Most modern smartphones can respond in a limited way to spoken questions and commands, and can alert users with words or icons when messages arrive or events occur. But you generally have to turn on the phone, or at least light up the opening lock screen, to use these features.
Some smartphones let you launch the camera for quick picture-taking without first unlocking the whole phone. But you generally have to hit the power button and then tap, or swipe, an icon that appears on the lock screen to bring up the camera, slowing you down a bit.
Now, Motorola Mobility, the faded cellphone pioneer purchased by Google last year, is about to release a flagship phone, the Moto X, that aims to make those functions easier and quicker. It does so by making the phone into a sort of sentinel, always listening for voice input, periodically displaying the time and notifications, and always waiting to turn on the camera when you twist your wrist—even while it is locked and the screen is off. And it achieves this without draining the battery.
The Moto X in turquoise.
The Moto X also detects when it is in a moving car or you are in a meeting, and it can adjust its behavior accordingly.
It’s an effort by the company’s new Google-installed management to create a premier smartphone that can compete with Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and raise Motorola’s miserable market share, which hovers around 1% globally.
I’ve been testing the Moto X, which starts at $200, for nearly a week, and I like it. In my tests, it performed as advertised, and showed strong battery life.
But I wouldn’t call the Moto X a game-changer, like the original iPhone was in 2007. That’s because, today, voice input on all phones, including this one, is still limited and sometimes frustrating, and saving a step or a second for just a couple of functions isn’t earthshaking.
Also, Motorola has diluted the impact of the Moto X by quietly launching three new models under the old Droid brand—sold only at Verizon—that have all the same new features, except customization. And one of these Droids sells for half the price of the Moto X, albeit with a somewhat smaller screen.
The Moto X goes on sale at all major U.S. carriers in late August or early September, though only AT&T customers will get the customization options at first and T-Mobile customers will only be able to buy it online.
The new flagship phone doesn’t sport a superfast processor, or even the very latest version of Google’s Android operating system. It isn’t meant to compete with Samsung for the hearts of people who buy phones based mostly on hardware specs. It has a 4.7-inch screen encased in a curved plastic body that feels smaller and better in the hand than the 4.7-inch HTC One.
The Moto X acts as a kind of sentry, listening for voice-input commands and answering with a customized message, even when it is locked and the screen is off.
The Moto X responds even when it is locked and the screen is off.
And, blessedly, unlike Samsung, Motorola didn’t pack the phone with a zillion confusing add-on apps. Out of the box, it presents a mostly clean version of Android.
I found the screen vivid and pleasing, calls clear and reliable, and downstream data speeds on Verizon and AT&T averaged about 12 megabits per second.
Motorola claims the phone can get 24 hours of battery life on a single charge. I didn’t perform a formal test, but, in moderate use, making calls, streaming audio and video, doing email, texting and Web surfing, I was able to go well into a second day without charging every night.
Even when it’s locked and the screen is off, the phone is always listening for the magic phrase “OK, Google Now.” At that point, it triggers Google’s standard voice-controlled Google Now system, similar to Apple’s better-known Siri, but with different strengths and weaknesses. The system is unaltered on the Moto X, except for the way it’s triggered, which doesn’t require touching an icon on the screen.
In my tests, I was able to ask questions, call people, dictate texts, launch apps and do more with this “touchless” voice control. But, as on other phones, it made annoying errors. It still thought the president of Egypt was the ousted Mohammed Morsi. It couldn’t find the nearest dry cleaner. It repeatedly failed to find the hard-to-spell name of a colleague, even though I call her often.
The phone is also always waiting for certain gestures, especially a quick double-rotation of the wrist, which turns on the camera even from a blank screen. I found this feature very reliable. It made it quicker to get to the camera than on any phone I’ve tested except for some Windows Phones, which have a dedicated camera button.
And the camera interface is clean and easy to use. You can take a picture by tapping anywhere on the screen, and if you hold your finger down the phone keeps taking pictures rapidly. Alas, I found the quality of the photos good, but not better than identical shots taken with the iPhone 5, even though the X has more megapixels.
The screen turns off when the phone is placed face down or in a pocket. The phone also detects that you are in a meeting if you are using Google Calendar. You can set it so that during such meetings, it won’t ring unless it’s a designated important caller or any caller who phones twice in five minutes.
A feature called Active Display periodically pulses a view of the time and of notification icons, even when the screen is off. It lets you touch a notification to peek at some of its contents. It automatically comes on when you pick it up, but I found it difficult to trigger this display when holding the phone in my hands.
In the car, I had mixed results. The Moto X detected when the car was moving but didn’t beep or signal that it had entered driving mode (a passenger can turn this option off). When in driving mode, it doesn’t turn off unsafe features or automatically ask if you want directions. It does read your texts, announce who’s calling and automatically send back texts that say you’re driving.
The Moto X is an innovative phone, not a revolutionary one. But it may point toward a more revolutionary future.