Moto X Active Display

Easy on the eyes and easy on battery life, Active Display is a great addition to the Moto X

It's easy to overthink Active Display on the Moto X. It's also easy to underestimate its impact. What we've got here is a quick and easy way to get information onto your display without having to hit the power button and firing up the whole screen. From there you can decide whether the notification is important enough to act on — Oh, no! Timmy's stuck in a well! — or or whether it can wait till later — Yes, I'll take out the trash. Later.

Think about that for a minute. How many times a day do you pull your phone out of your pocket to check the time? Or to check for a notification? Each time you're hitting the power button. On LCD displays, that's what you're stuck with. AMOLED displays let you fire up individual pixels, and that's what Motorola's doing here. And it's done it pretty well. 

How Active Display works on the Moto X

As far as the end user — that's us — is concerned, Active Display lives above the lock screen, and above the lock screen widgets. Save for the clock, the only other thing you get is notifications.  But you're not stuck with just a few notifications. Practically any app that can spew notifications can ping Active Display.

Active Display is enabled by default. You'll start to see it work, well, immediately. As soon as your phone is sleeping, you'll see the white digital clock flash onto the screen. Then off. Then on again. Motorola calls that "breathing." And Moto X is pretty smart about it, showing the clock when you take the phone out of your pocket, or by picking it up if it's left face-down. Need to see what time it is, or if you have a notification waiting? Just look at the phone. Don't press the power button.

It's handy as hell. And it's good on battery life. (That's something to remember before you start yelling for a certain editor to show his screen-on time. Less is better, by design.)

To see notifications, all you have to do is tap on the symbol in the middle of the screen. Depending on how many notifications are waiting on you, you might see some at the top and the bottom. Swipe up to go straight to the app that's notifying you. Swipe down to unlock the phone.  Swipe right from the middle to clear all the active notifications and start fresh.

You don't actually see the detail of a notification until you tap the screen, so you don't have to worry about prying eyes.

What about my usual lockscreen widgets?

The Moto X runs Android 4.2, and that means it's got lockscreen widgets. To use them, just hit the power button to wake the phone and skip all this Active Display stuff. From there you're good to go.

What if I have lockscreen security turned on?

Couple options here. There's an option in the Active Display settings that'll either show or hide notifications if you have a lockscreen password turned on. Your call. (We're not sure yet what corporate security policies might do to that. We'll update when we find out.) If you chose not to see notifications, the clock will still work, as will the notification icons. You'll just not see previews.

Do I have to use Active Display? What other settings are there?

Active Display is on by default, but, no, you don't have to use it. Active Display is prominently displayed in the settings menu. From there you can turn it off, choose which apps you want to display notifications — hint: fewer is better, but by default any newly downloaded app will be added to the list — choose whether you want to hide notification previews when you have a PIN or password lock, or whether (and when) you want to see Active Display at night.


Reader comments

Inside the Moto X Active Display


I really hope this is something that gets baked into the AOSP at some point, hopefuly in 4.3.1.

Sure you have to have an AMOLED display for it but this is just something that's so innovative and super useful it really should be baked in for phones with the compatable displays to use. It would be worth going back to an AMOLED screen in a Nexus device alone if this was built in.

I'm surprised everyone is saying this is so innovative. Does no one remember the Galaxy S ONE did this?

Not only does it require an AMOLED display, it requires the low-power "contextual processor" to display the information without waking the main processor.

So really, you need to thank Samsung and Google for doing this. Motorola is hardly the one to thank here.

Motorola are the ones behind the processor. Samsung made AMOLEDs, hardly innovated anything useful with it when they're too concerned with where the persons eyes are looking with poor impractical hardware implementation

I'm not sure if you have to have an AMOLED or not. It appears that the DROID Mini has a TFT screen; however, also gets active notifications.

The idea behind needing an AMOLED screen has to do with a difference in the way AMOLED works vs LCD. AMOLED works more like a Plasma TV, so only certain pixels can be turned on, rather than the entire screen.

