Motorola’s X lineup of smartphones has always been a hit. The handsets in the series always provided a flagship-level experience with features like a dedicated design studio for those who wanna customize their phone before they buy it and decent performance that put the handsets head-to-head with leading competitors. So when Moto decided to revive the lineup after taking a one-year hiatus, I was super excited to check out the latest installment, the Moto X4.
In a nutshell, thank God this thing’s pretty, because the rest of it is ugly. Scroll down to figure out why I just said that.
Let’s start with the design. It’s easily one of my favorite-looking devices of 2017 and possibly of all time with glass on the front and rear with a super-reflective 3D contoured backplate that gives the impression this phone cost a substantial amount of money. Even the camera housing looks super sleek and professional. An aluminum border sits on all four sides of the handset, making it easy to grip. The entire thing also feels very sturdy and weighs a good amount at 163 grams.
Overall, there’s nothing really to complain about regarding this design. Both the Super Black and Sterling Blue finishes look excellent in real life, there’s a USB-C port and headphone jack, and the entire package is rated at IP68 water and dust resistant. Therefore, if you buy the X4, you’ll surely turn some heads.
Flipping the phone onto its back sits a 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD display which, while doesn’t look the best, does make using the phone actually doable. When I first got the device, I thought immediately it was an OLED panel since the blacks were so deep, but this isn’t the case. Admittedly, the colors could be a little less bright and offer more contrast, but overall, you’ll likely enjoy the display.
Right below the display sits a fingerprint sensor, and above there’s a front-facing camera and LED flash with an earpiece. Touching the former, it’s fast and accurate 100 percent of the time and you can even use it as a gesture pad instead of using the on-screen navigation keys everyone’s used to. I tend to stick with on-screen buttons for navigation since I’m not the biggest fan of Moto’s gestures, but the option’s there in the software if you want it.
Speaking of which, the software on the X4 is great. It’s super clean, there’s no bloatware since my review unit is unlocked, and it gets frequently updated with security patches. I already received the November patch on my device, and that’s saying something for a mid-range phone. The phone’s also based on Android 7.1.1 Nougat and comes with Moto’s gesture support and features like the ambient display, double-twist for camera, and double-chop for flashlight.
There’s even a second virtual assistant on board: Alexa. It’s part of Moto’s push to get Amazon’s AI bot on more phones (cc: dedicated Moto Mod with Alexa). It works well and you can even scream at it from across the room to activate it, but not all functions will work out of the box such as some Skills and services (e.g. Spotify, iHeart Radio, etc). But hey, if you don’t like the Google Assistant, you have a second option.
There’s also a new Moto tool exclusive to the X4 (for whatever reason) called Moto Key. Essentially, the function lets you sign into any website you choose Moto Key to save your password to with just your fingerprint sensor. You’ll need to be connected to the internet for the feature to work, but when it does, it works great. The prompt to log in always popped up on my devices nearly immediately after I asked to log into sites such as Facebook and WordPress. You can even set up the feature to let you log into your Mac or Windows 10 PC which I also find useful. Unfortunately, the extension necessary for it to work is only available in Google Chrome, but if you’re not using Chrome by now, you’re missing out.
I asked Motorola whether they plan to bring Moto Key to any other Moto phones. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to comment. Sad face.
Okay, so this is the part of the review where I start bashing the X4 for all of its shortcomings. I’ll try to not be all that rough, but things aren’t very swell here in Sunshine Valley.
Let’s start with speed. The X4, on paper, should be faster than its cousin, the Moto Z2 Play, since the former has a Snapdragon 630 processor whereas the latter has a Snapdragon 625. Unfortunately, this claim is shattered to pieces by the Z2 Play as the X4 offers such slow speeds it makes it hard to use the phone on a day-to-day basis. Constant stutters when opening apps, scrolling through web pages, and even simple operations like taking photos take longer than anyone buying this phone will come to expect. The phone even ships with animations turned off completely to give the phone some extra horsepower, but turning them on in Developer settings makes no difference.
