Motorola Moto X4 review

The Moto X4 is Motorola’s affordable, mid-range smartphone that fits somewhere in between the flagship Moto Z2 Force and the budget-level Moto G5, and comes awkwardly close to the Moto Z2 Play price without the perk of MotoMods.

It inherits features from both phone series, like a dual-lens camera, water resistance, a fingerprint scanner and a lot of the same design cues. Inside is where it sets itself apart, with its mid-range Snapdragon 630 chipset.

There is something else special about the Moto X: it’s the first non-Google Android One phone in the Western world, and it’s eligible for Google’s Project Fi mobile network. There’s also a version available through Amazon Prime in the US for a discounted price, if you don’t mind lockscreen ads.

The Moto X4 Android One model has Google Play Protect’s built-in, monthly security updates and, more importantly, two years of operating system upgrades. You’ll see it get Android P and Android Q before other phones.

Other than those features of the Android One model, most versions of the Moto X4 are similar, with models outside of the US having an option for more storage and slightly increased memory.

Any of the Moto X4 variants face serious competition from rival handsets like the OnePlus 5 at a slight uptick in price and even Motorola’s own smartphone lineup. The Moto Z2 Play, for example, benefits from the use of MotoMods, and the price is hardly any different. There are some likable features here, but not enough to recommend over a phone at a very similar price point.

Price and release date

The Moto X4 release date is October 26 in the US and it costs $399 (about £370, AU$529) for the entry-level 32GB option. It’s also available through Amazon in the US as a Prime-exclusive for $329 with lockscreen ads.

If that’s a little more than you’d like to pay all at once for a mid-range phone in the US, you can get it on contract for $16.63 a month for 24 months through the Google Store. It’s much cheaper than other Google Fi phones sold alongside it, like the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.

Do note that there’s an Android One/Google Fi version of this phone and another one sold by Motorola, with the latter configuration boasting a few more software features that affect the hardware (Moto Display, Moto Voice and special fingerprint sensor controls). The even cheaper Amazon version retains these Moto-exclusive features.

Design

Motorola is touting the Moto X4 as a way to “get octa-core performance without sacrificing style,” and that’s only true if you like Motorola’s signature phone design and can’t afford any of the other truly stylish octa-core phones out there like the Galaxy S8, Note 8 or very-close-in-price OnePlus 5.

It follows current Motorola design practices: smooth curves at the top and bottom, an oval-shaped fingerprint scanner at the bottom of the screen and an oversized rear camera bump aligned in the top-middle of the device. The screen is flanked by bezels on all sides that feel a bit 2016. The power and volume button are all on the right side and feel solid. There’s no speaker grille on the bottom, as the sole speaker is at the top of the screen, doubling as the earpiece for phone calls.

It’s a decent looking phone, but like many mid-range devices, we’re certainly not calling up our friends to tell them how cool it looks. It feels like the Moto X4 actually does sacrifice some style, but at least it doesn’t sacrifice the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Moto X4 feels solid and smooth in the hand thanks to its glass back and metal frame, though all the glass does feel like a shatter risk. The metal frame doesn’t rise up any to take the brunt of a fall if the phone lands flat. It is protected from water and dust at least, with an IP68 rating that means a half-hour dunk in the shallow end of a pool is no big deal.

The sad truth of the design is that it looks kind of boring in 2017. Forget all-screen, this is an all-camera bump phone, with its dual-lens camera being the one element that stands out. Worse, the rear of the phone is cursed by an unfortunate gap between the smudge-friendly glass back and metal frame that makes for an unsightly dust trap. Compared to the aptly named Moto X Style Edition, its predecessor, Moto X4 feels stripped of any identity as Motorola puts its best ideas in the Moto Z line.

Display

The Moto X4 has a 5.2-inch Full HD display that fits its mid-range identity more than the flagship Moto Z2 Force. It gets the job done with high enough pixel density for everything other than VR.

With so many phones making the switch to OLED displays, including the similarly priced Moto Z2 Play, it’s a shame to see the Moto X4 using only an IPS display, which lacks the pure blacks of OLED.

