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Motorola Moto X review: A comfy Android with mass appeal

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Motorola Moto X
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In our hands the Moto X proved to be a good listener. Sarah Tew/CNET

What follows are our first impressions of the camera quality of the Moto X; we'll continue to update as we shoot more photos.

Apparently Motorola has finally taken camera capabilities seriously. Imaging has been an ongoing weakness of the company's handsets, but it's clear the Moto X is intended to address this deficiency. Motorola says its new device, equipped with a 10-megapixel "Clear Pixel" RGBC sensor and LED flash, can snap pictures with speed, and can grab 75 percent more light than competing smartphone cameras. That results in lower shutter times and clearer images under dark conditions.

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The Moto X's camera app is pared down but simple to operate. Sarah Tew/CNET

After taking it for a few spins, I can certainly say I'm pleasantly surprised by the Moto X's camera, which is nimble enough to snap photos of my restless toddlers without missing a beat. The vaunted imaging system also appears to take the dim lighting of my cavelike apartment in stride.

Moto X
Indoors detail was crisp and images exposed properly. Click to enlarge. Brian Bennett/CNET

Indoors the phone took clear images of our studio still life, with both crisp detail and proper exposure. Colors looked accurate as well but I did run into one annoyance: the tight field of vision. Because the Moto X's field of view was noticeably small, it was difficult to capture the entire still-life scene in the frame. Outdoors, the Moto X performed admirably as well. I saw plenty of detail and vibrant colors evident in flowers, leaves, and the clothing of strolling pedestrians.

Moto X
Details were sharp and colors bright in sunlight. Click to enlarge. Brian Bennett/CNET

The camera app, called Quick Capture, has been revamped to be cleaner and more efficient. With it, the Moto X will go from pocket to image capture in under 3 seconds. Just grab the phone and twist it twice in your hand horizontally, and the camera launches without your pressing a button.

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Images of flowers and leaves looked vibrant as well. Click to enlarge. Brian Bennett/CNET

I found that the feature works as advertised and I was able to jump to the X's camera app in a flash. The double wrist-twist gesture was also very intuitive and I mastered the procedure after just a few attempts.

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HDR mode found details in strong backlight. Click to enlarge. Brian Bennett/CNET

If you're used to tweaking resolution settings yourself, though, you might go mad trying to find a way to adjust them (I almost did). Save yourself from a wild goose chase because the Moto X doesn't let you toggle image size. Instead it always captures pictures and video at maximum pixel count.

Other than that, using the camera is dead simple and enjoyable. Just touch any part of the screen to snap a picture. Tapping the camcorder icon in the top right starts recording video, while hitting the camera symbol below it switches between front and back lenses. Likewise, touching the display while shooting video nabs still shots.

Camera settings such as HDR mode, flash, slow motion, and panorama are hidden in a circular dial on the left side of the screen. Swiping your finger from left to right brings this wheel into view. Dragging from right to left handily slides open the gallery. All this means there's a minimum of clutter obscuring the camera view, a user interface goal Motorola takes pains to point out.

I confess I'm pretty impressed with the Moto X's handling despite its dual-core processor. The phone feels very lively and responsive whether flipping through Android's menus and home screens or when launching apps. After subjecting the device to my usual gauntlet of benchmarks, I've found my results so far back up my impressions.

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The Moto X is quick but not crazy-fast. Brian Bennett/CNET

The Moto X notched a Quadrant score of 8,519, which, though not as high as the astronomical scores the HTC One (12,194) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381) garnered, is still respectable.

Call quality
I tested the Moto X on Verizon's and Sprint's CDMA network in New York and enjoyed good but not outstanding call quality. People I dialed with the handset described my voice as being clear and loud, but flat and lacking warmth. They also noticed some clipping and dips in volume, especially at the beginning and ends of sentences.

This could be due to the X's complex noise suppression and voice recognition system, which leans on three microphones and its X8 hardware, but that's just speculation on my part.

Spoken words came through the Moto X's earpiece with plenty of oomph on my end. In fact, I had to dial the loudness down or risk eardrum pain. Another bright spot was the speakerphone, which sounded virtually identical to a regular phone call to my callers and belted out lots of volume. In fact, while testing the Sprint Moto X, people on the other end told me that the speakerphone actually sounded clearer than their landline office conference phone.

Motorola Moto X (Verizon) call quality sample Listen now:

Motorola Moto X (Sprint) call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
Motorola says that five U.S. carriers will sell the Moto X: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular. My two test units, however, were Verizon and Sprint devices so I was linked to both Big Red's and Sprint's 4G LTE data network. I tested these phones in various locations in New York City, recording performance via Ookla's app.

Download speeds I observed were satisfyingly quick, clocking in at an average of 10.1Mbps on Verizon. Surprisingly when connected to Sprint's (technically unofficial) LTE signal, the Moto X sucked down a faster average of 12Mbps.

Upload throughput on Verizon was also not too shabby, reaching an average speed of 6.8Mbps. The Sprint Moto X wasn't able to keep up here, with uploads reaching an average of 3.1Mbps. In my experience AT&T is still the king of smokin' LTE data numbers, at least in New York. I typically see average downloads breaking the 20Mbps and uploads in the midteens.

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Verizon's 4G LTE delivered speedy data. Brian Bennett/CNET

Battery life
Run time doesn't seem to be a problem. I was able to get the Moto X to perform a preliminary run of the CNET Labs video battery drain benchmark. The handset happily hummed along for quite a while, playing our sample HD movie for 10 hours and 9 minutes before calling it quits.

This places the Moto X in good company as far longevity is concerned. The HTC One managed 9 hours and 37 minutes on the same test while the Samsung Galaxy S4 persevered for an even longer average of 10 hours and 30 minutes.

Where can you get the Moto X?
Motorola will also push its new device hard, pledging that its enticing gadget will be sold by five U.S. wireless providers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular) in addition to an unlocked model. Expect the device to hit stores in late August or early September for a suggested price of $199.99.

Motorola's most impressive handset yet certainly packs in plenty of notable capabilities and functionality. But it's worth noting, also, that hard-core Android enthusiasts and spec junkies likely won't find the Moto X awe-inspiring. The 4.7-inch AMOLED screen is "only" 720p, and the nonexpandable 16GB of storage in the $199 model is a stumbling block; big-time media hounds and app addicts will burn through that quickly. In the absence of an expansion slot (like the Galaxy S4 has), I would've preferred that Motorola delivered 32GB in the baseline model, just like the HTC One -- or that the company had priced the phone at closer to $149 instead.

That said, Motorola took an unconventional tack with this handset. Instead of the traditional tactic of beating potential customers over the head with powerful components and every feature under the sun, Motorola decided to cater to shoppers' softer side -- focusing on how they use their phones every day.

To that end, the Moto X succeeds. It packs a great camera, has swift enough performance to satisfy all but the most demanding Android fanboys, and offers battery life that goes the distance. Throw in its superb, compact design and the Moto X doesn't even need to woo potential customers with its fancy Buck Rogers voice-recognition skills. That's merely the sweet icing on a mighty tasty cake.

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