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Moto X: Letting Go of the Controls

Alex Spencer

Google Motorola Moto XMotorola announced today that it's bringing the Moto X smartphone to the UK, France and Germany from 1 February. Arriving nearly six months after the initial US launch last August, and without the customisable cases that were pushed as its USP, the handset could struggle to differentiate itself in an increasingly crowded market.

The Moto X does have one trick up its sleeve though, with its emphasis on touch-free controls, and we spent some hands-on (or hands-off, perhaps) time with the device to see whether it's a bright new direction that all manufacturers should be imitating, or just another gimmick.

Voice control

The Touchless Control feature is the Moto X's main draw, enabling the user to perform basic function using voice commands. While voice search is actually built into most modern Android phones, it requires a button press or two to access. The Moto X, meanwhile, constantly listens out for the “OK Google Now...” command which activates this function, even when the phone is locked.

From here, the user can provide a wide range of commands to search, set reminders, check the weather, make calls and – probably the most obvious and promising application – navigate to their chosen destination.

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Initially, I encountered some roadbumps. The feature has to be calibrated to the user's voice, so it can filter out others but this requires, it seems, absolute silence. Obviously this was never going to work in a busy press demo room, but it took me half a dozen locations – and around a hundred increasingly weary “OK Google Now...”s – before it successfully registered my voice.It's a great idea. As useful as touchscreens are, they're not always the easiest thing to use if you're looking for precision, or if your hands are too cold or wet, or if you're wearing gloves... the list goes on.

The device needs a connection in order to understand requests and carry them out, which was also an obstacle, but once I'd got everything working, it proved to be a sturdy offering.

The quiet required for calibration is happily unnecessary for voice commands, and I found that even with heavy background noise, the phone could be unlocked with a quiet “OK” command, and did a remarkably good job of deciphering my mumbled Midlands-inflected commands.

The app accepts a wide variety of commands, meaning that navigation can be accessed with a 'how do I get to...' or 'navigate to...' command, while asking 'how far away is...' will get a different response.

X marks the spot?

With the ongoing development of Glass, voice activation looks likely to be a major part of Google's – and thus Motorola's – strategy going forward.

It's incorporated neatly into the Moto X, and feels much more natural than the handset's other attempts to move away from button or touch controls – like the ability to take photos with two twists of the wrist, which works perfectly well but feels a little gimmicky.

I suspect that none of that will really matter, though, given that in the time since the Moto X originally landed in the US, we've seen two new iPhone models, the Nexus 5 and the X's budget-priced sibling, the Moto G.

At £229 and £160 respectively, the latter two devices are both cheaper than the X, which will sell for £380. It doesn't have a clearly defined purpose or space even in Google's offering, and it's difficult to see always-on voice activation – forward-looking as it might be – overcoming that.

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