A Review of the Moto X (2013) / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

The Moto X

Something About Me

(Feel free to skip this section and go right to the next header, at which point the review will really begin. But this is my blog, so let’s be indulgent for a moment.)

I’ve always thought of myself as a “power user,” whatever that was supposed to mean. I wanted bleeding edge tech and software, and was willing to put up with some instability to get it. For a long time, I thought that was as true of cell phones as it was of computers. I read numerous reviews of every phone/tablet/whatever released, especially ones. But I no longer salivate at the prospect of the strongest hardware, because I’ve realized that I don’t need the most powerful phone on the market. I need the most useful.

When the Moto X was announced, it seemed to fit that description. Top of the line then, and it’s definitely not top of the line now, but it still felt like the right phone for me. And that has a lot to do with how I use phones. So first, a little history:

I’ve been using Motorola devices for most of the 11 years that I’ve had a cell phone. Back when I used flip phones, I cycled between LG and Motorola, but I’ve stuck with Motorola ever since joining the smartphone world four years ago. It’s not for any brand loyalty reason; they’ve just met my needs every time I’ve been able to upgrade. I started with the Droid X, shifted to the Droid Razr Maxx, and am now on the Moto X. Back in the day, Android was still going through series growing pains. I was on Android 2.1—Eclair—when I received the phone, an operating system that functioned but was Ugly and much less impressive than its competition. While using that phone, I saw it grow with Froyo and Gingerbread, and I ended up rooting the phone and trying out Ice Cream Sandwich before switching to the Droid Razr Maxx.

That phone only saw one update, from 4.0 to 4.1—Jelly Bean, although my Nexus 7 has seen me all the way through to 4.4—Kit Kat. As a platform, Android has matured greatly, and it’s finally gotten to the point where it really just works the way it didn’t four years ago. I’m glad I chose to put myself into the Android ecosystem back then, because it really has become a great platform. The Moto X also runs Kit Kat, but it’s got a few key additions that will play into this review.

So let’s talk about the phone.

But first, let’s talk about the process of buying the phone.

Moto Maker

One of the most attractive things about the Moto X (and Motorola’s recent line of phones in general) is its customizability. While the lower-end Moto G and Moto E have removable back plates that allow for some measure of personalization, the Moto X goes full bore, allowing would-be buyers to choose front, back, and accent colors, as well as a signature and some minor, cute software tweaks (such as a personalized boot-up message).

The Moto Maker experience is a surprisingly fun one, and I was testing out color combinations months before my previous contract was up. Some of them looked awesome, most of them not so much, but it reminded me vaguely of a more limited version of the Creature Creator that EA released for Spore back in the day. Even before the game was available, people were putting together awesome designs. I’ve been told that different colors have different materials, but I can’t speak to that difference. (I would assume that the wood-backed options also have a very specific feel, but I kept mine plastic.)

Every phone purchase I’ve made up until now has given me only a few options, and usually only one of them is my style. I want something darker, so I’m usually left with all-black. And while that’s fine, I thought it was time for a change.

The Phone Itself

My own Moto X is seen in the header: Black front, Hunter Green back, Silver accents. The combination seemed like it would work online, and I’m definitely happy with how it came out (the pictures don't really do it justice). It may not be bright and colorful (a White /Lemon Lime combo isn’t really my style), but it definitely sticks out. Pretty much everyone I’ve shown it to has complimented its look, and it definitely feels like my phone in a way no other has. (The fact that it reads “Hi, Alec!” on bootup and has a small white etching of “AlecJKM” on the back doesn’t hurt.)

The Moto X is surprisingly small. Maybe not for people who have been using better-designed phones up to now, but I was shocked when I put it in my hand for the first time. Despite its 4.7” display, the phone is notably smaller than the not-excellent Droid Razr Maxx with its 4.3” screen. That phone was definitely thin, but its bezels were unsightly. The Moto X, on the other hand, seems to have nearly no bezel at all on its sides, and the ones on the top and bottom seem to be just about as large as they need to be to fit the sensors, camera, speaker, and microphone.

One thing the Moto X lacks is an LED for notifications. And while there’s a perfectly legitimate reason for this (one I will be delving into later in this review), it came as a bit of a shock to me. I am so used to using that notification light (customized with Light Flow) as an easy way to tell what I’ve missed when I’ve been away from my phone that I’m still getting used to needing to be a bit more hands on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Unlike many flagship phones these days, the Moto X does not have a 1080p display. Instead, it sits comfortably at the bottom of the HD rung, with a 1280x720 screen. While it may not have an eye-searingly high ppi count like the HTC One or even the Nexus 5, the 316 pixels-per-inch is only slightly less than the iPhone 5S’s retina display, and I have no complaints. A higher resolution screen requires stronger internals and thus sucks away at the battery; this is a perfectly fine tradeoff. Coming from the QHD screen of my last phone, it’s a major step up. Some people complain about the saturated look of AMOLED displays, but I find them quite pleasing.

