Long before Apple’s iPhone became synonymous with the mobile phone, there was Motorola and Nokia. Both brands have since given way to the might of Apple but are hoping to engineer a revival. So does Motorola, which pioneered the flip phone in the mid-1990s and revolutionised the form factor to great success in 2005 with the RAZR, have what it takes to climb up back the ladder?
The RAZR sold over 130 million units in just four years. Fast forward to the present and with Google’s backing, the company is attempting to reinvent the phone once again with its flagship, Moto X. But this isn’t just another spec-riddled feature rich flagship vying for your pocket. You won’t find heart rate monitors, fingerprint scanners, fitness tracking, dual-camera lenses or bleeding edge mobile processors.
Instead, what Motorola is attempting with the Moto X is to shift the conversation and address the day-to-day pain points of using a smartphone. Apple nailed the whole ‘user experience over specs’ philosophy but in an industry largely caught up in a spec war and gimmicks, Motorola is intent on positioning itself as Android’s answer to the iPhone.
And the company is investing big to get the message across, spending $US500 million on global advertising and marketing for the device, which is equivalent to half of Apple’s total advertising budget for 2012.
It remains to be seen what impact the buyout to Chinese tech giant, Lenovo, will have on the future of the Motorola. But the Moto X was built at a time when Google and Motorola were working under the same roof, which means it has the best chance out of any Android smartphone manufacturer to deliver on its promise.
Slow to market
But there have been some speed bumps with the local release.
For one, the Moto X is arriving a full nine months after the phone launched in the United States which is an eternity in the fast paced smartphone world. On the upside, we won’t be paying flagship prices with the local launch price set at $549 and it has already hit as low as $400 in most retail stores.
Secondly, one of the key selling points of the Moto X, the MotoMaker customisation service that allows customers to personalise the front and back of the phone with over 250 possible colour combinations in addition to a selection of wood materials like teak, ebony, bamboo and rosewood, has been disappointingly omitted from the Australian release. What we are left with is the default black or white model.
Utilitarian design but a dream to hold
Unassuming is the word that comes to mind when you first pick up the Moto X. Built from a polycarbonate plastic, the Moto X’s rather bland design isn’t going to challenge the metal stylings of the HTC One or iPhone 5s but it’s serviceable.
It does, however, feel great in the hand thanks to a gentle curve on the back, soft touch finish and a physical footprint that equals the iPhone 5s despite the Moto X’s larger 4.7-inch 720p display onboard. It makes the Moto X ideal for one-handed operation - a refreshing departure from the two-handed monsters we normally see in the smartphone world.
Other subtle but thoughtful design touches such as the circular depression on the back of the device for your pointer finger to rest on while holding the phone further reinforces the easy-to-use nature of the device. The Moto X is also water-resistant allowing it to withstand bouts of rain thanks to a sealed design and nano-coating.
Performance that belies the spec sheet
Rather than simply packing in the latest piece of silicon from Qualcomm, Motorola instead partnered up with the SoC (system-on-a-chip) giant to build a custom chip for the Moto X. The ‘X8 Mobile Computing System’ comprises of a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.7GHz and two additional low power processors/cores - one for natural language and one for contextual computing.
Effectively, Motorola has built a chip that's specifically optimised for the context sensitive software features unique to the Moto X. The result is a phone that might not top benchmark scores but performs exceptionally well in day-to-day use.
The Android experience feels on par with the more powerful Google Nexus 5, which is to say that it is fast and responsive and executed without an ounce of stutter.
But it’s the Moto X’s ability to trigger actions preemptively based on an awareness of what the user is doing at any given moment is what really sets the Moto X apart from the rest.
The context sensitive features on the Moto X consist of Touchless Controls, Motorola Assist and Active Display.
Truly hands-free voice commands
Motorola’s always listening technology or “Touchless Controls” means that you can issue voice commands at any time even while the phone is locked and on stand-by. By simply saying the phrase: “Okay Google Now” you can conduct Google searches by simply speaking the search request or issue device specific commands.
Whether its asking questions relating to the weather, the exchange rate, a famous landmark, celebrity trivia, sports scores or even math calculation, Google’s voice assistant will speak the answers to you with a great deal of accuracy, so long as you keep your questions short and don’t attempt to rephrase your question mid-sentence.
Searches will automatically pick up the context of previous requests too, for example, saying something like: “How tall is Lebron James” can be followed up with “What team does he play for”, removing the need to repeat keywords.
But device specific commands are where the voice function really comes into its own.
While you can naturally call a contact or dictate an email or text message, the Moto X provides a little bit extra. The phone can read back to you notifications which include incoming text messages, emails, missed calls, messages from social media apps and notifications from other third party apps.
You can also request information stored on your device, such as, finding out when your next meeting is, launch apps, request turn-by-turn directions to a specific address, set alarms and reminders or play music or movies. Google also has a built in music identifier so you can even ask what song is playing in the background.
Google’s Voice assistant might lack personality when compared to Apple’s Siri but there’s no denying that the Moto X offers the most accurate and useful voice command experience on a smartphone yet. The fact that we don’t even need to unlock our phone before we can start speaking to it is what pushes voice controls on the Moto X from fun novelty territory to a useful tool we found ourselves using every day.
It’s worth noting that we didn’t experience any noticeable impact on the battery with Touchless Controls left on which we can only attribute to the low-powered natural language processor and smart power management onboard the Moto X.
Reinforcing Motorola’s message of being contextually aware, the Moto X automatically determines whether you are behind the wheel by using the built-in GPS and accelerometer and accordingly will read your text messages, tell you who’s calling and play music through the car speakers via Bluetooth, all without you having to lift a finger. If you happen to be in the passenger seat or on public transport, you can quickly notify Assist that you are not driving with a single press from the notification shade.
Similarly, Assist uses your calendar to determine when you’re in a meeting and automatically switches to silent mode and sends an auto reply text to any missed calls during the scheduled meeting time. Entering your sleep hours will also automate similar quiet features ensuring you won’t be awoken in the middle of the night from a phone call or notification.
Active Display is an elegant way to handle notifications while also keeping power consumption to a minimum.
Pulling the phone out of your pocket or nudging the phone will make a portion of the display illuminate with the time, new notifications and an unlock icon. You can preview a notification in more detail by simply tapping on the relevant blinking icon, allowing you to decide whether it is something important or if it can wait. It avoids the need of having to turn on the entire display just to check notifications, saving precious battery life. Intelligently, Active Display won’t illuminate when it’s in a pocket or when the phone is placed facing down.
Active Display is a useful means of viewing information with minimal effort and it even works with notifications from third party apps as well.
One of the problems with even high end smartphones is that it can take more than a few seconds to launch the camera, which at times can be the difference between capturing the perfect shot or missing a moment entirely. Quick Capture allows the Moto X to go from sleep to shooting in under two seconds, all with a simple flick of the wrist gesture that works flawlessly.
Outstanding call quality backed up by good battery life
At 2,200 milliampere-hour (mAh), the Moto X doesn’t pack a particularly large battery when compared with other flagship smartphones but the combination of a battery efficient custom chip and software optimisation meant that we were able to easily get through a full day of moderate to heavy use before having to reach for the charger.
It’s worth noting that call quality was noticeably better on the Moto X than on any other top-flight smartphone I have reviewed including the Galaxy S5, Sony Xperia Z2 and iPhone 5s. Callers on the other end highlighted how much clearer I sounded even in noisy environments.
An Android smartphone for the everyman
If you’re the type to base a smartphone purchasing decision on specs alone, then the Moto X isn’t for you. But for everyone else and let’s be honest, that’s most of us, who buy a phone based on the useful things it can actually do then the Moto X makes a compelling argument.
Admittedly, the camera quality falls short of the top-end Android competition, and it cuts it a bit thin when it comes to storage with only 16GB and no expandable storage option. But with the emphasis on intuitive contextual services, easy-one handed operation, call quality and a fast UI, the Moto X is an easy recommendation particularly for those who are new to Android. However at $549, the value proposition is diminished with Google’s own Nexus 5 retailing for $150 less and other Android players like OnePlus One pushing the envelope.
That said, the Moto X is retailing for a lot less in stores so if you can find one for under $450, don't hesitate to pick one up.