Motorola Moto X (Verizon Wireless) review

The Moto X adds some useful, unique tricks to a fast Android smartphone that's comfortable to hold in one hand.
Photo of Motorola Moto X (Verizon Wireless)

X very well might mark the spot. Motorola’s Moto X ($199.99) pays an unusual level of attention to some core activities most people do with their mobile phones: quickly taking pictures, searching the Internet, texting, and most of all just holding it. That’s going to make the X the go-to phone for folks looking for an Android device focused on one-handed convenience rather than on piling in as many features as possible.

This is a review of the Verizon Wireless version of the Moto X. We’ll review the other carrier models as we get them.

Physical Features and Screen
Motorola got one important thing very, very right here: The Moto X is the narrowest flagship Android phone available today. Only Verizon’s Motorola Droid Mini, which we haven’t tested yet, will be narrower—and not coincidentally, the Droid Mini is the Moto X’s primary competitor on Verizon Wireless. 

The width of a phone, more than anything else, defines how comfortable it is to use one-handed. The X is 2.57 inches wide, as compared to 2.69″ for the HTC One and 2.75″ for the Samsung Galaxy S 4, which makes it noticeably easier to use in one hand. It’s also shorter than those two, at 5.09″ tall, but a little bit thicker, at .42″ thick, and it’s between them in weight at 4.6 ounces. Unlike the all-metal HTC One, the Moto X is mostly a plastic phone, but it uses more solid, higher-quality-feeling plastics than the S 4 does, so it weighs a little more.

The Verizon Moto X comes in white and black. While the phone will come out on all four major carriers, the customizable color and case options are AT&T exclusives for now, so we’ll cover those in the AT&T version review. Our test phone was made of warm white plastic, with a noticeable ridge around the sides and an almost dizzying, optical-illusion-like jewel pattern on the back. The curved design is much more hand-friendly than the Galaxy S 4, though; it’s more like the soft, almost organic feel of a Nokia.

The 720p AMOLED screen is 316 pixels per inch, sharp enough for anyone’s eyes. Yes, if you st-a-a-a-a-re at small text on here and on a display like the HTC One’s, you’ll eventually see slightly more jaggy diagonal lines on here. But the difference is impossible to notice in regular use. This isn’t a PenTile screen, either, so you don’t see the stippling you see on PenTile OLED displays.

Whites are a touch pinkish and the screen on my test unit had a slightly larger black border on the upper left than on the right, by a noticeable few pixels. The screen is very bright, noticeably brighter than the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One, and you get the usual crazily oversaturated OLED colors.

Motorola went with the AMOLED because it can turn small areas on and off without waking up the whole screen. When you pick up the phone, for instance, the time and any message notifications appear in the middle of the screen.

The phone comes with an unusual power adapter with two USB ports, so you can charge another device if you like. That’s a nice touch.

Voice Calls, Networking and Battery Life
Voice call quality is good, not great. For one thing, Verizon is now well behind rivals Sprint and T-Mobile at providing wideband “HD” voice calls. I made ten calls from different locations in Brooklyn and Queens, and found varying voice quality with some volume fluctuations from the microphone. The speakerphone has a slight buzz coming off of it when it tries to pump its maximum volume. The Galaxy S 4 has better voice quality.

Motorola has been working on its own noise cancellation software for years—it’s called CrystalTalk and we first wrote about it in 2007. So noise cancellation is very good here, killing the noise of nearby engines, car alarms, and people talking. 

Motorola advertises the Moto X as having unusually long battery life. We got 14 hours, 15 minutes of CDMA talk time, which is definitely a great showing for the 2200mAh battery. That beat our result on the CDMA HTC One, which marked 11 hours, 25 minutes on a larger 2300mAh battery. The Moto X’s 8 hours, 21 minutes of video streaming time over Wi-Fi also beat the HTC One’s 5 hours, 48 minutes. But Motorola’s boldest claims are reserved for standby and “average use” time, a weasely, nigh-undefinable term that will have to play out as more people use the phone.

Verizon’s Moto X supports the carrier’s CDMA network, the AT&T HSPA+ network (oddly enough), foreign HSPA+ networks on the 900 and 2100MHz (but not 1800MHz) bands at speeds up to HSPA+ 42, and Verizon’s LTE network on 700MHz only—for now. A firmware update will bring support for Verizon’s AWS LTE spectrum, which will improve LTE speeds where it’s implemented. 

The Moto X can hit Wi-Fi networks on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, including the new 802.11ac networks, but its radio is just a little less sensitive than the Galaxy S 4′s; I could see a weak 5GHz network on an S 4 that I couldn’t see on the X. All the usual other radios are here, too: Bluetooth 4.0 (which works very well for voice dialing and media playback), GPS, NFC and such. No, you can’t have Google Wallet; Verizon blocks it.

