The original Moto X was a modestly sized phone with modest specs, but it's gotten more powerful and bigger each year. Now, the third-generation Moto X is a true phablet with flagship specs, but the price is still quite reasonable. After experimenting with carrier exclusives and subsidies, the company is going it alone with the new Moto X Pure Edition (AKA the Moto X Style outside the US).
This phone starts at $399 and is not being sold through any carriers. It still has Moto Maker customizations, and some of Motorola's past shortcomings have been addressed. So, has Motorola finally hit one out of the park, or is it overshadowed by more expensive phones?
Design And Moto Maker
If you've seen a Motorola phone in the past few years, the Moto X Pure will be familiar. The back panel is curved in such a way that it fits comfortably in your hand despite being 11mm thick in the middle. At the edges it tapers down to just 6.1mm, though. The material on the back of the phone is entirely up to you, assuming you use Moto Maker to customize the device. There are several different soft-touch plastic colors, wood panels, and leather.
My review unit has an ebony wood back panel, and it looks very cool (in my opinion). The wood snugs right up to the metal rim of the phone and is even all the way around. It's smooth, but not slippery. If you want a more grippy option, go with the leather or plastic. I hear the soft touch plastic really sticks to your hand.
Moto Maker also lets you customize the color of the metal edge and the accent color of the camera surround and speakers (mine is red). For the edge of the phone, all you get is gray or champagne (gold, basically), and the latter is only available if you go with a white front. I like the black front personally, as the Moto X has a ton of sensor windows, and they make the white device look very busy. The customization options are fantastic. I love that you can design a phone that doesn't look like everyone else's. If you want something funky (or garish), you can do it. Prefer a more refined (or boring) combination? No problemo; a few clicks and it's an entirely different phone.
The metal accent on the back with the customizable accent color also houses the Motorola dimple this year. It's smaller than last year's dimple (or crater), but the edges are very well defined and it's perfect for resting a finger on. In ergonomics, the dimple is what's called an internal precision grip. It helps you stabilize the phone in your hand, which is certainly good seeing as it's a much larger device this year. There's still no fingerprint sensor in the dimple, though, which is becoming an important feature as Android adds native support in Marshmallow. I'd say Motorola is missing an opportunity here.
On the front is the 5.7-inch screen (more on that later) and front-facing stereo speakers. Last year's X only had a mono speaker, so that's a nice bonus. The audio from the speakers is surprisingly good with crisp sound, even at high volume levels. I'd put it almost on par with HTC Boom Sound.
Left to right: Nexus 6, Moto X Pure, Note 5
The Moto X is a big, big phone now. It's almost exactly the same size and weight as the Samsung Galaxy Note 5. That's a big jump from the 5.2-inch 2014 Moto X, and really places it outside of one-handed use territory for me. There are times when the dimple actually seems too far away from the edge to be a comfortable finger location. In general, I like larger phones, so I'm fine with this change, but I know plenty of people want a smaller device. I guess you should get a Nexus 5X.
Display—Out With The AMOLED
The new Moto X rocks a 5.7-inch 2560x1440 IPS LCD. That's a much higher resolution than last year's 1080p screen, but it's also not AMOLED anymore. I suspect this is a cost-saving measure, but some people prefer LCDs anyway. There's no risk of burn-in and outdoor performance is often better. The LCD on the Moto X has accurate colors, but they lack the richness of an AMOLED. The brightness is actually quite impressive, though. It gets noticeably brighter than the LCD on the LG G4. It works well enough in outdoor light, but I wish it got dimmer at minimum brightness. Viewing angles are solid as well—you can get almost completely off-axis before the display starts washing out.
Moto Display has been one of Motorola's hallmark features since the original Moto X launched, and an important aspect of that was the AMOLED screen. Moto Display only lights up a few pixels to alert you to new notifications, so an AMOLED saves significant power in that regard. The change to an LCD this year means the panel isn't as efficient for Moto Display, which is probably why it no longer "breathes" to continuously show notifications. It only wakes up when something new comes in or you trigger the display (more on that later). This is a bit of a bummer.
An AMOLED obviously has perfect black levels, but Motorola's new LCD isn't bad either. The lit black areas of the screen are almost completely black. In average indoor light, there's no visible difference between "off black" and "on black." In a dark room, you can see a slight purple-ish hue in the black regions of the screen when Moto Display is active.
