What is a breakthrough smartphone? Does it have the latest and greatest hardware components, along with an eye-popping list of features you've never seen before? Or does it change things in a more subtle and calculated way? Like, say, giving you thoughtful new features that actually change the way you use a smartphone? as we go hands-on to compare two phones that represent each of those camps, the Motorola Moto X and Samsung Galaxy S4.
Where's the sweet spot?
If you owned a smartphone in 2010, and you also own one today, odds are you have a bigger screen today. Maybe much bigger. There's a lot to like about this great screen size arms race of ours, but one unfortunate casualty has been comfort in hand.
Here we have two different approaches to this conundrum. With the Galaxy S4, Samsung prioritized screen size. We still find the GS4 fairly comfortable to hold, but it's more like "comfortable to hold for a phone with a big five-inch screen."
We find the Moto X, meanwhile, to be extremely comfortable to hold, period. The tradeoff is a smaller screen than the GS4 (more on that in a minute), but we think the Moto X is going to hit a very nice sweet spot for a lot of people. Its screen is still much bigger than that phone you had three years ago, but it might also be more comfortable to hold than that iPhone 4or HTC Evo 4G ever was.
The Moto X foregoes the smartphone thinness arms race (waged alongside that screen size war), and focuses more on ergonomics. The result is a phone with a smooth, curved back that we think feels terrific in hand. It's been a while since we've tested a phone that's such a pleasure to hold, and it really reminds us how much hand comfort has been pushed to the backburner of late.
Each of these phones weighs 130 g (4.59 oz). On the Galaxy S4, though, that weight spread out over eight percent more surface area. So its relativeweight is a bit lighter, for whatever that's worth.
There are smartphone comparisons where weight is a big consideration, but we don't think you need to worry too much here. Both phones feel light in hand, and there are much bigger differences to base your decision on.
Neither phone is going to threaten the aluminum HTC One or iPhone 5 in terms of "premium" build materials. Here we have two plastic phones, neither of which is screaming at you how much it cost to make.
We don't have a big problem with plastic smartphones, but we also know you might disagree. On the plus side, plastic keeps weight down, and lets manufacturers focus their budgets on other areas. We also tend to worry a bit less about keeping plastic smartphones in pristine condition, and focus a bit more on enjoying the dang things.
But with that said, don't expect to pick up either the Moto X or Galaxy S4, and have a "holy crap, this thing belongs in a museum!" moment. Take that for what you will.
Made to order
You can't talk about the Moto X's plastic build without also mentioning the sheer variety that some Moto X shoppers have to choose from. You might have heard about Moto Maker, the website that lets you design your own custom Moto X.
The things you can do with Moto Maker are all cosmetic, but we still think it's a lot of fun, and something a lot of customers will gravitate towards. It lets you pick your phone's front color (black or white), back color (18 options), and accent color (seven options). They're all plastic for now, but it stretches outside of the familiar black or white box, and lets you design a phone that reflects your personality.
The Galaxy S4 is available primarily in black or white, but depending on your region and carrier, you might also have the option of something like Autumn Brown (Verizon) or Red Aurora (AT&T). That's more options than a lot of phones give you, but it's nothing compared to the 252 color combinations you can build in Moto Maker.
After building your own Moto X, it's assembled in Texas, and shipped to your doorstep. Motorola originally advertised a four day turnaround, but unfortunately the company has reneged on that, now saying "initial shipping times may vary" due to initial high demand.
The only other problem is that carrier politics reared its ugly head, and Moto Maker is an AT&T exclusive at launch (and the Moto X itself is a US exclusive). Moto Maker will hit at least Verizon, and possibly other carriers, by the end of the year.
But at the time of this publication, non-AT&T Moto X shoppers are stuck with a very standard set of options: black or white. Yep, it's a bummer when carrier exclusives narrow your options for enjoying a phone's most exciting feature.
There's no question that the Galaxy S4 has the bigger and better screen. The Moto X's 4.7-inch screen gives you 88 percent as much screen real estate as the GS4's 5-inch screen does. That difference, though, is accentuated further by the Moto X's persistent onscreen navigation bar. The GS4 has physical and capacitive buttons below the screen, so apps get to use the full area.
The GS4's screen is also much sharper. Its 1080p screen gives you 125 percent more pixels than the Moto X's 720p screen.
On paper, the GS4's display is a huge victory, and we think it's noticeable in experience too. But that margin isn't as high as you might expect. The Moto X's 313 pixels per inch (PPI) screen is only a little less dense than the iPhone's 326 PPI display, and you don't hear too many complaints about it. It's approaching that threshold where your eyes can't discern individual pixels, so everything looks pretty darn sharp. It just isn't as ridiculously sharp as the GS4.
Both phones have AMOLED displays, which generally means heightened color saturation and deep blacks. The phone also doesn't have to use any power when displaying blacks, which opens the door to another one of the Moto X's coolest features ...
Moto X Active display
Sometimes innovation solves a problem. Other times it creates a problem. By that we mean it takes something that once seemed good enough, and provides a new solution that suddenly makes the old way seem outdated.