This Ain’t Stock Android
Remember: X ain’t Nexus. Google’s visual style is all over the Moto X (including in the setup process) but Motorola and Verizon have both added a bunch of features here beyond the basic Android 4.2.2 apps, which explain in part why the X is running 4.2.2 and not 4.3. Yes, a 4.3 update is coming, although Motorola couldn’t confirm exactly when.

Verizon adds its usual stable of bloatware, including NFL Mobile and a ringtone store, and of course, they can’t be removed.

Motorola’s additions are more exciting. These are things that have been available for other phones as third-party apps, but I haven’t seen them built in before. Motorola Connect is a Chrome extension which lets you text from a Web browser pop-up window on your PC. For people who like to text but spend most of their day in front of a PC (me), this can change everything: It makes texting as convenient as IM. It’s addictive and excellent. Moto Care is a remote locate and wipe function. That’s also useful. Moto Assist mutes your phone when you’re sleeping, driving, or in a meeting.

The X is also the first phone to seriously compete with Siri on voice activation—and I say that after six months using a Windows Phone. The key is Motorola’s “touchless” activation; the phone is always listening for you to say “OK Google Now,” which it understood indoors, outdoors, on a public bus, and with music playing out of a speaker very nearby. In fact, with music playing, you can yell “OK Google Now! What song is this?” and it’ll listen and identify the song. Well done.

You can yell out requests for dialing the phone, directions, showtimes, weather, or Google searches (“what is the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar?”) Google Now doesn’t have Siri’s personality—asking it to “tell me a joke” or “what is the best smartphone” comes up with dry search results. But it’s genuinely useful, and it genuinely works—as long as you have signal. If you don’t have a network connection, it only does voice dialing.

The one place Now really falls down on the job is in dictating text messages or notes to yourself. While it can do it, the voice recognition is just short of good enough, and I ended up with a few too many errors for my taste. It also won’t record more than a sentence at a time.

Motorola’s features don’t require you to create a new account like Samsung does, and Motorola doesn’t try to duplicate Google’s media stores like Samsung is. There’s none of that tension between Samsung and Google that you find on the S 4.

Benchmarks and Performance
The Moto X uses Motorola’s X8 chipset, which is based on a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro dual-core Krait 300 processor running at 1.7GHz with an Adreno 320 GPU. On benchmarks, it holds its own with Snapdragon 600-based competitors, so banish all of those complaints about it being an “older part.” 

The Adreno 320 and Motorola’s “secret sauces” turn out to be the key advantage here. Look purely at math-based benchmarks and the Moto X gets crushed by the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One. But factor in memory access and graphics, and the story changes completely. The Moto X beat the HTC One (but not the Galaxy S 4 or iPhone 5 ) on the Browsermark and Sunspider Web browsing benchmarks, and squashed the S 4, iPhone, and HTC One on graphics benchmarks like GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt HD and Basemark Taiji. 

It also beat the competitors on Basemark OS’s system tests, which are heavily biased towards database operations and file I/O, and showed considerably faster application startup times than the S4 or HTC One.

The result is a phone that feels very sprightly, with fast, smooth scrolling, few performance delays, and great game play. Need for Speed: Most Wanted has never looked smoother or felt easier to control. That doesn’t mean the X will never stall; buggy programs will still crash. But that isn’t the processor’s fault.

I encountered two very minor bugs while testing the phone. One prevented Google Now from activating using the microphone of a wired headset (rebooting fixed this); the other grayed out the thumbnails in the Gallery (restarting the Gallery app fixed this.) Neither were show-stoppers.

Multimedia Storage and Playback
Our Moto X came with 11.88GB of 16GB free. While that’s better than the Galaxy S 4′s 9.62GB, it’s still tight for a phone without a memory card slot. A 32GB Verizon “developer model” will be available from Motorola’s Web site, but the company couldn’t confirm whether that would have a subsidized price or would have to be bought at full fare.

Media playback is good, but file support isn’t quite as complete as on Samsung and HTC phones. The video-playing Gallery app sometimes took several seconds to load thumbnails. Standard H.264 and DivX video support for resolutions up to 1080p was fine, but one of our three Xvid files lost audio when I fast-forwarded it, and WMV support topped out at VGA resolution. The single, back-ported speaker is loud, but not as rich as HTC’s two front-ported Boomsound speakers, and it gets a bit muffled when placed down on a table, just like all back-ported speakers. For music, AAC, MP3, OGG. WMV and WAV files all played admirably. There’s an equalizer buried in Settings so you can adjust bass to your taste.

