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Motorola’s second-generation Moto X (2014) reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 1:38 pm 13/01/2015

Motorola was last to the table for 2014 flagship phones, with the handsets arriving mere weeks before the year ended. Now that 2015 is here, let’s see what all the fuss is about with Motorola’s all new Moto X.

Features

The second generation of Motorola’s reinvented flagship is here, and while it’s a little late to Australia, it’s here all the same, updating the X series Motorola with a new screen, new innards, and possibly a new reason to update.

First things first, the screen, and for that, you’ll find a 5.2 inch Full HD In-Plane Switching touchscreen relying on AMOLED technology and providing a pixel clarity of roughly 424 pixels per inch, higher than the screen clarity found on both the Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Scratch-resistance has been applied here, too, thanks to Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 sitting on top of the display.

Under this screen is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor clocked at 2.5GHz, working alongside the Adreno 330 graphics chip and 16GB storage, 2GB RAM, and running Google’s Android 4.4 “KitKat” out of the box, with an update to Android 5.0 “Lollipop” available shortly after opening the box.

Multimedia for this smartphone is handled with two cameras, with a 13 megapixel camera on the back with the lens surrounded by a dual-LED flash that appears to be a ring flash, with Ultra HD video capture also possible from this camera. A front camera is included, too, and this is a 2 megapixel camera.

Connections are fairly strong here, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi supported, as well as DLNA, Bluetooth 4.0 with LE, GPS with GLONASS, Near-Field Communication, and of course, support for 4G LTE, which in this phone is rated for Category 4 download speeds of up to 150Mbps.

Wired connections are possible too, though you’ll only find a microUSB port here on the Moto X, found at the bottom of the handset.

A nanoSIM slot can be found, too, ejectable from the phone using a pin eject tool at the top of the handset.

There is no microSD slot on the 2014 edition of the Motorola Moto X.

The handset includes a non-removable battery rated at 2300mAh, and the smartphone is made from a combination of materials, with a metal frame surrounding it all, the typically glass front, and a back made from either leather, wood, or soft-touch plastic.

Performance

In the hands, we have to say we’re fans of the design Motorola is pushing out in the latest X, with a feeling that just works really well.

This design relies on a metal frame to bring together the glass front and soft plastic back, and what really helps is the circular Motorola logo, which provides a perfect indicator for where you should put your finger, making for a very comfy hold without any dramas. You don’t have to hold it like this, mind you, and your forefinger can sit anywhere else, but if you’re having troubles holding the 5.2 inch phone, this is a good place to start.

In the hands, it’s comfy, and the Moto X 2014 slides in and out of our pockets with ease, something the soft touch plastic assists with, we suspect.

Switch it on with the power button on the right side and you’ll see a lovely screen light up in from of your eyes.

For this phone, Motorola has used an AMOLED display running the Full HD resolution of 1920×1080, and it works a treat, with fantastic viewing angles that show vibrant colour from pretty much every viewpoint you can find, reminding us of the practically perfect screen Apple achieved on the iPhone 6.

Google’s Android is the next thing you’ll see, and out of the box, that will be running version 4.4 “KitKat”, but not for long. No, we only had the Moto X out of its packaging for a good ten minutes or so when Motorola informed us that an update was ready to bring this handset into version 5.0, also known as “Lollipop”.

Ten minutes or so later, we had the very latest Google operating system ready to go, providing us with Google’s “Material Design” language, white background app menu, and a multitask function that now split up Chrome tabs into their very own app windows that you can slide out like you’re closing an application.

Android 4.4 "KitKat" on the left two images, and Android 5.0 "Lollipop" in the right two images.

It’s worth noting that Lollipop is here because Motorola’s version of Android is very minimalist, with practically no overlay applied.

This isn’t like Sony’s PlayStation-inspired look, nor is it like HTC Sense or Samsung TouchWiz. It’s just Google’s operating system plain and simple, complete with home screens, app menus, drop down notification bars, and the left most screen for Google Now exactly the way you can experience it if you download the Google Now launcher for your phone or tablet today.

In fact, Motorola is pretty clear about this, keeping things mostly stock and loading its extra stuff on top, downloading as apps from the Google Play Store and only working if you have a Motorola device.

As such, this is Android without any real interface changes outside what Google normally does, and you’ll find a drop down bar that can show your notifications and time with a further swipe down revealing power control shortcuts, three new icons for the back home and multitask buttons (triangle, circle, and square), and a white app menu with an equally white app dock icon.

Your lock screen will also show your notifications, and you can double tap them to go straight to the application in question, which makes it easy to see everything happening to your phone when you need it. Awesome.

