Say hello to the new Motorola. Actually, just say "OK, Google" to the Moto X to see what all the fuss is about. The company's first smartphone since being purchased by Google for $12.5 billion, the Moto X lets you dial contacts, get directions, see who won last night's game and more just by speaking to the handset. No unlocking required. This $199 "Assembled in the USA" phone is also the most customizable ever, with a website that lets users choose from a gaggle of color options. (It's for AT&T customers only at launch.) The Moto X's midrange specs definitely go against the flagship grain, but does the overall experience make up for it?
Motorola spent a lot of time studying human hands to make the Moto X just the right size. Then, it fit the biggest possible screen in that frame. We'd say the work paid off. Despite sporting a 4.7-inch display, this handset is refreshingly compact. The Moto X is made of a sturdy composite material, complete with a nifty weave pattern on the back beneath the surface and small dimple where the Motorola logo sits. That back is also rounded to better fit your palm, allowing Motorola to include a "stepped battery" inside to fill out the space.
The front of the Moto X sports an edge-to-edge screen and very thin side bezels. We're not big fans of the narrow power button and volume rocker on the right side, but we got used to them after a few hours.
Weighing 4.8 ounces and measuring 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.22 - 0.4 inches, the Moto X is shorter, narrower and lighter than the HTC One (5.4 x 2.7 x 0.37 inches, 5 ounces). This makes using the Moto X with one hand much easier, though we prefer the aluminum aesthetic of the HTC One to the plasticlike X.
To prevent damage from rain and small splashes, Motorola coated the Moto X in a water-repellent coating. However, unlike the Galaxy S4 Active and Sony Xperia Z, this smartphone was not made for dunking.
Moto Maker customization
This is the really fun part. At launch, AT&T customers will be able to log on to the Moto Maker website to customize the Moto X to their heart's content. We're talking 18 back-cover colors, seven accent colors (for the camera housing and side buttons) and two front colors (white or black). We love the lime option, and soon you'll be able to order the Moto X in funky wood back covers.
The personalization doesn't stop there. You can have a custom message printed on the back of the Moto X, preselect among 16 wallpapers and have a custom message appear when firing up your phone. Don't worry about covering up your new fashion statement; you can order color-matched clear cases and Sol Republic earphones, too. Motorola says your phone should arrive within four days, shipped directly from Texas, where it's assembled.
Unfortunately, only AT&T subscribers get to partake in this build-in-your-own experience for now. Verizon, Sprint, U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile customers will have to wait until later in the year. If you're not on AT&T, you'll only have two choices: white or black. Blah.
The Moto X's resolution is a step behind the smartphone competition, offering 1280 x 720 pixels compared with the full 1080p offered by the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. However, this 4.7-inch AMOLED screen looks pretty stunning nonetheless, offering a bright and rich picture. The Moto X uses a RGB subpixel structure, which means each pixel has its own red, green and blue subpixels.
As a result, movies, pictures and games delivered a commendable balance of detail and color. When watching the HD trailer for "The Wolverine," we could easily make out Hugh Jackman's angry wrinkles in a dark scene. The "Riptide GP 2" game burst with tropical hues as we zoomed around the water, offering wide viewing angles as we twisted the Moto X.
Averaging 482 lux on our light meter, the Moto X's screen is brighter than the average smartphone (387 lux). It's also brighter than the HTC One (433 lux) and Galaxy S4 (446 lux). When outdoors, we could read the Moto X's screen, but the iPhone 5's display shined brighter (535).
The Moto X's back-mounted speaker pumps out lots of volume -- enough to fill a medium-size office with music. However, we found the audio too harsh at the max volume when we streamed Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and the Arctic Monkeys' "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor." Like most smartphones, this one can't touch the HTC One when it comes to balanced sound.
OS and interface
If you're not a fan of Android skins such as Samsung's TouchWiz and HTC's Sense, you'll like Motorola's fairly clean build of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. Everything from the lock screen and app menu to the notification drawer looks and feels Nexus-like.
Swiping down from the top of the screen with one finger reveals the notification drawer, while using two fingers provides instant access to various settings shortcuts. These include Brightness, Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Data Usage, Battery Status and Bluetooth. You can also drill down further into other settings.
You'll find five home screens out of the box that automatically populate with apps as you download them, and three persistent software buttons at the bottom of the display: Back, Home and Recent Apps (for switching and closing apps).
As you might expect, the Moto X includes Google's latest keyboard, which features swipe typing and next-word prediction. The one pleasant surprise is that the haptic feedback is strong enough without slowing you down.
There are some trade-offs to this purer Android experience. For instance, you can't launch any app you want from the lockscreen, as you can with the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. We also like how Samsung integrates quick settings and notifications on one screen, compelte with a brightness slider. On the Moto X, settings and alerts are separate.
