Our top Android phone of 2013 (and then some) revisited — and it's held up quite nicely.
It’s not often that I use one smartphone for six months straight. I’m not supposed to. We have too many good phones come through here. And inevitably I see something shiny that pulls my attention away.
But I keep coming back to the Moto X.
On paper, there’s a lot about this phone that shouldn’t last. A 720p display? That’s so 2012. Not the latest buzzword-friendly processor? DOA. And Motorola? The company that was (and still is) bleeding money and sat out much of 2013 after being purchased by Google? Who knew what to expect. And now Motorola’s been sold off.
But there’s still the Moto X.
We've joked that the Moto X was the most overhyped Android phone since the last overhyped Android phone, and that’s mostly true. I’ve been using this phone as my daily driver since August. Let’s take a look at what’s made it so good, what’s good enough, and what didn’t live up to our expectations.
The Moto X hardware, six months on
It was hard not to be excited about the Moto X in terms of hardware. Let’s start out front.
Never thought I'd say this again — but I'm OK with a 720p display.
A 4.7-inch display — big, but not huge — same as what we’d enjoyed in the Nexus 4 for most of the previous year, but in a slightly smaller body. It’s “only” a 720p display. But for being a lower resolution than what you’d expect from a flagship phone in 2013, it was very capable. Maybe not as great as what LG or HTC have done, but very much useable. Having to push fewer pixels means you’re going to save on battery, period. Not everyone can get away with that trade-off, but Motorola managed to.
The AMOLED display also brought us one of the cool new software features — Active Display, which we’ll talk about in a bit.
The cliche of “feels great in the hand” is very much a subjective measurement. But for me, Moto X has fit my hand better than just about any phone since the fabled Nexus One. A lot of that has to do with the curve on the back of the phone. It’s subtle, but noticeable — and it works. The dimpled Motorola logo is a little gaudy, but damned if I didn’t find myself quickly placing my index finger there. The curved back also allowed for a new kind of “stepped” battery from LG — allowing for more capacity and less wasted space.
On-screen buttons on the display, and volume and power buttons on the right side of the phone — where they belong. No having to reach up to the top of the phone.
Being able to create a custom phone is a win for the customer, but it should have been available to all at launch.
And you can’t talk about the look of the phone without mentioning MotoMaker, Motorola’s Moto X customizer. Different colored backs, fronts and accents, with stenciling on the back, and a custom boot message. You can’t not like choice like that. And while Moto Maker sadly was an AT&T exclusive for the first few months — a mistake we’d implore the company to not make should it try this again — it finally reached more folks before the end of the year.
And then there’s the wood. Actual, organic wood backs. Motorola first showed them off at the launch event in August, but we weren’t able to purchase them until December — and even then just bamboo, for another $100. (Yes, bamboo is grass, not wood. Don’t get us started.) It’s gimmicky — and apparently the woods are more “wood-like” than actual samples — but it’s still a really cool option. Thumbs up. Very cool. It is more slick than the soft-touch backs, though.
Not sure if this was because my first Moto X was slightly pre-release, but some of the blue has rubbed off and turned yellow on the corners. Thumbs down. No good.
Either you worry about the Moto X specs on paper, or you don't. Either way, it runs just fine.
The internals have been another surprise. Again, not the best on paper. Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro — no slouch, but a good generation behind — at 1.7 GHz with a dual-core Krait CPU and a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU. Plus, a natural-language processor, and a contextual computing processor. If you’re counting along, that’s eight cores. And so Motorola gave birth to the X8 Mobile Computing System. That’s different than an “octa-core” processor, a fact lost on some.
I’ve never been one to worry too much about benchmarks or how things look on paper. They either work great or they don’t. And in in Motorola’s case, I’ve had no complaints. I do most of my casual gaming on the Nexus 7, so my Moto X is for everything else. And it’s performed great. And one of the chief reasons is …
Six months of great battery life
'All-day' battery life means whatever Motorola wants it to. But 14 or so hours is plenty for me.
Battery life is great — especially when you consider that battery the Moto X capacity isn’t all that great. Too often folks confuse capacity for performance, that a 2,200 mAh battery shouldn’t last a long time simply because it’s a smaller number than, say, 3,000. At home and the office — where I’m on Wifi a good 90 percent of the time — I easily get about 15 hours without having to charge, which usually gets me from wake-up to bedtime. On the road — which is about as taxing as it gets, especially at trade shows, yeah, I’d need to charge up at some point. But only once.
Motorola talked a lot about “all-day” battery life. That’s not exactly a technical measurement of anything, and, frankly, it sounds like the marketing mumbo jumbo we’ve come to loathe from manufactures. But the fact remains that, pound for pound, Moto X had excellent battery life. From the time I unplug to the time I go to bed? For me, in my normal, everyday routine, that’s “all day.” Your mileage will vary, of course.