Notifications on the lockscreen slide out on the left and right screens, while Chrome tabs are treated like individual apps on the middle image.

Performance is also pretty strong, expected given the hardware found inside the Moto X, though you may find a bit of lag here and there, something we suspect is mostly due to not all apps being totally optimised for the Android 5.0 operating system.

Generally, the OS was super speedy, working beautifully across the board, but it was in certain apps — generally games — where we encountered speed issues from time to time.

Mobile performance is also decent as well, with anywhere between 20 and 50Mbps popping up on our tests on Telstra’s 4GX network in Sydney’s CBD, though more is certainly possible thanks to the use of a Category 4 4G modem, supporting uploads speeds of up to 50Mbps and downloads speeds of 150Mbps.

And despite this being mostly a Google phone, Motorola does include some nice touches that we feel the need to talk about, with many of these also appearing on other Motorola handsets, but still pleasant all the same.

One of these is called “Spotlight Stories”, and basically is a small augmented reality theatre whereby you can watch animated stories happen around you, where your camera position will determine what you’re looking at.

We’ve touched on it before, and if you own a Motorola handset but haven’t yet tried the app, it will eventually make itself known to you by dancing on your screen with an animated avatar, a strange inclusion that encourages you to try the app by making its way to your display and looking almost like a foreign entity.

Touch it and you’ll find yourself in Spotlight Stories, with three stories for Motorola to show you. They’re all short, and the latest of them is “Duet”, a love story hand-drawn and animated by former Disney animator Glen Keane, that will have you moving your phone around a 360 degree space to watch the story of a boy, a girl, and their dog.

It’s very sweet, and while it joins to cute story of a mouse and a hat in “Windy Day” as well as some creatures in the dark in “Buggy Night”, we want more of these from Motorola, as they’re lovely additions that not only show off what the phone can do, but also what the future of animated movies can be, involving your placement in the scene.

Motorola also includes a fair amount of little bits to help you with using the phone, and generally to not touch it as much. The phone can, for instance, always listen for your words to have it do things without touching it, meaning it can always look out for your voice.

We tried getting this to work, but no matter where we tested it, our test rooms were either always too loud or our phrases weren’t complicated enough, even when we used their phrases as guide.

Hopefully you’ll have better luck.

Motorola’s Assist mode is more than just about talking to your phone, with gestures like waving above your phone silencing it when you get a phone call, a wrist twist when you take it out of your pocket switching the camera on, and even some software smarts to work out when you’re in a meeting, when you’re sleeping, and when you’re driving to either divert calls or silence them, accepting alerts from approved contacts or reading out messages so you don’t have to reach for your phone.

In essence, what we get from Motorola’s Assist software is that the phone is trying to do more than just be another smartphone; rather, it is trying to be an assistant, and aside for the issues we had setting up the voice technology, it doesn’t do a bad job of this.

It’s particularly noted on the Active Display technology, which lights up small sections of the screen to save on battery power when you get alerts and notifications. The alerts are also a subdued text only, a grey on black, and while you can touch the alerts to open them up, you can quickly hold the unlock buttons for a Google Hangout, email, or Instagram, and see what the notifications are in one glance, before letting the phone switch back to standby and continue saving power.

This is a technology we wish more phones had, and we’re especially appreciative of what it’s doing to the battery, we also like knowing that all we really need to do is touch the screen lightly or move our hands near phone to get Active Display to start up, ready for us to prod and check a minor notification when we need it.

Indeed, there is a lot to admire about the Moto X for 2014, but Motorola still hasn’t nailed some of the things you’d expect a flagship device to have, especially one that competes with so many other top devices that were released last year.

One of these is the camera, which provides decent photos, though generally only when the camera fires the shot in focus.

If you’re too fast for the camera’s auto-focus to get a lock, or it doesn’t agree with what you’re trying to focus on, you’ll find a few blurry photos waiting for you.

Sometimes focus doesn't work...

...and yet other times it does.

We found the focus issue a few times, usually when we were trying to get a close up or a different focus point that the Motorola disagreed with us on, and when we touched the screen, the Moto X chose to give us blurry photos rather than the sharp shot we were actually going for.

You can change the focus so that it becomes something you select rather than letting it pick for you, but even this doesn’t offer the exact result you’re after, and much of the time with this setting on, the Moto X’s camera refused to focus on some things for us.

The camera isn’t helped by a flash which is designed like a macro ring, but yet functions nothing like one. Either it produces too much light or isn’t working with the camera in a capacity beyond a giant torch, because the Motorola X generally just adds too much artificial light and doesn’t feel like a flash ring should.

