Moto X Hands-on Preview

Daniel Bader

August 1, 2013 3:00 pm

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At long last, and after much anticipation, Moto X is finally here.

First, let’s get the short stuff out of the way. Yes, it will be exclusive to Rogers in Canada; and yes, it will lack the personalization options of its US counterparts, coming in white or black in 16GB varieties only for $189.99 on a 2-year term. There is no outright price just yet. OK, now that’s out of the way, let’s continue.

A Tightness in the Bezel

Moto X is a really interesting smartphone. It doesn’t try to do anything louder or bigger than its counterparts; you can see a lot of care went into making it compact, holistic and quiet. This unassuming combination of polycarbonate, whose ribbed texture belies a smooth surface, and wrapped glass, feels just right in the hand, a testament to Motorola’s insistence that device size trumps screen size.

To that end, the newly-taut company — there are just over 4,000 employees compares to 20,000 when Google acquired them in 2011 — worked together across divisions to design a phone that users could use in one hand, but maintained the screen size of a modern handset. They settled with a 4.7-inch 1280×720 pixel OLED display, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking the phone for a 4.3-inch wonder. There is almost no bezel to speak of, and the device features a curved, feline back that settles in your palm like a much-loved baseball glove.

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You start with the compactness, but Moto X comes fully-formed, in a way I could only describe top-tier devices like the iPhone 5 or HTC One. Created from two pieces of resined polycarbonate, Motorola is quick to assure us that this is one of the strongest, most durable materials one can find on a phone today. It certainly feels sturdy, and lacks the oversized flagship nature of its Samsung and HTC counterparts.

A few more touches differentiate the hardware from the rest of the Android rabble: its X8 chip is custom-designed to ensure optimal battery life and top-notch performance, but when you dig deeper you realize that Motorola has merely repurposed one of the industry’s most efficient SoCs. Inside the X8 is a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8960T processor clocked at 1.7Ghz. This means that there are two Krait 300 cores clocked at 1.7Ghz and an Adreno 320 GPU, likely clocked at 400Mhz. But Motorola has also appended two chips, one for context and one for sound, to enable three device-specific features that we’ll get to next.

It’s not quite the bespoke solution Motorola is claiming — they didn’t custom-design the chip, for instance — but they felt that due to Android’s GPU-heavy workflow, it was more important to have two CPU cores working efficiently and a powerful GPU shouldering the brunt of the acceleration than waste die space on a four-core CPU solution that wouldn’t be fully utilized. It’s certainly a gambit, especially in a market feverish for “feeds and speeds,” but Motorola’s close proximity to Google, and its insistence on using stock Android, will ensure a universally good software experience.

The rest of the specs sheet reads like that of a decent mid-range device. We have five antennas, four specifically to power the 3G and 4G baseband; multi-band WiFi including Wireless AC; NFC, GPS and GLONASS; 50GB of Google Drive storage for two years; and Miracast for wireless mirroring. No wireless charging, unfortunately.

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See And Be Seen

One of the most interesting divergences from the traditional Android workflow is the addition of Active Notifications, a replacement for the contextless flashing red or white light.

When you receive a notification on Moto X, the screen, which is OLED and designed to sip power and only light necessary pixels, will display the apps in need of attention. Tapping on the icon will either give you a preview of the content or quickly usher you into the app itself. Using proximity and light sensors, Moto X knows when the phone is in your pocket or turned over, and will quickly alight with updated information when you first look at it.

It’s Motorola’s interpretation of the notification light, and it works well specifically because they are careful in how they array the information. You can customize the number of apps, as well as the content within those apps, that is shown on the screen, and the phone goes back to sleep with a gentle breath after a moment. Practically any notification that you’d see in the standard status bar, from a Tweet to Maps directions, are available.