Has Motorola just one-upped Siri? In some ways, yes. Thanks to a dedicated natural language processor, you can wake up your Moto X simply by saying "OK, Google Now" and ask the phone to do a wide range of things. For instance, we asked, "Did the Yankees win last night?" and a voice answered that they defeated the Dodgers 3 to 0 and displayed the box score. You can also call a contact without ever touching the handset, set reminders, check the weather and navigate to a specific address. (You can always say "Help" to see what kinds of things you can do.)
On the iPhone, you must long press the Home button to access Siri. But on the Moto X, you can activate Google Now without even looking at your device, even if you're several feet away. Some quick training is involved. You'll need to repeat "OK, Google Now" three times in a very quiet space, but once you do, the Moto X is very good at picking up your voice in a moderately loud room. That's because this phone features three microphones to cancel noise. The phone is also smart enough not to respond to other voices, which we provded at our conference room table.
Is Google Now smarter than Siri? Not quite. You can't book restaurant reservations or buy movies tickets as you can with Apple's assistant. But Google Now does have some contextual intelligence. After we asked "Are there any good steakhouses around here?" proceeded by "How about Mexican?" the Moto X knew were were still talking about food.
The Moto X was better at picking up our voice on a noisy moving bus than the iPhone 5, and Google Now tended to be faster. We asked, "How many ounces is 130 grams?" and in less than a few seconds, the X told us it was 4.586 ounces.
Although Google Now wasn't always accurate, we could easily see ourselves using the Moto X's touchless control while driving, at home and even walking down the street (with a Bluetooth headset).
The Active Display feature on the Moto X grows on you. A dedicated contextual computing processor inside the device knows when you've moved the Moto X from, say, your pocket to your hand, giving you a peek at both the time and your latest notification. Even when you don't move the phone at all, it will intermittently light up with an alert. Motorola claims that this function sips very little power.
To tip you off as to what's waiting, the alert itself will have its own icon, such as the Gmail logo. Just press the alert to peek at the notification, which will be displayed at the top of the screen. From there, you can swipe up to directly launch the associated app. Active Display works on a last-come, first-served basis, so only the most recent notification will show. You can also just swipe down to unlock the device to whichever app you were using last.
Motorola really thought Active Display through, allowing users to set which apps can present notifications through a dedicated Settings menu. Some may prefer to see all their alerts at once, which you can do on the Galaxy S4 just by swiping down from the lock screen. However, there is a more proactive yet subtle elegance to Motorola's solution.
Performance and X8 Mobile Computing System
The Moto X doesn't have the most cutting-edge processor around, with a 1.7-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU augmented by a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU. Other flagship phones, such as the Galaxy S4, offer quad-core CPUs. However, Motorola's unique X8 Mobile Computing System adds other processors to the mix, including one dedicated to natural language and the other to contextual computing.
In everyday use, the Moto X was positively blazing, allows us to switch between apps and exit back to the home screen in the blink of an eye. Unlike the S4, there's no lag here. The camera opened from the home screen and was ready to fire in 1.4 seconds, which is faster than the S4's 2.2 seconds. The Moto X also beat the S4 in opening the "Minion Rush" game (18.2 seconds vs. 22 seconds). The Moto X deftly handled "Riptide GP 2," delivering swift frame rates and detailed animations.
To test the Moto X further, we transcoded a 203 MB 1080p video to 480p using the VidTrim app. The handset took 6 minutes and 59 seconds, compared to 7:27 for the S4. That's nearly 30 seconds faster. The HTC One took 7:34.
On synthetic benchmarks, the Moto X delivered mixed results. For example, on Quadrant (which measures CPU, graphics and I/O), the Moto X Notched 8,946, compared with 11,962 for the S4 and 12,706 for the One. On 3DMark Ice Storm (graphics benchmark), the Moto X scored 11,568, which is higher than both the S4 (10,371) and the One (9,231).
Quick Launch Camera
Motorola doesn't have the best reputation for camera quality (see our 2013 Smartphone Camera Shootout), but it hopes to change that with the Moto X. It all starts with two flicks of your wrist -- a gesture that launches the camera quickly, in about 2.2 seconds -- whether you have the screen off or on. This gesture worked well in our testing, but one time, the phone slipped from our hand.
The Moto X camera app has a bare-bones UI to keep things simple. You can touch anywhere on the screen to fire, and you swipe in from the left side to reveal a settings wheel. Swiping in from the right brings up the gallery.
