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Eight things the Moto X needs

Everything Motorola's next flagship phone must have to succeed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola needs a smartphone hit badly, and it should have happened already. Its last innovative smartphone was the Droid Razr Maxx, way back in January 2012. While its battery lasted a phenomenal 15 hours, a number that newer handsets can't yet match, this is an inexplicable handset drought for the company. Motorola has a long and storied history of shaking up the market with earth-shattering products. That's why I know the company has what it takes to craft the Moto X, now officially due by October, into a hit. And with such stiff competition in the mobile space, here's what Motorola's next handset needs to have to grapple with the likes of HTC and the Samsung giant and be a leader again.

Samsung's Galaxy S3 and subsequent Galaxy S4 prove you don't have to use pricey materials to make a successful and trend-setting smartphone. With an ultrathin chassis (although molded from plastic) and huge 5-inch screen, the Galaxy S4 is Samsung's most formidable device yet.

HTC went the luxury route with the HTC One. Its chassis is honed from a single block of aluminum, giving top-tier phones builders a tough act to follow. Sony's splash- and dust-resistant Xperia Z also proves you don't have to sacrifice luxurious materials to boast a rugged pedigree.

Motorola does have the chops to design a great phone. Sarah Tew/CNET

To set the Moto X apart, Motorola should steal a design page from HTC, such as featuring an all-metal (or mostly metal) body yet offer both a removable battery and a microSD card slot. Combining a premium enclosure with expansion and battery-swapping options is a trick neither the Samsung nor HTC models have pulled off. It wouldn't be a huge stretch for Motorola, since the Droid Razrs all had excellent build quality, supertrim chassis, plus a distinctive Kevlar backing and water-resistant coating.

The screen is where it's at
I think Motorola had a good thing going with the Droid Razr M and its lovely edge-to-edge screen. It tricked the eye into believing the handset was thinner than it actually was. I'd love to see that same approach on the Moto X, especially with a full HD (1,920x1,080 pixels) 5-inch AMOLED screen. Now that would really turn some heads and put the phone on the same pedestal as the Galaxy S4 in terms of display bragging rights. Both the Galaxy S4 and HTC One feature screens with the same sharp full HD resolution.

A beautiful, fresh interface
The worst thing to do to an Android, in my view, is to clog its air vents, so to speak, and bog down the machine's performance. It's an especially egregious crime when the offending culprit happens to be useless bloatware or unwanted features.

Samsung is known for throwing everything but the kitchen sink into its phones. The Galaxy S4 suffers from this virtual feature-creep mentality, and HTC's unremovable BlinkFeed is almost as offensive.

Now I'm not arguing for the Moto X to use stock Android (I realize that's the dream of few). Actually, I liked some of the last software tweaks Motorola added to its previous Droid phones. The quick settings screen, swiping left of the main home screen was particularly handy, as were the nifty widgets for time, weather, and battery status.

When I first heard what Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside said this week at the D11 conference when he officially outed the Moto X, I feared the worst. He explained that the new handset will be contextually aware of what you and the phone are doing. So if you're driving in a car or sitting on the couch at home, the handset will alter its behavior accordingly.

Initially, I was worried that such a feature would overpower the phone and allow for little control by the user. On second thought, though, that really sounds to me like more of an extension of Motorola's Smart Actions app than a full-blown Android redesign. Smart Actions on previous Motorola handsets acted as core directives or rules that kicked in under predefined circumstances.

For example, you could have your Droid Razr shut off cellular data and fire up the Wi-Fi antenna when the GPS sensor detects you're at home. Likewise, you can engage rules to dim the screen automatically when the battery runs low. Though I wasn't a huge fan, you could always choose to ignore or not use the application. Hopefully what Motorola has planned for the Moto X will be equally unobtrusive.

The quick settings screen was a nice Motorola software touch. Brian Bennett/CNET

Camera props
Like it or not, a smartphone today absolutely must have a reliable and feature-packed camera. The Galaxy S4 and HTC One have raised the camera phone bar with powerful and responsive imaging systems. So at the very least the Moto X needs to match them. It needs a camera, lens, and sensor combo that snaps quality images and video quickly, particularly while under challenging lighting. None of the Droid Razrs could do this properly, and I feel it's Motorola's real Achilles' heel.

Battery that goes the distance
Boy, is battery technology ever Motorola's wheelhouse. In the almost two years since the Droid Razr Maxx first demonstrated its uncanny battery life, no other smartphone has come close to the Maxx's run time. Equipped with massive 3,300mAh batteries, both the Droid Razr Maxx and Droid Razr Maxx HD lasted for essentially 15 hours on the CNET Labs video playback test.

Absolutely, Moto can't slip from the standard that it alone set. Even better, if the Moto X can deliver improved stamina, then the phone has nothing to fear from any challenger in this arena. Now if the Moto X's megabattery were removable, it would usher in a whole other level of smartphone greatness. I'd even settle for a thicker device for that capability.

Worldwide, multiple carrier release
I've said this about BlackBerry, Sony, and any smartphone maker hoping to swing for the fences. To score a home run with consumers, a flagship must...well...be a flagship. It should hit the market with the impact of an asteroid sending disruptive shockwaves in its wake.

I advise Motorola to pick one unified global launch date for the Moto X and try and secure as many carrier agreements as possible -- especially the thorny U.S. providers. So no more of this Verizon-only business. I know that's a hefty load to lift, and also not a decision that's typically in the hands of mobile device makers. That said, somehow Apple, Samsung, and now HTC have managed to negotiate similar high-stakes deals. All I'm saying is that it's in Motorola's interest to do the same.

Money and marketing
To be fair, Apple and now Samsung have practically bottomless coffers to draw from for marketing purposes. Let's face it: Samsung has the bankroll to run Galaxy S4 ads for years in every corner of Earth. Phone companies with much less lushly lined pockets, such as HTC and Motorola, aren't so lucky.

Great call quality
No matter how much we rely on our smartphones for texts, e-mail, Web surfing, and social messaging, it still is a phone. For that reason it must make pristine calls, hopefully aided by dual microphones to cut down on background din.

How will it play out?
If the phone turns out to have most of these criteria I've laid out, then I feel the device has a good shot. If Motorola fumbles, though, we could very well see a debacle to equal, or even exceed the woes of HP, RIM, and Palm.

Motorola has the chops to make the Moto X work. After all, this company gave birth to the cell phone and launched a string of innovative products. It created the iconic Razr, the StarTac flip phone, and the Q -- remember? In the past year, however, Motorola hasn't continued to push boundaries and use its history to its advantage. What's more, its poor financials have been a drag on Google.

Even so, Motorola, I have faith that you can do this. It would be truly tragic if such a cell phone pioneer faded away into irrelevance.