Battle of the X's

Comparing one of last year's best phones to its successor

We've had the new 2014 model Moto X from Motorola in our hands for a week or so now. Plenty of time to see how we are liking it (or not liking it — people have different wants and needs) and check out how it handles the things we want it to handle. Of course, we're not too surprised after the epic and informative review that Phil gave us, but still. We need it in our own hands to sort out all the little things.

Of course, what a lot of people need to know is how it matches up against the original Moto X. Everything inside is updated, there's a new form-factor and look on the outside, and the software still looks and feels a lot like the "pure" Android you'd find on a Nexus phone. That means plenty of us are thinking about upgrading from one X to the next.

Let's get these two together and see how they match up. See what's different, what's the same, and decide which one is for you.

On the outside

Battle of the X's

The most apparent change, and one of the most important ones according to research done by Motorola, is the size increase. Gone is the 4.7-inch size we saw in the 2013 model, and it's been replaced by a 5.2-inch screen and an updated body design. You still have the same overall "style" with a curved back, a scalloped top and of course the dimple, but enough things are different that you'll not mistake one for the other no matter which side of the phone you're looking at.

Moto has taken the support frame and moved it so that it shows on the outside in the 2014 model, and the magnesium composite center frame gives the new Moto X a more industrial look. It also makes the phone one of the few that won't bend in the rash of recent silly phone bending YouTube videos. While the 2013 model also had a metal center frame, it was less robust and hidden inside the body.

Around back you've got a new look for the camera, and a redesign of the Moto dimple. Like the 2013 model, the dimple has no function other than a spot to put the tip of your index finger, but this year's design is bigger, and is separate from the outer shell. It looks and feels like it's made of metal, too, but we're betting it's plastic gussied up to look and feel that way. The camera now sits inside a translucent ring with LEDs in it for the flash, giving things a bit of a HAL9000 feel. That's a good thing until he kills us all, I guess. Anyhoo, the new design isn't a breakthrough in mobile flash photography, but it does look kind of cool.

Battle of the X's

Flip them over, and you see more design changes. The original 2013 model had a single bar-style ear speaker across the top and a pinhole microphone on the bottom bezel. That's been updated to a twin-metal bar both top and bottom, with one serving as the ear speaker and the other hiding the main microphone. Again — more of a style change that any new functionality. The front-facing camera is in the same spot on both (tucked up in the upper right). What's new, and does bring new features, on the 2014 model are four small sensors nestled in each corner. These are what allow for new gestures, like passing your hand close to the phone to "awaken" touchless display, or letting the phone know when you're looking at it so the screen doesn't shut off.

You've got the power and volume buttons in the same place on both models, but the SIM card tray has been moved up top on the 2014 model. The 3.5mm headphone jack in atop of both the '13 and '14 versions, and the USB port is on the bottom.

Of course, we can't not talk about the new leather-backed option. I ordered mine in black leather, and so far it's held up well to dirty hands and scuffing around in the console of my Jeep. It's only been a week, so we're not about to say it will take a beating and still look good. The leather itself is a very fine grain cow skin from the Horween leather factory — the same people who make leather for footballs and fine mens shoes and wallets, as well as the straps for the Moto 360. If you like leather, you'll probably like what you see (and feel) here. If you don't, the 2014 model still comes in wood or plastic backed models from MotoMaker.

On the inside

Moto X specs

It took a while for folks to come around to the X8 processor setup Motorola used in the 2013 Moto X. It was a "custom" SoC using Krait cores, low-power DSPs for "contextual" services, and an Andreno 320 GPU. People saw the setup and declared it as low-end because it didn't have four or eight CPU cores, and watching the flame wars and feuding was one of the funnest parts of 2013 in the mobile space. In the end, it out-perfomed most unoptimized traditional setups, and the universe was able to heal itself.

