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The Moto X, Motorola’s first phone conceived and designed since the company’s acquisition by Google, doesn’t boast as many main processor cores or camera megapixels as its rivals at the higher end of the smartphone spectrum. It does, however, allow its users lots of control via voice and gesture commands, which speed up and simplify common tasks like taking pictures, placing calls, or getting directions (see “Motorola Reveals First Google-Era Phone, the Moto X”).

How do these features work in the real world? I used the Moto X (a black, 16-gigabyte, AT&T review unit) as my primary phone for four days. I found that the phone offered much to like, a few shortcomings that bothered me more than I thought they would, and—for a phone that’s meant to be intuitive—a far bigger learning curve than I expected.

Hardware build and body

The Moto X’s 4.7-inch screen follows the multiyear trend toward bigger smartphones. The trim bezel, however, means the phone doesn’t feel quite so big in the hand. Its rounded back leaves more room for a bigger battery, but makes it heftier than the ultra-thin HTC One, which has the same size screen. The textured back also hides a small speaker with impressive sound for gaming or music, plus a discreet AT&T logo. (Motorola says it fought hard to keep carrier and software branding to a minimum, and mostly succeeded.)

The screen is 316 pixels per inch, and offers 720p video, a step below the 1080p (or “true HD”) now common on newer high-end phones. Motorola’s CEO Dennis Woodside has said that “beyond 720p—unless you have the vision of a hawk—you aren’t going to notice much of a difference.” I’ve never been an HD video snob—my home TV set is 720p—but I was surprised by how muddy video playback was, even for TV clips from YouTube. 

As more casual, mobile video goes HD—don’t think 2013, think 2015—this will be a bigger problem for phone makers. The Moto X’s midrange dual-core CPU also feels a little puny. It handles Android 4.2.2 great, but what about the already-rolling-out Android 4.3, or Android 5? The operating system’s past record of outpacing older phones makes the Moto X’s midrange specs worrisome for future upgrades. 

Motorola’s boast on battery life is more impressive, with the Moto X promising 24 hours of mixed use. In my four days with the device, running the battery down all the way from a full charge once, and a second time to 25 percent, I found that this estimate held up, even when using push e-mail, location services, cloud backup, and a wide range of energy-intensive applications. (Standard caution: “mixed use” is notoriously variable, and battery life is better tested in multiple locations over weeks, not days.)

Voice controls

A unique feature of the Moto X is that its voice sensors are always on, with a new low-power processor devoted entirely to speech recognition. Instead of pressing a button to activate speech, you use a voice command (starting with “OK Google Now”). This is supremely useful in the car or if the phone is in your pocket or across the room, and I found it generally lowered the friction of using speech rather than typing.

In fact, I often felt the opposite problem with Moto X’s speech recognition: I got frustrated when I had to press buttons to confirm a command or search query or select from several results. When asking for driving directions in the car, for example, I had to click a button to authorize Google Maps to use my location and perform the search, even though I’d already done that for transit and driving directions days earlier: an unhappy headache when I really needed to be able to use the phone hands-free. 

There were other hiccups. One night, I used voice commands to set the alarm from my bed, received a voice confirmation that the alarm was set, and confidently pressed the sleep/wake switch to shut down the phone for the night. It turned out that this actually canceled the alarm: you have to wait for a progress bar to finish and then receive a pop-up notification. 

The Moto X’s Touchless Control is designed to sense and filter out background noise and to respond only to one user’s voice. Voice commands performed admirably in noisy environments—amid loud music or conversation—with one exception: wind. Strong winds give Touchless Control fits. It couldn’t respond to the “OK Google Now” command, even when I spoke directly into the microphone, either because it couldn’t parse the language or doesn’t recognize the speaker. This may a problem for the beach, biking, or driving with the car with the windows down.

Camera

The Quick Capture Camera has its own learning curve to master. It’s an ingenious use of gestures: two quick twists of the wrist activate the camera application from off or locked without having to press a button. Once in the camera app is running, touching anywhere on the screen takes a picture. The goal is to go from having the camera in your pocket to taking a picture in less than two seconds.

Learning the gesture is easy. But it only activates if the camera is asleep or locked. Once you unlock the phone, it doesn’t work. (There are some good reasons for this: if you’re playing a game on your phone, you don’t want to accidentally switch into camera mode.) But it means the two habits—a touch gesture to unlock the phone, a twist gesture to take a picture—actually work against each other. It’s one or the other.

Also, once the camera app is activated, it stays activated. On Sunday, I took a quick picture, then kept the phone in my hand while walking, anticipating that I’d take more. At the end of the day, I’d taken a half-dozen pictures of my own thigh, one for every incidental touch of the screen. 

Customization with Moto Maker

The Moto X is manufactured in the United States, which means U.S. customers can chose from 252 different color configurations, with a promise of more variations to come. This level of customization will make the Moto X stand out. My test unit was not a custom design, but I was able to play with the Moto Maker customization software that Motorola will use on its website and in AT&T stores, and it’s very well put together. You can experiment with different base, face, and accent colors or materials.

It’s really in the customization and purchase experience that you can actually see the influence of Google on Motorola. It’s all driven by data, from customer research and focus-groups to real-time feedback on inventory availability. Since the original Nexus was launched, Google’s been trying to find a way to change the experience of buying smartphones, and Moto Maker gets us closer. 

At the same time, the promise of total customization falls short. For now, it’s only available in the U.S. on a single carrier, AT&T. And the other key features of the Moto X are the opposite of custom. There’s only one gesture that can activate the camera, one phrase to activate voice controls, and only one voice that talks back. (The voice speed can be adjusted, but anything other than “normal” sounds ridiculous.) 

The phone’s price ($199.99 for the 16-gigabyte version on a two-year contract, or $574.99 off-contract) is also as cookie-cutter as it gets. A lower on-contract price of $99 would immediately pull casual buyers away from Apple’s iPhone; a lower off-contract price of, say, $299 would attract expert buyers who want maximum flexibility, as well as those from parts of the world where subsidized phones aren’t the norm; letting buyers chose custom phones on any carrier from Motorola’s or Google’s online store would make the Moto X’s stand out even more.

But even in its longstanding relationship with Verizon through the Droid brand, Motorola has no real clout. And Google is not giving Motorola the contract-free support it offers its Nexus line, or matching the pricing power Apple exerts with the iPhone to lower on-contract prices. 

Motorola’s CEO Woodside says that lower-cost Moto X-branded phones with similar features are coming “within months.” But it leaves an open question: why would I buy this Moto X?

Let’s call the Moto X what it is: an intermediate step. Motorola is offering some real innovation here, but it’s not yet the completely intuitive hands-free experience the company and its customers need.

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Credit: AP Photo | Mark Lennihan

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, Mobile, mobile devices, Motorola, Moto X

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