SmartCam Review: Motorola's new Moto X (2nd Generation aka XT1092)

It might not be a "dedicated" smartcam or camphone, but it certainly is a very interesting new Android smartphone and it does have a promising 13MP shooter built-in: Motorola's new Moto X, aka Moto X 2nd Gen. (or Moto X 2014 or XT0192). Most important to us: is the camera any good?

There are more than enough websites where you can read extensive reviews in which they take new smartphones completely apart. I admire those, but I do know readers often run for the conclusions on page 14. And there are quite a few websites that will analyse cameras in a scientific manner. I admire those as well, but they don't quite tell me how to actually use the device to get most out of it.

In my "SmartCam Review" I want to review smartphones with a short but - I hope - thorough general impression of the device at hand. And I'll focus on the camera from the user point of view: what's practical, what's not, how will you capture the best shots? And is the best result actually any good?
Moto X 2nd Gen: General impression
The new Moto X is an attractive, well-designed modern smartphone. Most remarkable feature - at least of the review unit - is that it has a bamboo back which makes it feel more "alive" than plastic, glass or aluminium. I'm sure it will scratch and even change its colour since it's real bamboo - which is actually good, it will make it look all the more natural after a while. Guess it will grow on you in a special way.

The screen (5.2 inch, 1080p) is a bright and very colourful joy to watch too, and it's protected by the way Motorola designed the metal speaker grills at the top and bottom of the device. These stick out just a little bit, so it will rest on those when you put it screen down (to admire or just show-off the bamboo). And where some devices are designed as flat they might actually float on a table (Sony Xperia Z3, review will follow), the Moto X stays rock steady on its screen.
Downside of the design is it makes you expect the audio to be in stereo (like on the HTC One or Xperia Z2/Z3) - but it isn't. That's a bit of a bummer, since even the cheaper Moto G 2014 did have similar designed stereo speakers. Sound coming from the speaker at the bottom is loud and clear though - and at least it's not coming from the back. Another disadvantage: you can't remove the back cover and there is no micro-SD slot: you'll have to settle for its 16/32GB total storage (leaving 10/26GB for apps, pictures, videos, music etc.).

Motorola/Google fueled it with a very clever user interface which I understand is close to stock Android. It offers lots of nifty software to interact with you (with voice commands and gestures). That all works very well - it's even for the first time I spoke some of my replies on Twitter and I'm sure it will work anywhere else for text input as long as I speak English (other supported languages are German, French, Italian, Portugese and Spanish). And it's fast, too! Have been using quite a few applications on it and never noticed any lag. Since at this moment I'm lucky enough to have more test devices than I have simcards, I used the Moto X on WiFi only, so I can't tell you for sure about its standby time, I'm sorry.

Moto X 2nd Gen: Camera
I don't think the new Moto X was ever conceived as a dedicated "smartcam". It boasts a 13MP camera sensor however, so it's worth some investigation. To give the complete specs: it has an aperture of f/2.25, the CMOS sensor size is 1/3.06", pixels are 1.12µm. Motorola uses the Sony IMX135, and that's quite a succesful Sony product, used in high-end devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note 3, and LG's G2 and even G3. But of course, it's not just about the sensor, but about the lens and software as well.

As far as settings go the Moto X offers - quoting Motorola - Quick Capture, Tap anywhere, Ring flash with dual LEDs, 4K UHD video capture, 1080p HD video (30 fps), 4X digital zoom, Slow motion video, Burst mode, Auto HDR, Panorama and Tap to focus. That sounds like quite a lot, but in daily practice it isn't, really. With a 13MP sensor (using 9MP in 16:9) a bit more elaborate camera software would have been nice, but less is more" seems to have been the philosophy. 

First, not only will you miss a hardware shutter button, you'll have to get used to the fact there is not even an on-screen shutter button. It will just make the shot as soon as you touch the display like anywhere - which might be a bit too much in fact: you'll be shooting before you know it. Autofocus is fast, but it will focus on the general image.

