Friday, 20 November 2015 16:15

Moto X Style – pure Android at its best or worst (review)

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Motorola is back with a flagship ‘pure Android’ phone that’s easy to like, has great specs, and it is water repellent too. Depending on your needs pure Android can excite or disappoint.

The Moto X comes in two versions. The Style is a 5.7” flagship class, and the lower specified Play is a  5.5”, mid/upper-market class. There is a lot to like about the Style and a few teething issues with pure Android that detract a little.

Ironically Motorola prides itself on using pure Android as this makes it directly upgradeable by Google (that owned the brand before Lenovo). It also removes the ‘bloatware’ that you find with some manufacturer’s versions of Android – adware, trial-ware, nuisance-ware, and sometimes heavy user interface (UI) overlays.

But I like some of those UIs – especially those from Samsung or LG’s flagship models that add considerable value to Android’s stock offerings. For example, Samsung’s camera app is vastly superior to Android’s stock offering. Its mail, calendar, and contact apps are better, more intuitive and its system management apps are more comprehensive. It has apps like S-Health, S-Voice (recorder), and other Samsung utilities that add value that are not in pure Android.

However pure Android gets the job done - everything works but it could be so much better.

Out of the Box

It is a big box – certainly befitting its flagship status. The base model has a black face, black frame and a textured, soft rubbery feel, curved black back that is easy to hold. You can also get a stylish white front, silver frame and a natural bamboo back that looks great and would probably be my choice.


It comes with a clear bumper case, micro-USB cable, fast charger using Qualcomm 2.0 technology, standard buds/mic, and basic documentation.

The clean start-up experience is quick and it urges/nudges/pushes you to establish a Google account – which is understandable as it is pure Android. If this is skipped it can cause issues later with access to various Google features.

Once done, you have one of the more powerful phones running pure Android.

OK Pure Android Lollipop 5.1.1 – the elephant in the room

You are either going to love or dislike (not hate) it depending on your point of view and if you have used an Android UI before.

The first thing I noticed is the clean look – no issues there with the basic, uncluttered, material design. But its clean, minimalist icons can lack certain skeuomorphic (original ornamental design cues) qualities that can make other UIs more intuitive and nicer. With pure Android you tend to rely on the icon’s name below it, rather than visual recognition.

Next thing I noticed is a lack of a weather widget on the home screen. I am used to that from other Android experiences – usually a customised version of AccuWeather. Sure you can download widgets but reading the permissions required is a little scary. I can understand the app needing location and data services but access to calendar, email, phone and much more is over the top.

Also when you add a 3 x 2 weather widget (equivalent to three icons across and two deep – the usual weather size) to the top of the screen (where it normally resides) it limits you to two rows of four icons underneath and the fixed icon bar under that - a total of eight user placeable icons on the home screen. This is very limiting especially if you bring over (1) mail, (2) contacts, (3) voice recorder (which you download an adware supported version or pay for an add-free premium version), (4) calculator, (5) photo gallery, (6) Pedometer, (7) maps, and maybe (8) Fly Buys. Where is room for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, a bank app, etc?

By comparison the Samsung Galaxy S6 allows for 4 x 3 widgets (12) and the Lumia 930 running Windows Phone 8.1 allows for 15 large live tiles, or 45 quarter sized ones, or a mixture of both. To be fair to Android you can add 28 icons per page to the second and third home pages.

The flat icons like mail, phone, messages, and email lack the useful feature of showing how many calls or messages you missed, or unread emails. I tried adding notification overlay apps without success. Moto's glance screen does show you if there are new calls or messages but not how many.

Android enthusiasts will probably say use a different loader or download different themes to get what you want but that is not the point of pure Android.

This is not intended to put you off this excellent smartphone. First there are benefits of direct Google upgrading and second I suspect many of these issues in Android 5.1.1 will be addressed by the coming Android Marshmallow V 6.x.

Productivity apps

I mention pure Android mail, calendar, and phone apps because I don’t think these are as good as they could be – they are liveable with, rather than what I am used to.

Messaging is a Motorola app – its inferior to the Android app – and it is easy to add the Android app later and delete the former.

Calendar shows the usual day, three-day, week, and month modes but these modes only show 8am to 3pm – 7 hour slices and the clean background gridlines are almost impossible to see. Contacts have a long scrolling list with no ability to jump to an alphabet letter. Phone defaults to a messy contact, missed calls screen instead of the dialler.

Gmail irks me as your Google Gmail account is automatically your primary account (the initial setup almost insists on a Google/Gmail account) and any other Exchange or POP/IMAP accounts are secondary or tertiary. It took me some time to delete the secondary account, then delete the primary Gmail and set up an Exchange account. Again it works but it is not as refined or feature rich as other UIs.

