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Motorola Moto X (2014) review

The best Android smartphone ever made

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Just over a year ago, Motorola introduced its new brand and identity and launched the Moto X, a different kind of smartphone than anything before it. It could be customized differently for each and every person that bought one, something no other smartphone maker had done before (or since). And the Moto X was a critical darling, packed with innovative and user-friendly features.

Despite the critical acclaim, the Moto X didn’t turn out to be a great seller. Motorola quickly discounted the device and held frequent sales in attempts to garner interest in it. Motorola told us that specs don’t matter for a great smartphone experience, and for the most part, it was right. But they clearly did matter to the people buying high-end smartphones, and the Moto X’s smaller, lower-resolution display and older processor were easily overshadowed by the bigger, faster Android smartphones occupying store shelves.

Now Motorola is releasing an all-new, second-generation Moto X. The new, cheaper $99.99 Moto X has the same name as last year’s phone and carries over many of the same features and design traits that worked so well before. But Motorola has significantly upgraded virtually everything in the device. The new Moto X has a bigger, higher-resolution display, faster processor, premium metal frame, and improved software. It can now sit next to the Galaxys and Ones of the world and not be instantly dismissed as a smaller, slower option.

But the game has changed from last year. HTC’s One M8 is one of the nicest, best-designed smartphones ever made. Samsung still dominates the industry and its Galaxy S5 is as big a seller as it has ever been. Even LG is making better hardware than ever with the G3. And Apple is expected to announce the most radically different iPhone in years this week. Motorola’s challenges have never been bigger.

Fortunately for Motorola and its new parent company Lenovo, the new Moto X is a home run.

Motorola Moto X

Last year, the Moto X’s smaller display made the phone great for one-handed use, but it didn’t stand out against the Samsungs and HTCs on store shelves. But the new Moto X is a different animal. It has a 5.2-inch, 1080p AMOLED display that’s bigger than what the latest from HTC and Samsung offer. And it’s a high quality screen: it’s sharper, brighter, bigger, and just nicer to look at than the previous model. It has tremendous viewing angles, punchy colors, and can be seen in bright sunlight without issue. It’s everything the display on a flagship smartphone in 2014 should be.

Motorola couldn’t increase the screen size of the Moto X by a full half-inch and not make the phone itself bigger. But even though it’s not the same one-handed ergonomic miracle as last year, the new Moto X is shorter than the HTC One M8 and the Galaxy S5, while still having a larger display than either of them. It’s big, but not nearly as big as I normally expect a 5.2-inch smartphone to be.

Part of that is because Motorola has maximized the screen’s footprint and shrunk the bezel surrounding it even further than before. Even so, it’s still managed to find room for a camera, light sensors, a new speaker, and new infrared sensors on the front of the phone. (All of those things make the front of the white model look rather busy, but the black version hides them quite well.) The speaker isn’t the same stereo setup as HTC’s One M8 (it’s located at the bottom, the earpiece occupies the top grille), but it’s clear and loud and better than any speaker mounted on the back of a phone.

The other reason the new Moto X feels smaller than it should is because of the new, metal frame that replaces the plastic on last year’s model. The metal frame is thinner, harder, and nicer feeling than the plastic one, and it actually serves more than one purpose: Motorola is using it to boost wireless signal strength and quality. Sure enough, the new Moto X grabbed onto AT&T’s LTE network better than other phones in the same area. But more importantly, it makes the new Moto X feel like the premium smartphone it should and not some mid-range, lower-cost device. The volume rocker and power button are metal too, but like last year’s phone, they are still a little too small. Fortunately, the power key has a new texture that makes it easy to find by feel.

The new Moto X looks and feels like the premium smartphone it should

The back of the phone has the same sloped design as Motorola’s other phones, and it makes the Moto X rest comfortably in my hand. The trademark dimpled finger rest is larger and more prominent with a metal ring around it, but it serves its purpose just as well. Above the dimple is a new 13-megapixel camera and dual LED flash that Motorola has arranged into a circle around the camera, aping the ring flashes used by professional photographers. My review unit has an optional bamboo finish, a carryover from the natural options Motorola introduced last year. It’s grippy, organic, unique, and just plain cool-looking. Motorola’s going even further with its custom backs this year with real leather options that also look and feel great. The Moto Maker customization program is soldiering on with more options than ever, but Motorola’s moved the actual factories that support it to China, essentially killing the dream of a US-made smartphone.

With all of those things added up, the Moto X is a well-designed phone that’s comfortable to use and looks great at the same time. It’s easier to hold than the One M8 and nicer feeling than the Galaxy S5. And you can still get it in nearly any color combination you want, which no other smartphone maker has been able to match.

Motorola Moto X (2014)

Motorola is shipping the new Moto X with Android 4.4 KitKat, and it has already promised that it will be upgraded to Android L when that’s released later this year. The Moto X has an unmolested version of Android, without any custom user interfaces, gimmicky multitasking features, or silly content stores that try to compete with what Google already offers. It’s about as pure an Android experience as you can get outside of Google’s own Nexus phones. That’s fine by me — it’s clean, easy to use, and fast. It’s really how I wish most Android phones were.