That's how we'd classify the Moto X's Active Display. On other smartphones, it was never a big deal to press the power button to view our notifications, or to have the screen light up when a new text or email came in. But after using Active Display, it's hard to go back to that.
Active Display is a subtle notification on your phone's screen while it's sleeping. With most of the screen pitch black, Active Display fades your notifications in and out, intermittently. If you don't have any notifications, Active Display shows the time. If you do have notifications, it shows the time, plus an icon that lets you know what kind of message you received.
Press your finger on the notification icon, and you'll get a longer preview of the message. You can then drag towards the preview to view (and reply to) the full message. You can also drag down to unlock your phone normally. Or just release your finger to let the phone go back to sleep.
The real beauty of Active Display, though, comes from Motorola's use of sensors. If your phone is in your pocket, your screen will stay black. When you pull your phone out of your pocket, you'll see Active Display. If your phone is facing down, the screen is black. If you flip it over or pick it up, you'll see Active Display.
You can even set it to turn off during the hours you're typically asleep, though we found that leaving it on during the night wasn't the least bit intrusive. Again, most of the screen is black, so it's a very subtle light that fades on and off of the screen.
Active Display is handy and intuitive. It's the kind of feature that has us excited about the new Google-owned Motorola. Excluding unofficial and unsupported hacks, the Galaxy S4 has no comparable feature.
Performance treads the same path as displays. The Galaxy S4 has the advantage, but in regular, day-to-day use, we think the Moto X packs plenty of punch for most typical, non-geek customers.
On both devices, apps open quickly, web scrolling is smooth, and navigating around the operating system is a snap. You'll be hard-pressed to find an ounce of lag. Every game we played ran smoothly on both phones, with nary a single framerate hiccup. In a way, we think the Moto X almostfeels like the snappier phone, just because its software is much leaner (more on that in a minute).
We aren't too worried about benchmarks these days, but for those keeping score, the GS4 outperformed the Moto X as expected, in Geekbench 3 (GS4: 1904, Moto X: 1250).
Even though the Galaxy S4 wins the performance round, we wouldn't recommend letting that weight too heavily in your decision. In our testing, performance just isn't a problem at all with the Moto X. You're comparing very fast and very smooth to extremely fast and extremely smooth.
We could write a book on the software features Samsung threw into the Galaxy S4's software. TouchWiz, Samsung's thick UI layer pasted on top of Android 4.2, is all bells, whistles, kitchen sinks, and, well, gimmicks.
That isn't to say there isn't some good stuff in there. The Galaxy S4's camera app is the highlight. It has a ton of shooting modes, and they all work pretty much as advertised. We're talking a portrait mode that smooths the subject's skin, an eraser that removes unwanted people from public shots, and even a sports mode that simulates a much better camera's high shutter speed.
As for the rest of TouchWiz's features, well, they sure make for good commercials. Air Gesture lets you answer a call with the wave of a hand, but it's so finnicky that unless you're in the middle of kneading cookie dough, you're much better off just touching the damn screen. Air View lets you preview certain things by hovering your finger over the screen, but we found it unnecessary and turned it off. Smart Scroll tracks your eyes to scroll through web pages when you get to the bottom, but it was also too inconsistent to bother with.
You get the picture: gimmicks, gimmicks, way too many menus, and more gimmicks. This is TouchWiz, the great bloated wonder, and we see it as one of the Galaxy S4's weakest points.
There is, however, an alternative. Samsung now sells a Google Play Editionof the GS4 which changes the entire experience. It runs stock Android, just like a Nexus device.
When you switch to the Google Play Edition (or install its firmware on a rooted GS4, as we did), it's like your phone just came back from Weight Watchers. All of the unnecessary feature creep vanishes. Menus are concise and to the point. Navigating around your apps and home screen becomes a pleasure, as everything is crisper and more responsive. About the only drawback to the software is that you miss out on Samsung's camera features (the stock Android camera app is still pretty barebones).
Unfortunately there's a really big catch with the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition: you can only buy it off-contract from, yep, Google Play. Oh, and did we mention that you'll need to fork over US$650 for the contract-free, unlocked phone? It's a bummer that its high price and limited availability will have most customers missing out on the leaner, simpler, and zippier version of one of the best phones of the year.
If the GS4's software has your head spinning, one alternative would be to join the Moto X side. Like the GS4 Google Play Edition, Motorola's new flagship runs (more or less) stock Android. But rather than throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something will stick, as Samsung did, Motorola focused on a few key features that we think you'll actually want to use.
We already mentioned Active Display, which puts your notifications just a glance away. But there's also Touchless Control, which we like almost as much. Touchless Control lets you activate the voice control portion of Google Now without touching your phone.
After training the phone to recognize your voice, say "Okay, Google Now" and, as long as you're in earshot of your phone, it should start listening for whatever you're asking. You can do things like place calls, send messages, play music (from any default music app you choose), and start Google Maps navigation.
In our experience, Touchless Control worked well most of the time. There were a few times where it didn't respond, but most of the time all was well. Someone else can also activate it by impersonating your voice, but that's rare and not likely to be a concern in day-to-day experience.
