Motorola Moto X Pure Edition (unlocked) review: Customization champ, but middle-of-the-pack phablet overall
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As for video, both front and rear cameras can record 1,080p HD footage and slow-mo videos in 720p (a change from the predecessor's better 1,080p slow-mo capabilities). While shooting video, you can also take pictures and pause recording.
The rear camera in particular can also take panoramic photos and scan QR codes and bar codes to look up via Google or copy onto the clipboard. And on top of already shooting 1,080p video, it can also record ultra-HD 4K video, which -- at 3,840x2,160p -- offers four times the resolution of 1,080p. That's state of the art -- albeit of dubious value, however.
As for picture quality, photos looked decent, and the camera does well for everyday informal shots. Though they didn't manage to blow me away, it's still adequate enough to post online or print out a small photo.
Pictures taken outdoors or in amply-lit indoor environments looked great: colors were accurate, objects were clear with defined outlines and you can still see a lot of details retained at full resolution. There were a few times when the phone took a couple of tries to focus on an object up close, but eventually it'd lock on and snap a clear picture. Photos taken in low-light environments didn't fare as well, which is a common occurrence in smartphone photography. Though night mode improved exposure somewhat, I still saw a noticeable amount of digital noise, graininess and muted colors.
Because the front-facing camera has a wide-angle lens, my photos captured more content and space into the frame. As such, however, do expect to get some elongated angles near the corners of your pictures. For more information on camera quality, click the photos below to view them at their full resolution.
Video quality was solid. Nearby and distant audio was picked up well without any noticeable noise distortion, and both moving and still objects looked smooth and sharp. There was no discernible lag between my moving of the camera and what I saw in the viewfinder, and the camera was able to swiftly shift focus and exposure as I moved it around.
- 1.8GHz 6-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808
- 600MHz Adreno 418 graphics processing unit
- 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage with up to 128GB of expandable memory
- 3GB of RAM
- 3,000mAh nonremovable battery
Though the Moto X Pure Edition's processor has a lower clock speed than its predecessor (from 2.5 to 1.8GHz), its Snapdragon 808 processor still operates swiftly and smoothly. For one thing, the CPU is no slacker (it's the same one featured in the LG G4 ) and the RAM has been bumped up to 3GB. In general, I didn't notice any stuttering issues or lag while executing a number of everyday tasks like calling up the app drawer, opening the camera and switching between apps. Images for graphics-intensive games like Riptide GP 2 and Kill Shot were rendered fast and smooth, and the overall gaming experience was solid. It took about 37 seconds to power off and restart the device and 1.38 seconds to launch the camera.
Also, unlike the previous two versions of the Moto X, Motorola added a MicroSD card slot that can hold up to 128GB of extra memory -- giving you more breathing room for your photos and files.
But while the handset provides plenty of power to satisfy your daily smartphone needs, its benchmark scores falls behind its competitors. That's not surprising since the Galaxy Note 5 belongs to a more premium caliber, and both the OnePlus 2 and the ZTE Axon Pro sport the 8-core Snapdragon 810 processor. In that sense, the Moto X Pure Edition performed well for itself, but aside from having the second-highest single-core Geekbench 3 result among the latter two, it altogether fell a bit short of the other devices.
Call quality and data speeds
- GSM/GPRS/EDGE: (850/900/1800/1900 MHz)
- CDMA: (800/850/1900MHz)
- UMTS/HSPA+: (850/900/1700(AWS)/1900/2100MHz)
- LTE B1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/25/26/38/41
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/g/b/n/ac + MIMO
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/g/b/n/ac + MIMO
For US customers, Motorola's handset is unique because it works for carriers that operate on either GSM or CDMA technology. Meaning, for example, the phone can make calls and surf the Internet on AT&T and T-Mobile's network (which uses the GSM standard) and do the same on Verizon and Sprint (which uses CDMA). This isn't a huge deal if you don't plan on leaving your carrier, but for those switching from a GSM to CDMA carrier or vice versa, or already have two devices on these different platforms, know that you can use the same Moto X no matter what network you go with.
