Ever since my Nexus 6P bit the dust, I’d had my eye on the new Motorola Moto X4 phone—a nicely inexpensive mid-range phone that cost a good $200 less than one of Google’s new Pixel models, and was one of just a handful of models that would support Google’s Project Fi service. After my bad luck buying used and having the phone brick itself, I decided that it was new or nothing in this case.
The question was, just which model to buy? There were, after all, three different models of Moto X4, and there were varying reports over just which ones would work with Project Fi. After more than a little soul-searching over the matter, Project Fi’s Black Friday special offer of $100 in Project Fi credit with the purchase of a new $400 phone happily rendered the whole matter irrelevant. (I could have gotten the Amazon X4 for $300 thanks to Amazon’s Black Friday offer, but it would have included lockscreen ads and not been as fast to update as the Android One model, and I knew for a fact the Android One version would work with Project Fi.) I also snagged a rugged case and a 128 GB SD card from Amazon for use with it.
I did end up ordering the wrong screen protector, so I had to wait for a new one to come in before I was willing to remove the wrapper the phone came in—which meant for my first few days using it, I had to put up with a big “Moto X4” logo across the phone screen. Fortunately, that didn’t last too long, and I soon had a decent screen protector on the thing thanks to the expertise of a local phone shop in putting it on for me.
So, what do I think of the thing? On the whole, it’s probably the best new phone I’ve ever owned…even if it falls short of the used Nexuses in a few key areas. Here are some of my impressions.
A Fine Phablet Form Factor
In size, the X4 is a little bigger than I had expected—about the size of a Nexus 5P, I guess. Definitely smaller than the 6/6P, but not badly so. It fits easily in my hip pocket, even in a thick protective case, and isn’t too heavy to tote around.
Another nice thing is that it’s IP68 dust/water resistant. That means that it’s completely dust-tight following an 8-hour test, and able to work after spending up to 30 minutes underwater at up to 1.5 meters in depth. (That’s the same water-resistance rating as the IPX8 2nd-generation Kindle Oasis, by the way.)
While you probably wouldn’t want to go swimming with it, at the least you should be able to read, watch movies, or even (gasp!) make phone calls while you’re in the shower, without need of a ziplock baggie—and not worry too much about your phone if you get caught in the rain or spend the day at the beach, either. (Or sweat a whole lot.)
Operating System: Clever Touches
The operating system is pretty decent, though the Android version it comes with right now is 7.1.1 Nougat. (Google has promised an update to Android 8 Oreo by the end of the year, but since that’s fast approaching I have my doubts they will make it.) There are a number of nice touches in the OS itself, or in the Motorola Assistant application that’s included.
There are several useful gestures built in, some enabled by default and others requiring activation. You can make a couple of quick twisting motions to launch the camera app, or chop the phone like an axe to turn the flashlight on or off. Another useful gesture is the ability to enable “do not disturb” mode automatically when the phone is placed face-down—which means I can easily keep it from ringing at work (when I’m not supposed to be using it anyway) or overnight. On the Nexuses, I either had to remember to toggle it on or off, or else just make do with it staying silent all the time.
And if you don’t like the way a phablet phone is too big to use one-handed, another gesture lets you shrink the visible display down to about 3.5″ in the lower left or lower right corner, so you can reach any point on it with your thumb. Since you can make the gesture itself with your thumb while holding the phone one-handed, this means that full one-handed use of the phone is completely feasible.
The Google Assistant app is pretty nice, too. I get the most use out of it by telling it to set timers so I know when my food is done, or to remind me of things at certain times or when I’m at certain places. (“OK Google. When I get home, remind me to buy [thing that I’m giving someone as a Christmas present].”) But one minor annoyance is that, after my phone’s been on for some length of time, it stops working and I have to restart the phone to get it listening again..
Decent Screen and Speaker
The X4’s 5.2″ 1080P display is pretty nice. Not as nice as the 5.7″ 1440P displays the Nexus 6P and 6 had, but still entirely decent. It’s the same resolution as my old 7″ Nexus 7 in a smaller package, and when you get down to a screen that small there’s a limit to how useful any additional resolution can be.
The funny thing is, though, about the only thing I haven’t really done much of on it is read. At least, not read ebooks—I’ve mainly been using my old Paperwhite for that, since I’m permitted to use it at work whereas phones and tablets are verboten. But I have done a lot of news reading via GrazeRSS and Google’s swipe-left news feed; the Moto’s screen looks perfectly sharp and the text is perfectly legible.
This phone will run Kindle, Google Play Books, eReader Prestigio, Hoopla Digital, and any other e-reader just as well as any other Android phone, and the 5.2″ screen is of a decent size for reading. So if you’re looking for a phone that will also make a good pocket reader, you could certainly do a lot worse.
