Google's two smartphone divisions offer a very different take on 'stock' Android

We love Android phones. That means we have a few of them laying around, and when a hot new one like the Nexus 5 comes out, we can take our time and compare our favorites against it. You've seen how we think the G2 from LG and HTC's One match up to Google's new Nexus, and now it's time for my take on how the Moto X fares against the mighty Nexus.

It's worth mentioning that I almost didn't write this. I'm pretty impressed with the Moto X and phones that can't duplicate it's features aren't going to win my heart. But in the end, since I've been using a Moto X every minute of every day since they became available, it fell on my shoulders. I'm also a huge Nexus fan, so I think we can keep things fair. 

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That being said, let's have a look at two of the best phones money can buy on any platform today — the Moto X and the Nexus 5.

The stuff you can touch


These are two simplistic yet sexy phones. "Plastic done right" sounds a little corny, but the soft touch coating and hard angles where the back meets the sides make either feel really nice while they are in your hands. My particular color choices make things a little tricky, because the woven white of the Moto X shows every bit of yard dirt or grease from your hands, and the matte black of the Nexus 5 shows oily fingerprints no matter how much rubbing alcohol you clean your hands and fingers with. So far, both have easily wiped clean. I wouldn't carry the white Moto X in jeans lest it turn blue, and If I were eating ribs or something equally greasy, I'd not touch the Nexus 5 until I had soaked my hands in turpentine for fear of permanent fingerprints. 

The one difference in holding these two is the slight curve of the Moto X. If you like your phone to fill your palm you'll appreciate it. If you grip your phone tight from the sides, you'll like the Nexus 5 more and it's sharper angles. Chances are, you would like the way both of them feel in your hand, and the overall design and size of either is almost perfect.

When you move around to the front, things also look pretty much the same. Sure the round earpiece speaker on the Nexus is different than the traditional one on the Moto X, but both phones are a full sheet of glass housing a touch screen and a handful of sensors. They both have deliciously small bezels on the sides, and while the Nexus 5 has a larger bottom bezel it also houses a multi-color LED notification light. 

The buttons, USB ports and headphone jack are typical buttons, USB ports and headphone jacks. The ceramic on the Nexus 5 isn't special, and neither has any quality worth mentioning that you won't find on every other smartphone.

Plain and simple — both these phones look and feel great while you're holding them, and only personal preference will come into play to say one is "better" than the other. 

The screens


You're seeing both ends of the smartphone screen spectrum here. The Nexus 5 has a nice 1080p IPS LCD at 4.95-inches, while the Moto X has a 720p 4.7-inch AMOLED screen. Neither is as good as the HTC One, but neither is as bad as the Galaxy Nexus, either.

The 1080p screen is better on paper, but the only time I notice a real difference is when reading. As a life-long insomniac, I do a lot of reading on my smartphones and tablets. I appreciate the crisper text the 1080p LCD can deliver, especially if I'm reading online and can't change the color scheme from black text on white background.  For everything else, including watching videos, there's not enough difference here for me to notice. 

The nerd in me is an AMOLED fan. Being able to turn on a single pixel, and save battery based on color is pretty damn cool. Motorola uses this to their advantage, which we'll see in the software section below. But I can't deny that an LCD gives a sharper picture when it matters most. 

It's worth mentioning that my Moto X is slightly pink and my Nexus 5 is slightly green. You see this when they're side by side with a white background showing. Using them both at the same time makes me feel like I'm watching some sort of 1970s 3D movie, but when not side by side I can deal with it. Neither Motorola or Google has spent a ton of money getting the screens calibrated.

Because the text is sharper, I have to say the Nexus 5 has a better screen. It doesn't suffer from being 1080p while playing 3D games, because the Snapdragon 800 has enough ass to push all the pixels. Point to the Nexus here.

Lets do some core counting (Specs)

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Lots of numbers here. They all favor the Nexus 5 (unless a temperature sensor counts). You can look at these all day, and form whatever opinion you like, but the fact is that Motorola's custom micro-architecture — dubbed X8 — drives Android as fast or faster than the "superior" hardware in the Nexus 5. Until we have apps that require a certain screen density, or four (or more) cores for CPU threading — and those will come — whatever magic Motorola did with the MSM8960 works. And it does it for a lot longer.

battery stuff

I've spent a good bit of time looking at just why the Moto X gets better battery life for most people than the Nexus 5 does (don't hate — I easily get 10 or more extra hours myself from the Moto X). I think I found something relevant. I tossed both the Nexus 5 and the Moto X on the charger until full, then set them on my desk, face down and didn't touch them for about two hours. This is the result.

Not only is the Nexus 5 awake at least twice as often as the Moto X, but with both phones using a T-Mobile SIM card, on the same account, on the same desk, the signal uses more juice to stay alive on the Nexus 5, as indicated by the yellow "Mobile network signal" bar.

This is good news if the radio is causing the seemingly random experience with battery life. Having been a Nexus user since the Nexus One, I can tell you that they all ship with radios that make you say "meh." And they all get better after an update or two. My N5 has a good signal if you look at the bars or go into the settings to see the actual dbm, but it takes more battery to make it happen. We place a lot of emphasis on screen-on time, but that only tells part of the story. These devices spend most of the time with the screen off, and how well they manage battery life then is important.

If you like big numbers and reading about benchmarks, you want the Nexus 5. If you want the same performance, with better battery life, and don't care that your benchmark isn't the biggest in the locker room, you want the Moto X. To me, a phone on the charger is worthless no matter how well the specification sheet reads. I'll take the Moto X and it's battery life every time.

