Google's Moto X Super Smartphone - Superman or Clark Kent?

By Tony Rizzo August 02, 2013

As most of us will now know, at an event held in New York City yesterday, Google and its $12.5 billion Motorola Mobility subsidiary finally put the finishing touches on the delivery of the Moto X super smartphone. Our colleague Steve Anderson has put together the details of what makes the Moto X special. If you want the specifications and some insights into Google's marketing budget (along with some cool, short videos) for the Moto X, start with Steve's article and then head on back here. Our goal is to provide some sense of just how super the Moto X is really likely to be…or not be.

When the Moto X becomes available in late August or early September, it will find its way to the shelves of the four major North American wireless carriers - AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint. But only one of these carriers will have a special capability we'll get to in a moment. Given that Verizon Wireless was the original conduit to the public for Motorola's entire series of DROID phones you would not have your hands slapped if you picked them out as the special carrier in the bunch.

But you would be wrong! In fact Google has established as special relationship with AT&T, and it is one that focuses specifically on the Moto X's core strength - customization. At least during the early stages of official availability only AT&T will be able to participate in offering an online-based customization capability dubbed Motomaker.

If you are an AT&T subscriber, before buying you can use Motomaker to pick a front case color (white or black) - which supports a perfectly sized 4.7 inch display and a back cover color (a variety of options, we won't try to name them but one looks like teal and we didn't see anything you might call mauve). You can also customize the colors of various buttons. You can also have a custom message engraved on it (thank you Apple). The entire device also has a water repellant nano-coating.

It's a great gimmick if you are into such customization. By the way, the very nicely curved back case has a very pleasant high-end-feeling rubber texture to it. Google has also been working with a wood products manufacturer to provide several wood-based back cover options - these wood options are really silly in our opinion, but then we view expensive fountain pens the same way and they sell like hotcakes so who are we to judge?

No Gimmicks Beyond Motomaker

As Steve's article points out, the Moto X has some good specs and offers up a very clean Android 4.2.2, but the Moto X is not about specs. There are a number of interesting new features that are not Samsung-like gimmicks but genuinely useful - one is that Motorola has added a sensor that wakes the Moto X up immediately into camera mode by way of simply twisting the device a couple of times and then allowing a user to quickly snap a picture simply by a touch anywhere on the display. The camera itself is not state of the art, offering up only a 10 megapixel sensor, and we have no sense of any onboard camera app capabilities though of course there are plenty of them available on Google Play.

Motorola estimates that this feature reduces the time it typically takes to go from a sleeping phone to having taken a photo from an average of eight to 10 seconds down to no more than two seconds. That is in fact a non-trivial improvement and one we've long wished for.

Second, any time you pick up the Moto X the screen wakes up and provides some useful info - emails or messages waiting to be answered for example. We're not sure how customizable this is - for example we don't know if perhaps one can get Wall Street Journal headlines to be what pops up, for example. It's also a useful feature though we don't find it quite as useful as the quick camera feature.

Finally, Motorola has designed the Moto X to always have the microphone turned on and always waiting for a hands free command. This is pretty cool as well - it makes the Moto X immersive locally with you. One of the short videos provided (again, see Steve's article) demonstrates this and the use cases provided in the video are all dead on for us. Can we ask the Moto X to read us a collection of Wall Street Journal headlines rather than reaching over, waking up the device and getting the WSJ app going? That would be sweet. Taking a cue from Google Glass the Moto X comes alive when it hears you say "OK Google Now."

Google has supposedly allocated half a billion dollars to marketing the Moto X. Apparently it has learned from Samsung that substantial marketing (emphasis on "substantial") truly helps to get the message out into the consumer markets. It remains to be seen what Google has in store for us on the advertising side but we hope it centers on fun.

Superman or Clark Kent?

Is any of what the Moto X offers enough to compel us to switch from our iPhones? Before we answer that, let's return to the question posed in our headline - is the Moto X super smartphone Superman or Clark Kent? To answer the question, it is instructive to think for a few moments about the mythology of Superman. If you are a Quentin Tarantino fan and you've seen “Kill Bill Volume 2,” you know what we're talking about. If you need a refresher or haven't seen the movie, the following audio clip provides the related dialog.

We love that clip! So then, where does the Moto X stand? Unfortunately we don't quite find it to be Superman. The reason we don't is that as nice as the new features are there isn't anything here that is either so unique to Motorola that Apple, Nokia, Samsung, HTC or anyone else can't deliver on if they chose to do so. Google Now is certainly more advanced than the current iteration of Siri, but who knows what Apple will uncover with its next iPhone.

That leaves us with the costume. Both Motorola and Google are relying heavily on the desire of consumers to want to customize their phones to the degree that Motomaker actually allows you to do so. Taking in the essence of the Kill Bill clip this means that the Moto X is going to rely on the customizable costume to become the super phone. So it isn't Superman after all, but rather the Clark Kent persona (and the one thing we consider gimmicky about the phone) that manifests itself through the Moto X.

Our experience has long been that adults don't for the most part spend a lot of time on customization issues. Kids and teens certainly do - and yes, we know some adults who still think they are in their 20s who will buy into the customization, but we don’t believe this is the market that is going to put Motorola Mobility on the same footing as Samsung and Apple. It will heavily challenge Nokia on the Lumia front however for an extremely modest third place position.

The Moto X, though nicely priced at $199, is not our idea of what we're going to give our kids - a $49 Lumia in any of its available bright colors would be our choice. As for ourselves and our adult family members we'll be able to pick up Apple's next flagship iPhone at that same price point in any case. For diehard Samsungers, Samsung will remain top dog.

And as nice as what Motorola and Google have created from an exterior perspective, in no way, shape or form does the Moto X offer up the luxury and jewel-like feel of the flagship iPhone - all the more so the case if the next iPhone ends up with a look and feel anywhere close to what we noted in our recent Apple curved device article. Nor can we let go of the iOS ecosystem - which is not something the Moto X can possibly cause us to want to give up. This will be true for more or less all iPhone users.

In the “Kill Bill,” clip Bill states that Clark Kent represents Superman's critique of the human race. The Moto X isn't quite such a thing and will serve enormously well instead as a positive critique of Motorola and its likely future within Google. Look for it to knock Nokia out of third place from a pure Google/Motorola brand perspective. As an Android device it will simply add to Android's already top position overall as the top seller in the smartphone and tablet market.

The Moto X as Clark Kent captures it pretty well.

And for us, Apple remains Superman.

Edited by Alisen Downey

TechZone360 Senior Editor

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