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Moto X: Motorola’s statement that top-end Android handsets have got it wrong

Gordon Kelly

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Moto X: Motorola’s statement that top-end Android handsets have got it wrong

Google used Motorola to make an announcement last night: premium Android handsets are getting it wrong. The message was delivered via the Moto X, a smartphone the two companies have been working on since Google bought Motorola for $12bn nearly two years ago. What are they getting is wrong? Apparently just about everything.

The slogan for the Moto X says it all: "Made for you, responds to you, designed by you". It may sound like a Christmas perfume ad, but the key message to customers is ‘we understand you better than they do’. The result is a handset that shuns the key specifications of virtually every 2013 premium Android smartphone: 5-inch display, 1080p screen resolution, quad-core processor, 12-megapixel camera (or greater), expandable storage and sub 10mm thickness.

Furthermore, following numerous leaks that gave the hardware elements away, the biggest shock of the night turned out to be the Moto X’s price: $199 with a two year contract. This is the same bracket as the Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z and HTC One. Contract-free prices weren’t much better: 16GB - $575 (£380); 32GB - $630 (£415) with the latter price again putting it within touching distance of these handsets once tax is added.

Initial impressions would suggest Google and Motorola are not only the ones who misunderstand their audience, but that they have both lost the plot.

Brains not brawn

Moto XBut perhaps they haven’t. Techies may find this a shock, but the Moto X primarily bins what the mainstream consumer could not care less about. Instead it preaches terminology that may well appeal to a very wide audience: accessibility, design, camera quality, one handed use, real world performance and crucially… battery life. Each brings genuine differentiators:

Accessibility sees voice control made touch-free which may finally ease the stigma around its use while an ‘Active Display’ helps prioritise and give quick access to handset notifications. The Moto X is also context aware and can change mode automatically depending on your activity (such as selecting its car mode when you start driving).

Designs can be unique thanks to over 500 styling combinations. This entails two frontplate options (white or black), 18 backplate colours and seven finish options. Cleverly these individual appearances are chosen at the point of sale (via the ‘Moto Maker’ website) and come with a free two week exchange option. The inspiration? Nike’s ID shoe and Mini Cooper customisation.

Camera quality is delivered via the first ever smartphone RGBC image sensor (dubbed ‘Clear Pixel’). Motorola claims it brings 70 per cent better low light performance due to an extra set of white pixels and we’re curious to see how it stands up in testing. The Moto X can also shoot 60fps 1080p video with both the front and rear cameras, which is unusual.

One-handed use is viable since Motorola gave the Moto X the smallest footprint of any premium Android handset (129 x 63mm). This is due to a very slim bezel which makes operation less of a stretch. Motorola has also optimised the camera app to shoot burst photography and zoom in and out with just one finger, which is clever.

Real world performance may well patch up some of losses the Moto X’s dual-core processor suffers in artificial benchmarks against quad core (and greater) rivals. This is because Motorola has equipped the handset with ‘the X8 Mobile Computing System’ which is made up of eight ultra low power cores that specialise in doing the heavy lifting for typically resource intensive software functionality such as motion sensing and voice recognition. It still won’t beat other flagship Android handsets in the latest games (despite an Adreno 320 GPU), but everything else should feel snappy and potentially even smoother given its minimum skinning.

Finally the biggie: battery life is claimed to last up to 24 hours with standard usage. That’s 50 to 100 per cent more than the competition manages. This is due to the compromises of a smaller screen size, lower resolution and the drop from a quad to dual core processor, the X8 system and those extra few millimetres not shaved off its width to squeeze in a layered battery. Interestingly battery life may be enough to win over heavy users who tend to be attracted to high end handsets. After all a still functioning phone is better than any flat one.

Give it more Google

Moto X constructionAnd yet the Moto X does have some significant weaknesses and they come from the most unlikely source: the surprising lack of synergy between Motorola and Google.

For a start the Moto X will not ship with the current version of Android and is not guaranteed to receive prompt updates to future releases. This seems unthinkable for a handset Google has been so heavily involved in shaping and for a company run by a CEO and product head it installed from its own staff.

Surprisingly Google has also let Motorola customise stock Android. Even more surprisingly it appears the genuinely impressive functionality Motorola has added is being developed independently of Android 5.0. This includes exciting glimpses of future proximity based screen unlock technology from a chip in your pocket to even a pill you swallow and Motorola’s already available Chrome-based browser extensions which bring call and text message alerts from your phone to your laptop.

But the biggest concern remains the Moto X’s RRPs. Google’s track record with the Nexus range meant it was widely predicted the Moto X would give us all its goodies while hitting Nexus 4-like bargain pricing to suck in a wider market. As it is even mainstream consumers will have to learn to look past the headline features the Moto X lacks and we feel it would’ve been a far stronger proposition fighting midrange rather than flagship Android handsets.

