Moto X Pure: Redefining the Flagship

Sitting down to write this review after having spent just under two weeks with this phone, a weird tautology becomes apparent: this phone is both unremarkable and truly standout. This is a phone that, through the release of handsets like the 6P and Note 5, has been arguably overlooked as one of the phones of the year. I went into reviewing the phone having heard very little about it, and with my only preconceptions being that it would be another average big-screen flagship. These preconceptions were quickly blown out of the water.

Hardware

I’ll start with the superficial – this is the kind of phone you’d want to bring to a street fight. It’s big, it’s solid and you could do some serious damage with it. Whilst it’s big – and it is big – it’s still compact, in a way that the Nexus 6P isn’t. The middle of the phone, where the majority of the heft lies, means that you know exactly where the weight lies, making the phone handleable in a way the thin flat weight distribution of the 6P isn’t. You haven’t got to think about holding this phone. Yet, whilst being solid, the Moto X Style doesn’t feel thick all over – it tapers down to some very svelte corners, making it a phone which feels both thick and thin depending on where you hold it. The net result of this design is a very curvy phone which feels solid without feeling unwieldly. The characteristic Motorola dimple on the back of the phone makes for a great finger-rest, and whilst I laughed it off as a gimmick, I did find myself using it every time I held the phone – it’s weirdly compelling. The roundedness of the corners in the z-plane are a sharp contrast to current Android flagship design trends, and coupled with the ergonomic rounded back make this phone one of the best I’ve used in recent years in terms of call handling. Not to mention call quality – the speakers on this phone are some of the best – no, the best – I’ve ever used on a phone.
Granted, it’s no Nexus 6P or Galaxy S6 Edge Plus design-wise, but to say it’s cumbersome would be doing this device a massive disservice. It’s got a water-resistant coating, which gives nice peace of mind when walking in the rain, for example. One super nice feature of this phone is the customisability – our review unit had a really lovely thin walnut back – admittedly at first I thought that it felt like the plastic chipboard you get on school desks, but over time the premium quality of the wooden back became more and more apparent. The most common back is a soft-touch silicon backing, which comes in a variety of colours and provides grip for days. You can get a few wooden and leather variants too, including bamboo, walnut, and ebony. My walnut-backed variant certainly got attention around Edinburgh; most memorably walking past a pub, where a drunk Glaswegian guy smoking outside exclaimed to his friend: “Looek, he there gor wooed an hi’ phon”.

On the front of our white review unit, you get the brilliant (in both senses of the word) IPS LCD panel, with the  moderately thin bezel coated in the same kind of glass you get on the front of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. It retains that same lacquer-plastic feel to it, and I like that a lot. In fact, it feels so similar to the material used on the front of the iPhone, that in a blind test it was nearly impossible to tell the two apart. It feels premium.

The face of the phone is clean with two front-facing stereo speaker slots – the speakers provide a nice disruption to the smooth face of the phone and make for something tactile that you can fiddle with, an honour previously reserved for the S Pen on my previous daily driver, the Galaxy Note 3. Whilst on the subject of the speakers, these are some of the best I’ve ever heard on a phone. I’ve used HTC’s BoomSound and these are comparable, if not better. They even eclipse the highly impressive speakers on the Nexus 6P.

 

This phone has 4G, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 and silicon-wise is running a Snapdragon hexa-core 808 and 3GB RAM. This isn’t as top-end as the current Snapdragon 810 being used in most flagships, but still provides a very fluid experience in daily usage. Some people have noted occasional lag – namely in Google apps like Messenger – but I experienced lag maybe once in the two weeks I used it; for the most part this phone handled everything I could throw at it.

This thing sucks up power faster than Charlie Sheen’s nose sucks up coke.

It’s also not as clear-cut as that – Motorola include several contextual processing cores for motion and voice commands, which augment the experience and enhance fluidity. The only place I did notice a consistent slowdown was when recording 4K, which I’ll come onto in a later section.

Screen

Everyone hypes AMOLED. And maybe rightly so. Yes, you do certainly get those hypersaturated colours everyone likes and those deep blacks. The Moto X Style has a 1440p 5.7″ IPS LCD screen, with a pixel density of 520ppi. You’re right, it’s “not AMOLED”. But honestly, that’s really not a bad thing in this case. In fact, IPS LCD really has some really strong merits when it comes to modern Android; namely the brilliant true whites it produces, which definitely fit more with pure Android Marshmallow and its white-heavy theming, compared to AMOLED’s off colour whites.

Not to mention, this panel is *bright*. The midday sun shining laser pointers into your eyes would still be less bright than this screen. At 715 nits, it completely steamrollers the 350 nit screen of the 6P. In fact, it’s one of the brightest smartphone panels on the market, and on this phone it really shows. At full brightness indoors, it’s so bright it’s uncomfortable for my eyes and I have to turn it down to 75% just to get it readable. Its contrast is good for LCD, but it’s obviously not AMOLED.

