Motorola’s lessons for Samsung

I’ve been testing three of Motorola’s new devices for the last several days: the new Moto X and Moto G smartphones, and the Moto 360 smartwatch. I don’t do traditional reviews – there are plenty of sites out there that do those well – but I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about these devices, briefly, but also about what they can teach us more broadly, and tech Samsung specifically.

Moto X

Last year’s version of the Moto X was already a very good device in a number of ways, and this year’s version fixes several problems: the price/performance ratio feels a lot better, the materials and build make for a more premium experience, and the camera is a lot more competitive. I’ve been using the Moto X as my main phone for the last few days, and I’ve really enjoyed it. The camera still isn’t as good as the iPhone camera, or arguably the Galaxy S5 camera, especially in low light. And the digital shutter mechanism still frustrates me by taking pictures when I’m trying to change the focus point. But it’s an awful lot better, and I’ve taken some nice pictures with it, including this one:

IMG_20140914_162715In short, the Moto X is much better on the things it was bad at. But it’s also got even better at the things its predecessor was good at – namely the little software customizations that added significantly to the stock Android experience without taking it over, adding huge numbers of visual customizations and tweaks, or overloading the device with gimmicks and widgets. What Motorola has done really well in these devices is creating in its software elements that significantly add value to Android without feeling like they’re trying to replace it. They’re done in such a way that they feel like they are – or should be – part of the core OS, both visually and in terms of their functionality and integration into the OS itself. Unless you’ve used stock Android, it would be hard to see where Android itself ends and Motorola’s enhancements to it begin.

In many respects, this is just the sort of thing Samsung should have been working on over the last few years, to set its handsets apart against the flood of other Android phones. Instead, it’s focused on gimmicks – features that are eye-catching and make for good demos, but that don’t really make life easier or improve upon the core Android experience. If Google were keeping Motorola, I would say these features should slowly work their way back into the core Android experience as Motorola invents new ones. Under Lenovo, I wonder to what extent these innovations will continue and to what extent Lenovo will embrace them at a corporate level and build them into its other devices too. If it’s smart, it will realize what it’s getting here and fully embrace it. 

Moto G

Even the first version of the Moto G was awfully good for a budget Android device. It was arguably the first device that tried to teach end users that cheap Android didn’t have to involve huge compromises in the core user experience, and it succeeded in that. It sold in huge numbers, vastly increased Motorola’s market share in certain markets (in some cases, starting from essentially zero), and gave Motorola some increased scale in the process. I wonder whether the Moto G might have single-handedly dented Windows Phone’s growth over the last few quarters, as it hits exactly the same sweetspot of inexpensive but perfectly functional as the best-selling Windows Phones (principally, Lumia 500-series and 600-series devices). I’ll be looking into this more as part of an upcoming report on Windows Phone.

The other thing about the Moto G, though, is that it reinforces a point that’s becoming increasingly clear: it’s becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between premium and cheap Android devices. The new Moto G looks and feels like a slightly (but only slightly) bigger, bulkier version of last year’s Moto X on the outside. Yes, the specs, the screen and the camera are all markedly better on the Moto X, but for many people, the Moto G would do the job just as well as the Moto X, and for a lot less money. As Android matures, the question is much less how premium Android can compete against the iPhone, but how premium Android devices can set themselves apart from these cheaper variants. Again, this question is particularly pronounced for Samsung, which captures much of the Android opportunity at the high end.

Moto 360

The Moto 360 is the first smartwatch I’ve worn which has triggered compliments from strangers, and that’s saying something. It’s definitely more attractive and more watch-like in its look that anything from Samsung, Pebble or others, especially when the watch face is lit up. But its battery life is miserable, sometimes running out before the end of the day, though usually lasting until bedtime. You definitely can’t wear this thing two days in a row, though. Thankfully, Motorola’s charging solution is so much better than other smartwatches I’ve tried: no awkward cradle, no fiddly snapping into place, just a wireless charger which doubles as a night-time stand. As someone who generally wears an analog watch and keeps it on all day and all night, this is the next best thing to a longer-lasting battery.

The round face feels like an improvement in many ways, not least because it allows the Moto 360 to look a lot more like a watch, especially with the screen on. The “flat tire” others have referred to is a little aesthetically distracting, but for the most part doesn’t detract from the experience. However, the round watch face lets the device down in other ways, some of which are tied directly to Android Wear. Android Wear suffers from several problems, which I’ve detailed previously, but here the particular problem is that round watch faces and ambient notifications from Google Now don’t work together well at all. Notifications I don’t particular care about frequently obscure the watch face itself, in a way that doesn’t cause similar problems on primarily digital-style watch faces on the square watches. I’m constantly having to swipe away notifications just because it bothers me that they’re obscuring the watch face.

Moto Hint

The last device Motorola announced along with the other three was the Moto Hint, though it isn’t available just yet and hasn’t been sent to be for testing. However, another thing I think Motorola is doing really well with both the 360 and the Hint is finding ways to make its products work better together than with third-party products, something else Samsung hasn’t really cracked in a meaningful way. Some of the clever software enhancements in the Moto X can be used through the peripheral devices as well, even though those devices work fine with other Android phones too. It’s that sort of value-add that Samsung and other Android manufacturers should be looking to build to create loyalty to their specific flavors of Android, and not visual customizations, gimmicks and useless features.