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Friday, September 07, 2018

Review: Moto X4

Amazon Prime Day had the Moto X4 (Amazon Edition) for $199. At that price, I'd jumped on it, given that I had cracked the screen on the LG V20 multiple times during various bike rides and during Bowen's tour. I'd avoided the X4 last year because it had only 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM, a downgrade from the Moto G5+.

On paper, the X4 can be described as a "no-compromise mid-range" phone. The key features are:
  • USB-C (some people consider this a feature, but I didn't)
  • NFC (missing on the Moto G5+)
  • headphone jack (missing on many "flagship" phones)
  • MicroSD card slot (missing on Google's "apple-envy" phones)
  • Waterproof (missing on the Moto G5+)
  • Android Oreo (missing on the Moto G5+, but to be honest I don't really think it's a big deal: recent Android versions have introduced very few features that are noticeable)
As you can see, there's good reason people have been hanging on to their phones longer and longer: quite a few features on this list have been dropped from pricier phones, and many of these features aren't really required. For instance, NFC payments while nice, still aren't required in 2018. I got used to it when the neighborhood Safeway started accepting Google Pay and quick grocery runs no longer needed me to bring my wallet, but otherwise, even credit cards have started providing NFC chips even if your phone doesn't have one.

What drew me, of course, was the waterproofing and microSD card slot, which have been a mainstay in many Android phones since the beginning. The phone has a glass back, another fashionable and unnecessarily fragile feature which makes it slippery and demands a case. I picked the Spigen Armor case, which brought the weight of the phone from 174g to 206g, heavier than the LG V20 without a case. But there's a reason the LG V20 now has several cracks in the screen. While the LG V20 was milspec rated for drops, that doesn't apply to screens, apparently. For true ruggedness you'll have to get a phone that weighs more than half a pound.

Booting up the phone and inserting my sim card and micro sd card from the LG V20, I'm forced to realize that software matters a lot. While the Snapdragon 630 is a whole tier below the Snapdragon 821 and theoretically slower, the Moto X4 boots up just as fast. The Moto gestures (twist to shoot, chop chop to turn on flashlight, use the fingerprint sensor as a navigation button) are great and I can't tell you how much I missed them. Camera startup appears to be slower than on the Moto G5+ (5s), but that could have been fond nostalgia working. The camera shoots crap pictures. But all camera phones shoot crap pictures: they're meant for receipts, bank deposits, and moments when you really don't have a better camera with you, but when your intent is to make good pictures, bring the real camera. I don't even know why they bothered with the dual camera thing. They should have just kept the same camera in the Moto G5+ and I'd have been happy.

One very welcome feature in Oreo is the introduction of LDAC pairing over bluetooth.. That meant my fancy noise canceling headphones get high quality audio. Since I actually use music stored on the phone most of the time, this was great. Of course, the headphone jack itself isn't strong enough to drive my Sennheiser 600s but I'll keep the LG V20 around for that. Occasionally, the music playback on the device gets very confused and everything will play and skip. A reboot takes care of that.

The shortage of onboard storage was worrying: after installing my typical in-use apps, I only have about 8GB free on the onboard flash storage. In general, you don't want to fill up flash storage. Not only do you end up spending a lot of time managing storage, the more you fill up flash storage, the slower it gets, and the shorter the life of your storage device. I would have been much happier if Lenovo had launched the 64GB version of the phone in the US. The additional RAM would also have been nice, but in practice I don't find that RAM is a limiting factor in today's phones.

The phone gets regular updates, which is a pleasant surprise, getting security updates on the first of every month. Now a lot of Android enthusiasts make a big deal out of this. I don't. It's nice to get updates, but I've never had an Android phone get hacked (and neither have the less technically involved members of my family), so I don't think phone security is as big a deal as those guys make it out to be. Recent Android OS updates just haven't been compelling, and some updates introduce bugs that slow your phone down or drain battery fast. What is interesting is that the Moto X4 is one of the few devices to support A/B partitioning. That means that system updates can happen in the background, and the system has a backup OS partition in case something goes badly wrong in the update. This is only a useful feature if software updates come frequently, which in the case of the Moto X4 appears to be the case.

The phone charges fast, but because the Snapdragon 630 is just an overclocked 625 made on the same process, the battery life is worse than the Moto G5+'s, since the battery pack is the same size. Both are miles better than the LG V20, which would take an extended battery to survive the kind of trip the Moto G5+ handled with aplomb. My suspicion is that the Moto X4 would have to be topped up with some kind of power bank on a bike tour in the middle of the day. Overnight, the battery would drain by about 8-10%, indicating a screen off battery consumption of 1% per hour. I ended up turning off the Moto display feature because it would drain the battery superfast during the day, flashing notifications all the time.

In case you're wondering, the Amazon Edition of the Moto X4 also qualifies for Project Fi. This will be great for international travel as this year I discovered that the regular T-mobile speed just isn't fast enough for sync'ing routes to the Wahoo Bolt.

All in all, the X4 is a great phone. It's got all the features "flagship" phones have and many features the $600+ don't have. You will never feel like you're missing out on features you need with this phone. Recommended.

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