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The Moto X is here, and it's ready to take on the iPhone

By Andy Ihnatko

For Sun-Times Media

What … another Hot New Phone? Flagship phones are being released as quickly, and with as much fanfare, as summer blockbusters.

Yes, it’s been a busy summer, and the velocity of these announcements from HTC and Nokia and Samsung and Google and Motorola Mobility (owned by Google, but still, hey, different logo and everything) points to where all of the action is for manufacturers these days. Consumers are steadily wandering away from their laptops and entrusting more of their traditional desktop tasks to mobile operating systems. But they still have money in their pockets, so all of these companies are eager to be wherever those people are spending money.

And that’s why we get “Iron Man III” and “Man Of Steel” and “Pacific Rim,” all within the same span of months. Apple will almost certainly be releasing a new iPhone in September and it’s vital for these companies to get that money and those two-year contracts signed before Apple makes its play. Although Apple’s lost its four-year supremacy as a maker of the greatest smartphone on the market, their ability to create a phone that demands to be picked up and held and played with and admired and loved is still a force to be feared.

They might have their first real challenger in that department.

The Moto X from Motorola Mobility was formally announced on Thursday. By definition, it’s an interesting phone with its head well above the scrum of competition: it’s the very first phone wholly conceived and designed after Google acquired the company last year.

I spoke with Iqbal Arshad, Motorola’s Senior Vice President of Global Product Development, shortly after the event. “It gave us an opportunity to do a lot of soul searching,” he said of the acquisition. “We were making, you know, something like fifty phones a year. We wanted to have a better sense of purpose and some core values.”

He went on to describe concepts like making mobile devices smarter … less like calculators that react to input and more like assistants. Changing how people interacting with the device. Making a phone for everybody.

When an executive says those things during a one-on-one, I look carefully at the person’s face. It all sounds very nice, and those words seem like the right things to say during a major rollout like this one. But there was no weariness behind his eyes and no rehearsal to the tone of his patter.

Mostly, I wanted to talk to him about a processing architecture that Motorola had put into the Moto X. They’re calling it the “X8 Mobile Computing System” and Arshad lit up at the question. Not every new tech product can be said to have a “secret sauce” (it’s often a glib way we pundits highlighting one idea in a complicated piece of hardware) but here, it’s appropriate.

X8 corrects “a fundamental flaw in concept for how we design phones,” Arshad said. Whereas most phones manage the issue of how and when to turn the device’s main processor on, he said, “X8’s moment-by-moment mandate is ‘How can we keep CPUs switched OFF?”

And to hear him tell it, the Moto X’s 8 processing cores and how X8 manages them all is the key to every feature in the Moto X.

Features, right, yes:

Described simply, the Moto X is a familiar 2013 Android phone. 4.7″ 720 HD AMOLED screen with 316 ppi resolution, and a 10 megapixel main camera. It’s curved at the back, and it feels great in the hand. Solidly built, not too light, not too heavy. It’ll be available in the USA and Canada in about a month from most of the major carriers. $199 (with contract) for the model with 16 gigabytes of storage. 32 gigs is also available. Both come with 50 gigabytes of Google Drive storage, free for two years.

But then you dig down into the execution, which is impressive. Motorola promises that the camera can let in up to 75% more light than competing phone cameras, thanks to its “Clear Pixel” technology. In tech terms, the camera’s sensor uses an RGBC filter instead the RGBG Bayer filter on the others. In human terms: the Moto X camera sensor can figure out the correct red/green/blue color of a pixel without having to cover up 100% of the pixel’s surface with filters. (Yes, the “C” stands for “Clear.”) More Light is one of the grails of phone camera design. In good light, it means that motion-freezing high shutter speeds are available and in low light, it’s the difference between a snapshot and a Photograph.

The Moto X also understands multiple contexts, and reacts accordingly. It behaves differently when it’s in your hands, inside your pocket, or on a table.