Motorola made a point that the Moto X’s back is curved (though not the screen) to better fit the human hand. The company measured thousands of different hands to find the “average hand” and molded the back to that measurement (presumably for right-handed folks, though; sorry, lefties. In practice, it feels good. Very good, in fact. The buttons on the side (power and volume) are clicky, but that’s fine, and while it’s a bit thinner than I’m used to (I had a bulky case over my Razr Maxx), that’s definitely not a bad thing. It slides easily into my pocket and takes up minimal space.

The back is sparse. On the top half is a camera, flash, speaker grill, and circular indent with the Motorola M. At the bottom is your signature (if you got one), a carrier logo (if you use one), and another microphone hole (for noise cancellation). I use external speakers almost exclusively for listening to podcasts as I go about other work, and for that purpose it’s generally fine. It’s on the quiet side and the audio quality isn’t spectacular, but outside of HTC’s offerings, that’s true about Android phones in general.

The camera is centered, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but I’m not a huge fan of its placement. I hold the phone in such a way that my index finger naturally ends up in either the indent for the camera lens or the Motorola logo, which means the glass covering the camera has been covered with fingerprints since the moment I got it. While not the end of the world, it’s not an issue I’ve ever encountered on a phone before, and it’s unfortunate. It’s possibly I just have a very not-average hand and this only applies to me, but I tend to doubt it.

Speaking of the Camera

The (still) camera in the Moto X is... acceptable. Coming from the Droid Razr Maxx, it’s a step up, but a step up from basically unusable isn’t saying much. It’s still noticeably worse than anything an iPhone produces, but having used it in a variety of environments and lighting situations, I think it will generally serve my purposes. (I have a DSLR that I turn to if I need actual pictures taken.) If you’re looking for a seriously worthwhile camera, the Moto X isn’t for you. But if you just need something to capture moments, it’ll probably be fine.

As an example, though, here are a six random shots:

Video, on the other hand, is subpar at best. In poor lighting situations, it’s unusable, and while it’s okay under good conditions, it won’t blow you away, or even impress you at all.

But one thing that is pretty cool is how easy it is to access the camera. At any point (even when the screen is off) a quick shake of the hand will cause the phone to turn on and go straight to the camera. From there, it grabs images reasonably quickly. It took a little while, but I eventually got the doorknob motion to work 100% of the time. There’s also an easy-access button on the lock screen, in case the motion doesn’t work. But that’s not all that helpful, because you probably won’t see the lock screen all that much, because of the Moto X’s real killer app.

Active Notifications (Is Totally Awesome)

Other than the Moto Maker setup, it was Motorola’s “Active Notifications” system that drew me to the Moto X in the first place. I use my phone primarily for communication and reading the news, and on my previous phone I had a setup that allowed me to see from a distance what a notification was for (different email addresses used different colors, as did missed calls, text messages, calendar reminders, etc.). It’s a system I’ve been using for years, and it’s still odd to have it replaced, but although I can no longer see a blinking light from across the room and know by its color what I’ve missed, I’ve got something that is much more useful.

Whenever the Moto X is moved (no button presses necessary), it flashes the time and an unlock icon on an otherwise black screen (the AMOLED display allows it to do this with minimal battery use). If there is a notification, that icon is replaced with the icon of whatever application is trying to get your attention. Tapping the icon will bring up the notification (e.g. a text message), and swiping to that notification will bring you directly to the app.

Before, receiving a text meant seeing the white light, unlocking my phone, and then accessing the notification. Now I just pick up the phone and swipe right to it. And if there are two notifications, swipe up for one, swipe down for the other. Extra notifications aren’t quite so easy to access, but the amount of time the whole system will save me long term is pretty substantial. If every time I want to open my email when I get a new message (a dozen times a day or more) I save a few seconds, and that adds up. It also makes using the phone more pleasant.

Touchless Control Will Be Useful

But while I can’t see what my notifications are from a distance, I can potential hear them. Each time a notification is received, Active Notifications will momentarily light up the screen to let you know that something’s up (but it can’t be customized by color; it’s always white). If you don’t have a pin set up, you can then say “Okay Google Now” and it will bring up a Siri-esque system. Then asking “What’s up?” will have the device greet me (awww), tell me the time, and read out text messages or let me know who sent emails and read the subject lines. In a crowded room, I’m unlikely to be shouting at my phone (I didn’t like doing it to the Xbox One Kinect either), but when it’s just me and my phone’s near enough to talk to but not actually grab, I think I’ll definitely get some use out of it.

Touchless Control can also be used to send messages texts, make phone calls, look up flights, add calendar events, and do most of the things you might need it to do. I’ve had a couple of problems with recognition, but when I enunciate clearly, it works pretty well. I’m definitely impressed with how far voice recognition has come in the past few years. And Google Now’s abilities are constantly growing as well, so I expect it to become smarter and more useful as time goes on.