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Gestures and a Smart Camera

Motorola’s study of how people used their phones led them to incorporating a quick wrist-snapping gesture to activate the camera when the Moto X isn’t turned on. Using those context-aware sensors, Motorola can detect when users perform specific gestures, such as twisting your wrist back and forth twice, to activate things such as the camera.

It takes some getting used to, but as a Moto rep predicted, I got the hang of the motion fairly quickly. It may not feel intuitive at first, but you’re not trying to win a race; all it takes is a persistent, gentle persuasion.

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Once inside the app itself, shooting is intuitive, similar to the one-touch workflow found in BlackBerry 10 devices. Motorola uses two more gestures, sliding from the left and from the right, to display Settings and Gallery respectively, but most users will be able to tap the screen and get a great photo.

The 10.5MP camera sensor and f/2.4 aperture lens combo is backlit, and adds a white pixel to the standard RGB Bayer makeup of the sensor. This takes in more like at faster shutter speeds, enabling blur-free photos without sacrificing exposure. In practice, this works quite well unless the room is poorly lit, and from my initial tests the results are fairly consistent with the rest of the market. This may not trounce the Galaxy S4 for features or speed, but the results are pretty much the same. Motorola ensured me that the pixel size is 1.4 microns, larger than most in the equivalent megapixel range. This promises better low-light shots.
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“OK, Google Now”

The last major area we’ll touch on is what Motorola is calling Touchless Controls, or voice activation. This allows you to train the Moto X to respond to your voice simply by entering a command, “OK, Google Now.”

One of the sensors included in the X8 is always listening for your voice, but the low-level chip promises not to use too much battery life. Indeed, while you can turn the feature off, we didn’t notice any deleterious effects to the battery.

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It appears that manufacturers are pulling us into the world of voice controls whether we want them or not. Siri, while not a proactive participant in iOS, is nonetheless growing in intelligence and content. Similarly, Google Now is expanding its breadth of knowledge, using Google’s Knowledge Graph and Android’s intents system as a buoy. There are times I can see myself using Moto X without touch, but many other times I’d prefer to do as I’ve always done: use my fingers.

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Eat My Specs

At its core, Moto X is a fairly simple Android phone. It runs a stock version of Android 4.2.2 that, aside from some small additions (read: not changes), functions identically to the version you’d find on the Nexus 4.

The phone itself also resembles the Nexus 4, and does not run anything close to the high-end hardware we’d expect from Samsung, HTC, LG or Sony. Motorola’s VP of Product Management, Punit Soni, told me this was deliberate. There is no need, he said, to emphasize specs when the extra hardware is either not used or not appreciated by the end user. See, for example, the iPhone, which stays away from the specs race each year but manages to perform brilliantly by marrying hardware and software into a cohesive experience.

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Moto X feels similar to this: Google has advanced Android to the point where it is considered quite attractive and user-friendly out of the box, and developers are iterating great apps that rival, or even surpass, their iPhone counterparts. That Moto X feels so great to use adds to the feeling that the team took what Android is and made a phone to work with it instead of other OEMs’ desire to fit Android into their idea of a phone. It often doesn’t work, but Motorola’s emphasis on simplicity works in Moto X’s favour here.

It’s difficult to understand just how much more compact the Moto X is than a typical Android smartphone unless you hold it in your hands; even photos don’t do it justice. It’s only marginally wider and taller than the iPhone 5, and significantly smaller than the already-compact Nexus 4. For users who are looking for a big screen without a bulky chassis, Moto X is pretty much your only choice.

motox-handson-18The Canadian Way

Moto X is also beginning something new in terms of phone customization and distribution, at least in the United States. MotoMaker is a program that allows, at first, AT&T buyers to alter the front colour, back colour, accents such as camera ring and volume buttons, and tag a signature on the back. In the future, it may even allow for different grains of wood to be used.

