Motorola had hit a rough patch when Google came calling back in 2011. It took some time to clear out the queue of sub-standard devices, but the first true Google-backed Motorola effort came in 2013 with the launch of the Moto X. This device broke new ground with clever software features like Moto Display (called Active Display at the time) and a customizable design. Motorola made a few more Moto X phones, all of which were excellent devices. Lenovo didn't keep the Moto X going when it took over from Google, preferring to sell devices like the modular Moto Z.

Here we are, two years after the last Moto X launched, and there's another phone that calls itself "Moto X." This is the Moto X4, a device that comes with the added distinction of being the first Android One phone in the US. Plus, there's support for Google's Project Fi. The Moto X4 slots into Fi as a budget option below the Pixel phones, but it's not exactly a "budget" phone by everyone's standards. This phone costs $400, and the hardware is not much better than what you get in cheaper phones like the Moto G5 Plus.

The Moto X4 doesn't feel or look like a Moto X—it's not customizable, the ergonomics are mediocre, and the design is overwrought. Couple that with a disappointing camera and missing software features, and you've got a recipe for a frustrating experience.

Specs

SoC Snapdragon 630
RAM 3GB
Storage 32GB plus microSD
Display 5.2-inch 1080p LCD
Battery 3,000mAh
Camera 12MP + 8MP wide-angle, 16MP front
NFC Yep
Software Android 7.1.1
Measurements 148.35 x 73.4 x 7.99 mm, 163g

The Good

Software The interface is clean, and you get some cool Moto extras like Moto Display.
Network support Unlocked with support for all carriers. The Android One version is specifically set up for Project Fi.
Design It's water-resistant.
Fingerprint sensor It's fast and accurate.

The Not So Good

Design again All glass and incredibly slippery. The camera module is an eyesore.
Software again Some useful Motorola features like Wireless Sound System have been removed. Ships with Nougat.
Camera Mediocre in low light and HDR is poor. Extremely slow.
Performance Software isn't optimized as well as other Motorola phones.
Value $400 for this hardware seems like too much.

Design and display

The Moto X4 design stands out from the other devices in Motorola's current device portfolio. It's the only one with IP68 water-resistance, which is an undeniably good thing. However, it's also the only one with a glass back, and this will be more divisive. I think there's a perception right now that glass phones are "premium." However, a big part of that is Samsung and Apple both using glass because it's better for wireless charging. The Moto X4 doesn't have wireless charging. It's only made of glass because glass is a premium material, or whatever.

My initial impression of the glass back was positive, but the more time I spend with the phone, the less I like it. The glass has a contour that takes on a varied appearance in different lighting. It can look almost "liquid" at times. It gets extremely fingerprint-y, though. Even by the standards of a glass phone, the Moto X4 is slippery as hell. The glass panel curves toward the aluminum edge to be a little more hand-friendly, but the finish on the aluminum is also super-smooth.

The camera design is just a mistake; there's no nice way to put it. Motorola is obsessed with this over-sized round camera module, which debuted on the Moto Z last year. On the Z phones, the protruding circle at least serves a purpose: to stabilize Moto Mods. On other phones, it's simply there in the name of maintaining Motorola's brand identity, I guess. This brand identity looks clunky and low-effort, especially with two cameras in it. The Moto X4 just draws more attention to the camera hump with the watch-style hash marks around the perimeter. Motorola is trying to do too much on the back of this phone, and it comes off looking gaudy.

The power and volume buttons are on the right edge of the phone. They're all roughly the same size and shape, but the power button has enough separation from volume up and down that I don't accidentally hit the wrong one. They feel stable and have a nice tactile click when pressed. On the bottom edge are the Type-C port and a headphone jack (yay).

The X4 has a single front-facing speaker, which also doubles as the earpiece. The sound is average, but at least being on the face of the phone rather than the bottom prevents it from being blocked by your finger. Up top is the front-facing camera with a flash, and at the bottom is the fingerprint sensor. As with all Motorola's fingerprint sensors, this one is extremely fast and accurate. I also quite like that you can long-press the sensor to put the phone to sleep.

While the Moto X4 is more expensive than the G-series phones, it's not spendy enough to justify an OLED display. This is a 5.2-inch 1080p LCD, and it's very obviously an LCD. That's not to say it's bad, but the colors are a bit dull, it looks blurry when scrolling, and the black levels are middling. Brightness is good enough for most outdoor lighting, but it's outclassed by modern OLED displays. That said, the Moto X4's LCD is better than the LCD on current G-series phones in terms of color and viewing angles.

Camera

Motorola has equipped the Moto X4 with a pair of cameras, but it's a different pair of cameras than you'll find on the Moto Z2 Force or the Moto G5S Plus. The main camera is 12MP and the secondary camera is 8MP. That secondary camera has a wide-angle (120 degrees) lens, which you can swap to in the stock camera app.

Motorola's cameras in the last few years have been good for the price, but they usually fall short of the best Android cameras. The Moto X4 is in a strange place because it's substantially more expensive than the G-series phones, but the camera isn't much better. In some ways, there's no discernable difference between the photos from this $400 phone and the photos from a $220 phone like the Moto G5 Plus.

I will say that in many outdoor settings, the Moto X4's camera is very competent. The exposure is accurate and it captures an impressive amount of detail. Colors are spot-on as well. However, this is only true in the perfect light. If it's too bright and harsh, the Moto X4's HDR mode simply can't keep up. Not only is the camera app extremely slow to capture a photo with HDR, the exposure compensation isn't even very strong. You end up with blown-out highlights and unnatural processing even with the tremendously slow captures.