What Motorola has done is smartly enhance Android with features that actually make the phone easier to use. It’s changed the names of a few of these features from last year and bundled them into a single app for easier management, but the software experience is largely unchanged. The Moto X knows when I’m in a meeting, knows when I’m driving, knows when I’m home, and knows when I’m sleeping, adjusting itself for each situation. It’s what makes it one of the "smartest" smartphones you can buy and a lot of other smartphone makers have since adopted similar features in their own devices.

Motorola's software features smartly enhance Android

Motorola’s signature always-listening voice control feature is now known as Moto Voice and lets you set any command to wake up the phone — you’re not locked into using "Ok Google Now" anymore. I set up "Ok Computer" as my voice command like any good nerd would do. There are a couple more things you can do with your voice over last year, such as send WhatsApp messages, or post updates to Facebook and Twitter. It’s also much faster to recognize and process my voice commands. But it still had trouble hearing me in a mildly noisy environment and I still had to enunciate unnaturally clearly to make it work reliably.

My favorite software feature of the Moto X, Active Notifications, has been rechristened Moto Display. It still lights up the phone with every notification and automatically shows me the time and missed notifications (up from one to three now) whenever I pick up the phone. But now you can just wave your hand over the screen and those new IR sensors on the front of the phone will see it and show you the time and missed notifications. It’s a neat trick, similar to Nokia’s Glance feature, but since the Moto Display lights up on its own with every incoming notification or whenever I pick up the phone, I didn’t find much use for it. It is also possible to silence alarms and incoming phone calls with a wave, which is arguably more useful.

Like the smaller, lower-resolution display, last year’s Moto X had an older, slower processor than the competition. It didn’t matter for a lot of things, but the slower chip would show its weakness when pushed. That’s not a problem this year. The new Moto X has the same quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor as the HTC One M8 and Galaxy S5 and it just flies. It’s snappy, responsive, and exhibits little to no visible lag. Motorola says that the interface can maintain a solid 60 frames per second thanks to its tuning of the processor. I’m not sure that’s entirely true — I’m starting to think Twitter for Android would still lag even on a supercomputer — but the Moto X is definitely one of the fastest, if not the fastest Android smartphone I’ve ever used.

The new 13-megapixel camera is an improvement over last year’s 10-megapixel model, but it’s not as dramatically better as the new screen and processor are. From what I can tell, it’s a similar sensor to what’s in a lot of Android smartphones, and it’s not as good as the best from Samsung, Apple, or Nokia. The camera is better this time around, but not hugely so, and it is still inconsistent. It’s really fast, almost as fast as the iPhone 5S, but images are still grainy and blurry in medium to low light and the focus can be unreliable even in good light. I didn’t find the ring flash to be much better or different than any other smartphone flash either.

Motorola Moto X sample image

The Moto X can still miss focus even in bright light, as evidenced in this picture.

The new Moto X can shoot video at 4K 2160p if you want something higher than 1080p for some reason, but more interestingly, the slow-motion mode works in full 1080p. Slow-motion video is still a limited use feature, but you’re not giving up full HD resolution to use it this time around.

The camera app is virtually unchanged (and you can still launch it with just a flick of your wrist), but Motorola has added features to its Gallery app for after the fact. It now can pick the best photo from a series of shots based on focus, sharpness, eyes blinking, smiles, and other factors. But more often than not, it was just picking one of two photos that were equally as bad. The Gallery app also includes an automatic Highlight Reel function that behaves similarly to HTC’s execution or Google’s own Google+ app.

Battery life was a little bit of a concern last year — it was good, but not great. It’s slightly better this year: the new Moto X has a slightly larger 2,300mAh battery and Motorola says its display is more efficient than before. The Moto X lasted 8 hours and 44 minutes in our battery rundown test, which is a strong showing, and I was able to get a full day of use out of it before needing to juice up. It’s not as long-lasting as the LG G3, HTC One M8, or Galaxy S5, but it should be good enough for most people.

Motorola Moto X (2014)

Last year, Motorola had a good phone, but it wasn’t good enough. This time around, the company learned from its mistakes, and came out swinging with one of the best Android phones ever made. The new Moto X has the specs, design, performance chops, and user experience to rival and surpass the best from Samsung, HTC, and even Apple. There really isn’t anything that other smartphones have that’s missing from this year’s Moto X. It’s a great looking device that’s a joy to use. It’s the premium flagship smartphone that was missing from Motorola’s lineup last year.

But having the best smartphone doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales (just ask HTC), and Motorola is going up against the juggernaut marketing efforts of Samsung and Apple. It will soon have a new parent in Lenovo once its transition over from Google ownership is complete, and it will need all the help it can get to have people considering the Moto X as an option when looking for a high-end phone.

The new Moto X is the flagship that was missing from Motorola's lineup

Motorola’s done everything right with the phone itself: the new Moto X is an excellent smartphone that I love using and I’m sure many other people will too. Now comes the hard part, and to win in this game, Motorola’s going to need more than just a home run. Batter up.

Product photography by Michael Shane and Sean O'Kane.