Friday, May 2, 2014

Last Year's Phones: Nexus 5 and Moto X

The Lay of the Android Land

These phone comparisons have been done to death, so I'm going to come at this from a different angle. The touchscreen smartphone market has matured. In the Android space, the new Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 are both rather incremental improvements over their predecessors. With unlocked prices well above USD $600 for these new flagships, one might reasonably consider paying half that amount for one of last year's finest.

Personally, I'm a stickler for a near-stock Android experience. Samsung provides a hodgepodge of their own multiple UI efforts along with the mandated Google pieces. Other vendors provide their own enhanced experience. All of this equates to lock-in. After many years of Apple's iDevice, iTunes, App Store lock-in, I refuse to go back. Thankfully, we have our Google Nexus branded devices, Google Play Edition devices, and soon Android Silver. Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility aided the demise of the Motoblur UI in favor of a value-added, near-stock Android experience. Let's hope Lenovo, as the new owner of Motorola, stays the course.

Anyway, enough background. As an early adopter of the LG-made Nexus 5, I'm now transitioning to the slightly older and lower-spec Moto X. My home's metal siding and roof make for very poor indoor signal. Republic Wireless provides a clever solution, and their customization requires a Moto X or G. Thankfully, prices on the Moto X have dropped significantly since its introduction. Both the Moto X and Nexus 5 are in the $300-400 range without contract. Now, on to the phones.

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Use

Nexus 5 (left) and Moto X (right)
With its 4.95-inch display, the Nexus 5 is a somewhat larger device than the 4.7-inch Moto X. Some have critiqued the N5's "lack of style." To this, I must respectfully disagree. The Nexus 5 is a debadged, dechromed, monochromatic slab of a device. This in itself is a style statement. This is a device that exudes power without ostentation, making some competitors look like they're overcompensating. The only other distinguishing features are the the circular ear hole speaker and the unfortunate bezel "chin" extending below the display. The slightly rubberized back are sides are nicely grippy, if a little bit wide and angular in the hand.

The Moto X, on the other hand, has an understated class... and sexy curves. Its slightly rubberized back has a simulated carbon fiber look. The curvature not only feels perfect in the hand but is practical as well, encasing a stacked battery. The front glass extends to the sides, making them somewhat more slick than the N5. My only complaint would be the slightly too obvious microphone hole in the lower left of the front glass. If the N5 is a muscle car, the X is a sleek luxury coupe.

Upon use, the relatively minor size difference between these two devices appears to magnify. The ~5-inch display and full HD resolution bring the N5 into borderline phablet territory. Phone apps can feel like they're underutilizing the display. As an example, the Amazon store app feels limiting in a way that it just doesn't on the Moto X. The N5 is crying out for the ability to choose between phone and tablet apps. Thus, in the current state of the Android ecosystem, the Moto X is great as a phone and the Nexus 5 is a near-phablet that can't run tablet apps. Here's hoping that Google figures this out. This issue may not be obvious to users until they've had their phone for a while.

Display Comparison

Aside from the 0.25-inch size difference, display resolution and technology contribute to the perceived differences mentioned above. The N5's 1080p IPS LCD display makes small text and detail highly visible. Extended periods of reading are not a problem. The front glass is a perhaps a little more reflective than ideal, and the backlight can only get so dim for nighttime use, a typical issue with LCDs.

The Moto X sports a 720p AMOLED display. Text is less clear than on the N5, partly owing to the lower resolution and partly to obvious color fringing around object edges. It's not clear to me whether this is more an artifact of intentional anti-aliasing or the nature of the AMOLED subpixel matrix itself. The AnandTech review of the Moto X is informative.

Thus, the Moto X is definitely no e-reader. That all said, AMOLED has some benefits that are put to good advantage by Motorola. Blacks are black (no backlight), and display power draw is proportional to the number of subpixels lit. This sets the stage for Motorola's exclusive Active Display feature. With the display off, motion sensing and software are able to detect when the user has picked up or unpocketed the phone. The display then kicks in to show the current time and notification updates in white on an otherwise dark background. Just pick up or nudge the device and you'll get status without touching a single button or tapping the display. This is both useful and seriously cool.

Voice Controls: Ok Google (Now?)

Both the Nexus 5 and Moto X allow voice control of a number of phone and search operations. With the N5 switched on, unlocked, and at the home screen, the Google Now Launcher will respond to a spoken command of "Ok Google" followed by a directive or query. This experience is awkward to say the least. Once one has pressed the button to wake the phone and exited the current app by touching the home icon, is it really helpful to speak to the phone instead of just use it?

Once again, Motorola adds a feature that addresses real world use cases. The Moto X contains a subprocessor that is always listening for the phrase "Ok Google Now." It's necessary to train it, and perhaps the additional "now" was added to further prevent this feature from triggering accidentally. Still, this turns voice control from a novelty into a truly useful feature. I'm even finding myself saying "Ok Google Now, launch app-name" as I reach to pick the phone up from the desk, saving precious seconds. Can you tell I like this feature yet? I'm hoping this works decently with background noise in the car.

Miscellany and Conclusion

Cameras on both phones are passable, not great. It's a pity that so many OEMs are cutting costs and corners on sensor elements, optics, and imaging software/firmware. There are many reviews and comparisons out there with images taken from these and competitive phones.

Processing performance on both the N5 and Moto X seems entirely acceptable. They are subjectively faster than the 2013 Nexus 7. Benchmark results are available out there. The Moto X loses the spec war by having only two general purpose processing cores versus the more common four (or eight) in today's flagship devices. I can attest that browsing with Chrome, an activity that benefits from parallelism, does appear faster on the four core N5. For other activities it's kind of a wash. Looking purely at specs yields little practical information, as mobile processing is severely limited by power and cooling constraints.

Battery performance is somewhat low on both of these devices. The Moto X should do slightly better than the N5, but I don't have enough data yet to draw any conclusions. I'd generally accept a little more thickness and weight on all fixed battery devices to reduce mid/late-day charging hassle.

To draw some final conclusions, the Moto X is a great last-gen phone with some very unique features. Discounts have allowed this device to stay appealing despite it's age. The LG-made Nexus 5 is a very capable near-phablet with great potential. One hopes that future firmware updates will permit the N5 to come closer to realizing the potential of its hardware.