We don't get to have any of that this time around. The 2014 Moto X uses a standard quad-core Qualcomm MSM8974AC Snapdragon 801 for it's brains. Motorola is using the existing coprocessors on the Snapdragon 801 to do the contextual awareness "stuff", and after just a week in practice it's easy to see this works as well or better than the dedicated processor cores in the 2013 model. And with everything on the same die, you've got no off-chip cache or extra capacitors and circuitry to use power. For us — the users — you have the same contextual awareness and active display we always had, with a few improvements and enhancements. If you aren't into all the spec porn, you probably would never know Motorola changed processors here.

On the other hand, you now have four 2.5GHz Krait CPU cores and a better GPU whenever you run an application that needs them. Eventually, you'll run an app that benefits from this sort of power and be glad you have it. You can't go back and add horsepower to the 2013 model.

One other thing to mention is the battery. Yes, the 2300mAh battery in the 2014 version is bigger than it was in the 2013 version. But only 100mAh bigger. That's a bit of concern as we have a bigger display that's going to use more power to light up, with more pixels that will make the GPU use more power to drive. The one-week impression? If you use the active display feature, the battery is fine. If you spend more than a few hours with the screen on playing games or web surfing or chatting on Facebook, you'll probably want to get one of Motorola's quick chargers. We don't know if there were size constraints, or why Motorola used a fairly small 2300mAh battery in the new Moto X. And we can't change it if we wanted to. It is what it is.

The camera

Moto X camera examples

To put it gently, the camera on the 2013 Moto X sucked. Even for a phone camera, it was pretty bad. All those promises and ClearPixel technology never delivered, and pictures tended to look pretty poor unless you had just the perfect light. If you're in the camp that thinks pictures from a phone only need to be good enough for quick shares to Facebook or Google+, it was good enough, but it stopped there.

The 2014 version has a much better camera. It's the same 13MP sensor you'll find on the G3 (minus the image stabilization), but it's not as good a camera as the G3. It takes more than a sensor to make a good camera — see any Nexus phone for proof.

Motorola has improved the software that takes all the pixel data and turns it into a picture, though, and you can get some really good shots from the 2014 Moto X. Not as good — especially when the light is low — as the G3, but a drastic improvement over the original 2013 model.

Here we have a test shot (taken on the same tripod, at the same distance, under the same lights) of each using the color charts I use to judge this sort of thing. The last example is what you should be seeing, shot from a real camera in the same spot.

Moto X 2013

2013 Moto X

Moto X 2014

2014 Moto X

Camera example

Reference shot at f /8.0 ISO 200 30mm, with white balance corrected on camera using these cards

If you want to have a better look at the full size images, grab them here.

The camera software has improved as well. Features like finding a better shot than the one you snapped, or gallery highlight reels, are available and it all works well. Of course, you're still free to use any third party camera that you would like, and you'll get better performance across the board from any of them.

If you are looking to buy a smartphone only for the camera, the Moto X still isn't the one to buy. But if you wanted those quick pictures to look better than they did from the previous model, you'll like what you see here.


OK Moto

Here's where things get a little personal. I'm not shy about my love for the original 2013 Moto X. I think it was the best smartphone I've ever used, and I've used more than a few — Android and others. After a year of using it I know exactly why — Touchless Control, Active Display, and the size.

Moto has updated and improved the unique signature software that made me love the Moto X to start with. The changes aren't dramatic — the biggest being the ability to use a custom launch phrase for Touchless Control — but they work together to make the user experience better and more consistent. If you liked the way you could pick up your 2013 Moto X and see your latest notification on the display when the phone beeped at you, you'll love the way you can now do it with just a wave of the hand. If saying "OK Google Now"" to your phone to wake it up so it could do your bidding was something you used, now you can do the same by saying "Hey you phone" or "Hello Lenovo" or whatever phrase you choose. Other features like Moto Connect or Motorola Assist have been tweaked, and Moto has made things better without breaking or ruining anything we loved from the last models. That's a pretty good trick in and of itself.

