Review: Moto X is the Android smartphone no one needs

The much-ballyhooed smartphone from Google's hardware unit brings little that's worthwhile to the mix

All winter long, we were treated to fevered speculation about the Moto X from Google's hardware unit, Motorola Mobility. Motorola has produced a string of lackluster Android devices, but the Moto X was going to be different. It would redefine the smartphone and challenge Samsung for creative dominance over the Android platform. It would be customizable -- and made in the United States.

It was clear when the Moto X was finally announced on Aug. 1 that it was no game-changer. But now that the Moto X is shipping, it turns out to be less than that. It's a mediocre smartphone that adds nothing useful to the mix. There's simply no reason for this smartphone to exist.

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The Moto X runs the stock Android "Jelly Bean" 4.2.2 version, which means it has all the pros and cons of any Android smartphone. For example, on the pro side, the Calendar app supports more kinds of repeating events than an iPhone's iOS does, there's near-field communication (NFC) for data exchange with other NFC-enabled Android devices, and you get access to all those Android home-screen widgets. On the con side, there's no support for the widely used Cisco IPSec VPNs, encryption is disabled by default, and media integration falls short compared to Apple's iTunes/AirPlay combination.

The Moto X does introduce a twist on the voice-command system that Android has long offered in competition with Apple's Siri: You can set the Moto X to always listen for Google Now commands, which can be handy while you're driving and shouldn't be touching your smartphone. Although it does a great job of understanding speech, Google Now's voice commands are very limited, not able to do much besides performing Web searches or issuing a few commands, such as make a call or send a text. Worse, you have to know the specific phrase that Google has programmed -- like "Show me the weather" -- to get real information instead of a search page. By contrast, Siri is much, much smarter and able to provide a lot of useful information from all sorts of queries: "How hot is it?" "What's the weather outside? "Tell me the weather?" and so on. Siri adapts to you; Google Now makes you adapt to it.

An Apple-inspired innovation the Moto X claims to bring to the table is also a dud. There's a Chrome browser extension you can download to your PC, Mac, or Chromebook that shows your Moto X's text messages and voicemails. Apple's iMessage service on Macs and iOS devices makes it easy to have a texting conversation across devices, and this is an attempt to replicate that. But because Motorola's version works only in the Chrome browser -- and only when the required extension is also running -- it lacks the ease of Apple's approach, which works all the time because it's an OS-level service. Leaving Chrome and its Motorola window open all the time to not use the Moto X is more hassle than it's worth.

Likewise, the lock-screen indicator for messages requires a gesture to see the message summaries, sort of like Windows 8. Apple's iOS just shows you the messages so that you don't have to fool around with the phone.

Compared to other Android smartphones, the Moto X brings little to the table. The big addition is the always-on voice command capability. The battery actually lasts more than a day -- not a given in Android devices. The Moto X is the first device to use the Motorola X8 module, which includes a dedicated motion processor, similar in concept to the M8 chip in Apple's iPhone 5s, but there was no obvious benefit in my usage to having the X8 compared to having a Qualcomm or other ARM chip in competing devices. The Camera app also has a nice selection wheel for setting the flash, HDR, and other attributes. That's not a lot to make a purported flagship device a flagship. (The camera itself takes adequate photos, but not great ones; the Moto X is another case where big megapixel ratings -- 10, here -- don't translate into superior-quality images. UPDATE 9/23/13: A software update appears to fix some of the quality issues, but so far is available only for T-Mobile customers.)

The Moto X adopts the Miracast wireless display protocol that debuted in the Google Nexus 4. If TV makers adopt this standard, Android will have a worthy competitor to Apple's AirPlay, but so far they have not. In the meantime, you can use an MHL video-out cable.

A Samsung Galaxy S 4 has a much broader array of software, some of it half-baked. And the HTC One is a much more elegant smartphone, with a very nice-looking, readable user interface. Both the Galaxy S 4 and HTC One have nice cases, whereas the Moto X's is pedestrian at best. Its curved back makes it awkward to use when on a tabletop or other surface, as you can easily rock it. The Moto X also has an unfortunate tendency to slide out of my palm -- something about its case material makes it slick when nestled in skin. (My editor had the same experience.) The main competitors don't have these issues.

The vaunted customization is limited to choosing a case color or design. That's a gimmick, not a feature -- and it's available only for Moto X smartphones tied to the AT&T network. As for being made in the United States, the truth is that it is assembled domestically, with parts made mostly elsewhere. It's great to bring manufacturing jobs back to the States, but there's less to the patriotic appeal than many buyers will believe.

I also find the Moto X's screen to be a bit hard to read. Part of that is the default setting of tiny text, coupled with a brightness distortion that creates a halo effect around the unfortunate use of light-on-dark text. If I were 25, my eyes would likely be able to handle these unfriendly visual designs, but I'm twice that age. Boosting the text size helps, but still the screen is nowhere as readable as that of a Galaxy S III, Galaxy S 4, or HTC One -- or smaller-screen iPhone. I appreciate the Moto X's 4.7-inch screen size -- too many Android smartphones have grown gorilla-sized -- but the overall quality isn't there, and the tiny text neutralizes the advantage of the larger screen.

That in a nutshell is the story of the Moto X: a mediocre device with a few interesting twists that overall aren't that well executed either. Why bother? You shouldn't.

If for some reason you still want a Moto X, it is available in AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless versions. The 16GB model costs about $200 with a two-year contract or $600 without; add $50 for the 32GB model. Neither has expandable memory, unlike many Android devices.

This article, "Review: Moto X is the Android smartphone no one needs," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security and management (20.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Hardware (10.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Motorola Moto X 7.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 6.0 7.0 7.3
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