Review: Motorola X smartphone comes out this week

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When Google dropped a big bucket of cash on Motorola to acquire the company in 2012, things didn’t change immediately. Things couldn’t change immediately. Tech companies typically have a pipeline of products that have been in development and are making their way to production. Most tech companies have a pipeline of about 12-18 months. Motorola’s pipeline has now been emptied and the Motorola X smartphone is considered to be the first true Google-created Motorola smartphone.

Hardware

At first glance, the Motorola X looks like… well… a smartphone. It’s slick but not much different than the ga-zillion other smartphones out there. It has a smooth plastic back that has a texture appearance (white version has texture, black does not.) The back of the phone has a nice slight curve to it that keeps the speaker off the surface of a table and also creates a nice feel in your hand.  It has a glass front with a nice 4.7” screen that goes all the way to the left and right edges of the phone. There is a 10 megapixel camera on the back and a 2 megapixel selfie shooter on the front.

It’s not super thin or super light. It feels like a decent solid smartphone. There’s nothing amazing about the appearance but it feels like it’ll hold up to the typical abuse of life. I like that in a phone. It’s not too light and not too thin. It’s got some “oomph” to it.

Under the hood are some pretty standard hardware specifications. The camera specs are typical for a smartphone these days, the dual-core processor clocks in at 1.7GHZ which is good but not great. The new Samsung Galaxy S4 has a quad-core processor at 1.9GHZ, for those of you who are keeping score. The Motorola X has the standard 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage in the base model.

Those specs sound uninspiring, to say the least. The thing is, the Motorola X isn’t about specs. It’s not about numbers on a piece of paper. It’s a consumer phone designed for consumers who don’t read the spec sheets. Geeks care about specs. The Motorola X isn’t made for geeks, it’s made for everyone else.

X’s Secret Sauce

The Motorola X shines in ways other smartphones don’t. Where specs don’t matter, the extra touches that set the X apart from other phones do matter.

It’s ALIVE!

The Motorola X has a feature that pulses notifications at you all the time. It uses a feature of the AMOLED screen technology that lets it only power the pixels it’s using. Typical LCD screens have to power every single pixel on the screen just to display a single letter. Throughout the day the X will pulse the current time and a quick view of any pending text messages, e-mails, appointments, etc. Place your finger on the icon and it will give you more detail about the notifications. It does all of this without having a huge impact on the battery thanks to that AMOLED screen. It’s impressive. The phone knows when you pull your phone from your pocket or flip it over on a desk and immediately pulses the your notifications on the screen. Otherwise it seems to just pulse through the day. It feels like the phone has a… well… pulse to it. This quick glance at notifications will change the way you use your phone.

Camera and more

Sure, the Motorola X has a 10 megapixel smartphone camera. So does every single high-end smartphone on the market these days. The X takes it a step further. The camera takes great pictures. Motorola calls it “Clear Pixel” technology. Colors look good, pictures are crisp and features like HDR and panorama work exactly as you would expect. Video is 1080p and looks as good as any other current smartphone. What I really love is the slow-motion video mode. It records 720p video in 4x speed. When played back it’s 4x slower but still smooth. It’s very cool and a fun way to shoot videos with the kids and around the house.

Motorola also includes a feature designed to help you get right to the camera app with a simple double flip of your wrist. It’s an odd idea and only seemed to work about half the time when I tested it. When it worked it was great, powering on the phone directly to the camera app within seconds. When it didn’t work it was an exercise in frustration as a continuously flicked my wrist and on-lookers assumed there was something wrong with my hand. Hopefully a software update will tweak this feature.

Driving Ms. Motorola

Included on the Motorola X is an app called Assist. It’s simple and unassuming. What it does may make a huge difference in the way you use your phone (or don’t use your phone.) It includes Driving, Sleeping and Meeting settings. The latter 2 simply help your phone know when to be quiet and when to be loud. The Driving feature is pretty cool. It automatically detects when you’re driving and reacts based on that knowledge. You can set it to automatically respond to all text messages with a canned message or it can speak to you while you’re driving. It’ll tell you that you have a new message from person X and ask you if you want to hear it. If you say “listen” it will read that text aloud. I love this! On top of that, you can use Google Now to talk back to the phone to send a text message back to that person without ever touching your phone. Forget texting while driving, Motorola X solves that problem for you.

Was it perfect? No. It often pronounced names and words funny and sometimes didn’t recognize who I was trying to text and what I was trying to say. It also required a tap to actually send the message. Hmmm, that seems to defeat the purpose just a tiny bit. Perhaps reading the message back to me and asking me to confirm it would work better?

I’m taking my things and leaving!

One of the biggest frustrations of switching to a new phone is getting all of your old stuff from your old phone over to your new phone. Motorola solves that problem with a new app called Migrate. Load it up on both your old phone and the new phone and then point your old phone at the QR code displayed on your new phone. The app takes care of the rest transferring contacts, previous text messages, call history, music and videos and even all of your settings. It’s simple and a great idea. Why didn’t anyone think of this before? Right now this works if you currently have an Android phone. No word if Motorola will release a version of Migrate for iOS.

First smartphone designed by you

That’s Motorola’s tagline. The company has an online portal where you can pick the front face color, back cover color and the button colors to create a unique Motorola X. You can even pick a custom engraving for the back (this option has been delayed.) Initially this option is only available via AT&T (buzzkill.) Verizon promises it will eventually get the custom order feature too. The geek in me could care less about this but the creative hippie in me loves it. I can’t wait to see the phone color combos people create.

Always on, always listening

The flashiest feature of the Motorola X is called Touchless Control. Even when the phone is off, it’s listening. Anytime you say “OK, Google Now” it will go into ready mode and listen for a command. Need to know when your next appointment is? Don’t touch the Motorola X simply say, “OK Google Now, what is my next appointment?” It’ll read aloud the next appointment on your calendar. I’m a bit torn by this feature. It’s really cool and works pretty well but would I actually use this in real life? Perhaps. It runs on Google Now so there are a ton of commands and searches that it will respond to. Time will tell. Motorola promises that a special chip built into the phone allows it to always listen for the “OK” command without burning down the battery. That proved true in my tests. With the feature turned on the entire time, battery life was good.

Sounds cool, what’s the catch?

There are a few things I’d change about the Motorola X. First and foremost, where is the Qi? Qi is pronounced chee by the way. It’s a feature that allows you to charge your phone wirelessly by simply setting it on a charging pad. No plugs, no wires. All 3 Motorola smartphones just announced for Verizon include Qi, the new Google Nexus 7 tablet includes Qi and the Google Nexus 4 includes Qi. I’ve grown to LOVE wireless charging and all of a sudden Google’s, err Motorola’s, latest masterpiece is missing Qi.

The AMOLED screen on the demo model I tested seem to have a slight pink hue to it. I’m not sure if various production runs will have different levels of this or not. This is a problem that AMOLED screens have had in the past. In fact, my Samsung Galaxy Nexus had an AMOLED screen and this drove me nuts for the first 2 months. After that, my eyes were used to it and I didn’t even notice.

Conclusion

I think the Motorola X nails it. Tech heads looking for the latest in high-end specs squeezed into the thinnest package humanly possible will, no doubt, be disappointed but the rest of us will fall in love with the X. It’s a solid phone designed with features that will make you think, why did it take so long for someone to think of this? I like the Motorola X… a lot! Simple in so many ways yet groundbreaking in other ways.

The Motorola X goes on sale August 23rd for $199 with a 2 year At&t contract. It will be available in a few weeks on Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.