Google's Moto X smartphone: Big ideas, modest execution

Google's Moto X smartphone: Big ideas, modest execution
Photo provided by CNN/Motorolla

POSTED: Friday, August 2, 2013 - 4:00am

UPDATED: Friday, August 2, 2013 - 4:04am

Google's new Moto X smartphone doesn't aim to be the fastest, biggest, or prettiest smartphone. It wants to be the smartest.

The search giant on Thursday unveiled the first smartphone of its own design since it bought struggling Motorola last year. Rather than go toe-to-toe with top-of-the-line smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone, Samsung's Galaxy S4 or HTC's One, Google designed the Moto X to make clever use of sensors and language processors to stay one step ahead of you.

The Moto X is built upon a chip called the X8, which allows the smartphone to understand natural language and gives it situational awareness. It's always listening for your command, whether it is sleeping or awake. And it knows where you're using it, and how you're using it.

By calling out "OK Google Now," you can place a call, map out a destination, log a reminder, or search on Google. The special language processing chip allows the phone to constantly wait for your voice to tell it what to do -- without you having to activate the microphone. Better yet, Google says that will have no detrimental effect on battery life.

Other wizardry: The display will automatically reveal the clock when you pick up the phone or pull it out of your pocket. Place your finger on the screen, and notifications pop up for your viewing. Let go, and it goes back to the default lock screen, quickly obscuring your communications from prying eyes.

When the phone is sleeping, twisting the phone like a screwdriver will allow you to access the camera with minimal fuss.

There's also a custom app called Assist that can use the Moto X's array of sensors to detect what sort of setting the phone is in and allow you to establish a group of settings that automatically kick in during these situations. For example, you can have all text messages read aloud to you while you drive. When you exit the car, that setting turns off.

It may emphasize sensors and smarts over power, but the Moto X is no slouch. It packs a 4.7-inch, 720p high-definition screen into a body not much bigger than an iPhone. It runs a relatively clean, bloatware-free version of Android, which means it's fast, excellent and will receive updates much quicker than a phone like the Galaxy S4. It has a 10-megapixel camera. And it has a battery that promises 24 hours on a single charge under "normal" use conditions. Yes, 24 hours.

The Moto X's hardware falls somewhere between the quality craftsmanship of the HTC One, and the plastic chintz of the Galaxy S4. It's definitely nice -- it's comfortable to hold and isn't too heavy -- but it's not so nice that it's an object of marvel in and of itself.

Perhaps Google's biggest idea for the Moto X have little to do with technology: Users -- only AT&T customers, for now -- can log onto Motorola's website and customize the front, back and accent colors of the phone.

For the Moto X's target audience, a general consumer audience less concerned with pixel density and camera sensors, Google's marketing plan might actually work. The company's money-losing Motorola division doesn't need a critically acclaimed phone, it needs a commercially successful phone.

In the few hours I've had with the phone, the voice activated, contextual features were decent -- not terrible features, but for a $200 phone that was hyped as heavily as the Moto X as the solution to our smartphone problems, it was hard to not expect a little more.

The Moto X goes on sale at the end of August. 

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