I'll explain, if that didn't help:

In an LCD display, you have several layers (more or less in order from the outside in): A polarizing filter, a transparent color layer, the LCD panel, a diffuser, and then a back light. In an LCD display, the backlight is what sucks down most of the juice. Only the backlight and LCD panel require any kind of power. Every pixel is always "lit" because the backlight shines behind all of them and the LCD panel merely "blocks" that light to achieve the color black. This is why LCD screen used to have issues with "light bleed" around dark areas. This has gotten much better as the layers have gotten smaller.

With an AMOLED display (just like a Plasma TV) each pixel has its own independent "back light". This means that a black pixel is truly "off", not just blocking out the light behind it, so you have a more efficient use of energy. These types of display are much more energy efficient when displaying small bits of data on a black screen, because only those pixels that are actually displaying anything are using power. This also means that, if you're looking at a picture of Antarctica, the LCD screen is probably slightly more power efficient.

TL/DR: LCD and AMOLED consume power very differently :)

If you really want to get better battery life out of your phone (and you have an AMOLED display) use dark-colored themes, in addition to not keeping your brightness maxed out all the time.

Samsung's flap cover with the window does sort of the same thing, answer the phone without the whole screen being activated... Sorry of disappointed that they didn't use the window flap to cool the music player *since you have to open the flap to use it, even contacts could of been searched three the window & much more, kind of like what LG is doing with there LG pro G, which is common for them to city Samsung & improve on their ideas. That only showshow Samsung really is, anyway I just wanted to point out that there is something on an android phone that kind of uses the pixels only to show the time, mail, missed calls & all that. The palm pretty was so ahead of its time & it's sad to see them gone *they choose the most ridiculous phone form to show of its abilities. Anyway I'm switching to at&t and I hate them but they're the best right now, until spring gets their things straight IMO.

Phil, can you clarify on the "breathing" part about Active Display......does it do this perpetually if the phone is laying say face up on a desk? Or does it only do it for a specified period of time (or number of "breaths") and then stops and goes back to a true "sleep" state? Since it hasn't been mentioned, it seems that there aren't further settings to be able to control this aspect and I'm going to assume that it will just be doing it perpetually.

It's supposed to slow itself down after a time. Also, it'll recognize when it's in a pocket or is face down and not "breathe" then — because there's no point.

Adding to phils point when the phone is face down it wont breath because there is no point in doing it.

Adding to blackjaguar25's point, what you said is basically just restating what phil said with absolutely no additional information or perspected.

Allow me to clarify this. "Amen" is often a term that indicates you're in agreeance. Can someone please add to this point? (copy & Paste would be just fine)

I was nto sure if 'agreeance' is a legit word in English, then I researched and found out that its a recently coined trend.
I was about to suggest you Edit and repost (Read as - reply to yourself with the change) using 'Agreement' in the sentence

I'm in agreement with Andrew. 'Agreeance' is an abomination and should be aborted. Also, can we get an edit button up in here?

There is also a setting to turn it off "at night", you can determine the hours. That'll stop it from breathing while you're trying to sleep.

Wonder if some dev would be able to pull it out of MotoX rom and make it work on AOSP based roms for amoled phones...

They could make it work on an AMOLED phone, but you'd still have the main processor active at that point, so battery savings won't be quite the same as the implementation on the Moto X.

I'm sure you could, but you have to remember that this is not only a software thing. They've got a special chip in the phone that *only* does this, so as not to have the main CPU active and draining the battery just to display these notifications.

Would there be a concern for burn in with this feature? I like the screen on the Nexus 4 and on my LG Optimus G Pro. Would be nice to have this feature on that type of screen.

since it's not on all the time but breathing, nope.. pixels get turned off fairly often from what i saw.

I read the article a bit more and saw the breathing part, guess that would help avoid burn in, still would be nice to have it on an LCD too.

How is this any better than Air View or Air Gesture, neither of which require you to actually touch the screen like this does?

I agree those 3 features are useful and maybe a few others but these Moto features are useful without the rest of TW. I can say for myself I like some of TW and I miss some features when I'm on Aosp. But having them on a Clean android experience would be ideal IMO.

