Motorola fixed the thing that bugs Andy Ihnatko about the Moto X

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The Moto G, right, is Motorola’s affordable smartphone: $179 and you own it. No contract. |AP photo/Bebeto Matthews

The launch event that Motorola held at its Chicago headquarters Thursday achieved something I didn’t think any other company would ever pull off: It was (holy cats) an Apple-style media event. It was clear, it was efficient, it was on message. And, it introduced a series of products — newborns as well as updates — that left me with the impression that this was a single company capable of speaking with a single message, expressed consistently across multiple products.

The other thing that made me think “Apple”? All of the hardware that Motorola showed me looks good.

Please take that statement in its proper context. Motorola announced four products: updates to the Moto X and Moto G phones, and two new wearables. I got my samples at about 1 p.m. and spent the afternoon roaming Chicago, giving the Moto 360 smart watch and the new Moto X some good workouts. I’ve noodled with the new Moto G here in my hotel room, and the fourth product — a second wearable device — wasn’t available for review.

I can’t give you any useful opinions on any of this stuff. That’ll come after another week or two of heavy testing. Instead, I’ll give you some news and first impressions.

But yes: All of this stuff looks very good so far. Each of these four devices seems to have a clear reason to exist and a unique role to fulfill. Not even just within the Moto product line, but in a marketplace so crammed with phones and gadgets that a higher life form than I would have run screaming from this job about a year ago.

Let’s dive in!

Moto G

Most of the heat of the phone market is at the high end: The phones that cost north of $500 unlocked and which, realistically, only become affordable when subsidized by a carrier.

The Moto G is part of that interesting new category of handsets built to be sold and owned free and clear. Motorola introduced the first model late last year and it impressed me as a straight-up mainstream phone. Actual users, I reckoned, would have difficulty spotting where Motorola had cut corners.

The 2014 model ups the ante. The CPU is the same quad-core Snapdragon as the original. But it now drives a larger screen (5 inch, 294 pixels per inch, covered with Gorilla Glass). Other new features are a direct result of customer feedback, Motorola says. Its 8 gigs of built-in storage is right on that line between “enough for most users” and ” … oh, that’s a pity.” So now, there’s an expansion slot that accepts microSD cards of up to 32 gigs.

The G has inherited the Moto X’s driving mode. And Motorola says that its worldwide Moto G customers are using their phones as personal radios … so the 2014 model has gained dual front-mounted stereo speaker ports, like those on the HTC One.

The camera is now 8 megapixels and has a wider aperture to let in more light. That’s a welcome addition: I found the camera on last year’s model rather chintzy. Judging solely on the Moto G’s specs, this camera is good for photos that might have a life beyond Instagram.

The Moto G has just one feature that really matters: $179. A good phone that can be owned outright for $179 is, by definition, an important phone … especially in countries that don’t benefit from carrier subsidies. Even if you never put a SIM in it. $179 for a 5-inch media player with GPS and full access to the Google Play library of apps and games is enticing.

Moto X

I held on to my review of the original X because this phone broke my brain a little. I loved that phone. It was compact, well-made, felt great in the hand, and was closest to a perfect implementation of Android among all phones that aren’t sold by Google directly.

But the camera! It was terrible. The camera on my Nexus 5 isn’t a world-beater, but I can make its JPEGs as good as almost anything my iPhone shoots with just a minute or two of adjustments in my desktop photo editor. The pictures shot by the original Moto X were just unsalvageable. It’s like the camera software applied a thin layer of gray grime to everything.

So honestly, all I care about for the sequel is an improvement to the camera. I shot a few dozen pix Thursday afternoon during my Chicago constitutional and I’m heartily encouraged. What I’m seeing on the screen, and what I’m seeing here on my iPad after ingesting these first pix, is what I expect to see from a top-tier phone. I brought a 2013 Moto X (updated with the latest software) along on the walk, and yup, the improvement isn’t subtle:

The new X doesn’t seem to have the same problems as the old one. The top photo was shot with the 2013 Moto X; the bottom, with the new one. | Photos by Andy Ihnatko

It’s still too soon for me to draw a real conclusion, but wow, what a relief.

Oh, right, and there are new specs as well: 13 megapixels instead of just 10, UltraHD video recording, and instead of a single LED illuminator, the lens is surrounded by a “ring flash” of sorts. The box that this feature came in would say that it provides softer and more balanced lighting.

One rather nifty feature, as yet untested by me: a “best shot” background mode. You take a photo and it’s blurry due to motion or someone has their eyes closed. Aha! But the app was secretly taking a few photos before you actually tapped the shutter button. If it realizes that the one you intended to take isn’t as nice as the backups that the camera app took behind the scenes, it’ll suggest one of them.

