In the early stages of Android, phones kind of sucked. Anyone who has owned a G1 or several phones after that knows how much of a “love-hate” thing it was. The phone was great — for its time — but you couldn’t resist wanting to test the waters with a new one that promised more RAM, more storage, more speed, and pretty much more of everything.
We’ve gone from 192MB of RAM to 384, from 512MB to 1GB, and even that wasn’t enough — 2GB is now the golden standard. From 512MB of internal storage up until the minimum of 16GB that we demand today. From single core processors that didn’t even break half of a gigahertz in clocks speed to the quad-core beasts that we all drool over now. The specs race has been on from the beginning.
But for me, things have changed. Android has evolved into an operating system that no longer relies on heavy specs to create a smooth, fast and clean experience. Google and the great folks on the Android team have worked to optimize Android to the best of their ability, and anyone who has used a stock Android phone (meaning, without any heavy framework changes or custom skins) knows they have almost reached their goal.
And with all that, a recent epiphany has hit me — I don’t care about the gaudy specs anymore. I couldn’t care less whether or not I have a non-removable battery, or the latest and greatest processor. I don’t need a 100-inch (not a typo, because the way these OEMs are going it seems we are headed that way) 1080p display on every new phone from here on out. I don’t need any of that, and it’s all thanks to Motorola that I’ve finally realized that.
User experience comes first
Motorola, a company now enjoying new ownership by Google, has made a pretty bold statement with their latest phones. They won’t quantify the quality of their phones based on how many gigamegaultrahertz they can squeeze in, or how big their display can be up against the competition (yes, it does remind me of little boys comparing their junk on a bored summer day).
For Motorola, user experience has become the main focus. It’s proudly on display in the company’s latest wares, with their flagship Moto X and Verizon exclusives DROID MAXX, DROID Ultra and DROID Mini implementing key features that have consumers wondering how they could have ever lived without them in the first place.
Take Google Now (and the entirety of the new Google Search experience), for instance — I would have loved to have used it more up until now, but the fact that I had to interact with the display before issuing commands had me using it (with voice) just sparingly. Why bark like an idiot when my hands are already on the display ready to type out what I need (sometimes faster than Google can understand my voice)?
But with Touchless Controls, I find myself getting more and more use out of it all, because it doesn’t require me to touch my phone to initiate it. It’s the very definition of a killer feature, and one I didn’t anticipate contributing so much to the overall experience.
For instance, I don’t have any sort of desktop alarm clock in my room, nor is my cable box visible from my bed, so being able to wake up in the middle of the night and utter to my phone “OK Google Now, what time is it” without having to move an inch is something that has proven to be invaluable for me. (Because who doesn’t hate having to get out of bed or open their eyes at 3AM just to check the time?) Or how about that times when you’re crafting the world’s greatest taco and you just can’t pull your hands away to respond to a text?
And that’s just one of several different things. Active display notifications provide a new way to be alerted to incoming notifications that is infinitely more useful than a lone LED notification. Not only do you know that new notifications are waiting, but you know what they are (well, up until the 4 most recent ones, anyway) and even get a bit of info about them.
I’ve always wondered how long it would take for companies to start using AMOLED technology to its full potential (this allows the phone to light up only the pixels it needs, so it’s really only sipping on battery), and Motorola (as well as Samsung with their S View covers) have finally done it.
In the case of the DROID MAXX, being able to squeeze a 3,500 mAh battery into this slim, 5-inch form factor — as well as the custom computing system Motorola’s implemented here (read on for more) — gives us the most battery-efficient smartphone we have ever seen, and that is infinitely more valuable than a lot of other gimmicky, borderline useless trinkets we tend to get on typical smartphones.
There are many other aspects of the new Motorola experience — such as Motorola Connect, Motorola Assist, and more — that all come together to create a useful experience across the board, and you can read about all of that in our current Moto X review.
Less is definitely more
Motorola’s been able to do several of these things thanks to what they’re calling the “Motorola X8 computing system” sitting inside their latest phones. It really is just a custom version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro MSM8960DT, and yes — that is a dual-core processor. But they changed the name for a very good reason: it’s because they’ve optimized the ever-living crap out of it.
Motorola’s goal with the X8 was to be able to provide performance in all the right areas. They didn’t need more than two application processors, because which applications even appropriately take advantage of four different cores at this point?
That said, the phone is still “quad-core” in a way, except Motorola has used two added custom cores for very specific purposes. One extra core handles Motorola’s natural language dictation engine, which is the extremely low-powered core that is always listening for the “OK Google Now” command that is used to activate the aforementioned Touchless Controls feature.
The second core is a “contextual” core that is used to monitor several “events,” so to speak. For instance, when a new notification comes in the contextual core is what handles displaying that information on the display for active notifications.
Similarly, flicking your wrist twice to open the camera app from anywhere, and knowing when the phone is face-down or in your pocket to mute active notifications are all handled by this contextual core. This allows the phone to be able to “listen out” for your various commands while it’s in sleep mode, and all without having to sacrifice battery (which, if my time with the DROID Ultra and DROID MAXX is anything to go by, is definitely the case).
Specs will only get you so far
This is the perfect case of using every ounce of what’s available to you to your full advantage. Having used the quad-core Galaxy Note 2 and Samsung’s Galaxy S4, I can tell you that having the horsepower of a Formula 1 racer doesn’t mean anything if it’s not being used in an efficient manner.
Despite having a “weaker” chipset (note that the Motorola X8 uses the same Adreno 320 quad-core graphics being used in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 chipset), the X8 actually meets — and, in some cases — exceeds the performance expectations of phones with chipsets that are considered to be a class higher.
Whether that’s due to low-level optimizations made by Motorola or due to their latest phones using mostly stock Android we can’t say, but in either case it makes for an experience that is more snappy than mostly anything else you can find on the market. Motorola didn’t try to do too much in their latest attempt at smartphone mastery, and it’s because of that thinking that has allowed them to fire on all cylinders.
I beg of other manufacturers — stop shoving every ounce of power you can into your phones thinking your gaudy list of technical specs alone is what’s going to provide the best overall experience. I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to put a Snapdragon 800 inside, but if you’re going to do that then use it to its full potential, because the Motorola X8 has shown me that we’re not getting nearly as much out of these powerhouses that we should be.
It’s like gaming consoles, I think. Sure, they’re bound to be weaker than top-end and even mid-range PCs, but as time goes on developers eventually figure out how to tap into every ounce of energy those consoles have, and can push weak hardware to do some amazing things.
It’s how you use what you have that’s going to make the difference. It’s not about how big and nice your boat is, but how well you can navigate the waters, and all that jazz. I liken it to photography: having the best equipment doesn’t mean anything, because the best photographers can create a good photograph with whatever is at their disposal.
Through all of this, I’m not saying you can give me a smartphone with the world’s slowest processor, no internal storage, a 1,000 mAh battery and a terrible camera and expect me to be happy. But in the same breath I will admit that I am no longer excited by a phone that has to be “best” in class in every category. Give me a phone that does everything I need (in my case, the Motorola DROID Maxx) with great speed and efficiency, and I won’t even take a second look at the spec sheet.