But Rogers, the exclusive Canadian partner, does not have access to this program, making the only option for us either a black or white 16GB model. This will undoubtedly be disappointing to some users, but it’s not surprising. Motorola is rolling out this program slowly, carefully, as it learns to scale up its Texas plant and ship custom phones to users within four business days. Lior Ron, another VP of Product Management at Motorola, says that users will see real-time updates on their build status, so if all the green backs are out, for instance, the delay will be immediately noted.

motox-handson-24 motox-handson-21As you can see, some of the colour combinations are fantastic, and the possibilities, combined with some of the accent colours, are seemingly endless. We’ve told both Rogers and Motorola how much we want this program to come to Canada, so let’s see what happens down the road.

The black model, while fairly staid, is really nice to look at. The white model, on the other hand, is stunning. One can see layers between the curved Gorilla Glass on top of the display and the OLED screen underneath, but unlike in years prior, there is no gap between the display, glass and digitizer. The layering is for effect only; the OLED screen pops.

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The Rest

So, is Moto X better than the Galaxy S4, HTC One or iPhone 5? Strangely, I don’t think Motorola cares. It’s trying neither to out-spec its competitors or out-sell its rivals, but is modestly re-entering the market in which it was once so dominant, and is now so different.

There is no question that Moto X is an interesting, capable device. It’s certainly the best choice for users looking for a compact Android device, and certainly a compelling alternative to the Nexus 4. It lacks the 1080p screen of the HTC One, and the camera doesn’t match the speed and quality of the GS4. Android, while it’s made significant improvements in both app quality and stability, still doesn’t quite match the iPhone. And, as you’ll find over the next few weeks, many of the features such as no-touch controls or active notifications, will be imitated and released by third-party developers for other handsets. They won’t match Motorola’s slick implementation — it takes a decent amount of hardware and software compatibility to pull it off as well as Moto has here — but they’ll arrive.

Moto has preloaded a few more apps to round out the experience. Assist, as seen above, is the evolution of SmartActions, which the company debuted with its RAZR refresh last year. Assist lets you preset certain triggers, such as a time or location, and have the phone take action, like silencing the ringer before bed or turning on WiFi when arriving at home. Migrate is a great way to transition over to Moto X from a previous Android device, as it syncs bookmarks, contacts, calendar entries, stored texts and more between the old and new phone. MotoConnect is a Chrome extension similar to Rogers One Number: it lets you see incoming calls and read and reply to incoming texts from your Chrome browser, synced over a Google account.

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And Now We Wait

Moto X is coming to Rogers sometime in August, closer to the end of the month, for $189.99 on a 2-year term. There is no specific date, nor an outright price, nor a timeframe for when the company will expand its MotoMaker portal to Canadians.

After my brief time with the phone, I can tell you a few things. I really enjoy using it, from holding it in my hand to taking photos using the quick wrist action. I’ve noticed no slowdowns, nor issues loading apps or games, and I’m very pleased with Motorola’s decision to build atop stock Android rather than forging ahead with yet another skin.

I don’t care that it doesn’t have a quad-core processor or a 1080p screen, but for the price it will be difficult for Rogers to convince others of its worth. It’s a fascinating and quiet rebirth for the new Google company, and I can’t wait to see where it takes them.

  • DonB

    Exclusive to Rogers, such a shame.

    • hyperhyper

      This made the phone DOA for me.

    • kroms

      I emailed Motorola just to honestly let them know how distasteful this launch is when it is only on ROGERS. They actually got back to me, I was surprised !

    • wes

      what did they say?

    • AlphaEdge

      “Yes, this is Motorola’s CEO. Thanks for reaching out to me. I will make sure the phone is available tomorrow on the network of your choice, for a reasonable price. Thanks for contacting Motorola. We appreciate it.”

    • Graham Wilson

      Very interesting response. I wonder if “tomorrow” is metaphoric?

    • Darth Paton

      Have I ever mentioned how much I hate Rogers? Because I do, so very, very much. I will buy a Hauwei piece of s*** on a decent carrier before I buy any exclusives with Rogers. That whole company, their ridiculously priced plans, and their extraneous user fees can go to hell. F*** Rogers!

