Motorola Moto X Pure Edition (unlocked) review:

Customization champ, but middle-of-the-pack phablet overall

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

5 stars 2 user reviews

The Good The Motorola Moto X Pure Edition lets you pick your design. It also has expandable storage, loud front speakers and charges quickly.

The Bad The handset's bigger size may be unwieldy for some, its battery life is just average and it's hitting a market increasingly crowded with more affordable superphones.

The Bottom Line If you're into self-expression and want a big phone, you'll benefit from the affordable Motorola Moto X Pure Edition. Otherwise, shop around.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Camera 8.0
  • Battery 6.0

I like the Moto X Pure Edition (or Style as its globally known), but I was honestly ready to love it. For one thing, it's an unlocked phone available directly from Motorola at a reasonable price, and it's designed to work on all of the major US wireless carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint) -- that's a big step up from most unlocked phones that only work on the first two in that list. Likewise, the international Moto X Style should work on all the carriers in whichever territory it's sold -- and many countries will also get the stepdown Moto X Play phone, which is not currently slated for a US release.

In addition, this 5.7-inch follow-up to 2014's Motorola Moto X also promises the same customization options, like choosing between different trim colors and the material of the backing, that made me buy that model as my personal device. And in this sea of lookalike phones, this is a distinct advantage that the Moto X Pure Edition has over its rivals.

But instead, I was disappointed. Its larger design (up from 5.2 inches) feels far too cumbersome for smaller hands like mine. Battery life was unexceptional, its camera wasn't massively impressive and aside from a few minor tweaks, Motorola's Moto services don't feature anything substantially new.

When you compare it to a top-tier large-screen device like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 , its drawbacks become even more obvious. And if you consider the current diverse landscape of unlocked handsets with the OnePlus 2 and ZTE Axon Pro , Motorola's phone doesn't quite come out on top. Though the Moto X was one of our favorite budget flagships last year, the same can't be said for the Moto X Pure Edition.

Availability

In the US, the handset starts at $400 unlocked ($100 less than last year's starting price). The price will increase, however, depending on storage capacity and certain design options.

In the UK the Style, as it's known, starts at £399 for 32GB of storage, with 64GB setting you back £434.

In Australia the Style is exclusive to Vodafone and only available on contract. It's available on both the AU$80 and AU$100 plans, for AU$3 of monthly handset repayments. That's a total cost over 24 months of AU$1,992 and AU$2,472 respectively.

Design and build

  • 5.7-inch display with 2,560x1,440-pixel (2K) resolution
  • 6.1 by 3 by 0.4 inches (154 by 76 by 11.1mm)
  • 6.3 ounces (179 grams)

Compared to the 2014 Moto X , Motorola increased the Moto X Pure Edition's display by half an inch, bumping up the device's overall footprint. Though it isn't as big as the Google Nexus 6 (which was manufactured by Motorola before Google sold it off to Lenovo), the size jump still makes it notably bigger than the previous 5.2-inch Moto X . That means -- for some -- it won't fit in your front pockets easily and you can't maneuver it with one hand comfortably. I passed it around for several opinions, and even tall people with large hands noted problems reaching for the notifications shade with their thumbs.

We got our hands on a black variant with a walnut wood backing and silver trim.

Josh Miller/CNET

But putting aside the size, it's still an attractive, quality built handset. Its curved backing conforms to your palm and the screen's glass panel smoothly curves down the side edges. The control buttons are narrow, and the ridges on the power/sleep button makes it easier to identify by touch. And Motorola's metal M-dimple on the back of the previous generation has now shrunken in size and sits in an elegant metal strip that runs between it and the camera lens.

Keep in mind that unlike its cheaper Moto G counterpart that came out this year, the phone is not submersible underwater. It is water repellent though, so you won't have to worry about a few water droplets here and there.

The Moto X Pure Edition also has dual front speakers -- as in both speakers will output audio for music and movies (though only the bottom grille will output phone calls on speaker), resulting in a louder and fuller experience. This is different from last year's, which only used one stereo speaker for media, and the other served as the in-ear speaker for calls.

Most importantly, Motorola continues its legacy to enable users to customize the look of the device. You can start with either a black or white base color, choose the accent colors (as in, the color of the speaker grilles on the front and the metal strip on the back), and the color of the back, which also comes in different materials: plastic, wood, bamboo and leather.

Some may argue that the ability to customize the handsets is trivial. But when the mobile market is saturated with so many phones that look the same, having a say over how yours looks (without the use of a case), is one of the few ways to have it stand out and make it truly yours. That matters to people, and it's a need that Motorola has tapped into well.

Other different design options for the Moto X Pure Edition.