The single mono speaker isn’t as nice as the stereo speakers in the Nexuses, but some things do have to go to make up that $200 price difference. It’s not as if the stereo ones were even all that loud anyway, and I do have headphones and Bluetooth speakers.
I’m not entirely happy with the phone’s thumbprint sensor being on the front. The one on the 6P was in the middle of the back of the phone, which I felt was easier to activate when I grasped the phone—my finger would just naturally go to the right place. But apparently a lot of people feel that putting on the back is “awkward.” In any case, I suppose it works well enough. The other two variants of the Moto X4 support using the fingerprint sensor in swipe-across short gestures, but not the AndroidOne model.
Cameras, Cameras, Cameras (And Flashes!)
The Moto X4 has more and better cameras on it than pretty much any other phone I’ve ever had. On the rear are a 12 MP camera and an 8 MP 120-degree wide-angle camera, and on the front is a 16 MP camera (though using the adaptive low-light function reduces its effectiveness to 4 MP).
The cameras may not be the best cameras ever, but they’re all pretty good—and the built-in camera app has a lot of adjustability, especially if you engage the “professional” settings. I’ve been able to fiddle with white balance and brightness to get some terrific dramatic shots of the sunset from the building where I work. I was also happy to find that the panorama function now uses video instead of still photos. (I am somewhat disappointed that there’s no photosphere function, though.)
The wide-angle camera is not terribly useful on the whole. Its picture quality isn’t as good, it doesn’t support 4K video the way the regular camera does, and it’s so wide that it actually distorts horizontal lines, kind of like a fish-eye effect. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to use for most photos. But if you’re wanting to snap photos of a really wide area, I suppose it’s reasonably useful.
Another feature that came as a slight surprise the first time I discovered it is that this phone incorporates a flash for selfies. I’ve never had a phone with a selfie flash; I hadn’t even expected such a thing was possible. But here it is—and combined with the much-higher-quality front camera, it makes selfies look better than ever before.
One minor drawback is that the cameras make a definite hump on the back of the phone. Unless you’re using a case like mine, that has a cut-out for the hump to poke through, the phone isn’t going to lie quite flat on its back.
SD Card Slot: A Mixed Blessing
One new feature the Moto has that neither Nexus phone did is that it accepts an SD card—hence, my purchase of a 128 GB card for use with it. But when I got the phone, I learned to my disappointment that the only real use for the SD card is for storing media.
Since Marshmallow, Android has supported “adoptable storage,” which enables treating SD cards as if they were part of the phone’s internal memory. But, unfortunately, adoptable storage doesn’t work with the Android One Moto X4, nor will it even support the old stand-by of installing applications to the SD card. Apparently the file-based encryption used by the phone doesn’t play nicely with it, and there’s no way to turn it off. The 32 GB of internal memory (of which only about 17 GB is user accessible) is it as far as apps are concerned.
If I’d known that, I might have saved my money and bought a smaller card—or possibly even bought the Amazon Moto X4 instead, which does support adoptable storage. On the bright side, though, I don’t tend to use that many huge apps on my phone, so at the moment I still have several GB to spare. And at least there’s plenty of room to download movies!
(I do have some faint forlorn hope that perhaps the phone might support making more use of the SD card once the promised update to Android 8 comes in, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. Google has never had much interest in supporting SD cards on its Android devices, and I doubt they care much for them on this Moto either.)
Making Android Pay
Here’s another new function I’ve played with: the NFC payment function built into Android Pay. I did that a little with the old Nexus, but never really got fully into it. But I’ve given it a shot with the Moto X4, and Android Pay works great. I just have to unlock the phone and touch it to a compatible card-reading terminal, and it makes the payment without me having to get out my wallet.
In some respects it’s kind of a toy or gimmick—it’s not really that hard to pull my card out of my wallet, after all. But it’s just so neat, I can hardly resist it. In the old days, we could pay to use the phone—and now we can use our phone to pay.
In Conclusion: A Really Nice Mid-Range Phone
If you’re in the market for a good mid-range Android phone, you could do a lot worse than the Moto X4—especially if you’re planning to use it with Project Fi. Motorola’s a decent brand, and the Android One name should mean it comes in for more support from Google than either of the other two versions. That being said, the other versions may offer some alternate features and capabilities you might prefer, such as adoptable storage or the fingerprint sensor gestures—so perhaps you might want to go with one of them instead. (Incidentally, the Amazon Motorola X4 with lockscreen ads is now down to $280 for Prime members. If I had it to do over, I might just go with that one today instead.)
I’m glad Project Fi made this phone available, but I do hope that they come out with some low-end phones that work with their service too. It undercuts the low-budget nature of the plan if you have to spend at least $400 on a phone to use with it.
Whichever version you get, this is a great, water-resistant gadget you can easily use for e-reading in addition to its other functions. While I wouldn’t turn down one of the Pixel phones if someone were to hand one to me, the Moto X4 is more than satisfactory for my needs.