The Moto X4 is a mid-range phone with decent all-around performance, dual rear cameras, and an IP68 waterproof rating. But that’s not why I wanted to review this phone.
While there are a lot of decent mid-range smartphones on the market these days, the Moto X4 is special for a few reasons. It’s the first non Nexus or Pixel phone to support Google’s Project Fi wireless network. And it’s the first Android One smartphone available in the United States.
Actually, there are two versions of the Moto X4. One will feature Motorola’s version of Android and it’ll be available for use with any US wireless carrier. The Android One version features nearly stock Google Android software, and it’ll be available exclusively through Google’s Project Fi at launch (although the phone is unlocked, so you can always cancel your Fi service after one month and use the Moto X4 on any major US wireless network).
In a lot of ways, that makes the Moto X4 the new Nexus 5X. It’s an affordable Android phone with a 5.2 inch display, nearly pure Google software, and guaranteed OS and security updates (for at least 2 years).
When the Nexus 5X launched two years ago, it was a more affordable alternative to the bigger, faster, and pricier Nexus 6P.
Now that Google has replaced its Nexus phones with Pixel phones that sell for $650 and up, the $400 Moto X4 occupies a similar place to the Nexus 5X.
But is the new phone actually an upgrade from that 2015-era phone? As a Project Fi customer who’s still rocking Google’s aging 5.2 inch phone, I was curious to know if the Moto X4 is the new mid-range phone I’d been hoping for.
Google loaned me a demo unit to find out, and I’ve been using it as my primary phone for the last few weeks.
In many ways, the new phone is better. It’s faster (mostly), has more RAM, and has a classier design. It’s waterproof and has a microSD card slot. It has a louder, front-facing speaker and better battery life.
But while the Moto X4 has a dual camera system that lets you apply some nifty effects, the Nexus 5X camera offers better all-around performance for quickly snapping high quality photos.
My favorite thing about the Nexus 5X is probably that camera… and it’s probably what’s going to keep me from trading in my phone and buying the Moto X4. But it’s not like the Motorola phone has a horrible camera. It’s just not quite as good… and the phone is better in almost every other way.
So if you’re looking for the closest thing you can find to a 2017 Nexus phone, the Android One Moto X4 is probably worth considering.
The Moto X4 features a 5.2 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel LTPS IPS display and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 2.2 GHz octa-core processor with Adreno 508 graphics clocked at 650 MHz.
Motorola is offering a model with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage in the US, but the company will also sell a 4GB/64GB model in some other regions.
In addition to supporting most US wireless network bands, the Moto X4 supports 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 5.0 as well as GPS and NFC.
The phone features a 3,000 mAh battery and comes with a 15 watt TurboPower fast charging adapter that Motorola says lets you get up to 6 hours of run time from a 15 minute charge.
When you eject the SIM card tray at the top of the phone, you’ll be greeted by a slot for a nano SIM and a second slot for a microSD card.
On the bottom of the phone you’ll find a 3.5mm headset jack and a USB Type-C port.
There’s a dual camera system on the back of the phone that consists of a 12MP camera and an 8MP wide-angle camera with a 120 degree field of view. You can use either camera to snap a shot, or use both cameras to shoot photos with adjustable depth (allowing you to adjust depth effects both at the time that you snap the picture and afterward).
While I’ve been spoiled by the quality of my Nexus 5X camera, there are some pretty cool things you can do with this dual camera system, which we’ll get into below.
One area where the Moto X4 is clearly a step up from the Nexus 5X is the front-facing camera, which features a 16MP sensor and an LED “selfie flash.” The phone also has 3 microphones.
At a time when many phone makers are adopting bezel-less designs and 18:9 displays, the Moto X4 might look a bit dated. It has fairly sizeable top and side bezels.
The phone is nearly identical in size to my Nexus 5X, so the bezels don’t really bother me… and Motorola makes pretty good use of the bezel space.
There’s a fingerprint sensor built into the bottom bezel, and a front-facing speaker in the top bezel.
That speaker may be mono, but it’s loud and clear (by smartphone standards anyway). And the placement makes it hard to accidentally block the speaker with your hand while holding the phone.