Our biggest complaint about Touchless Control is that you often end up having to pick up your phone anyway to continue whatever it was you asked for. For example, if you're sending a text, you have to view the dictated message and touch your screen to confirm. There's no option to read it back to you and confirm by voice. And any general question that Google Now can't respond to by voice just gives you a list of web search results. We can imagine these annoyances improving over time, as more and more of Google Now presumably becomes voice-based.
Another handy Moto X feature is Motorola Assist. Also found on Motorola'snew line of Droids, Assist is the spiritual successor to the company's oldSmart Actions. Whereas the more complicated Smart Actions let you customize your own "if this then that" commands from a variety of options, Assist gives you a handful of options based on three conditions: driving, at a meeting, and sleeping.
So if you're driving (which the Moto X will sense), your phone will read your message out loud and tell you who's calling (with the option of sending an automated text). If you have a meeting on your calendar, your phone will silence itself during that time. Likewise, you can set your typical bedtime hours, and silence your Moto X during those hours. The best part: you can set exceptions to the nighttime silence mode, like people on your favorites list, or people who call twice (read: emergency).
In a nutshell, the Moto X outdoes TouchWiz's bloated bag of tricks with only three or four really smart software features. You get the sense that Samsung made a list of features that could be construed as "innovative," and threw as many of them in as it could. Motorola, meanwhile, we easily imagine Motorola's engineers starting with the simple question of "how can we make the smartphone experience better?" Of course we don't know what really went on behind closed doors, but that gets to the core of how we view these two phones' identities.
What better way to learn about the phones' cameras than to jump straight into some sample shots ...
The bottom line: the Moto X's camera isn't all that impressive. Its colors look washed out, many shots look like they were processed with a surface blur filter (that pasty appearance we mentioned), and it doesn't capture as much detail. Apart from poorly-lit scenes, we'd rate the GS4's camera as clearly superior.
The Moto X's camera does, however, have an ace up its sleeve, and it has nothing to do with image quality. One of the most clever features of the Moto X is that you can activate the camera app by simply twisting your wrist back and forth, while holding the phone. It works from anywhere, even if the screen is turned off.
In our experience, the gesture works as advertised (visualizing a back-and-forth turn of a doorknob helps), and we never activated the camera by mistake. It's another one of those thoughtful little touches that makes the Moto X transcend the sum of its parts. It takes that pesky distance between sleeping smartphone and snapped picture, and traverses it on a high-speed superhighway.
Motorola is talking a big game with its claims of 24 hours of Moto X battery life (with "mixed usage"). We're thinking that must be a pretty ideal mix, because 24 hours might be stretching it a a bit based on our experience. With that said, though, we still saw some very nice uptimes compared to rival smartphones.
In our standard battery life test, we streamed video continuously with brightness set at 75 percent, and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular radios turned on. In this test, the Moto X lasted five hours and 33 minutes, while the Galaxy S4 chugged along for just four hours and ten minutes.
Under more casual use, we found the Moto X to easily last a full day (as in wake-to-sleep day). Many high-end smartphones these days will do that under typical usage, but with the Moto X, we were less worried about running out of gas during those final hours. It delivers very good uptimes, generally at least a few notches above the GS4's solid battery life.
Does the Moto X really last 24 hours? Who knows. If you don't do anything too taxing, have a strong, consistent cellular signal, and stay away from streaming and GPS navigation, then sure, that could be a fair estimate. If you deviate from any of those conditions, though, you can still rest easy knowing your Moto X should still be holding a charge when you juice it up at night.
We aren't here to crown a "winner," but we can give you a better idea of what you're getting from each phone.
Even four months after its release, the Galaxy S4 still delivers one of the best overall smartphone packages around. Its performance and display are among the best in class, its camera is everything you'd expect from a high-end 2013 smartphone, and it's very light for its size. If you can live with its bloated and unnecessary software features, you're looking at a phone that's still hard to beat.
The Moto X, meanwhile, turns the Android smartphone narrative on its head. Its specs would have been a half-step back from the cutting-edge a year ago; today many have gone so far as to label it mid-range.
But Motorola wisely realized that smartphones hit "more than good enough" points in several key categories a while back. There's nothing wrong with continuing to push those boundaries, but your typical smartphone shopper will probably do just fine without a 1080p display and a screaming octa-core processor. Features like Active Display, Touchless Control, and Moto Assist are truly useful in day-to-day use. They manage to change the way you use your smartphone, something that's increasingly difficult to do.
We can see many customers preferring the Galaxy S4, and many others enjoying the Moto X. Hell, you could even make a very convincing argument that the Google Play Edition of the Galaxy S4 is the real winner here. No matter where your preferences lie, though, we get the feeling that Motorola just upped the ante. A struggling vendor gets a Google-powered shot of espresso and, accompanied by an insane marketing budget, is doing some of the most exciting things the smartphone market has seen in a while.
If you're leaning towards the Galaxy S4, then you can check out our similar Under the Microscope comparisons between it and the HTC One andiPhone 5. Ready to go Moto? Then be sure to check out our Moto X reviewand Moto Maker hands-on.