The non-Android One version of the X4 does inherit the Moto Display feature that discretely lights up a portion of the screen with the time, date, and notification icons, mostly in black-and-white. All it takes is a nudge or a wave over some sensors to trigger this alternative to an always-on display. The Android One version of the X4 also has the feature, but only with nudging to trigger the screen.

Moto Display lets you interact with notifications now, so you can quick reply to text messages with the keyboard or your voice, or pause and play music, all without ever having to fully unlocking or lighting up the phone.

Specs and performance

  • Snapdragon 630 occasionally shows its weakness
  • 3GB of RAM still doesn’t hurt yet
  • MicroSD slot is a relief

Moto X4 is a mid-range phone with mid-range specs and performance, and that’s exactly what we saw in our tests. It has a Snapdragon 630 chipset and 3GB of RAM, which is dialed back from what you’ll experience in any flagship phone in 2017.

Sure enough, we occasionally felt the Moto X4 taking its time. It got there, but this pure Android smartphone had noticeable slowdowns every time we opened up apps like the camera. Trying to snap a super quick picture is not viable on this phone.

Its Geekbench 4 benchmark scores ended up being  871 for single-performance and 4125 for multi-core performance. Subsequent benchmarks didn’t vary more than 10 points in either direction from that.

Gaming was another area where the Moto X4 didn’t cruise along. Loading wasn’t incredibly fast, and with 3GB of RAM on the Android One model, a game is likely to need more time to load each time it’s opened, since it’s probably not sitting in memory. We noticed slowdowns while gaming as well. 

The slowdown also manifests itself in how responsive the gestures are. It can take a second for the phone to buzz and turn the camera or flashlight on after making a gesture, and a second is long enough to wonder whether the phone registered that or if you need to try again.

Fortunately, the phone felt pretty steady for everything else. It handles the basics just fine: watching videos, browsing the web, messaging and whatever else was smooth. The speaker was nice, keeping crisp even at max volume, though bass tones were a bit muddy. 

Having the speaker built into the earpiece is a nice change, since it doesn’t get covered by a hand while holding the phone up. 

The fingerprint scanner even felt plenty snappy, and we’d have been hard-pressed to know it was slower than a OnePlus 5 if we hadn’t just tested them side-by-side.

Interface and reliability

  • Uncluttered Android is always welcome
  • Moto Gestures felt unresponsive

Motorola has long done a great job of keeping its Android version clean of the usual clutter that have marred past Samsung and carrier-branded devices. The Moto X4 sticks to that penchant with straightforward software.

The interface is easy to use, with a simple swipe up to bring up the app drawer menu, and a swipe down from the very top of the screen bringing down the notification shade. The settings section of the notification shade can be accessed quickly by swiping down with two fingers instead of one, but the top of the screen is still a far reach for one-handed use.

The Moto X4 fingerprint sensor doubles as way to both lock and unlock your smartphone screen and contains some extra functions in the non-Android One version. A tap returns you to the home screen, while a swipe left goes back and a swipe right opens up recent apps

For whatever reason, the Android One doesn't have these features.

  • High-res selfies
  • Special features hardly worked
  • Lackluster video recording
  • Sharp still shots with nice HDR

The Moto X4 tries to keep up with the latest trends by having dual-lens camera with a 12MP telephoto lens and an 8MP wide-angle lens, and it can also record 4K video. Our experience with the range of the camera’s features wasn’t great, but we found the simple still shots looked really nice in the right settings.

Set to Auto and HDR on, it snapped photos with plenty of detail and a good balance of light and dark. In high-contrast scenes, we didn’t have to decide which section of the shot would be ruined. Unfortunately, we couldn’t tell how well the pictures would turn out, as the HDR processing doesn’t show up until the picture is taken – there’s no Live HDR on this mid-range phone. We had to put a bit of faith in the camera to do work. 