Another thing that’s loud and clear? The sound the phone makes when it vibrates. The vibration motor is no joke. The phone has a habit of making tables shake when a notification comes in, and the Moto X4 woke me up one night when a breaking news alert caused the phone (and my nightstand) to vibrate.
If you don’t want to be disturbed, you might want to make sure to turn off vibration as well as audio notifications. .
The phone has a metal frame with rounded edges and a curved glass back. It gives the phone a rather striking look, but the glass back tends to be a fingerprint & smudge magnet and makes the phone feel a bit slippery… which it is. I’ve repeatedly found myself placing the phone a bit too close to the edge of a table or other surface, only to have it slide off a few minutes later due to its slick edge.
I suppose the good news is that it’s survived a couple of short falls without the glass cracking. But if I were going to buy this phone I’d probably invest in a case to protect the back and to make the phone a bit less slippery. A case would also probably de-emphasize the sizeable camera bump (which doesn’t bug me, but I know some people hate that sort of thing).
There’s a power button on the right side of the phone, just below the volume buttons. All three keys area about the same size, but it’s pretty easy to tell which you’re touching without looking thanks to ridges on the power key.
Up until a few years ago, Motorola’s Moto X line of phones were the company’s flagships. These days that distinction belongs to the Moto Z2 Force, a phone that sells for $700 and up.
The Moto X4 may not be as powerful as the Z2 Force, and it may not support Moto Mod add-ons. But it’s a nice looking phone… and the mid-range specs under the hood offer respectable performance for most common tasks including web surfing, social media, and gaming.
At launch, the Moto X4 Android One smartphone ships with Android 7.1 Nougat. But Google says an Android 8.0 Oreo update will roll out before the end of the year, and the Moto X4 should be one of the first phones to support Android P when it launches in 2018.
If this were a Nexus or Pixel device, Google would be responsible for rolling out software updates. But it’s an Android One device, which means updates are handled by Motorola. But Google says those updates should roll out quickly and regularly, with most updates expected to be available about 2 weeks after they’re released by Google.
While the phone has a nearly stock Android look and feel, there are some custom Motorola features. The home screen & launcher app, for instance, looks like Google’s Pixel launcher. But it’s actually called “Moto App Launcher.”
You can always switch to a third-party launcher if you’d prefer to use Nova or something else. But when I looked for Google Now Launcher in the Play Store, there was a button that said “enable” rather than “install.” I pressed it… and didn’t really notice any difference, other than the fact that the “enable’ button disappeared.
Scan through the Settings menu and you’ll find a section labeled “Motorola Privacy” that asks if you want to “help improve Motorola products” and if you want to “enable customized support and recommendations.”
And if you look through the list of pre-loaded apps, you’ll find one called “Moto.” Open it and you can configure the special Moto Actions and Moto Display features.
Moto Display lets you enable notifications which will fade in when the screen is turned off. There’s also a Night Display option that can automatically decrease the amount of blue light emitted by your display at night time.
Moto Actions lets you toggle a bunch of gestures for controlling your device. These are similar to the “Moves” options you get with Nexus and Pixel devices, but Motorola offers more actions than Google, including:
- Quick Screenshot: tap and hold the screen with three fingers to take a screengrab
- Chop Twice for Flashlight: turn the LED light on or off with a double karate-chop style gesture (I found this particularly useful when using the phone at night in a dark room)
- Twist for Quick Capture: open the camera by twisting your wrist twice
- Swipe to Shrink Screen: enable single-hand mode by swiping (this one wouldn’t work for me).
- Pick up to stop ringing: lift your phone to pick up a call without swiping to accept.
- Flip for Do Not Disturb: place your phone face down to mute all notifications
- Approach for Moto Display: if Moto Display is enabled, reaching for your phone will show notifications
Motorola also ships the phone with its time and weather widget, which is a circular home screen widget that displays the time, date, current weather conditions, and battery status. And there are also some Moto ringtones… this isn’t quite a stock Android device, although it’s pretty close.
Most other things are pretty standard Android fare: the phone comes with Google’s Gboard keyboard set as the default. Chrome is the default browser. Google Maps and YouTube come pre-loaded. And while the non Android One version of the Moto X4 comes with Amazon’s Alexa app pre-installed, it’s nowhere to be seen on this model.
