Everything You Need to Know About The Moto X

By Ryan Whitwam

This is Motorola's big shot to wow us.

The Moto X has finally arrived, and with it may have come a new era for Motorola -- a more Google-y era. The pipeline of pre-Google products has been cleared out, and this is the first device developed entirely under the supervision of Google. The Moto X doesn’t shoot for the moon with specs, but it has a few tricks up its sleeve that might make it more attractive than phones which are more powerful on paper.

Now that all the details are official, let’s talk about what this device can do, and what that means for Motorola and Android as a whole.

More Than Checkboxes

Motorola could have gone all out and specced this device as high or higher than other flagship devices. It didn’t. Instead the raw numbers are on the modest side for a high-end phone. The Moto X has a 4.7-inch 720p AMOLED screen, 2GB of RAM, 16-32GB of storage, and a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro.

It doesn’t sound impressive on the surface, but the way Motorola has designed the device allows for some very interesting, and very distinct features. Starting with that Snapdragon, it would be more proper to talk about it in the context of the X8 mobile computing platform it sits at the heart of. In addition to this capable system-on-a-chip, the Moto X (and the recently announced DROIDs) has two additional processing cores for natural language and contextual operations.

These are not ARM cores, but Moto isn’t saying just who made the custom silicon for it. The important part is what they can do for the Moto X. The natural language processor can run all the time in the background, even when the device is asleep. If you say the trigger phrase, the device wakes up and goes into Google Now voice search mode. No other phone can do this without destroying its battery life.

The contextual processing core is essentially a master control for all the device’s sensors and touch input. It can run the device at low power while asleep, and produce notifications on the screen without waking up the rest of the phone. These Active Notifications, as Motorola calls them, are only feasible because of the AMOLED screen. It uses no power to display the black pixels, so having informative notifications on your screen won’t hurt battery life either.

The customization angle is also big for this device. There will be two base colors for the front -- white and black. The back plate can be ordered in any of 18 different colors. Then there are 7 accent colors available for the trim around the camera and buttons. Motorola says this works out to roughly 2000 different combinations of colors for the Moto X. AT&T has an exclusive on the customization site, Moto Maker, for a limited time.

In addition to the colors, buying a Moto X from AT&T (or online from other carriers after the exclusive is up) offers the option to have a custom message scrawled on the back of the phone and shown on the screen during boot. All this tweaking an personalization, but Motorola will still accept returns for 14 days after purchase.

The device is sadly adhering to the traditional carrier model at first. It’ll sell for $199 on contract most places, but it will also be available online from Motorola, and eventually as a Google Play Edition device. That might be the one to wait for.

How the Moto X Changes Google and Android

There might have been a little too much hype around the Moto X -- it’s hard for anything to live up to the expectations. Even if it wasn’t the smartphone unicorn some people wanted it to be, the Moto X could still have a huge impact on Google and Android.

The Moto X puts Google in a two-tiered position as a phone seller. There is the Nexus series, which are primarily development and enthusiast devices. Then there are Motorola phones, which could have some of those noble software goals, but work with the carriers instead of in opposition.

It’s a sad truth that most smartphone buyers don’t get phones from Google Play -- they go into the carrier store and buy whatever looks cool. That often leads to a device that is worlds away from the preferred Google experience. The Moto X bridges those two worlds. It’s not a Nexus, and it’s not quite stock, but it is still recognizable as the platform Google developed. It could offer consumers a cleaner software experience. And if it takes a little air out of Samsung’s sails at the same time, that’s probably okay with Mountain View.

The Moto X’s always-on voice control is going to be a major selling point, but it’s also strongly associated with Google’s approach to mobile. Google Now is all about using the data Google has on you to produce predictive searches -- cards. Imagine that it wasn’t just your emails and location that fed into Now, but the sounds around you too.

The device is always listening for that trigger phrase, so what if it was also keeping its digital ear to the ground for other keywords? Perhaps the phone could overhear you talking about picking up that new Nexus 7, or grabbing something to eat, so it offers up the appropriate directions as a card. Or if it hears you plotting to buy a new phone... well, let’s not think about that. It goes to dark places.

This feature could be huge for Android in general, but it’s enabled by the custom silicon in the Motorola X8. Luckily, it’s a modular system. The custom processors for speech and sensor inputs are tuned for the Snapdragon S4 now, but there is no reason they could not be paired with a different ARM SoC. Motorola specifically designed it this way. Since Google owns Motorola, it might see fit to license this technology out at some point to improve the voice search for more users.

Motorola is being secretive about the X8 right now, but has said very little Android had to be changed. That might make the related frameworks ideal for inclusion in other Android devices or even custom ROMs. For now this is a Motorola selling point, and it needs that.

Will It Be Able to Save Motorola?

This is the best chance Motorola Mobility will ever have to become a top smartphone maker again. Google has the money to back it at a loss, but that can’t go on forever. This first venture is going to be advertised heavily. There is a lot of important technology in Motorola, and the search giant could just as easily absorb Moto and stop making phones. That’s what will happen if the new, sleeker Motorola handsets don’t take off.

The Moto X is positioned well with multi-carrier support, unique features, and tons of customization options. If the experience can compete with more powerful phones from HTC and Samsung, then the Moto X has a real shot.