I installed Outlook for Android and while it works well (it is undoubtedly the best email/calendar/contact client where all your items are backed up to the cloud) it would not show caller ID. I then installed the Android Gmail, Calendar, and Contacts which did not play well with Outlook.

Motorola smarts

All Motorola enhancements are in the form of apps that can be updated without affecting pure Android. Similarly, its firmware can be updated independent of Android.

It has hands free voice control and Motorola Assist that contextually understands whether you are in the car, at work, or at home, and adapts in ways that help you. Like letting only priority calls through while you’re asleep. Or automatically replying to important messages when you’re in meetings. I found this a little kludgy – as if it is work in progress.

It has a front IR sensor for gesture controls. This does work.

I especially like the double wrist motion to activate the camera whether the phone is on or off. If you chop twice it activates the back LEDs as a flashlight. Both excellent ideas.

It also has a glance screen that wakes up when you look at it and displays a digital clock, basic email, and phone icon notifications.

It has a Motorola migrate from other iOS and other Android phones. That works too.

Camera

Rear camera performance should be excellent with a 21MP sensor (5248x3936), f/2.0 aperture, phase detect auto-focus (for really quick shots), face detection, dual LED colour correcting flash and more.

Overseas tests give it a great daylight rating with full use of the 21MP capability but it is not as good in low light – and it should be great.

The camera app setting are very basic and will not satisfy the professional user. You tap the screen anywhere to take a shot.

All reference tests were on auto settings which is what the average user selects.

Low light performance:

Low light shots can be blurry and washed out as HDR and auto flash kicks in. It has image stabilisation to help. With HRD and flash off the results were crisper and clearer.

Indoor under fluorescent or LED light (HDR/no flash):

Results showed a definite yellow tinge but were clear and crisp. Sparkling white walls were cream.

Outdoor – bright sunlight:

Great shots, good colour, crisp and clear.

Video

I shot 4K/30fps video and in this mode there was digital image stabilisation – it needed it. Indoors under LED and fluorescent there was the yellow tinge again – although not as pronounced. I would recommend shooting 1080p/30fps as it is fine for most uses. There is microSD 128GB card support

Outdoors it was great.

Other rear camera comments

I had issues with the digital zoom. In landscape (16:9) you cannot pinch the screen to use its 4X digital zoom but in portrait (4:3) you can. I am not sure if it is the standard camera app or if the 21MP is only at 4:3 and the 16:9 is something less. I will investigate further.

Front camera

Front camera is a 5MP, f/2.0 wide angle lens with its own flash, night mode and large 1.4um pixels. Top low light selfies here.

Battery

The non-removable 3,000 mAh battery lasts ‘all day’ according to marketing material. In exhaustive use it lives up to that promise and gives about 15 hours. In average use it had over 60% left at the end of day one and around 20% at the end of day two – without aggressive battery saving. It has a 63-hour endurance rating – good for a phablet.

If you use it for sound streaming or audio recording (as I do) battery life will shorten considerably.

More importantly it uses Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 that will give 10 hours (34%) battery life from a 15-minute charge and a full charge in under an hour. Quick charge has a standard USB 5V, 1.6A plus Turbo 1 – a 9V, 1.6A and Turbo 2 – a 12V, 1.2A. It kicks in Turbo 2 first for that 10-minute charge, then Turbo 1 and if required USB. This is to avoid overstressing the battery.

You can use any Qualcomm Quick Charge V2 compatible charger – buy one cheaply on eBay.

The phone can charge from a standard 500mA USB charger or computer port in about six hours. The Quick charger can be used as a standard USB charger but it will be slower in charging tablets that require over 2A.

Networks

It has 4G, Cat 6, 300Mbps capable, LTE bands B1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20, 25, 28, 40 – it is a world modem.

Using the Speed Test app, I got about 50-60 Mbps – there are no Cat 6 networks yet in Australia

Screen

It uses a 5.7”, IPS, TFT, LCD with a 2560 x 1440 resolution and 520ppi. Its covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 3. It defaults to Vibrant colour mode and adaptive brightness for a great, bright screen. These modes affect battery life a little – but standard mode looks decidedly dull in comparison.

Subjectively I would rate it as one of the better IPS screens but it is not as good as OLED used in Samsung or Lumia.

In daylight tests reflection/wash-out was within flagship standards.

Under the bonnet/performance

I have said that it is a high spec phone and it is most comparable to an LG G4. That means it has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 – two 1.8GHz A57 for heavy lifting and four 1.44GHz for most work. It also has a 600MHz Adreno 418 GPU that also acts as natural language processor and a contextual computing processor (read always on and aware of its surrounds).

Independent tests put it on par with the LG G4 in single core – but well below Samsung’s S6 series. That is due to its six core design. In dual core mode it just beat the LG G4 but again was well below the S6. Yet in a Basemark test (overall speed, memory, GPU, etc.) it was about 10% faster than the S6. It is no slouch, there is little lag in intensive tasks but the Samsung Exynos processor stands out from the pack.