This phone doesn't offer very many settings or modes, sticking with HDR, Flash, Tap to Focus, Panorama, Slow Motion Video, and Geo-Tag. You can also turn Quick Capture on and off. You won't find special features such as an Eraser Mode or Sequence Shot, which both Samsung and HTC offer.
Motorola claims the Clear Pixel technology inside the Moto X can capture up to 75 percent more light than a traditional sensor can. That ability, combined with an f2.4 aperture, is supposed to allow the phone to snap photos up to twice as fast in bright light while also taking brighter images in low light.
In our testing, the Moto X's camera took some great-looking shots. In one close-up photo of flowers, we could easily see individual water droplets when we zoomed in. In another shot of a fruit stand, the oranges looked more orange, and we could make out more detail. However, the Moto X's images sometimes lacked contrast, and brighter areas of photos looked washed-out.
In low light, the Moto X delivered a brighter image of a golden-retriever puppy than the iPhone 5 did, albeit at the expense of some noise. But the iPhone 5 gave us a better flash shot of a painting. The Moto X's image had dull colors, while the iPhone's 5 shot had deeper hues.
The Moto X's 1080p videos delivered smooth motion when we recorded New York traffic. Too bad our footage turned out darker than we would have liked. The phone struggled to adjust as we panned to the sky and back to the street.
Motorola includes a few special apps that can make your life easier. One is Motorola Assist, which builds on the work Motorola did with its Smart Actions and simplifies it. You can check off rules that will allow you to drive, go to meetings and sleep uninterrupted. For instance, you can check Silence, and the Moto X will keep your phone quiet when you're in meetings.
The Moto X also supports Motorola Connect, a Chrome extension that lets you send text messages and see incoming calls right on your desktop. After downloading the extension and signing into our account, we were up and running in no time. We especially liked that we could respond to incoming calls with texts.
Predictably, Verizon brings many of its own apps to the party, including NFL Mobile, Mobile Hotspot, My Verizon Mobile (for checking your usage and paying your bill), and the fairly useless Verizon Tones and VZ Navigator. Alas, you can't uninstall these apps.
Of course, you'll find plenty of Google's apps, including Gmail, Google Drive, Google Plus and Google Hangouts.
Similar to many other Verizon smartphones we've reviewed in recent months, the Moto X delivered mixed data speeds. In New Jersey, we saw blazing throughput, with downloads ranging from 7.3 to 23.8 Mbps and uploads from 6.1 to 9.5 Mbps. In our New York City office, however, data rates fell off a cliff. We saw a pitiful 514 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps down and 604 Kbps to 1 Mbps up.
Note that the Verizon version of the Moto X doesn't yet support AWS (Advanced Wireless Services), which means that the phone won't be able to take advantage of the carrier's upcoming data capacity improvements without a software update. The Galaxy S4 supports AWS right now.
Motorola boasts that its CrystalTalk dual-mic technology inside the Moto X can really help in noisy environments. During a test call to a landline from a busy street buzzing with traffic, our caller said he could hear a truck rumbling in the background but the din diminished when we started talking. Nevertheless, he said we sounded distant. Indoors, there was fuzziness on both ends of the line, but we couldn't get a strong signal, either.
The Moto X doesn't pack a very high-capacity battery, clocking in at 2,200 mAh. Still, we had pretty high hopes, given Motorola's claim of 24 hours of usage time. (This includes everything from browsing the Web and sending texts to making phone calls and watching videos.)
On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing on 40 percent brightness, the device lasted 6 hours and 13 minutes, which is slightly longer than the smartphone average (6:07) and longer than the Verizon Galaxy S4 (5:25) and the AT&T HTC One (5:55 in regular mode).
The Moto X is a smartphone that actually makes you feel smarter. We love telling Google Now what to do from across the room, knowing what alert is waiting for us before we unlock the device and firing up the camera without even having to think about it. Moto Maker customization is a breath of fresh air for smartphones. However, we wish this perk were available to more than AT&T customers at launch. And while the 10-MP camera is good, it's not best in class.
Some may lament the lack of a 1080p screen and a quad-core CPU, but the Moto X acquits itself well on both counts because of its bright and rich AMOLED display and the fact that it outperforms allegedly faster phones like the Galaxy S4 in many real-world scenarios. (Not having a skin helps.) However, the Galaxy S4 offers a lot more features and more robust camera capabilities, while the HTC One sports a more premium metal design and better speakers.
The Moto X isn't necessarily the best new Motorola phone on Verizon. The upcoming Droid Maxx and Droid Ultra both sport bigger 5-inch screens and similar features to the Moto X, with the former boasting a larger capacity battery and the later a slimmer design with a glossy red color option. The reason to get the Moto X over those devices is its more compact size and awesome customization, so you should either wait until Verizon supports Moto Maker or opt for the AT&T version.