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Motorola Moto X review

DT Editor's Choice

Highs

  • Comfortable design
  • Moto Maker customization is phenomenal
  • Powerful processors
  • Google Now voice commands are great
  • Quick launch camera works well
  • Clock pops up every time you look at the phone

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 10

Lows

  • Massive bug in Moto Assist
  • Active Notifications always vibrate
  • Incomplete camera settings
  • Volume bug
  • Google Now doesn’t recognize some commands
  • No MicroSD
The Moto X is an amazing phone on almost every level. It’s Google Now integration and color customization options are innovative and fun.

The Moto X is undeniably Motorola’s first step back into the spotlight – the company’s first superphone since the original Razr. Since faster hardware doesn’t always sell more phones, the Moto X has a number of unique non-spec features that set it apart from the pack. It’s the first phone you can completely customize online; like a pair of Nike shoes, you can order your Moto X in a range of different shell colors, accent colors, and materials (even wood). When you hit buy, you only have to wait four days for it to be delivered from a plant in Ft. Worth, Texas to your door. Yep, it’s also the first smartphone manufactured in the United States, and will arrive on every major carrier at a palatable $200.

It’s a fantastic phone, too, an absolute pleasure to use. Most of the time. Unfortunately, a few bugs in Motorola’s software tarnished my time with the X, making it one of the best, but also most frustrating, reviewing experiences I’ve ever had.

Engineered for your hand

Holding the Moto X is a pleasure; it’s easily one of the most comfortable phones we’ve ever held. We didn’t get any perverse joy from handling it, of course, but it’s clear that Motorola and Google (which now owns Motorola) did their homework when they created the Moto X. Motorola engineers explained to us that instead of starting with a screen size, they measured people’s hands to find the best width and length for a phone. Once they found it, they put the largest screen possible inside that frame. As a result, the Moto X has a 4.7-inch screen, but one of the thinnest bezels we’ve seen yet. This should be enough screen for anyone who isn’t a die-hard Galaxy Note nut, but a small enough overall size that you can hold it more comfortably than competing devices like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. It’s more comfortable than an iPhone, too.

We didn’t get any perverse joy from handling it, but it’s clear that Motorola and Google did their homework when they designed the Moto X.

Unless you buy a version with a wood backplate on it, the Moto X is made of polycarbonate, which is a strong plastic. The front glass seamlessly blends into the rest of the design, which makes it comfortable to hold to your face, and the shell of the phone has a curve to it, helping it rest more comfortably in your palm.

Most importantly, the Power and Volume buttons are on the right side of the phone, so you can easily press them and the Android navigation controls – Back, Home, Recent Apps – without changing your grip on the X. This will prevent a lot of accidental drops and help most people (unless you have small hands) hold the phone better.

(Note: While the Moto X is not a “rugged” phone, it does have a water-repellent coating on the outside and inside of it. The coating works like this and should save you from problems if you whip the phone out in the rain.)

Pick and choose

To make the Moto X fully customizable, Motorola had to build a new kind of factory, capable of producing phones in a vast array of colors and configurations. If you go into an AT&T store or order your Moto X from Motorola.com, you can customize your phone with Moto Maker.

You can order your Moto X in a range of different shell colors, accent colors, and materials (even wood).

Using the Moto Maker site, which looks fancy enough to be an app, Motorola lets you choose from 18 back colors, 7 accent colors, 2 front colors (black or white), 16GB or 32GB of memory for file storage, 16 wallpapers, 2 cases in a variety of colors, 2 charger colors (black or white), and a variety of Sol Republic headphone colors. You can also etch a custom message on the back and another to display when you boot up the phone. Motorola claims there are more than 2,000 total combinations available.

Upon order, you should receive your customized phone in four days. That’s Motorola’s promise. No other phone is offered in anywhere near as many configurations. With the iPhone, for example, you can choose black, or white. Some phones don’t have that much choice. We applaud Motorola’s efforts in this area and like that it’s built in America, too (hell yeah!).

It’s plenty powerful

We’ve heard the Moto X called a “mid-range” phone, but we think it’s plenty powerful. The device does only use two cores for processing apps, sure, but the powerful Snapdragon Pro also includes a quad-core graphics processor, and two processors no other phone has – one for processing sensor information and one for processing language and commands. Together, these eight cores make up the Motorola X8 chipset. In all our tests, it performs admirably. In the Quadrant benchmark test, for example, the phone usually attained about a 9,000 score. This is lower than the 12,000 that a Galaxy S4 would score, but more powerful than most any other top-tier Android phone.

Moto X front home

Aiding the X8 chipset are a few other specs you’ll probably want to know. The AMOLED screen is one of the most beautiful we’ve seen at 4.7 inches and 1280 x 720 pixels. (I cannot tell the difference between the HTC One’s 1080p resolution and the Moto X’s 720p. If you’re a screen hound, I’m sure you can.) Inside, there is 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of internal storage (no MicroSD but it does come with 50GB of free Google Drive storage), Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi a/g/b/n, GPS, a dual-band LTE antenna, a digital compass, and plenty of accelerometers and gyroscopes. Like every other Android phone, it charges with Micro USB.

Google Now steps up

Most of the new features in the Moto X revolve around Google Now, which its hardware has been specifically tailored to. Thanks to a dedicated processor, you can start giving commands by saying “OK Google Now,” even when it’s asleep with the screen turned off. A separate “language recognition” processor allows it to detect your voice and reject others. We had mixed luck, with this feature, but it’s a good start.

Saying “OK Google Now” anytime you want opens up a lot of possibilities. We hadn’t used Google Now since we last used it earlier this year (it came out in 2012). It’s a neat feature, but we never remember to use it – until now. The Moto X puts Google Now on the map, and the service is a lot better than it was even a few months ago.

You can ask Google Now just about anything, and sometimes it will know what to do. Ask it to set an alarm, remind you of something, tell you the weather, or inform you about something like a sports game, and it will jump at the opportunity. You can call or text friends from the service, too. The only thing we always wanted but struggled to get was walking or transit directions. Though Google Maps is integrated into the phone, asking Google Now to tell you “where I am” or “navigate to Central Park” only results in a page of blue Google Web links. No fun.

Being able to talk to your phone from across the room, at any time, is awesome and sets the Moto X apart.

The best part about Google Now isn’t always how well it answers, though; it’s how well it predicts what you need to know. Google Now will inform you of upcoming flights and whether they’re on time, tell you the weather each morning, or predict where you need to go next and send directions (again, not sure why it can’t use Google Maps when I ask, but will give it to me before I ask). All of this prediction stuff is based on crazy algorithms, email scanning, and all the info Google knows about you, which can be a little scary. But, we have to say, it’s also damn helpful. If Google Now is the way we give up our freedom of privacy, it will be a convenient way to go.

Active Notifications rock, but constant vibrating doesn’t

Active Notifications replace the traditional lock screen with a completely black one that only has a few pixels lit up to show the time, and whatever else you need. Moving the phone turns it on, then you can slide your finger down to unlock the phone, or slide up to “peek” at a recent text or email notification. You can customize what types of notifications pop up in this window.

Though it’s awesome that the time will pop up anytime you lift or move your phone (it’s a time saver), the downside to Active Notifications is that every email you get will vibrate your phone. The vibrating is minimal, but there’s no way to shut it off if you want Active Notifications. This is silly because the Gmail app we use has a setting that allows you to turn off vibrate for notifications. Why does Motorola have to supercede these settings?

Motorola Assist is thoroughly broken

Motorola Assist app allows you to “communicate hands free” with a Driving mode, “avoid interruptions” in a Meeting mode, and “get a good night’s rest” with a Sleeping mode. Until Motorola fixes crippling bug, Assist has another not-so-neat trick: The Moto X can get permanently stuck in hands-free operation, meaning it will announce everything out loud, even if you have the phone on silent. This happened to me.

The Moto X can get permanently stuck in hands free mode, meaning it will announce everything out loud, even if you have the phone on silent.

I turned on every feature of Moto Assist on a Saturday to test it out, then hopped in a cab to head to a dinner (I was running late and the train was out). The phone thought I was driving, and turned on Driving mode, so I quickly clicked the button on the notification that said, “I’m not driving.” But it didn’t turn off. Every time I got a text or call, Google Now said it out loud, as if I was in hands-free mode. I went into the app and shut all of the Assist services off, but the app persisted. Rebooting wouldn’t help either. I could turn down the volume to shut it off, but anytime I turned it up, say, to listen to music, I would hear that annoying Google Now lady talking again. In hands-free Driving mode, text notifications also become full-screen notifications, so every time I received a text, it took up the entire screen.

Motorola engineers acknowledged the bug, and we were able to find two workarounds: Go into Settings > Apps and disable all Motorola Assist running processes, or factory reset the phone and never open Assist in the first place. Neither is really viable for the long term.

Motorola claims a fix is coming at launch: Or that’s what engineer Richard Hung told us. We also discovered a volume bug related to this issue. He said that the team is hoping to have a fix out on AT&T and Verizon by the time the phone launches in late August, with other carriers coming as soon as possible. Until this fix is available, we cannot recommend ever opening Motorola Assist.

Motorola Moto X screenshot assist

Of course, had this not been a problem with a specific app (the volume bug may not be) a fix could be a long time coming. But because it’s not a Nexus phone, wireless carriers will have to approve and test any update Motorola releases for the Moto X. Like most Android phones, this could mean that the device never gets an update, or only gets one in its lifetime. The Moto X also won’t launch with Android 4.3. When is it coming? We don’t know. Maybe never.

A decent camera that’s missing settings

Motorola has engineered its own camera app for the Moto X, which doesn’t blow us away, but is a clear improvement over the standard Android camera, and a giant step up from older Motorola phones. Using gestures, you can turn the camera app on at absolutely any time by twisting the phone in your wrist twice. Yes, even if the phone is asleep. This is a fun and useful feature. You can focus on and snap a picture by tapping anywhere on the screen, as well – another great feature.

By swiping in from the left side of the screen, a dial of options appears. These allow you to toggle options like flash, HDR, Panorama mode, etc., but we cannot find the options to switch from taking 16:9 10-megapixel shots to a different aspect ratio or resolution.

Motorola Moto X screenshot camera

The X’s 10-megapixel rear camera does its job fairly well. We took it to a concert and it did alright in the dark there, and in a variety of other conditions. But if you’re hoping for something as good as an iPhone 5 or Lumia 1020, this is not it. Motorola’s camera doesn’t go above and beyond in the picture or video quality department. The 2-megapixel front-facing camera is similarly adequate.

Average talk quality, quick connectivity

Motorola has equipped the X with three separate microphones, which supposedly reduce noise and make a clearer talking experience. We’re not really sure if they do anything, but it was a standard experience talking on the Moto X. We had no problems hearing or being heard. We tested the device in Manhattan on Verizon’s network, which is typically solid in this area. Data speeds were about 25Mbps up and 30Mbps down. These are the fastest speeds we’ve recorded for Verizon, which must be upgrading its network. This is likely two or three times as fast as a typical broadband connection in your home. Kudos to Moto and Verizon. They make a good team.

Enough battery to squeak through a day

This is no Droid Maxx, but Motorola has packed enough juice into the Moto X to get you through a day. It has a 2,200mAh battery. In our time with the phone, we ended up with about a 30 percent charge at the end of an average day. If you go overboard, then you’re going to cut it close, but you can activate a battery-saver mode, which turns off background notifications when your battery gets low. Overall, this is not particularly impressive battery life, but it’s better than some phones. Keep that charger handy.

Conclusion

We really like the Moto X. It’s a lean, almost pure Google Android experience, with a few nice extras and amazing Google Now support. We were incredibly annoyed by the bug we encountered with Moto Assist and don’t recommend you touch the app, but outside of that, it’s still a great phone. Hopefully, Motorola fixes more bugs before its launch in late August and early September.

The Moto X is available on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and US Cellular at launch, and will cost $200 with a two-year contract or $575 unlocked. This puts it in direct competition with Nokia’s Lumia 920/925/928, Samsung’s Galaxy S4/Active, the HTC One, the Sony Xperia Z (T-Mobile only), the Motorola Droid Ultra (basically the same phone), and the iPhone 5. It’s a worthy challenger to any one of those devices in almost any category, and because of its compact size and simple interface, this is our favorite Android phone for iPhone defectors. When it comes to customization, this entire comparison can be thrown out the window. Nothing else comes close.

The Moto X is an amazing phone, and we highly recommend it. 

Highs

  • Comfortable design
  • Moto Maker customization is phenomenal
  • Powerful processors
  • Google Now voice commands are great
  • Quick launch camera works well
  • Clock pops up every time you look at the phone

Lows

  • Massive bug in Moto Assist
  • Active Notifications always vibrate
  • Incomplete camera settings
  • Volume bug
  • Google Now doesn’t recognize some commands
  • No MicroSD