The Very Googley Motorola X

Ben Bajarin / August 30th, 2013

I’ve spent the last week with the Motorola (a Google Company) X. As many who read my columns will know, I prefer iOS to Android and I make that clear. However, when it comes to Android devices I like the stock–Nexus–Android devices the best. Which means, I knew I would like the Motorola X when I first heard about it. However, my desire to experience the device was not because it is running stock Android. It was because I wanted to see if Motorola, the Google company, added any unique differentiators with the software. And they did.

Better Than Stock

What surprised me was that the version of Android on the Motorola X and their new Droid lineup is BETTER than stock Android. It looks and feels exactly like stock Android, but the additions the Motorola software team (I mean members of the ex-Android team) added are very good and feel like features that would come with stock Android on flagship Nexus devices. Yet that is not the case, they are coming on Motorola devices and no one else’s. Not even Nexus devices. At least I am assuming they are not. Time will tell if these great features make it back to the stock Android kernel. But I doubt it.

I kept saying to myself that many of the key new software features felt very Googley. In fact the whole device just felt very Googley. Which is a good thing. Unless you are a competing Android OEM.

So what features make me say this? There are a few. The first is called Motorola Assist. Motorola has had some of these features at a basic level before. But they have now all gotten much more Googley. Take a look at the screen shot below.

motoassist

That is the screen for the Motorola Assist feature. It looks very Googley. There are many design similarities to Google Now which is a feature of the latest stock Android build. The features of Motorola assist are also pretty slick.

First, if enabled, when driving it will know you are driving and when a call or text message comes in it will alert you via a voice prompt and allow you to answer a call, deny a call and respond with text message, or offer to read you the text message that arrived. Very nice hands free feature while driving with some good contextual automation built in.

The other that was quite nice and worked much better than I thought was the avoid interruptions during meetings feature. When this feature is enabled the service will be aware of your calendar appointments and auto send text responses to anyone in listed in favorites and let them know you are busy and will get back to them. It also keeps your phone silent of all notifications during this time. My wife LOVED this feature since I tried it by blocking off time when we went to dinner on my calendar and our time remained interruption free. This is similar to the iOS Do Not Disturb feature but is automated based on your calendar appointments.

Information at a Tap

The other addition I liked was Active Display. On the stock Android devices, I am a fan of the lock screen widgets. I use this primarily for email. So I can quickly see if I have important messages that I need to respond to without unlocking the phone. Motorola has added some smarts at the hardware and software layers to add to this feature. The home screen on the Moto X will pulse off an on when you have a notification waiting for you. You can simply tap on the icon and get at a glance any recent emails, text message, or missed calls and then choose to ignore or swipe to unlock the device and respond. This is information at a tap rather than a glance but is very nicely done.

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 5.52.26 PM

The key to this is that Motorola specifically added some hardware and software features to make use of a low-power processor just dedicated to this feature. This way to look at these notifications on the home screen you can do it without waking the CPU or the whole screen. Since the information is just in black and white the screen and touch features can be used with just the additional low-power core.

The other thing the low-power core can do is look for movement of the device allowing me to just pull it out of my pocket and the screen is already on showing me the time and any notifications without me having to press a button. Very useful feature.

Always Listening and Touch-less Control

The last feature I will dive into is the always listening feature. Also using the low-power core is a feature where the device is always listening for the key word “OK Google Now.” When you say this phrase you can then automate any number of features. You can tell it to call someone, text someone, schedule a meeting, set an alarm, etc. You can do many of the same things you can do with Google Now on many stock Android devices as well as Siri. The difference is that you can initiate the whole process with your voice without having to press a button.

This is the feature that is of extreme interest to me. I’ve always wrestled with the question of what we can do with our devices when they can hear us. Meaning that we can interact with our devices without having to initiate the function physically but rather verbally. We are just scratching the surface in this thinking and when we can train our computers to understand us better and provide fully automated value for functions hands free via voice, I think we will be in some interesting territory.

Measuring Success

From my view as an analyst, I think about how we should measure success for Motorola with this product. We could focus on the hardware which is very good. Motorola has made the most usable 4.7″ screen for one hand operation I have used yet. Or we could focus on the customization trend. Which I think is very interesting and a compelling differentiator for the Moto X. We could also focus on their efforts to make this device locally. I applaud their efforts to build this device in the US and again feel that will have a certain appeal.