Battery Life

The battery life on this phone is solid, yet nothing exceptional. The battery easily lasts a full day with fairly heavy use. The Moto X received Android Marshmallow three days before I had to return it, and it improved the battery life further in regular testing (Doze really is the best Android feature introduced in a long time), bringing it more in line with the kind of battery life seen on the Nexus 6P, even if does still slightly lag behind. Where this phone really does excel, however, is in its turbo-charging. This thing sucks up power faster than Charlie Sheen’s nose sucks up coke. 30 minutes of charging gives you 10 hours of charging.

Software

Motorola may just be the sole Android manufacturer whose additions to Android aren’t a complete mess. Moto Display is one of the best features of the phone, waking the screen when a notification comes through or when it senses movement in front of the device (through the use of two motion sensors located in the bottom of the handset) and the consummate ease with which it integrates into Android make me wonder why it doesn’t feature more regularly in other phones. I can’t help but feel though that Moto Display lends itself better to an AMOLED display, and would benefit battery-wise from only illuminating the few pixels it had to to display the notifications, rather than illuminating the entire display.

Motorola’s developers just know how to modify Android, in a way that for all their billions Samsung just can’t get a grip on.

Motorola have always taken a very minimalist approach to Android, and it really pays off. Moto Voice is fantastic augmentation of Google Now. Motorola’s developers just know how to modify Android, in a way that for all their billions Samsung just can’t get a grip on. The software experience in my opinion is the best an Android user can have – you get all the benefits of regularly updated stock Android with some really useful additions that can’t be found elsewhere. The Nexus line may get stock Android updates faster, but Motorola have been good at keeping a timely schedule this year and the software improvements can’t be found on the Nexuses. Indeed, Moto Display works better than anything Google’s team have been able to put out to date.

Camera

The 21MP f2.0 camera on this phone is solid. Very solid in fact – if it wasn’t for the deluge of impressive phone cameras we’ve seen released in 2015, this phone would certainly be standout both for its quality and the speed of its autofocus. This phone shoots pretty much as fast as you can tap. Which is what you’ll be doing all the time, as  Motorola’s home-cooked camera app is tap-to-shoot, rather than tap to focus. Whilst quite unintuitive, you do get used to the app after a couple of days of using it. Some reviewers have suggested that the camera app is the worst thing to happen to Earth since any of this century’s genocides, but in reality it isn’t as awful as some have made out. Realising that you can use the volume down button as a shutter button made a big improvement, even if a camera shutter button would be the ultimate boost [seriously manufacturers, why is it only Sony still including them?]. Where the camera falls down is in low light conditions – the shots are often quite noisy; clearly a drawback of the increased number of megapixels.

Video quality is actually better than picture quality – the video stabilisation built into the phone makes for some fantastically watchable videos with little in the way of jerkiness or shake. However, the 808 clearly has a mild distaste for recording 4K – there is noticeable lag in the viewfinder when doing so, even though this doesn’t translate to the recorded video, and the phone gets hot. (Interestingly, the phone only got hot recording 4K, and didn’t when doing intensive gaming).

The front camera is something of a revelation too – it’s a 5MP shooter with front-facing flash (clearly indispensable for all those times you’re lying in bed in total darkness and just HAVE to have a harsh overexposed photo of your ugly face to send to bae). The pointless flash aside, the selfie camera is actually very good – it’s a much wider-angle front camera that I was used to but subjectively led to better shots in the long run.

Conclusion

This is a phone of compromises – isn’t as powerful as the OnePlus Two; its camera isn’t as good as the Note 5’s, and it isn’t as ‘sexy’ as the Nexus 6P. It certainly won’t appeal to everyone. Yet, with all of these compromises it is still a fantastic package. It’s a phone for power users. It’s a phone for people who enjoy pure Android with some actually useful modifications. It’s a phone for people who want premium features without feeling like they’ve been had.

When it comes to recommending this phone, you have to look at the context of the purchase – in the US, the Nexus 6P starts at $499, with the Moto X Pure starting at $449. For 50 dollars more, you get a more premium design, a fingerprint scanner, Snapdragon 810, an AMOLED screen (if slightly dim), and all the backing and goodwill Mountain View can throw your way. Despite the lack of SD card expandability, the majority of consumers would opt for the 6P, and maybe that’s the smart decision.

In Europe however, it’s a very different situation – the 32GB Moto X Style is available for only £330 (you’d only ever need to buy the base model seeing as you have that fantastic microSD expandable storage), with prices increasing slightly if you want Moto Maker customisations. The 6P however, in contrast to the US, is much more expensive, starting at £449 for the fixed-storage 32GB model, and rising to £579 for the 128GB model. A similar capacity Moto X (32GB model plus 128GB MicroSD) costs £379, almost exactly £200 less. And for those power-users who already own a high-capacity SD card, you’re saving more like £250.

The 6P is markedly overpriced in Europe – it really does seem like they’ve jacked the cost, perhaps to subsidise the pricing in the US, and you have to consider whether the Nexus 6P is worth the extra £250. You could argue that the Nexus 6P brings ever so slightly more to the table when compared like-for-like (even though that in itself is arguable), but is it £250 better? Not for my money. Motorola have really pulled it out of the bag and produced a fantastic flagship for a staggering price. I want pure Android, and I want solid hardware, whilst still being able to justify the expenditure, and this phone provides just that. And these aren’t just empty words, either – based off my experiences with the review unit, I’ve just gone and ordered one for myself.

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