But there's a setting to "drag the bracket to set focus and exposure". It will make you focus on a specific part and when you do so it will change the lighting accordingly (you'll get a darker shot if you focus on the lightest part). You'll only use the bracket to focus: you can touch the screen anywhere to make the shot after focussing. Now "tap anywhere" comes in handy - you're already concentrating on capturing a scene and it's good you don't have to touch the bracket itself to make the shot (it might be in a part of the screen that's not easy to reach).

Holding the bracket too long will start a counter, showing the amount of shots you are going to make when you release it. It counts pretty fast: I don't know what the maximum amount of shots is and I'm not going to try since I'd have to delete them all individually - they're not "grouped" in the gallery, which I think is quite unpractical.

If you want to see what you captured, you simply swipe from the right side to the center of the screen. You'll find the different manual settings when swiping from the left side of the display. The menu is presented as a ring you can actually move and looks like this (you'll find it on the left side both in landscape and portrait).
In all, they are limited: HDR and flash (auto, on/off), Video (SloMo, HD, UltraHD/4K), Panorama and Location (on/off), aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9) and shuttersound (on/off). That's all. No white balance, no ISO settings, no shutter time, no exposure correction, no OIS, no bracketing - well a lot of no's, I guess we could all think of a pretty long list of what you could be missing. But of course, even the standard camera application on the iPhone 6 is limited: there are dedicated applications that will fulfill your needs, like Harald Meyer's CameraPro (which deserves some more attention in a future post).

What can you achieve with the original, pretty basic camera software? Is it any good or shouldn't you give it any consideration at all? That depends on which quality you expect at the least, but also on how you use it. If you just like it to be quick and make the shot as soon as you touch the screen without worrying about focus or exposure, you shouldn't be complaining about what you get. Most likely, it will be a pretty basic result which at times is unsharp and exposure might be so-so. However, if you use the focus and exposure control, you might capture some pretty surprising results. 

First, let me show you how effective it actually is to focus on the darkest or the brightest part in your shot. First a shot where I focused on the sunlight, to avoid that from burning the shot. 

That works very well, I can even see there are some thin clouds in the sky. But consequently, the house on the foreground is gone. From the same spot, I made the camera focus on the house - and yes, of course the sunlight will be way to bright: but look at the details you'll get in spite of the obvious backlight.

Maybe you think this is normal since all Nokia devices work that way: focus on the brightest spot to get the darkest result in general (and possibly work on that afterwards). But there are quite a few devices that won't let you do that. The difference doesn't have to be this dramatic as you can see below.

One shot - in portrait this time - that turned out quite well focusing on the brightest part (the blinded windows above the old gateway)

For more difficult light conditions, you can choose to use HDR (high dynamic range), with which the camera will give adequate exposure to both the light and the darker parts of your shot. To see what kind of results you get, I entered this old gateway. Much to my surprise, the Moto X isn't overdoing it, like you often see. It will give you a result that still looks quite natural. Here are three examples. First this a shot from this old gateway without HDR.

Next, the same shot, now focusing on the inside of gateway: you'll see the green of the doors on the left and right really pops out, like if I used the flash - but I didn't, and the effect isn't unnatural.

Third, the same shot, now focussing on the rooftops in the background. They get much more atttention than the doors on the inside, but these remain visible, in spite of the backlight. It might be HDR, but it still looks realistic - I must say that's quite a remarkable achievement!

What about close-ups? Here are a few flowers you might like. One shot captured during the daytime outside, one at night inside (again, focusing on the brightest part in the last example).

Another close-up - and a striking example of the effect you may achieve if only you focus on the brightest part. For instance, although its camera and settings are much more elaborate, I didn't manage to get this result with Sony's Xperia Z3.

Oh and if you want to get real close, I'll share two shots from the Moto X coming from a previous post here. First check the distance your device will minimally need to focus:

And then use maximum digital zoom next (which is 4x in this case):

What about landscapes? I got two for you, both shot at the end of cloudy day - not exactly the best light conditions. 

The Moto X has a special kind of flash design, a dual led "ring flash" built around the lens and that's garantueed to blind anyone in front of it - heré's its selfportrait in a mirror.