For me, however, the way I’ll measure success for Motorola is not in how many devices they sell this quarter or next. Or what market share they gain or don’t gain. For me I will measure success if these devices help establish credibility again for Motorola as a hardware company and specifically a smart phone brand. Brand is everything in my opinion. Motorola had a good one and they are an American success story. I sincerely hope they can re-establish themselves as an innovator, thought leader, and a credible brand. From what I have experienced wit the Moto X, I think they are on the right track.

Other Things I Liked Worth Mentioning

  1. Battery life was better than average. Motorola touts 24 hours and although I never tested that claim, I routinely used my phone from 6:30am and plugged it in around 10:30pm and the battery level never went below 30%
  2. Motorola Connect was a nifty feature where by installing a Chrome plug-in you could reply to text messages on the PC as well as choose to ignore a call and respond with a text message all on the PC through the browser plug in. Very clever Google.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • Idon’t Know

    As far as I can see all the Moto X features can already be added to other phones through apps on the Google Play store.
    I think the screen on the Moto X is sub standard and thought the phone itself was slow.
    The Moto X makes it possible for Google to collect even more information about you in their typical creepy fashion which gives them even more to turn over to the NSA.
    I also thought it looked and felt cheap. Not Samsung cheap but still not premium.

    • benbajarin

      Yes, not premium feeling but better than the S4. More like a Nexus device feel.

      The software adds are the big one because although you can get some of those from the app store, they don’t work well and they are not tightly integrated. Which makes all the difference.

    • Srikanth HS

      The features can be easily copied into 3rd party apps, but will result in huge battery drain to provide the features of MOTO-X. Probably the phones will run out of battery within 3-4 hrs.
      Motorola has engineered hardware to support low core processor which does the always-on voice and selective screen turn on display notification features.

  • Wow. I think battery life is what most impresses me. Looks like Moto now beats all on that score.

    • benbajarin

      Droid Maxx is still the best for that. Little bigger device but it has all the great software adds minus the always on listening feature.

  • Hosni

    Either these features WILL be available for all OEM’s who use Android, or else Google will have broken its promise to OEM’s that it would not develop versions of Android that favor Moto.

    From what I’ve read about the Moto X, it incorporates several Apple philosophies such as not focusing on technical specs and presenting a simple interface that emphasizes ease of use. Google recently announced that by manufacturing the Moto X in the US, it could not be banned from US markets (like Samsung devices) for violating Apple’s patents.

    • steve_wildstrom

      It couldn’t be banned by the International Trade Commission. It could still be enjoined by a court (though court injunctions are harder to get.)

    • benbajarin

      No, actually Motorola has its own software development team that is not the Android team that can add whatever they want to the differentiated Moto experience. SO these features never have to make it back to Android. But where you think this Moto specific software team came from?

      As I said, other OEMs should be very worried.

    • Anders CT

      Well, as the Moto-X hasn’t even gotten the newest version of Android, unlike top-models from Samsung, LG and HTC, I think it is fair to say that Google did not favour Motorola. One has to wonder, though, why Google bought Motorola in the first place.

      But it IS nice to see Motorola somewhat relevant again. Now we just need HP back 🙂

  • themanav

    Great article, thank you for your insight. I like this phone as it seems to be the iphone of Andoid. Looking to get when once it’s price drops a bit.

  • Neil

    Not to sound like an Apple fanboy, but the automations you describe have drawbacks as well. Some examples:

    I realize we Manhattanites are a 1 million member edge case in the grand scheme of the country, but we spend a lot of time in taxis using our smartphones. We don’t need them to go into driving mode because we’re not driving.

    Many people still have real meetings but all of my meetings occur via Nextiva/Skype or GoToMeeting while I’m alone in my office. This is common and not an edge case scenario. I prefer the iOS approach in which I manually set a start and finish time for Do Not Disturb (for me, 11 pm to 8 am), and simply turn off the ringer during my meetings. Because I’m alone in my office during meetings, I can see calls and text messages pop up without them making any noise.

    I suspect you can disable these features on the Moto X, but since they’re the main selling point if they don’t work for you, an iPhone provides less weight (also important for Manhattanites), a better build quality, more polish, and better apps. Has it occurred to any pundits that other OEMs haven’t aped the iPhone 5 because they can’t? It’s other worldly in its lightness and thinness.

Protected by Gerben Law