State of Android: Motorola, Moto X, and the vision that runs it

The Ins and Outs of The Moto X

Today Motorola announced the Moto X. This is the first time that a company outside of Apple has come out and showed that you do not have to push the hardware to the extremes to make a flagship. Some will argue that Microsoft has tried this with Windows Phone, but Microsoft does not have a platform that has gained enough mind share or market share to really talk about in the same way we talk about Apple, Samsung, HTC, or Motorola. Lets talk about the specs of this phone first and clear up some misconceptions that I have seen in the comments and all over the web.

  • Dual core Snapdragon S4 Pro at 1.7 Ghz
  • Four Adreno 320 GPU cores
  • Two extra cores for voice and contextual awareness
  • 10 MP 1.4 micrometer camera
  • 4.7 inch 720p AMOLED screen
  • 2200 mAh double stack battery

At first glance, this looks a lot like a Samsung Galaxy S3, Droid HD/HD MAXX and HTC One X. It is a lot like those phones on the surface, but once you look into it a bit more, you start to see a difference. The flagships from last year are using Snapdragon S4s which has two Krait 200 cores. The Pro version of the Snapdragon S4 is Krait 300 which is 24% to 30% better. In simplest terms, it is a dual core version of the Snapdragon 600. The 600 uses DDR3 and the Pro uses DDR2, but they have the same 8.5 GB/sec throughput. General user responsiveness is almost solely based on quick single core performance, so most of the time the other two cores will not be missed. Even looking back to the Droid/Nexus One days, you could have a snappy experience on the home screen with a measly ~600Mhz Cortex A8 CPU. I would also like to point out that the HTC One mini is using a Krait 200 based dual core processor at a lower frequency and Vlad has said that he cannot see the difference between the HTC One and the HTC One Mini as far as user experience is concerned.

The GPU is somewhat of an anomaly on this device. It uses four Adreno 320 cores, each of which is twice as powerful as the 305s used in phones such as the Galaxy S3, HTC First and One Mini, and last generation Droid line of devices. As far as I can tell, this is way more than is needed to push a 720p display and is most likely there for hardware acceleration and to help balance the lack of two CPU cores that the Snapdragon 600 has.

A 720p AMOLED non-straight RGB screen on a 4.7 inch screen is probably the biggest complaint you will hear from me. I personally do not mind 720p on a screen of that size, but the sub-pixel arrangement is not ideal. It is not nearly as bad as what Samsung uses on the Galaxy S line of phones, but it is not as nice as the IPS screens Motorola had once sourced from Sharp back in the days of the Droid, Droid 2, and Droid X. Every since the Droid 3/X2, we have seen screens that do not compete with that of what HTC and Apple use, which is a real problem. The Droid 4 was the low point, and we are slowly seeing Motorola getting better screens from Samsung, but not better enough. The pixels are laid out like those in the Note 2, which is not bad, but not great. From initial reports, the color accuracy is much better than the intentionally over saturated screens Samsung uses in its own AMOLED screens.

The camera seems to be an other area where Motorola is doing something a little different. The company has not gone all the way to where HTC has and is still using 1.4 micrometer pixels, in contrasts to the One's 2.2, but still better than Samsung's Galaxy S4's puny 1.1 micrometer pixels. This will help a lot with low light shots. They are also using clear pixels, but I do not currently know enough about that to make an informed comment at this time.

This device is not only powerful enough for today's market, it should be good enough to last you two years. It may not age quite as well as the One or the S4, but with TRIM support added in 4.3, a lot of the aging slowdown problems we see with 4.2 and below should be alleviated and you will not want to throw this phone through the closest wall by the end of 2014.

A Good Device Needs a Good Push

Now that we have the basics about the phone out of the way, lets look at what Motorola is doing with the X. Quite frankly, they are emulating Apple and Google, and to a less extent Samsung and HTC. This should make sense since they are owned by Google and a lot of the upper management came over from their parent company.

Google has been taking pages from Apple's playbook from the early iPhone days, and I think that will transfer over nicely to the features on the Moto X. Apple has, for the most part, advertised on the strengths of their phones, and how their devices can make people's lives better. They evoke emotion. They are "feelings" commercials. Now look at what Google has done with the branding for the Nexus line of products and even their Chromebooks. Same idea, different product. They make you feel something, and that's how you sell products(look no farther than old cigarette comercials, or the amount of marketing that companies put into things for children).

To contrast "feelings" advertising you only have to look at Samsung, HTC, and Verizon. There is a joke I have with a few of my friends that Samsung's software division is run directly by their marketing division. If you can't advertise it, don't put it in the phone. Several people I know have had GS2s, GS3s, and GS4s. Only a few weeks after owning them did they realize that they do not care about the eye tracking, tilting home screen arrangement, or that if they found someone else with the same phone that they could sync up music playback. Even worse is when they learn that S Beam is built into Android and Android Beam and that a Droid HD can do the same thing with a Galaxy Nexus, and they could have had the battery life of the Droid RAZR Maxx, but instead have to buy a second battery and keep it charged. This is not to say that this does not sell phones, because it does, but at this point we do not know if feature advertising works better than feelings advertising, because no other company has come close to spending what Samsung does on marketing a phone. The closest is Apple, and iPhone sales speak for themselves.

HTC seems to follow Samsung from what I have seen. I believe the features on the One are more useful than what Samsung pushes, and it is helping, but that is subjective. A good low-light camera with OIS and front facing loud stereo speakers are much more useful to me than being able to pause video when I look away from my phone, but every person is different. HTC's One marketing and focus on its strengths have been part of the reason that the phone has done better than past years' efforts, but we still have not seen the One brand gain the traction that the Galaxy brand has. HTC has only had two years of this with some confusion in naming, but I would imagine that will get better with time.

With half a billion to spend on Moto X marketing and the tag line "Designed by You. Assembled in the USA.", Motorola has a good chance to really show why someone should care about their phone. They will most likely show the voice activation being used in cars, while cooking, when a mom's hands are full, or when a man is building something. Something people can relate to, even if a little stereotypical . They can show the color options. The moms phone is white and pink. The dads phone is blue and black. A teenage girl has a black and pink one. These are features that truly set the Moto X apart from everything else on the market.

One Phone, Everywhere... Kinda

The other big piece of the Moto X that Motorola is borrowing from the successful players is availability. The iPhone is on every carrier now. So are the Galaxy S3 and S4. Motorola will have the X on the five biggest carriers in the US, and that is one of the smartest things they can do. That means they had to play ball with AT&T and Verizon and there will be bloatware on the device that will drive some of us crazy. So what? The average consumer does not care about this. We will have a Google Play edition that we can purchase. Or root the device and remove the bloatware. As an owner of a Galaxy Nexus, I can say I will take a few apps I do not what over Touchwiz any day. Ultimately, a few unwanted preinstalled apps is a small concession to make to get your phone approved and launched on just about every carrier in the US in a quick time frame. This is something only Apple and Samsung have been able to do in recent times.

The drawback is that, unlike the Nexus 7(2013), one SKU will not serve all carriers. There will be different SKUs for Verizon and AT&T. I believe this problem for phone makers is largely intentional on Verizon's part by not moving over to VoLTE, but that is a rant for a different day.

Only time will tell if Motorola's plans play out. I believe this could be the biggest shakeup we have seen in the mobile industry for a while. I think this will be the fourth moment in modern smartphone history that we can look back on and see the changing of the way things work. The iPhone launch, the Droid launch, the Galaxy S3 launch on the big four, and the launch of the Moto X.