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So split screen isn't a cool trick?
smart stay isn't terrible. and Motorola uses Samsung anyway for their technology. Motorola has actually no reason to exist anymore other than to be Google's pawn.

Oh no, this is fine for them since Samsung didn't make it.

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Samsung made the screen and the flash memory. TSMC made the processor. Motorola? nothing. their name needs to be rid of. I'd be happy if the phone was called the Google X.

It's a very good gimmick. Although I'm pretty satisfied with my MaxxHD right now, Active Display is really a good feature that I do wish I had.

On a separate note though, I'm disappointed that Moto eliminated the dedicated HDMI port on all their new phones. I use it for movies at home and can plug into my monitor at work and use a Bluetooth keyboard.

Whoah dude check that ring out. You need to size it up or risk losing that finger bro. Looks like it's gonna pop

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This is an amazing device. It doesn't have great specs at all but it may change the game. It seems like this device is one that is actually built for use rather than for benchmarks. Granted I hope I can play a mean game of Shine Runner or Asphalt 7/8 but it really seems like one of the first innovative things we've seen in a long time. I'm thinking a lot about this device. Hopefully I can find one for cheap from a consumer who just doesn't "get it". I'd have to get my SIM card trimmed though....

What device do you have now? The GPU on the Moto X is an Adreno 320. It's the same as in the S4 Pro in the Nexus 4. In fact, the Snapdragon 600 in the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 is also an Adreno 320 GPU (just a slightly higher clock). Please tell me how the specs on the Moto X are not great now that you have this information.

The specs are just numbers on paper. There have been screenshots that this performs better than the s4 And HTC One.

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This is a good idea. I wonder if someone can come up with this functionality for any phone. Maybe not ripping the files from a moto X install, more like a separate app like lightflow.

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Just installed K2 to give it a shot. When I went into setting to turn it on, a message popped up telling me that it will be able to read all my Texts including CC information but not passwords. I don't think so, Uninstalled until that gets clarified to me. Thanks but no.

I can clarify that actually. K2 puts the body of the text, sender of the e-mail etc onto the alert. In order for it to do that, it needs to have the functionality to read said info.

I actually use K2+. Excellent alternative until some clever devs rip this from the Moto X.

This is also available in the new Motorola droids. In spite of all of these articles on the new features in the Moto X, I'm not aware of any features besides the body/customization that aren't in the new droids, and since VZW customers (I have unlimited data...not switching) can't get the AT&T-exclusive 32GB version of the Moto X, I might just have to settle for 48 hours of battery life in a black slab and get the Droid Maxx.

Question about trading up with Unlimited. Won't Verizon force you off the unlimited plan if you sign a new two year agreement? Or were you planning to buy it at full price? Just curious.

I'm having the same dilemma myself, especially coming from the Razr Maxx. If only the Maxx didn't have those damn hardware keys it'd be a no brainer for me. Probably boil down to the price difference.

This could be modified slightly to work with LCD panels. Remove the "breathing" and add an option to auto wake upon receiving a notification with a timeout option. Other than that, it could work exactly the same. I'm using an app now that's been out for few months called Knock2 that is very similar to what Moto is doing on my Nexus 4, and I've not noticed any real battery drain (Of course, you have to set it right). I'm hoping the Dev will eventually implement some of the new moto features. :)

Except that the differences in technology between LCD and AMOLED mean that it doesn't actually work the same at all.

On a LCD screen there are two modes. On, and off. Either every pixel is lit up, or it isn't. These types of active notifications on a LCD offer no benefit over turning the screen onto the lockscreen.

With AMOLED, you can turn on individual pixels, not just the whole screen, which means if an active notification only needs to turn on 25 pixels, that's all it has to turn on.

that has always been the promise of AMOLED displays, and as far as I can recall, this is among the first time that that promise is actually being used for something useful.

Nokia's symbian phones display a clock on their amoled screens when locked. Not quite as useful as this, but close.

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Your conclusion is correct but you are off on the details.

