Moto X – The underwhelming cure that Apple may have been looking for

I have written two previous articles on the Moto X: One wondering whether the Moto X was being overhyped and would underwhelm the market. The other speculating the the Moto X may usher in a new generation of Context-Aware computing. Motorola Mobility CEO Dennis Woodside did mention that the Moto X would be “contextually aware” at the D11 Conference last May. Watching the launch and looking over several initial impressions, it looks like the Moto X may have been hyped a bit too much.


Still you do have some high points. The Moto X is a 4.7-inch handset in a really narrow case. The Moto X is, impressively, 2.6 mm narrower than the 4.65-inch Google Galaxy Nexus, and 2.9 mm narrower than the 4.7-inch HTC One. The display is a 720p display, and not the 1080p unit you see on Android flagship smartphones today. I myself, am not sold on the need for 1080p displays on devices with 5-inch or smaller screens. But each person really has to decide for themselves if 1080p on a smartphone is a must have. I have a full 16 MP picture comparing a Samsung Galaxy S III and Galaxy S 4 at this link so you can decide for yourself.

The Moto X has a dual core Krait processor, and not the quad core processor you see on the top of the line Android today. A dual core Krait is powerful enough to run pretty much any application you would want to use on a smartphone. A more powerful quad core is at this point really just more for future proofing.

All in all, the hardware looks good enough, but the US$575 retail price for the 16GB model, and the US$630 sticker price for the 32GB model, will really make one take pause. On contract, the Moto X is equally expensive, at US$199. It is mid-level hardware at a premium price.

The Moto X does have two more processors, a contextual computing processor and a natural language processor. For some, these two additional processors might be worth the premium price.

Contextual computing processor. Right now, it looks like all that the contextual computing processor does is to monitor for touch input or gestures when the phone is asleep (like the BlackBerry Z10) and allow notifications to be displayed on the screen, without waking the phone. If the Moto X is face down and you turn it over, the phone will display alerts and other information for a few seconds. A power-efficient way to display notifications falls short of the concept of Contextually Aware computing.

According to Motorola, studies show that we wake our phones sixty times a day to check for notifications. By not having to wake the phone to check notifications, you can reduce drain and extend battery life. This is true if after viewing the notification you simply dismiss it or leave it for action later. If you act on the notification, like responding to an SMS or email, you will have to wake the phone up anyway. Given that the top of the line smartphones can now operate for 8 to 10 hours with their display on, sixty short 30-second notification checks might amount to about 5% saving in battery life. Less, if you tend to act on most of the notifications that you get. Not something I would get all excited about. But with sensors being able to run with low power consumption, this does open up a lot of room for other apps to take more advantage of this technology.

Natural language processor. Having a phone being able to react to voice commands, without need of touching the phone is nothing new. The Samsung Galaxy S III came out with this feature last year. Before that, the Android Vlingo app could do this on virtually any Android phone. The innovation here is a dedicated processor which allows the phone to monitor for voice commands, with a low power draw. I really do not like the idea of the phone monitoring everything I say, 24/7. I would appreciate more a “Car Mode” where the phone would monitor for voice commands, and would read SMS and email aloud.

Overall, I like Motorola’s new offering, but the ability to display notifications while asleep and the always-on voice control, are not things I appreciate. Motorola has said it will be offering a lower cost version of the Moto X. Hopefully, it will be the same phone, minus the contextual computing and natural language processors. Such an offering could have a more enticing sticker price. Maybe it could be called the Moto X minus. Motorola has also said there will be a Google Play Edition of this phone. A Vanilla Android version of a Moto X will not have any use for contextual computing and natural language processors, unless the next version of Android puts these technologies to use. Maybe we can expect the  Motorola X Google Edition to carry a lower sticker price as well.

Motorola has launched an interesting phone. Instead of being at the cutting edge of smartphone technology though, it tries to sell the concept of “good enough.” The Moto X is an interesting device, but it is no game changer. Well, that is what I think, or at least what I think the market in general will think. The Moto X underwhelms, when you put it beside its US$575 asking price. Samsung Engineers can sleep soundly tonight. In the end, if the Moto X sells well, I think that might be more attributable to the “Built and Designed in the USA” label that the phone carries, more than any technology incorporated on the Moto X phone itself.

The Moto X caters to a niche which I am not sure exists.  Personally, I was sold on the Moto X when I found out that it has a 4.7-inch display mated to a relatively small, 129.3 x 65.3 x 5.6~10.4 mm case. In my book, putting a larger display in such a handy package might just justify its high price tag. I just don’t think my math, will tally with most other peoples’ math.

If the Moto X succeeds, it could send a rather unwelcome message to the Android world. More controversial than the hardware, is the message Motorola is sending with the Moto X. A message which might not be too healthy for the Google hardware ecosystem. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Motorola, with the Moto X is saying that all that fancy new technology like 1080p displays, large displays and quad core processors, that have pushed Android to an 80% market share last quarter is all unnecessary. Current Androids are large, ungainly phones which are full of useless battery draining technology. Ironically, that is what Apple has been saying for the past three years. Now, Motorola seems to agree with them. Given that Motorola is a Google company, if I were Huawei, HTC, LG, Samsung, Sony or ZTE, I would feel like I was sucker punched by Google just about now.

The focus on always-on voice control, “confirms” that Apple had it right from the start. Siri is truly the new next step in smartphone technology evolution.

“I don’t believe that your phone should be an assistant x x x Your phone is a tool for communicating. You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone; you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone.” — Andy Rubin, former Senior Vice-President for Mobile and Digital Content at Google, October 2011

Apple should really be happy with the Moto X. If the Moto X message takes root, it gives Apple some low-hanging fruit to target with its iPhone 5S.