I do, however, miss having wireless charging. It’s not the end of the world by any means. But I have wireless chargers just sitting around now, and I love being able to just wake up and grab the phone without the (gasp) hassle of unplugging.
Another strong point for me — the rear speaker. Motorola’s always done well with those, and it continues with Moto X.
Six months with a so-so camera
The Moto X camera was disappointing, but you can still get good shots out of it.
And we’ll close out the hardware with the single-most disappointing feature on the Moto X — the camera. Part of that may be from how much Motorola built it up at our launch briefing. It’s a 10-megapixel shooter with a “clear” pixel to let in more light. But pretty immediately we could tell it simply wasn’t as good as we were told — or even shown. Focusing was odd. Low-light shooting was pretty horrible.
Some of that was addressed in software updates, particularly focus. Keeping HDR turned on all the time helps. I still feel like I’m cheating a bit with that, though. But on the other hand, in this world of Instagram filters and “Auto Awesome” enhancements, what the hell. Airbrush all the things. And a good bit of what bugs me about the camera is that what you see on the screen at the time the shutter fires is different (and often worse) than the end result.
And that’s not to say I don’t get some pictures that I’m not proud of. I’m not blowing things up to be poster-size. Moto X has a decent camera. Not great, but also not one that makes me want to carry a second phone. I’ve also ended up using the wrist-flick to launch the camera app far more than I thought I would. I could still be just a tad faster, but I usually can pull the phone from my pocket, twist the wrist and just about be ready to shoot by the time I’ve lifted the phone into my line of sight.
Six months of subtle software
Like we said from the beginning with the Moto X, what we’ve got here is a mix of stock simplicity — Motorola did next to nothing to change the default Android experience — and a few subtle but important (and extremely useful) additions, smartly integrated into the overall experience.
A "stock" experience with useful features added on? Sold!
Active Display pops the time and notifications onto your screen without having to hit the power button. Only the pixels being used are lit up, so it’s not a drain on the battery. And it’s mostly smart enough to not “breathe” when it doesn’t need to — say, in your pocket, or when left alone for a period of time. Pull the phone from your pocket, though, and you’ll immediately see it fire up. That’s smart. Tap a notification to see a preview — say, e-mail or a text message — and determine if it’s worth opening now, or if you can ignore it for later. If you do want to open it, all you have to do is slide your finger. It’s extremely well done, feels natural and is instantly missed if I grab another phone.
Touchless Control is the next big one. We’ve all gotten used to being able to bark orders at our phone with Google Now, but Motorola took it one step further. You don’t even have to hit the power button first. Just say “OK, Google Now,” and it wakes up and awaits your command. I’ve found it to be great when I’m being lazy — setting a reminder while in bed, for example — and when I’m in the car, a time in which you definitely don’t want to be touching your phone any more than you absolutely have to.
My only real complaint is that it’s still a little slow to open.
And then there’s Motorola Assist, which pared down the old Smart Actions to three sections — Driving, Meeting and Sleeping. I use Driving to read incoming texts and calls to me. And I use Sleeping to silence the phone from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The do-not-disturb mode is a must-have (and really should be baked into Android itself).
Finally, you can’t talk about Motorola without talking about keeping its phones updated. Not only did Moto X get updated to Android 4.4 faster than even Google’s own Nexus 4, it’s already on Android 4.4.2. The question is whether that update pace can continue now that Lenovo owns the company. Was the closer relationship to Google what kept that going? Something else? And how did carrier certification receive approval so quickly? We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
It’s also worth mentioning that Motorola has offloaded a number of its on-device apps to Google Play. We can’t understate the importance of that. For one, it makes updating easy — you do it just like any other app. It also sidesteps the carriers in that updating, say, the camera doesn’t require a complete system update — and therefore doesn’t require carrier certification. That’s a big deal, and it’s made for a better phone.
Six months later? Still my phone of choice
Moto X isn’t going to be in my pocket forever. I know that. It knows that. (At least I like to think it knows that. It’s nothing personal.) I don’t know when that’ll happen, but it’ll happen. Repeat: In all likelihood, we'll probably see a better phone than the Moto X in 2014. Maybe it'll be from Motorola. Maybe someone else.
But it’s going to take a lot to dethrone it, for me. The ergonomics, first and foremost. Huge, flat phones just don’t do it for me. The curviness of Moto X goes a long way toward making it the best phone for me. It just fits my hand the way a smartphone should.
That Moto X was available on so many U.S. carriers so quickly was a big deal. But the same goes for it not being available outside the U.S. for so long. As good as the Moto G is, Moto X is better. The rest of the world deserved (and still does) to experience it.
The bottom line? Six months into the Moto X, I'm still loving it. It's not perfect. But it's far more than good enough.
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