November 30, 2013

My Friend, the Moto X

We all form relationships with our technology. I’d like to talk about my experience with the Moto X, but this is perhaps less of a review than it is a case study in finding a new smartphone in the post-spec era.

It’s a vision of the changing landscape of personal companion devices; how we buy them, how companies sell them to us, and how we expect to interact with them.

It’s also the story of how the market’s most unassuming new phone got me to switch to Android the same day the new iPhone generation became available.

The Spec Wars Are Over and Everybody Lost

We’re finally entering the era where spec sheets don’t sell smartphones.

It’s a good place to be. Priorities will have to shift from including every new widget to pushing technology toward a future focused on the user experience.

After all, if your priority is to add new gimmicks on a fresh flagship every six months, then where does that leave your average consumer? Their thrill at owning the best of the best will fade quickly when your efforts to make this year’s flagship scroll when you nod at it overtake your ability to provide timely updates to older models.

I may love to know what makes these things tick, but for the majority of consumers it’s creating a state of panic where they’re overwhelmed by the choices presented to them, unable to translate the technobabble into practical benefits in their day-to-day lives.

Bowing to peer pressure or heavy-handed sales tactics, they walk out of a store with a head full of strange terms and a phone that may not actually be the best fit for their needs. A phone they’re stuck with for one or more years.

Don’t get me wrong: spec sheet considerations are important ones for the manufacturers to keep in mind, but should they really be the driving force behind their sales efforts?

Selling Smartphones

If you’re like me, the old way was confusing. Watching elaborate keynotes focusing on the components was a celebration of missing the forest for the trees.

Are you selling me a phone or a sack of parts? The way those components come together is what interests me as a consumer, and even as a technology enthusiast.

Instead of asking:

  1. How much screen real estate can we get away with?
  2. How do we power 4 cores and that screen without losing too much battery life?
  3. What are some showroom floor features that will make us stand out?
  4. How many widgets have the competition included? Can we add more?

Companies will be asking:

  1. What do our customers do most with their smartphones?
  2. Can we simplify those tasks for them?
  3. Can we personalize the experience of accomplishing those tasks, and make it delightful?
  4. Can we design our device to integrate smoothly, invisibly, inevitably into their lives?

For the longest time, it seemed like Apple was the only major brand that was willing to position their sales pitch according to consumer perspective. Their commercials have always focused on the user experience rather than spec squabbles.

After all, the new iPhone 5S flagship still has only” 1GB of RAM, yet manages to provide twice the touchscreen responsiveness of its Android competitors under load.

Interestingly, Nokia has also been commendable in this area. Their Trial a Nokia program has not only been successful, but it’s also a refreshingly different approach that allows the product to speak for itself.

It’s a simple method, but it works—I bought and recommended two Lumia devices after a trial.

The Arrival of iOS 7

As a long-time iOS user, I appreciate details designed to reduce friction in my device usage: Do Not Disturb mode, Siri’s new capabilities, Passbook, etc. Simple things that lessen the time I spend babysitting my smartphone or fiddling with it to accomplish a task.

Yet there’s always been a sense of sluggishness about iOS progress, made all the more frustrating by the wealth of potential improvement demonstrated by the jailbreak scene.

Rather than assuage these concerns, iOS 7 worsened them for me. We finally have a control centre for easy settings switches (non-customizable), but there’s still no quick reply for messages. Siri gained the ability to search Twitter, but lost the ability to search Google by default. Messages will now show you a timestamp, but you still can’t leave a group iMessage thread.

It seems that for every new benefit, there’s a drawback.

Then there are the downright bad decisions: animations that no longer correspond to gestures on an iPad, keyboard text that still remains inexplicably displayed in uppercase even when you’re writing in lowercase…these problems compromise the user experience in tangible ways.

The Balance of Trust

As I watched the keynote where the iPhone 5S and 5C were announced, I realized what it all comes down to: trust.

I’ve trusted Apple with years of my smartphone experience, and I continue to believe they will improve upon what they’ve created, but it’s become clear that they won’t share their innovations in a timely manner.

I’ve been using Android for a long time, but never really as a daily driver. I didn’t feel like I could rely on it to provide the consistency, stability, and aesthetic experience I wanted.

