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Camera ready in two shakes: Motorola Moto X camera review

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Camera Features

The Moto X camera app’s stripped-down approach carries over to a feature set that’s limited by Android standards, but it manages to include the most important ones. 

HDR

The tiny sensors in phones struggle to capture scenes that include deep shadows and bright highlights. High Dynamic Range (HDR) modes help by merging multiple images with different exposures and are quickly becoming a standard, and very useful, feature.

The Moto X’s HDR mode does a solid job of recording wide brightness ranges with a natural look. While many HDR modes crop the edges of the frame to allow for aligning the component images (resulting in a slightly lower-res photo with a narrower field of view), the Moto X does its HDR magic without these compromises. It’s also quite good at removing the ghosting traditionally caused by moving subjects: it’s not perfect, but it gets things right the vast majority of the time. While the processing lag is longer than the fastest we’ve seen (the iPhone 5s), it’s fast enough to not worry about under most circumstances.

HDR Off
HDR On

The HDR shot above captures a much wider dynamic range than the shot taken with the feature switched off. Colors, even in the midtones, are also more saturated. The moving people don’t create artifacts.  But what really sets the feature apart from competing offerings is that is can be set on, off or auto. On auto (the default setting), the camera decides whether to use HDR or not for a given scene. This is really useful, both for users who can’t tell at a glance whether a scene merits an HDR treatment, and those who would rather not fiddle with switching modes. 

Usually we evaluate HDR as a special case function, an option apart from normal operation. The Moto X is the first phone we’ve tested that seamlessly integrates it into normal operation. To be fair, Sony’s Xperia Z can automatically engage HDR, but it’s rolled into the "Superior Auto" mode with consequences that aren’t for everyone. And the "HDR+" function on Google’s Nexus 5 is almost good enough to leave on all the time, but that’s not quite the same thing as a true adaptive HDR mode. Since it is the default setting on the Moto X, and the HDR function operates nearly transparently, we left auto HDR on for most of our testing. The only time we’d recommend turning it off is when minimal shot-to-shot time is paramount.

Processing power is advancing faster than sensor technologies, so we expect to see so-called computational photography playing an increasing role in phones. For example, the iPhone 5s tries to counteract blur by capturing multiple frames and blending the sharpest parts into a single image, completely behind the scenes. The Moto X’s auto HDR mode is another example of this trend.

Panorama

The Moto X’s panorama mode is uninspiring.

Panorama modes are a standard feature these days, but the better ones distinguish themselves with higher-resolution output, artful stitching, adaptive exposure, and effective capture methods. The Moto X’s camera app doesn’t aspire to any of these higher goals.

You can pan smoothly in any direction, which is nice, but the output is frankly disappointing. With the phone in portrait orientation, full panos weigh in at around 5 megapixels. In landscape, that drops to under 3MP, with a slighter wider field of view but less vertical coverage and resolution. 

After the pan, the camera app locks up for an astounding thirty seconds while the image is processed. It also crashed frequently during this phase during our testing, losing the image - a hard reset of the phone appeared to fix the problem.

You’ll be watching the progress bar for 30 seconds after shooting a panorama.

Stitching quality is fairly good, though the low resolution could hide imperfections. The function doesn’t handle variation from the initial exposure well. This used to be an accepted weakness of automated pano modes but recent innovators have raised the bar. Any moving objects in the foreground create catastrophic artifacts.

Bottom line: if you’re serious about panorama shooting, use a third-party app. Oddly enough, Google’s own Photo Sphere app doesn’t support the Moto X.

Burst Mode  

Holding a finger on the main camera screen engages the Moto X’s burst mode, and it’ll capture continuously, averaging 2.5 frames per second for the first minute, and slowing slightly to 2.3 fps over two minutes (we didn’t test longer than that). This is better than no burst mode, but unimpressive compared to faster phones that rattle off 5 or 10 frames per second. And of course you have no control over ISO or shutter speed in burst mode either. This means that fast moving subjects will be blurry in anything but the brightest light.

Comments

Total comments: 36
Paul Kersey Photography
By Paul Kersey Photography (3 months ago)

I have had a Moto X for several months since going with Republic Wireless. I bought the phone for the service and the camera usage is regular but not critical. It's image output is certainly sufficient for anything other than trying to actually capture images of great technical quality. Use it for Instagram, facebook, email or whatever, but don't expect a responsive, low noise, highly detailed image.
I just came across this review and after reading thought to myself; who actually buys a cell phone these days based on the best camera?? Probably a minority of people, but that's my thoughts.

0 upvotes
Rob Bernhard
By Rob Bernhard (3 months ago)

Thought I would follow back on this review. I've now been using the Moto X for a month running Android 4.4.2 (which does provide updates to the camera.)

As this is my first smartphone I cannot say if the results are "good" or "bad" but it's certainly better than my previous phone, a Samsung Intensity. :)

I have found colors to occasionally be inconsistent with the default camera app but not very often. I actually prefer the lower saturation defaults as I can work on the images in post to my liking. HDR mode is pretty great. I leave it set to On 100% of the time.

