I'm in the penthouse suite of a beautiful hotel on New York City's west side, the aircraft carrier Intrepid bobbing in the Hudson just outside the window. A silver Halliburton briefcase lies on the table in front of the window. It's like a movie prop, festooned with ridges and combination locks. Inside lies the answer to a question we’ve been asking since Google announced its $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola: what happens when Google builds a smartphone?
The answer to that question is the Moto X. It has endlessly leaked out in various forms for the past few months — Google chairman Eric Schmidt even posed for an impromptu photo shoot with one several weeks ago. I was about to see the 4.7-inch distillation of everything Google and Motorola believe about what technology means and how it fits into our lives.
But when my host spun the combination lock and unlatched the case, I realized that Motorola still had a few surprises. There wasn’t one Moto X to play with — there were 18, at once all the same and each very different. Every color of the Google rainbow, and many more besides.
Eighteen phones, face-down in rectangles of gray foam. I flipped one over — white front, royal blue back, white buttons — and turned it on.
Okay, Google. Now.
The same, only different
There are actually 504 potential versions of Moto X — the 18 available backplate covers, from concrete gray to hot pink, are just the start. You can also choose a black or white front panel, and the side-mounted buttons and the ring around the rear camera lens come in seven different colors. You have to pick between 16 and 32GB of storage. And then you can engrave the back of your phone.
You pick the color palette you want online, using a tool called Moto Maker. Although the Moto X will come to every carrier, the customization is exclusive to AT&T customers at launch, which is odd — it’s easily the most compelling thing about the Moto X. (It won’t last, either: everyone I spoke to said the exclusive is "just for now.") And if you pick, buy, and change your mind? Just ship it back within two weeks and try another.
There are 504 potential versions of the Moto X
Other than the familiar Motorola "batwing" logo on the back, there's virtually no decoration anywhere on the X. There was a small AT&T globe on the back of a few devices I saw, very much out of the way, and SVP of product Rick Osterloh promised no logos — not Motorola's, not Verizon's — will appear on the front. "We decided to take the whole front of the device," design head Jim Wicks says, "and make it feel like it's nothing but a pool of black glass."
To allow for the custom design process, Motorola placed its entire assembly operation for the X in Fort Worth, Texas. Components come from 16 states and countries around the world, but 2,000 or so workers assemble the phones in Texas and ship them all over America. There's certainly a patriotic element to the decision — Osterloh says "it's just the right thing to do" — but the real upside is practical. Since there's no boat from China to wait for, Motorola can have you a new phone in four days. It's like the Warby Parker of cellphones; just try it and see how you feel.
But while Moto X is clothed in high fashion, underneath that wardrobe you’ll find decidedly department-store internals. And that may be Motorola’s most interesting bet of all.
The sweet spot
Early on in the Moto X design process, Motorola’s executives went to the Google leadership team with a bunch of ideas and prototypes. The response? "Get more data." So Motorola built a huge archive of focus group responses and test data — including thousands of handprints — and distilled it all into the design of the Moto X.
The X is warm and inviting
With no cold aluminum or glossy plastic, the Moto X is warm and inviting. It nestles perfectly into a palm, the slightly bulbous middle feeling thinner than it is. It's also surprisingly solid despite clearly being made of many disparate parts. It has the same size display as the Nexus 4 or the HTC One, but it's far smaller than either model, with miniscule bezels on all four sides and a glass screen that curves gently into its plastic sides. It's totally usable in one hand.
Jim Wicks calls this size "the sweet spot." Clad in a pink dress shirt that may well have inspired a Moto X color option, he says that Motorola's goal was to build an X that worked for everyone, and the process started with screen size. "We had a lot of debates about the density of the display — 1080 versus 720 — and what the right size is," says Wicks. "It's easy to hold for people. Basically they feel like they have an ample screen to do everything they want to do, but also it's highly pocketable."
Wicks and his team ended up choosing a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED display, with whites that look a little pink when examined closely and the same motion-blur problems that plague every similar panel. Compared to the the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, both of which have 1080p screens, it’s a mid-range panel, but Wicks says it doesn’t matter. "We could go and make a higher-resolution screen," Wicks says, "but it would just suck battery and nobody would know the difference."
The screen allows the Moto X to do some other tricks, though: AMOLED displays can be lit up pixel by pixel, and a feature called Active Notifications takes full advantage. Motorola’s research found that that people turn their phones on and off an average of 60 times a day, just to check the time or identify the beeping in their pants. So Moto X starts to pulse when you miss a call or get a text, and a small square in the center of the screen displays the time and icons for your notifications. Tap anywhere on the screen and you can see into the notifications without unlocking the phone, and open right into the app you need. It’s a great feature, even if I’m not a fan of AMOLED displays; the Moto X’s screen is too saturated and contrast-heavy, and the white balance is off as well.
The X’s specs are mid-range throughout, actually. Wicks makes his same sweet-spot case for the internals, which Motorola has loftily branded the "X8 Mobile Computing System," but which in reality consists of an off-the-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and two custom chips for the Moto X’s always-on voice recognition and gesture controls. The S4 is far from the most powerful chip available, but it's in Wicks' sweet spot — it’s optimized for everything the phone needs to do, and nothing more.
The phone does feel fast, fluidly opening apps from notifications and swiping around the operating system. The upside to lower horsepower, Motorola execs tell me again and again, is battery life. Osterloh confidently says the Moto X will get a full day of battery life — a full, 24-hour day. When I wonder if X will hold up over time, Wicks just smiles.
