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Opinion: What went wrong with the Motorola Moto X?

updated 03:06 am EDT, Sun July 6, 2014

Despite boasting several innovative features the Moto X missed its mark

The Moto X was supposed to be the smartphone that turned around the fortunes of the loss-making (then Google-owned ) Motorola. It was once hyped as the mysterious 'X Phone,' and was even touted as a 'game changer.' Yet, instead it soon saw steep discounts to clear inventory. Then, just eight months after its release, Motorola's announced that it will shutter its ambitious Fort Worth-based Moto Maker customization factory originally staffed by 2,000 employees. At its peak, the plant produced 100,000 devices per week; so what went wrong?

The Moto X was released in August last year powered by what Motorola dubbed the X8 system architecture. The X8 architecture features a total of eight processors comprised of a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU clocked at 1.7Ghz, a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU, plus a natural language processor and a contextual awareness core all mated to 2GB of RAM. Competing Android devices shipping at or around the time were either powered by quad-core Snapdragon 600 or 800 processors, with the 800 chipset delivering substantially more raw processing power and an uprated Adreno 330 GPU. This led to many stories and reviews reporting that the Moto X was a 'mid-range' handset, overlooking the fact that its unique system architecture gave it capabilities that only some Android devices are starting to deliver now in high-end models.

Compounding misconceptions surrounding its market positioning, the Moto X centers on a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED display (protected Gorilla Glass 3). Again, by the time it launched or soon after, top-shelf competing devices were shipping with either 4.7-inch 1080p displays, or 5-inch 1080p displays. 'Despite' this, the Moto X features a near Retina-equaling 316ppi, which is a still more than adequate resolution for a smartphone. Opting for a 720p display also helped to give the device better overall balance between battery life and performance, keeping in mind that the Moto X also debuted an 'Active Display.' This feature allows the device to light up only enough pixels to show users the time and new notifications while keeping the rest of the screen blacked out, saving even more battery life. A 1080p display chews more power, without necessarily offering particularly noticeable visual benefits; but it certainly gives a device more bragging rights.

What this seems to highlight is that the Moto X fell victim to the Samsung-fueled Android obsession with specifications at the expense of an emphasis on the overall user experience. Although the iPhone 5s is actually a remarkably powerful handset thanks to its advanced 64-bit architecture, its A7 chip relies on a dual-core design clocked at just 1.3GHz, paired with 1GB of RAM. The reality is that not only was the Moto X more than capable-enough from a performance perspective when it launched, it still remains a highly capable device today. While desktop computers can benefit substantially from multi-core designs, it is much less vital on mobile devices (at least at present). Most mobile apps only utilize one CPU, while multitasking on modern smartphones (and tablets) does not rely heavily on a CPU having more than two cores in the majority of typical usage contexts.

In fact, of all the high-end Android handsets at the time the Moto X was launched, it remains one of the most thoughtful and sensible from a system architecture design perspective. This is perhaps because it was one of the first Motorola handsets to benefit the most from Google's input into its development. Its Android UI remains very close to a stock Android experience, while its additional software features integrated very tightly with the device and its custom system architecture. As mentioned earlier, its Active Display is particularly innovative, as its always-on, always-listening voice control functionality. A simple voice command of "Ok, Google Now," (which we now see implemented in Android Wear devices), users to take advantage of the Moto X natural voice recognition chip to initiate voice-activated functions without touching the device, even when the device is in sleep mode.

Similarly, the Moto X's contextual awareness chip also activates functions like putting the Moto X into hands-free drive mode without need for physical input by the user when it senses that you are in your car driving. It also allows you to set customizable actions for when you go to sleep at night, so you don't have to fiddle with adjusting notifications or putting the device into airplane mode, or even setting alarms. Other unique touches include the ability to jump straight into taking photos with just twist of your wrist. Perhaps the only areas where the Moto X doesn't shine as much as it could or should is in its 10.5-megapixel camera, or with its overall plastic design aesthetic. Although the rear od the device looks great, this doesn't quite transition over to the front of the device, which looks rather nondescript in comparison. Yet, for all of its many virtues, it seems as though the paying customers have opted for devices with longer, and seemingly more impressive, spec sheets than the Moto X.

Now under the ownership of Lenovo, the Motorola Moto X is expected to be replaced by a new model, the Moto X +1. Unfortunately, it is expected to follow the Android trend to ever larger smartphone displays at a rumored 5.2-inches, which will inevitably affect its general usability. I tend to think that 4.7-inch displays are something of a sweet spot when it comes to usability and overall compactness, which is why I am not surprised that Apple appears to be adopting this route for what will be the volume seller model of the iPhone 6. The Moto X may not have been the perfect smartphone, but it certainly warranted far greater success than it achieved. As it stands, it is still on the market and represents excellent value for money if you are looking for something a little different.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



  1. qazwart

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-10-01

    In many ways, the failure of the Moto X was Google's fault. They created the A droid ecosystem that pushed specs over design. They encouraged a free for all where a dozen manufacturers competed with the same product. This lead to the overlays, the crapware, and the ever bigger handsets.

    When the Moto X came out, it wasn't going to help anyone, but Googlr. The cell phone service providers didn't promote it and Samsung targeted it. Google never promoted it the way it should because it would have hurt Google's relationship with everyone else. The Moto X should have gotten its own brand (Like Verizon's Droid or IPhone.) Google's name should have been top and center. The Motorola name should have been retired. It should not have been sold just another Android phone.

  1. Sanjiv Sathiah

    MacNN Staff

    Joined: 06-05-13

    @qazwart I completely agree with you regarding issues with the promotion of the Moto X. Google had to walk a fine line so as not to annoy its Android partners; in particular, Samsung. That said, even in being forced to compete on its own terms, the Moto X certainly deserved a lot more success than it saw.

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