In low light, the Moto X camera doesn’t offer the best result you can find, either, with quite a lot of darkness and very little available light dug up. Certainly, some of the image stacking techniques used by other smartphone cameras can result in better jobs, so we’re a little surprised to see Motorola not embracing these methods.

It’s a shame, too, as Motorola has such a brilliant little camera app, with a simple “touch to fire” mechanic that makes the camera feel like such a top entry. The camera app is also very fast, resulting in quick pictures at the best of times. Sadly, though, it is let down by a mediocre camera that doesn’t always nail the image you’re looking for.

You can get great shots out of the Motorola X (2014), just make sure there's enough light.

The battery could also be better, managing merely a day of life for regular users, and less for the more power hungry out there. We found that with phone calls, taking photos, sending and receiving emails, listening to music, playing the odd game, web surfing, social networking, and generally using the phone, with the battery being consumed in the course of a day.

Motorola’s Active Display can help with this a bit, but it is only so useful, so don’t expect it to help keep the Moto X surviving for longer than a day, unless you never check your phone altogether.

Water-resistance is also here, but while this might seem like a positive inclusion, it’s not the sort of resistance we’re going to do a lot of testing on. Rather, this might survive a splash, but we’re not confident of putting this phone through the same rigorous tests other ruggedised phones manage, and that exposed and open microUSB port isn’t going to help here, either.

We suspect Motorola is using a nano coating here for the water-resistance, which doesn’t come with a rating, and means a splash or two, a chance encounter with a few drops of beer, but don’t read “water resistance” as to “let’s go swimming”, because while Motorola could have made that possible, that’s not what you get on the X.

We’re also saddened to see fixed memory, another thing from the 2013 Moto X that has stuck around, and for no good reason.

Motorola probably does have a good reason for this, mind you: Google doesn’t do expandable memory in any of its Nexus products, so this is likely just Motorola matching Google’s design spec for phones and tablets.

That said, Motorola is competing with Samsung, Sony, LG, HTC, Huawei, Oppo, and so many other brands, all of which have flagship phones sporting that microSD slot for taking the storage higher. Even if you don’t subscribe to following what other companies are doing, providing a phone with only 16GB of storage seems a bit of a shock, especially when barely 10GB of it is available to you when all is said and done.

Smartphones like the Sony Xperia Z3, the Samsung Galaxy S5, LG’s G3, and HTC’s One M8 can all get around the 16GB inclusion with a microSD card, but not the Moto X, which is just plain stuck at fixed storage.

We can get around the camera with a replacement for the app that focuses in a more timely fashion, and we can even move past the battery by charging it up nightly and pulling back on the Bluetooth gadgets, but the storage is one issue we’re just stuck on, like the storage itself, and until Motorola moves past this frustrating inclusion, there’s just no way we’d consider the Moto X.

Conclusion

Motorola’s latest X smartphone gets close, and you can see in this handset that the design teams have really worked hard to make the handset a better all-round product.

The design is lovely, with a metal edge that exudes sturdiness, and a choice of rear materials that not only makes the phone lovely to look at, but also brilliant to hold, as well, with rubber, leather, and wood. We like the software and Motorola’s Active Display technology has to be one of the best power reducing concepts we’ve ever seen, and we wish more companies used it.

But the camera, battery, and memory leave us wanting, they really do.

If Motorola includes a microSD card slot, we could excuse more on the phone, but with fixed memory on a device that sports a camera with 4K video capture and 13 megapixel images, not to mention how big apps and games are getting, it’s really hard to forgive.

That said, if you’re good at keeping your phone backed up and on a storage budget, you’ll probably love the Moto X, but we’d really consider looking at the competition, because the storage issue and battery pull this phone back in scores.

Price (RRP)

$749 for the plastic back; $789 for the wooden back;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Feels great in the hands; Metal edges; Motorola logo is indented so you have a place to put your finger and hold the phone; Leather and wood finishes are optional; Beautiful Full HD screen; Pretty much an Android phone the way Google envisioned it; Motorola’s Active Display is one of the best features of any phone; Easy camera interface: just touch and it fires; Camera supports 4K video capture; Spotlight stories is still a lovely inclusion to the Moto X, and if there were more of them frequently available, it would be an even more impressive feature;

Product Cons

Fixed memory and no microSD slot; Camera isn’t slow, but it is often slow to focus; Ring flash doesn’t really work as well as you might expect, often providing harsh excess light; Mediocre battery; Water-resistance is very low-end;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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