Google’s latest shot at iPhone does have plenty of originality

Moto X not clearly better than crowd, despite features

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  • It’s getting harder and harder to invent the iPhone Killer. Even for Apple.

    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.

    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.)

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

    This phone ($200 with contract, 5.1-by-2.6-by-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. 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.

    Moto X in white unveiled today by Motorola, a Google company. Designed by you, responds to you and assembled in the USA.
    Moto X in white unveiled today by Motorola, a Google company. Designed by you, responds to you and assembled in the USA.

    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.

    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, “OK, Google Now.”

    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.

    The Moto X comes with superb situational awareness. If you turn on the Assist feature, the phone changes modes according to the time and place: Driving, Meeting, and Sleeping.

    In Driving mode, the phone detects that you’re in motion. It starts reading new text messages aloud, routing calls to the speakerphone.

    In Meeting mode, the phone knows when you’re in a meeting or at a show by consulting your calendar.

    Sleeping mode, as the name implies, mutes the phone during bedtime hours that you specify.

    Feature 4: Motorola observed that many people wake their phones many times a day just to check the time or missed messages. The Moto X displays this information briefly — the time and an icon for a missed event — every time you move it. You don’t have to press a button; just pull it from your pocket or lift it from the desk.

    If that screen shows an icon (text, email or call, for example), you can hold down your finger on it to view the details.

    Feature 5: You can fire up the Camera app by twitching your wrist a couple of times, as though trying to dislodge a mosquito; it works whether the phone is on or off.

    Unfortunately, the Moto X’s five breakthroughs don’t exactly shake the earth. It’s a fine phone, but it has to compete with the deeply satisfying beauty (and superior speakers) of the HTC One, the seething power (and superior screen) of the Galaxy S4, and the infinite app-and-accessory ecosystem (and superior voice control) of the iPhone.