Moto X or LG G2? Why specs alone aren't enough to decide

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice on buying a new Google Android smartphone. And she suggests checking out the features and feel of the device over the specs when choosing your next high-end phone.

It seems like every week a new smartphone is introduced. Just when you think you've made up your mind, a new device hits the market.

Manufacturers are falling over themselves to outdo each other in terms of marketing their devices' technical specifications and features. But how much weight should be given to these specs anyway? And what's the best way to pick a new smartphone?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I answer these questions and offer some advice on what to look for in a smartphone. I also take a look at four of the top Google Android smartphones in an effort to help a reader decide which one to choose.

GS4 vs. HTC One vs. Moto X vs. LG G2

Dear Maggie,

I've been waiting to see if the Moto X will knock the Samsung Galaxy S4 off its perch. I also like the looks of the HTC One. But now it looks like there are other devices to consider. So I'm wondering if there's anything else on the horizon you think would be worth waiting for? What do you think about the newly announced LG G2?

It's also a little hard to pull the trigger on a phone (the GS4) that's already four months old. But a part of me thinks that maybe it's that rare moment when a phone is the best out there and there's no likely challenger around the corner -- in which case it might make sense. I'd love to hear your thoughts on these devices.

Best,
Aaron

Dear Aaron,

The smartphone market has heated up this summer, and it's only going to get hotter in the coming months.

As you mentioned, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has been among the top picks for smartphones since it was launched in the spring, competing head-to-head with Apple's iPhone 5 and the HTC One. But now there are even more devices to consider. And even more are coming this fall.

Last week, Motorola announced the much-anticipated Moto X. This week, LG debuted its flagship device, the G2. In early September, Samsung is expected to announce its next "phablet," the Galaxy Note 3. And of course, Apple is also expected to announce the newest iPhone, that's being dubbed the iPhone 5S, in September. (Not to mention there's also the latest Nokia Windows Phone, which will soon be available to AT&T customers.)

What this means for you and other smartphone shoppers is that there will be plenty of choices within the next one to two months. So unless you are in dire need of a smartphone, I wouldn't buy anything right now. The Moto X and the LG G2 aren't even available in stores yet. So if you can, you should at least wait until they're on sale.

Why specs alone aren't enough
Now to answer your question: Do I think any of these devices rival the Samsung Galaxy S4? The short answer is "yes." I wouldn't count out any of these devices just yet. So how do you choose which of these phones is right for you?

Lots of people out there will compare devices based on specification sheets. This can be helpful, since it gives you a sense of what the device is capable of and it might ease any concerns you have about the technology quickly becoming outdated. My CNET Reviews colleague Jessica Dolcourt has already put together a post comparing the technical differences among these four devices : GS4, HTC One, LG G2, and Moto X. So be sure to check out her piece for those nitty-gritty specs.

But a long laundry list of technical specifications, highlighting multicore processors, camera megapixels, battery size, and screen resolutions, only tells part of the story when picking out a phone. This is especially true right now, as so many of the devices on the market have comparable specifications.

For instance, The LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy S4 each support Android 4.2.2, a 13-megapixel camera, a 1,080-pixel HD screen, really fast quad-core processors, and an IR blaster that allows you to turn your phone into a TV remote.

Meanwhile, the HTC One and Moto X, which in some respects have slightly less impressive specs than their competitors, actually perform very similarly to them. In other words, whether a device has a 13-megapixel or a 10-megapixel camera or whether it has a quad-core processor or a dual-core processor, probably won't matter much to the average consumer when the devices are used in real life.

In fact, Iqbal Arshad, Motorola's senior vice president for product development, recently told me in an interview that he thinks consumers often don't understand what the specs mean. And he said that there's much more to building a phone than slapping a faster processor or a higher resolution screen in the device.

"It's hard because people are programmed by the industry to look at things like how many cores a chip has or whether the display is 1080p," he said. "That's how chip and display manufacturers differentiate their products. But we've spent thousands of engineering hours building a new kind of processing architecture that will really change how people use their phones."

Also, sometimes what you might consider higher-end specifications may degrade battery performance or some other aspect of performance. So it's difficult to make a decision based on specifications alone.

Instead, I think you should look at some of the unique features offered on each of the phones you're considering and then go to a store and see how they look and feel up close. Do these features make it easier for you to use the phone? Do they offer you a feature or function you think you'd actually use? If the answer is yes, then you should definitely consider those factors along with the speeds and feeds of the device you might buy.

The smartphones
Here's a summary of what I think you should consider about each of the four devices you mentioned in your question.

Samsung Galaxy S4: This is a solid all-around good smartphone. There are tons of software bells and whistles on this device. But to be honest, none of them really sticks out as a must-have. The biggest advantage the GS4 has right now is that it's probably the best known and widely available smartphone on the market besides the iPhone.

The GS4 is available from every major carrier, and now even some of the prepaid carriers are offering the device. Because it's Samsung's flagship it should be getting the latest version of Android 4.3 relatively soon, but this is likely to vary greatly based on carrier. In a nutshell, this is a good phone with top specs, good performance, but no true standout features that change anything about how I use a smartphone.