Motorola Moto X Pure Edition average data speeds
|4G LTE download rate||11.7Mbps|
|4G LTE upload rate||15.82Mbps|
|CNET mobile site load||4 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||4 seconds|
|Temple Run 2 app download (44.52MB)||34 seconds|
|"Gravity" movie download (1.7GB)||24 minutes and 31 seconds|
As for call quality, I tested the unlocked handset using AT&T's cellular network. Call quality was great. Volume range was appropriate (with the maximum volume being satisfyingly loud), my calling partner was clear and easy to understand and I didn't pick up any extraneous buzzing or static. Audio speaker was also reliable. As I mentioned before, speaker calls only comes out from the bottom grille, but that's still enough to hear my partner well, even when I was outdoors nearby noisy traffic. Likewise, I was told that I sounded good too, and when I stepped outdoors, my partner did not pick up any background sounds from the surrounding environment.
Data speeds on AT&T's 4G LTE network were fast. According to Ookla's speed test, it had an average download rate of 11.7Mbps and upload rate of 15.82Mbps. It took about 4 seconds to load each of CNET's mobile and desktop site and 34 seconds to download and install the 44.52MB game Temple Run 2. One attempt to download the 1.7GB, high-definition movie "Gravity" took 24 minutes and 31 seconds.
With heavy usage, the Motorola X Pure Edition's non-removable battery can deplete quickly. After spending a workday surfing the Web, downloading apps and making calls, I hit 30 percent by late afternoon. To last the rest of the evening, I had to plug in the device for a charge.
During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, the handset lasted an average of 8 hours and 46 minutes. Although last year's Moto X had a smaller screen, its lower-capacity 2,300mAh battery lasted over 10 hours. And compared to its rivals, the OnePlus 2's 3,300mAh battery lasted 9 hours and 46 minutes (though we weren't very impressed with that performance either), and the Axon Pro's 3,000mAh battery lasted shorter at 8 hours and 8 minutes (again, not the best from all parties). I you want to know what does impress us, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 -- while admittedly a higher-tiered phone and expensive than all these devices -- lasted a whopping 15 hours of continuous playback on its 3,000mAh battery.
Motorola's handset, however, does come with a 25-watt Turbo Power charger, which promises to juice up your battery quickly. It does, in fact, charge the phone in a jiffy. When completely drained, it took only about an hour and 15 minutes to charge to 100 percent. And if you need to charge in a pinch, shutting it off and plugging it in for 10 minutes will gain about 20 percent battery life.
The Motorola Moto X Pure Edition is a great device for specific users. Google Android fans who can't wait until late September for the next Nexus reveal will enjoy the handset's nearly unsullied Android experience. The $400 phone bucks the current trend by offering external storage, and loops in support for the world's most prevalent network technologies -- CDMA and GSM -- so it should work with almost every carrier.
And with its numerous choices of color accents, engravings and materials, having a Moto X Pure Edition means having a device that reflects your own style. Heavily consider this handset if that's an important asset for you.
If it's not, however, there are lots of viable alternatives. If money isn't an issue, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is the reigning Android supersize phone: It's powerful, stylish and has a long-lasting battery.
In addition, the mobile landscape for unlocked phones has changed a lot since last year's Moto X came out. They are getting more powerful at a lower cost.
For US customers, the $500 ZTE Axon Pro costs $100 more but has a 8-core Snapdragon 810 processor, 4GB of RAM and tons of native camera features. Globally, you can try and nab the OnePlus 2 . Due to its limited availability it can be hard to get, but if you do, it starts at the very competitive price of $330 (£215 or AU$450, converted). It's also equipped with the 810 CPU and if you're keen on wood backings like the ones that come with the Moto Xs, the OnePlus 2 has that as well.
All in all, the Moto X Pure Edition is a reliable and quality-built device, but if you have the previous model, don't feel like you're missing out on anything. The competition is fierce these days, and while the Moto X may be partially to blame for setting my expectations too high, the X Pure Edition just doesn't deliver that winning combination of style, power and value that I've come to expect.