Slow captures are something you have to get used to with this camera. Unless light is just right, the shutter lag makes the camera tedious to use. With moderate indoor light, photos take around a second after you press the button. In more challenging light, I'm seeing around two seconds of shutter lag. Good luck taking a photo of anything moving with this phone. Indoor photos taken with the Moto X4 don't wow me. Photos are too dark, blurry, and they often look overprocessed. Noise isn't too much of an issue because the phone never seems to boost the ISO very high. No one likes noise, but many of these photos are so dark as to be unusable. Maybe a little noise would be preferable.

The secondary wide-angle camera has a narrower f/2.2 aperture, so these photos are a bit more prone to issues in low light. In good outdoor light, it can take some cool shots. This lens has a 120-degree field of view, which is a bit smaller than LG's wide-angle camera. Motorola doesn't compensate as well for distortion at the edges of the frame, either. The secondary camera also enables a depth effect mode. This doesn't work any better than it does on Moto's other phones.

Performance and battery

The Moto X4 has a Snapdragon 630 ARM chip, a newer design that includes eight Cortex-A53 CPU cores and an Adreno 508 GPU. Motorola has a history of doing great optimization on its phones with modest hardware, but the Moto X4 feels like a rare miss. I wouldn't say this phone feels slow, but I wouldn't say it's fast, either. Benchmarks don't tell the whole story, but this is one of the first Snapdragon 630 phones available. So, here are a few benchmarks.

There's a little hesitation when opening apps and switching between open ones. Animations generally feel a bit choppy. I've seen Motorola do better than this with less power, so I have to assume some of this can be corrected in a software update. The GPU is a bit faster in the 630 than the 625 we've seen in other mid-range phones, and the 3D gaming performance has improved somewhat as a result. It's not as smooth as high-end phones, but more games are playable.

I've tested this phone on both T-Mobile and Verizon networks (it's still universally unlocked), and performance has been average to a bit below average. Reception on T-Mobile is about in-line with what I'd expect from other phones. However, Verizon signal is oddly weak. This mirrors the issues I experienced with the Moto Z2 Play a few months ago.

As mediocre as the performance has been, the battery life has been the exact opposite. It's substantially above average, at least for me. Everyone's usage is different, and it's possible someone else would get more or less battery life than I do. For the record, I have three Google accounts syncing on the phone, and I have been using it for a lot of email/messaging, browsing the web, snapping photos, and playing some games. I've been seeing over seven hours of screen time most days, and I've even hit eight hours a few times. This is over the course of a little more than a day with heavy usage. You might be able to eke out two days of battery life with this phone if you don't use it too heavily.

The battery life is especially impressive because this phone doesn't have a humongous battery—it's just 3,000mAh like plenty of other phones. Recharging the phone is reasonably quick with 15W turbo charging. I wish Motorola hadn't abandoned its 30W charging standard, but a $400 phone probably wouldn't have had that anyway.

Software

The software is usually another place we get to lavish praise on Motorola. While there are absolutely things to like about this device's software, there are also some major disappointments. Let's start with the good stuff. This phone doesn't come with any clunky skins or extraneous features—it's a pure Google experience with some Moto addons. The home screen is a Pixel-style launcher that's a bit more Pixel-y even than Motorola's usual launcher. The X4 does come with Android 7.1 Nougat, but Google is backing the updates and says it'll get Oreo soon.

The Moto X4 supports both Moto Display and Moto Actions. These are the two best bundles of features on Motorola phones, so at least Moto and Google got this much right. Moto Display pops up notifications on your display while the phone is asleep. There's also a new-ish night display mode that filters out blue light as part of the Moto Display settings. Moto Actions includes the "approach to wake" gesture, which brings up Moto Display. This works, but it doesn't seem as sensitive as the Moto Z phones. Moto Actions also has the twist gesture for the camera and chop for flashlight. I use both of these all the time. They're great.

There is no Moto Voice on this phone, which instead expects you to use Google Assistant. The regular Moto X4 also comes with Alexa built-in, and that's not on this version of the phone. The one-button navigation option is gone as well. The Android One version is Google's party, so only things that don't radically alter the Google-y experience are permitted.

The Android One version also skips Moto's Wireless Sound System, which is a real bummer. That's the neat multi-Bluetooth feature that debuted on the standard Moto X4. We tested it at IFA this year, and it was a genuinely cool idea that worked well. I couldn't get a straight answer as to why this feature isn't included on the Android One edition. Google just pointed out that Chromecast is a vaguely similar thing.

Conclusion

The Moto X4 isn't a terrible phone, but it's not good enough for the price. It's nice to see Motorola make water-resistant hardware, but I wish they hadn't done it with this fussy glass design. The more I look at it, the more I just don't like the style. The camera hump is an eyesore, and adding the flashy embellishments is not helping. What really kills me is the camera isn't even very good. For $400, I'd expect something noticeably better than the Moto G series, and the Moto X4 doesn't offer that. The camera is so slow I feel like I'm wrestling with the phone just to take a quick snapshot.

Motorola still has some work to do optimizing this device, too. It's a bit jerky in a way most Motorola devices aren't. I will note the fingerprint sensor is the same high quality we've come to expect from Motorola. The stock Android UI is also vastly preferable to what you get from Samsung or LG. However, Google and Moto have taken out some of the cool customizations from the standard X4. There's no Wireless Sound System and no Alexa, for instance.

The Moto X4 slots in under the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2XL on Project Fi. If you absolutely must be on Fi, this is a more cost-effective solution than the Pixel 2. Still, the Pixel 2 is way better than the Moto X4. A more effective addition to Fi would probably have been the G5 Plus, which is a better value than the X4 and has the same carrier support.

At the end of the day, I'm not mad. I'm just disappointed. This phone doesn't live up to the standards set by the last three Moto X devices. I don't even know why Motorola got our hopes up by calling this a Moto X.