Another nice feature is that Pro mode allows you to independently choose between the telephoto and wide-angle lenses on the back. Normally, the phone has the telephoto lens in the primary role, but Pro mode allows you to shoot with just the wide-angle lens, allowing for some nice fisheye shots with a wide field of view, even if the pictures are at a lower resolution.

The other aspects of the camera weren’t so hot. The dual-lens effect didn’t result in great photos, and the phone struggled to process the information coming from both cameras at once. It was a clunky experience that we’d probably never use on a daily basis.

The 12MP selfie snapped crisp pictures that were a bit more self-consciousness-inducing than a lower-res camera. The front camera also has a panorama feature that a few dozen of our attempts couldn’t get to work, and the one time it actually saved the panorama, it also cut off one of our arms. Ouch.

Video recording was also not spectacular. 4K for simple, close-up video wasn’t awful, but it could be a bit stuttery. Full HD video at 30 frames per second felt low-res. Recording at Full HD and 60 frames per second should have created buttery smooth video, but the phone struggled to do so, with occasional stutters and clunky lighting changes. Auto-focus for video was also a weakness.

Battery life

  • 3,000mAh lasted long on this phone
  • Getting from 0% to 50% was super fast

This mid-range phone goes the full range, thankfully. No corners were cut on the battery, and it’s plenty big for a mid-range chipset and lower-resolution screen. It’s easy to go a full day with, and with moderate use, a dozen hours into a second day is definitely possible. 

We spent most of our time using it with both GPS and Wi-Fi Hotspot turned on, and it kept chugging along. During our 90-minute HD video playback test, the battery only drained 10%. That’s well above average in the battery life spectrum.

Charging the phone is exceptionally quick with Motorola’s TurboPower charging, especially for the first half of the battery. From 0%, the phone charged to 27% in 15 minutes and to 54% in 30 minutes. It was nearly three-quarters full after 45 minutes. Charging slowed down toward the end, taking a little over 100 minutes total to reach 100% charge, but the ability to get a few hours charge from a couple minutes can be a lifesaver, and the Moto X4 nails it.

The Moto X4 feels like Motorola’s response to the realization that it didn’t have a unique phone sitting in the gap between the Moto G lineup and Moto Z lineup, even though it already had the stellar Moto Z2 Play right there. The result is a phone that’s basically a Moto G5 Plus with a bit more power, a gimmicky dual-lens camera and a sharper selfie shooter. 

The Moto X4 feels like an uninspired follow-up to what had been a great series of high-performance smartphones with prices that challenged the market. It does most things just fine, it’s affordable, and doesn’t feel like a low-end phone. But it also doesn’t feel like a Moto X. Heck, the Moto X Style Edition had bigger, higher-resolution display, and a 21MP rear camera.

While $399 does set it at a fairly attractive price point, it’s still within striking distance of the superior OnePlus 5 at $470 or the Samsung Galaxy S8, which often dips down to around $570. For a few dollars more, you can get a Moto Z2 Play with similar specs, a better screen and access to Moto Mods. Motorola’s X phone series lives, but in 2017, it lives in a world where there’s more mid-range competition than ever.

Who's this for?

Someone looking to get an Android One or Project Fi-ready phone without the price tag of the Google Pixel 2 may be on the market for the Moto X4. But you have to go into it knowing that some of Motorola’s best features are disabled in the Android One edition. Opting for the Amazon Prime version in the US may be your best bet, and selfie-addicts may also enjoy the Moto X4 for its high-resolution front-facing camera.

Should I buy it?

There’s little about the Moto X4 to make it a worthy purchase. It is a fine phone. For normal use, we really didn’t find it lacking. The bells and whistles that it features didn’t prove to be much more than simple noise though, as the dual-lens camera was underwhelming and 4K video wasn’t worth the storage space.

A Moto G5 Plus or Moto G5S Plus would work just about as well for almost everything and cost significantly less. Last year’s original lineup of Moto Z devices may be an even better purchase. All told, there are similar phones for better prices, and better phones for similar prices, and that leaves the Moto X4 in an unfortunate place where it’s a fine phone with no reason for someone to buy it.

Mark Knapp
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