Moto X 2nd Gen review: Same same but different

How Motorola carried over what it did right with the first-generation Moto X while still improving on it.

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Testing the new and improved Moto X brings to mind the Southeast Asian saying: same same but different. It means look for the subtle differences. Bigger, faster, with a denser brighter display, the new Moto X 2nd Gen is created from the same DNA as the Moto X 1st Gen introduced last year. Like its predecessor, a unique user interface UI and the consumer’s choice of exterior colors, accents and materials with the company’s online Moto Maker website set the new Moto X apart.

Voice commands and notifications convinced consumers to buy the first Moto X. Motorola differentiated both Moto X models with its unique UI built to operate without changing the stock Android UI. Active Display and Touchless Controls improve and simplify interaction with the device while sparing battery life.

Touchless Control makes the Moto X standout. It will respond to voice command, which is especially useful when driving. Make a call, search online, or send a text just by talking to the Moto X. Ask and the Moto X will read the notifications aloud. Setting a preference will read incoming notifications while driving. Anyone who owns either generation of the Moto X loves it.

The details: By saying the magic word, Moto X will come out of standby mode and await your instructions. The phrase “OK Google Now” wakes the Moto X 1st Gen. The Moto X 2nd Gen can be trained to respond to almost any phrase. Touchless Control is best explained with a few example voice commands - get directions, schedule an appointment, launch any app or search for something. With the Moto X 2nd Gen you can do even more, such as post to Facebook, send a WhatsApp message, or call a taxi. Voice recognition is pretty good, but accuracy can be affected by loud ambient noise.

A low-power, always-on processor listens for the wake up phrase, saving the battery budget. If this feature was implemented with the system processor, Touchless Control would drain the battery.

Active Display immediately shows notifications as icons on top of the lock screen that normally appear on the pull down notification center after the lock screen without draining the battery. It’s less intrusive because the user just glances at the smartphone instead of interrupting everyone else to enter a pin to access a notification.

The details: Active Display power efficiency is engineered using the AMOLED display to light individual pixels. When a text, missed call, email or other event occurs, a notification is displayed on top of the lock screen. Only the pixels of the notification icons light up on the screen, and they slowly fade in and out, both measures taken to save energy. But users who want notifications between the pulses of illuminated notifications, infrared cameras mounted on the front of the Moto X detect any hand waves or other movement, bringing up the icons as a result. The Active Display feature would be a battery hog if it lit the whole display to present notifications.

Sliding the icon up reveals the title of the notification: missed call from John, text message from Sarah, email (complete with subject line) from Hazel. Slide the notification down to open the app associated with the notification. The user can set preferences for personal privacy by turning Active Display notification on or off, or more granularly set the apps associated with the notifications that will open on top of the lock screen. Entering a PIN to make a voice-activated phone call might annoy users, but most would want to secure email with a PIN. The pin can be keyed in or spoken, but this is an imperfect solution, distracting drivers to key in a pin or broadcasting the PIN when the user is in a group and calls it out at a recognizable volume. It’s not a design weakness; users can personalize in advance how much personal privacy they want to grant each app that runs on top of the lock screen.

Moto Actions, exclusive to the Moto X 2nd Gen, will silence a call or alarm with just a gesture. The same infrared cameras used to illuminate Active Display icons are used for this feature. This may be a work in progress. It is intriguing to consider how other apps or features could incorporate the infrared cameras.

Moto X 2nd Gen hardware specs are no secret, but they’re not the first thing that comes to mind. Motorola doesn’t even promote the phone’s specs. The company doesn’t want to compete for first place in the race to build the fastest hero phoneThe fastest device is great material for the media, but when everyday consumers pick up two smartphones and compared them side by side, incremental differences in power aren’t noticeable. Android runs smoothly without lag, scrolling is fluid, and images display colorfully and crisply on Moto X 2nd Gen’s screen.

The details: The Moto X 1st Gen proved that the fastest hardware wasn’t all that important by managing to rank high and win honorable mention in many of the 2013 year-end smartphone reviews. The good reviews came despite its modest X8 mobile processor and 720p display, compared to phones introduced around the same time that had faster processors and when table stake specs for displays were 1080p.  

The Moto X 2nd Gen boasts top-of-the-line hardware and an affordable price, $99 with a contract and $499 without. Built with a Snapdragon 801 Quad-core 2.5 GHz Krait 400, a 330 GPU and a sharp 1080p display, it will run Android and any app or game swiftly for at least the two-year consumer upgrade cycle.  

The readability of the display is a big improvement over the Moto X 1st Gen in bright outside sunlight. AMOLED 16M colors, 1080x1920 pixels, 424-ppi pixel density and 5.2-inch screen deliver videos and images to the screen with clarity and sharpness.

The camera is capable of recording 4K HD video that takes full advantage of the 4K televisions that are beginning to gain some attention. Like its predecessor, a quick shake and twist turns on the Moto X 2nd Gen camera. Touching the view finder screen anywhere snaps a photo, eliminating the time to find and press a camera button.

The details: A 13-megapixel rear-facing camera at 4128x3096 pixels is capable of rich 2160p HD video at 30 frames per second. The lens is surrounded by a flash ring that disburses the light from two LEDs. The Moto X camera compares very favorably to the 8MP, 3264x2448 pixel iPhone 6’s camera. Some more expensive Android phones perform better in low light. The front-facing camera, at 2 MP, takes great selfies and makes for clear Skype video calls.

The design is a big change, but the Moto X 2nd Gen shares the same lines as the earlier edition. It’s built better. It has an exposed stainless steel frame around the edges that gives it premium appeal. The comfortable feel from the rounded back cover didn’t change. The thin edges give the illusion of overall thinness, and the thicker middle makes space for the battery and camera. The Moto X 2nd Gen can be personalized with many different case and accent colors using Moto Maker.

Conclusion: Only available from Motorola, voice recognition and unobtrusive notifications won the allegiance of Moto X 1st Gen owners. Same Same but different, the Moto X 2nd Gen is a leap forward, but made from the same DNA as the Moto X 1st Gen.

The Moto X 1st Gen might perform better in a drop test because the Gorilla Glass screen edges are protected by the plastic front housing that wraps around it. Dropping the newer model on a corner of a hard surface could crack the Gorilla Glass. Notably, the LG G2 and G3 suffer from this too. The less careful buyer might be wise to buy a protective case.

During this short test interval, battery performance was pretty good. The 2,300 mAh battery is a little smaller than that of comparable phones. Battery life could be shorter in situations that attenuate the radios to pick up a weak signal or where GPS is used heavily.

All in all, the combination of powerful hardware, pure Android, a unique and unobtrusive UI that reduces distractions, all at an affordable price, make the Moto X 2nd Gen an option that upgrading consumers should consider.

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