It has 3GB, LPDDR3 RAM, and a choice of 16/32/64GB storage. I would buy the 32GB version (as tested) as it has microSD slot and will treat a USB flash drive or external hard disk as storage.

It uses a nano-sim and the sim-holder also accommodates a microSD card.

It has Bluetooth 4.1 LE, NFC, GPS and Wi-Fi AC MIMO and all sensors.

Size and weight

At 179g and 153.9 x 76.2 x 6.1/11.06 (curved back) it’s about the same size and heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ at 153g and 154.4 x 75.8 x 6.9mm. it has a 74.9% screen to body ratio which means reasonably thin bezels and top and bottom bars. Its smaller but heavier than the iPhone 6/s Plus.

The curved back accommodates the centre camera, and dual flash. I like the camera placement in the middle instead of to the top right as in the iPhone – it minimises the chance of placing your finger over the lens. The curve can rock a little on a flat surface - a desk - if you are typing a message. Its not a big deal as most messages will be typed when the device is in your hands. It is just about the maximum size for one handed use.

There is a ‘special nano-coating’ that creates an IP52 water-repellent barrier to help protect against moderate exposure to water, such as accidental spills, splashes, or light rain. It is not water proof, cannot be submersed in water, exposed to pressurised water or other liquids.

Sound and video

The front facing stereo speakers (top and bottom) provide excellent, clear sound. Volume level is sufficient for personal use and it has a high volume for in-call, hands free, and headphones. The screen looks great with 16:9 movies but I understand that it will not play DRM protected movies from the microSD card - and rightly so.

There is supposed to be an equaliser for surround sound and to tweak bass and treble. I could not find it.

Overall sound quality is excellent and it certainly meets the 30Hz to 20KHz flagship class.

Price

Vodafone has it on a basic $40 plan and $15 handset repayment per month (the Samsung S6 Edge+ handset charge is $37 per month) although you will probably spend $80 per month that includes the handset cost and 8GB of data.

I suspect the MSRP is around A$799 but you can get the XT1572 (global, 32GB, TD-LTE model that works here) online (do not forget to add freight if applicable) for $724.99 with free shipping from Expansys.

A note on the 5.5” Moto X Play XT1562 16GB

Bigger 3630mAh battery; 5.5” 1080p, 403ppi, screen; Qualcomm 615 eight-core; 2GB RAM, 16/32GB storage, microSD; Wi-Fi N dual band; no 4K video and lower spec image processor; and slightly thicker. In other words, a scaled back version to meet a price ranging from $490 to $599.

Conclusion

This is the first flagship smartphone developed under Lenovo's ownership. It is a 5.7” phablet yet entirely usable and pocketable.

The pros are high specs, great build quality, front selfie flash, good battery life and a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ – a distinctive, pleasing Motorola style that looks US designed. Pure Android – subject to the caveats that you want it – is good for updates.

On the negative side is has a non-removable battery (Apple and Samsung get away with that too), no fingerprint sensor (can use a less secure pin for a payment device), no wireless charging (desirable but has fast charge to compensate), and no IR port. None of these are big issues.

Its main competitor is the slightly smaller 5.5” LG G4 that has settled into a similar price bracket - it has a UI. It will have Marshmallow soon but many other brands that have extensive UI enhancements may lag in updates.

The S6 Edge+ is still the leader in the 5.7” phablet field but you are going to pay a hefty premium for its OLED screen, finger print scanner, and consistently good 16MP camera.

Opinion

After I finished the review I trawled through overseas reviews and frankly they fall into two camps. Well done are in the minority, and hack, those that simply reproduce specs without really using the phone. I put this phone through its paces – explored every inch – sorry millimetre – and I think this is a fair review.

Pure Android and many of the Google apps are a disappointment to me after using such finely crafted Samsung and LG UIs. I would have liked to test it with Android Marshmallow and perhaps a couple of firmware updates later as I think this would have polished the edges of this big beast.

Would I buy it – yes it offers a hell of a lot for the price.

The iTWire paradigm for assessing smartphones follows.

  • Flagship phones – Apple iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S6, LG’s G, Sony Xperia Z3/4, HTC One M9, Lenovo Moto X Style, and Microsoft 950 series (930 superseded). Huawei, OPPO, Xiaomi, ZTE and others have entrants in this category.
  • Mid to high range – Huawei P8/Max, OPPO R7/Plus, Xiaomi, ZTE, Samsung A, LG L&F series, Moto E/G, Lumia 6XX. This may include Note/Phablets with Pen support
  • Mass market – Huawei Ascend Y/G series, OPPO N, ZTE
  • El-cheapo <A$100

The problem is that this phone at $799 is one dollar below the usual Flagship pricing and at $725 from Expansys it should be reviewed in the Mid-high range so I will do both by using + or – signs e.g. 5/5+ means it’s a 5 out of 5 for Flagship and offers better specs than mid-high market.