Lastly the sales strategy is extremely atypical of Google with Motorola confirming there will be no international launch for the Moto X and it will be sold solely in the US with customisation options initially limited to AT&T. This will kill a lot of buzz for the phone and seems a strange tactic given Europe is Android’s most successful hunting ground.

The pros of the Moto X are genuinely differential and disruptive, but its cons feel like basic failings by Motorola and Google to properly leverage their relationship and target the right price bracket. As such it seems the Moto X has as much to learn from the existing smartphone market as it has to teach.

CodeMonkey

August 2, 2013, 8:03 pm

This could have been the phone to pull me back to Motorola..

Perfect size for one handed use, good quality construction, context aware..

And then they blew it with USA only.

Gordon Kelly

August 3, 2013, 2:58 pm

And in the pricing.

CodeMonkey

August 3, 2013, 3:05 pm

I always thought the rumours about pricing were based on unrealistic expectations and misunderstanding about the importance of specifications for the average consumer.
I use my phone more than any other device I own - essentially as the master control unit for my entire network as well the central repository for my digital life. It's therefore fairly reasonable for me to spend more on it.

Gordon Kelly

August 3, 2013, 3:13 pm

I agree, but not a lot of people *can* afford to spend a lot on their phone. Given the focus on apps - gaming in particular - a lower specced phone at a premium price like the Moto X may struggle to show much longevity.

For me the shame is the Moto X could've set a new standard for the midrange sector that, by definition, had major knock-on benefits for the premium sector. I don't see it having that scale of impact at the price it has.

CodeMonkey

August 3, 2013, 3:19 pm

That's true Gordon - I'm not sure *I* can afford to either (but I still do, mostly by economising on other expenditure eg. buying laptops sold off at the end of their stock period that meet my needs rather than the latest and greatest, etc.).
I suspect as the smartphone market reaches saturation point OEMs will be forced to adjust their price points.
I'm not personally a fan of Apple's sales model, but I believe that their move to introduce a 'cheaper' iPhone will force a market shift to more reasonable prices for phones that are not 'bleeding edge'. This could well be enforced if the rumours about Key Lime Pie lowering minimum specification requirements come true.

alex mason

August 4, 2013, 2:59 pm

Nice looking phone but just too expensive considering the specs, even though we are told to look past the raw numbers.

But I'd like to actually just mention something that I think is a problem here. Its not a catch 22 thing, but it is a circular problem almost. We have very powerful CPUs, as a consequence programmers can develop something that works well enough, quickly, but it may, for instance, be a little sluggish at times. Then more powerful CPUs arrive, and DRAM becomes cheaper still. Now Mr. Programmers program runs really well! and he moves on to the next big app. I think we're in a situation where demand for apps and more CPU power is basically allowing us to be lazy at programming. But the lazy programming then necessitates needing more CPU power.

Back in the days when computers had a couple of MHz processors, 8-bit, 16-bit processors and bytes or kbytes of RAM, programmers had to work hard to make things work. An old lecturer told me of time when he had 64kb memory total. As in this was space to be used for whatever OS was being used as well as the program you wanted to run! Things we take for granted like overlapping windows, was once thought impossible on hardware at the time. However, some guy at apple managed to do it because of what he thought he saw and he can't have had anything more powerful than a pocket calculator on which to do it.

We see as well, with the current crop of consoles. The PS3 and XBOX 360 have been around for 7 years. They are expected to hang around for a decade. The hardware, by todays standard is bordering on antique. Yet, just look at games like the last of us, GT6 and Forza. Absolutely stunning. They've had to work exceptionally hard with optimising the programming to achieve that.

If we had that kind of thing for smart phones we wouldn't need 8 cored processors running at speeds that would be common in your PC at home and consequently I doubt we'd be measuring our battery life in single digit hours either.

It is difficult though as Android (especially) has many makers and many different phones of large variance in performance. Even apple now have a decent range of performance to cater for, but their pool is much smaller and consequently their older phones feel less old. In short, I think tech moves too fast for its own good sometimes.

Gordon Kelly

August 4, 2013, 10:19 pm

You mention it yourself - this is all about optimisation. It is what makes consoles such a success: developers have to work within their means. Look at the first games on the Xbox 360 and PS3 to now... and yet the hardware has stayed the same. Had they been upgradeable, I don't think anyone believes the same advances in coding optimisation would have been made.

The problem is not just lazy programmers though, phones themselves get clogged up quickly - even faster than a PC. It is good to restore them every 6 months and it is like having a new phone.

The problem is specifications are a battlefield so the handset makers are not prepared to sit still and work on things like battery life as they don't want to fall behind. The Moto X will be an interesting experiment to see whether people will say 'phones are fast enough' and appreciate the Moto X for its other improvements.

It will also be intriguing to see if Android 5.0 is further optimised. For me Android 4.3 runs much more quickly than Android 4.2.2 and brings much better battery life to my Nexus 4. Let's hope it is a sign of things to come...

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