Google’s Pixel smartphones, which effectively replaced the Nexus line, have received critical acclaim for their design, performance, and mostly, their cameras. But that acclaim has come at a price: the Pixel phones start at $649 and can cost almost $1,000, depending on configurations.
That’s been a tough pill for many fans of the prior Nexus phones to swallow, as they frequently offered a lot of specs and performance for a lot less money than other smartphones. You could realistically get a great Nexus phone for under $500 without having to give up the traits that make them great: clean software, fast performance, and timely updates.
Enter Motorola’s new Moto X4 Android One smartphone. While not technically a Nexus phone, it shares many of the same qualities that made the Nexus line so loved. Clean build of Android? Check. Promise of fast updates and years of software support? Check. Reasonable cost? Check.
The $399 X4 won’t appeal to everyone. It’s not meant to compete with the Pixel or other premium phone in terms of features or performance, and its biggest limitation is that it’s only available on Google’s own Project Fi network. (Though it comes unlocked and works with other networks, the only way to buy this flavor of X4 is to be a Fi customer.) But if you’ve been holding on to that aging Nexus 5X hoping something would come along and pick up its mantle, the Moto X4 Android One version is it.
The Moto X4 Android One version has identical hardware and design to the Moto X4 that will be sold through Motorola in the US and other parts of the world. Unlike Nexus phones, Google did not have any involvement in its design or development; it’s a Motorola phone through and through. This is probably the biggest distinction between the X4 and the Nexus line of phones.
The Moto X4 is a phone that feels much nicer than its price would lead you to believe
The X4 is a metal-and-glass phone with a 5.2-inch, 1080p IPS LCD display, IP68 water resistance, Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor, 3GB of RAM, and a 3,000mAh battery. The design, build quality, and overall fit and finish are top notch and a considerable step up from the Nexus 5X’s plasticky finish. The rear glass panel is curved and melds into the metal frame with nary a seam. Plus, the IP68 water resistance means you can get it wet — even submerge it — without worry, which is something that most phones in this price range do not have. The X4 is a phone that feels much nicer than you might expect to get from something that costs less than $400.
Though its Snapdragon 630 processor is not at the same level as Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line 835 chip, it is more than capable of providing a fast and smooth experience on the X4, and everyday tasks are completed without drama. Apps open quickly, I can switch between them swiftly, and nothing in my day-to-day routine ever feels like it’s stressing the X4 out (except for taking photos, which I’ll get to in a bit).
On a similar note, the 1080p display is not an ultrawide design, nor does it have as many pixels as screens you might find on higher-end phones. But it’s bright and vibrant with great viewing angles. The pixel density is perfectly fine at this size, and I can’t see any individual pixels, even when I peer closely at the screen.
The battery in the X4 is slightly larger than the one that came in the Nexus 5X, and I’ve had no issue using the phone for a full day without having to charge halfway through. Should you need to hit the charger, the included 15-watt TurboCharger can provide “six hours of use in 15 minutes of charging,” which basically means it will charge the phone quickly.
Other points of hardware interest: the X4 supports Bluetooth 5.0, which doesn’t mean a whole lot now, but will be useful once we have headphones that support it. If you don’t want to use wireless headphones, the X4 also has a 3.5mm headphone jack next to its USB Type-C charging port.
The Moto X4 has a dual-camera setup, with a 12-megapixel “normal” camera and an 8-megapixel wide-angle shooter next to it. The 12-megapixel camera has an f/2.0 aperture and 1.4-micron dual-focus pixels, while the 8-megapixel wide-angle has a less bright f/2.2 lens and smaller 1.12-micron pixels. The X4 is capable of shooting up to 4K video at 30 frames per second (using the normal camera) and has depth control and selective color modes in its camera app.
Despite its respectable specs and feature list, the camera is where I’ve had issues using the Moto X4. Launching the camera app is a slow and tedious process that caused me to miss more than a handful of shots. Actually taking a picture is equally frustrating, as the shutter rarely snaps when I push the button and there is a lot of time necessary for processing between shots.
The wide-angle camera is so wide that it creates significant distortion in images, bowing and skewing any straight lines that happen to be in your frame. Switching between the standard camera and the wide-angle one also takes longer than it should.
As for the actual picture quality, there’s nothing to get excited about. Images in good light are sharp, have good color rendition, and have a fair amount of detail, but indoors the camera struggles with motion blur and noise. Shots from the wide-angle camera are noticeably worse than the normal camera (as its lower specs would lead you to expect), and I suggest that anyone using the X4 just forget the wide-angle option exists. Like any other phone with a dual-camera setup, the X4 has a portrait mode that will artificially blur backgrounds to mimic a DSLR. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not very good and looks rather fake to my eyes.
So while the hardware on this X4 is identical to every other X4, it’s the software build that’s different. This is the first Android One-labeled phone available in the US, which means that it has a near-stock version of Android 7.1 Nougat on it. It has only one voice assistant, Google’s (compared to the three that come on the standard Moto X4), and it uses Google’s phone dialer, messaging, and launcher apps.
Wisely, Motorola was able to include its very useful gesture controls (such as karate chop the phone twice to turn on the flashlight and twist it twice to launch the camera) and Moto Display features, which show the time, date, battery life, and any notifications whenever you wave your hand over the phone or pick it up. It does not have the fingerprint gesture options found on other Motorola phones, but I personally prefer the on-screen buttons for home, back, and recent apps, so I did not miss them.
With the Android One designation comes the promise of two years of software updates, and Google says the Moto X4 will be updated to Android 8.0 Oreo before the end of this year. It also says that the X4 will be updated to Android P, whenever that becomes available. You might consider purchasing the X4 Android One based on this software support promise alone, as it is typical for phones in this price range to quickly get abandoned by their manufacturers and never see software updates.
If there’s going to be any phone to pick up the Nexus mantle, the Moto X4 is perhaps the best candidate. It’s a straightforward smartphone with straightforward software that doesn’t cost a fortune. With the exception of the camera performance (which, in theory, could be improved with software updates), it does all of the standard smartphone things well, without any gimmicks that get in the way.
Given Google’s commitment to the Pixel brand and its statements that it has “no plans” for future Nexus products, Android One phones are the closest thing we’re likely to get to the Nexus line. And the Moto X4 is the closest thing to a Nexus successor you’ll find.