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Moto X (2014) review: Bigger display, metal frame, and fabulous Motorola experiences make it the best Android

Motorola had one of the most underrated smartphones of 2013. The successor brings high-end design and specs along with even more Moto experiences.

Moto X (2014) review: Bigger display, metal frame, and fabulous Motorola experiences make it the best Android

If you love the way the current Moto X disappears in your front pocket, you may not like the new Moto X.

However, if you are willing to compromise a bit on the size then you will love what Motorola did with the new Moto X where everything else has been improved to the point that this is the best Android smartphone available today.

Hardware

The first generation Moto X did not have the highest end specs, yet the software experiences made it a compelling device that I continue to use today. Thankfully, the new Moto X has specs comparable to the other flagships while also offering fantastic software experiences.

The first thing you will notice is that the new Moto X grew up in size and now sports a 5.2 inch 1080p display. Motorola did an excellent job in keeping the bezels small so this 5.2 inch display comes with a width the same as the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy S5. Motorola also has reasonable top and bottom bezels so that the length is 140.8 mm, 2 mm shorter than the S5 and about 6 mm shorter than the One M8.

MotoX4

If you pick up a white version of the Moto X you will likely notice three small openings around the display, reminiscent of the IR sensors on the Kindle Fire phone. There is also a fourth in the upper-left corner that is located within an existing opening for other sensors. Don't worry, they're not gimmicky sensors to allow for 3D effects, but are IR sensors used to recognize your hand as you approach or wave over the Moto X (and your face as you look at the display) so it won't go to sleep if you are actively using the phone.

Also on the front are two long, narrow raised grille sections that look like what you find with the front-facing stereo speakers on the Moto G or HTC One M8. Unfortunately, these are not front-facing speakers. The speaker is on bottom and the headset speaker is on the top. However, like the speaker on the original Moto X, the single bottom speaker on the new Moto X is very loud and clear. Even if a manufacturer simply moves back speakers to the front, there is a benefit to the consumer.

The next design element I noticed was the aluminum metal frame that extends around the entire phone. The power and volume buttons on the upper right are made of aluminum with the power button textured so it is easy for you to find and press the button in the dark. The first gen Moto X had an obvious seam and discontinuity between the plastic front and soft touch back. The aluminum edges taper into the glass front and back piece. The aluminum has a soft smooth finish and definitely gives the new Moto X a premium feel.

The frame on the Moto X is part of its new external antenna system with dynamic tuning. This technology is designed so that you get strong cellular connectivity no matter how you hold your phone. I have seen that the signal indicator rarely goes down on the Moto X and cannot wait to test out a T-Mobile version of the Moto X.

MotoX5

Speaking of the back, I am testing out a Verizon LTE model with a bamboo back. The wood backs used on the new Moto X are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and both look and feel fantastic. Motorola will also offer four leather back options on the Moto X bugt, while the back options also feel great, I do worry a bit about their long term wear. The leather comes from the Horween tannery also located in Chicago. You will still be able to order various color soft-touch backs via Moto Maker.

Also on the back side, the camera has been upgraded to a 13 megapixel model with 4K video capture capability. I took the Moto X on a weekend beach trip and it captured some awesome photos. Unlike the original Moto X that struggles at times, I have had great success with the new Moto X and wouldn't hesitate to use this as my primary phone camera. Around the camera lens, you will find their new ring flash where the LEDs are integrated into the ring. LED flash on phones doesn't add as much as Xenon flash, but is acceptable for some indoor situations.

Below the camera lens and flash, you will find a pronounced dimple on the new Moto X. Last year's Moto X had a subtle dimple that was formed into the back design, much the way the dimple is on this year's Moto G. On the Moto X there is a concave metal area which reminds me of a dime, that has the Motorola logo, but serves no other purpose than to be a place to rest your finger. This is one area that I would have been fine with bringing over directly from the original Moto X.

MotoX3
(Captured with the new Moto X)

The new 5.2 inch Moto X is only 5 grams heavier than the 4.7 inch Moto X, which is pretty amazing when you consider all of the bumped up specifications. It flies with the Snapdragon 801 processor and also appears to provide a fantastic cellular signal in places where I have seen the signal deteriorate.

This year's Android smartphones provide battery capacity that goes at least a day, which is one reason I end up frustrated with my original Moto X. That phone cannot go a full day for me and thankfully Motorola improved the battery life on the new Moto X while just offering a slight increase in rated capacity. I have been able to go for a full day with the new Moto X and find it acceptable.

While the Moto X is not explicitly rated for water and dust resistance, the internal components have a water repellent nano-coating so spills and usage in the rain should not kill the device. I learned that the original Moto X also has internal coating, which helps explain why I have been able to run with it in the rain and not experience any issues.

Motorola will soon offer an optional Motorola Turbo Charger accessory that lets you charge up your device to provide power for up to eight hours in just 15 minutes. This is a must-have for the business traveler who may need to top off in the airport.

Software

Motorola continues to stick with a nearly pure Android software experience on the new Moto X. Included with this philosophy is the desire to bring timely software updates to the device in the future. You can rest assured that the Moto X will get the Android L update faster than any other phonemaker and that goes a long way toward adding value and comfort to the buyer.

Motorola has rebranded Touchless Control, Active Display, and Motorola Assist into new Moto experiences defined as the following:

  • Moto Voice: Touchless Control was one of the best features on the Moto X and I used it daily to have my phone provide me with useful information without ever touching my phone. Moto Voice continues to work when the display is off and your phone is near you, but now you can even create a custom voice prompt. Mine is currently set as "You there C3PO?" If you have a Moto 360 then you will want to change to some custom phrase on the Moto X so both devices don't waken with the same "OK Google Now" phrase. The "take a selfie" phrase will launch the front-facing camera and start a countdown timer so taking selfies is very easy with the Moto X.