Proof that Motorola has finally made a Moto X that can take pretty pictures. | Photo by Andy Ihnatko

The things I liked about the 2013 Moto X remain in place. Motorola has been doing some exciting things with gesture behaviors and contextual awareness; it’s 100% committed to the idea that the journey toward phone interface nirvana didn’t end with the development of multitouch. It sets the X apart from all other phones I’ve tried.

The other signature thing about the X is its styling. The 2014 edition retains the original’s curves. The band of aluminum around its perimeter is new. Like the metal band around the iPhone 5S, it houses the device’s antennas. The Moto Maker tool (where you design your own color combinations) also offers leather as an option. My sample is backed in nice, creamy leather that smells like the new wallet that my grandmother used to give me for Christmas on alternate years. It sure contributes to a premium feel.

Something called the Motorola Turbo Charger (capitalize those letters, Andy) promises to put up to eight hours of battery life into a dead Moto X in just 15 minutes. That’s an added accessory. Let’s see if it works. As someone who often forgets that a phone won’t charge if there are too many air molecules between the end of the charging cable and the USB socket on the phone, I’m intrigued.

Launch the camera app just by flicking the phone when you take it out of your pocket. Works a treat and it becomes second nature. Pass your hand over the screen while the phone is on the table and the screen will discreetly tell you which apps have new information for you. It gets to know you, over time, and suggests features that will help you, specifically, out.

The Moto X will be available in the US for $99 with contract. It’s $499 unlocked and off-contract. Motorola will also be releasing a Developer Edition that’s similar to the Google Play versions of HTC and Samsung phones. That model has an unlocked bootloader. It’ll also receive Android updates much faster than the stock Moto X, due to the fact that Motorola will only have to QA it as a generic unlocked international GSM phone.

Being out-and-about with the new Moto X was a good experience and I’m eager to put my SIM in there and start deep-soak testing. It’s already blown my Nexus 5 out of the water. My hotel is inside such a canyon of tall buildings that I wasn’t able to get any data connection whatsoever on my Nexus. Even my iPad can barely squeak out a dial-up-grade connection.

This new Moto X is on the same AT&T network as both of those devices. It’s getting a strong five bars and full LTE speed. Nice first day, wouldn’t you say?

The 360’s like a watch, not like a little phone. |Photo by Andy Ihnatko

Moto 360

Here, finally, is the Android Wear watch that Motorola showed off at Google’s developer conference this summer. I was apprehensive. LG and Samsung were shipping smart watches with square screens. It’s the sort of design that comes to mind when you imagine a smart watch.

The Moto 360 is round, with a 1.56-inch display. There’s never been a computer of any kind with a real, round screen. Was that a good idea? We live in world where information is formatted into squares, you know. And, in photos as well as videos, the thing looked ginormous. Not as big as the tuna cans that I sometimes see on the wrists of tourists here in Boston, but wow, it looked like an off-putting size.

Well. I’ve been wearing the 360 for seven hours and I’m reminded of the reasons why I don’t shoot my mouth off before I’ve actually seen something in person.

The photos and videos lie. The Moto 360 is a substantial watch, sure, but it’s inside the bandwidth of “normal” for watches — given the extreme range of styles you can find in any watch department. I wore it to the Art Institute of Chicago and (due to getting myself lost a lot) I had plenty of conversations with information desk people. They had plenty of opportunities to say “Holy Zarquon’s singing fish! What the hell is that thing on your wrist? Have you escaped from house arrest or something?” but the 360 on my wrist didn’t attract any attention at all.

And it’s super-light. It actually weighs less than the Pebble Steel smart watch that I wore on this trip. I’m still curious to know how female consumers will react to the 360, though. The good news there is that the strap of the watch is just a watch strap, and that it connects to the 360 deeply enough that the watch doesn’t “bridge” over a smaller wrist.

I don’t think I should say very much about the day-to-day experience of using the Moto 360. Because “day-to-day” implies that I’ve used it for more than one day. I haven’t had enough experiences to draw any real conclusions.

Instead, I’ll tell you how the Moto 360 has helped me out Thursday.

Or even just about an hour ago. I remembered that the ship date on the original Moto G was in 2013. But I don’t trust my memory when I’m writing, so I reached for my Nexus phone to do a quick search.

Oh, wait: I have this thing on my wrist. I flicked my wrist to wake the phone (I could have tapped the clickybutton on the side) and said “OK, Google.” The screen switched to a Google Now-style interface. “What year was the Moto G introduced?” Voice-to-text worked quickly and pulled up the relevant piece of information, right on the watch face.

I was relaxing in bed after five hours of walking (4,064 steps … built-in activity tracker. My heart rate is currently 71 beats per minute). I noticed that there was a Google Now card on the watch telling me that my flight home tomorrow is number (so and so) and it’s still on time.

