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ALAN ZISMAN ON TECHNOLOGY

The best smartphone ever?      
 
By Alan Zisman
9 September, 2013


The smartphone ecosystem is ever-changing - iOS vs Android (in all its permutations) vs Blackberry vs Windows Phone et al. And I'm writing this the day before Apple's September 10 event which the rumour mill expects will see the release of two new iPhone models.

So any discussion titled 'the best smartphone' is necessarily limited. Today's 'best' model may not be tomorrow's. And I certainly haven't had the chance to try out everything available.

Moreover, what's best? Is it a question of having the fastest processor? The biggest screen? The highest resolution? The camera that can save an image with the most megapixels?

Or is it something more subtle? The way it feels? The fluidity of its operations? The ease of use?

For the past few weeks, I've been using a recently-released Motorola Moto X (model XT1058 for those who care about the fine print) connecting to the Canadian Rogers network.

It's a nice phone - but if you care about specifications it's in the middle of the pack:
  • There's a high definition screen, but it's 720p hi-def (1280x720 pixels), lower resolution than the 1080p screens on Samsung's Galaxy S4 and the HTC One
  • While most competitor's high end phones are offering bigger and bigger screens, the Moto X has a 4.7" screen
  • The CPU is based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 (1.7 GHz), a dual-core processor that's not the latest or greatest
  • It's got a plastic body, not metal like iPhones or the HTC One
  • Want a mobile phone camera with the most megapixels? Maybe Nokia's 41 megapixel monster. The Moto X's camera offers a relatively-modest 10 megapixels
  • If you're a fan of Google's Nexus series of devices - which offer a 'pure' Android experience and are the first in line for updates - this isn't one, even though Google now owns Motorola
I'd suggest though, that this is the wrong way to look at things.

Instead of piling on the specs, Motorola chose to focus on the user experience. The difference between a 720p screen and a higher resolution 1080p is subtle to the eye but makes a big difference in battery life. I think Motorola make the right call here.

It's the same with screen size - the 4.7" screen fits in a smartphone that's among the narrowest of the 'superphones' on the market - it's slimmer than my Galaxy Nexus (also with a 4.7" display) to say nothing of the phones with larger displays. That - along with the phones curved back and subtly textured plastic - makes it comfortable to hold and to use one-handed.

While the Snapdragon S4 is not the fastest CPU available, again that makes for better battery life than a faster-running, perhaps quad-core monster. And Motorola removed many tasks from the CPU - making it just one part of an 8-core system, what Motorola calls the X8. The quad-core Adreno 320 graphics processor, for instance, powers display performance (and does it very well, than you). As well, there are a couple of custom special-purpose cores: one that sits on idle all the time waiting for your voice to speak the secret command "Okay Google Now", for instance.

This approach, once again, helps battery life, as a low-powered core can be kept active waiting rather than keeping the main CPU standing by. And the multiple cores combine to give better performance than might be expected from looking at the individual components on their own. I found everything smooth and quick, with no noticeable lags.

So how's battery life? I was able to get by charging the Moto X every three days or so, compared to the every second day charging I do with my Galaxy Nexus. (Motorola claims ' 24 hours active use'; Ars Technica reported getting about 9 and a half hours of life leaving the phone continuously running a video clip, which was a pretty good length of time).

Motorola replaced the stock Android camera software for the Moto X's 10 megapixel camera. The camera can be activated from the lock screen or by rotating the phone twice (a gesture I never quite got the hang of). In the camera app, you can tap anywhere on screen to take the picture. Swiping to the right brings up the settings, swipe to the left for the Gallery of photos.

Motorola boasts that the camera includes an extra pixel - Motorola calls it Clear Pixel - to give it faster shutter speed in daylight for less motion blur.

The resulting photos do look quite clear, at least the ones taken outdoors in good sunlight. Low-light photos (which Motorola claims should also be improved with Clear Pixel) were not so good - it can shoot in lower light than some other phones, but the pictures are grainy.

As we saw with the camera software, the Moto X isn't running stock Android. It's not a Nexus-series phone. In fact, it ships with Android 4.2.2 even though version 4.3 has been out for a little while (with updates arriving for my two Nexus devices in reasonably timely manner). Compared to phones from, say, Samsung or HTC - both with custom overlays on top of Android - the Moto X has a pretty clean Android version.

This is a good thing - the various proprietary replacements for Android features are not necessarily improvements, and many of the cool-sounding add-ins (Samsung, I'm talking to you) are buggy and not something I want to use over time.

Motorola's additions are relatively minor and generally useful. Pull the Moto X out of your pocket and it instantly wakes up (another of those battery-sipping custom cores at work) and displays the time. How often do you pull out your phone to check the time? Not having to press a button for this is nicer than you might think!

Along with the time, it displays any notifications you've enabled: email received, for instance. Motorola calls this Active Notifications. You do have to go to the standard Android unlock screen in order to actually interact with a notification, however.

Active Notifications can be easily customized, something every user should do: for instance, you might not want to display notifications between, say, 11 pm and 6 am. Choose what programs' notifications will be displayed.

(There are third-party Android apps promising to provide 'Active Notifications' on other phones. They work - but not so well, lacking the Moto X's custom processor).

The other special processor is for voice - another of the Moto X's 'touchless controls'. You train it to recognize your voice and style of speaking the phrase 'Okay Google Now' - afterwards - even from standby - that turns on (surprise!) Google Now, which can respond to voice or typed requests. (If your phone requires a passcode to remove the lock screen - and it should! - you'll need to enter the code before Google Now will process your request).

I've never really gotten into using Google Now, and the Moto X hasn't changed that - but if it's your personal genie, you'll enjoy how Motorola has made it even more accessible.

Motorola Assist can be configured to give the phone different settings for different situations - at night or when driving, for instance. (The phone will use its GPS to know when you're in motion). You might set it to read text messages aloud when you're behind the wheel, for instance. Or to use the Calendar to know when you're busy in a meeting - and to only disturb you for emergencies.

An optional Motorola Migrate tool can be used to bring text messages, call history, media files, and other settings over from another Android phone. It worked flawlessly with my Galaxy Nexus.

At its August release, it was noted that the Moto X is assembled in North America - at a plant in Texas (ironically originally built for Nokia) - and that users can customize the case colours (with 252 colour combinations), get a short message engraved on the phone, and even order one with a wooden case. All with delivery within 48 hours.

Sounds great. The catch is that this is only available to US-based customers using AT&T. Customers of other US mobile providers - many of which offer the Moto X - are out of the loop on these customization options. In Canada - where the Moto X is exclusive to the Rogers network - are similarly out of luck. (AT&T customers are also the only ones able to get a Moto X with 32 GB of storage - everyone else gets 16 GB).

Rogers is offering the Moto X - in black or white - for $170 on a 2-year plan or for $550 on a monthly basis.

Android superstar Samsung has tended to make each generation of its flagship phones do more. Bigger screens, faster processors, more features. (Many more features). At times this has resulted in apps that didn't always work as advertised or were not really all that useful.

Motorola has done a good job making the Moto X do more with less.

I'm sorry to have to give it back.

update: 1 January 2014: US customers can design their own Moto X and have it delivered to them at Moto Maker - at the moment, an unlocked off-contract 16 GB model costs US$399.

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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to alan@zisman.ca are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter for notice of new blog postings.
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