Motorola's flagship phone, the Moto X, has arrived

After months of leaked details, loads of speculation, and plenty of waiting, the Moto X has been unveiled. And the new smartphone will be on all four wireless carriers later this month, for $200 with a two-year contract.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
The new Moto X from Motorola. Sarah Tew/CNET

NEW YORK CITY -- The Moto X is finally here, as Motorola took the wraps off its hotly anticipated new smartphone at an event on Thursday.

The new smartphone, which has been talked about for months, marks the official relaunch of the handset maker Motorola, since it was acquired last year by tech giant Google.

The new device, which will be Motorola's flagship smartphone, marries Motorola's history of hardware and design innovation with Google's software and services chops to create a new device franchise that Google hopes will rival that of Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy series of smartphones.

The Moto X will be available on all four major U.S. carriers, including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile USA, as well as regional provider, U.S. Cellular. It will also be available at national retailers, including Best Buy. T-Mobile subscribers will be able to get the device at Motorola.com.

Meet the mighty Moto X (pictures)

See all photos

The device, which sports a 4.7 inch screen with a curved back, and a 10 megapixel camera, will be offered in either white or black in carrier and retail locations. The initial version of the device will come with 16GB of memory, but it will not offer the option to add memory via a memory card slot. As a special promotion, Google is offering up to 50GB of free Google Drive storage for Moto X owners for two years.

With a two-year carrier service contract, the 16GB version of the Moto X will sell for $200. And it will go on sale in late August or early September in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. Representatives from Motorola said the exact timing of the device's various launches is up to the individual wireless carriers. Motorola gave no further details about other international launches.

The new phone does not use the latest version of Android software but instead sports Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.

One of the strongest selling points of the new Moto X is a consumer's ability to create and customize her or his device online and have it built to order in Motorola's Fort Worth, Texas, factory. The company has set up a Web site and an interactive Web-based tool called Moto Maker that lets people custom-build their device online.

The new Moto X will come in a variety of colors, which users can choose on the Moto Maker Web site when ordering their phones. Sarah Tew/CNET

Moto Maker lets people choose from up to 16 colors for the back of their device, along with 7 accent colors that can be used to highlight the sides of the device and the rim around the back-facing camera.

Customers can also choose one of two colors for the front: white or black. The Web site also allows people to add a name or short message on the back of the phone. And it offers customized wallpapers and wake-up messages for the device. Devices built online will arrive in customers' hands within four days of their order, according to Motorola.

People customizing their phones can choose from either a 16GB model, which is also sold in carrier stores with a two-year contract for $200, or they can upgrade for $50 to a 32GB model, which is available only through Moto Maker.

Before eager Motorola fans get too excited, it's important to note that the customization option will initially be available only for Moto X customers on AT&T's network. Customers who want a built-to-order Moto X on one of the other four wireless operators will have to wait.

What this means is that, at least initially, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular subscribers will get to choose only a white or black 16GB version of the phone -- without any other customizable options.

People interested in learning more details about Moto Maker can sign up at motorola.com for more information as it becomes available. AT&T will have a Moto Maker kiosk in its stores, and Best Buy is also expected to offer the Moto Maker kiosk in its outlets.

Motorola said the new Moto X will also be available on major carriers at full price without a contract, but the company didn't reveal any specifics or give a price for the unsubsidized versions of these devices.

Meet Motorola's new Moto X
Watch this: Meet Motorola's new Moto X

The X8 "mobile system"
Even though Motorola calls the Moto X its flagship smartphone, the device itself is identical in terms of technology to the Droid line of devices it launched last week, which will be sold exclusively for Verizon Wireless. These Droid smartphones, like the Moto X, are expected to go on sale by the end of the month.

The main engine driving the technology in the Moto X, along with the Verizon Droids, is a cluster of chips Motorola calls its X8 processing system. The chipset includes a tweaked Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC processor coupled with a cluster of other custom-built, purpose-driven processors.