LCDs are translucent when off and opaque when on. If you see a black screen on your LCD it means that all of the pixels are on. The backlight, which represents the vast majority of the power drain for an LCD, is still on even if the screen is completely black. The pixels being lit or not lit has little effect on battery consumption. Backlight on versus backlight on is the real metric.

AMOLED is different because there is no backlight and each pixel is its own source of light and the power drain will be proportional to the number of pixels that are non-black. That's why it's a perfect display technology for this type of feature.

Good for Moto for finding a way to maximize the use of an Active Matrix Organic LED by creating an Active Display. I’ve been reminding my fellow co-workers to change any app that gives you the option, to a dark them and use darker wallpapers to maximize their batteries and this just takes it several steps further. Wish I had it on mine.

So, given the difference between this Moto's screen (AMOLED) and the inbound Droid Mini (LCD), the Mini won't have this feature, despite sharing significant Moto DNA with the other phones?

Thanks, Phil, for the walk-thru.

Yeah, I just realized this too. I'd like to replace my Galaxy SIII with a DROID Mini, but not necessarily if I'm going to miss out on this kind of feature. The size of the Mini is the primary draw, so getting an Ultra or Maxx defeats that purpose otherwise. Oh well.

Q: How many times a day do you pull your phone out of your pocket to check the time?
A: Zero, I use my watch.

Q: How many times a day do you pull your phone out of your pocket to check for a notification?
A: Zero, I use LightFlow for pretty much all my Apps so if it's not blinking the LED indicator I know I've got no reason to turn my screen on.

I don't mind the "Active Display" but just hope Nexus devices don't ditch the LED indicator in favor of this.

you're not wrong, but you're also likely in the minority. Most people don't wear watches and just use their phone (which is actually more accurate than a watch but that is beside the point) and I highly highly doubt that most users use lightflow. It's really cool and I've fooled around with it a bit but I can't be bothered to set it up for every app I use.

This brings that kind of thing to the masses, which is a good thing, and I hope it goes everywhere.

If the active display could show something to let me know more about the notifications without having to touch it, I'd be happier.
Lightflow even integrates with the tabs in Gmail, so I know by the color if the email that just came is something I should check, or some crap that can wait. Whether the text that came in is from my family, a friend, or someone else I'm not in a hurry to get a text from.
All without touching the phone. I'm not saying Active display isn't useful. I just prefer not to be constantly having to touch my phone

When you get the LED notification you still have to unlock the phone and turn on the screen to read it, which will use the battery more than then the Moto solution.

First, You actually still own a watch. Wow!

And as far as flashing LED goes, I wouldn’t miss it at all.

I stopped using LightFlow on my Galaxy Nexus when I realized that the notification method it was most effective at is that I knew it was trying to tell me something when I felt a fireball in my pocket, even when I turned down the brightness and frequency of the flashing to a minimum. I am not sure if it was the processor or the display that it was waking up to notify me, but it would eat my battery and heat up the phone to ridiculous levels.

Very nice and agree with the statement on less is more. The Moto X just about sums that up.

Now waiting for that AT&T exclusivity BS is driving me bonkers.

Totally agree w/ this. I'm just waiting for ATT to release the shackles on the 32GB version.

I'm getting kind of confused at this point with the availability of this feature on the Droid Mini. All reviews and information say that Active Notifications are on the Mini, but the Mini has an LCD screen and everything says that an amoled screen is the only thing that makes active notifications possible. Anyone know what 's up?

Active Notifications like this are certainly *possible* on an LCD screen, but the question would be whether or not it's really beneficial due to the increased power required by an LCD to perform this same action.

I explained in some detail the different between LCD and AMOLED further up, but suffice it to say the idea here is to be able to see the clock and notification details *without* have to turn on the *whole* screen, which saves power because you're not actually waking up the device.

While you could do the same thing with an LCD screen, there's really no benefit over just hitting the power button. The LCD backlight has to come on either way, and that's where 90% of the power drain in an LCD display comes from.

Phil, you think there are any chances of getting such feature on nexus4 in the near future?! (Ref to the AMOLED issue.)

