Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using a Moto X on loan from Motorola. It is not my favorite smartphone–that distinction still goes to the HTC One–but it’s the best software experience I’ve ever seen on an Android handset.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of Apple’s iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C announcements on Tuesday. Though I personally prefer Android, what I’ve always appreciated about the iPhone is how it wastes nothing. There are no gimmicky features or tech specs that only exist for bragging rights. Everything in the iPhone is there to help the user–or as Jony Ive says, to make the technology disappear.
The Moto X is the rare Android phone that feels the same way. Unlike so many other Android devices, the Moto X doesn’t have any junkware or useless gimmicks. The phone comes out of the box with a practically clean home screen, and gently highlights a few of its most helpful features. Compare that to HTC, whose home screen includes an non-removable news ticker, or to Samsung, whose “S Voice” virtual assistant tries to eclipse the vastly superior Google voice search. The Moto X feels less bloated.
If you’re an Android purist, this might sound familiar. Google has offered its own bloatware- and clutter-free “Nexus” phones for years, and now offers “Google Play Editions” of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One that strip away all the tweaks and gimmicks.
The difference with the Moto X is that all the major wireless carriers are actually selling it. That hasn’t always been true with Google’s Nexus phones, and you can’t even buy the Google Play Edition HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 without paying an unsubsidized price of $600 for the One, or $650 for S4.
Also, Moto X doesn’t just use a stock version of Android. It uses a better version, adding to Google’s operating system in ways that make the phone more useful. Some of those tweaks resemble the very things that Apple is doing in its latest iPhone.
For example, the Moto X uses low-power processing cores to detect when the phone is in motion, in a way that doesn’t kill battery life. This allows the Moto X to constantly listen for voice commands, or automatically switch to a “Driving” mode that reads text messages aloud when you’re in the car. It’s similar in purpose to the low-power M7 co-processor that Apple is including in the iPhone 5S, which can enable new fitness apps and tweak the phone’s behavior based on your movement. For instance, Apple says it can detect when you’ve parked your car during turn-by-turn navigation, and switch to walking directions. These are great examples of adding functionality, not just piling on raw processing power.
The Moto X’s low-power processors serve another purpose: When you pull the phone from your pocket or grab it from your desk, a preview of your missed notifications light up on the screen. You can then peek at them by holding down on the screen, or just unlock the phone without ever hitting the power button. In a way, this makes me think of the iPhone 5S Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which lets you bypass PIN entry by holding a thumb on the home button. These features have different objectives–one is pure convenience, the other is simpler security–but they both take an extra step out of turning on your phone. It may not seem like much, but it makes a big difference having one less thing to think about whenever you grab your phone.
I also want to mention the Moto X’s default wallpaper and ringtone, because it’s clear that Motorola put some thought into them. The wallpaper is a mix of red-and-blue painted wood, with a splash of white–a vaguely patriotic nod to being assembled in the United States (Correction: It resembles the flag for Texas, where the phones are assembled, as a reader points out. Still a patriotic nod, I think.)–and it feels vibrant without obscuring your apps and widgets. The ringtone is a sort of jolly marching tune that picks up a few louder accents partway through, helping you hear the call from your pocket or another room. A good wallpaper and ringtone may seem trivial, but they show attention to detail. They remind me of the stories about Steve Jobs obsessing over barely-noticeable things, like the color gradient on a logo. Of course, you can change your ringtone and wallpaper; the point is that you shouldn’t have to.
There are things that I don’t like about the Moto X, mainly related to the hardware. The design is somewhat clunky, and the seams around the plastic edges feel cheap. (My loaner unit was not customized through Moto Maker, which at least lets you pick the device’s colors, accents and wallpaper.) The camera isn’t as snappy as other high-end phones, and its low-light photos are no comparison to the HTC One. Also, the display isn’t as bright and vibrant as those of the iPhone, HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4. Those are big drawbacks for a phone that costs $200 on-contract.
But in terms of how the software works, the Moto X sets an example. It shows that a mass-market Android phone can be just as clean and well thought-out as an iPhone, without losing the customization that makes Android phones unique in the first place.