The Moto X From Google, iPhone’s Latest Challenger

The one truly huge, magnificent, radical idea of the iPhone, back when it was introduced in 2007, was to get rid of buttons. Make the whole phone a black rectangular touch screen.

By now, every company and its brother has done that. Everybody’s added voice recognition, GPS and navigation. Everybody’s sharpened up the screens to the point where you need a microscope to tell the difference.

So now what? How do you distinguish your phone from the more than 4,000 other touch-screen phones? (That’s not a joke. There have actually been 3,997 different Android phone models so far. And six iPhones and a motley assortment of Windows and touch-screen BlackBerry phones. Heaven help the landfills.)

With much fanfare, Google proudly presents its answer: the Moto X.

This phone ($200 with contract, 5.1 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches) is the first that Motorola has produced since Google bought it a year ago for $12.5 billion.

By looking at it, you’d never guess that this is the Android phone that Motorola hopes will change everything. Its curved back is plasticky, not classy metal (like the HTC One) or glass (like the iPhone 4 and 4S). Its comfortable 4.7-inch screen looks great, but it isn’t as big or sharp as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. The phone is plenty fast, but its processor isn’t the latest and greatest.

But the Moto X does offer five features that no phone has offered before.

Feature 1: You can design your own color scheme. You’re offered a choice of 18 colors for the back panel, black or white for the front, and seven colors for the accents (the buttons and ring around the camera lens). The color choices are excellent; the odds of you and your frenemy showing up at a party with an identical Moto X phone are one in 252.

Later this year, you’ll even be able to order a back panel made of real wood — in bamboo, teak, ebony or rosewood. Motorola’s testing shows these beautiful panels to be just as tough as plastic (although more susceptible to termites, I’m guessing).

While you’re online, you can also order color-matched cases and earbuds, specify the wallpaper you want or request an engraved message for the back. For now, only ATT offers the color choices. Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile will offer only black or white until later this year.

You get your customized phone within four days, courtesy of Feature 2: it’s assembled right here in these United States. The components are still made in Asia, but they’re put together in Texas — you can lose less sleep worrying about underpaid Chinese workers.

Feature 3 is the most useful: touchless mode. As with Siri on the iPhone, you can command the phone to dial a number, send a text, open an app, set your alarm, look up a fact on the Web, and so on.

But unlike Siri, you don’t hold down a button to speak. The phone is always listening, even when it’s in your car’s cup holder.

It works remarkably well, as long as you precede your command with the salutation, “O.K., Google Now.” Without ever taking your eyes off the road, you can say, “O.K., Google Now. Give me directions to the Empire State Building.” Or, “O.K., Google Now. Remind me at 8 p.m. to give the dog his pill.” Or, “O.K., Google Now. Make an appointment for Thursday at noon with Bob.”

This truly inspired idea is a leap forward in both safety and convenience. It owes its success to a special chip that does nothing but listen all day long. It does, however, come with fine print.

For example, you have to train the phone to recognize your voice. In a silent room, you have to say “O.K., Google Now” exactly the same way three times.

If you’ve password-protected your phone, this feature loses much of its power. It won’t execute most commands until you first pick it up and unlock it. So much for touchless.

And Android’s voice commands are still no match for Siri. The phone recognizes the basics, like “Wake me at 7:30 a.m,” “Open Angry Birds,” “What’s Google’s stock price?” and “Check the forecast for Memphis on Friday.”


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 7, 2013

An earlier version of this column referred incorrectly to the iPhone models that have a glass back. They are the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, not the iPhone 5, which has an aluminum back.

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