    • hunkyleepickle

      i could not agree with you more. I am making it my mission to keep my grandfathered 6gb, ridiculously cheap plan on their network, and using every gb, with as many completely unlocked devices as i can. I know they don’t give a crap, but it makes me feel better somehow. I hate them. I also love the look on their faces when i reserve a device, show up at the store, buy it full retail price, then proceed to unlock it, and move on with my life.

    • AlphaEdge

      Just read on the Verge, that Google play version coming soon!

  • muchski

    Did mobilesyrup just leak this before the event tonight? :O

    • Peter

      The event already took place … at 2pm eastern time.

  • Rich

    Errr? $189 on a 2 year? What…

  • DW

    Looks great, but too bad Roger’s exclusive…

  • jellmoo

    I’m very disappointed by the price point. As a Nexus style unlocked device direct from Google, this would be exciting, even if it had a slightly higher price. But on a two year from Rogers (exclusive) at $189.99, *without* the customization options, it is really a let down. I guess the Nexus 4 remains the dollar to dollar best option.

    • TomsDisqusted

      But it is not a Nexus device. The Nexus program will continue with its emphasis on unlocked phones via the Play store, while Motorola is expected to sell through the carriers, like their competitors, and to stop losing money.

      I agree that this is unfortunate – and it stops me from buying this phone – but expecting it to match the incredible price (or to be unlocked) of the Nexus 4 is unrealistic. $189 on a 2 year contract is actually a pretty decent price if you stop comparing it to the Nexus 4.

    • jellmoo

      I kind of agree with you. While there had been plenty of rumours stating that this could see a Nexus 4 style price, I would have thought that a $400-$450 style price tag, unlocked and direct from Google, would have been nice.

      That being said, I disagree that $189 is a good price on a two year, as it now priced higher than either the One or Xperia XL. *If* that price had included the customization options that they are getting in the US, I could see some value, but as is, we have a very solid mid-level smartphone being priced higher than some high end ones.

    • kEiThZ

      Why stop comparing to the N4? Same specs. 9 months of component price depreciation later. No excuses.

    • hunkyleepickle

      I suspect Robbers will attempt to sell this device for 600$ for full price, in their typical boring two colors, and 6 months down the road throw us a bone and sell some other colors. Thats their typical move anyway.

  • 4ChanApologist

    Hopefully once Googerola get their supply chain to Canada sorted out we’ll be able to order these online, unsubsidized and customizable.

    Looks like this phone could be a winner!

  • Warukyure

    Wow… Not that specs mean everything but for what it has…. $189 on a 2 year contract too.

    I scroll down and see that Telus is offering phones like the HTC One, Z10, iPhone5 (16 GB anyways), and S4 for less than this and some of those phones are spec’d much better or even have 1080×1920 screens whereas this is just a 720p.

    • Zee

      Yeah pricing is out of whack on this thing. Should have been off-contract price.

    • kroms

      You mean like the BB Z10 $150 3 YR term ?
      Now that is Crazy out of Wack. I agree though, $190 2 YR term is a tuff sale. Simply because well ,,, Lets be honest it’s on Rogers .

    • HatInTheRing

      Totally ridiculous. What are we paying for here exactly? Sure Apple sells an experience but at least they offer build quality. Interesting gestures on a mid range phone doesn’t warrant premium pricing. There’s no way I’d buy this over an S4 or HTC One.

      This phone should be 300 bucks outright. 400 tops. Then they’d be creating a new market for themselves rather than trying to pass off a Civic as a Lamborghini.

  • Xelstyle

    Motorola really deserves credit in their software additions for being practical and handy rather than some silly photography modes or social feeds.

    Assist? A simple version of something like Tasker but can be very powerful in automating the little tasks like when to turn on wifi/bluetooth etc.

