Aug. 7, 2013 -- Smartphones aren't very smart -- it's something I've heard innumerable times from phone makers as they introduce features to set their wares apart from the iPhone and other leading Android handsets. But with the made-in-America Moto X smartphone released last week, the line repeated by Motorola's VP of Product Management Rick Osterlohis seems to rise above marketing jargon.
The phone has a series of new "smarter" features which anticipate what you want, in some cases without you actually having to pick up the phone. It's also arguably the most personalized smartphone ever created with the ability to choose from tons of color options and accents. On top of that it promises all-day battery life.
But do those things put the Moto X, which is the first phone made by the flailing Motorola since being acquired by Google, ahead of the class of other great phones? Just how good is the first smartphone to be assembled in the U.S?
It's hard to review the design of a phone that comes in over 360 different color combinations. Later this month, Motorola will launch MotoMaker.com, a website which will allow users to choose the color of the back of the phone, the trim of the phone and the accents around the camera and the volume buttons. You can also engrave a short message or your name on the back. Motorola is even going to make a wooden version later this year. And because the phone is assembled in Motorola's new Fort Worth, Texas, facility it ships within just four days.
Unlike the 4.7-inch HTC One and 5-inch Galaxy S4, I was able to hold the curved-back of the X in my hand without having to stretch my fingers to get to parts of the screen. Additionally, the dimple or crater on the back of the phone is a wonderful ergonomic addition, providing a nice little home for your index finger to rest while you hold the phone. My one nitpicky design criticism: the location of the headphone jack on the top edge.
Software that Know You
But the irony is that while the Moto X is one of the most comfortable phones ever made, some of its best software features are all about not having to hold the device.
Active Notifications - The Active Notifications feature in particular was made to solve the problem of people hitting the power button on their phones up to 100 times a day just to glance at the time and or notifications -- something I know a lot about. Instead, on the X, the time and a notification alert flashes every few seconds.
"Leave me alone, phone!" I kept thinking when I would see it pulse at first, but after a few days I've gotten used to just letting my phone sit on the table without having to actively touch it to see if I have a new e-mail or text. Plus, the notifications only light up part of the screen so they aren't too distracting.
Touchless Controls - The other way to control the phone is with your voice. Similar to Google Glass, the Moto X has advanced microphones and voice recognition software that's always listening for your command. There's no need to touch a little microphone icon on the screen. By just saying the words "Okay, Google Now" you can command the phone to do a series of things -- call a friend, find out what time the "Bachelorette" is on, adding a reminder, etc.
The feature was great for tasks like setting an alarm. "Okay Google Now, set the alarm for 7 a.m." and it was done within seconds. Truth be told, I didn't find myself talking to my phone very much, but when I did, it was accurate and quick to follow my commands.
An Easy Access Camera - Launching the camera doesn't require you to touch the screen either. Instead of finding the camera button and missing your shot, you can twist the phone twice to quickly launch the camera software. Then you can just tap anywhere on the screen to take a photo; it will auto-focus on its own. The feature worked well, but the 10-megapixel "clear-pixel" camera could be better. Photos were good, but not as crisp or vivid as ones I took on my iPhone 5. Yes, it's great to have a camera that you can access quickly, but what good is that if the photos aren't as good?
Battery Life to Beat
Other than those smart features, the Moto X runs a very clean version of Android 4.2.2 on the 4.7-inch screen. Many have complained that for $199 you only get a 720p resolution screen, rather than the 1080p resolution on competing handsets like the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. The difference is noticeable to the naked eye, but it simply isn't a reason not to get this phone.
Techies also complain that the phone doesn't have the fastest processor available. I found the phone to be snappy with no lag when navigating the menus, but it doesn't feel as fluid as the Google Play Editions of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, which do have faster quad-core processors. The AT&T model I have been testing has had very fast LTE speeds and phone call quality has been strong, though sounds a bit echoey in some situations.
But the X tops many of the others on battery performance. Motorola says the phone can last up to 24 hours in some cases. That's not as long as the 48 hours promised by the Verizon Droid Maxx, but it's pretty impressive. Even after a seven-hour road trip of streaming music and checking email and Twitter on the phone, I still had a little less than half a charge left. That's certainly more impressive than my iPhone 5 or the HTC One, both of which I am constantly carrying around with their chargers.
The Moto X is a different kind of smartphone. It's the first smartphone made in the U.S., it's a smartphone you can design to your liking and it is a smarter phone. The first two points alone are enough to set the X apart from even the best Android phones, like the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, but it's that last point that makes the phone even more unique.
Unlike the Galaxy S4, which seems to be packed with features for the sake of just having more features, the Moto X adds what I believe are genuinely useful capabilities, while not overcomplicating the experience. Could the phone do more to outsmart our mobile needs? Absolutely. Could it have a faster processor, better screen and camera? Sure, but combine the software features with long battery life and a design that fits perfectly in my hand and the Moto X is a very smart choice.
The Moto X will be available at the end of August or beginning of September at Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.