But there is one other app that’s non-stock: the camera app. Google’s camera app doesn’t yet have native support for dual camera systems, so Motorola ships the phone with its own camera app. Xiaomi does the same with its Xiaomi Mi A1 Android One edition smartphone.
The camera app includes all the basic features you’d expect, including the ability to toggle the flash bulb, an option to enable or disable HDR mode (or set it to automatic), and a timer.
But there are also small icons you can tap to switch between the 12MP F2.0/1.4um camera and the 8MP wide-angle 120 degree f2.2/1.12um camera.
Tap the setting icon and you can also switch camera modes. Here are your options:
- Panorama: snap a series of pictures that will be stitched together to create a panoramic image
- Depth enabled: Use both rear cameras together to adjust depth, enabling bokeh-style effects where an item in the foreground stays in focus while the background is blurred
- Professional: Manually adjust the shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, white balance, and a few other settings
- Spot color: select a color that you want to highlight and then you can desaturate all the other colors (so that, for instance, you can snap a picture where anything red stays red, but everything else fades to black and white).
It took some experimentation before I was able to get good results from the spot color option. It works best when the item you’re trying to highlight is of a uniform color… otherwise you might wind up making part of the thing you’re photographing black and white along with the background.
But once I got the hang of it, I was pretty impressed with the results.
Spot color photos
Depth-enabled photos are likewise a little tricky, but sometimes rather impressive. It takes a while to capture a shot using both cameras simultaneously, so I had a very difficult time getting decent depth-enabled pictures of my cats.
They tend to get squirmy when you point a camera at them. But a static object like a statue in a park look pretty good. People who do a better job of holding still than animals may also have the patience to pose for portraits.
Once you do capture a depth-enabled photo, you’ll see a “depth enabled” indicator when viewing the picture in Google Photos. And if you choose to edit the picture, you’ll be able to choose between the standard image editor and Motorola’s Depth Editor app.
Using Depth Editor, you can choose which part of the photo to mark as the foreground and which is the background and then apply effects including “Selective focus,” “Selective Black & White,” and “Replace background.”
The selective focus tool lets you adjust the background blur, while the Selective B&W works like a less versatile, after-the-fact version of the Spot Color tool mentioned above. Instead of choosing a color to keep, you can choose whether to make the background or foreground black and white.
I’ve found that the selective focus option can be a little hit or miss. With some items, it does a nice job of keeping just the item in the foreground sharp while a gentle blur is applied to everything else. But often the Moto X4 has a hard time figuring out which parts should be blurred, resulting in strange artifacts… especially if you try to focus on small items in the foreground like, say, a butterfly resting on a plant.
Generally speaking, selective focus is really just another name for the “portrait” mode offered on some other phones… and I have a feeling it’s fine-tuned for faces, since it tends to work best when photographing people, pets (who know how to hold still for a moment, since it takes a while to save a selective depth photo), and similar items (like a statue of a dog).
The replace background feature is pretty impressive… but it works best if you shoot your subject against a solid background, otherwise you may accidentally chop off an arm or leg when removing the background… or keep a chair or park bench in the picture.
Professional mode is nice to have, but I’m not really a pro photographer, and 9 times out of 10 I was able to get a better shot by using automatic point-and-shoot mode. But 99 times out of 100, I was able to get even better results with auto mode on my Nexus 5X.
The Nexus just does a better job of focusing and capturing fine detail. I was occasionally able to get some very nice shots with the Moto X4, but they tended to look grainy and/or blurry when compared with similar pictures taken with the Nexus. The Moto X4 also isn’t quite as good in low-light settings.
That’s a shame, because with the exception of a few design choices, I prefer almost everything else about the Moto X4 to my Nexus 5X.
I don’t shoot a lot of video on smartphones, but I did perform a few tests on the Moto X4, which can shoot 2160p video at 30 frames per second or 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second, as well as slow-motion video at 720p resolution.
There’s no optical image stabilization, but there is electronic image stabilization. It’s only when shooting 1080p30 or lower-resolution videos though.
Here are some short videos I shot using the different video modes:
1080p 30 fps video (with and without image stabilization
1080p 60 fps video (no image stabilization… and it shows)
4K 30 fps
The front camera can shoot at up to 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second, but there’s no support for image stabilization or slow-motion video.
You can also choose Photo, Wide Selfie, or Professional mode options when snapping still pictures with the front camera.
