Motorola finally revealed the first product born of their new relationship with Google, the Moto X: assembled in the U.S.A. and designed by you (at least for those on AT&T) with near stock Android and smart customizations added on top. I won’t go into the hardware specs because the consensus is that it is mid-tier with its dual core processor (versus quad-core in other flagship devices from Samsung and HTC), 720p display (versus 1080p), 10 megapixel rear camera, and full price of $199 on contract. However, too many people are placing an emphasis on specs when there are other factors to consider such as how optimized the software is for the hardware, the personal design customization, and, of course, the smart customizations such as Active Display, Touchless Control, and Quick Capture Camera. When considering all of these factors together, the Moto X may be a game changer for how we interact with our phone and how we view our relationship to our phone.
People often neglect to think about hardware and software optimization, but anyone familiar with Apple products knows exactly what this is. Optimization is how Apple achieves such excellent battery life and that buttery smooth user experience in their devices. The software takes full advantage of the arguably inferior hardware and since Apple only has a handful of devices, it can more easily optimize iOS. Android, on the other hand, operates on a myriad of devices with various processors, ranging from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon to Nvidia’s Tegra to Samsung’s Exynos to Texas Instruments’ OMAP. It is nearly impossible to optimize the code of Android to take full advantage of every chip. A Wired interview points out how the Moto X uses a single core to power some of its new features such as Touchless Control, allowing the other cores of the phone to enter deep sleep while still preserving functionality. Without using this technique, an always listening feature such as Touchless Control would apparently require three batteries to get through an entire day! Motorola learned to conserve battery power from their experiences with the Moto ACTV line of wrist accessories. If the article is any indication, the Moto X will be optimized and have that perfect marriage between hardware and software that Apple iDevices enjoy. It’s hard to say whether or not this will be the case without people running the Moto X through the gauntlet of everyday life for a few weeks. However, this could make the absolute hardware specs irrelevant.
Personal Design Customization
Along with its “Assembled in the U.S.A.” tag line, Motorola is really putting most of its effort into the idea of a phone being “designed by you” by allowing personal design customization through its MotoMaker site. Interested consumers can go to the site to design and directly buy a customized Moto X. Users will have a wide variety of colors to choose from, as seen above (16 different colors and 7 different accent options at launch), including other materials such as a wood finish later. Currently, AT&T has an exclusive on this, but fear not because customers of other carriers will be able to do the same by the end of the year. Going this route will take a few extra days for the phone to be made and shipped compared to the instant gratification of walking into a cell phone store and walking out with new phone in hand, but Motorola believes customers are more than willing to wait for a more personalized phone. In addition to back plate colors, users can have their name engraved on the back, change the color of the power/volume buttons, set a custom boot message, choose a wallpaper to be pre-installed, and buy matching (or mismatching) headphones. There is a lot to say about having your own phone that speaks your language. After all, the use of mobile is exploding and we probably spend more time with our phones than with our partners! If I’m using my phone that much, I’d certainly want it to be personalized and “designed by me.”
The Moto X is mostly stock 4.2.2 Android but does come with a few tweaks of its own that I will quickly go into below. For videos on how these customizations work, check out the video embedded in this Droid-Life article or Marques Brownlee’s video.
This is by far my favorite feature of the Moto X. The screen, even when off, lights up to show you the time and what types of notifications you have waiting for you. You can then touch and hold the notification to see a more detailed view, as seen to the right. The phone is also smart enough to know when you’ve taken it out of your pocket and will display the information at that point. This feature beats the current use of LED notification lights. Notification lights are great for signaling what types of notifications are waiting, but with Active Display, I am treated to so much more information without unlocking my device. It feels very similar to using DashClock with DayDream while docked since all of my important notifications are displayed through DashClock with the help of LightFlow. With Active Display though, I don’t need to have my phone charging and DayDreaming.
The next smart feature, Touchless Control, goes a long way to creating a portal into Google services by allowing users to “talk” to their phones without grabbing the device. This feature is powered by the awesome Google Now and Google Voice Search. If you haven’t heard of Google Now, watch this comparison between Google Now and Apple’s own Siri that shows Google Now’s strength for providing information and context versus Siri’s strength as a digital assistant. With the Moto X, users can instantly access Google Now by saying, “Okay, Google Now” to launch Voice Search. From there, users can ask questions like what the weather will be today or whether or not their favorite sports team won. Personally, I think this is a nifty feature, but one I wouldn’t use it very often. I barely use voice search on my current device although with continued updates to Google Now’s functionality, this feature could be a game changer and really change how we interact with our phone.
Quick Capture Camera
From an off screen, the Moto X can quickly go into its camera app with a double flick of your wrist, allowing users to go from phone in pocket to picture taken in two seconds – at least according to Motorola. The camera tweaks are simple and yet useful. Tapping anywhere on the screen will take a picture and holding down after tapping will take a burst of photos. Sure, the camera isn’t as robust as the Galaxy S4, but these are nice features to have. The double flick shortcut seems to take some practice to use effectively, so it may be simpler to just take your phone out, turn on the screen, and swipe to the right to access the lockscreen camera widget, which I think is pretty quick as is.
It is really hard to say what the verdict is for this phone. I know, it’s quite the cop out, but hear me out on my concerns. Note that I am coming from a phone enthusiast point of view and not the average customer. First, many of the smart customizations definitely change how we interact with our phones including Active Display and Touchless Control. However, my hunch is that these features will find their way into future versions of Android; especially since Touchless Control is Google’s new gateway to search and, more importantly, data about you to help better target ads. So, these new features will eventually find their way onto better devices in the future, making the Moto X less special (it already shares these features with Verizon’s new Droid line). Second, the hardware and software may be optimized for each other but there is no telling how quickly this phone will be updated by Motorola (it’s already behind with Android 4.3 out now) or for how long Motorola will even support the phone. Realistically, it should not be hard to keep up with Android updates since it’s mostly stock, but that’s no guarantee. Finally, while the customization options are excellent for this phone, I just do not see very many people knowing about it to take advantage. Most cell phone shoppers in America still buy their phones from a cell phone store and store representatives will certainly not take the time to point out MotoMaker to a potential customer, assuming he or she is even interested in the Moto X! Guy Kawasaki compared the Moto X’s ability to be personally designed to the game changing iMac colors of the late 90s; however, there was an actual Apple store for people to go to and it was marketed quite well. It will be a tough sale at the store when comparing the specs of the Moto X against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One.
Personally, I’m excited about the Moto X and what it brings to the table, but it isn’t the phone (Droid?) I’m looking for. The Wired interview talks about Motorola and Google’s long term plans with its R&D unit constantly churning out new ideas. The features included in the Moto X are just the tip of the iceberg. I completely agree with the philosophy behind the Moto X, but simply have a hard time justifying a purchase of one because of its specs, price, and locked bootloader. To compound the problem, it’s difficult to see where Motorola stands in relation to Google’s own Nexus line of devices and the Google Play Edition versions of flagship devices, which the Moto X will be a part of, as strange as that appears since it is basically stock Android. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see how Motorola defines itself and differentiates itself from Google and its competitors. If it is the place where the ideas from the R&D factory go from concept to implementation as described in Wired, then what is the Nexus for? I hope that future Motorola phones will keep the innovations and personal design options of the Moto X, while catering to the more hardcore phone enthusiasts, as well.
There is no doubt that the Moto X is changing the game by showing off its smart features, assembled in the U.S.A. motto, and personal customization, but the question is “does anyone care?”