This year, the balance of trust was reversed: Android is no longer fragmented, and for someone like me who’s familiar enough with technology to be untroubled by the risks of using a system unprotected by a virtual police force, the benefits outweigh the downsides.

But it wasn’t until I first laid my hands on a Moto X that I knew it was time to make the switch. Sure, it’s new phone season so everyone’s switching in one direction or another, but why this phone in particular?

Hello Moto

The Moto X is friendly.

Its confluence of attributes changes the relationship its users form with the device.

A word that comes to mind immediately when describing the Moto X is helpful’. It feels as though the device was designed not to draw attention to itself and distract you, but to blend into your lifestyle and provide assistance as best it can.

After purchasing Motorola, Google set out to make use of their vast data insight to design a phone around what people actually want instead of what would endear them to every benchmark blog.

They went back to the basics: how big are people’s hands, on average? What form factor provides the maximum comfort and utility? How do you create a phone that looks and feels truly personalized? What functionality is going to delight owners while providing legitimate utility?

Then, unlike Samsung’s garish and bewildering keynotes or Apple’s sprawling events, Google privately invited the press to meet the fruits of their labour—without any live-streaming, concerts, or other distractions.

It was quiet, dignified, and relevant: just Motorola representatives speaking to small groups of press members, showing them a new phone, answering questions, and allowing the product to speak for itself.

Now, several weeks later, on my desk lies the result of this effort: the Moto X.

As much as I love the iPhone design, and admire the HTC One, the Moto X just feels better in the hand than either of them. The screen size is perfect—compact, but not cramped—and the build quality is surprisingly robust.

This is simply a beautiful phone.

At Your Service

Not until the Moto X has there been a smartphone that is different in a way that makes it feel like a true companion: attentive, loyal, and helpful. A lot of this is thanks to Touchless Control.

The novelty of Touchless Control isn’t really the functionality: it’s the personalization. Use anyone else’s iPhone and Siri will respond to you just as readily as to your friend—but not the Moto X. The simple fact that it only responds to my commands transforms the relationship.

As I write this, my girlfriend has just put some food into the oven.

Can you set a timer for ten minutes?” she asks me.

Yes, I can. Okay, Google Now: set a timer for ten minutes.”

The alarm is set, and I haven’t had to stop typing, let alone pick up a phone and activate voice commands—or worse, find the alarm app and set it manually. In situations like this, where Touchless Control works, it works really well.

It’s amazing how the simple fact of not having to physically activate voice commands makes you much more likely to use them.

It also helps that Google has been improving the conversational abilities of Google Now, allowing you to ask follow-up questions and obtain more kinds of information.

Everything from getting directions, to learning something new, to making calls and answering messages becomes effortless. And the voice recognition itself is nearly flawless, with few misinterpretations.

Out of Touch

Unfortunately, the entire system is still a bit of a work-in-progress.

The concept of not having to touch your phone at all is a promise that’s only partly fulfilled: if you have any sort of security set up on your lockscreen (which you should), then you’ll be asked to unlock before your request is processed. This doesn’t apply to phone calls, but it applies to many of the other functions you’ll perform.

I suspect that this was a lengthy conversation during development. It may be tempting to allow Touchless Control to bypass any lockscreen security (after all, it only responds to your voice), but on the other hand, if someone mimics your voice, they could get your phone unlocked with very little effort.

Motorola has opted for better security, which isn’t a bad call, but it does make for a frustrating dilemma on the user’s end. It will probably encourage people to disable lockscreen security in favour of using Touchless Control as intended, which is a terrible outcome—one that lies in stark opposition to what Apple’s Touch ID has done.

If only you could set a custom activation phrase, then at least your thief would have to mimic your voice and know what to say.

As it stands, the best-of-both-worlds solution is to have the phone paired with a Bluetooth device (headset, smartwatch, etc.) which is set as a trusted device’, so that lockscreen security is turned off while connected.

A further frustration is that common tasks like setting a reminder require a tap to confirm—the confirmation is great, but the fact that it has to be done via touch rather than a vocal prompt is silly and counter-intuitive.

