Google's Moto X hugs middle of the road

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The screen on Motorola's new Moto X smartphone doesn't have the highest resolution. Storage capacity is limited and the processor isn't the most potent. It doesn't even run the latest version of the Android operating system.

But the Moto X, the first flagship phone from Motorola since Google bought the company, still manages to stand out from the flood of Android devices. It's smart, sensible and accessible in a way that many more tricked-out competitors aren't.

Unlike, say, Samsung (005930)'s Galaxy S4, which seems to cram in as many whizzy features as possible, the Moto X focuses on a couple of key areas that non-techno-geek users will appreciate. In fact, almost everything about it proclaims "middle of the road."

Physically, it falls between Samsung's behemoths and Apple's more compact iPhone 5. Its display measures 4.7 inches diagonally, but thin side bezels mean it's only 2.6 inches across, still narrow enough to fit comfortably in the hand. The 1280-by-720 resolution gives it a similar pixel count to the iPhone's Retina display, but well short of the Galaxy S4 and Sony's Xperia Z.

Pleasingly solid

The body, plastic but pleasingly solid, will be available at launch in black or white. AT&T (T) will also begin taking orders for customized versions in various colors and materials, even wood. Motorola says the customized phones, which will eventually be offered by other carriers as well, will be assembled at its new facility in Texas and shipped to U.S. customers within four days.

The monochrome versions will be available for the Verizon (VZ), Sprint (S), T-Mobile (TMUS)and U.S. Cellular (USM) networks. I tried out the Verizon and AT&T models, both of which run over the carriers' respective 4G LTE data networks, the fastest around.

Setup was similar to most Android phones, with one notable exception: a feature called Touchless Control that's turned off by default but, once enabled, uses a low-power sensor that remains in a listening mode even when the screen is dark.

To use it, I first trained the software to recognize my voice. Then, I could activate the phone simply by speaking the words "OK Google Now" to summon the slightly creepy but potent personal-assistant app that's Android's answer to Apple (AAPL)'s Siri.

Listening in

I found it generally worked well, consistently awakening at the sound of my voice to provide directions, sports and weather reports and the like. The only downside: Setting a PIN or password, a very good thing that not enough people do, negates the "touchless" aspect.

I had somewhat less luck with another unusual feature, the app that controls the Moto X's 10.1-megapixel camera. The idea is terrific: Even if the phone is asleep or locked, two quick twists of your wrist activate the camera. Touching anywhere on the screen snaps a photo, while keeping your finger on the screen shoots a series.

When it worked, I was able to fire off pictures much faster than I could on other phones. But it didn't always work, though it's unclear whether the fault was with the phone or with my wrist-twisting technique.

There are a number of other nice touches. Pick up the Moto X and a feature called Active Display will briefly display the time and notifications of recent messages. The Motorola Assist app can detect when you're driving, read incoming texts and send an automatic response.

And while I didn't conduct a complete battery test, the phone easily cruised through a full day; Motorola claims up to 24 hours of "mixed usage."

Limited storage

MotoGoogle also provides a generous 50 gigabytes of cloud storage beyond the 15 GB that comes standard from Google. (GOOG) That's particularly important because of the Moto X's limited capacity.

At least initially, most carriers will have a single model, with 16 gigabytes of storage for $200 on a two-year contract. The exception is AT&T, which will also offer a 32 GB model for $250. Unlike competitors, there's no 64 GB option.

The Moto X runs the next-to-newest version of Google's Android operating system, and Motorola has mercifully opted not to layer on its own proprietary interface as many other manufacturers do.

That gives the phone something like the clean look and feel of the "Google Play Editions" of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC (2498) One that the company sells directly to consumers. The only blemish is the presence of pre-installed, proprietary apps from Motorola's carrier partners that can't be removed, only disabled.

Overall, the Moto X is a solid choice for users who aren't so much focused on their phone's specs as they are on how well it works. Google and Motorola show signs of grasping what Apple has long understood: The most important thing isn't the device, it's the person using it.

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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