The aspect ratio is rather strange. Works well for city, landscape, etc shots, but feels odd with portraits.

Overall I'm happy with the photos, especially within the context of them being grab shots or when I really can't carry another camera. As I'm in the newly-minted smartphone owners "group" I'm sure my opinion will evolve over time.

0 upvotes
aerorail
By aerorail (4 months ago)

i gave up on moto after 10 years and went w/samsung. moto won't innovate. apple isn't much better. my note3 beats the heck out of all of what's out there.
oh yea...these are phones/computers not cameras

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
mmartel
By mmartel (4 months ago)

I enjoyed the review and, as a Moto X owner, thought you were thorough, accurate and fair in your assessment of the strengths and weaknesses.

I did want to point out, though, that I think you might have been a little bit harsher on the overexposure issues with the Moto X than you were in your Nexus 5 review. For example, look at your caption on page 6 of your Nexus 5 review: "In good light, the Nexus 5 delivers pleasant, balanced images." But the right half of the image is basically overexposed building. You were also a bit more apologetic for the Nexus 5 blowing highlights in the fruit stand still life, saying "Blown highlights remain a constant of mobile photography" rather than "With the Nexus 5, you can expect some blown highlights in high contrast scenes."

For any who read this, and are curious, overall I'm satisfied with the Moto X camera (having come from a Nexus 4 as my last phone). It's got weaknesses but overall it's not too shabby.

0 upvotes
Richard Uchytil
By Richard Uchytil (4 months ago)

The HDR mode really does a great job, I'm very happy with it. But I will also say most of the time I'm editing my photos using Snapseed on my phone. I really like shaking the phone to get the camera. I do wish I had more control in the app or maybe had an advanced mode - like a real camera where you have full auto and the various other modes. That'd be cool. But honestly, most of the photos I take with my phone are quick ones to post on FB or Instagram or places like that. If I REALLY want a good photo I'm using my camera (which is always with me). :) There certainly are better camera phones, and there are worse. I like this phone a lot, have never had any problems.

0 upvotes
Peiasdf
By Peiasdf (4 months ago)

Good phone for $300 and less. This really is just a mid-range phone with lots of ad money and some unique Google features.

0 upvotes
theranman
By theranman (4 months ago)

Anybody know what version of kit kat was used in this review?
I received my phone a few days ago from motorola and it came with 4.4....no ".2" on the end.

Comment edited 39 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

We tested this with the At&T version of the device which currently has 4.2 running.

0 upvotes
TonyMhoffman
By TonyMhoffman (4 months ago)

4.2.2? or 4.4.2

This photos don't look like 4.4.2 at all. They look like the old software. AT&T is still not on 4.4.2 yet which makes this whole review bunk... No offense, but this camera is ahead of most of the competition now since 4.4.2. You may want to revisit this review after the update.

1 upvote
TonyMhoffman
By TonyMhoffman (4 months ago)

What version of kit kat were you using? 4.4.2 offered dramatic improvement to low light. I did some comparisons with my girlfriends S4 and the Moto X was the clear winner.

0 upvotes
SammyToronto
By SammyToronto (4 months ago)

While you're reviewing oldish phones, is there any chance for an S4 Mini review? I've read reviews for it on other sites, but being that your reviews focus on camera performance, which is probably the main criterion I consider before buying a phone, they have more weight imo, especially since DXO haven't reviewed it either!

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

Funny, you mention that. I just got one in today and set it up. Planning to do a "Mini" comparison with the HTC One Mini and Sony Xperia Z1 Compact. If possible I'd also like to include the LG G2 Mini but it could take a while before I get that one it seems.

4 upvotes
SammyToronto
By SammyToronto (4 months ago)

Well, that's great, and timely, news :) Looking forward to reading your findings in that comparison.

0 upvotes
iharley
By iharley (4 months ago)

I'm curious what version of KitKat was used when tested.

0 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (4 months ago)

Who cares, the review is at least half a year too late anyway.

DPR should wake up to the speed of technological development today. If it is not within 1 month after release, it is too late. And no amount of inconsequential details (like their 3-page menu guides for cameras) can save them - by the time you release it, it is just no more than a historical research paper.

2 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

yes, unfortunately this review got delayed for various reasons which is not ideal. On the other hand the Moto X only got released in Europe a couple of weeks ago. So there are still large parts of the word where it's new. :)

2 upvotes
mmartel
By mmartel (4 months ago)

Wow, cranky much? You know, no one is forcing you to read ancient reviews.

3 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (4 months ago)

Wasn't a Galaxy or ten released in Europe too? ;)

0 upvotes
JohnEwing
By JohnEwing (4 months ago)

Terrible promotion images - they look grubby.

0 upvotes
dagobah
By dagobah (4 months ago)

The image makes the screen look broken.

Comment edited 31 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

do you mean the background image on the screen of the device?