There are several other deficiencies with Touchless Control, like the inability to quickly find someone who shares their location with you via Google+. This is a handy addition to iOS7, allowing Siri to answer the question Where is ___?” Even relatively simple things like having your last message read to you cannot currently be accomplished.

For me, the greatest issue is that the contextual conversation skills that Google Now has acquired for searching have not yet come to its tasks.

You can easily create a new note called Groceries’, but you cannot make a follow-up request to add bread’ to that note.

It would also be great if at least some of the commands could be parsed locally, to allow for basic usage while not connected to a network.

Some of these issues are more easily addressed than others, and most are nit-picky, but the Moto X does so much right that any areas where it does inconvenience you stick out sorely.

Active Notifications

Calling the Moto X helpful extends beyond the ways it helps me accomplish tasks when I’m using it. It’s also useful in situations where I don’t want to be distracted by my phone.

Active Notifications are Motorola’s answer to the notification LED on other phones. While those are great for their subtlety, they’re not necessarily less obtrusive than a standard notification. An LED can tell me that I have a new email, but not whether that email requires my immediate attention or not.

With Active Notifications, I am alerted to a new email just as subtly, but the notification is actionable; I can see who it’s from, decide if I need to do something about it now, and return to my work without having to unlock my phone.

Thanks to the AMOLED screen, the battery life is barely impacted. And since I can routinely reach 24 hours of normal use between charges with this phone, I no longer have to bring a charger with me wherever I go.

Nearly Naked

Unlike most OEMs, Motorola has resisted the urge to tack on all sorts of bloatware. With the Moto X you’re getting a very clean rendition of Android, one that is very nearly stock. Even the widget that appears on Motorola’s own Droid phones is absent.

The first of two Motorola apps that do exist is called Moto Care, and I actually like it. Besides offering some suggestions for how to optimize settings based on your usage of the phone, Moto Care ensures that you’re only ever one tap away from Motorola’s phone support, as well as a collection of tutorials and how-tos.

Likewise, the Motorola Assist features have become indispensable. The three contexts: Meeting, Sleep, and Driving, are all configurable and can be individually enabled or disabled.

Sleep works identically to Do Not Disturb in iOS, Driving mode can read you incoming messages, and Meeting peeks into your calendar to see when you have an appointment, silencing alerts for you. The latter two modes can also optionally send auto-replies to incoming messages.

The one downside is that Meeting mode has a very specific set of criteria for when it activates, and you can’t change them. You need to have an event where you’ve not only set your availability to busy’, but also have at least one other confirmed attendee—the latter restriction makes it less useful than it could be.

Up here in Canada, we don’t get access to the custom hardware designs—just black or white—but we also seem to have less carrier bloat: my Rogers variant has no network logo on the hardware, no carrier apps…in fact, if it weren’t for the network being displayed prominently (and hideously) in the notification bar at all times, you’d never know this was a Rogers phone.

Phonecalls, Photos, and More

Lest we forget, Motorola has been in the mobile phone business since 1973, so it knows a thing or two about crafting a good calling experience. Needless to say, the Moto X makes for a fantastic phone.

Calls sound clear and loud thanks to HD Voice compatibility (on Rogers, Bell, Telus, and Wind here in Canada), with excellent noise cancellation and a stable signal. I experienced no dropped calls and extraordinary mobile data speeds on both LTE and HSPA+ in the Greater Toronto Area.

Unlike many other reviewers, I’ve had no problems with the camera. It’s no Lumia, but the Moto X provides excellent shots for a smartphone, and they’re improving thanks to OTA updates that optimize the camera software further.

The video recording features even include the same cool slow-motion mode that the new iPhones are touting, though the Moto X’s play back at an awful 15fps instead of 30 for some inexplicable reason. Something else to be remedied by an update, I hope.


In the end, the list of good and bad applies to any phone, any operating system. But whereas on iOS I’m stuck waiting for Apple to allow new features or its jailbreak crew to hack them together, on Android at least I have the flexibility to address any shortcomings immediately.

Being a technology journalist, I will always be using phones of all sorts, running many operating systems. But for now, I’m giving Android a fair try, and I’m glad to have the Moto X as my companion.

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