Top Motorola engineer defends Moto X specs (Q&A)

Iqbal Arshad, one of Moto's top engineers, says that critics of the Moto X don't understand the revolutionary design of the new product, as he points out the merits of the new device in a Q&A interview with CNET.

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
10 min read
Moto X
Moto X Sarah Tew/CNET

Iqbal Arshad, one of Motorola's top engineers, has become a little defensive since the launch of the much-anticipated Moto X last week, as some have criticized the device for not being innovative enough.

The smartphone, which is the flagship device of the newly reinvigorated Motorola, is among the first devices to be introduced to the market since Motorola was acquired by Google a year ago.

While most technology reviewers who have gotten their hands on the Moto X agree that the new smartphone is a worthy competitor to the top phones on the market, including the Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, some tech enthusiasts have complained that, at least on paper, the specification list doesn't match its competitors' specs.

There have been cries on social media sites, such as Twitter, and comments following CNET's stories complaining about Motorola's nerve for charging $199 with a two-year service contract for a device many say is using "last year's technology."

Arshad, Motorola's senior vice president for product development, said he thinks the critics are missing the point. And he said there is nothing "last year" about this device. He even called the Moto X the "most advanced smartphone on the market. Period."

"I think people who are hard core about comparing specs simply don't understand the design of the product," he said.

The two main complaints from people when looking at the specification sheet of the Moto X compared to other devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, is the fact that the Moto X uses a Qualcomm dual-core processor instead of a newer and potentially faster quad-core processor, like the one used in the Samsung Galaxy S4. Another big complaint is that the screen resolution at 720P with a maximum pixel density of 312 pixels per inch falls short of the GS4's 1080P screen with a maximum pixel density of 441 pixels per inch.

Indeed, the architecture of the new device is somewhat different from other smartphones. Instead of relying on a massive, off-the-shelf multicore processor to do everything on the device, Motorola has created what it calls the X8 system, which isn't a specific processor or a system on chip (SOC), but rather a collection of processors, some of which were homegrown by Motorola, that incorporate multiple individual processors with specified functions.

The main component of the X8 system is a 28nm Qualcomm S4 Pro, running at 1.7 GHz. It is an off-the-shelf dual-core processor that Motorola has worked with Qualcomm to customize for its devices. The other parts of the X8 system consist of two Motorola-designed, low-power processors. One is a so-called "contextual computing processor" that handles gestures and the other is a natural language processor, which powers the voice-recognition technology on the device.

Arshad said that the architecture of the device is designed to provide an "always on" experience without draining the battery. The device is specifically designed to launch certain applications without the need to hit a button. For instance, users can activate Google navigation by simply saying, "Ok, Google Now" and without touching the device. Google searches also can be launched this way, as well as voice calls to people in your contacts list. This function is enabled by the low-power natural language processor that is part of the X8 system.

The "always on" experience also extends to providing message updates and a view of the phone's clock even when the device is locked and in sleep mode.

Arshad admits that the same functionality could have been achieved using a more traditional architecture built entirely with off-the-shelf components. But he said there would have been major trade-offs in terms of the battery life of the device.

In an interview with CNET, Arshad defended the technology and design choices used in creating the Moto X. And he explained why consumers, who are used to comparing spec sheets on paper, might be confused about the merits of the Moto X. He also took a few swipes at the company's competitors as he explained why he believes the Moto X is a revolutionary device.

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: There has been a lot of criticism out there about the Moto X, especially regarding the choice of the dual-core processor and the 720P resolution screen. Some disgruntled consumers say that dual-core processor and 720P screen are last year's technology. I was wondering if you could explain why Motorola went in this direction.
Arshad: I'd agree that the two main things that I think people have misunderstood about the Moto X are the processor technology and display technologies.

I'll start with the processor technology. For one, we are not using last year's Qualcomm processor. It's this year's processor. It is a dual-core processor, but the thing people have to understand is that in mobile devices, more CPUs don't necessarily mean better or faster devices. In fact, in most instances, no more than two CPUs are being used at any given time. In order to save power, the algorithms controlling the device are often trying to turn off CPUs.

In the stress tests we have conducted on competing devices, we launched 24 Web sites at once on the device, and none of the devices used more than two CPUs at once to do this. So more than 90 percent of the time, the additional "cores" on the CPUs are turned off, so even if you have a quad-core or an octa-core device, not all of that computing power is used at once.

So that's the first thing that is misunderstood. This is not last year's processor. The other thing people don't understand is that we have dedicated processors that are handling some functions too.

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This is where the X8 chipset design comes in, correct?
Arshad: Yes, we are using the fastest dual-core processor from Qualcomm for general purpose computing. And then we have other processors, like a graphics processor and the dedicated natural language and contextual computing processors, that handle other functions. This helps speed up performance, but also ensures a long battery life.

To really understand why we made these design choices, you have to understand our philosophy. With the Moto X, we are redefining how mobile devices operate. Our belief is that the future of mobile devices is about smart computing. It's not just about doing calculations anymore, but developing devices that make intelligent decisions. And that requires fundamental changes in the architecture of the devices.

If you think about it, the market has been relatively stagnant. Everything is built on these standard chips and displays. And we are all trained to respond to those small incremental changes in these components. But Motorola's vision is to really change how smartphones work. The small computers we carry around in our pockets aren't really "smart." I mean, what can you do with the Samsung Galaxy S4 that you can't do with the Galaxy S3? The answer is nothing.

