Does the Moto X Have a Chance Against the New iPhones?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The quick answer is that Motorola's second-generation Moto X is a terrific smartphone and should have a chance to succeed. It's arguably the best Android smartphone to date. But with new handsets from Apple (AAPL) , Samsung, HTC, LG and others, the new Motorola offering needs some good PR to get noticed.

 

The Moto X has been improved in nearly every way possible. One year ago, the then-Google (GOOG) owned smartphone division released the first Moto X phone. The main selling point was that you could go online and customize your phone -- a unique feature then and now. It was the first device to include the "OK, Google Now" voice command feature, the answer to Apple's iri and Microsoft's (MSFT) future "Cortana" systems. And despite what looked to be mediocre specifications on paper, the phone was a great performer. It still is.

But these days premium smartphones need to compete on a higher level. They need big touchscreens, for instance. Last year's model had a 4.7-inch (720p) display. It was a terrific device for one-handed use. The new 2014 version's screen measures 5.2-inches and is full high-definition, 1080p (1920 by 1080 pixels). It's noticeably bigger and better in almost every way. In preliminary testing the camera is capable of taking some terrific photos. There's a front-facing 2MP camera too.

In my hand, the Moto X seems a perfect size -- not too big and not too small. While the new Moto X is shorter than either the HTC One (M8) or Samsung's Galaxy S5, it has a larger screen than either of those models. And now, as is the current fashion, the Moto X is built on an aluminum frame. It's strong, sturdy, thin and lightweight. Even though plastic theoretically offers a clearer path for all the tiny antennas inside a modern-day smartphone (multi-band cellular, multi-band Wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC) than metal, if done correctly it can help make for a better device. Motorola has done it right.

As for the laundry list of what's inside, the X features a quad-core, 2.5 GHz Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, either 16 or 322 GB of internal storage, a built-in, 2,300mAh rechargeable battery pack and a 13-megapixel camera with a dual-ring LED flash. The new camera can also shoot 4K (2160p) video.

It ships running the latest version of Android KitKat 4.4.4 operating system. The phone should be among the first devices to receive an upgrade to the next version of Android, the name of which has not yet been announced but should start with the letter "L" if Google continues its long-running tradition.

Motorola should be commended for sticking to its guns and not junking-up the Moto X with bloatware, useless add-on apps which tend to slow-down smartphones and waste precious storage space. Like Google's special Nexus line of phones, the new Moto runs a nearly stock version of the operating system. It's a pleasure to use and helps to show off the fact that this is one fast device.

What really impresses are some of the new tricks the phone can accomplish. The Moto X seems to know where I am and what I'm doing and when I'm doing it. For instance, it knows when I'm sleeping and knows when I'm awake, at home or on the go. The new Moto Display features (it used to be called Active Notification) still can make you aware of incoming information you might need to know but now lets you wave your hand over the screen to see what's what without having to touch the phone. You can turn the feature off and do everything manually too.

There's also the updated "OK, Google..." voice command system but now you can program it to understand your own, personal trigger phrase. I chose "Hey, Moto X" on the test phone. It works well and is still a great feature.

Despite early rumors that the device would have stereo speakers, on top of and beneath the screen like HTC's One(M8), the new Moto X has just one great sounding speaker near the bottom. The audio output puts many other phones' sound quality to shame. One accessory which wasn't available for testing is the new, optional turbo charger. Based on Qualcomm technology, Motorola said the new charger can take the phone's battery from zero to 60% in a half hour.

The best feature to recommend the Moto X is the new, lower price. This year's Moto X is currently selling for $99 with a two-year contract on "select US carriers." (The test unit ran on AT&T's (T) LTE network.) The price is half of what the original X sold for last year. It can also be purchased in "unlocked" form for $499. Motorola plans to provide versions for a number of U.S. carriers, both large and small.

In advance of Motorola Mobility's formal handover from Google to new owner Lenovo, the Motorola factory has been moved from Texas to China. Motorola promises those wishing to customize their phones (different color back plates, more internal memory, etc.) will still be able to receive their new phones within a few days.

Overall, the Moto X is an amazing smartphone. But the company and its new owner Lenovo have their work cut out for them. These days it may not be enough just to make great phones. Today companies need to make sure potential customers understand that and buy them. Moto's new phone will be going up against the Apple/Samsung axis of products and it would be a shame if the X is lost in the shuffle.

-- Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

To submit a news tip, send an email to tips@thestreet.com.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet's Senior Technology Correspondent.

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