Motorola Moto X review: Listen up - your phone is paying attention to everything you say

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David Phelan on the killer app that is this smartphone's standout feature

How much do you listen? Do you ever drift off while chatting to a loved one? Shame on you. If you have the new Motorola Moto X smartphone, it’s listening more than you are.

The Moto X, even if it’s in standby mode with the screen blank, is keeping an ear out for your every word. Creepy, huh? But it’s also the killer app on the new handset.

I mean, don’t worry, it’s not waiting to hear your bank card pin code or anything. It’s just waiting, like an adoring lapdog, in case it hears the magic words that bring joy to its heart. If it does hear them, it leaps into action. The words are “Okay, Google Now.” The phone responds with a bong so you know it’s listening and it’s ready to answer your next spoken question – you don’t need to even touch the phone. And it’s a good listener. It never failed to hear me say the key phrase, even from across the room. And once I got used to the right timing (don’t speak until the bong has finished, and do NOT pause when you ask your question as it’ll think you’re done), it worked amazingly.

Google Now knows a lot of stuff that it can say, like the height of the Eiffel Tower and the time in Houston, Texas. And much more that it can’t speak, in which case the screen shows the printed answer.

It can’t, unlike Siri, handle supplementary questions, so you have to start the whole process again by speaking the phrase and asking a whole new question.

With Google Now, the Motorola X is able to answer basic questions - but conversations with your computer are still a way off.

But it’s unquestionably an impressive and delightful feature that augurs well for a future where smartphones and tablets can benignly listen in to answer questions before we even realise we’ve wondered about them.

It’s the standout feature on this handset, though it’s not the only headline-grabber.

For a start, this is a handsomely designed phone which takes style tips from earlier Motorola models: a display that goes to the very edges of the front of the device, a curved back, complete with dimpled circular Moto logo and two more circles directly above for the camera lens and flash.

The 4.7in display is decent but not outstanding, not least because its 720x1280 pixel screen is no match for the full HD displays of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One – both phones heading for their first birthdays. Still, the 312 pixels per inch mean it’s screen resolution is just behind that of the iPhone’s Retina display, and it struggles in bright sunlight unlike, say, the Nokia Lumia 1020.

The camera is a 10-megapixel model and though that beats rivals like the iPhone 5s and HTC One, it’s way behind the 20.7-megapixel sensor on the Sony Xperia Z1 (and Z1 Compact), not to mention the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020. And image quality is not as pristine or effective as the iPhone 5s manages.

Still, it has another very cool interface feature – the phone launches faster than on any other smartphone I’ve tried. That’s because instead of waking the screen and then launching the camera, as on many phones, or long-pressing the trigger on Windows Phone handsets, here it’s all in the wrist action. Pick the phone up and with a double flick of the wrist the phone wakes up, launches the camera (with a pleasant vibration effect) and is ready to shoot. You can even zoom one-handed by swiping your thumb up or down on the display. There are extra features like burst mode and HDR which improve things. Even so, this camera delivers good, but not the very best results.

Different colored examples of Motorola's new Moto X phones rest on a table at a launch event in New York

Special interface features also include the notifications that show when the screen is sleeping. When an email comes in, the phone pings and shows an email icon. Touch the screen, without waking it and it’ll show you the sender and subject line so you don’t have to wake the phone unless you really want to read the missive. Neat.

Performance is strong throughout this phone, including its full-day battery life which seems unaffected by all that listening the phone does and its processor which was consistently efficient and nippy.

There’s one other thing: nestling on the home screen is an icon marked Windy Day. It’s amazing. It’s just a cartoon about a mouse and red hat being blown relentlessly around. But as you move the phone, your view of the landscape changes. There’s a full 360-degree cartoon world to explore, though the action is where the mouse is. Turn away and the music and sound effects fade, though you may see characters secondary to the main story. It’s beautifully done, and utterly captivating. I’m not saying it’s worth buying the phone for Windy Day alone, but if you have the handset, it’s unmissable.

Overall, some may feel the similarly priced but slightly more powerful Google Nexus 5 is a better choice, though the Moto X’s styling is pretty convincing. And this is an effective and pretty cool phone that’s definitely worth checking out, if only to test the wrist-flicking camera action and the response when you say “Okay Google Now”.

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