Earlier, in the museum, I wanted to find “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte.” But, um, no, I couldn’t remember the full name of the piece and I didn’t want to look like a dork and ask the info desk “Where’s that big painting from ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’?” Another voice search pulled up the name.

How do I get from Millennium Park to my hotel? Yup, another simple voice command. The watch face hosted turn-by-turn directions (even when the screen was mostly just telling me the time) and when I needed to look at a map, I fished the phone from my pocket and woke it up. The screen was already pointing to Google Maps, with my full route highlighted.

I liked this Moto 360 a lot. It was practical and useful, and by the end of the first hour it became my instinctive tool for answers and information. The goal of a successful wearable is to keep my damn phone inside my pocket, where it usually belongs. This afternoon, the Moto 360 sure acted like a successful wearable. And because it has a Bluetooth range of 150 feet (according to Motorola), in theory you should be able to use the 360 in the kitchen even if your phone is charging on your nightstand upstairs.

My experience validated Motorola’s explanation that they set out to build a wristwatch and not a wearable computer. The round display has this intriguing psychological effect: I regard it like the round analog watch that I wear almost every day. The cool digital stuff just enhances the experience.

Battery life seems to be reasonable. In four hours of regular use, I burned 30% of its capacity, which indicates a full 12-hour day. The included charging station tops up the battery wirelessly. Just drop it in.

But yes: this is just a single day’s experience with the 360. It was a good day, though. I can’t decide if a product is great in a single day, but the stink of a bad piece of tech reeks almost immediately. Suffice to say that I’ll be wearing the 360 home tomorrow. Not because I’m testing it for a “real” review later, but because I actually think it’ll be hella useful as I make my way through a day of airports and being semi-out-of-touch with everyone.

If you don’t care to wait for my real opinion, you can buy the Moto 360 today from, the Google Play store, Best Buy’s online store, or select Best Buy retail stores. It’s $249 with a leather strap, or $299 with your choice of a black or brushed steel watchband.

The 360 let me do useful stuff — like get quick answers via Google voice search — without taking out my phone. |Photo by Andy Ihnatko

Moto Hint

Motorola’s second wearable of the day is, on the face of it, just a wireless Bluetooth headset.

“We wanted to take away the stigma of wearing a headset,” the product manager said. I didn’t have a chance to stick one of the samples in my ear (because, ewww, demo sample). What I saw left me interested, though.

Moto’s Hint earpiece is damn near invisible. | Photo by Andy Ihnatko

The Moto Hint is tiny. So tiny that I was speaking to an engineer elsewhere in Motorola for a full minute without realizing he was wearing one. It sits almost flush with the inner depression of the ear.

It has no clickbuttons; just a capacitive pad that responds to taps (necessary, for example, when using it with the iPhone’s Siri feature). When you put it inside your ear, a sensor powers it up. When you remove it, Hint powers down. Battery life is said to be about 10 hours and it’ll go on sale this fall for $149.

Why call it a “wearable” instead of just a Bluetooth headset? Because when paired with a Motorola phone, it also works kind of like an Android Wear watch: Motorola Assist will ferry curated notifications to the earpiece, and you can also use it for Google Now functionality. Turn-by-turn directions, for example, will be piped right into your ear.

My ears perked up at the Hint announcement. I’ve long believed that device-makers have been missing a trick. A headset has many advantages as a wearable. They can be made to be tiny and discreet, the social stigma against wearing them in public is a fraction of the stigma against consulting your phone, let alone that of something like Google Glass, and unlike the big Moto 360, an earpiece is just as practical for women as it is for men.

File all of these observations away. I like the ideas behind the Moto G and the Moto Hint, and my first day’s experiences with the new Moto X and Moto 360 were highly positive. In the case of the 360, it even turned around the skepticism I felt when I first saw pictures and video of the thing.

It’s easy to make a good impression but very, very hard to sustain those good feeling throughout the daily grind. Soon, the purpose of these products will no longer be “keep me amused by providing me with something different and shiny.” By the end of the weekend, I’m going to be relying on them to actually deliver.

And the worst news for Motorola? Next week, I’m covering Apple’s huge (seriously) iPhone launch event. I can foresee how the 360 will be a big help to me and I’m also wondering if I should throw caution to the wind and commit to using the Moto X as my primary working phone.

What I’m saying here is that this is a hot-lead situation in which Motorola’s products can only be graded pass-fail. I’m jumping out of an airplane with a parachute and if it fails to deploy, I won’t be writing about how pretty the fabric was before the canopy tore itself away from the harness. I will have harsh words.

All I can ask, after one day, is that I have so much enthusiasm for a new product that I actually want to jump into the deep end of the pool with it. And Motorola has certainly achieved that. Bravo.

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