I probably don't have to tell you (but I'm going to anyway) that the 1440p display on the Moto X looks extremely crisp. It far exceeds my ability to make out individual pixels at normal viewing distances. It's possible for OEMs to choose a poor quality 1440p LCD, but Motorola did not. Whether or not you miss the AMOLED display is entirely up to your personal preference.
The camera has always been a problem for Motorola. The 2013 Moto X's camera was irredeemably awful, but the 2014 was improved. I'd say that one was solidly mediocre. Some early reviews of the new Moto X Pure Edition cited the camera as the best Motorola had ever produced, and better than most other phones. I was excited to snap some photos with this phone, and you know what? I'm still excited about it after doing so. I'm relieved to say the new Moto X does indeed have what I'd consider a good camera.
The camera has a maximum resolution of 21MP, but the default setting in the app is for 16MP widescreen images. For all my testing, I selected the maximum 21MP 4:3 setting. Just about every phone takes nice outdoor shots, and the Moto X is certainly no exception. It captures a lot of detail and color reproduction seems spot-on to me. Image capture, even with HDR activated, is almost instantaneous.
The Moto X's camera doesn't have optical image stabilization, but it does have digital stabilization. It's good enough to counter a bit of hand shaking, but it won't match phones like the Galaxy S6 and LG G4. The Moto X also doesn't have a fancy autofocus sensor as some phones do, but it uses phase-detection technology, similar to Samsung. The autofocus is dead-on in good light, but in dim settings, I found it to be much more touchy. This is made worse by Motorola's limited camera app (more on that in a moment).
Indoors is where the old Motorola phones would stumble (or collapse into a heap of noisy pixels). With good indoor lighting, all the shots I've taken still come out looking crisp. There's still very little shutter lag and noise is minimal. In poor lighting, you do get some noise, but it's really not bad. The images taken by the Moto X in low light are dimmer than what you'd get from a Galaxy S6 or a OnePlus 2, but it's much less noisy than the OP2 (the Android mini and dog images below were snapped in very low indoor light). I feel like Motorola erred on the side of reducing noise rather than pumping up the brightness. The Moto X also has considerably less shutter lag than the OP2. I still feel like the Galaxy S6 and G4 are consistently better cameras than the Moto X Pure, but the fact that it's even a competition means Motorola has come a long way.
The front-facing camera is 5MP, but I don't usually talk about front-facing cameras, because who really cares? I know I don't. Still, this time it bears mention because there's a flash... a front-facing selfie flash. It's a bit of an eyesore on the front of the phone for me as I doubt I'll ever use it. If you're the sort who takes a lot of selfies, you'll probably really like this. It's a softer light that doesn't instantly wash out skin tones, and it does the job it's intended to do.
While the hardware has gotten better this year, Motorola's camera app needs some work. It's great for a quick snapshot, but anything more precise is a pain in the butt. There is no tap-to-focus mode in this app. You've got the tap to capture default, then you can switch to a mode with a focus/exposure control ring that you drag around the viewfinder. Adjusting the exposure is the only image setting available, a stark contrast when LG and Samsung have created comprehensive manual modes for their cameras. To top it off, Motorola didn't include Camera2 API support. The Moto Camera app is in the Play Store, and I really hope they pay some attention to it soon.
This is the big question, isn't it? Motorola's flagship phones have traditionally had somewhat small batteries for their size, and consequently the battery life has been mediocre at best. This year we've got a 3000mAh cell paired with a 1440p LCD. That could go either way depending on optimization, but I think Motorola comes out looking good here.
Battery life measurements are always hard to explain. So much of it varies based on what you have installed and how you use the phone. I've been carrying the Moto X as my main device since I got it, so I have all my usual apps installed. I haven't shut off any features or services and I've opted into all of Motorola's custom add-ons. With what I would consider moderate usage, the Moto X Pure Edition will run for about a day and a half with 2-3 hours of screen-on time. That means it's asleep quite a lot, and the rest of the time I used it for messaging, web browsing, and a bit of navigation. With heavy use, I was able to eke out 5-6 hours of screen time over the course of about 16-18 hours.
You should be able to make it through a day and then some with the Moto X, but it's still a device you'll plug in every night. Even if you do drain the battery before bedtime, this device has Turbo Charging (Quick Charge 2.0) and comes with the appropriate plug. A few minutes on the charger, and you'll gain hours of usage. Quick Charging is so useful I can't imagine buying a phone that doesn't have it. Oddly, Motorola's included charger doesn't have a removable USB cable -- it's a single piece unit. Last year's Moto X didn't even come with the necessary Turbo Charger, so I'm not complaining.