Motorola

As for device's display, it's bigger as I mentioned before. It also has a sharp 1,440p resolution and it's maximum brightness level is bright enough to view comfortably outdoors in sunlight. Likewise, the minimum brightness level is also extremely dim, which is useful for avoiding eye-strain when viewing your handset in the dark.

The screen has a wide viewing angle and is responsive to the touch. I had no problems reading text and playing games, and streaming YouTube videos and watching the HD movie "Gravity" looked smooth and crisp. There's also a new setting under Display where you can choose between two color modes: normal or vibrant. Under normal mode, colors are already bright and vivid. But with the latter, hues are more saturated and richer.

Software and features

  • Google Android 5.1.1 Lollipop OS
  • Minimal Motorola software
  • Useful gesture controls

Despite its name, the Moto X Pure Edition isn't exactly the "purest" Android device, at least not compared to the Google's own Nexus family (understandably) and Play Edition handsets (though the latter has ceased all production since January). Don't be too disappointed, though -- if you want an untouched Android experience, Motorola's Moto line comes pretty close.

First, because you can get it unlocked, you won't get any carrier bloatware and branding. Instead, you'll get the usual set of Google apps such as the Chrome Web browser, Gmail, YouTube and more. Second, while you won't have a manufacturer user interface overlaid on top of the phone in the same way TouchWiz and Sense skins Samsung and HTC devices, respectively, Motorola still included some useful features under its Moto app.

These features are accessible under a single Moto app, which has Moto Assist, Actions, Voice and Display. Assist adjusts your Moto X Pure Edition settings depending on where you are or what you're doing. If you've scheduled a meeting into Google Calendar, for example, the device can switch to vibrate right and reply to any missed calls with a predetermined message.

Motorola's suite of software features (left), including Moto Voice commands (right).

Lynn La/CNET

Actions is all about gesture controls: Twist your wrist with the phone in your hand to launch the camera or chop your hand in the air to turn on and off the flash to use as a flashlight.

Motorola's voice input, called Voice, works similarly to Google Now, so if you've used that feature before, you have a good idea of what to do here. It works with both built-in and third-party apps and you can set an alarm, navigate to a destination with Maps, look up a song title that's playing at the moment, begin a Twitter post and more.

Display shows any missed notifications you have, even while the device is sleeping, with a wave gesture. The current time and any missed notifications will pop up in white. You can preview a missed notification by longpressing its app icon, or press-and-swipe to launch it directly from the screen.

Because it offers a nearly vanilla Android experience, you won't get any carrier bloatware.

Josh Miller/CNET

Two other apps, Moto Connect and Migrate, round up the last of the handset's Motorola software. Connect manages all peripheral Motorola gadgets you may have like the Moto 360 smartwatch or a pair of its wireless headphones. Migrate helps you port over your contacts, apps and other files from a previous phone onto your new Moto X Pure Edition.

For the most part, Motorola's software works well. I am a fan of Moto Display, which doesn't sound like much, but it saves you from having to press the power button throughout the day to see any missed notifications. And while it isn't a new feature, flicking the device to fire up the camera is convenient and saves a lot of time.

The handset is, however, loaded with your standard line of Google apps.

Josh Miller/CNET

I did run into some issues, however. For one thing, you'll need the latest version of the Moto app to update your status on Facebook hands-free through Moto Voice. Otherwise, the handset will reply that it can't connect to "the cloud" after you dictate a post. And while you can dictate Facebook posts and text messages, you can't do the same on Twitter. Voice just activates a small Twitter window so you can begin posting, but you'll need to type out the actual message.

It's also unclear what requires you to say your PIN when you use Voice commands while the phone is locked. For example, posting to Facebook prompts a PIN confirmation, but sending a text doesn't. The chopping gesture to activate the flash also doesn't feel natural or work as smoothly, and half the time I'm afraid I'll end up chucking my device across the room.

But perhaps the most disappointing thing is that compared to its predecessor, the Moto X Pure Edition doesn't offer anything substantial in terms of new software. A small amount of tweaks have been made, but overall, nothing substantial has been added. In some ways that's understandable since Motorola is purposely staying as close to the pure Android experience as one can get. But it's still a bit of a letdown to know that your new handset carries the same bag of tricks as it did last year.

Cameras and video

  • 21-megapixel rear-facing camera
  • 5-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Can record 4K (rear) and 1,080p (front) video
  • Night mode shooting and wide-angle front-facing camera has its own flash

The native camera app isn't loaded with tons of editing features, but both cameras do have HDR (high dynamic range) shooting, a touch-focus module where you can adjust the exposure as well, a digital zoom, a timer and geotagging. They also have a flash (yes, even the front-facing camera so you can brighten up your selfies) and a new shooting mode called "night mode" for low-light environments. Photos can be taken in either the wide 16:9 aspect ratio or the more squarish 4:3.

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