Barbara Krasnoff

Moto X: A first look at the first phone from the Google/Motorola marriage

August 01, 2013 3:27 PM EDT

It's very difficult these days to distinguish your smartphone from everyone else's. Most vendors tend to use the terms faster, brighter, more powerful, etc. With the Moto X, Motorola Mobility and Google have chosen a more conservative, but perhaps wiser path: To make a reasonably powerful phone attractive via cosmetic hardware choices and ease-of-use software additions.

Moto X

The Moto X is getting a lot of attention, predominately because it's the first phone that was completely designed by Motorola Mobility after Google acquired the company in August of last year. I attended one of the press briefings they held and was able to try out the phone after the presentation; these are my first impressions. I also have a loaner unit in hand; I'll offer a more thorough review early next week.

Lightweight and loud

The Moto X is a lightweight (4.6 oz.) phone with a curved back; according to Motorola, this is to make it easier to hold. My first impression was that, while the curved back is indeed comfortable, it isn't that much better than other phones I've worked with; I'll be interested to see if it makes a difference in the long term.

(According to Rick Osterloh, senior vice present for product at Motorola Mobility, this required them to manufacture a curved 2200mAh battery to match the back; the battery isn't removable.)

The phone itself measures 2.57 x 5.09 in., which means that the 4.7-in. 720 x 1280 AMOLED display (made of Gorilla Glass) takes up most of the space. I was gratified to see that Motorola did not waste space by inserting unnecessary capacitive buttons at the bottom.

To my eyes, the display looks perfectly acceptable, with bright colors and sharp images, although I'm not quite as bowled away as I was with a few of the more higher-resolution phones I've seen, such as the HTC One.

One thing I was impressed by was the volume, which I tested at the press event. At maximum volume, in a large room with a lot of ambient noise, I was able to hear a YouTube video with no problem, even with the phone held a distance away. One of the Motorola demonstrators pointed out that, because of the curved back, the speaker was not muffled when you put the phone down on a flat surface; as a matter of fact, when I put it on a table, contact with the surface heightened the volume.

Software selling points

Aside from the hardware, some of the major selling points of the Moto X are the additional software features -- many of which were introduced with Motorola's new line of Droids last week. (The phone will ship with Android 4.2.2.)

One of these features is called Active Display, which activates the display if you just move the phone -- pull it out of your pocket, say, or turn it over. The display immediately shows you the time and notifications for new messages, emails, etc. (you can configure which notifications are visible). If you want to see the indicated messages, slide your finger up the screen.

This is, according to Motorola, meant to be a time-saver for people who are constantly checking their phones for the time or for new messages. It's a nice touch; I have to admit that I do use my phone to check the time, and not having to press the power button and wait for it to activate is handy.

Another new feature is called Touchless Control, where you train the phone to react to your voice without your having to turn it on first -- so that if you say "Okay Google Now," the Moto X will react (even if the screen was dark) and wait for a command to make a call, do a search or find directions. The phone has to be trained for each user's voice; I'll be testing it out and will report on it in the upcoming review.

And how will all this activity affect battery life? According to Motorola, the Moto X should last about 24 hours on a charge; it includes two special processors -- a natural language processor and a contextual computing processor -- that run on low power and enable the phone to essentially be "always on" without too much battery drain. As the owner of a now-ancient (in smartphone terms) Galaxy Nexus -- with battery life that is, to put it charitably, a bit short -- I'm looking forward to testing this.

The camera software has been configured to be fast and simple. For example, to take a photo, you simply point and tap the screen; the software will take care of focusing and lighting. According to the Motorola rep, the 10-megapixel camera uses a technology called Clear Pixel (or RGBC) which works better than others in low-light situations -- I took a photo indoors during a dark, rainy day and the resulting photo wasn't bad at all.

You are also able to make the camera come on immediately when the phone is off by twisting your wrist twice; it worked when I tried it, but I had to "twist" so hard that I'm not sure I wouldn't hurt myself if I tried it too many times.

Build your own case

Finally, one of the features that is being heavily touted is the ability for consumers to "build your own" case via an online interface called "Moto Maker" that will let them to order the phone in a variety of color combinations. (AT&T customers, anyway; Verizon Wireless and Sprint customers will have to make do with black or white -- at least, for now.) When the phone ships (which will be in late August/early September), users will have a choice of 18 colors for the back, 7 colors as highlights, and black or white for the front; they will also be able to add a name or word to the front.

Moto Maker

The Moto Maker site is clear-cut and simple to navigate; it also offers users the chance to connect a Google account or choose some wallpaper ahead of time. The phone can be upgraded to 32GB for an additional $50; there was no word yet as to whether 32GB phones would be available in stores.

My first impression? That for $200 with a two-year contract, the Moto X could be a nicely competitive phone, especially for younger users who like the idea of personalizing their tech. However, if you are looking for a new higher-end phone from Motorola, the less-promoted Droid Maxx (with its 3500mAh battery that will, according to the company, offer 48 hours of use) or Droid Ultra (with its slim case and 5-in. display) might work better for you -- especially since they include much of the same software. (These two phones also haven't shipped yet; we hope to have reviews of them as well when they do.)

All that being said, I plan to put use the Moto X as my main phone for the next few days and see how well it works on the longer term. It should be, at the very least, interesting.