Moto X Pure Edition review: A clever phone with a killer price

It isn't perfect, but Motorola's latest flagship has a lot of compelling qualities -- and considerable bang for the buck.

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Software that shines

Even with the display-related quirk, the Moto X Pure Edition manages to deliver an exceptional software experience. The phone follows Motorola's now-familiar method of sticking with Google's clean and clutter-free Android Lollipop (5.1.1) user interface, with no arbitrary visual modifications and only a small handful of excellent features added into the mix.

Beyond the aforementioned Moto Display system, highlights include Moto Voice -- an expanded version of Google's Android voice control system that lets you set your own custom launch phrase for waking your phone -- and a new pivot-and-twist gesture that allows you to use the voice command system discreetly by speaking directly into the phone (as though you were making a call) and then hearing responses in the earpiece instead of through the loudspeaker. There's also a handy system for having your phone automatically detect when you're driving and then switch itself into a fully hands-free voice-controlled state -- something all smartphones should provide.

The common thread with all of Motorola's feature additions is that they're clever, genuinely useful and completely unobtrusive. They make your phone a little bit smarter without getting in the way or venturing into silly gimmick territory, as many other manufacturers' efforts tend to do.

Similarly, it's what missing as much as what's present that makes the Moto X delightful to use, particularly in this new Pure Edition -- no bloat, no overlapping services and no carrier-added garbage. It's just an attractive, intuitive and all-around pleasant user experience from the moment you power the phone on.

And while Motorola's reputation for providing lightning-fast Android upgrades took a major hit with the Lollipop release, the company has renewed its commitment to making speedy rollouts a priority. Motorola says the new Moto X's completely carrier-independent nature will allow it to avoid extra variables (cough, cough, carriers) that slow the process down.

Performance, stamina and photography

I do have to mention one unexpected downside: While the phone itself is fast and snappy, system animations are surprisingly jerky at times. I've noticed some very apparent and consistent stuttering when opening the app drawer or swiping to Google Now from the home screen as well as when scrolling through cards in the Overview (a.k.a. Recent Apps) list.

It isn't anything horrifying -- and, as with the display, its importance is relative. If you're a typical user, you probably won't even notice what I'm talking about. If you fall more into the techie and/or enthusiast camp, on the other hand, it might drive you crazy. But either way, there's no reason a phone with this type of hardware and software should be exhibiting that kind of behavior. Both the 2014 Moto X and the first-gen Moto X feel meaningfully smoother in comparison, and that just doesn't make sense. I'm going to be optimistic and hope this is something Motorola will fix swiftly with an over-the-air update.

(I reached out to the company to inquire but had not received any additional insight as of the time of this story's publication. If/when any new additional information becomes available, I'll update this page with details.)

Stamina, meanwhile, is generally fine on the Moto X Pure Edition: Most days, I've had no trouble making it from morning to night on a single charge, even with as much as three to four hours of screen-on time. The device is by no means bulletproof when it comes to battery life -- I've had a couple of close calls, like one day when I streamed a lot of music via Bluetooth and took a lot of pictures and then ended up hitting the red zone a couple hours before bedtime -- but it's acceptably average and should be sufficient for most people, most of the time.

If you do ever need to top off, Motorola's Turbo Charge technology makes the process quick and painless. Using the charger included with the phone, I was able to go from 34% to 63% by plugging in for just 15 minutes on my way out one afternoon. The phone will work with any Qualcomm-compatible Quick Charge charger, though it doesn't support any wireless charging accessories.

How about photography? Let's make this simple: You'll be able to get some really good-looking pictures from the Moto X Pure Edition, as long as they aren't taken in low-light conditions. The phone offers a noticeable improvement in imaging quality over its predecessor, with better detail and color reproduction and less detail loss (noticeable mainly when you zoom into an image at its full resolution).

05 moto x pure edition camera sample

A sample photo taken with the Moto X Pure Edition.

That still doesn't bring it to the level of a consistently outstanding camera like the Galaxy Note 5's -- especially when it comes to low-light photography, where the Moto X's lack of optical image stabilization really shows.

But while it may not give you the most versatile shooter you can find in a smartphone, the Moto X Pure Edition is adequately equipped for most on-the-go photography needs -- including tricky tasks like capturing print-worthy photos of perpetually moving babies. And Motorola's dead-simple camera app, along with the phone's convenient twist-the-phone-twice-to-activate-anytime gesture, makes the photo-snapping process really easy. As anyone who's ever scrambled to capture a fleeting moment knows, that means as much as anything when it comes to mobile photography.

(You can see a bunch of photo samples and side-by-side comparisons in my Moto X Pure vs. 2014 Moto X photo gallery and my Moto X Pure vs. Galaxy Note 5 photo gallery, if you want to check things out for yourself.)

Last but not least, the Moto X Pure Edition comes with a choice of 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage (with each bump up from 16GB adding $50 onto the phone's price). The device also has a micro SD card slot that lets you add up to 128GB of additional storage.

Bottom line

If it seems like I've been overly critical of the Moto X Pure Edition, it's because I know how amazing this line of smartphones can be -- and, like many other existing Moto X users, I had extremely high expectations coming in.

The truth, though, is that the Moto X Pure Edition is far from being a bad phone; it just isn't the zero-compromise, polished-to-perfection version of last year's Moto X that many of us were hoping to see. Instead, it feels like Motorola cut some corners in order to bring costs down this go-round.

But you also have to remember that Motorola is selling this phone for $400 unlocked, which is an insane move that has the potential to seriously shake up the smartphone market. And it's managing to deliver an unmatched user experience along with a respectably improved camera and tons of other compelling features -- all in a thoughtfully designed and ergonomic form that can be customized to look any way you like. That's pretty darn impressive.

In a sense, I think we have to reframe the way we view the Moto X. This device isn't going to give you the absolute best camera or the top-of-the-line display you'll get in a phone like the Galaxy Note 5. But it is going to give you a superior user experience along with components that, for most people and most typical usage scenarios, are going to be more than good enough.

At a price that's about half what you'd pay for the Note or other comparable flagships, that's a tough offer to ignore.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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