Software And Performance
The Moto X Pure ships with Android 5.1.1 and a promise of a speedy update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow. You might be wary of Motorola's update promises after last week's debacle, but I don't think we can read too much into that yet. Even without the Marshmallow update, the Moto X Pure Edition has a commendable software experience. The UI is completely stock Android, which I think is a good thing.
Motorola's modifications to Android are minimal, and they don't get in the way of using the phone. As of now, there are four Motorola add-ons—Moto Assist, Moto Display, Moto Voice, and Moto Actions. Moto Display is one of my favorite Android features in general. Each time you get a notification, the screen wakes up with an icon, which you can tap to see the notification text. Then swipe up to open it, down to just unlock, or to the side to ignore. Moto Display also wakes up the screen when you pick up the phone or when you wave your hand in front of it (this is actually Moto Actions). Some other devices have ambient display mode, which is similarly useful, but a little slow. Moto Display is super-fast and reliable, though.
Moto Actions includes the aforementioned wave gesture, but you can also chop twice for the flashlight and twist twice for the camera. This is all quite useful, but I wish there were some more customizable gestures. Moto Assist is a feature that made a ton of sense in the Jelly Bean and KitKat days, but Motorola is retiring it in Marshmallow. It's basically a tool for adjusting notification settings based on time and location. Stock Android does most of that now, so it's safe to ignore Assist.
Moto Voice allows you to issue voice commands to the phone at all times, even if it's asleep. Of course, this is something that other phones have gained with the "OK Google" command. The remaining distinguishing feature of Moto Voice is that you can set a custom launch phrase, which is neat. It's also much better at handing off general queries to the Google app now.
The default home screen on the Moto X Pure is the Google Now Launcher, so you probably have a good idea of how that works. There are virtually no custom apps on the phone: just the camera, gallery, messaging, and the Moto hub. Performance has been very strong for me. There's no stuttering or lag anywhere to be found. Memory management also seems solid. I can leave things running in the background and come back to them later without waiting for them to reload, a la Samsung. LTE speeds are on target, but there's no band 12 LTE on T-Mobile yet. This can be painful when you're indoors in an urban area, but Motorola says it's working to get the necessary VoLTE certification to turn it on.
So look, Motorola's software is great, but I'm concerned that it's still pretty much the same kind of "great" it was last year. It hardly does anything new this year, and stock Android continues to obviate some of Motorola's custom features. Things have been busy at Motorola with the Lenovo sale being finalized not quite a year ago, but it's troubling that Motorola's software features haven't really evolved in the last 12 months. Motorola could assuage my fears by getting Android 6.0 out to the Moto X Pure in short order and maybe working to improve its differentiating features.
For $399 you get a Moto X with 16GB of storage (with a microSD card slot) and your choice of any plastic back and accent color. That might be the best $400 you can spend on a smartphone right now. Sure, the Nexus 5X is a little cheaper, but it has a lower resolution screen, less RAM, and no card slot. I don't know how the Moto X's camera will compare to the Nexus, but it's so much better than the 2014 Moto X that I think you'll be happy with it.
There's no other phone out there with the kind of customization options you get with this device. So many phones are a variation on the boring black slab, but the Moto X continues to be different. The basic customization doesn't even cost more than the stock versions for sale on Amazon. For a few extra bucks, you can get wood or leather back covers that look pretty slick, in my opinion.
The size of the Moto X will be a problem for some—Motorola has finally given in to market pressures and made this phone into a phablet. It's big and heavy, but no more so than other devices in this size range. The overall design carries the added weight well, though. It's still comfortable to hold, but not in one hand.
A few weeks ago I would have been confident about Motorola's software situation, but after the company dropped some pretty new phones from the 6.0 update list, I'm a bit more skeptical. The Moto X Pure Edition is an unlocked phone, so it should be well supported. At least that's the hope. The company has also said it's working on getting T-Mobile certification so it can turn on band 12 LTE in the Marshmallow update. As things stand, the clean Android software and cool added features make the Moto X a joy to use, and I bet it'll still be updated much faster and more consistently than devices like the Galaxy S6.
Don't agonize over it—the Moto X Pure Edition is a great phone that you can feel confident buying.