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Until I know 1) what is the rate of breathing, and 2) can you control that rate (and if not, why not?) I can't say if this is really a viable feature over an led indicator. Still seems a bit about a company trying to get fancy to replace a highly productive feature with something less efficient just because they could.

Also, having a notification light on the back of the device would be nice so that you can leave Active Notifications on but still receive notifications while your device is face down. And I don't mean some hack that blinks the camera's flash, as that is way too much light.

These mini-reviews are interesting and informative, thank you for posting them. Any ETA on the full Moto X review? Also, what about the new Droid (U/M/m) line -- are you reviewing those, too? I am very interested to see side-by-side comparos, not just on specs, but also on functionality. Thank you, Phil, et al!

I'm really liking what I'm seeing with this device..Still love my GS3 for now, but I have another year to go before I can get an upgrade. Regardless, Google's really done a great job with the X and I suspect by the time I'm ready it will be even cooler!

UM...With these being Amoled screens, don't they suffer from burn-in? It seems like this is a recipe for having a permanent clock shadow on your screen at all times.

Yes I wondered this too. I burned the Navigation UI into my GNex :(. But I think with it being low power, low intensity, presumably this issue is avoided?

Verizon's specs for Droid Mini says it has a TFT display and not AMOLED. Just seems odd or it is flat out wrong with the specs considering it also says "low-power notification system displays alerts so you can avoid constantly waking your phone."

One of my favorite features of meego finally comes to android. Can't believe it took this long

From what I understand, at the moment, it's just the Moto X. But all the new Droid Ultra phones (save for the Droid Mini) have an AMOLED display, so it could most definitely come later, officially or otherwise.

Anyone else notice the infared blinking at 2:46? Kind of like if you point your tv remote at a camera and you can see it blinking. What is that infrared for?

I dont know why but for some reason youve been able to see infrared light blinking through a video camera for as long as i can remember.

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That's the proximity sensor. It's how the screen knows to turn the screen on and off when it is against your face on a call, or when you pull it away. In the case of the active notifications shown here, it's how the phone knows to flash the clock/notifications when it is pulled out of a pocket or flipped over on the desk, and turn them off when it is put back in a pocket or upside down on the desk.

It uses a Samsung OLED. Don't know why this wasn't mention with the S4. And the S4 has a 1080p display as well. what is the reason for Motorola's existence? Google should just change their name by now to Google phone.

Why the hate? If you don't like it, don't buy it. Motorola invented the cell phone. Cut them some slack.

Doesn't the new Galaxy line do the same exact thing, if not similar?
I am NOT hating, I am even thinking of getting the new DROID Ultra to swap SIMS w/ my S4...

This looks like a useful feature. It does remind many users (myself included) of the "Quick Glance" feature debuted by Samsung on the Note II. I don't see the problem in Motorola or / and Google being inspired by other OEM's features and making them better. So what is the big deal people? Can we be mature about this and rejoice in the advancement of tech and Android?

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The Nokia n9 had all of this already on meego ages ago. At that time noone talked about it, now that Google has done it, it's an "innovation"... How pathetic

Was about to post *gigaom article that apparent AC views as spam*

Yeah, figure it will be baked into custom ROMS and that there would be "copy cat apps". Shame it requires 4.3 seeing as how the X is 4.2.2 like me ;) - I realize it requires a special notification module thingy to work.

On the animated GIF, the screen has a spelling mistake...

It says "Sending myself a email"... it should be "sending myself AN email".

Can't believe Motorola made such mistake.

"Sending myself a email" is the subject line of the message. So that's Phil's mistake, not Motorola's. Also funny 'cause he's a professional writer, but it's just a test message so what the heck.

Is active display of any use if your phone is 5 feet away from you sitting face up on a desk? Would you know you have a notification waiting for you? Does it breath indefinitely until you check the notification?

Also, can you customize which apps show up or it it up to the individual app developers to include this? If I use handcent for example will Active Display work out of the box and show me I have a notification waiting or do I have to wait for handcent to hopefully add support for it?