HTC One: There are three things that really make the HTC One stand out from the rest of the smartphones on the market. The first is the look and feel of the device. The all-aluminum body is slick. And even though the HTC One doesn't offer as many megapixels on its camera as the LG G2, Moto X, or Samsung Galaxy S4, it does offer some cool software features that make the device exceptional in terms of the camera. It's too hard to say right now how the camera stacks up to the Moto X and LG G2, since those phones aren't available yet. But I'd definitely want to compare them before making my decision.

I also like the HTC Sense software. Unlike the Samsung TouchWiz software, which I'm not a fan of, HTC Sense actually seems to make using the device easier. I also like the fact that the HTC One starts at 32GB of storage on the device. It doesn't have an expandable memory card slot, which is fine with me, so long as it has adequate on-device storage -- and I think 32GB is likely enough for most smartphone users.

Motorola Moto X: If you looked at the spec sheet alone, you might be inclined to discard the Moto X as not even in the same class as these other devices. But I'd argue that this would be a mistake. As my interview with Motorola's top engineer earlier this week makes clear, Motorola has spent a lot of engineering hours designing a device that not only looks good and feels good in your hand but also performs as well or possibly better than the competition without having the same high-end specs.

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For example, something that people don't realize is that superhigh-resolution screens and multicore processors often drain battery life more on devices. And that can be a big flaw in a smartphone. I've been using the Moto X for a week, and the company's claims of a full 24-hour battery life, at least in my experience, rings true. In fact, I've been able to go into a second day on the same battery charge with this phone, something I haven't ever been able to do with any of the Samsung Galaxy S devices I've used, including the GS4.

Aside from the longer battery life, the marquee features for the Moto X are all about being "always on." One of the biggest features are the devices' "touchless controls," which allow you to conduct Google searches, make phone calls, and access the navigation app just by talking using the magic words: "OK, Google Now..." Another touchless control feature allows you to access the camera with a couple of twists of your wrist. This wakes up the camera, even if your device is asleep and locked. I also like that you can get the time and check message status while your device is in sleep mode, which is another aspect of the "always on" capability of the device.

Another thing many people will likely appreciate about the Moto X is that it's not loaded up with a lot of additional bloatware software. It's truly the closest you're likely to come to a pure Google Android phone outside the Nexus line of products. This is important because it should help make upgrading software on the device in the future much easier than it would be with the GS4 or HTC One. The only negative I see about this device is the fact that the version that will be first available on all the carrier networks has only 16GB of device storage, without any expandable memory card slot.

LG G2: In terms of specs, the LG G2 is king of the hill for the moment. It has the fastest quad-core processor, biggest battery, and largest and highest resolution HD screen of all the high-end devices announced thus far. But as I've said before, specs tell only part of the story. There are a few standout features on this device that you should consider when evaluating it in comparison with the others.

The first is a design feature. LG has put the On and Off button and volume controls on the back of the device. The company claims this is a more comfortable and natural way to access these controls than either hitting a button on the top or sides of the device. Personally, I don't think it matters much where the buttons are in terms of turning the device on and off and adjusting the volume.

But what I do like about having those buttons on the back of the device is that when the camera app is activated, it makes it a bit easier to take photos, especially selfies using the front-facing camera. Tapping a camera icon on the front screen of most smartphones is usually kind of awkward for me. I much prefer having an actual button to click. And surprisingly having that button on the back of the G2 is actually a comfortable place for it when you are taking photos.

LG G2 LG

The G2 also comes with a few other interesting and seemingly useful software features, too. For instance, it allows you to set up a "guest mode" for your device. This could be especially useful for parents who may not want to give their kids full access to their smartphones, but instead can customize a "kid setting" that shows only apps that the kids can access.

I also like the Text Link feature, which allows you to save information from a text message to your calendar or a memo. The Answer Me feature that lets you answer the phone by picking it up and holding it to your ear when it rings is also kind of nifty. And I like the KnockOn feature that lets you unlock the device by tapping the screen twice.

What should you do?
The bottom line is that each of these smartphones has something to offer. And they're all worthy of consideration. But your ultimate decision will be based on your personal taste. It's like buying a car. Some people like Hondas while others prefer Toyotas or Mazdas. For the most part, when you're looking at smartphones today, they all have the same basic performance, which makes it hard to base your decision on the nitty-gritty technical details alone.

But when you look at the special unique features and you actually hold the devices in your hand at the store and play around with the settings and features, you'll walk away with a better idea of what you like and what you don't like.

For instance, the Moto X has a sharp, 4.7 inch screen. But the body of the device is noticeably smaller than that of any of the other devices. Some people will love this, while others may not. Similarly, some people may love the back buttons on the LG G2, while others may find them awkward and irritating. And then there are those folks who simply love the look and feel of the aluminum HTC One, while others are annoyed at how easily it scratches.

The truth is that I don't think you can go terribly wrong with choosing any of these devices. Unless you're the type of person who's bored with your new device within a few months anyway, I think most people could be easily satisfied with the look, feel, and performance of any of these smartphones for the next couple of years.

But as I said earlier in this post, there are still more devices to be launched in the next couple of months. So it's probably best to hold off on making your final decision until these other devices are announced and you've had a chance to check them out for yourself in a store.

I hope this advice is helpful. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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