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

If you liked the first Moto X as much as we did, you'll love the premium enhancements of this year's metal-rimmed model.

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Lynn La
Lynn_La2.jpg

Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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11 min read

Editors' Note: This review has been updated on October 8, 2014, with further analysis for Verizon Wireless.

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8.3

Motorola Moto X (2014)

The Good

The Motorola Moto X has a sharp 1080p screen, a swift quad-core processor, nifty software and gesture features, and customizable design options that'll fit anyone's style.

The Bad

A minimalist camera, combined with no expandable memory, are the handset's only drawbacks.

The Bottom Line

The Motorola Moto X hits all the right notes, delivering stock Android inside a powerful high-end handset that you can customize yourself.

Personally, it's been a long time since I've been excited about a phone. I'm not sure if it's because I'm a sucker for stock Android, or because I crave something aesthetically unique, but the last time I remember something really piqued my interest was the red-hot Google Nexus 5 .

That being said, the next-gen Motorola Moto X is my next handset. Why? Because it's fast. Because the screen is gorgeous. Because it can come in wood and leather and (some would say an "artless") pink. Because even though I've seen cameras with more features, its 13-megapixel shooter is still solid. Because I get a kick out of talking with it like it's a human who knows a lot of facts even though she's slow to respond. Because it's all this combined.

True, we were already fans of the original Moto , even though it wasn't designed to equally match up against other flagships at the time. The same is true here, except this new model closes the gap between it and its rivals. And though it only sits a mere half-step behind top-tier phones, the new Moto X makes up for it in spades with its price, build quality, and reliable performance.

The many different stylings of the new Moto X (pictures)

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Availability

In the US, the device starts at $100 on contract from AT&T and Verizon, or for $500 unlocked, plus $25 for optional wood or leather backs, and another $50 for 16GB of extra storage. UK users can nab it for £420 unlocked, plus £20 for the premium finishes, and £40 for the extra storage.

Design

Similar to its predecessor, the Moto X sports curved backing, which renders it incredibly comfortable to hold. It's more ergonomically accommodating than the straight-edge Samsung Galaxy S5 and its arc bends deeper at the center than the HTC One M8 , making it fit cozier in the hand. Even with my petite grip, I didn't run into much trouble flicking through and maneuvering this device with my thumb.

With its larger 5.2-inch display, the phone now measures 5.54 inches tall, 2.85 inches wide, and 0.39 inches thick at its deepest (140.8 by 72.4 by 9.9mm). And at 5.08 ounces (144 grams), it's a tad heavier than its predecessor. I don't consider these design flaws, however, since you gain more screen real estate.

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The signature M-dimple comes in handy as an anchor for your finger. Josh Miller/CNET

Besides, the new Moto X looks a whole lot sexier than before. For one thing, its trimmings have been upgraded from plastic to metal, so the device has a more premium aesthetic. The fact that the display curves smoothly over the edges (which is reminiscent of the Google Nexus 4 ) instead of being hugged by the bezels adds to the sleek, luxurious feel. Motorola also tacked on another front-facing speaker grille at the bottom, and textured the power button with ridges to make it easier to discern by touch. The signature M-dimple on the rear is bigger too, and I found it useful as an anchor for my finger while holding the handset.

Of course, one of the phone's main draws is the fact that you can customize it through Motorola's Moto Maker website. (This is now available in the UK too, though sadly, once again, those living in Australia don't have a chance to partake in this -- Aussies will get a choice of the black resin or bamboo finish and that's it.)

There are only two color options for the front side (black or white), but for the back, you can choose between 17 colors, four types of wood grain, and four leather dyes. Wood and leather finishes add $25 or £20 to the final price, however. Your speaker grilles and the ring around the M-dimple are known as "trim" and that comes in 10 more colors. Other options include memory capacity (either 16GB or 32GB, with the latter being $50 or £40 more), cases, and personal engravings.

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The Moto X's natural finish in bamboo is attractive and unique. James Martin/CNET

My AT&T review unit had a black leather backing, which looked sophisticated and austere. But while the material is unique and staves off fingerprints, it does accumulate small indentations here and there from daily use that you can see. This is a natural occurrence with leather, so it isn't a huge deal, but it's something to keep in mind. The Verizon model I received had a bamboo backing, which I prefer. The smooth, natural material feels great in the hand and its earthy look stands out from your usual sea of black slab handsets.

