Nexus 5 vs. Moto X: A real-world comparison

Nexus 5 vs. Moto X

For many of us in the Android community, a new Android phone is both a blessing and a curse. It gives us something fresh and exciting to drool over, sure -- but it also gives us an agonizing decision to make.

Such is the conundrum with the new Nexus 5 vs. the Google-made Moto X. Two very different phones, both with near-stock Android experiences and plenty of appealing qualities. So which is the best one to get?

Unfortunately, there's no easy universal answer to that question. What we can do, though, is consider how the phones compare in real-world terms -- and hopefully thus figure out which one is best for you.

After spending quite a bit of time with both devices, here are the five areas I'd focus on in order to reach a verdict:

1. Display

Nexus 5 vs. Moto X Displays

The Nexus 5 has a 4.95-in. 1080p IPS LCD display while the Moto X has a 4.7-in 720p AMOLED screen. On paper, the Nexus 5 obviously has the advantage with its 1080p label. In reality, however, it's not quite so clear cut.

First, remember that we're reaching a point where phones have more pixels per inch than the human eye can actually detect. The Moto X, at 316ppi, is well above the often cited 300ppi threshold for human visibility (recent iPhones, for perspective, have 326ppi; that's what Apple heavily markets as "Retina" quality). Both phones have screens that look crisp, clear, and bright; quite honestly, I suspect most people wouldn't be able to notice the difference in resolution.

What you do notice is the difference in the devices' underlying display technology. The Moto X's AMOLED display has warmer tones, deeper blacks, and far more rich and saturated colors. Even the black text on a Web page appears darker and thicker on the Moto X's screen.

The Nexus 5's LCD display, in contrast, has more pure whites -- whites on the Moto X look almost grayish in comparison -- and generally more true-to-life coloring. When you hold it next to the Moto X, it looks brighter and less contrasty but also somewhat more washed out, particularly when viewing colorful images, due to the lower (though arguably more realistic) levels of saturation. Neither approach is inherently better, but they're definitely very different; ask around and you'll find enthusiasts who passionately swear by both types of technology.

AMOLED screens tend to be tougher to see outdoors, incidentally, but the Moto X performs respectably well in glary conditions; holding the phones side by side together outside on a sunny day, I can see both screens equally well. The only difference is when the sun is shining directly on the displays, in which case the Nexus 5's LCD panel has a slight (and rather subtle) advantage.

2. Size and style

Nexus 5, Moto X

The Nexus 5 is meaningfully bigger than the Moto X; the tradeoff, of course, is that the N5 gives you significantly more screen space, which can be nice. And in perspective, it's still a perfectly manageable size of device to tote around.

In terms of style, while both phones take a decidedly minimalist approach to hardware design, their vibes are quite different. I find the Moto X to be a bit more ergonomical, with its narrow frame, rounded edges, and curved back, but both devices use a comfortable soft-touch rubberized plastic casing and feel good in the hand. The Moto X does offer the opportunity for a wide range of color customization, if that's your thing; it's also expected to be available with a real wood back before the year's over, which is certainly interesting.

3. Software

This one's significant: The Nexus 5 runs Android 4.4 KitKat as Google's Android team designed it -- which, in this case, means the phone has a slightly different UI than other KitKat devices will get. That said, the KitKat elements that are currently exclusive to the N5 really aren't that big of a deal; in fact, if your usage habits are anything like mine, you may actually find them to be mildly annoying at times (though to be fair, all it takes is a custom launcher to get them out of your way).

Moto X Touchless Control

The Moto X pretty much sticks to the stock Google Android UI but adds in some compelling software features. Most notable is its Touchless Control option, which lets you wake the phone anytime with your voice and then control it by speaking (the Nexus 5 has a similar voice-activation mechanism, but its version works only when the phone is on and actively on the home screen, which makes it far less useful). The phone can detect when you're driving, too, and automatically spring its voice-control system into full hands-free action.

The Moto X also boasts Active Display, which causes notifications to periodically flash on your phone's screen for your viewing and/or dismissing. I've found it to be a much more useful system for getting notifications than the typical flashing LED light, which is what the Nexus 5 uses.

(There are apps out there that kinda-sorta let you emulate those features, by the way, but they're generally pretty poor imitations of the experience with inconsistent performance and inefficient power usage. The Moto X's hardware-level integration is key.)

There's also the issue of upgrades to consider: As a Nexus device, the Nexus 5 will get future OS upgrades directly from Google's Android team within a couple weeks of their release. Motorola is promising to be speedy with its upgrades -- the company has said it'll have KitKat to the Moto X "in a matter of weeks" -- but it's still always going to be a step behind the Nexus lineup, especially once you factor in the carriers.

I never thought I'd say this, but for me, Moto's approach to the Android OS actually beats out the stock Android experience. The company managed to modify the Android software in meaningful ways that add value without requiring unnecessary compromise; you're getting the same clean stock-like UI but with some innovative and practical functionality added in.

4. Other hardware odds and ends

If you're into specs, the Nexus 5's impressive under-the-hood hardware is bound to get your motor running; it definitely has the more wow-inducing spec sheet of the two. In terms of real-world performance, both phones feel satisfyingly snappy and speedy; no one using the Moto X would complain that the phone is in any way slow. If you use the phones side by side, the N5 sometimes pulls slightly ahead -- but it's a sporadic thing, and you really have to be looking closely in controlled circumstances to notice the difference.

The devices' cameras are in the same general league -- acceptable but not outstanding. The Nexus 5 does a little better in some scenarios, but neither device is one you're going to buy explicitly for its image-capturing capabilities.

The same goes for battery life: Both phones should get you through the day most of the time, with normal to moderately heavy usage. I'd say the Moto X has the slight advantage, but they're both in the same "average" to "slightly above average" ballpark.

The Moto X has the better speaker. Still nothing to write home about, but it beats the N5 hands-down in that domain.

Finally, the Nexus 5 has wireless charging; the Moto X does not. Something to keep in mind on your mental checklist.

5. Price

This last one's a biggie: If you're planning to buy your phone off-contract, you're going to end up spending considerably less on the Nexus 5. Google sells the device unlocked for $349 to $399. Getting the Moto X off-contract, in contrast, will run you around $500 ($550 if you want the Developer Edition).

The Nexus 5 is an unusually good deal, and that's something you really have to take into account. If you prefer to buy your phones on-contract, it probably won't matter as much to you; you can get the Moto X for $99 with a two-year agreement from most carriers at the moment. But in terms of actual base-cost value, particularly for those of us who prefer the more economical prepaid plan route, the Nexus 5 is in a league of its own.

All considered, I'd say this: The Nexus 5 offers a lot of compelling elements. The Moto X offers a compelling overall package.

So which one to get? Tough call. Each device has its own set of pros and cons, and only you can figure out which better suits your needs. Hopefully thinking through these areas makes it a little less murky.

Android Power Twitter

The good news is that between these two devices, you really can't go wrong. Either way, you're getting a great phone and an admirable user experience.

For a more detailed look at what each device is like to use, check out my hands-on coverage:

Nexus 5 deep-dive review: Does Google's new flagship phone deliver?

Hands on: What makes the Moto X so special

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Windows 10 annoyances and solutions
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.