    MotoConnect? Now you could easily communicate from your computer rather than responding to 90% of your messages whether it’s email or FB from the computer but having to pick up the phone for those text messages.

    Curious about how all these little features like always-on mic, using the screen as the notification centre, proximity and light sensors all add up to affect battery life.

    Feel like Moto is making the right move in aiming for a solid overall device that doesn’t sell based on specs. Experience is everything and they’re going in the right direction.

    • jellmoo

      I completely agree with this. I really like the device, and what Motorola is doing with their innovations that don’t feel like cheap gimmicks. My only gripes are that we are getting the watered down version in regards to customization here in Canada, and the Rogers exclusive price point.

  • Farid Pirani

    That price has to be a joke, we were expecting it to be $300-400 outright and so on a contract, it should be at least half that price.

    • kEiThZ

      It should have been $0 on a 2-year contract.

  • Sean-Paul

    here we go about the 2 year phone pricing….lol

  • Balls O’Steele

    Worth $0 on a 2 year contract.

    • kroms

      BB Z10 is $150 on 3Yr . That better ?

    • kEiThZ

      And how is that phone selling lately?

  • Erik N.

    Well…if this phone comes unlocked (even if it doesn’t, you can root it) and you know someone in the USA, customize it, order it to their place and get them to send it up here.

  • Justin B

    I like the cut of their jib. Why over-power when you can outsmart? This is what Apple did and it worked quite well until recently, but that’s because competition kicked them in the butt. Googtorola/Motoogle have taken that page and said “We can do something like this” and ran with it. Use smart, powerful, efficient yet dedicated hardware/sensors where it counts most to the end user, and you get the closest approximation to an iPhone yet built by anyone. To me they’ve taken Apple’s playbook, torn out a couple of pages of interest and written their own within their own paradigm, with mind to the limitations and features of the OS, plus added the glitz of mass customization. Lots of folks would love to pick their own hue to adorn their phone. My wife would be one of those, and lots of people will buy this phone for that ability (looking at the younger demographics here).

    Earth-shattering? Perhaps not… Shifting the perception of a) Apple users and B) existing Android users will be the hard part – convincing them they don’t need 4 or 8 cores to run a phone, and that these features really work to make the device worth looking at vs. their tried-and-true iPhone.

  • Chris D

    Rogers and Moto screw it up again… No 32gb version yet, no customization at all and $189 with a 2 yr. 300-350 outright and I’d just pay for it straight out. the contract price shouldn’t be any higher than 120.

    • gommer strike

      If it is truly made, assembled and blah blah all completely in the USA, then I kinda expect the device to be pricier.

      If we assume that the cost to make the device(materials, labor, AND shipping), then it’s likely close to $250 to make the device. Selling the device for just $300 is just not gonna happen.

    • Chris D

      Early reports peg it at $220, but I had wrongly assumed they were going to be agressive with the early reports of $300-350 unlocked.

    • Stuntman06

      No 32GB version would be a deal breaker for me.

    • Theo

      Does it have expandable micro SD?

  • Eduardo

    The most important question is: when do we get a contest? :-)

  • ineptone

    I don’t understand how so many people got their hopes up for a $300 off-contract price point. That always seemed unrealistic to me. That being said, the near as makes no difference $200 two year agreement price is certainly skewed. Despite really liking the aesthetics of the Moto X, the integrated features – albeit some of which have been available through third party apps – and focus on user experience rather than just specs and slapping useless feature on top of useless feature, a la Samsung, I just can’t help but want a little more of this phone for the price.

    Plus, limiting Canadian availability to a 16 GB model and Rogers exclusivity torpedoed any hope for this phone even before I could get hands-on time with it. Oh well, c’est la vie.

    • kEiThZ

      Nexus 4, with the same specs is $300. Surely, component prices have dropped in the last 9 months.

    • Theo

      This is also the first phone built In USA rather than in Asia or Mexico. You have to expect the price to be a bit higher, and know you are supporting the north American economy .