Display

The Moto X's 5.2-inch OLED screen features Corning Gorilla Glass 3, a 1080p resolution, and 423 pixels per inch. It's much sharper than last year's 720p AMOLED screen, and is on par with the 5.1-inch Galaxy S5 and the 5.0-inch One M8 in terms of clarity and richness. (The LG G3 still edges out all these devices with its quad-HD technology, 538ppi, and bigger 5.5-inch size, however.)

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The 1080p display falls smoothly over the edge, which is reminiscent of the Google Nexus 4. Josh Miller/CNET

In general, this handset's display looks vibrant and brilliant. Images, videos, and games are vivid, the screen has a wide viewing angle, and it's easily readable in sunlight given that the brightness is cranked to its maximum level. When I checked specific swatches of black and white, the former looked deep, while the latter appeared pure and bright. The display's also responsive to the touch, and the way it contours down to the edge as mentioned before keeps my swiping and flicking smooth.

Software features

Compared to Google-branded devices like the Nexus and special Play Edition handsets, the Moto X doesn't run the "purist" form of Android, but it comes pretty darn close. It has Android 4.4.4 KitKat, and Motorola noted that the phone will be able to update to Android L the moment the new version rolls out. As expected, the device also includes your usual bundle of Google apps like Drive, Gmail, the Chrome Browser, Maps, and Quickoffice.

Similar to its predecessor, the Moto X has a bevy of convenient software tricks. The digital and search assistant, Moto Voice, works similar to Google Now, and you can activate it without touching the device. Just set up a personal greeting (in my case, I went with the informal, "Hey yo, Moto X") to perk up its ears. Then, say a command -- you can look up the current weather forecast, ask when the next game is on, look up a song title if it's playing in real-time, and more. Moto Voice also launches other apps. If you ask it to take a selfie, the front-facing camera will open up and begin to countdown for a picture. You can also ask the handset to peck out a text, post to Facebook and Twitter, set an alarm, or navigate to a destination.

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The four main software features in the Moto X (left), with Moto Voice being activated (right) to listen to your commands. Lynn La/CNET

For the most part, the feature works well, but there are some caveats. You'll need to be in a relatively quiet room, and speak in clear, distinct manner that can sound a bit unnatural. You also need to give Moto Voice enough time to register you command, which can take several seconds to kickstart.

Moto Display shows any missed notifications you have, even while the phone's sleeping. Just wave your hand over the screen's front sensors, see what pops up, and if you want more information on a specific notification, tap the individual app icon. There's also Moto Assist, which adjusts your device's settings depending where you are (in a meeting, at home, driving, or trying to catch up on sleep, for example). Lastly, Moto Actions incorporates gesture control, such as waving your hand over your Moto X to silence it in case it receives an incoming call.

As an AT&T handset, you will get some preloaded apps from the carrier. In addition to its branded email and navigators apps, there's AT&T Live, a news service powered by Yahoo! There's a usage manager so you can look over your battery and data consumption, 5GB of free cloud storage through AT&T Locker, and MyAT&T, which lets you check your data and account info.

Verizon users will receive My Verizon Mobile, which lets you check your data use and minutes, as well as its storage cloud and caller ID services. The carrier also preloaded NFL Mobile and VZ Protect, and apps for its own brand of visual voice mail, navigation, and messaging.

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To check your notifications with Moto Display, wave your hand over the device's front-facing sensors. Josh Miller/CNET

Camera and video

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.

Podcast

Podcast



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) 33.9215.84
Average upload speed (Mbps) 12.2912.49
Temple Run 2 app (45.80MB) 2537
CNET mobile site load (in seconds) 64
CNET desktop site load (in seconds) 65
New York Times mobile site load (in seconds) 107
New York Times desktop site load (in seconds) 810
ESPN mobile site load (in seconds) 44
ESPN desktop site load (in seconds) 65
Restart time (in seconds) 3538
Camera launch time (in seconds) 1.761.61

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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8.3

Motorola Moto X (2014)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8