We aren't developing technology for technology's sake. But we are trying to make mobile computing more intelligent. And we want to change the way people interact with devices to make the devices fit better into people's lifestyles. And we want to do all this without sacrificing battery life.

How does the different architecture allow you to do something unique?
Arshad: We have come up with a new processing architecture that allows us to do things like touchless control without sacrificing battery power. For a Samsung or HTC device to offer the same kind of functionality would require three batteries. And that is the reason why no one else has done touchless control. Nobody has done it because it kills the device's battery life.

None of those other processors could do all the noise cancellation and offer the same level of intelligence and still be low power. What we have done with the Moto X has not been done before. It's the world's first. And we think it will change the way people make phone calls and use their phones.

So you feel like the potential benefits and breakthrough technology of the Moto X is misunderstood?
Arshad: It's hard because people are programmed by the industry to look at things like how many cores a chip has or whether the display is 1080P. That's how chip and display manufacturers differentiate their products. But we've spent thousands of engineering hours building a new kind of processing architecture that will really change how people use their phones.

So it's hard to understand because you're comparing architectures that are fundamentally different. It's kind of like people who are looking at a Tesla electric car and expecting it to have a V-8 engine. When you talk about an electric motor, it's hard for people who are used to comparing specs on traditional cars to understand how it truly compares, because it's completely different.

So people who are trained to look at processor cores, the number of pixels per inch, and whether or not it has a 1080P screen resolution have no frame of reference.

That leads me to the criticism about the screen resolution. Why did Motorola decide to go with a lower resolution? I mean, it seems like every other high-end smartphone, including the new LG G2 that was just introduced today, has a 1080P screen. And when it comes to pixels per square inch, the Galaxy S4 has the Moto X beat.
Arshad: First of all, what Samsung has done with the GS4 screen is not true 1080P. Instead, Samsung is using a PenTile display. Each pixel is made up of three-color sub pixels. It's missing one of the pixels. We are using a true RGB pattern custom display that gives true color reproduction without wasting battery life.

Samsung is using a graphics processor, but they're using it the wrong way and their performance is actually worse than ours. They are burning more battery life. In the case of HTC, they're using an LCD screen, which is simply an inferior technology.

Also, the human eye cannot discern resolution beyond 300 pixels per inch. And we exceed that. So the eye can't even see the difference. But the human eye can see big differences in color saturation and reproduction. In fact, I'd say that is even more important than resolution. So we decided to focus on that aspect instead.

Some people also have been disappointed that the Moto X will ship with the previous version of Android 4.2.2 instead of the newer 4.3. But Motorola is owned by Google, so why won't Motorola's flagship phone just ship with the latest software?
Arshad: The Android team is separate from Motorola. Motorola is an independent business within Google. The Android team works with partners in the Nexus program. And there is a strict firewall that separates Motorola from the Android team. Google wants to make sure that everyone in the ecosystem is treated equally.

In other words, being owned by Google gives us a great opportunity to build devices like the Moto X, but it doesn't give us an advantage or access to the software before any other Nexus partners. We saw a huge opportunity to deliver Android and Google services in the way that Android was meant to be, while also changing the way mobile computing is done.

That is what separates us from the pack. Our competitors are adding software features on top of Android that don't really matter. And it often hurts performance of the device. So when they layer on all this extra software on top of Android, it gives consumers a bad user-experience. And it creates different settings for the device, adding a level complexity that makes it more time-consuming and difficult to upgrade the software.

Another criticism of the product is that it doesn't have a changeable battery. Why didn't Motorola design the device so that you could switch out the battery?
Arshad: There are many reasons for this. But the biggest is that in order to deliver the design and in order to give the phone its curved back, we couldn't have a removable back on the device. There are a lot physical design issues to consider when you make the back removable. This includes the type of material that is used and the radio frequency technology. I guess if we had wanted to design a cheaper feeling plastic phone that maybe would have had some gaps in the hardware design, we could have done that. But we didn't want that type of design. And the truth is that only a small percentage of people are actually willing to carry around a second battery. There are other devices that have made this design choice as well. The HTC One and Apple iPhone, for example, don't have the removable battery either.

There are also some people who have been critical of the fact that this device doesn't have an expandable memory card slot. And because the version sold initially through U.S. carriers will only support 16GB of device storage, people have complained it would have been nice to have the option to add more storage to the device for pictures, music, and other media.
Arshad: There are a lot of issues that come into play when you start offloading storage on external memory. You have to decide what to store where. We thought for the mass market it would be cleaner and more straightforward to not have people moving content back and forth on the device. We wanted to make the device as simple and easy to use as possible.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Moto X is that customers will be able to customize the device to some extent through the Moto Maker Web site and in-store tools. Right now, it seems like all that's really customizable is the color on the backcover and the trim. And you also can choose between a 16GB or 32GB version of the phone. I was wondering if, in the future, Motorola might also allow people to build their devices by customizing things such as RAM, screen size, screen resolution, or processor speed?
Arshad: I can't say anything specific about that now. But I can say that because mobile phones must use antenna and there can be radio frequency issues, the way a phone is designed and laid out means it can be very sensitive. We do have a road map for extending the capabilities of the device and customization in the future, but I'll talk about that in the future.