Motorola Moto X (2014) review: Motorola's new Moto X far surpasses the original

The Moto X's camera jumped from 10- to 13-megapixels, and can record video in slow motion and in 2,160p ultra HD 4K. The fact that the phone runs mostly pure Android means that users miss out on manufacturer-specific camera software. And similar to the Google Nexus, the Moto X's camera only has a handful of features, including geo-tagging, panoramic shooting, and HDR. The front-facing 2-megapixel camera can record in 1080p HD video, though panoramic shooting and control focus are disabled. Users can takes photos while shooting, as well as pause live recording.

Similar to its predecessor, users can flick their wrists with the device in hand, to launch the camera. Though this isn't the most natural motion, it's pretty effective and useful. To activate the 4x digital zoom, you'll need to swipe up and down on the left side of the viewfinder; and to call up the menu wheel, you can swipe inward from the edges of the screen.

There's also a feature called "control focus and exposure." This lets you lock in the lighting exposure or focus of certain areas and objects inside the picture. The tool is signified with an encircled bracket that appears directly on the viewfinder, and you can drag it around the screen to select your area of focus.

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The 13-megapixel camera lens is encircled by the flash. Josh Miller/CNET

For me, this tool took some time to get used to. Before I got the hang of it, I took many disappointing, out-of-focus pictures that had randomly blurry objects in the middle or edges of my photos. The fact that directly tapping the viewfinder also activates the shutter didn't help either. But after a while, I was able to learn the difference between "hard tapping the screen to take a picture" and "gently pressing my finger against the screen to start operating the control focus." Other users may get the hang of this much quicker than me, but it's important to note that some learning is required nonetheless.

Again, the camera isn't as feature-rich like the GS5, and with HDR turned off, light sources can be blown out easily. But I was impressed by how true-to-life colors were (especially with indoor lighting and white hues) and how fast it operated. For more on handset's photo quality, check out the images below. And be sure to click on them to see them at their full resolution.

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In this well-light outdoor picture, the buildings and people are in focus and colors are accurate. Lynn La/CNET

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Here, details in the moving water and water droplets are discernible and clear. Lynn La/CNET

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I used the control focus feature to lock into this bell pepper, which looks sharp and bright. Lynn La/CNET

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In this indoor photo, the white balance is accurate, though the darker hues at the bottom are hard to distinguish. Lynn La/CNET

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A few bottles in this line are out of focus, and you can see how without HDR activated, lighting is overblown. Lynn La/CNET

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In our standard studio picture, objects are clear with well-defined edges. Lynn La/CNET

Performance

I tested the Moto X in our San Francisco offices and call quality on both AT&T and Verizon was great. Although I could hear a slight amount of static every now and then when my calling partner spoke, it was very subtle and wasn't overly distracting or irritating. Other than that, none of my calls dropped, volume range was appropriate, audio remained continuous, and there weren't any other buzzing or extraneous noise going on in the background. In addition, speaker quality was particularly notable. Although audio didn't quite have the same depth as it does on the One M8, the dual front-facing speakers rendered conversations louder and clearer than most devices.

Likewise, my partner said my voice sounded clear as well. Although she could tell I was speaking from a mobile handset, she said that audio on her line sounded clean with no distortion or static.

Motorola Moto X (AT&T) call quality sample

Motorola Moto X (Verizon Wireless) call quality sample


Data speeds on both carriers' 4G LTE networks were fast, and I was most impressed with the phone's average download and upload rate. According to Ookla's speed test app, AT&T had the best rate, with 33.92Mbps down and 12.29Mbps up; on Verizon it was 15.84Mbps down and 12.49Mbps up. It also downloaded and installed the 45.08MB game Temple Run 2 quicker, taking only 25 seconds while the Big Red took 37 on average.

As usual, however, when I browsed the web on AT&T, I experienced some load time hiccups, with some sites stalling to display after several seconds passed by. On this device, however, it occurred quite rarely, happening only two or three times total. Browsing the Internet on Verizon's model was much more stable, with more consistent load times for desktop and mobile sites.

Motorola Moto X (2014) Performance Times

AT&T (4G LTE) Verizon (4G LTE)
Average download speed (Mbps) 33.92 15.84
Average upload speed (Mbps) 12.29 12.49
Temple Run 2 app (45.80MB) 25 37
CNET mobile site load (in seconds) 6 4
CNET desktop site load (in seconds) 6 5
New York Times mobile site load (in seconds) 10 7
New York Times desktop site load (in seconds) 8 10
ESPN mobile site load (in seconds) 4 4
ESPN desktop site load (in seconds) 6 5
Restart time (in seconds) 35 38
Camera launch time (in seconds) 1.76 1.61

The Moto X's processor is incredibly zippy -- apps launch and close with ease; graphics intensive games like Riptide GP 2 show high frame rates and play smoothly; and the camera is nimble, readying itself instantaneously for the next shot. Benchmark tests also mirrored my real-world findings. For the AT&T model, its best multithread Linpack score was 591.813 MFLOPs in 0.28 seconds, and though its highest 21,936 Quadrant result falls just below its competitors, the score is still fast. Verizon's model scored slightly better results, however, with a 23,123 Quadrant score, and a multithread Linpack score was 595.995 MFLOPs in 0.28 seconds.

Save for the One M8 (which has a 2.3GHz clock speed) all the devices including the Moto X, Galaxy S5, and LG G3 have a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. The One M8 scored the highest with 24,593, with the GS5 and G3 coming right after with their scores of 23,707 and 23,103, respectively. On average, AT&T's Moto X handset powered off and restarted in 35 seconds, and it took 1.76 seconds for the camera to launch. The Verizon model took about the same about of time, requiring about 38 seconds to restart and 1.61 seconds to launch the camera.

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Some of the data times on AT&T (left) and its best Quadrant result. Lynn La/CNET

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A few data rates on Verizon's network (left), and the model's best Quadrant score. Lynn La/CNET

Powered by a 2,300mAh battery, the phone has a reported talk time of 17 hours and a standby time of 10.4 days. Anecdotal observation shows that the battery is decent, but not significantly impressive. With mild usage, it can survive a work day without a charge, but expect to plug in if you're a high-powered user. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, AT&T's phone lasted 10 hours and 38 minutes and the Verizon model lasted just slightly below that at 10 hours and 22 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the device has a SAR rating on AT&T and Verizon of 1.08W/kg and 1.46W/kg, respectively.

Conclusion

The Motorola Moto X is not without its faults. Compared to other flagship competitors, its camera has few editing features, and storage hogs will find its lack of external memory disappointing.

But all its benefits mean it's easy to look past these drawbacks. Its US starting price, both on- and off-contract ($100 and $500, respectively) is lower than the Galaxy S5 and LG G3. It delivers the same high-speed processor as the other two, and has a brilliant screen. In addition, with software features like the Moto Voice and Display, the user experience feels personal and seamless.

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If you want to stand out, the Moto X has you covered. Sarah Tew/CNET

And most importantly, in a sea of black slabs and few color options, the device achieves what no other handset has yet to do: it can look and feel like it truly belongs to you. With Moto Maker, you can design a phone that's unique and personal. Even if that's not a high priority for you, the fact is that you're already starting off with a premium device in your hands. But add the ability to customize it to reflect your personal style? Well, that's just a gigantic cherry on the top.

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