  • Moto Assist: Moto Assist changes your phone's behavior based on the time of day, your meeting schedule, and whether or not you are driving. This utility makes your phone smarter than other phones and I do notice quickly when I use a phone without Moto Assist.

  • Moto Display: Active Notifications are renamed Moto Display and this refers to the way your screen behaves when in standby mode. You now get up to three notifications where we had just one before and the display is better able to anticipate your approach with the four IR sensors located around the display.

  • Moto Actions: This is the name for the gestures you make over the display that are activated by the four IR sensors on the front.
MotoX2

Motorola improved the camera software along with the camera hardware and one new feature that I greatly appreciate is Highlight Reel. This utility is similar to the HTC One video highlights. Like the HTC One, your Moto X may have already automatically created a Highlight Reel of your day. If not, you simply open up the Gallery and tap on the Highlights menu button. Tap the Highlight Reel button and then create your own video composed of photos, videos, themes, and music. Don't forget that you can simply twist the Moto X to launch right into the camera too.

The new Moto X camera also captures data around the time you press the capture button. If the software determines that there is a better portion of your photo just before or after, for example, if someone blinks, then it will present you with the recommended image. You have the flexibility to accept the recommendation or choose another part of the shot. So while the Moto X does not have OIS, it provides software and a super fast capture experience to give you similar, if not better, results.

There is a Moto Connect app, also available for other Android devices, that lets you manage your connection to your PC, Moto 360, Motorola Power Pack Micro, and other devices. Unfortunately, I could not get it to work on either the new Moto X or Moto G, even after uninstalling and reinstalling it. I was able to use it on my original Moto X and check out the functionality.

As I write, I am testing out a Verizon model and, unfortunately, it looks like US wireless carriers still get to tinker with the software on branded Moto X devices. You will find some Verizon bloatware on the Moto X, including Verizon Cloud, Mobile Hotspot, Caller Name ID, My Verizon Mobile, VZ Protect, Visual Voicemail, VZ Navigator, and Verizon Message+. Other than wanting quick access to my account and voicemail I wish Android owners had the ability to uninstall apps like we can with Windows Phone.

My current Moto X works with T-Mobile, but there is no carrier branding on the Moto X and zero carrier bloatware, so hopefully this is the case again when I buy a Moto X to use with T-Mobile.

Usage and experiences

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At first I was a bit disappointed in the larger form factor, largely due to the fact that the original Moto X is tough to beat. However, for a 5.2 inch display smartphone, the Moto X still feels great in your hand. It definitely has a premium look and feel, perfect for the business environment too.

Like the Moto experiences last year, all of the functionality added by Motorola really takes the device to the next level. While we do not see wireless charging, quad HD display, IR remote control functionality, and a removable battery, the overall usage experiences trump these niche functions. I would like to have seen a microSD card slot or 64GB model, especially when there is a microSD in their Moto G.

My favorite Android smartphone was the HTC One M8, but Motorola beat out that model by offering a compelling design, much better camera, solid audio experience, phone customization, and software that fully enhances the user experience. The main problem with the Moto X is that I cannot go to Moto Maker and buy one now for T-Mobile.

Pros and cons

To summarize my experiences with the new Moto X, here are my pros and cons.

Pros Cons
Enhanced Moto experiences Lack of microSD or more than 32GB storage
Rock solid design and in-hand feel  
Excellent 13 megapixel camera  
Unique back options with wood and leather  
Beautiful 1080p display  

Pricing and availability

The new Moto X 16GB model will be available for $99 on contract; $499 with no-contract. The 32GB model should be $50 more. If you want a leather or wood back, then there will be a $25 premium.

Unfortunately, we have no date on when the Moto X will be released, which is the only disappointment I have with Motorola at this time. With the large iPhone 6 announcement and upcoming release I worry that Motorola may see some lost sales.

The competition

There are plenty of 5+ inch Android competitors to the new Moto X, including the Galaxy S5, HTC One M8, LG G3, Xperia Z2, and more. They are all good smartphones, but I personally find the solid hardware and overall enhanced user experience of the Moto X to offer the most.

Specifications

  • Processor: Snapdragon 801 2.5 GHz quad-core processor
  • Display: 5.2 inch 1080p AMOLED screen at 423 ppi
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Internal storage: 16 and 32GB options
  • Cameras: 13 megapixel rear and 2.1 megapixel front facing
  • Battery capacity: 2300 mAh
  • Dimensions: 140.8 x 72.4 x 9.9 mm and 144 grams

Conclusion

I understand that updates are natural for device evolution, but still find the original Moto X to have an extremely compelling form factor. I would like to have seen a better camera and improved battery life, but Moto took it a bit further with a larger display and improved internal specs. Thankfully they also enhanced the end-user experience and even added another choice for customization.

You can count on Motorola getting the Android L update soon after release. My Moto X was often first to get Android updates and this also makes the new Moto X more compelling than other Android smartphones.

I was sincerely hoping I was going to be able to order my custom Moto X soon after the announcement, but am disappointed that I have no idea when I might be able to get a T-Mobile custom version. I guess this gives me time to figure out if leather or wood is my preferred back and I sure hope there are not any carrier restrictions on customization options when Motorola finally releases the phone.

Contributor's rating: 9.5 out of 10