I’m not sure if it’s the processor’s fault in this case or if it’s poorly-tuned software. The Snapdragon 630 is designed to succeed the 625 and provide better speed and battery life, but it does neither of these things whereas the Z2 Play has both compared to the X4. Both phones have the same 3GB of RAM so I wouldn’t peg that for being the downfall, so for now, I’m gonna blame things on the software and it’s poor optimization.
This is a shame. Moto has famously provided one of the best software experiences on any smartphone thanks to excellent optimization and opting for a clean build of Android. The X4 has the latter, but the former is non-existent. I’ve received an update on my unit claiming it improved the stability of the OS, but I’ve noticed no difference. I’ve also swapped my unit out for a fresh one before I thought the original was abnormally slow, which I was proven wrong about with the new one. Therefore, I wouldn’t buy this phone for its software whatsoever.
With that aside, let’s touch on the cameras, because this is also an area the X4 struggles. On the back sits a dual lens setup with the main shooter packing 12MP and the other 8MP. Whereas the standard camera shoots normal photos, the secondary sports a 120-degree field of view similar to LG’s phones which lets you take in more of a scene. Unfortunately, neither of these shooters are worth your time. The main camera lacks detail and oversaturates things a bit, while the secondary lens simply isn’t capable of shooting a half-decent picture without being overly grainy or lacking in contrast, detail, brightness, sharpness, and color. And yes, I know this sounds harsh, but all of it’s true.
Also, note the warping of those wide shots. Shivers.
As for selfies, the front-facing 16MP camera actually does a better job than both rear shooters do combined, but I’m not sure if everyone will wanna share such overly sharp selfies to their Instagram.
I’d also like to point out the X4’s camera app is just stupid. Not that the design is bad or anything or it’s hard to use because it’s neither of those things. Rather, it’s just slow at doing everything. It’s slow to switch between shooters, it’s slow to capture any photo, it’s even slow to try to start recording videos. It’s also chalk-full of useless features like a bokeh feature that simply shouldn’t be used by anyone. In the end, don’t buy this phone for its cameras. The experience is simply sub-par.
Next, battery life. Both the Moto X4 and the Z2 Play have the same 3,000mAh battery under their hoods, but the latter has far better endurance compared to the former. Whereas I can get through a day and a half to two days on one charge with the Z2, I can barely get through a single day with the X4. This is really unfortunate since the Snapdragon 630 should offer better battery saving tools over the 625 in the Z2, but this sadly isn’t true at least in this case.
But hey, at least the X4 charges quickly, up to around 40% in thirty minutes as a matter of fact.
You may be wondering why I’m comparing the Z2 Play and X4 a whole lot in this review. Well, it’s because these two phones are so similar. They even cost the same at $400 a pop. And personally, if you’re debating whether to buy either device, I would simply opt for the Z2 Play. You get a bigger 5.5-inch Full HD OLED screen, Moto Mods compatibility, faster speeds, far better battery life, and even a better camera. The X4, meanwhile, brings everything the Z2 Play is lacking: a glass design, dual cameras, water resistance, Moto Key. And yes, you may think I should mention Alexa as being an X4 exclusive as well, but thanks to the Alexa Moto Mod, the same Alexa app on the X4 has been brought over to all Moto Z phones and doesn’t even require the Alexa Mod to work.
All in all, if you want a mid-range Moto phone, just choose the Z2 Play. Unless water resistance or the ability to brag about having two rear cameras is crucial to you, the X4 simply doesn’t offer enough to justify its $400 price tag. I could see if it cost $300 or less you could pick it up, or if the Z2 Play didn’t exist, I’d recommend it to everyone. But if you want a mid-range phone from Motorola this year, you shouldn’t look anywhere else other than the Z2 Play.
The Moto X4 may be back from the dead, but it’s certainly not the Moto X we remember. And thank God it’s pretty, because it has nothing else going for it.