Note the following specifications are indicators only of what comprises the majority of offerings in their respective categories.

Flagship

Mid-High

Moto X Style
XT1572

Rating

Screen

5”+

Note/Phablet 5.7”+

5”+

Phablet 5.7”+

5.7”

Phablet

5/5+

Screen type and quality

AMOLED or IPS

IPS

IPS TFT LED

5/5+

Pixel per Inch

500+

475+

520

5/5+

Glass (equiv)

Gorilla 4

Gorilla 3

Gorilla 3

5-/5+

Res

HD to QHD (4K)

HD 1080p

QHD 2560x1440

5/5++

CPU

64-bit, 8 Core, Big/Little e.g.

Qualcomm 8XX or similar

64-bit, 4 core+, Big/ little e.g.

Qualcomm 6XX or similar

Qualcomm 808
six core

5-/5++

Memory RAM

3GB

2GB

3GB

5/5+

Storage

32GB

16GB

16/32/64
32GB model tested

5/5+

MicroSD

up to 128GB

Up to 32GB

128GB

5/5+

LTE

Global bands. Cat 4+

Sufficient for local market and some global bands

4G/Cat 6 LTE (B1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20, 25, 28, 40)

5+/5++

Dual SIMM

If available provides 2 x 4G slots

It available provides 1 x 4G and 1 x 3G slot

N/A

Telstra Blue tick rural

Desirable

No

N/A

Wi-Fi

AC dual band

N dual antenna

AC dual band plus MIMO

5+/5++

NFC

Yes

Yes

Yes

5/5

GPS

GPS, Galileo, GLONASS, BeiDou, GAGAN, IRNSS, DORIS

at least GPS, GLONASS

A-GPS
GLONASS

5/5

Mapping software and maps

At least one free mapping system – Google or HERE

At least one free mapping system – Google or HERE

Google Maps

5/5

Bluetooth

4.1+LE

3.0+

4.1 LE

5/5+

Sensors
G-shock
Gyroscope
Ambient lgt
Compass
Proximity
Accelerator

All plus things like

heart rate

barometer

 

All

Not heart rate or fingerprint sensor.

All other flagship sensors as well as IR glance screen sensor

5/5++

Battery
Micro USB
USB C
Lightning

2500mAh+

At least a day

Removable

>2000mAh

At least a day

Removable

3000 mAh
Micro USB

5+/5++

Fast charge and/or Qi

Yes/Option

Option

Qualcomm Quick Charge V2

5+/5++

Camera Rear

16MP+ <f/2.2, OIS, A/F, Twin flash, BSI sensor, 4K record

13MP+ >f2.2

Single flash

BSI sensor, HD record

21MP, f/2.0
Dual LED
BSI sensor
4K record
(Marked down due to very basic camera app and low light performance that can be fixed

5-/5+

Camera Front

>4MP+ HD

fill flash

3MP+ HD

5MP, f/2.0
HD, Fill flash

5+/5++

Screen to body ratio (higher better as it affects dimensions) or keyboard

70%+

65%+

74.9%
153.9 x 76.2mm

5/5++

Thinness

7-8mm

8-9mm

6.1-11.06mm (curved back works but it is one of the thicker and heavier smartphones)  

5-/5

Looks – highly subjective

Premium build and finishes

Quality build and finishes

Rugged, distinct style, ‘Mac truck’ like quality rather than premium

5/5++

Weight

>150g (or 30g per inch of screen size)

>175g (or 35g per inch of screen size)

179g

5-/5

Operating system

Latest version with upgrades for at least 2 years e.g. 5.x and 6.x updates

Latest version with upgrades for at least one year e.g. all 5.x updates

Android 5.1.1
I would prefer this with Android Marshmallow V6. It will get all updates from Google

5/5+

User Interface (UI) Bloatware

Does the UI add value, ability to customise

Does the UI add value, ability to customise

No user interface as pure Android apps not as comprehensive as some other brands

5-/5-

Video, Audio codecs

Full suite

Most

Uses Google apps. May need to install some other apps

5-/5

Options

Premium head buds and mic

Bids and mic

Standard buds

5-/5

Innovations

Curved screens, HDMI out, voice/gesture control, docking, machine learning, payment systems, something different

Standard slab

Distinctive Motorola design.
Curved back works.
Gesture control especially camera and flashlight.

 

5/5+

IP or ruggedized

Option

Option

IP52 – great for rainy or snowy environs

5+/5++

Warranty

2 years+

1 year

12 months

5-/5

Service in Australia

Yes very important

Yes

Yes

5/5

Price

A$800-1200+

$500-799+

From $725 to $799

5+/5++


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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