Exhibit “A”: you can access Google Now services without taking it out of your pocket or tapping to wake it up. Say “OK Google Now…” and off you go. The Moto X is always listening for that exact passphrase through its three microphones, even when it’s asleep in your shirt pocket. This removes one of the major friction points of voice services. With other phones, there are so many steps between an inert phone and a waiting microphone icon that I might as well just use a keyboard.

Exhibit “B”: You just want to know what time it is or figure out what app just chirped to grab your attention, and why. Take it out of your pocket. The screen lights up and also shows you a deck of waiting notifications…no interactions necessary. You can peek at the notifications without formally waking the device. If the phone is face down on the table, flipping it face-up achieves the same thing.

Exhibit “C”: How many times have you missed a great photo because your phone was asleep in your pocket at the exact moment when your scrawling hellbeast of a — ok, I don’t want to insult some of you so I’ll say “dog or cat” — decides to be adorable all of a sudden? The Moto X’s light sensor tells the phone that it’s being taken out of your pocket and then the accelerometer tells it that you’re moving it into Photo Taking position. Result: the camera is ready to go without any further interaction.

And although the Moto X ships in two base colors (black or white), an online “design-your-own phone” tool allows you to customize your Moto X however you like. Your phone store sends you home with a prepaid card with a redemption code. Hit the online Moto Maker tool and choose any combination from 18 back colors and 7 accent colors (power and volume switches, camera ring), plus the black or white face.

(Motorola doesn’t judge your taste. They just want your money. If you want a phone decked out in Mets colors, that’s between you and your God.)

Motorola is assembling all American phones in Fort Worth, Texas and promises a four-day turnaround time. They’re committed to exploring new case treatments, too. The first “thinking outside the box” design will be a series of genuine wood backs (wood laminated onto something sturdier, mind you).

Back to the X8. Arshad stresses that practically everything that makes the Moto X unique is due to the X8 architecture. Keeping voice recognition and all of those motion sensors on nonstop would kill the battery in, what, nine minutes? To say nothing about the creepiness of a phone that’s always parsing everything it hears. No, X8 incorporates a discrete processor that does nothing but understand the device’s context. If you’re about to take a picture, that processor knows that it needs to wake the rest of the crew up and get ready to rock and roll. If you’re just flipping it over, it doesn’t even wake the entire screen. Because of the display’s AMOLED design, the Moto can keep most of its screen dark and just light up enough pixels to let you know that thing you need to know.

(You’re still weirded out about the “always listening” bit. Well, of course it’s not “listening.” The lone wakeful processing core isn’t converting speech to text. It’s just watching the incoming audio stream for a sequence of numbers that’s a mathematical match to the numbers associated with the trigger phrase.)

(Fine. You can also turn that feature off entirely, if you wish.)

X8 manages the camera, manages the display, and it even manages the phone’s radios to allow for a wider range of future case materials. All in all, these are features that would burn through a conventional phone’s battery in nothing flat. But Motorola promises a life of roughly 24 hours of mixed usage.

Besides X8, the Moto X’s other unique ingredient is Motorola’s relationship with Google.

I spoke to Steve Horowitz, Senior VP of Software Engineering. Steve was one of the earliest engineers hired to build Android; his history with the mobile OS goes all the way back to 2006.

I asked him about the relationship. Is there a sort of “skunk works” sort of thing going on between Motorola and Google, where Motorola is free to experiment with new Android innovations that Google doesn’t necessarily need to share with the rest of the world?

“We have the same relationship with Google as any other OEM,” he explained. “If anything, you could say we’re victims of reverse-discrimination because Google is so intent on proving to their other Android partners that they don’t give us special access or treatment.”

(Which explains a surprise of the announcement. Despite the Google corporate logo hanging prominently, the Moto X will ship with Android 4.2.2, not the 4.3 that shipped on the Nexus 7 last week. Motorola didn’t receive the binaries any sooner than any other maker.)

That said, it’s clear to any observer that Motorola is motivated to fly the banner of Android higher and more proudly than any other handset maker. HTC and Samsung heavily customize Android to serve their own purposes. The goal is to make a Samsung Galaxy S4 unique from any other Android handset and the changes aren’t always for the better. Then the carriers load their own apps and services on there. The result is often an unpalatable lasagna designed without much care.

