The original Moto X, which debuted last year, was a different breed of smartphone. Rather than trying to build a beast with the best screen and the most horsepower, Motorola focused on the user experience above all else. The result was a phone that was so intelligent and comfortable to use that it almost didn't matter that it was out-gunned in a lot of ways. Well, the 2014 model is here. Not only does it retain that same sublime user experience, it comes out guns blazing.
What Is It?
- Screen: 5.2-inch SuperAMOLED Display, 1080p
- Processor: Qualcomm 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801, Adreno 330 GPU, 2GB RAM
- Connectivity: 4G, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC
- Dimensions: 7.2mm x 140.8mm, 140grams
- Camera: 13-megapixel, f/2.25
Last year we said the original Moto X was "the Android phone for everybody," and that's mostly still the case, though people with the smallest hands might be eliminated this time around. It's also for Android purists, voice-control enthusiasts, music listeners, and frequent drivers.
It's the sequel to one our very favourite phones from last year. That phone was also called the Moto X, but this 2014 model is bigger and better.
It runs stock Android (starting with 4.4 KitKat) alongside some additional apps from Motorola which also don't suck.
It has a 5.2-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, a front-facing speaker, a new 13MP camera with an f/2.25 lens, 2GB of RAM, and Qualcomm's speedy quad-core 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor with an Adreno 330 GPU.
From the moment I picked it up, I tangibly felt the quality of this device. From the front, it almost looks like a Samsung handset, with its wideish rectangle shape and its gently rounded sides. Unlike a Samsung phone, there's no physical button up front; instead, you get a big front-facing speaker, which is definitely a good swap. (More on those later.) The phone is ringed with an aluminium band that makes it feel extremely solid, even if it makes the new Moto X look a whole lot like the new HTC One (M8) when viewed from the side. The back has a nice slow curve that makes it feel snug in your palm. There's also a little divot emblazoned with the Motorola emblem, which gives you a nice place to rest your finger and balance the weight of the phone.
If you owned the original Moto X, well, you aren't going to see a whole lot of physical resemblance here. For starters, the new Moto X is a lot bigger than the original. It's now a full 5.2 inches, up from 4.7 last year. The front-facing speaker is new, and you'll also notice that there are several small dots around the screen. Those are IR sensors which are used for some of the gesture controls we'll be talking about later. Also, last year's Moto X was plastic all the way around, and the new metal band definitely makes the new version feel a bit more substantial and a touch more durable.
If you don't like the standard Moto X look, you can jazz it up substantially. If you buy the phone online, Moto Maker lets you choose between 25 different back plates (including four made of natural wood and four made of leather), 10 different colours for the metallic trim, black or white faceplates, 16GB or 32GB of storage, and even a custom engraving on the back (we recommend your email address in case you lose your phone). It's pretty amazing how many combinations there are. Just know that unlike last year, these phones will no longer be assembled at a factory in Texas. Outsourcing and all that.
Let's get this out of the way: I was disappointed that the Moto X had gotten so much bigger this year. Our Editor in Chief found it downright tragic, and while I think he's actually pretty spot-on in his assessment, I'm happy to report that the Moto X still feels pretty good. It's definitely more unwieldy than it was last year (even for my pretty big hands), but it's not any worse than comparably-sized phones. I would have preferred it stayed smaller, but it's not a deal-breaker.
My new Moto X has a wooden back, and I have to say, I kind of love it. There's something about the natural material that just makes you want to run your thumb across it, and it looks fantastic, too. But at the launch event I got to try one of the new leather backs, and it felt even better. It was smooth yet perfectly grippy, unlike so many of the materials used in phone construction these days. I have to admit that I wonder if it might wear down or if I'll need to find a shoe-shine guy to get my phone polished, but dammit, I'm sold either way.
The front-facing speaker is truly fantastic. Let me put that in perspective: the HTC One (M8) has twin speakers so good that the company mentions them in primetime TV ads, but this single speaker is even better. Whether it's hip-hop, rock, classical, or motown, I feel comfortable saying that the new Moto 360 has the best sound system on any phone out there. It's ever so slightly louder than the M8 and it's just about as clear. More importantly, the speaker seems to project its sound better. I was able to put it the Moto X in the center console of my car and could still hear the music perfectly over the engine, even at highway speeds. Big thumbs up.
[Update: It should be noted that in fact it's only the one bottom speaker that acts as a loud speaker, as opposed to the two we originally mentioned. This would be a disappointment, but honestly, it still sounds so damn good that we didn't notice. It honestly doesn't matter. It seems that Moto has tuned that bottom speaker so it could blast out sound and remain undistorted, then they tuned the upper speaker so it sounds good at quiet volumes when it's pressed to your ear. It's not quite as cool as stereo speakers, but again, it's still the best sounding audio we've heard on a phone.]