1 upvote
Jogger
By Jogger (4 months ago)

always-on microphone = direct line to NSA .. have fun

2 upvotes
lenseye
By lenseye (4 months ago)

Motorola analog phones were great! That's about all that can be said about Motorola phones ...

0 upvotes
Howard
By Howard (4 months ago)

Don't buy Motorola phones, I've been burned before (Droid X). Their phones are just not good. I got the HTC One and it is night and day.

3 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

It's fair to say though that the latest generation, Moto X and Moto G, have improved a lot and are a really good deal. They just don't seem to have very good cameras.

5 upvotes
BC9935
By BC9935 (3 months ago)

Yeah, you have no idea what you're talking about. I've been using a Moto X for the last 6 months and remains the best overall smartphone I've laid my hands on. I have immediate family member with the HTC One, iPhone 5s, etc. The Moto x speaker is better the the One's despite "Beats", yeah not a popular opinion but I've done the head to head. Moto X is notably smoother and snappier in all tasks than the One, much better reception on then same carrier, better battery life. Frankly, the X is hands down superior to the One in every measurable respect, and with the update to 4.4.2 I would extend that to the camera as well. Did I mention my family member has been through 3 One's in that 6 months while my X operates and looks exactly lime it did the day I got it. Sorry, Motorola has one of the best all around smartphones ever made in the X, HTC still sucks.

1 upvote
misolo
By misolo (4 months ago)

Here's something I find puzzling (and slightly irritating): When I consider buying a lens, by far the most important spec is the focal length (and the equivalent focal length with same field of view in 135-format). Why is it so impossibly difficult to find this information for phone cameras? It's as "key" as "key specifications" get. In this case you do find an approximate number if you read the entire review, but in many cases not even that.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
3 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

equivalent focal length is pretty much never provided in the spec sheet. Once we got a device in our hand we try to figure it out but often not even the manufacturer representatives know the exact number when asked.

On the other hand it's safe to say that the vast majority of phones these days have an equivalent focal length of somewhere around 28-30mm, so no matter what you get it's always gonna be a wide-angle lens. Given they're pretty much all the same you should probably not put too much weight on it in your buying decision :)

3 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (4 months ago)

"On the other hand it's safe to say that the vast majority of phones these days have an equivalent focal length of somewhere around 28-30mm, so no matter what you get it's always gonna be a wide-angle lens. "

Yup, in stills mode, all contemporary high-end smartphones are between 27 and 30mm, with the exception of the iPhone 5c, which, as with the iPhone 5, has a 33mm lens.

In video mode, however, the differences are much more pronounced because of the lack of oversampling in most (but not all - see Nokia 808 / 1020) smartphones and/or trying to implement image stabilization electronically (except for the Nokia 1020 / 92x, LG G2 and HTC One). On ALL iPhones, the Samsung GS4, the Note 3 etc. the video FoV is far lower because of this - between 36 and 42mm. That is, if one needs WA in video mode as well, he/she shouldn't get any iPhones. The solutions to fix this either involve IQ-degrading external lens adapters or my full sensor oversampler, which only works on the iPhone 5s.

2 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

very true, digital IS will narrow your field of view, same happens on some HDR modes. What's this full-sensor oversampler you are mentioning?

1 upvote
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (4 months ago)

"What's this full-sensor oversampler you are mentioning?"

The jailbreak-only one at http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=1538193 . See the uppermost update.

Note:

- it also works on almost all other camera-equipped iDevices but, as their camera hardware is way slower than that of the 5s, they aren't capable of shooting at anything over 20 fps in oversampled mode.

- only the 5s is capable of 30p full resolution oversampled shooting, but only in good light. In bad light, the framerate drops.

Note that I have developed another open source video recording tweak, "Video Bitrate Configurer" (see http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=1710387 ), which allows for quick video mode switching (between stock modes) and configuring. It doesn't allow for enabling full sensor oversampling

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

Cool, thanks, will check it out...just need to nick somebody's 5s first :)

0 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (4 months ago)

It (the oversampler) runs on earlier / cheaper models (incl. iPad 3+'s / iPod touch 5's) too - but at a reduced framerate. Therefore, it's only recommended for shooting semi-static stuff like conferences, preferably from a tripod.

The video bitrate setter tweak runs on everything.

0 upvotes
Rob Bernhard
By Rob Bernhard (4 months ago)

Here is, perhaps, a silly question:
Are there 3rd party camera apps that (at the time of exposure) help alleviate any of the cons identified in this review? Apps that help give you better control over exposure or focus?

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (4 months ago)

Peter, who wrote this review says the following: 3rd part apps can offer extra control, but as usual, it's a little hit and miss. FV-5, for example, allows you to control exposure comp, white balance, and focus mode. It also offers semi-functional ISO control, but that part isn't very reliable. The downside with 3rd party apps is that you don't access to device-specific functions like the HDR mode."

3 upvotes
Rob Bernhard
By Rob Bernhard (4 months ago)

Lars & Peter: Thanks for the follow up and info, I appreciate it.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 36
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