Review of the Motorola Moto X


The Moto X is the newest Android phone from Motorola, which as you may already know was purchased by Google a while ago. Because of this many people assumed that the Moto X would be a Google phone, much like the Nexus line. However, that doesnít appear to be the case. Motorola continues to operate as an independent company, though clearly Google had some influence in that there no longer appears to be any Motorola-specific overlays to the stock Android experience.

Last Updated: 29-Aug-2013

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

RF Performance

As Iíve been saying for the last year or so, this has become an almost meaningless category, because everyone in North America uses a Qualcomm chipset on their phones as thatís the only one with built-in LTE support. In the past there were once two companies you could count on to have excellent RF performance, and they were BlackBerry and Motorola. As I found when I reviewed the BlackBerry Q10, gone are the days of seeing any difference between one phone and the next. The same goes here, as the Moto X exhibits virtually identical performance and data speeds to the Samsung Galaxy S4. It even processes the very same penchant for cycling between Band 7 LTE, Band 4 LTE, and HSPA when the LTE service on Band 7 (2600 MHz) is somewhat weak.

As with the S4, when Band 7 is used you can expect some really spectacular downlink speeds. During a couple of tests performed at my house I saw downlink speeds in excess of 90 Mbps (on the S4 as well). However, Band 7 seems to provide rather lackluster uplink speeds when the signal isnít strong. Iíd first noticed that when I tested the pre-release S4 back in the spring, and I see it daily on my S4. The Moto X behaves in exactly the same way.

WiFi Performance

In keeping with my new policy of testing the performance of the WiFi chipsets in phones, I compared the Moto X with the S4 by performing speed tests under varying conditions. In my house I run two WiFi hotspots, one upstairs and one on the main floor. Down in the basement the main floor hotspot is very strong, but the one upstairs is a lot weaker and is excellent for mid-strength testing.

After repeated tests I found the downlink speeds on the two phones to be quite similar, though the nod always went to the S4, which was just a little bit faster (by around 5%). However, when it came to the uplink speed, there was no comparison. My home internet service has an uplink cap at 3 Mbps, and so I thought that both phones would handle that with no difficulty. In fact, the S4 had no trouble at all and could always deliver a 3 Mbps uplink speed. However, the Moto X could barely provide 1 to 2 Mbps no matter where I tested it in the basement.

The next phase of the testing involved walking the phones down my street and allowing the WiFi signal to get progressively weaker. Here the Moto X did demonstrate one thing it did better than the S4, which was to retain a useable data connection at a weaker signal level. However, whenever the S4 provided data connectivity, the same speed differences that Iíd found in the basement test were noted, especially on the uplink.

The bottom line seems to be that if you must rely on a very weak WiFi signal, the Moto X will do a better job of eking out a minimal data connection where the S4 cannot, but if the signal is not bottom-of-the-barrel, the S4 will provide faster data connectivity.

Audio Performance

There isnít much difference in audio quality these days either, but I have to give the Moto X the nod for providing slightly richer sound though the earpiece. Volume-wise however, the Motorola phone isnít quite as loud as the S4, especially if you activate the volume boost on the Samsung, which is the button next to HOLD that looks like a handset with sound waves coming out of it.

Speakerphone performance is disappointing, mostly due to lack of volume. Compared to the S4, the volume is so low that I had to turn the S4 down to one notch above minimum (with volume boost enabled) just to get the two phones to match. Itís hard to comment on speakerphone sound quality with so little volume to work with.

Multimedia Audio

Generally one relies on the built-in speaker to listen to the audio track of videos, and so the quality and volume of this activity is important to overall rating in this category. The undisputed king of multimedia audio (though the built-in speakers) is of course the HTC One, which just blows away every other phone on the market. The Moto X isnít even in the ballpark, but it does warrant comparison to the S4.

Both the S4 and Moto X deliver about the same volume (perhaps slightly louder on the Moto X), but each makes different compromises. The Moto X has a deeper, some might say richer, sound than the S4, but it totally lacks high end. When playing the same music video on both phones I could clearly hear the cymbals on S4, but they were virtually none-existent on the Moto X. All that Motorola has done is provide a tiny speaker with a frequency response range that falls lower than the one in the S4.