But Moto Assist Is Not So Smart

The one place where software has seen a notable downgrade is with Moto Assist. This successor to Motorola’s “Smart Actions” is less a replacement for the exceedingly powerful Tasker and more a simplistic system that lets the phone change state when it detects the user is driving, in a meeting, or sleeping. All of these are useful features, but when the extent of the sleeping options are choosing the time for quiet hours, allowing favorites to bypass silent mode, or allowing anyone calling multiple times within five minutes to bypass it, it feels incomplete.

With Smart Actions, I had set up my phone (usually vibrate only) to ring at maximum volume when sleep mode was engaged (between a certain time while the phone was plugged into a wall) when people on a specific list (which was not the same list as my favorites) called. Literally none of those options are available to me now. I appreciate the desire to make it easy to use, but it’s at such a major expense of functionality that I can’t get behind the decision. As someone who rarely drives (living in Manhattan makes it pretty unnecessary), I haven’t used that feature, nor have I really gotten much from the meetings assist either, but looking at the options I do like what’s there. They’re simple but effective.

Considering Moto Assist is likely to stay a part of the Motorola ecosystem, I expect it will see updates, and hopefully it will grow to allow for some more intricate setups. If not, I can always turn to Tasker, but I’d rather not have to.

Battery Life

While I haven’t had my Moto X long enough to really gauge battery life, I will say that I’m a pretty heavy user and I have yet to have it die on me during the day. The reason I opted for the Droid Razr Maxx back in the day was its impressive battery life, and I hoped that the Moto X would at least get me from the morning to the evening. The day after I got the phone, I installed dozens of apps (over WiFi), fiddled with it near-constantly, and tested out a lot of its features. When I plugged it in that night, the battery was still at 25%. I’ve had phones that required a mid-day charge, and I hated it. The Moto X doesn’t seem to be like that (although only time will tell how long that’s true). Both Active Notifications and Touchless Control use specially-designed low-power hardware within the phone that allow them to be always at the ready without a major hit to battery life, which is crucial.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t run benchmarks/stress tests, because I don’t have benchmarking software and I also don’t find them particularly useful. You can find those at dozens of other sites, but from a practical standpoint, experience says more, and my experience has been a good one. I’d much rather take mid-tier hardware and a good battery than top of the class power that will kill the battery before I get out of work (and with the phones that exist today, that’s generally a tradeoff that has to be made).

But Does It Work Well?

So it’s not the most powerful hardware, but it runs its operating system well. I’ve had the same periodic stutters that I’ve always had with Android devices, but they’re definitely less frequent and less noticeable than on either my previous phone or even my (first generation) Nexus 7. Apps respond quickly and everything seems to be working just fine. I expect using demanding software (like graphically intensive games) could cause some problems, but that’s unlikely to affect me. For my purposes, I’m content.

Also, It’s a Phone…

Thus far (a caveat I’ve been using a lot, because usually serious problems with the phone don’t come into play until long in the phone’s life cycle), I have had no problems with using the Moto X as an actual phone. I can hear others loud and clear, and they generally seem to be able to hear me, although apparently my voice comes across deeper through these new microphones than my old ones. I’ve also had no problems connecting to either WiFi or the T-Mobile networks in and around New York City. Again, I’m content.

… A Phone I’m Glad I Got

All of this brings us to that most important question: is this phone worth buying? Yes, probably. On contract, they can be had for extremely cheap, and I can’t recommend it enough, but off contract things a bit dicier. An unlocked GSM 32GB model will cost a hefty $450 without discounts (less than an HTC One, but much more than a Nexus 5), and is facing more and more competition, including from Motorola itself. For $170 off contract, Motorola’s Moto G is perfectly serviceable, and the first good smartphone at that price. For $130 off contract, the brand new Moto E is obviously a bit worse, but a bargain at that price. Comparatively, the Moto X is downright expensive, but it’s also a higher-end device, and those have always commanded a premium.

But if you want the high-end, the Moto X isn’t right for you. If you want a 1080p screen and better internals, don’t care about the customization options, need a camera that will replace your point-and-shoot (or take halfway decent video), or are unimpressed by Motorola’s software features, then you probably shouldn’t bother. There are other phones out there better suited for you. But if you’re like me, a

With Motorola’s sale to Lenovo, there’s some question about the fate of the Moto X, which was developed while the company was under Google. But even if it remains on Android 4.4 as other phones pull ahead, it will still be a damn good phone and a damn good experience. It’s not perfect, but I know I made the right decision getting this phone. It feels like Motorola really understands, perhaps more than any other company (read: Samsung) what features are actually useful to the consumer rather than just additional things to add to the back of the box. The Moto X is just that: useful. It’s elegant, intelligent, and enjoyable to use.

And when it comes down to it, that’s all I can really ask for.

[In early 2015, the screen on my beloved 1st Generation Moto X cracked. Shattered, really. I received a discount on a 2nd Generation in lieu of a direct replacement (it is no longer possible to customize 2013 Moto Xs), and have since received that phone and am playing around with it. I expect I'll write a review of that in the coming weeks.]