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Hello (again) Moto: Motorola’s Moto X reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 2:16 pm 13/05/2014

Motorola’s return to Australia is with the year old Moto X, a phone that prioritises voice over touch, encouraging you to talk to your phone rather than prod it with orders. But does it work, or should you wait for generation two?

Features

The first phone from Motorola that we’ve seen in ages, the Moto X is a wee bit late coming to Australia. Launched last year, the device back then offered some decent specifications that weren’t quite as high as the competition, and now looks a little dated, especially in comparison against some of the other devices seeing shelves now.

Some of these specs include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro, and not the quad-core version that graced LG’s Optimus G last year. Rather, Motorola has equipped the dual-core model clocked ay 1.7GHz, running alongside the Adreno 320 graphics chip, 16GB storage with no microSD expansion, and that sweet spot of 2GB RAM.

Connections for the Moto X include 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 with LE, GPS, Near-Field Communication (NFC), and support for both 3G and 4G LTE in Category 3 (up to 100Mbps).

Cameras are pretty normal on devices, and the Moto X is no different, with a 10 megapixel shooter on the back capable of recording in 1080p Full HD, and supported with a flash. A 2 megapixel shooter sits on the front, once again capable of recording 1080p Full HD videos, too.

All of this sits under a 4.7 inch AMOLED screen showing the HD resolution of 720p, or 1280×720, with the soft buttons included as part of the display and capable of changing dependent on the app or operating system at the time, part of Android’s current design language.

The most recent version of Android runs here, version 4.4.2 also known as “KitKat,” with very little overlay changing from Motorola. In fact, Motorola’s elements can be upgraded individually without needing the entire operating system to be updated, which is an interesting shift from what manufacturers traditionally do.

Ports and buttons are few on the Moto X, with two physical buttons on the right edge — power and volume rocker — and only two ports, with a 3.5mm headphone jack up top and a microUSB charge and data transfer port down below.

A nanoSIM tray can be found on the left edge, ejectable thanks to a pin ejection tool.

The battery is rated for 2200mAh.

Performance

You can’t look at the history of the mobile phone without revisiting some of the brilliant concepts that came before the smartphone we know and love today. There have been quite a few of them, but Motorola was one of the brands that helped kickstart it all, what with products like the StarTAC and the original RAZR, which helped cement the brand in the minds of customers all over the world.

Unfortunately, the company didn’t find tremendous success with its take on how phones should evolve, and bowed out from Australia eighteen months ago.

Times change, though, and so do companies, and this year, Motorola is back with products it think can bring the fight to the other companies.

The first of these we’re getting to see is the Moto X, Motorola’s play for the mid-range that brings the best of Google in a 4.7 inch size with 4G and a heap of voice control.

Pick it up and you see that the phone isn’t quite the big devices we’re seeing from other brands, going with last year’s definition of big from HTC, which was a 4.7 inch screen.

For some, that screen size is perfect, and is the next logical place for an iPhone owner to go, jumping from the 4 inch screen to something more manageable than the 5 inch minimum bodies many are seeing today.

In the hands, the Moto X is more than just a screen, with a matt plastic body that almost comes off feeling rubberised, but still has a degree of heft. In fact, the phone weighs in at 130 grams, a comfy weight that doesn’t make it a burden in your pocket at all.

Switch the phone on and you’ll see the screen come to life, an excellent AMOLED that looks great from most angles, though can wash out at extreme vertical viewpoints. Beyond that minor issue, the screen’s pixel clarity is close to what Apple offers in its Retina-grade iPhone products, with a rating of 312 pixels per inch, just ten below the iPhone number.

Using Android, owners of the phone will find an experience so close to what Google envisioned, it’s hard to see what Motorola did that was different. And really, the point of this is that Motorola didn’t do much on the surface.

Given that Motorola made this into a very Google-ish phone is hardly surprising, since the company is owned by Google, pending completion of a sale to ThinkPad-maker Lenovo.

But the resemblance to a Google phone is something that is very noticeable, thanks to the way Motorola has handled building the phone. Rather than create an Android overlay that runs over the surface — which is what pretty much every Android handset manufacturer does — Motorola let Google run Android the way it’s supposed to, and then provided some of its programs to hook into the operations of the phone.

There’s a little more to it than that, because the phone is always looking out for you to say certain phrases and the lockscreen is very different, but for the most part this is a clean Android experience that feels evolved.

How evolved?

Well for starters, the Moto X is always listening, and takes voice interaction to as different level.

No longer do you have to press a button to bring up the voice commands, because you can simply say “OK Google Now” to kick the process into gear. Then you can say whatever you want, and hope that Google gets the message, with the phone passing the translation off to the Google Now service and then running the command.

It’s a neat taste of what the future has to offer, and while it works brilliantly for some voice commands (and others less so, which we’ll get to later), the Moto X’s voice technology is one of those ideas we wish came in more phones, rather than the health related gimmicks we’ll get tired of using quickly.

You don’t have to talk to your phone, mind you, and there’s a perfectly excellent interface for those of you who prefer to use the phone with hands and fingers. With that in mind, the Google launcher is pretty stock, with a shortcut dock you can easily change, a simple flowing menu system, multiple widget-ready homescreens, and a dropdown notification bar that shows you everything you need.