The Software


The Nexus 5 ships with KitKat. It will also get the inevitable updates to KitKat long before any other phone does.

This is a big draw, and can't be dismissed. That's why it's in bold, because it's so damned important. 

We can sit here and say "I don't see anything in KitKat that makes it better than Jelly Bean!" And we would all be wrong. KitKat is a huge update under the hood, and will change the way Android and applications are written going forward. The way applications load and run in the background has changed, and that's the reason you can get about 18 hours of battery from the Nexus 5 — even with it's small battery. And it really makes me excited to see how well battery management will be on the Moto X when it gets updated. You want KitKat, even if you don't care how things look on the surface. We didn't even mention critical security updates, which will hit the Nexus 5 before any other phone.

But that's where the advantages stop.

Motorola has taken what the Android team has written, and added some really useful features to it. They're not competing with Google's services, they're giving more that no other phone has right now. My favorite — and a must have on any phone I carry — are Active Notifications. A blinking LED tells me I have an email on my Nexus 5, but the Active Notifications let me see all the notifications I haven't looked at, and with a simple tap on the locked screen i can preview the latest. This has changed the way I use my phone, and frankly I've no need for a Pebble or any other smart watch right now most of the time. 

The more flashy software addition from Motorola is Touchless Control. Excellent while driving, your Moto X listens for the key phrase even when the screen is off. By default (you can change it if you're crafty) saying "OK Google Now" lets you have access to all of Google Now's voice actions, as well as extras from Motorola while Moto Assist has you in driving mode. With the Nexus 5 you have to have the phone on and be on the home screen to activate voice actions.

Yes, some Samsung phones can do something similar, but it rarely works, lags your system, and drains your battery. The reason it works well here is the processor arrangement on the Moto X. Using coprocessors clocked very low that use very little battery, the phone can listen while the main processor is asleep. If it hears the predetermined phrase, it wakes up ready to go. The Snapdragon 800 also has a low-speed low-power coprocessor, but Google chose to use if for health and fitness purposes like communication with a heart monitor or pedometer. 

On both phones you have "stock" Android. Motorola Mobility's Punit Soni and Dennis Woodside have promised 4.4 for the Moto X very soon, but the Nexus 5 already ships with it. That's an important distinction. But as long as nobody is pulling our leg and KitKat comes fast and furious, I have to give the nod to the Moto X on the software side. I can't add the features I like to the Nexus 5. Apps from Google Play do a good job trying, but they aren't as accurate and suck your battery.

The camera


If you're buying either of these phones for the camera, you're doing it wrong. Both have an adequate shooter, but neither is going to consistently produce great shots. Users who aren't afraid to fiddle with settings will get better results than those who only use automatic settings, but really either camera will produce pictures that are great for sharing on Facebook or Google+ with little to no post-editing.

The thing to remember here is that while the hardware is not going to change, the software can and will. This made a dramatic difference in the Moto X, and could do the same for the Nexus 5. All we can do is evaluate them based on their performance now. 

I have a table I take all my pictures on. It's lit with lights leftover from a fish tank, and the lamps are really bright and mimic daylight very well. I have a handful of little Android figures there, because they make for a less boring background in pictures of phones and tablets. I put a smartphone attachment on my tripod, and placed it 21-inches away then took these pics. You look at them, and you decide — I can't give you any better than these in a completely controlled environment. For what it's worth, the non-HDR shot from the Moto X is what it looks like to my eyes, with the HDR+ shot from the Nexus 5 a close second.

Nexus 5  Nexus 5 HDR+

Moto X  Moto X HDR

To me, there's no real winner here. All four pictures look like they went through some hipster grunge filter, have too much structure, and have crazy lens distortion. That makes them perfect for Facebook, but not so much if you want to make a billboard out of them. Use the either camera often, get to know it, take lots of shots, and practice with Snapseed or the Google+ photo tools. You'll be fine.

If you want me to pick, I'll take the Moto X. HDR is better on the Nexus 5, but tap to focus then shoot is great. Install a third party camera app with it's own HDR and shooting modes, and it's back to a toss up.

My verdict


This is almost impossible. 

The Nexus 5 is the best phone in production today. Starting at $349.99, you will not find any phone this good that's this cheap. It's the best Nexus phone made so far, and is an improvement in every way (except maybe the sexy way, because the Nexus 4 and its glass back is ohmygod nice) over the previous Nexus phones. Samsung, Apple, Nokia, HTC and the rest make phones as nice and as feature packed as the Nexus 5, but they're double the price. You can not ignore this, and with this in its corner the Nexus 5 is hands-down the phone I would recommend to a smartphone enthusiast who probably spends too much money on devices.

That doesn't mean it's the phone I would recommend to everyone, or pick myself.

For the former, the Moto X isn't it, either. That distinction goes to the HTC One, which is another article altogether. I have a lot of smartphones here because I need them to do my job. The same way a plumber needs wrenches or a carpenter needs a hammer, we need phones. They're a tool to do our work with. We all have one tool we like the best, and carry in our pockets every day, every time, every where. For me, that's still going to be the Moto X. 

But damn that Nexus 5 is nice, and Google really has really outdone themselves. Phil has been using it steady, as well as Andrew. Alex had to review it, and we use a phone hard before we review it, so he doesn't count (sorry, Alex). I cant fault them for preferring it. 

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