While neither have built-in speakers that are really suitable for listening to music, the lower range provided by the Moto X would seem to be better suited for male voice. However, I tried running a few videos whose soundtrack consisted primarily of a male voice, but when it came down to it neither phone was really better than the other. They simply sounded a little different.

Display

Like the Galaxy S4, the Moto X uses an AMOLED display, which I personally prefer due to its exceptional black levels. However, unlike many of the current crop of high-end smartphones the Moto X has only 720p resolution (1280 x 720) instead of 1080p (1920 x 1080). Throughout my testing of the Moto X I didnít find that I could really tell the difference, except under a few very specific circumstances. Part of the reason is the slightly smaller screen size of 4.65 inches vs 5.00 inches on the S4.

Even though I own an S4, Iím still unconvinced that we need 1080p resolution on screens of 5 inches or smaller. 720p on a screen of 4.65 inches seems more than enough and I couldnít really find any reason why Motorola needed to provide anything greater.

The Moto X uses the same Adreno 320 GPU as the S4, but since it only has to power a 720p screen instead of a 1080p screen (thatís 921,600 pixels vs 2 million pixels) the Moto X essentially has an effectively more powerful GPU than the S4. To some extent you see this in the greater smoothness in day-to-day use. The Moto X is arguably better than the Galaxy S3 as well, because that phone uses only an Adreno 225 coupled to a 720p screen.

Outdoors in bright sunlight the Moto X is slightly more visible than the S4 (both with their screens turned up to full brightness). Of course you get better visibility under these conditions with LCD screens, such as you find on the HTC One or iPhone.

The 4.65 inch screen on the Moto X results in a device that is physically smaller than the S4 in both width and height. Many people will find it much easier to hold, but not all that much hard to look at, and so I give the Moto X screen a definite thumbs-up.

Processor and Chipset

Much controversy has surrounded the Moto X concerning what many people feel is its mid-range, oh-so-2012 hardware specs. Instead of having a quad-core processor (clocked at 1.9 GHz in the case of the S4) the Moto X uses a Snapdragon S4 Pro dual-core processor clocked at 1.7 GHz. It does however have 2 GB of RAM, and so in that department at least it matches the current spec.

Like the use of 720p display instead of 1080p, the use a dual-core S4 Pro instead of a quad-core Snapdragon 600 comes down to whether or not the extra power is actually of any use to the average user. Based on my experience with the phone during my tests Iíd say the answer is a resounding NO it isnít. At no time did I get the impression that the Moto X was a slower or less capable device, and overall smoothness of the graphics effects in the O/S were better on the Moto X than on the S4.

Perhaps under some super-demanding conditions, which I did not encounter, the S4 would prove to be the way to go, but for what most people do with their smartphones, most of the time, Motorola should not be discounted for their choice of hardware. In their promotional material, Motorola says that itís more about the user experience. Itís easy to ignore this as just self-promoting hype, but after playing with the Moto X for a couple of days I have to agree with them completely on this. The Moto X provides a fast, smooth, experience that is really what people appreciate.

Camera

The Moto X contains a proprietary camera sensor, which unlike virtually every other camera phone on the market has physical dimensions that are 16:9 instead of 4:3. For videos this is fine, because video switched to a 16:9 aspect ratio years ago. However, still photographs have remained 4:3, and while I wonít get into a discussion of why that is a good idea or a bad idea, what is bad is that the Moto X FORCES you to take 16:9 photographs. There is no option in the camera software to automatically crop pictures to 4:3. If you wanted 4:3 photographs, youíd have to crop them yourself.

In terms of sensor resolution, the images are 4,320 pixels wide, which is actually a tiny bit wider than the 4,128 pixels of the 13-megapixel sensor on the Galaxy S4. However, when it comes to image height, the Moto X only delivers on 2,432 pixels vs 3,096 pixels on the S4. To save you doing the calculation yourself, that works out to 10 megapixels. If you were to crop these images to the traditional 4:3, you would end up with an image size of 3,243 x 2,432 (which is 7.9 megapixels, or about the resolution of the Galaxy S3 camera).

But photography is not all about the total number of pixels in the image, itís about the overall quality of the resulting pictures. In that regard the Moto X isnít a particularly great camera in any type of shooting conditions. In low light (by which I mean typical indoor lighting at night or away from windows, and not super-dim contrived examples) the Moto X performs okay. Its pictures retain a fair amount of detail, but the overall quality of those pictures is only so-so.

Flash shots are fine, but the LED flash on the Moto X isn't particularly powerful. Compared to the S4 (which also has a single LED) the brightness difference is quite astounding. The S4's flash is just miles brighter.

When the light is plentiful (typically in outdoor situations) the Moto X just doesnít seem to hold a candle to the Galaxy S4 for sheer image detail, color clarity, exposure, and overall quality. The auto-exposure programming tends to under-expose pictures even when HDR is used.

And speaking of HDR, it has to be the WORST implementation of that feature Iíve seen in quite some time. In a photograph I took with bright overcast sky in the background there was a clearly-visible bright ghosting effect around objects that protruded into the sky. Iíve included samples taken of an evergreen tree with a really bright sky behind it. Both shots were taken with HDR turned on. You can readily see how the sky around the tree in the Moto X photograph is markedly brighter than the sky further away, whereas in the S4 picture, taken seconds later, the sky looks uniform.

Moto X. Note the obvious aura around the tree caused by a poor HDR algorithm. Samsung Galaxy S4. Very minor aura with consistently grey sky.

The Moto X camera suffers from that dreaded purple smearing effect that the iPhone has been criticized for. Iíve included a cropped sample taken with Moto X and compared it with the same picture taken with the S4. In this shot, taken at a Canadian Tire store, Iíve cropped-out a pegboard that is backlit by the window behind it. In the Moto X picture you can see color bands across the pegboard, as well as purple smears on either side of the brightly-lit window. The picture from the S4 however shows no such purple smears or distortions.

Moto X. Look at the pegboard and purples smear on either side of the window. Galaxy S4. Again, note the pegboard and also note the lack of purple smears.

You do get a panorama mode, but compared to the one on the S4 itís a fairly crude. If you hold the Moto X vertically and pan horizontally (to get the largest possible pictures) the resulting image is only 1,280 pixels high (at the most, as cropping occurs when you move up or down from the center line). When you do the same thing on the S4 you get a panorama that is 3,096 pixels high. Add to that just how SLOW the Moto X is at processing the panoramas and you get a feature that will likely not see much use beyond a few experiments when you first get the phone. In other words, the panorama feature on the S4 is a very powerful and useful feature, while on the Moto X itís just a TOY feature with limited usefulness.

The Moto X also shoots 1080p videos, but as with still photography you have no option to change this resolution. The quality of the videos is very good, and at least on par with the S4. However, under a number of circumstances the videos turn out a little more jerky with the Moto X than the S4, but I didnít find this occurred all that often. The bottom line is that there are currently no camera phones than can shoot completely jerk-free 1080p videos, though many do come close.

The Moto X lets you take still photographs while you are shooting video, just like the S4 (and a few other high-end phones), but sadly you DO NOT get full-resolution pictures. What you get instead are essentially screen captures with a resulting resolution of only 1920 x 1080. The S4 on the other hand takes full-sized photographs (albeit at 16:9) while videos are being shot.

The Moto X does allow for burst mode photography (by keeping your finger on the display). However, the processing speed of the camera software is disappointingly slow and you only get about 2 (maybe 3) pictures per second. That compares poorly to the S4 that can shoot 10 to 15 full 13-megapixel pictures per second.

Finally, I found that the Moto X is like all of the phones before it, in that it uses just a piece of glass or plastic over the camera lens that is a skin oil magnet. Iím probably spoiled by the S4, which has anti-grease coating on the lens just like it does on the touchscreen. I rarely ever have a problem with smeary photographs caused by finger prints on the lens of the S4, even though I touch it quite frequently. The Moto X on the other hand had to be cleaned before almost every sample picture because of greasy fingerprints on the lens.