Selfie camera photos
The results aren’t quite as good as pictures you can get from the rear cameras, the X4’s selfie camera is head and shoulders above the front-facing cameras on other phones I’ve used, including my trusty old Nexus 5X.
Here are some more photos shot with the Moto X4 Android One edition:
Standard shots (rear camera)
As a mid-range phone, the Moto X4 isn’t going to win any speed awards. But in the weeks that I’ve been using it, it feels snappy and responsive. The phone boots a little more quickly than my Nexus 5X, and it doesn’t lag as much when multi-tasking, which is probably due to a combination of its octa-core CPU and the fact that this phone has 50 percent more RAM than my Nexus.
I used it for a few days before running any third-party benchmarks, just to get a feel for the device first. The benches confirm my suspicions: in most activities, this phone is snappier than my two-year-old Nexus 5X.
It gets higher marks in PCMark, AnTutu, and GeekBench single-core and multi-core tests. The one test I ran where the Nexus 5X has the edge is 3DMark’s Slingshot Extreme: the older phone has more powerful graphics, but the newer model has a faster CPU.
Phones with Snapdragon 820 or Snapdragon 835 chips will likely run circles around the Moto X4 in speed tests. But the Snapdragon 630 chip powering this phone is fast enough for most day-to-day tasks, including gaming, and it’s also fairly energy efficient.
The phone’s 3,000 mAh battery isn’t exactly huge by 2017 standards. But it easily provides a full day of battery life with several hours of screen-on time.
For instance, on one day I used the phone without plugging it in for about 16 hours. Before going to bed that night, I checked the phone’s battery settings and saw that it had about 40 percent capacity left, and the screen had been on for 2 hours, 45 minutes that day.
I ended another day with 47 percent battery capacity after the phone had been unplugged for 14 hours and the screen had been on for a little over 3 hours.
That was the day I went to the park and shot the photos and videos used in this review. I also read the news, checked email, watched some videos, and played games for a few minutes.
Battery life will obviously vary depending on what you use the phone for, but generally speaking I’ve had no problem going all day without charging the phone.
Standby time seems to be excellent, with the battery draining very slowly when the phone’s not being actively used. On days with less screen on time, I’ve had as much as 60 percent battery capacity left at the end of the day.
The 5V/3A TurboPower charger also works exactly as promised, allowing you to add some juice to the battery in no time if it does start to run low during the day. The phone can get a little warm while charging, but it’s not uncomfortably hot.
It’d be nice if Motorola offered the 4GB/64GB model of the phone in the US. But if you’re worried that 32GB of storage isn’t enough, you can always insert a microSD card.
Out of the box you won’t be able to treat that card as adoptable storage though. The Moto X4 only provides an option to use SD cards as portable storage, which means you can copy files to and from the card or set it as the default location for media. But you can’t install apps to the card.
You may be able to force the phone to use a card as adoptable storage using adb commands, but that’s not always the most reliable solution. Still, it’s nice to have the option of storing at least some content on a removable card to free up internal storage space. That’s something you won’t find on any recent Nexus or Pixel phone.
While the official Moto X4 specs say that the phone lacks an FM Radio, the demo unit Google sent me actually does have an FM Radio app pre-installed. You’ll most likely need to plug something into the headphone jack to use it, because there’s no FM antenna under the hood. But not only was I able to use the FM Radio with a pair of wired headphones, I could also plug in headphones or just a 3.5mm audio cable with no headphones and then listen to the radio using the phone’s speaker or a Bluetooth speaker.
Anyway, I guess it’s a good thing this phone actually has a headphone jack, unlike some other modern smartphones.
The fingerprint sensor seems pretty accurate and responsive in my tests. I personally prefer a sensor on the back of the phone, where I can tap my finger while holding the phone in my hand. But after a few days I started to get used to having the sensor on the front, which has the advantage of being easy to tap even when the phone is lying flat on a table with the screen facing upward.
I do keep forgetting that the fingerprint sensor is not a home button, because it looks like it should be one. Pressing it can turn the display on or off, or log you into apps. But if you want to go to the home screen, you’ll have to press the on-screen home button.
Notes on Project Fi
Google shipped me a Moto X4 demo unit with a Project Fi SIM card already installed. I’m already a Fi customer, so when I first turned on the phone and logged in with my Google account, the phone asked me if I wanted to switch my phone number to the Moto X4.
I declined, because I wanted to wait until all of my apps and settings were downloaded and configured. But after I’d done all of those things, I just opened the Fi app, chose the option to move my number, and a second later the Moto X4 connected to the Project Fi network and a notification popped up on my Nexus 5X saying that it was disconnected (although I could still use it as a WiFi-only device).
This was the most seamless transition between phones I’ve ever had.
Project Fi isn’t the best deal for everyone. The base rate of $20 per month for unlimited talk and text is OK, but data costs $10 per month for each gigabyte you use. If you use less 2-3GB per month, then Fi is reasonably competitive with other MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) like Straight Talk, Cricket, and Ting. But if you use more than that, Fi can get pretty expensive.
I work from home most days, so I’m not a heavy data user and I’ve saved money since switching to Fi about 11 months ago. But the main reason I made the move is for the extra perks including unlimited tethering (you can use your phone as a cellular modem for your PC for no additional cost — just pay the same rate for data as you would if you were just using it on our phone), and international roaming (data is still $10 per GB when traveling to 135 countries, including Canada and Jamaica, where my in-laws live).
Google also reimburses you for any data you’ve paid for, but which you didn’t use during a given month. And if you use more than you paid for, you’ll just be charge for the amount you used on the next month’s bill. There are no overage fees.
Project Fi relies on T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular’s wireless networks in the US, automatically selecting which your phone should connect to. When WiFi is an option, calls will be routed over that instead. You’d think the choice of three networks would mean you get better coverage. But in practice, my wife gets better reception in Philadelphia than I do: her phone is on a Straight Talk plan that relies on AT&T’s network. AT&T has better coverage in Philly (and most parts of the country) than Sprint, T-Mobile, or US Cellular.
The Moto X4 seems to work just as well with Project Fi as my Nexus 5X. I’ve had no major problems using it at home or while out and about in Philadelphia. And tethering works quite nicely. In fact, I’m writing this review at coffee shop with spotty WiFi, so I’ve been using the Moto X4’s tethering capabilities to write most of this review.
But while I’ve been pretty happy with Fi, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was to switch to a new phone, I know Project Fi isn’t necessarily the best option for every user… which makes it a little annoying that right now the only way to get the Android One edition of the Moto X4 is to buy one through Fi.
The phone should support any major US network though, so you could always buy the phone from Fi (which involves signing up for one month of service) and then cancel your plan and use the phone on a different network. Another nice thing about Project Fi is that there are no annual contracts, so you can cancel at any time.
The first Android One phone for the US market is a winner… mostly. With a $400 price tag, it’s a bargain compared to the latest flagship phones. And for stock Android fans, it’s a lot cheaper than the latest Pixel devices.
But it offers respectable performance and battery life, an attractive design (if you don’t mind bezels and camera bumps), and a waterproof body.
If you’re a Project Fi customers looking for a new phone that costs less than $650, then this is just about your only choice, short of buying a used or refurbished Nexus 5x or 6P. But for anyone else, the Moto X4 is still a pretty decent all-around phone.
But if you’ve got an extra $250 to spend, the Pixel 2 has a better camera, a faster processor, more RAM, and some exclusive software features, not to mention OS updates that are actually delivered directly by Google, not Motorola.
That said, in my experience, the Moto X4 does seem to get better battery life than the entry-level Pixel 2… and it’s a lot cheaper. I just wish the Moto X4 had a better camera.
If it did, I’d be tempted to buy one right now as a replacement for my Nexus 5X. The Moto X4 is faster, has more RAM, and gets much better battery life than my current phone. But the camera isn’t as good, so I’m not sure if I’d consider this an upgrade.
I’ve been spoiled by my Nexus 5X camera, so I’m thinking my next phone will probably be a Pixel 2. I just need to figure out how to justify the price.
Or maybe I’ll wait a little while and see if Google brings other Android One phones to the US (and Project Fi) in the future. I really like the idea of buying a solid mid-range phone like the Moto X4, and it’s possible that some other mid-range devices might have stronger cameras.
Anyway, if you’re less picky about the camera, the Moto X4 is a pretty nice phone in its own right, as well as being a demonstration of what Android One means for the US market.