When Motorola executives met with journalists today in New York City to brief them about the company’s new phone, the Moto X, they didn’t begin by dwelling on Motorola’s long and often innovative history. Instead, they recapped some of the past successful acquisitions made by its corporate parent, Google, including Keyhole (which became Google Earth), YouTube and Android. “When Google bought YouTube, everybody thought we were completely nuts,” said Dennis Woodside, Motorola’s CEO and a 10-year Google employee.
Their message was clear: even though plenty of people still think Google was, well, nuts to shell out $13 billion for Motorola in 2011, Google thinks it makes sense for the company to be in the mobile-hardware business. Even though Motorola was struggling when Google bought it, and even though the deal leaves Google in the odd position of both supplying Android to companies such as Samsung and HTC and competing with them.
Even Motoskeptics might concede that the potential exists for Google to do interesting things with its hardware arm, which has slashed employees and products and now includes 70 veterans of other Google businesses among its management. And the Moto X is the clearest, most ambitious evidence so far of where it wants to go. The phone will arrive in late August or early September, and is coming to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon in the U.S. Sign a two-year contract, and you’ll be able to get the 16-GB model for $199. I’ve been playing with a prerelease version today — too briefly to write a formal review, but long enough to form some initial opinions.
The X sports a 4.7-in. (12 cm) screen based on AMOLED technology, with 720-by-1280 resolution and 316 pixels per inch. Other manufacturers’ flagship Android phones have more pixels, but the X’s screen looked perfectly respectable to me.
Phone screen size is a matter of personal taste, but Motorola did an impressive job of building a phone around that display: the gracefully curved X is so much narrower and shorter than the HTC One, which also has a 4.7-in. screen, that it feels more like it’s in the same class as Apple’s iPhone 5 even though its screen is much roomier than the iPhone’s 4-incher. As with Apple’s phone, it’s easy to cradle the Moto X in your palm and control the whole interface with your thumb, a handy mode of operation that’s often impossible with Android models.
Normally, no matter how nice a smartphone looks and feels, it’s pretty much just another shiny rectangle, largely similar in aesthetics to every other phone on the market. Not the Moto X. Motorola is working with electronics contractor Flextronics to put together the Moto X in a 2,000-employee factory in Fort Worth. It’s the only U.S.-assembled phone on the market, and beyond the warm, fuzzy feeling of patriotism, the domestic production has another advantage: it allows Moto X buyers to customize their handsets in ways that no previous phone has ever allowed.
Using a slick website called Motomaker, you’ll be able to select from 18 backside color options, two front-side ones (black and white) and seven trim choices. (Starting in the fourth quarter of this year, Motorola plans to let you buy an X with a back made out of wood instead of plastic.) You’ll also be able to upgrade the storage to 32 GB, purchase color-coordinated Sol Republic headphones, choose a black or white power adapter, put a message on the back of the phone, specify a wallpaper backdrop for the home screen and preconfigure the handset with your Google account so it’s ready to go right out of the box.
Not every one of these options is a big whoop, but still: between all the color possibilities, it’s entirely possible that you might buy a Moto X and never once run into another fellow human being with precisely the same phone. Try that with an iPhone or a Galaxy.
Because of the Texas facility, Motorola says it’ll be able to turn around custom phones in four days. But there is a gotcha: for now, at least, only the AT&T version of the X will be personalizable. If you buy from another carrier, or want to walk out of an AT&T store with a phone in hand, you’ll have a less dizzying array of choices: black or white.
You might guess that Motorola, unlike other Android hardwaremakers, would resist the temptation to mess around with the operating system provided by Google. And you’d be right: the Moto X features a version of Android that, like the one on “Pure Google” devices, is free of pointless little tweaks and feature bloat. But there are a few features that stand out:
- The X’s version of the Google Now voice assistant lets you issue commands (“Remind me to buy parsnips”) and ask questions (“What is the capital of Malta?”) without ever touching the phone or even bothering to turn its screen on yourself. Instead, you say “O.K. Google Now” and then speak your request. As long as I had cellular or wi-fi connectivity, this worked pretty much perfectly for me, even if the phone was sitting a few feet away on my desk.
- Even when the X’s display is turned off, it displays the current time every 15 seconds in a special low-power mode; you can also touch the screen to see notifications without fully turning the phone on. Motorola says special hardware permits the X to do this while preserving 24 hours of typical battery life.
- If you want to snap a photo as quickly as possible, you can whip the phone out of the pocket and give it two vigorous twists of the wrist to go immediately into camera mode. Once you’re there, you tap anywhere on the screen to take a shot with the 10-megapixel camera: the X focuses and chooses exposure automatically.
Did I say these features stand out? They do, but they’re not unique. Actually, they’re also available on three other upcoming Motorola phones, the Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx and Droid Mini, all available only on Verizon. Verizon stole some of the Moto X’s thunder by announcing the Droids last week, but for consumers, the fact that this stuff will be available on multiple Motorola handsets is only good news. It looks genuinely useful rather than gimmicky in the way that some of the Samsung-only features in the Galaxy S4 are.
I want to use the Moto X more before I come to any conclusions about other features, including its Clear Pixel technology, which Motorola says lets in more light than a typical phone camera, thereby minimizing motion blur and allowing for good-looking low-light photos. But at first blush, the X seems to be a solid effort that incorporates a number of clever ideas. More thoughts to come.