Motorola isn’t worried, but a $199 phone with mid-range internals is a big bet: even the most powerful Android devices have a history of faltering as time wears on, and it’s hard to justify signing up for two years of a device at flagship pricing that’s already behind the top end of the curve.
But Motorola’s betting that the future of Android isn't about spec sheets. The company thinks we'll stop being concerned with cores, and gigabytes, and megapixels, and that we'll start caring about how our phones feel, how they make our lives easier, and, maybe most importantly, how long they last.
If that sounds a familiar refrain, it’s because it is — that’s pretty much exactly how Apple sells the iPhone, plus extended battery life. "It's really not about being intimidating and tech," Wicks says. "It's really about being human and comfortable."
A higher-resolution screen 'would just suck battery life,' says Wicks
Borne of the Droid
That’s an interesting line, as Motorola also recently announced that it will be the exclusive supplier of Verizon’s cash cow Droid franchise — phones that are almost exclusively marketed as tech-heavy and intimidating. And most of the X’s features are shared by the new Droids announced last week.
Chief among those features is always-on voice recognition — when I first picked up the Moto X, Osterloh had me say "Okay Google Now" three times into the voice training app. Once I’d done that, the phone knew me. The Moto X won't respond to anyone else, and will even respond to you in the midst of a loud, crowded room. (The always-on voice recognition system is local, and listens only for the "Okay Google Now" command — it doesn’t send data to Google until you start using Google Now itself.) As Osterloh explained the training process to me, his phone across the room turned on three times, awaiting further instructions.
"Of course we have a lot of Google influence."
Motorola picked "Okay Google Now" for a few reasons. One, it's just what you're doing — addressing Google Now on your phone. More importantly, the phrase is phonetically unique, and hard to mimic — Wicks said picking a phrase that was easy to pick out but hard to mistake was crucial, and Okay Google Now fit the bill. It’s harder to hijack than "Okay Glass," I know that much.
Launching into the camera is even faster, at least theoretically. Just grab the phone and twist your wrist three times — the phone buzzes, and opens straight to the camera from any app or screen. The screwdriver-twisting motion takes a few minutes to get used to, and I only got it to work about half the time even after some practice, but if you get it right it's as fast a switch as I've ever seen. Once you're in the camera app, tapping anywhere on the screen takes a picture — it automatically focuses, exposes, and captures the photo. It's incredibly easy, and thanks to some low-light optimization takes good shots. Unfortunately, every setting beyond automatic is buried in menus — Osterloh said Motorola found no one ever touches the settings, but as someone who does I missed the easier access.
Stock Android with some interesting flourishes
And even though Motorola was aiming for simplicity, there are some software flourishes that don’t quite pay off. The phone constantly monitors its sensors to be aware of where you are and what you're doing, and can automatically switch into Driving Mode when it detects that you're in a car. But it can't tell whether you're driving or the passenger — so, you'll have to manually disable it every time you get in the back of a cab.
But overall, the Moto X runs what is essentially stock Android (version 4.2.2), and Motorola hopes to provide updates quickly by giving itself very little work to do. Osterloh characterizes Motorola's plan as simply to "remove a lot of the customizations that have plagued Android phones for a long time, and just focus right on the core Android user experience, which has evolved to a great place." Motorola's changes, he says, focus on improving existing features — like allowing Google Now to always be listening — without changing for the sake of changing.
Osterloh insists there's no nepotism from the Android team, and that Motorola is treated like every other manufacturer. A Google Play edition of the Moto X is coming, but it’s not clear when, or how much it’ll cost, or whether it’ll come at the cost of some of Motorola’s great software features. The Moto X is just a Motorola phone, prone to the same carrier hangups and bloatware as every other.
"But we also of course have a lot of Google influence," says Osterloh. Seventy Google employees took advantage of a company program that allowed people to transfer to Motorola, and Dennis Woodside, Motorola’s CEO, spent nine years at Google before being tasked with revitalizing the company. It may not be codified, and it may not help the Moto X get Android updates any faster, but Google's influence on Motorola is everywhere.
Moto X, by Google. Sort of.
But really, how does a nicely-designed, well-built midrange phone justify Google’s purchase of Motorola?
Ultimately, it doesn’t. And it appears that no one at Motorola expects it to. "It's been great to get the influence of Google of getting a long-term view and focusing on doing things really differently," Osterloh says. "Solving real, real problems for end users." Google bought Motorola for its patents; and while that bet hasn’t paid off, Motorola’s handset business got a chance to do less, and do it better.
"We don't think smartphones are very smart."
Specs and feature sets still rule the Android marketing world, though, and the Moto X enters a world of tough competition. For $199 plus a two-year contract you can have the Moto X, with a beautiful design and some neat features. For that same $199, you can have an even more beautiful design and a different set of neat features from the HTC One, or a fairly boring design and all the features in the world from Samsung’s Galaxy S4. $199 also buys you an iPhone 5, about which Apple’s been telling the same experiences-over-specs story for six years.
"We don't think smartphones are very smart," Osterloh said at the beginning of our conversation. He's right: even as smartphones get more powerful, they haven't gotten much better at their fundamental tasks. So Motorola built a phone that's marginally smarter, slightly more comfortable, and a little bit more usable than most others. And while that may never displace Samsung or Apple, it’s an important first step. This new Motorola is listening. Listening to customers who want their phones to feel more personal. Listening to critics who endlessly complain about battery life. Listening to an industry that knows the spec race is out of hand.
And, perhaps most importantly, the new Motorola is listening to Google when it says solving people's actual problems, simply and beautifully, is the path to success.
Additional reporting by Nilay Patel. Photography by Michael Shane.