Moto X review: The most Google-y Android not called Nexus

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

With no new Nexus smartphone announcement this year (at least not yet), all eyes turned to Motorola, Google's $12.5 billion purchase from two years ago, to produce an Android device that would finally rival Apple's iPhone in terms of simplicity and elegance. Two weeks ago, Motorola announced its comeback smartphone: the Moto X. We've been using the streamlined Android since and have been very pleased with it.

Almost immediately after the Moto X was announced, tech nerds everywhere slammed it for being a "mid-range" smartphone — a non-competer against the Samsung Galaxy S4's larger 5-inch display and the HTC One's premium aluminum construction.

Those guys couldn't be any more wrong. Motorola designed the Moto X to be a smartphone for everyone (just like Apple), as opposed to selling red-black Kevlar DROIDs that target the alpha male. The Moto X is a reasonable smartphone that makes sense in terms of size, comfort and usefulness.

Less Is More For A Tighter Experience

As we outlined in our hands-on, the Moto X focuses on the experience and "feel" of using a smartphone over better specs. Think about it, the iPhone 5 is universally lauded not for its relatively puny 1.3GHz dual-core processor, 4-inch Retina display and 1GB of RAM, but for the "magic" between the hardware and software.

The team behind the Moto X created the smartphone with the same exact synergy in mind. During the Moto X announcement event, Rick Osterloh, Motorola's senior vice president of product management, and even Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, kept driving home the idea about how "smartphones are super powerful, but not very smart." With that in mind, Motorola went to work on making a smartphone that's more intelligent in regards to the most-used smartphone features.

If you're just looking at specs alone, the Moto X looks so last year. Its 4.7-inch display with 720p resolution is "small" and compared to today's 5-inch+ 1080p resolution smartphones. But, pick up the Moto X and feel its soft-touch matte curved back mold into your palm and it all comes together.

The smartphone's incredibly narrow display bezels make it smaller than a device of this size should feel, and very usable with one hand compared to the ever-growing dimensions of phablets." The 2GB of RAM keeps apps running on Android 4.2.2 without freezing all the time. We've tested tons of smartphones, including all of the latest Androids, and the Moto X feels just as fast as any "flagship" smartphone, and that's all that will really matter to buyers.

Mostly Useful Features

At a glance, the Moto X's hallmark features sound like gimmicks; more bullet points to fend off its rivals. But take a closer look and you won't find any of the silly "features" such as "Smart Scroll" or "Air Gesture" found in the Galaxy S4. The four main features are all practical in their own way, and once you start getting used to them, you wonder how you ever lived without them.

Let's start with "Touchless Control". Once set up, the Moto X constantly listens for your "OK, Google Now…" command. It's just like using Google Now, only you don't need to physically activate it anymore. Simply say "OK, Google Now…call my mom" or "OK, Google Now…wake me up in one hour" or "OK, Google Now…google iPhone sucks" and it'll do its thing. Its fast and responsive, which is exactly how this kind of tech should work. However, don't expect to see the feature on other Android phones yet. Motorola says Touchless Control is all possible thanks to a custom chip that includes two cores for "contextual computing" and "natural language processing."

Precise as Touchless Control is, it isn't perfect. Motorola claims the Moto X should only be able to recognize your voice after it's been "trained" to listen to your "OK, Google Now…" command, but we noticed the Moto X responded to others a few times. There is also a major flaw to using Touchless Control: it won't work if you have a passcode lock on it. (Seriously, who doesn't use a passcode lock on their smartphone these days?) Making calls will still work even with the passcode lock, but that's it.

Next up is "Active Display," which does two things: 1) shows quick preview notifications without turning on the entire display, and 2) shows the time when the Moto X is flipped over or pulled out of your pocket. (Motorola claims the average cellphone user pulls their smartphone out 60 times a day to check notifications or the time.) Effective as these features are, here too, Motorola has misses the mark just slightly. The Moto X only lets you tap and see a snippet for the most recent notification, so if you get a bunch of notifications at once, you'll still need to unlock your screen to see the others. It would be nice to be able to respond to maybe the top five, or top 10, or even choose which app notifications we want to get a quick preview of.

Finally, Quick Capture is Motorola's idea of shooting first — with your camera. Rather than wasting time taking out your camera and then unlocking, or pressing a shutter button to fire up the Moto X's 10-megapixel rear camera, Motorola insists twisting the smartphone twice really fast and then tapping anywhere onscreen is a quicker solution to not missing "the perfect shot."

We can say with full certainty, your wrist will hurt if you keep twisting to activate the camera all day, especially if you take as many photos for Instagram as we do. Another thing we disliked about Quick Capture is how useless it is for landscape photos. Naturally, when you take your phone out of your pocket, you hold it vertically. And so when you flick vertically, you still end up having to orient the Moto X horizontally, which defeats the purpose of the twisting gesture. We're not sold on one-hand operation for camera usage on a smartphone, unless it's for throway pictures like Instagrams.

And if you're looking for a smartphone camera that rivals the HTC One's Ultra Pixels or Nokia's 41-megapixel Lumia 1020, the 10-megapixel "Clear Pixel Camera" on the Moto X won't cut it. Pictures are pretty average and noticeably noisy or blurry in many cases. In our tests, the pictures taken with the Moto X looked no better than those from a Galaxy S4 or even a Galaxy S III.

One Android To Rule Them All

We didn't get to try out the Moto Maker customizer for this review, but we saw plenty during our hands-on. From what we saw, Moto Maker looks pretty straightforward. You pick a black or white front, then you pick a rear color (18 colors) and then accent colors for volume buttons and camera lens ring (seven colors). Finally, you can choose to add a custom message for the boot-up screen and a laser etched message on the rear. It's as simple as a few clicks and then a Moto X arrives at your door in four days.

By now, you probably already now how we feel about the Moto X. It may not be a "pure" Android device with the latest Android 4.3 Jelly Bean OS direct from Google, but it comes close. Very clos,e if you ignore all of the carrier bloatware that's pre-loaded onto the Moto X, but not preset on the homescreen. So close, it doesn't even matter that it's and older version of Android.The Moto X conforms so well into your hand, the display is neither too large or too small, and battery life, while not as impressive as the DROID Maxx, is still more than capable enough to get up to 13 hours.

At $199.99 for a 16GB and $249.99 for a 32GB model and a two-year contract, the Moto X is priced on par with flagship devices from other companies. If you're sick of the iPhone or just want an Android device that feels solid and works beautifully, get a Moto X. You won't regret it. It's a darn good smartphone. The only question now is, which carrier and which color?

(All photos by Raymond Wong for DVICE)

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