The new Moto X

One of our favorite phones gets bigger, stronger, and hopefully has fixed the camera

Motorola Mobility doesn't look doesn't look like a company that's been bought and sold twice in the past couple years. It doesn't look like a company that's still waiting to find out if Lenovo is its new master, or if Google (which all but admits it was about the patents) will continue to control it. No, as Motorola hosted scores of journalists at its new downtown Chicago headquarters, it looked very much like the Motorola we became reacquainted with in 2013 — the maker of one of our favorite Android phones (and its extremely popular siblings).

And now, it's bringing us the new Moto X.

Yes, that's the name. No Moto X+1. No Moto X2. Just Moto X. And that very much feels right. Motorola has taken what we loved about the original Moto X and improved it. It's taken our biggest criticism to heart, it says — that'd be the overhyped camera — and worked on it. And it's done all this in a package that mostly appears to stay true to the spirit of the original, and the direction Motorola has taken in its rebirth.

So let's dive in and take a look at the brand-new Moto X.

The new Moto X video hands-on

The new Moto X hardware

The new Moto X

If you're a fan of smaller smartphones — and for many of us that's what attracted us to the original Moto X — well, we've got some bad news for you. Whereas last year's model fit a 4.7-inch display into something that felt much smaller, the new Moto X has definitely grown. It's sporting a 5.2-inch display on a body that's just a tad smaller than the Galaxy S5 (which itself has a slightly smaller display). The screen is still AMOLED, and the resolution has unsurprisingly been increased to 1080p. In our very brief use thus far it seems decent enough, but we'll need more time to make a full decision.

The svelte phone we fell in love with last year has bulked up. But is it for the better?

The body of the phone has changed a bit while still mostly keeping with the familiar curves of the original Moto X. At first glance the curve looks and feels a little different — less apparent, really — but the thin edge actually is even thinner than before. It's still a good feel, just a good bit bigger when it comes to height and width. We can grumble about that all we want (and we will), but Motorola says it has data showing that 75 percent of folks upgrading phones wanted to go with something bigger. So, Motorola went bigger, too.

The new Moto X

The frame of the Moto X has gained some metal, too. Aluminum, actually, and it's serving as the phone's antenna. That actually gives it a more sophisticated look than its predecessor. No more unsightly seam separating the top and bottom halves — instead you've got a pretty purposed look of glass-metal-back. And you still have options as to the material that makes up the rear of the phone. There's the tried and true soft-touch resin, or you can still go for wood. Bamboo, teak, walnut and ebony remain the choices there, and the first two will be available for purchase in some stores.

Or if you're really looking for something different, you can go with a leather back. Motorola's partnered with its Chicagoland neighbor Horween Leather Company. It looks and feels great, and the leather backs are available in four colors — Natural, Cognac, Black and Navy. (They'll run you an extra $25 when you're ordering through the new and improved Moto Maker, as will the wood backs.)

Leather — learn it, live it, love it. But will it last?

Now leather comes with a pretty interesting caveat — we just don't know how it's going to hold up over time. Or, rather, we do know how leather holds up over time. It's prone to scratches. It can occasionally show discoloration. (And, in fact, there's a little note from Horween in the box that reminds you of this.) On the other hand, it is leather, so you should be able to recondition it a bit. It'll be interesting to see how this turns out. (Personally, I think leather's the way to go here.)

While we're on the back of the phone, the camera's noticeably different with dual LEDs flanking the lens and connected by a circular housing that turns the whole thing into a ring flash. The Motorola dimple is there as well, and it's not nearly as subtle as it used to be. It's plastic now, and not quite as stylish as before. (Perhaps molding leather to that shape proved to be an issue?)

Other notes of interest where the body's concerned:

  • The nano SIM card has been moved up top.
  • The new Moto X looks like it has stereo speakers out front like the Moto G. But in fact the top one's merely the earpiece, and the bottom serves as the speaker. Both are raised slightly. And they're part of the trim color you'll choose in Moto Maker, as is the ring around the Motorola logo in the dimple on the back.
  • That single speaker is pretty good, and pretty loud. But it's still not as good as what you get from HTC's BoomSound. (But what is?)
  • The 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB port are centered in the top and bottom ends, respectively.
  • The power button is still on the side, and it's got a little bit of texture to it. The volume rocker's on the right as well.
  • There are four infrared ports on the front of the phone — visible on the white front but hidden on the black — that help with the new Moto Actions.

