardware and software are; it's clear that the two were designed to work fluidly together.


The Rightware BrowserMark benchmark evaluates the web browsing and browser performance of a device. Here, the Moto X holds its own, but falls short of taking the crown -- which is about what we expected. It's in the top tier; it's just not the absolute number one.

Graphics Performance
Pushing the pixels

GLBenchmark is an OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark with a number of performance metrics incorporated in it.  We specifically used the Fill Texture Fetch suite to measure raw texture fill rate of a graphics core and the Egypt Off Screen test to measure 3D performance in frames per second.  The Off Screen test renders workloads at 1280x720 for all devices, but off-screen, so Vsynch and screen refresh are not limiting performance.

Here, the Moto X actually stands its ground compared to its closest Android-based rivals. We're chalking these excellent scores up to the engineering behind the scenes, with Motorola working tightly with Google to refine the graphics performance and ensure efficiency of its Adreno 320 graphics core.



An3DBench XL is a benchmarking tool based on an Android port of the jPCT 3D engine. The app runs 7 tests in total that look at graphics processor fill rate and complex rendering workloads and scenes.

Another top mark in the graphics department, hinting that there's some serious work going on behind the scenes to ensure that this flavor of Android is optimized well with the CPU and GPU paired to it. Raw horsepower is great, but efficient horsepower is perhaps even more impressive. 

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Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary:

Despite using a slightly older processor, the overall performance of the Moto X was laudable. It routinely ranked in the upper third of Android phones available today in our benchmarking tests, all while managing to squeeze nearly a full day of battery life from a 2,200mAh cell. In our estimation, that's a delightful balance of power and energy efficiency. Beyond the benches, the Moto X just feels fluid. It's obvious that vertical integration took place here; the hardware team and the software team were working together in order to make the Moto X feel faster than the average Android smartphone. When you have Motorola engineers able to work with Android engineers, you're left with an incredibly sleek user experience.

Put simply, there's just no lag at all when using this phone. The camera loads instantly; apps load without hesitation; changing screen orientations happens in a snap. The phone never feels as if it's falling behind -- it's always ready to tackle whatever you tell it to in an instant. Moreover, Motorola's unique extras are amongst the first installed by an OEM that we will have a hard time living without on non-Motorola Android phones. Assist, Touchless Controls, and support for the $20 Skip NFC clip all add a lot of value to the device. We wouldn't be shocked to see Google borrow some of these key traits and bake them into future versions of Android, so that even more of its OEM partners can offer unique extras that aren't yet available on competing platforms such as iOS and Windows Phone.

The hardware and design of the Moto X is exceptional. It's both designed and assembled in the United States, and the quality is notable. It's rigid, rugged, and feels like a premium product in the hand. The soft-backed cover is curved for perfect handheld operation, and the thoughtful Motorola dimple on the rear enables easy one-handed operation. Despite the fact that you can't pop a microSD memory card in (and you aren't able to order a Moto X with greater than 32GB of inbuilt storage space), we have high praise for the overall engineering of the hardware. The screen is gorgeous, the battery life is outstanding, it's slick and thin, and it has all of the markings of a class-leading device.

There really aren't too many downsides to the Moto X. The rear 10MP camera isn't at the top of its class, and the lack of storage expansion will undoubtedly turn some people off. It's also frustrating that the Moto Maker website -- which allows users to choose the color and accent hues of their phone prior to shipment -- is only available to AT&T customers. Then, there's price. At $199 on-contract, it's priced much like any other higher-end, LTE-enabled flagship phone. Yes, it's available on the Big Four (AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint), but many have argued that a $200 price point should include the most powerful internals available.

It's true that the raw specifications list won't impress some, but the overall fluidity of the phone more than compensates. $200 is a bit steep, but remember: this phone is built in Texas. That's American labor (which is no doubt more expensive than in China), and that's a company that is choosing to provide U.S. citizens jobs when it could easily go elsewhere. We'll steer clear of getting political or being overly patriotic, but there's something to be said about manufacturing a phone in a high-cost environment like the United States and still being able to at least compete on cost. Finally, there's reason to believe that the Moto X will see a 50% price cut in the coming months, likely in the wake of Apple's next-gen iPhone release. At just $100 on contract, the price issue vanishes completely, and this phone becomes an all-out steal.  Of course we'll believe that rumor when we see it materialize for real.

If you're an Android loyalist and have no interest in whatever Apple's cooking up, the Moto X is a terrific handset to own. It's fast, it's beautiful, it's solid, and it will no doubt receive Android updates in a timely fashion given that Motorola is now housed within Google's empire. The only lingering question is this: is the next Nexus phone on the horizon? We're guessing it's not due until at least 2014, leaving the Moto X to hold down the fort in the interim.


 

     
  • Great performance
  • Gorgeous design
  • Innovative Android extras
  • Moto Maker Customizations
  • Fantastic battery life
  • Moto Maker is AT&T-only
  • Camera quality could be better
  • No microSD slot nor option for greater than 32GB of storage


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