There’s no wired way to connect the Moto X to a TV. Instead, you need to use a wireless Miracast adapter like the Netgear Push2TV ($59.99), which I couldn’t test. The Moto X will also work as a fine remote for Google’s Chromecast, of course, but that won’t play local content stored on the phone.

Camera
I’m madly in love with Motorola’s Quick Launch camera trick. I use my smartphone camera a lot, and not having to fumble with a button or icon to launch it is a big deal. Instead, you twist your wrist twice and the camera starts up in about 2.7 seconds, even from the lock screen.

The 10-megapixel main camera and 2-megapixel front camera are annoyingly devoid of settings. Swipe left in the camera app, and you can pick HDR mode, tap to focus, flash, and panorama. But if you want to change white balance, exposure, or (most importantly) resolution, you’re out of luck. That means all videos are shot in 1080p, which makes the files huge. I’ve never liked that about the iPhone, and I don’t like it here. I’m more willing to give up all of Samsung and HTC’s gimmicky camera modes— here’s no eraser shot, drama shot, picture-in-picture or any of that stuff. Just tap on the screen to take a photo; hold down your finger to take a bunch.

In low light, Motorola’s ClearPixel camera is capable of much higher ISOs than the GS 4, at the expense of lots of noise. Motorola’s camera frequently metered shots for higher ISOs than Samsung’s camera did, compensating with higher shutter speeds in good light. Motorola’s images are thus a little darker than Samsung’s outdoors, and much brighter but somewhat washed out indoors.

Outdoors, whose camera I liked better depended on the shot. Shooting a brick building with an American flag or a close-up flower, Motorola’s camera did a better job of bringing out the colors and Samsung’s image looked a bit washed out. But in other images, the reverse was true.

There was a dramatic difference in low-light photos. The Samsung phone maxes out at ISO 1000. A medium low-light shot brought the Moto X to 5000, which brought out details but washed out all the dramatic shadows. A very low-light shot had the X claiming an ISO of 8000 to the GS 4′s 1000, and the X brought out many details that the GS 4 swallowed in shadow, albeit at the cost of lots of color noise. The GS 4 has a brighter, more even flash, though.

The 2-megapixel front camera, on the other hand, isn’t as special. It’s noisy and images have a ton of color noise when you zoom in; low-light images were also darker than ones taken with the GS 4.

The video mode only records in 1080p. In good light, it captures 30 frames per second without a problem. In low light, it ratchets back to about 15-16 fps and things tend to get visually noisy. The front camera has the same MO, adding noise to compensate for a lack of light and then ratcheting down the frame rate as a last resort. 

Overall? It’s not the best camera, but it’s a good-enough camera, and you won’t be frustrated with it the way you may have been with previous Motorola cameras.

Conclusions
The Moto X offers unique, high-quality experiences in a phone that doesn’t have the best specs or basic features. This can make your choice a little difficult: After all, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 will still have a better screen and better voice call quality, along with its memory card slot, MHL support, and more flexible camera. The S 4 retains our Editor’s Choice for that reason. 

Verizon customers will also have to decide between the Moto X and Motorola’s own Droid lineup, which we haven’t yet reviewed. The Droid Mini will deliver very similar specs in an even more pocketable body, thanks to a smaller (but same-resolution) 4.3-inch screen. The Droid Maxx will almost certainly have unmatched battery life. Either could be a better choice than the X, but we don’t recommend things we haven’t tested.

A few other unreleased phones lurk in the decision-making process here. If and when Verizon ever launches the HTC One, you’ll probably find it better built and better for music and video, although some of its “experiences,” like its camera, look better on paper than in practice. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, on the other hand, looks to come off as cheaper than the Moto X in various ways. 

Even though the Galaxy S 4 retains our Editors’ Choice, if I was to personally pick an Android phone right now, the Moto X would be my phone. It’s the right size, and Motorola’s exclusive features like Motorola Connect, Motorola Care, and the twisty camera speak to things I do every day. It’s just a pity that Verizon customers won’t get Motorola’s customization options, which are, for now, exclusive to AT&T.

Specifications
Service Provider Verizon Wireless
Phone Capability / Network GSM, CDMA, UMTS, LTE
Screen Resolution 1280-by-720 pixels
Bands 850, 900, 1900, 2100, 700
Screen Type Super AMOLED HD
Operating System as Tested Windows Phone
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 10
High-Speed Data EDGE, EVDO Rev A, LTE, HSPA+ 42
Battery Life (As Tested) 14
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
Available Integrated Storage 11.88 GB
microSD Slot No
Processor Speed 1.7 GHz
GPS Yes
Screen Size 4.7 inches
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Quad-Core
Form Factor Candy Bar

Verdict
The Moto X adds some useful, unique tricks to a fast Android smartphone that's comfortable to hold in one hand.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc