Google has never made its own phones. The various “Nexus” flagship phones that carry the Google name have all been done in partnership with various handset manufacturers.
Google’s purchase of Motorola last year changed that. The recently launched Moto X is an Android phone designed and built by Google. How is it? For me, there’s nothing revolutionary. It’s a good phone but one bested by others, such as the iPhone, the Galaxy S4 and even Google’s LG-built Nexus 4.
Good Phone, But Is “Good” Still Good Enough?
I’ve been using a review unit of the Moto X for about a month, alongside some of my other smartphones. Things I’ve liked? It’s fast. Battery life is good. It feels light. It gives me a larger screen than the iPhone 5 (and 5c/5s), which I appreciate, without feeling too large. It runs one of the latest versions of Android out there, 4.2.2 — only just behind the latest, Android 4.3, which isn’t that huge of a difference.
Things I’ve disliked? Perhaps more than anything, a camera that has controls worse than any smartphone I’ve used recently. I was also disappointed that the “OK Google Now” always-on listening feature didn’t turn out to be that big of a deal as I thought.
I also felt a general lack of “wow” about the phone. There was nothing that felt particularly special of this reboot for Motorola to regain its former glory in the smartphone space, now that it’s part of Google.
Camera Control Woes
I didn’t have any issues with the quality of pictures the Moto X took. It was the process of taking those pictures that drove me crazy.
The biggest issue was the inability for it to let me manually focus, when necessary. With most smartphones I’ve used, if the subject you’re shooting isn’t focused properly, a quick tap or a tap-and-hold on the screen will make the phone refocus.
Not so, with the Moto X. Tap the screen; you’ve taken a picture. Tap-and-hold, and you go into multi-shot mode, where multiple pictures are taken.
There is a control called “Touch to focus” that supposedly should let you do what other phones can — and what it says — touch to focus. I found that even with this on, it didn’t work. I was still having pictures taken, rather than the focus being reset. Both Geek and Android Central noted the same thing.
Another problem was the inability to control for things like backlighting. Shooting a subject with a bright light behind it? Many smartphones allow you to touch on the bright element to adjust the exposure down (such as the iPhone) or to manually allow more light in through a menu option (such as the Galaxy S4 or the Nexus 4).
Not so, with the Moto X. You can take high-dynamic range (HDR) pictures, and that’s it. There’s no way to step the exposure down, to select various “scene” settings, to control for different lighting situations such as fluorescent or outdoors. It’s disappointing.
A unique feature of the Moto X is “Quick Capture,” where you are supposed to be able to whip out your phone, twist your wrist and have the camera app come up, ready to shoot.
For me, it was incredibly inconsistent. I’d have it enabled, twist, twist, twist and get nothing. One thing that did seem to trigger it was the motion of walking. With Quick Capture on, I’d occasionally discover the Moto X shot 10 or 15 different pictures while in my pocket, simply because it interpreted my hip motion as a wrist twist.
In the end, I kept the option off, finding it faster to take pictures the old fashioned way, by turning the phone on and using the camera icon.
OK Google Now & Touchless Control
A unique feature of the Moto X is its always-on listening option, “Touchless Control.” If you use this, it will always listen for you to say the words, “OK Google Now” followed by some command.
For example, if you wanted to find restaurants near you, without picking up the phone, all you’d have to do is say, “OK Google Now restaurants” which would cause the Moto X to send a search for “restaurants” to Google and then display them for your review.
Similarly, “OK Google Now text” followed by someone’s name and what you want to text will look them up in your address book, compose a text to them with what you said and display it for you, with a confirmation to send.
It’s cool when it works. Way cool. But as The Verge noted, and as I found, it’s pretty inconvenient if you have a passcode on your phone. In that case, everything stops until you enter your code — so touchless control becomes touch, after all.
Having the Motorola Skip doesn’t seem a help, either. The Skip is a $15 fob that you clip to your clothes, which allows you to open your phone without a PIN. The phone senses the fob, figures you’re authorized to use the phone, so no code is required. But you have to touch the phone to the Skip — so there goes being touchless, again.
Touchless Control also turned out to be something I found myself not needing much, in real life activities. Usually, if I want to use my phone, I’m actually holding it. Touchless Control wasn’t that additive to my smartphone experience. When I did try to use it, if it didn’t work right, it detracted.
Active Notifications & Instant Time
One feature I loved was so simple. The Moto X has an “Active Notifications” option designed to quietly alert you to messages, calls, tweets and other notifications you’ve received, since you last used the phone. For example, if you have a new email message, you might see an email icon, that you can tap to enter the program.
What I loved most about it was simply seeing the time. Pick up the phone, and the time comes on without needing to push a button. Sometimes, it’s just there already, fading up on the screen without even having to pick up the phone. I especially missed it any time I used one of my other phones that made me push a button for a time check.
Decent Phone — But Will Nexus 5 Be Better?
What makes a great phone is often down to personal preference, of course. But there just wasn’t anything that felt “killer” about the Moto X, to me.
With the iPhone, you’re getting Apple’s great iOS operating system backed by a rich app ecosystem. If you like and want iOS, no other phone has it. That, more than anything, is probably the iPhone’s killer feature.
Android has matured into a great operating system of its own, with an app ecosystem that rivals iOS. So, the choice between Android phones is less about the OS and more about the phone’s unique features. A phone like the Galaxy S4 offers incredible screen real estate combined with Android. A phone like the Nexus 4 offers (or did) an incredible price for a all-around good Android smartphone.
The Moto X is middle of the road. The price isn’t that great compared to other smartphones out there. The features don’t really leap out. If you like the idea of the hardware color customization that Moto Maker allows, maybe that’s a killer feature.
However, I suspect that the real killer Google phone will be the forthcoming Nexus 5. If Google keeps to the low-price that the Nexus 4 had (and around $350 seems likely) but also combines in the LTE that the Nexus 5 lacked, the Moto X may feel even more lost in the crowd.
- Nexus 4 Is Google’s Best Smartphone — Except For Missing LTE
- Demand Raging For Google Nexus 4 Android Handset
- Google’s Acquisition Of Motorola Mobility Closes, What Now?
- Does Buying Motorola Emerge As A $12.5 Billion Mistake For Google?
- Moto X: Google’s Real Answer To The iPhone