Personal Technology

August 8, 2013 5:36 pm

Google puts a bit of the X Factor into Motorola

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Moto X

Just how “smart” are smartphones? Google, Motorola’s corporate parent, thinks they are not smart enough, so it asked Motorola’s engineers to build an easy to use, smarter smartphone from the ground up. The result is the Moto X.

Moto X (Rating: 4/5)

I suspect that I don’t have too much in common with Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. But we do share one thing – we have both adopted the new Moto X smartphone as our day-to-day handset.

Mr Schmidt, who was in New York last week for the Moto X launch, has been carrying his handset for several months, while I have been using my test version for only just over a week. But, like him, I am impressed.

The Moto X is the first phone jointly designed by Motorola’s engineers and Google’s software wizards since the technology group acquired the handset maker 14 months ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Moto X, which goes on sale in the US for $199 with a new two-year contract later this month, doesn’t boast the biggest or best touchscreen, the most powerful processor or even the latest version of Google’s Android operating system. Its 4.7-inch screen is bright, but not full HD, its main processor is a dual core rather than quad core model found in rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S4. But it is the most comfortable smartphone I have ever held, thanks to its hand-friendly dimensions and softly curved case. Voice quality is excellent and battery life is outstanding – my device runs for more than 24 hours between charges.

Furthermore, it encapsulates Google’s vision of a new generation of context-aware handsets – devices packed with always-on sensors that respond to their owners’ voice commands and anticipate their next move by combining sensor data with intelligence gleaned from Google services. For example, if you are in a meeting, the Moto X can warn you to wrap it up quickly because the traffic outside is bad and you need more time to get to your next appointment. (I must admit, however, that the New York traffic gods haven’t yet enabled me to test this capability.)

The Moto X has other tricks. Because its low-power sensors never go fully to sleep, they can be woken up in a jiffy. So for example, using Google’s built-in voice-recognition software and the handset’s dedicated speech processor, I can wake my test phone up simply by uttering “OK Google Now”, issuing a command like “open Gmail”, “show me a map of Los Angeles” or asking questions such as, “how many people live in London?”

Of course, the Moto X is not the only phone to incorporate voice-recognition technology – Apple’s Siri is another example, although it does require a button to be pressed. But in my testing, Google Now has been the easiest to use and the most reliable, though it remains far from perfect.

The Moto X uses its sensor to address another smartphone issue. Typically it takes 10 or more seconds to turn a smartphone on, select the camera app and take a digital snap. By that time, it is often too late. In contrast, the Moto X can be ready to take a picture two seconds after it is picked up or taken out of a pocket simply by flicking the wrist twice (admittedly, this action takes a bit of practice).

The handset also incorporates Motorola’s Active Screen technology which displays messages, alerts and alarms on a section of the screen even when the device is in standby mode and the rest of the screen is dark. It is also smart enough to switch this feature off, if the handset is face down on a table, in a pocket or being used to make a call.

Motorola is promising that online buyers in the US will be able to customise the handset case colour and other features, including its internal memory storage. Unfortunately, the Moto X does not have a slot for a micro SD memory card so it is probably a good idea to buy a model with more than the base 16Gb of internal storage.

The other disappointment is that Motorola has no plans at present to sell the Moto X in Europe or Asia, though it promises that other models in the Moto X family will be available outside the US later this year.

Nevertheless, I think Google and Motorola are on to something big with this device. They have succeeded in building an elegant smartphone that doesn’t allow the technology to get in the way of the handset’s basic functions. While the lack of top-performance hardware components may disappoint some technology buffs, I consider the Moto X to be one of the most user-friendly and smartest smartphones I have tested.

Planet of the apps

Paul Taylor picks his favourite from the latest crop of apps.

What it is: Windfinder; free for iOS and Android (Pro version also available)

Why you should try it: If you a windsurfer, kiteboarder, sailor (or kite flyer perhaps), this is the app for you. Windfinder provides local wind, wave, weather and tide information and forecasts for over 30,000 spots around the world. It is easy to set up and use – you can configure it for your favourite places and change measuring units, for example from knots to MPH. The free version comes with an unobtrusive ad streamer across the top. A low cost Pro version skips the ads.

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