The performance is also not half bad across most things, even if the processor isn’t that much better than some of the phones we were seeing last year.

Indeed, that Qualcomm dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.7GHz can’t exactly hold a candle to the Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip being used in either the HTC One M8 (2014) or the Samsung Galaxy S5, but it still seems to work well across multiple apps.

In fact, with a fair stock version of Google’s Android here, apps run without any real issues, with a hint of lag popping up only when heavy applications are trying to be loaded.

Mobile performance is also equally decent, and while the Moto X running on Telstra didn’t totally blow our minds, we did see speeds between 20Mbps and 40Mbps through our tests.

There are also little touches that make the Moto X truly charming, such as “Spotlight Stories,” an extra program that brings a dose of augmented reality to entertainment, and invites you to watch a lovely little animated show that’s happening, in essence, all around you.

When run, each of these stories — there are only two at the moment — shows a little animated world that you’re invited to see through your phone, with your world becoming that world.

It’s cute, charming, and frankly the sort of thing you don’t expect to be included, which is why it’s so nice that Motorola has thrown it in.

Sometimes it even pops up without telling you, which can add a smile to your day.

Motorola’s notifications system is also pretty cool, and finds a way to cut down on power usage by providing a simple way to read your notifications and messages without waking up the entire phone. When a notification comes in, it blinks in black and white on the screen.

To read, you simply hold your finger down on the notification icon and the messages can be previewed at the top and bottom of the display.

In theory, this should cut down on the screen usage, which is one of the biggest killers of a smartphone battery.

Motorola Migrate is also a lovely addition, and makes the jump from another phone to this one particularly easy, even working with iPhone.

We’ve written about this one before and wondered if perhaps Motorola would release this Motorola-specific app to other devices, but to see it in action is pretty impressive, creating a direct network connection and grabbing your contacts, texts, photos, music and more.

It can take some time, but it eases the burden significantly of trying to get your stuff moved from point A — your old phone — to point B — that new one you just went out and bought.

Even Motorola’s decision to make the camera open up with two shakes of a hand — we’re serious about that — is cute, and provides an easy way for people to launch the camera from their pocket, which is especially handy if you know why you’re getting the phone out in the first place.

That camera is also an area where Motorola gets points. Not because it’s the best phone camera we’ve ever come across — it’s not, but it’ll provide great quality for most of what you need it for.

No, the Moto X’s camera is good because Motorola has tweaked the software to be easy to use, and easy to use in a way that iPhone owners expect.

It’s not enough to make the camera have loads of options or offer great quality; it has to be easy to operate, and that’s what smartphone owners from the fruit-flavoured persuasion are often expecting.

Fortunately, the camera in the Moto X has one of the easiest interfaces we’ve ever used, with a simple control wheel for switching on specific HDR modes, the flash, and even switching the shutter sound off (something the Samsung Galaxy S5 has issues with).

In fact, you don’t even need to worry about the settings if you don’t want, simply touching and firing a shot, often resulting in decent 10 megapixel images that might not be on par with what other flagships are offering, but still is decent overall.

One thing isn’t good on this phone, and that’s the battery life, managing barely a day. You can achieve more if you don’t use the phone much, though that does kind of defeat the point.

In fact, using our handset for emails, phone calls, Google chat, web surfing, tweeting, and more, we managed just that single day of performance, even when we were using that middle-of-the-screen special sauce for notifications that apparently increases battery life.

Part of this battery issue may come from this phone always listening, which means the microphone is essentially always looking out for you to say “OK Google Now,” ready to translate your voice and run your search on Google’s Now system, which itself doesn’t need to the “now” part of your “OK Google Now” phrase, even if Motorola seems to.

That brings up another point, because while the Moto X is easily one of the most voice friendly touch-less smartphones out, there are still things that it can’t really do.

For instance, while we could get the phone to read us our daily schedule and tell us the weather, and even set reminders and alarms, getting it to do some searches proved difficult, and playing music wasn’t quite as positive an experience when said out loud. Directions to places also wasn’t as positive as we’d hoped, but this could get better in time with more vocal training.

One last issue is that there’s no way of upgrading the storage. Call it a pet peeve, but just like last year’s HTC One, you’re stuck with the 16GB of storage inside, with the Moto X providing the same hardware limitation of the iPhone.

A nanoSIM slot, but no microSD expansion slot. Sigh.

Conclusion

There’s a lot Motorola gets right in the X, and even though it’s a year late and the battery only lasts a day, the Moto X is still an excellent performer that’s not only easy to use, but also encourages you to speak up.

Owners of the iPhone 4/4S curious to make the jump to Android will likely be intrigued by the $500 price and inclusion of 4G, as well as decent voice control and a bigger screen capable of offering more of the web in your hand, but if you have a hankering for something bigger and more powerful, you might just want to sit tight or see what the competition is offering, or even check out Google’s slightly less expensive Nexus 5.

Price (RRP)

$499

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Easy to use; Decent way of checking messages and notifications without needing to switch the entire screen on; Comfortable in the hands; A close-to-pure Android experience without buying a Nexus; Some cute little touches like Spotlight Stories;

Product Cons

Voice conversion doesn't always work perfectly; Battery barely hits a day of performance; No microSD expansion;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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