The new Moto X cameras and gallery

The new Moto X

The original Moto X camera was almost a universal disappointment. The "Clear Pixel" idea to let in more light just didn't really pan out, and the 8-megapixel total resolution was quickly eclipsed. This time around the Moto X has a 13-megapixel rear shooter that in our early test shots definitely seems to be improved. Do note, however, that Motorola's gone the route of just about everyone else and defaults to a 16:9 aspect ration and 9.7-megapixel total resolution. There's a new option in the camera settings to switch to 4:3 and the full 13 megapixels. (And that's what we did for our test shots.)

The camera was the biggest drawback of the original Moto X. The new one shows some promise, though.

The excellent option to flick your wrist to activate the camera app is still on the Moto X, and it's as useful as ever.

The gallery has a couple new features, too. One is a "best shot" rolling buffer that attempts to take what otherwise might have been a bad shot when you actually triggered the shutter (say, blurry or blinking) and gives you options from immediately before and after instead. You get the choice to use what you actually took, or one of the buffered pics. Your call.

And Motorola's added a Highlight Reel that very much is like the video highlights (or Zoes — it's hard to remember what HTC is calling them these days) of the HTC One line, or Samsung's Story Album, or Google+ Stories. It'll take pictures that the phone figures are from the same event and turn them into a little video highlight reel. Of if it hasn't created a Reel yet, you can do so manually.

What's missing? There's still no optical image stabilization.

The new Moto X software

The new Moto X

Motorola impressed the hell out of us with the original Moto X software, opting not to skin things or add new features for us to learn. Instead, we got some simple, subtle additions. And four of the main ones have been combined into a single "Moto" app.

All of Motorola's beloved features are here, with some consolidation and a few additions.

Touchless Control, which lets you tell your phone what you want to do, is being reborn as "Moto Voice." Touchless Display is back as "Moto Display," and it has a few options to go along with it. (It's also added the day, date and battery level to what you see when you tap to peek in.) "Moto Assist" lives here as well, and gives you the options for the "Sleeping" do-not-disturb mode, driving mode for reading texts and incoming call information aloud so you don't have to even look at the phone, home mode for doing the same thing when you might not have your phone in your pocket or purse, and meeting mode for avoiding interruptions. And finally there's the new "Moto Actions," which use those four IR ports on the front of the phone to recognize hand gestures. You can wave over the phone to silence alarms and reject calls. And merely moving your hand toward the phone will turn on Moto Display and show you relevant information.

The new Moto X

And that's not all. Trusted Bluetooth (which is being adopted by the upcoming Android L release) is still here. Motorola Connect, which lets you get text message and call notifications on your computer, lives on. (Motorola Alert shows as installed, but disabled, which is a little weird. Not sure if that's a preproduction thing, or something else.) There's also a new "Attentive Display" feature that keeps an eye on your face and will keep the screen on longer while you're looking at it, and put it to sleep faster when you're not. (Both of those are options you can turn off.)

All this is running atop Android 4.4.4, and, yes, it'll get an update to Android L. (Quite possibly before just about every other phone out there.)

And, yes, there's a smattering of carrier bloat on all the phones. We've got the AT&T version here, and it's reminding us why we're glad Motorola selling an unlocked, "carrier-free" model. If you can go this route, we recommend it.

The bottom line

Here's our initial takeaway on the new Moto X: It's bigger. It's better. (And that's true of most new phones these days.) The phone continues to impress, even though we could still make a strong case for preferring a smaller size. Initial test shots show the camera to be improved. Will it be as good as the LG G3 and the newer Note 4? Probably not, especially because it's missing optical image stabilization. Will it be good enough? We'll see.

The new Moto X might not top the specs charts, but it might well once again be a fan favorite.

But the hardware continues to be just one part of the story for Motorola. Choice is another. The ability to pick and choose color options is a big thing. Price is another. And so is ease of use. The Moto X continues to be one of the easiest phones to use. It's simply not crammed full of features that you might use, but that will require a bit of learning on your part. The UI is pretty sparse — it's running the Google Now launcher and it's up to you to customize beyond the smattering of apps that are already there.

If you were a fan of the original Moto X, chances are you'll like this one, too, so long as the increase size doesn't bother you. If you're looking for a high-end option, we'll wager that it should be able to satisfy you as well. The camera's one area we'll be paying close attention to.

The Moto X will be available later this month in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia. In the U.S., it'll hit some carriers at $99 on contract, and it'll run $499 off-contract and unlocked.

We'll be spending some quality time with the Moto X and will follow up in a bit with a full Moto X review. Stay tuned.