Instead, Motorola describes the Moto X as a “pure Android” experience, despite their notable enhancements. In many ways, it’s as close to the ideal Android experience as you’re going to get from a carrier-backed phone. You can buy the Moto X from the carrier of your choice (and get the phone at the $199 subsidized price instead of paying a $450 premium to buy an unlocked Google Play version of the Galaxy S4 or HTC One). And you’re getting all of your updates over the air and directly from Motorola, instead of waiting for your carrier to get around to supporting a phone that they might have sold you a year ago.

“But great ideas are often imitated,” Horowitz said, including Samsung and HTC in the list of engineering teams that might copy what they see in the Moto X. If the Google mothership wanted to get their hands on that code, they’d have to make a request just as they would with any other OEM…or Motorola would have to choose to open source them and offer them to the Android community.

After speaking with Arshad and Horowitz, I’m left with the impression that Motorola is going to become Android’s most nurturing environment and give the OS its best opportunities to grow. Motorola has the agility of an OEM (a smaller team with its own personality is almost always going to be more innovative than an industry-wide committee, like the Android community proper). Meanwhile, they have an unofficial mandate to make people into fans of Android, as opposed to arbitrarily chasing after bogus points of differentiation like Samsung does.

And yet, they’re unafraid to make Android better. The Moto X camera app, for instance, contains lots of advanced features (I spotted HDR, panorama, and slow-motion video in there) but they’re hidden inside a dirt-simple interface suited to the sort of person who defines “camera” as “an app on my phone” and who just wants to tap the screen on their way to posting something that’s totally going to get them fired in four days.

The Moto X also introduces an exciting (well to me, anyway) concept called “trusted devices.” A lockscreen is a necessary part of life in a world filled with naughty people. It also gets in the way of many of the coolest things your phone can do. Such as: wake up with a command and tell you what your next meeting is. The Moto X can’t do that if you’ve enabled a lockscreen.

… Unless you’ve designated your Bluetooth headset as a “trusted device.” The fact that this specific device is on your person and active acts as a form of passkey. So you can keep the Moto X on your dash and operate it in a completely handsfree way. The fact that the phone is connected to your car stereo system makes the Moto X trust that you have a right to access the device.

I spoke to Horowitz, who allowed that “trusted devices” is a big opportunity for future development. Today, I could simply keep an (otherwise unused) Bluetooth headset in my pocket simply as “magic bean” to identify myself as the authorized owner of the Moto X. But Horowitz said that technically, any hardware could fulfill that function. Today, it’s just Bluetooth audio but in the future, a watch, a Fitbit, or even the nearby presence of your laptop of an NFC tag could conceivably act as a “pass lockscreen, go directly to Awesome” key.

I also must say that I was highly encouraged by Arshad’s attitude towards hardware design. The specs for the Moto X leaked way in advance of Thursday’s event and one of the first warning flags that commentators raised was its rather unimpressive (by comparison-chart standards) CPU. Arshad made it clear that the Moto X is designed to win battles in the field instead of on a spreadsheet. “What’s the point of Samsung’s CPU if its main function is to burn battery while it’s not doing anything?” he said, echoing my own complaints about the Galaxy S4.

Take all of my observations in the proper context. I’ve had a press briefing and two one-on-one interviews and about a half an hour with an actual device. This is a time for a basic read on my level of optimism or skepticism and no more. My review unit is in my pocket as I write this and I’m looking forward to seeing how well everything I’ve seen translates into day-to-day use. I learn more from a phone by looking at the features I’ve turned off than by the features I’ve left on after two weeks.

Nonetheless, the Moto X is an exciting new release. If my comparison between this summer of flagship phone releases and summer blockbusters is apt, I can already tell that the Moto X is trending more towards “Man Of Steel” than “The Lone Ranger.”

(P.S. I thought “Man Of Steel” was a terrific movie.)

(Shut up. It totally was.)