There's no denying, the Moto X definitely benefits from the new 5.2-inch 1080p screen. I tend to do a ton of reading on my phone, and the new screen is definitely easy on the eyes. It can't hold a candle to higher resolution screens on phones like the Galaxy Note 4 or the LG G3, but it's still more than good enough. Despite being wider than last year, I didn't have any trouble using the stock Android sliding keyboard with one thumb. Moreover, games look really, really good on it, with bright colours and inky blacks. The fact that it's AMOLED means that it only lights up the pixels that it needs to, which gives it the capability to use a very slick on-screen notification system that doesn't kill the battery. Speaking of...
The new Moto X has a pretty average sized battery at 2300mAh, only a slight bump from the 2200 mAh battery in last year's model, and I was pretty concerned with how it would fare against the new, larger, and higher resolution display. Good news: I would generally get around 30 hours of battery life, and I'm a pretty heavy user. Do we wish it would last two days or longer so we could go a whole weekend without plugging in? Of course, but this is still right up there with other current flagship phones.
Also, despite the horsepower under the hood, the phone's speed is just ok. Don't get us wrong, it launches apps quickly and HD games like Leo's Fortune and Dead Trigger 2 play nice and smoothly as far as I tested. Flick around home screens or inside the app drawer, however, and the Moto X produces some noticeable lag and stutter. It won't ruin the phone for you or anything, but it definitely shouldn't be there.
What made the original Moto X feel like something so different was an unmodified operating system combined with a few choice software features you'll actually want to use. Thankfully, the new handset has the same goal. Unlike other manufacturers that put heavy (and frequently terrible) skins on top of Android, the Moto X runs stock Android. Rather than messing with the UI, Motorola elected to integrate its enhancements as modular apps, which can be updated separately from the OS. The means that the Moto X should get OS updates just about as fast as the Nexus line (at least for the unlocked version, which wouldn't have carrier interference). It's a big win.
The banner feature here is Moto Voice (formerly known as Touchless Display), which lets you control your phone without touching it at all. Last year, you could just say "OK Google Now" to issue voice commands even when your handset was off. This year you can program that keyphrase to be practically anything you want. I really wanted mine to be, "Hi, Jenny," but it was too short a phrase. " Talk to me, Goose," seemed over-played, so I went with "Miiister Anderson…" in my absolute best impression of Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith voice from The Matrix. The phone can be on your desk or lying on the passenger seat of your car, and you don't even have to look at it. Just say your keyphrase and then tell it what you want to do, and it will get directions, send texts, play songs, take notes, and open apps (etc.) for you.
This year, the super useful feature can even work with third-party apps. As of now, that means you can use it to post a status update on Facebook, send a message via WhatsApp, and search for videos on YouTube, and Moto reps said they have many more third-party apps coming. When Moto Voice worked, it was extremely impressive. It's not just a great party trick; it's a great safety enhancement when you drive. Unfortunately Moto Voice still has some kinks to work out. It struggles when there's ambient noise (even if that noise is your music), and sometimes it seems to lock up entirely and stop listening for the key phrase. When you're trying to show off your new phone, and you're standing there yelling "Mister Anderson… MIIISTER Anderson… MISTER ANDERSON…" over and over again to no effect, you feel like a psycho.
Another great feature is Moto Display (formerly Active Display). This is one of those features that quickly becomes hard to live without when you switch to another phone. When a new notification comes in, it very gently pulses on your phone. Touch it, and you can get a peek at the incoming message or event. You can see your last three incoming notifications this way, all without having to unlock your phone. It sounds simple and unnecessary, but for me it was such a time-saver that I miss it on other handsets.
Then there's Moto Assist, which can intelligently set your phone to useful modes based on your situation. For example, set your bedtime every night and the Moto X will mute notifications while you're asleep and keep the screen black. Even better, it can sense when you're driving in a car (based on speed and background noise) and will announce incoming callers and read aloud incoming texts. Say "Play Music" and the phone will connect to your car stereo over Bluetooth and start playing some tunes. Best of all, in car mode the Moto X responds to all of the typical voice commands, so it's easy to send and receive text messages, and again, you never even have to look at it. Moto Assist can also read your calendar to see when you're in a meeting, then mute the phone, auto-reply to texts with a preconfigured message, and only let important calls though (say, if they call twice in five minutes).
In my testing, I found that Moto Assist worked almost perfectly. I did, however, notice that the Trusted Devices feature was a bit inconsistent. When you're connected to a trusted Bluetooth device ( say, a smartwatch) you can set the Moto X to disable its password protection, so you can just go right in and handle your biz. In other words, you can unlock your phone with your watch. Sometimes this just wouldn't work, despite it being connected to the watch. Definitely a few bugs to work out.
