Despite two massive changes in ownership, Motorola's core offering remains powerful and unique.
It's been a rough couple of years for Motorola. Through several significant changes in ownership and a whole lot of shuffling around happening at the lower levels of management, the company has maintained a line of phones that sit just shy of amazing in their overall execution. The original Moto X was a nearly flawless execution of software and form factor with a "good enough" battery and a less than great camera. Its successor blew open the doors of customization and increased the size, but a failure to deliver on a fingerprint sensor and another mediocre camera left a great phone feeling somewhat lacking.
The Moto X Pure Edition is the third attempt to pull together all of Motorola's fantastic software ideas into a hardware package that is both compelling and functional, only instead of gunning for the top spot on the charts the company is aiming squarely at the budget market. Phil reviewed it, and I've been exploring the phone right alongside him. As a huge fan of the last two offerings who had moved on to lesser experiences with amazing cameras and outstanding craftsmanship, Motorola needed to be more than cheaper to hold my attention for particularly long.
It's been nearly three weeks, and even though I'm surrounded by all of the fantastic phones we've seen so far this year the Moto X Pure Edition is still the phone I reach for.
About this review
I (Russell Holly) have been using the Moto X Pure Edition from Moto Maker, provided by Motorola, for just about three weeks. This Moto X Pure Edition has been used on Verizon Wireless, almost entirely on LTE in Glen Burnie, Maryland. It's running Android 5.1.1 (LPH23.116-18) out of the box, and is the 32GB mid-price model retailing for $449.
Moto X Pure Edition hardware
Let's start this section off with a declaration. From this point forward, I am going to stop writing or saying "this phone is too damn big" when discussing my personal feelings on a phone. I'm doing this for a couple of reasons. For starters, I said the exact same thing about the Moto X 2014 when it first crossed my desk after having used the original Moto X for so long. It's the same thing I say about every phone in this category, and truth be told just about every phone I touch is roughly the same size as the Moto X Pure edition nowadays.
Physically, this phone isn't all that different from the G4, the Note 5, and even the Nexus 6. Calling these phones "too damn big" is lazy, and doesn't appropriately explain what it is about the design that makes the phone more or less comfortable to hold and use. So I'm done with it, starting now.
I think the ergonomics of the Moto X Pure edition are a little on the awkward side for anyone looking to use the phone with one hand. Like the Moto X 2014, it feels like the Moto X Pure Edition is a blown-up version of the original Moto X. This phone is thinner at the edges than it is in the middle by a significant margin, which worked for the last two Moto X models. It even worked for the Nexus 6, which is noticeably larger than the Moto X Pure Edition. What seems to be causing a problem for me in this generation is insufficient tapering at the edges. The Moto X Pure Edition is noticeably thicker at the edges when compared to the Moto X 2014, and that makes doing things like reaching across the screen often result in accidental presses from your palm on the other side of the screen. If you're using the phone with two hands most of the time you probably wouldn't ever notice this, but if you're used to using a single hand to get things done you probably won't appreciate the ergonomics here.
This ends up being the tale with a lot of the Moto X Pure Edition experience. Not the absolute best, but still really good.
Instead of opting for leather or wood on the back of this Moto X Pure Edition, I went with the textured black coating. The added texture gives just the right amount of grip and feels nice when you run your fingers across it, but can be a but of a fingerprint magnet. The metal strip on the back of the phone brings back the subtle dimple with the Motorola M we lost in the last version thanks to what was almost a fingerprint sensor, and like its predecessor the dimple is perfectly placed for resting your finger. It's also great as a stabilizing point when taking a photo, which is more necessary now than it has been in the past thanks to the increase in thickness.
There's something about the metal trim surrounding this version of the Moto X Pure Edition that feels different from the previous year, making the trip feel a little more slippery than the last version. It's coated so the color more closely matches the all black exterior, and when you combine that with the added plastic on the side to hold the front glass panel in place there's noticeably less grip to the outer edge of this phone. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but probably something worth keeping in mind when choosing your build on Moto Maker. Unfortunately, Motorola automatically chooses the color of this metal trim based on the color of your front casing, so if you want that shiny, grippy edge to your phone you'll probably have to go with a white front.
The front-facing speakers on this phone are great. Not the best, not quite BoomSound, but very good speakers for a smartphone. It completes the phone as a media consumption machine, especially if you are propping the phone up in a parked car or in your cubicle to catch a quick YouTube video or something. I'm also a fan of the audio quality you get from the headphone jack. Again, not quite the best, but significantly better than a lot of the phones we see in the sub $400 category.
It's easy to knee-jerk whenever someone says LCD, especially if you're used to really nice AMOLED displays, but the display on the Moto X Pure edition is exceptional. It blows away the display on the Nexus 6, and with exception to total brightness competes directly with Samsung's panels. Since nothing else comes even close to competing with the brightness of Samsung's display, the one place you'll find this screen struggle is direct sunlight. It's not a complete washout like you see with so many LCD screens, but it's clearly not as good as Samsung.
This ends up being the tale with a lot of the Moto X Pure Edition experience. Not the absolute best, but still really good. Better than you'd expect for its price point in every category, which is significant. It's not something Motorola has been great at in the past when it comes to their top tier phone, and it's nice to see the focus on overall quality has paid off.
