The Moto X is a different kind of smartphone, although it's hard to say why. It has most everything you might want from a top-of-the-line Android or iPhone, packaged in an attractive body with impressive hardware.
True, you'll be able to design it yourself, choosing colors and configurations in a way that no other smartphone maker has offered before. But that's not what makes the phone really different.
There's something about the Moto X approach that belies the hip and hype that comes with the newest devices. The Moto X is kind of an anti-Android while also serving as a foil to the iPhone.
Why? A unique combination of software and hardware integration, a simple approach to design and functionality and the power of Google Now. It all combines to make a smartphone that's, well … comfortable, for lack of a better word.
(See also: 10 Things You Need To Know About The Moto X)
“Comfortable,” of course, isn't the type of word you expect someone to use when showing off their new smartphone. The Moto X lacks the glitz and glamour of a Samsung Galaxy S4 or the design polish of an HTC One. It isn't gargantuan like a Galaxy Note II or an LG Optimus G. It just has all the functions you want while remaining an unassuming part of your life.
No Gimmicks, Just Functionality
The smartphone industry loves it some specs. How fast is that processor? How many cores does that processor have? Megapixels? We got them by the dozens.
Then there are the gimmicks.
Name a gimmick and some smartphone manufacturer has put it through its paces. Control the device with a wave of the hand? Sure, Samsung says with the Galaxy S4. A newsreader built right into your homescreen? HTC One brings you Blink Feed. A stylus that fits right into the body of the device? Samsung again, with the Galaxy Note line. A really, really big camera shoehorned into a smartphone body? Thank you, Nokia Lumia 1020. A heavily marketed “personal assistant” that sometimes says weird stuff? Hello, Siri.
Gimmick features and raw hardware specs are important to smartphone makers. Cameras sell smartphones. Interesting software sells smartphones. Apps sell smartphones. As any recent Apple or Samsung commercial demonstrates, these features are what the companies are pushing.
Eventually, of course, some features that started as marketing gimmicks can turn into useful functions. But a lot of times these features are oversold. Samsung’s touchless gesture controls such as Air View, Air Gesture, Smart Scroll and Smart Stay only work some of the time and usually not with the app you want to use them for. When Apple released Siri, it slapped a big, fat “beta” tag on her. And surprise! The mobile personal assistant proved not to be quite as powerful as Apple sold her to be.
As for hardware, well, how many consumers really understand what all these speeds and feeds mean? When companies tell us that a phone or tablet has a quad-core something or other, does anyone understand what that is? What the hell is a Gigahertz? How many milliampere-hours (mAh) does it take to keep a phone powered all day long? The only thing that most consumers will know when it comes to these types of hardware specifications is that more is supposed to be better.
My father does some professional photography, so his eyes popped when I showed him the 41-megapixel camera on the Lumia 1020 the other day. When I showed my lady friend, she said, “Is that a lot?” Hardware features mean different things to different people.
What consumers really need to know about smartphone hardware is whether a device will do what it says it's going to do. How long will the battery really last? Will it be able to run the apps I want to run without crashing or overheating? Will my pictures come out blurry or crisp and clean? Specs don't answer those questions for most consumers.
Google & Motorola Take The Road Less Traveled
Except for Apple, every major smartphone manufacturer has released at least one flagship device this year. BlackBerry kicked off the festivities in January with the launch of the BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 smartphones running the new BlackBerry 10 operating system. It was an affair at a lower Manhattan warehouse packed to the rafters with BlackBerry enthusiasts and a large cadre of reporters. Singer Alicia Keys made an onstage appearance as the company’s new creative director and spokesperson.
HTC followed with a small get together in Manhattan a couple of weeks later for the HTC One. It was in a small performing arts studio, and an HTC marketing person was on stage to wave around the phone and talk up its features. The review area was replete with acrobat types jumping over furniture—allowing, you know, people to take low-light motion pictures with the new HTC One.
Samsung was the kicker of the year. It announced the Galaxy S4 at a controversial event at Radio City Music Hall in front of thousands of people—a presentation that somehow turned into a surreal Broadway show. There was a smartphone in there somewhere, but damned if you'd know what it did after that spectacle.
In July, Nokia announced the flagship Lumia 1020 at—you guessed it—a warehouse in Manhattan. CEO Stephen Elop appeared on stage in what appeared to be some weird background screen parallax before emerging to address an audience of developer enthusiasts and Nokia supporters. At the end of the announcement, the back of the stage opened to a very large review area (one that coincidentally also employed acrobats jumping over furniture) with several stations to show off various aspects of the Lumia 1020.
Hell, even Apple had the Foo Fighters play at the end of the iPhone 5 announcement last year.
Why all this showmanship? The smartphone industry has become a game of “mine is bigger,” and these over-the-top launches are the springboards for even more over-the-top marketing campaigns.
Motorola and Google were different this time around. Compared to Motorola's earlier Droid announcement with Verizon earlier in July—to say nothing of a previous Droid event last September that featured a live band lead-in—the Moto X launch was downright sedate.
Instead of one showy event centered on a CEO-type prancing about on stage, smartphone in hand, proclaiming mobile perfection, Motorola invited reporters to a series of small briefings where they could examine the phone and talk to Motorola engineers. There was no live stream and no blow-by-blow tweets about the phone’s specs (tweeting, in fact, was expressly forbidden during the meeting). The usual fanfare of a smartphone announcement went right out the window.
The way Google and Motorola introduced the Moto X aptly mirrored the smartphone's nature itself: understated, functional, accessible. It was a distinct departure from the industry precedent established by the likes of Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG, BlackBerry and Nokia.
Now, Let's Talk About The Moto X Itself
The Moto X isn't that different from its competitors when it comes to touting hardware, the marketing of gimmicks or hyping its supposed uniqueness. Its Touchless Control for voice commands and the “contextual computing engine” that help it understand where it is and what you are doing with it are gimmicks every bit as much as Siri is for the iPhone and Air View gestures are for Samsung.
The Moto X is kind of the anti-iPhone. It runs on Google’s Android OS and thus offers all the features that make Android different from Apple’s iOS (widgets and customization and so on). At the same time, the Moto X is probably more like the iPhone than any other Android ever made.
It comes back to that weird word again … comfortable. The iPhone has always been easy to hold, easy to use. High quality industrial design and a simple-to-figure-out interface. The Moto X is like that as well, just with the power and customization inherent in Android.
There's another layer to the Moto X, though. No plain Motorola smartphone running Android would beat a stock iPhone 5 in a floor-level comparison. Motorola loses that face-off every time. Three years of sales figures bear that out.
Where the Moto X wins is the contextual computing engine and hardware integration for its natural voice engine in Touchless Control. Google calls the system X8 (which is proprietary to Google, and thus not available to other Android makers). The software that runs the Moto X's voice control is specifically tailored to work with a custom-built chip within the device. This type of hardware-software customization is not something most Android manufacturers do well.
The X8 engine behind the advanced features on the Moto X is what makes them more than just gimmicks. Google and Motorola have teamed together to make a smartphone that is relevant to how people use their phones while also giving them a taste of the next generation of mobile computing.