Does it work properly? Sure, it will shed a bright light on very dark matters (as you can see below, in one of my favorite subjects captured at night) - as long as you're not exaggerating the distance it should cover.

You are used to me cropping my way into shots already, peeping pixels to check for differences between two or more smartcams. I didn't make any comparison for this review, I'll only share a few crops from the shots above, in the same order I've shared them. First, the house in the pretty strong backlight from the morning sun.

Pretty noisy, but you can still make out quite a few details. Next, two crops from the Citroen - the dark and bright version.

No suprise you'll see much more details in the darker version, but quite a bit more noise as well. You'll see a similar effect in the streetscene:

But even in the bright shot, with not as much noise, you'll see the window frames still look at bit like water paint. At this level, details are more impressionist and far from razor sharp. That might be splitting hairs for some, but we're still talking about at 13MP sensor, and it's only performing slightly better in the crop below.

On the other hand, (no wonder) a crop from a close-up in good light is pretty good!
And the crop from the dried roses in lamplight looks beautiful in itself as well - great detail and atmosphere. I can't compain there, although again, it looks more like something Rembrandt could have painted.

And talking about low light - I'm very impressed with the detail I got from the pretty amazing candle close-up

In general though, extreme low light photography without using the flash is close to impossible with the Moto X since it has no extended shutter time. Then again, there are only a few smartcams that are actually able to do that, so I don't think it will be an issue for many interested buyers at all.

You didn't see half as much video as photography at the old club and I intend to change that now that I've renamed and redesigned the place - at least in these reviews. Like with the pictures I'm sharing, I'll be testing the video capacity of the device at hand in "real life" situations. This time, you'll see me riding my bike for about two minutes - with one hand that is, holding the Moto X in the other (YouTube opens in a seperate window so it's easier to watch it fullscreen).

You'll see the Moto X appears to handle changing light very fast, but it's obvious if would be nice to have OIS on the device. Audio is pretty good I must say. One of the extra features the Moto X offers - besides 4K video (which I wouldn't know how to process) - is "SloMo" at 1080p, which of course doesn't include audio but can make for a mesmerizing video, like in this SloMo from the fountain you've seen above already.

It's obvious the new "Moto X 2nd Gen" is not the best smartcam out there and I don't think anyone will expect it to be. However, I do hope to have shown you can get some surprising or even better results from its sensor, even with the pretty spartan camera software Motorola has provided. It all depends on how you work with it, really. Personally I´d never choose the hit and run option and would always use the possibility to choose focus and exposure.

But there might be situations where you simply don't have time to - like with children playing. I'm sure it will be great to capture those moments with the Moto X as well, since its shot to shot time - including autofocus - is quite fast and it appears to be pretty good in indoor situations. Of course you can even use the "burst" mode to capture a special moment, but it's a pitty its results aren't grouped in the gallery since you might find yourself deleting dozens of shots you don't really care about.

In general, The Moto X is a very good Android device. The price tag is quite a bit higher than the first Moto X (about €200 difference where I live) which puts it somewhere between the LG G3 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. All these devices run on the latest Android OS and have their own unique UI and design, so it will mostly be a matter of taste which one you prefer. As far as design goes, I might prefer the Moto X (I should add here that in the US, the new Moto X is more customizable than in the EU). From these, only the Moto X has the possibility to change focus and exposure with the setting I demonstrated above. However, if I had to choose for the best smartcam of these three, I don't think the Moto X would be my next.

Meanwhile: which smartcam do you think should be next? Options are the Sony Xperia Z3, LG G3 or Samsung Galaxy Note 4? Let me know below. I'll be working on a comparison between the last two Nokia Lumia's: the Lumia 830 and brand new Nokia Lumia 735 first :-)

All original shots are in a dedicated album on Flickr. If you like what I'm doing, spread the word! You might consider making a donation as well to keep the SmartCamClub open - just hit that Donate button on the right hand side. Any donation is appreciated and I will add you to the list of sponsors. Thanks in advance!