    • kEiThZ

      Oh please. Assembly work on a highly automated production line just does not add that much to the cost. Motorola executive had talked a lot about how ridiculous margins were on smartphones and then they go and do this?

      If the excuse is that it’s North American production, then Motorola is finished because they won’t have a leg to stand on in the rest of the world.

  • Unwound

    I have to say one thing, I love the fact that the background is a Texas flag on wood (a nod to the fact that its assembled in Fort Worth I assume?)

  • Graham Wilson

    Since it’s only being released on Rogers in Canada, will it not work on other networks? Can it be unlocked? I’m interested to see what the options are, because it looks like a solid phone (maybe a replacement for my wife’s S2 when it kicks the can), but I want the network freedom I have with the Nexus4.

    • kroms

      That might not be possible. The NEXUS 4 is the KING of Phones when it comes to Price and Radio bands.

      there is No other Phone/s that you can purchase for $350 and have a Pentaband radio. NEXUS is it !

  • kroms

    I don’t use Rogers. I’m on Wind.
    Having said that, this will be an INTERESTING offer for people who ARE on rogers and either want to renew or are considering a new contract with Rogers.

    So now these people can Get this great Phone for $189 or spend more money on other phones for the sake of just paying more.

    BB Z10 potential customers have to start to wonder why they should pay $150 on a 3 yr term or $650 for a Z10 when they could have this MOTO X for $190 on a 2 yr term.

    This X is a great deal.

  • Jeeverz

    ‘Exclusive to Rogers’ Ugly a*s Logo with 34092243902349023094 bloated apps and RED EVERYTHING.

    You had one job Motorola. Release the Moto X on Google Play for a sub $350. Yes you need carrier versions, but that could have come after. There is still hope for a decent outright cost, if you mess this up, I hope you burn. And for being ‘owned by Google’ 4.2.2? really?

  • mapper99

    Where’s the sample video and pictures? I’m interested in seeing the Google re-engineered pixels!

  • hughstimson

    So $190, plus the $40/month extra I would have to pay to switch from Wind to Rogers, for a 2 year contract that becomes a $1150 phone.

    That’s a shame. I would buy this phone, but I will not pay $1k for the privilege of being mistreated by Rogers again.

    • AlphaEdge

      I find it interesting that Motorola is putting this phone on every carrier in the states, but granted an exclusive in Canada. Rogers must have paid a lot of money for that.

    • hfghgfhf

      Not really. It will be sold in the USA as a patriotic, made in USA device.
      In Canada it’s just an other overpriced phone with mid-range specs.
      This phone is doomed outside the US.

    • kEiThZ

      It’s doomed in the USA too.

      Why would anybody pay $200 for mid-range specs? And customization (the main sales pitch) is only available on one carrier at launch.

      They really dropped the ball.

    • Farid Pirani

      Some people really like the fact that their phone created jobs in the country etc etc and they can tell people that and show it off, so it will sell in the US. Canada, not so much.

    • kEiThZ

      Oh please. I will bet money that there aren’t enough patriotic Americans to sustain this thing.

      As for Canada, it’s just another foreign made overpriced toy in our market.

  • kEiThZ

    Fail. Flop. Disaster.
    Their biggest selling point should have been price: USD 300.

    With customization as a defining feature. Selling customization for $200 is going to be very difficult.

  • Corey

    Moto produced the best phone of… Wait for it… 2012! Specs basically match SG3. Of course, rogers has priced it like an iPhone 5 or galaxy 4. People should shun this joke. Priced at 300, okay, I’d consider it. But 500+? You’d have to be out of your mind.

  • Stephen B Morris

    Yeah. Something so simple, yet makes a big difference.

  • kEiThZ

    Max $400. $600 is just outrageous. Watch this thing flop.

    This is Motorola’s Z10 and Touchpad moment.

  • James Huntley

    yes, but if your phone updates the software, it may lock it again.