Last among the new features is Moto Actions, which leverages the front-facing IR sensors (I told you we'd get back to those!) to let you control your phone with a wave of the hand. Sorta. The "Wave to Silence" feature lets you dismiss (but not accept) an incoming call or an alarm simply by waving your hand over the phone. Slightly more useful is being able to wake up the screen simply by reaching toward it. It's an easy way to check the time or see if you have any new notifications. That said, I'm not sure I'd call these features "necessary," though I suppose it could come in handy if you're driving in your car and you don't have it in Driving Mode for some reason. Basically, I'm not convinced that they justify the presence of multiple IR sensors on the phone's front, which are somewhat unsightly. Motorola said it will be adding more capabilities, but for now this feels like a gimmick.
Last year, the camera was one of the places where the Moto X came up short. Moto was quick to push out a software update for it that definitely made things better, but there was only so much it could do. This year's camera — upgraded to 13MP from 10 — is simply much, much better. When everything is in focus your shots retain excellent sharpness and detail. The f/2.4 lens actually gives you a fair amount of depth of field to play with. Look at the pleasing bokeh in the shot above.
The camera software is fantastic, and possibly the best I've ever used on a phone. By default, the entire screen works as your shutter button, which makes it much easier to hit. I found that this mode often didn't focus on my intended subject, though, so I chose to flip "exposure and focus control" on, which lets you quickly drag a target to the spot you're hoping to focus/meter off. This generally works a lot better, although you still need to wait a second for it to find its focus. It's worth noting that it's extremely intuitive to flip between settings within the software. You just slide over from the left and there's a wheel of useful goodies to choose from.
The shutter is extremely fast. Tapping it fires off a shot instantly, and holding it down will shoot a burst. It's also caching photos before and after you hit the shutter button, so if you just missed the moment, the Moto X may suggest an alternate shot for you to choose from. This doesn't happen often, but it's pretty sweet when it does.
Video looks really good. The ability to shoot slow-motion video in full 1080p is awesome, and I'm sure a lot of fun stuff will come out of it. It's also capable of shooting 4K UHD video, but considering how gigantic those files are, I generally wouldn't recommend it. The regular 1080p video is sharp and nicely balanced. I also tried turning HDR video on, but it didn't seem to do much.
There are a couple of weak spots. For one, bright reds really blow out and blend together. This is very common for the small-sensor cameras we see on phones, but it seems to be especially bad here. Certainly not a deal-breaker, unless you just want to sit around photographing roses all day. It also struggles in low light. The noise comes way up and detail gets a bit scarce. Thankfully, the dual-flash on the camera is excellent. It provides bright, even lighting and does a great job. You can see a whole gallery of my test shots here.
I love that it runs stock Android, but Moto's software augmentations are even better. The true hands-free features give this phone that magic "the future is now!" feeling that we all secretly crave. Moto Display is one of those little details that, once you use it, it's really tough to do without — it really is that convenient. Automatically switching to Driving Mode is a great feature as well. The screen is absolutely lovely with bright colours and super deep blacks. It has the best external speaker on any phone, period, which makes music and games sound fantastic. I typically get more than 24 hours on a charge with pretty aggressive use.
The camera takes very sharp photos and its software is extremely easy to use. Video looks great, too, and the flash does an excellent job. The phone really feels like a premium device — much more so than last year — and yet, it's still selling for cheap (relatively).
Yes, the new 5.2-inch screen is very nice, but honestly, I would have preferred that Moto had kept the size down. Last year's version just fit so perfectly in your hand, and that really was one of the best features. Something has been lost with the added size and the added metal. It now almost looks like a hybrid HTC and Samsung device, and I feel like the Moto X has lost a bit of its personality in the exchange.
Focus on the camera is inconsistent and you've really got to hold steady and wait before snapping the shot. Some of the software enhancements are inconsistent, too, and there's nothing that feels less "the future is now"-ish than having to repeat yourself over and over again. There's also a bit of lag on the home screen and in the app drawers, and that really shouldn't be the case with all that power inside it. The phone doesn't support wireless charging, which isn't mandatory at this point, but I definitely prefer it.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. You should. Despite our gripes over the increased size, there's no getting around that it's just a much better version of one of our very favourite phones. It's fast, it's intuitive, the software is killer, the screen is great, and you can make it look however you want. Last year's Moto X was great despite being a bit mid-range in terms of screen and processor. This year's version isn't mid-range anything, and the experience reaps the rewards.
Last year's Moto X gave you a lot of bang for your buck, and the 2014 version is no different. On-contract, it looks like the Moto X will be going for $US100, which is a lot less than most flagships. If you want the unlocked/contract-free version, you'll be able to get it straight from Motorola.com or Google Play for $US500, which isn't as cheap as a Nexus device, but again, it's cheaper than most unlocked flagships. It will be available "later this month" on AT&T, Verizon and US Cellular for sure, with Moto Maker being limited to the AT&T, Verizon, and unlocked versions at the get-go. We think it's probably coming to T-Mobile and Sprint, too, but we don't have confirmation of that yet.
Bottom line: This phone offers the best user experience from anything we've yet seen in 2014. So, while we wish it were a bit smaller, we still give it a solid recommendation.