The good news is that we can expect most of these enhancements and features to make their way back to the 2013 Moto X. Motorola has said that any and all features the hardware can support will be ported back to the 2013 model, so folks who didn't upgrade this year will have most of the new toys to play with. This is a good thing. We love seeing any manufacturer, whether it be Motorola or Samsung or anyone, make the new features we all want and just have to try available on our current phones.

On the battery life front, it's a bit too early for me to make a judgement. The best thing about the 2013 Moto X was the way it used very little battery when "idle". If you used the Active Display feature, and didn't wake up your phone with every email or other notification, the battery on the OG Moto X seemed to last forever. It looks like the new Moto X isn't doing as good of a job when idle, but it still uses less power than most other phones if you use the contextual features. I'm finding that the new Moto X lasts me until I need to go to bed and recharge myself, but I have a feeling it won't last as long at the predecessor did. Time will tell.

The signal reception on the new 2014 Moto X is better than the 2013 model. I didn't think that would be possible. With both phones one the same network on the same places, this was pretty simple to test. Once you get to that place where T-Mobile wants to fade away, the new model latches on longer and better than the old. In an area with good signal, both phones are excellent. Motorola is known for great reception, and either version of the Moto X is a testament to that.

Now we get to the size.

Moto X size

I'll admit, I was worried about the size of the new Moto X. The 2013 model was a speedy little phone that did everything I wanted or needed and was exactly the size I wanted it to be. It fit in my hands and my pocket perfectly, and I loved it. I still say it was the best smartphone experience I've ever had, and I've been having them since the BlackBerry smart pager days.

Hearing that the new 2014 Moto X would be over 5-inches made me nervous. Hearing the folks who went to Chicago and hold one in their paws say it feels bigger had me even more worried. The side-by-side pictures in our hands-on damn near put me off buying a 2014 model altogether, thinking I would wait and see what Sony did with the Z3 Compact.

I completely overreacted.

I would love for the 2014 Moto X to be the same size as the original. Motorola didn't ask me when they did the surveys that told them people wanted a bigger screen. They did ask a bunch of normal smartphone users, though, and decided that they needed to make things bigger. In the end the 4.7-inch 720p display has been swapped for a 5.2-inch 1080p screen, and the overall package has been made bigger to acommidate it.

It's still easy to handle, I can still one-hand type a message to the wife or anyone else, and the move to a bigger screen with a higher resolution means it all looks better.

This is all subjective, of course. The new Moto X may be too big for you. It may not be too big for you. All we know for sure is that the new model is .54-inches taller and .30-inches wider than the 2013 model. That's more than it sounds like on paper, and if it's a good or bad thing is something you have to decide for yourself. As someone who loved the size of the original, I can tell you it doesn't break the deal for me, and the bigger screen makes watching videos on Twitch better.

Enough. Which would you buy?

Phone of the year 2014

I have a confession to make. I was worried that the new Moto X would be too big, and that they would stop selling the 2013 model. I had a coupon, so I bought myself a second 2013 Moto X just in case. My wife loves her little yellow Moto X 2013, because I'm loving the 2014 model that replaces it.

Think about the bigger size, but don't get hung up on it. Head to the AT&T or Verizon store. If they don't have a Moto X there you can fondle, grab an LG G3 (also an excellent phone all around) because they are just about the same size (the G3 is a smidge taller). Can you use it effectively? Would you benefit from the bigger display area? If yes, then stop worrying about the size. I did.

Everything else is done better. There's more horsepower under the hood if you need it, but it still does a good job staying in low power mode if you're using the Moto X feature set. The signal reception is as good or better, and the camera, while not perfect, is a huge improvement.

The exposed metal frame looks good and makes the phone unbendable, and is a great look with a leather back. You've not seen a phone that looks like this before. The way it's all put together is a display of good manufacturing, and the fit and finish is as good as any we've seen before.

I've found the phone I'll be using at this time next year when (hopefully) Moto brings out a worthy successor.