Moto X Pure Edition software
There's something incredible about what Motorola has accomplished with their software. When you move from a One M7 to an M8, or from a Galaxy S5 to an S6, or even from a G3 to a G4, there's a whole new visual language waiting for you. HTC, Samsung, and LG spend a ton of time making their visual language unique, and yet with every iteration of their phones users have to re-learn how to use their phone by adjusting to icons and features that weren't there before. In many cases it's a good thing, since none of these companies are particularly good at visual identities that last more than a generation or two. Someone moving from the Moto X 2014 to the Moto X Pure Edition is getting a nearly identical visual experience, with a nearly identical feature set, and that has everything to do with the way Motorola approaches software.
The feature set you have on the Moto X 2014 right now isn't the same as what you had on the day you bought it, and that's because Motorola has constantly been improving and adjusting. Adding features to Moto Voice, adding Moto Gestures, removing things no one is using, and almost all of it is done without system updates. Motorola's core features are all updated through Google Play, so updates are casual and just sort of happen. There's no need to hold on to features for some big unveil with the next version of the hardware, because new features can be constantly pushed to the phone over its lifetime and the users can constantly appreciate the way their phone improves over time.
The best part of this experience is the way Motorola's software lives on top of a mostly Nexus-style flavor of Android. Google's launcher, Google's keyboard, Google's visuals for settings, and Motorola's features baked right in. Things like Attentive Display, where the phone stays awake as long as the front facing camera can see your eyes, looks like it is a part of Android even though it's something Motorola has been working on and finally has working really well. If you want Google's features instead of Motorola's features, like those folks who prefer Ambient Display over Moto Display, it's yours with a button press.
This will always be the advantage Motorola holds over everyone who isn't Google, and while we keep saying things like "hopefully more manufacturers will follow" it's fairly clear at this point that won't happen on this scale. It requires a specific internal culture to make something like this happen, and hopefully Motorola's new owners respect that culture and this fantastic way of updating software continues for years.
Moto X Pure Edition battery life and internals
My day starts at right around 5 in the morning, and I'm not usually back to the charger by my bed again until 10 in the evening. While I am surrounded by outlets and cables and batteries all day, it's important to me that a phone be able to last my full day without needing power unless I'm doing something like driving for an hour with navigation on or I've been sucked in to a couple hours of Vainglory or Ski Safari 2. 17 hours off the charger under my usage is a lot to ask of any phone, and not all of them can deliver. We see a lot of talk about how fast charging or wireless charging exist to fill in the gaps, and for me that's not good enough. I love leaning on quick charge when I need to, and wireless charging is neat, but these shouldn't be every day shortcuts.
The Moto X Pure Edition's 3000 mAh battery hovers right around 10 percent remaining by the time I am ready to head to bed, and the included turbocharger can get me another 45 percent battery after about 10 minutes plugged in. It gets the job done, which is more than I could ever say for the Galaxy S6 edge I was using before switching to this phone for review.
Battery life and performance are unlikely to ever be an issue for folks who want to pick this phone up.
During those 17 hours the phone is off the charger, the Moto X Pure Edition performs almost flawlessly. The Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of RAM included for this build is more than enough for day to day tasks, but occasionally the phone seemed to take longer than it should have to perform some of the Moto-made actions. The double-twist to launch the camera, for example, occasionally took longer to go from vibrating to confirm the command was received to actually giving me a camera to use. The same could be said for Moto Voice, which would occasionally take a second or two to launch after the personalized voice command — in my case it's "Computer, Respond" — was spoken. These delays were far from the norm, but noticeable when they happened.
Battery life and performance are unlikely to ever be an issue for folks who want to pick this phone up. It works well, and it works for quite a while. Motorola did good here, and with Android 6.0 on the way it's likely that battery will continue to improve over time.
Moto X Pure Edition camera
After two Moto X launches promising spectacular and unique camera experiences, Motorola finally has a camera worth talking about in their top of the line phone. The camera on the Moto X Pure edition delivers great pictures over and over again in decent lighting, but in low light it tends to struggle a bit. Compared to the Moto X phones of old, this camera is almost perfect. The photos speak for themselves, especially when compared to the S6, G4, and OnePlus 2.
Now let's talk about this app of yours, Motorola. The Moto Camera app has been pitched over and over again as this super simple interface that gets out of the way so the user can take the best pictures quickly and intuitively. I've never really agreed with any of that. The navigation ring on the left of the interface was clever when the whole phone fit in one hand and you could take decent pictures without using your other hand for stabilization, but now it's time to make some changes. Being out of the way so I can see more of what I'm capturing is great, but being able to quickly do things like switch to 4K video or enable the flash is even better. At the absolute least, put an actual tap to focus mode in the app so I'm not constantly misfiring and filling my Gallery with photos I don't care about.
Motorola stepped up in a big way here, and it's about damn time too. With a third-party camera app installed, taking pictures on this phone is finally a decent experience. It's not the best, but certainly one of the better smartphone cameras out there.
Moto X Pure Edition the bottom line (for me)
A popular comment I see when criticizing phones that are lacking in one area or another is how great that phone is "for the price" and generally speaking I think that's crap. A great phone "for the price" is something inexpensive that performs above expectation. It's something that is great and inexpensive, not something that could be great but a couple of sacrifices made it just OK.
The Moto X Pure Edition is a great phone, and it's also an inexpensive phone. It's a great phone for the price, by which I mean it competes with the top of the line in every single category and is somehow several hundred dollars less than those top of the line phones. It's not the best phone on the market, but it's easily the best phone starting at $400. It's also the most customizeable phone you can buy today, and because there's no carrier variant of the phone there's no need to worry about what the future of this phone looks like when it comes to software updates.
For the forseeable future, I'm a Moto X user once again. This time, however, I don't feel like I'm sacrificing anything to get the experience I want. It's a solid, big phone, and it's something anyone looking for a new phone right now should seriously consider spending money on.