Its specs are good enough, its software features are great and it’s relatively inexpensive.
THE GOOD: Great voice control and notifications, pure Android experience.
THE BAD: Camera still isn’t as good as it should be.
RATING: A A A A
My favourite gadget of 2013 was the Moto X, the first new flagship phone from Motorola after the company was bought by Google. History may repeat itself this year as the second-generation of the Moto X, on sale now in the United States and coming soon to Canada exclusively through Telus, delivers all the same goodness, plus more.
Motorola has wisely chosen to go a different route than most of the other Android phone makers. Rather than loading its device with all manner of unnecessary bloatware, the company has instead chosen to differentiate it by making it work well with Android’s strengths.
As such, there’s no social networking skin or extraneous apps, like those found on competing devices from HTC, LG and Samsung. It’s just pure Android – in this case, KitKat 4.4, with a guaranteed upgrade – with a couple of features taking advantage.
The best is Moto Voice, which takes voice commands even when the phone is locked. Last year’s Moto X required you to say, “Okay Google Now” to activate the voice assistant, but you can now program it with whatever phrase you want, as long as it has at least a few syllables. After saying the phrase a few times during the quick set-up, the phone locks itself to your voice so that only you can use it.
From there, there’s quite a bit you can do. You can tell the phone to navigate to a location, do a Google search, set up a meeting and dictate an email or text message. The best part is, with a part of the processor apportioned off and continually running, you can do all this without touching the phone to turn it on. It can be lying on a table or on the car seat next to you.
Voice commands have also been expanded to other parts of the phone and to certain apps. You can, for example, say “Take a selfie,” at which point the self-facing camera automatically launches and a countdown starts. Then, you can say, “Post to Facebook” and it automatically uploads.
Like all voice-operated systems, it’s not perfect and sometimes mishears you. But it works well enough and often enough to impress. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back to typing, tapping and swiping commands.
Then there’s Moto Active, a notification feature that’s amazingly simple, but extremely useful. If you get an email, for example, an “M” briefly appears on the lock screen. If you want to quickly see what it is, you press down on it to get a short preview. Swiping up will launch the full email app. The same goes for tweets, texts, appointments and other notifications.
Similarly, you can also wave your hand over the screen to get a quick summary of those notifications. It’s a really fast and simple way of checking whether you have any email that’s much than better than picking up your phone, unlocking it and launching an app.
There’s also Moto Assist, a feature that adjusts the phone’s behaviour based on what you’re doing. If you’re sleeping, it’ll automatically shift to silent mode and not flash notifications on the screen. The phone can also tell when you’re driving, based on speed and background noise, at which point it goes into hands-free mode. Moto Assist is neat, but I didn’t find much use for it.
Otherwise, most of the differences in this year’s Moto X are hardware related. Most noticeable is the bigger screen, with the display moving up to 5.2 inches from 4.7 inches. Last year’s model was closer in size to the iPhone, but now even Apple’s devices are going with the flow and getting bigger.
The display itself is also sharper this time around at 1080p instead of last year’s 720p. The lower resolution was noticeable compared to competitors, but now it’s visually on par even though some other Android devices (like LG’s G3) pack in more pixels. Unless you’re used to looking at 4K all the time – and at this point, just about no one is – you probably won’t have any complaints about the resolution.
The Moto X’s camera is still a sore point. It’s better than last year’s model, with 13 megapixels rather than 10, but it’s still inconsistent and not terribly useful in low light, even with a redesigned ring flash. That said, it takes decent enough photos in proper lighting and is good enough to not be a deal breaker. Plus, Motorola has wisely retained the wrist-flick motion to open the camera, which is a quick and nifty way of launching it:
Storage could be another issue, at least for Canadians, with the phone only coming in a 16-gigabyte model through Telus, according to a Motorola spokesperson. There’s no micro-SD card slot, which means that people who like to load up their phones with tons of photos, videos and music are likely to bump into a ceiling.
It’s a necessary tradeoff to keep the phone’s cost down, which is another reason why I’m a fan of the Moto X. It’s selling for $499 in the U.S. and will presumably retail for around the same in Canada (Telus hasn’t yet announced pricing). The Moto X isn’t the spec beast that some other manufacturer’s flagship phones are, but it hangs in there with them at a much lower cost.
With components getting cheaper to produce, there’s really no reason why phones should be getting more expensive. Motorola thus has the right idea on pricing, even though its lower prices are necessitated by its relatively minnow-sized position in the market compared to Apple and Samsung.
Battery life is… well, battery life. I haven’t used a phone yet that has what I’d call “good” battery life, and the Moto X is no different. I normally keep push email and other non-essential notifications turned off to maximize the charge, which means I usually make it through the day fine. With push email and notifications on, the Moto X ekes it through, but just barely, and that’s about as good it gets with modern phones.
If there’s a real problem with the Moto X, it’s that it’s available only through Telus in Canada. Exclusive phones seem like an anachronism these days, but the unfortunate reality is that manufacturers not named Apple or Samsung still need to sign such deals in exchange for the guaranteed marketing push they’ll get from the carrier.
It’s another understandable tradeoff, but one that unfortunately limits the Moto X’s appeal. Which is too bad, because it’s an excellent phone.
Motorola supplied a loan unit for the purposes of this review.