Motorola partners are also making color-coordinated accessories for the Moto X, such as colored earbuds. Sarah Tew/CNET

One of these processors is called the "contextual computing processor," which handles all the sensory functions on the device. And the other is known as a "natural language processor," which offers voice recognition technology.

The chipset is designed to enable devices to use hardware in clever ways without putting too much strain on the battery life of the device, according to Rick Osterloh, senior vice president for product management with Motorola.

"The X8 is not a system on a chip," he said. "It's a mobile system that includes several chips."

He explained that building the phone to offload certain functionality onto specialized processors has allowed the company to design a device that uses a 2200mHA battery that can still handle always-on voice activation functionality and constant updates and alerts on the device, while maintaining a battery life of up to 24 hours.

In other words, the purpose of this chip-cluster design, he said, is to "make cool new things happen at very low power."

"We could do this in software, but it would burn through the battery in two or three hours," Osterloh added. "With hardware, we can do it much more efficiently."

One of the new features enabled by the natural language processor is called Touchless Control, and it lets users initiate phone calls, activate turn-by-turn navigation, or perform Google searches just by saying, "OK Google Now," and then saying whatever task the user wants the device to perform. Users don't have to touch any buttons or unlock any screens to get to these functions. And the software is designed to be smart enough to perform the tasks, once it hears the three trigger words.

The contextual computing processor lets users get message updates from Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and elsewhere without unlocking the phone. And it's the same processor that is able to wake up the camera on the device when the user twists the phone two times in the air to take a quick photo.

"The device knows if it's in your pocket, in a moving car, or on your nightstand," Osterloh said.

And, he explained, because the gadget knows your orientation, it can wake up certain functions without the user needing to click a series of buttons the way they'd have to with other smartphones.

In addition to the new chip technology, the Moto X uses a special sensor on its camera, which captures up to 75 percent more light. This means better-quality pictures in bright sunlight as well as in dimly lit settings.

Sharing technology with Droids
All of this technology is also available on the new Droids from Verizon. But Motorola executives were careful to paint the two brands as different. Dennis Woodside, CEO of Motorola Mobility, said the Droid product line, which is especially built for Verizon Wireless, is a continuation of a brand Verizon first introduced years ago. And it's geared toward enthusiasts, whereas the Moto X is designed for the masses and a worldwide market.

"There are millions of people who have bought Droids from Verizon Wireless in the past," Woodside said in an interview. "There is a loyal and fanatical following. And we didn't want to abandon those folks. So we delivered the new Droids for them."

He went on to say that Motorola has a successful partnership with Verizon with the Droid lineup and that it made sense to continue the line of products.

Woodside admitted that "there is a lot of similarity between the two lines of products." But, he continued, "there are also some fundamental differences."

The curved shape of the Moto X is very different from the square and flat design of the recently announced Motorola Droids available only with Verizon Wireless. Sarah Tew/CNET

For example, the design of the products is different. While, with a 4.7-inch screen, the Moto X is designed specifically to fit in the palm of the hand, the Droid Maxx, for instance, sports a larger 5-inch screen. Also, the Droid Maxx has a bigger battery, for people who want to extend the battery life beyond a day and into two. Also, the material used on the back of the device is different. The Droids use Kevlar, while the Moto X's back is made up of a different "composite" material. The company is even testing out real-wood backings for the Moto X.

While these differences may sound minor, Motorola's senior vice president of engineering, Iqbal Arshad, said they're significant from an engineering and design perspective because they can change how the radio frequency operates in a certain device.

"When you have different materials on the back of the device, the radio frequency properties shift," Arshad said. "So we had to build the system inside differently to accommodate the 17 different backs and the wood on the Moto X. It's impossible to deliver the same 4G experience with all different materials, unless you have a technological breakthrough like we have developed."

It will be interesting to see how the new Moto X stacks up to competitors, such as the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy line of devices. But getting the new Motorola technology into the hands of more customers, through the Moto X franchise, is certainly a start in the right direction.