The camera software in the Moto X has a few nice features, but overall itís barebones compared to the S4. Even if we discount some of the arguably useless S4 camera features (like Beauty Face, Sound & Shot, Drama, and Animated Photo) the S4 seems more like a real camera, while the Moto X seems like the sort of crude point-and-shoot stuff theyíve been putting on camera phones for the last decade (but with higher resolution).

GPS

The GPS chipset in the Moto X doesnít appear to support Glonass, in that it always get locks on just 50 to 60 percent of the satellites that are in range. By comparison the S4 can (and often does) lock onto all of them. Itís not usual to see the S4 locked onto 25 out of 25 satellites when outdoors. Both phones were just as capable of getting a solid GPS lock in my basement with a stated accuracy of 10 meters or less.

To compare the overall accuracy of the GPS against the one in the S4 I used SportsTracker Pro to track a 3 km drive. I was in the passenger seat where I held one phone in my left hand and the other phone in my right hand. To remove any bias that might have caused, I switched hands from time to time. The results from the Moto X were rather disappointing, with drifting errors occurring almost all of the time. This was perhaps a result of not having the added benefit of the Glonass satellites to refine the position.

Voice Commands and Other Convenience Features

One feature that the Moto X lays claim to, that no other phone presently offers, is always-on voice activation for Google Now. Special hardware has been added to the phone to make this feature battery-friendly, so it isnít easy to just put this into existing phones using software. To get the phoneís attention you train it to understand you saying ďOK Google NowĒ. Sadly you canít train it to respond to anything else, nor can you change the phrase to something different (like ďHey StupidĒ).

I used Howard Chuiís advice for training the phone (by emphasizing different syllables one each of the three training runs) and it recognized my voice every time I tried it (though Howard said he had only partial success). Even when I casually said the phrase to my wife, the phone recognized it and launched Google Now. I eventually discovered that I didnít even need the word ďnowĒ, as it would recognize me when I said just ďOk GoogleĒ. My guess is that they have you say ďnowĒ to slow down your following question.

This is as useful as the current feature set of Google Now. You can of course ask it questions, and you can launch apps (among other things). For the most part however, I doubt that it will get all that much use and I donít really see it as a must-have feature. However, I will admit that itís probably more useful than many of the non-touch gestures provided on the S4 (all of which I turned off after playing with them for a little while on my own S4).

Another always-on (and battery-friendly) convenience is a sensor that detects when the phone is moved and temporarily turns on a glowing unlock icon that you can use to unlock the phone without needing to press the power button first. I didnít first this worked as reliably as Iíd expected, forcing me to sometimes resort to the power button to unlock the phone.

To bring up the camera without having to touch any buttons (even from the locked screen) you just give the phone a deft twist and the device will unlock and immediately launch the camera app. This feature works fairly well and has the camera ready to shoot in just 1 or 2 seconds.

Concerns

During the 2 days I had the Moto X I had the device mysteriously shutoff 7 times. I talked with Howard Chui (whoíd lent me the phone) to see if it had happened to him, but he reported having no such trouble. I therefore performed a factory reset and I only installed a handful of ďsafeĒ apps. Nonetheless, the phone continued to shutoff mysterious while it was just sitting around with its screen off. Chances are there is something wrong with the test phone, but it is also possible that this issue is endemic to the current firmware on the Moto X. I wish I could tell you definitively which it is, because a problem such as this could be a deal-breaker for most people.

Conclusions

In some ways the Moto X is really all the smartphone that most people need. It provides virtually all of the features one comes to expect from a modern smartphone with a smooth U/I experience. Itís a shame it has such a poor camera, but for point-and-shoot situations it provides fairly decent photographs for posting on social media sites.

The real problem is the price. While off-contract at $550 it is clearly cheaper than the Galaxy S4 ($700) and the HTC One ($650), most people donít buy phones off-contract. The Moto X goes for pretty much the same on-contract price as the high-end competition, which makes it a much tougher sell. If youíre going to plunk down your hard-earned cash, you might as well get the most advanced phone that your money can buy.

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