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Camera ready in two shakes: Motorola Moto X camera review

36

Image Quality and Performance

The Moto X’s main processor is a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.7 GHz. Spec-wise, this isn’t particularly impressive, especially with more high-end phones using the brawny Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip. That said, the phone is smooth and responsive in normal use, and doesn’t feel underpowered. It’s possible that more raw horsepower would goose the sluggish panorama mode and speed up the already-snappy HDR processing, but software optimization often plays a bigger role in responsiveness than underlying hardware these days. 

The Moto X's Snapdragon S4  is clocked at 1.7 GHz, and although it isn't one of the fastest  processors around, the phone feels snappy and responsive in normal use. 

The camera app takes a second to open from the icon, and opening it from the lock screen shortcut takes about half a second longer. With the Quick Capture gesture, the camera is ready in less than two seconds. It’s middle-of-the-pack in terms of start times. 

Shot-to-shot time is sluggish at around one second (though with HDR enabled, it’s about two seconds, which is respectable). Shutter lag, on the other hand, is minimal by phone standards -- not quite as quick as the fastest but better than many. Focus is neither remarkably quick nor irritatingly slow. The Moto X has usually settled on focus by the time you’ve got your composition lined up. It’s also notably accurate. We ran into relatively few focus errors during our testing.  

Daylight, Low ISO

In good light the Moto X captures plenty of detail with its 10MP sensor. Noise reduction smudges some low-contrast detail, but overall detail retention is respectable. 

Colors are a little less saturated than usual for a camera phone, particularly with HDR off, so it less “pop” than some users will be accustomed to. While that’s a matter of taste, no one will appreciate the Moto X’s color accuracy issues. Images have a magenta cast far more often than we’d like. In cloudy light, colors are cooler than ideal. While that’s fairly common in phones, the Moto X also sometimes renders colors over-warm in warm light. Apart from these whole-image issues, our review unit occasionally put a magenta tint in blue skies in one corner or another. This is probably a color shading issue that, like the decentering blur we often encounter in phones, can vary from one individual unit to the next.     

We also noticed a few instances of unusual stripes of aberrant color on high-detail patterns like bricks that is likely to be a side effect of the sensor’s unusual RGBC filter array. While worth noting, this was rare and won’t be a serious concern for most users.

The Moto X generally picks reasonable exposures in good light, but seems to have more trouble holding detail in bright parts of the scene than some of the competition. This may be a combination of limited dynamic range and a slight tendency towards overexposure.

ISO 160, 1/562 sec
In good light the Moto X delivers decent levels of detail and somewhat muted colors.
100% crop

We left the Moto X’s HDR mode set to “auto” for most of our testing (see the Features section for the rationale) and it frequently kicked in when shooting outdoors in good light. The penalty of an extra second in shot-to-shot time buys you improved dynamic range and richer (though not necessarily more accurate) colors. If you tend to shoot static subjects, it may even be worth forcing HDR on during daylight shooting. 

Our review sample’s lens delivered admirable sharpness across most of the frame, with just a hint of softness sometimes visible in the lower-right corner. There is no objectionable color fringing around high-contrast edges, thanks either to the lens or efficient software clean-up.

ISO 160, 1/649 sec
No HDR
ISO 160, 1/752 sec
HDR

These two photos above were taken seconds apart with HDR set to auto, but for some reason the Moto X shot the first in normal mode and then engaged HDR for the second. The dynamic range is improved in the HDR shot, but the more deeply saturated colors are actually the more dramatic difference.

ISO 160, 1/157 sec
In soft outdoor light, the Moto X can produce pleasant skin tones, though a bit yellower than is strictly accurate.
100% crop
ISO 160, 1/83 sec
Here see how the color balance runs cool in cloudy light, as well as bit of the Moto X’s tendency to overexpose portraits .
100% crop
ISO 160, 1/48 sec
This is a particularly bad example of the magenta cast that sometimes occurs. It's rarely this bad, but it surfaces too often.
100% crop
ISO 160, 1/2703 sec
At base ISO, noise in areas of dark plain tone is visible at 100% viewing but not objectionable.
100% crop
ISO 160, 1/360 sec
Repeating patterns can create color artifacts, but the problem is rare.
100% crop
ISO 160, 1/2273 sec
The Moto X blows highlights with regularity, and overexposes more than some the competitors. Its HDR mode (which didn’t kick in here) can help.
100% crop

Low Light, High ISO

The Moto X’s RGBC sensor has an unusually high base sensitivity of ISO 160, which is a full stop faster than much of the competition (and more than two stops faster than the iPhone 5s, with its low base ISO of 32). In practice, this means that the Moto X can hold to base ISO and faster shutter speeds at lower light levels than some of the competition, helping it avoid both elevated noise and motion blur from moving subjects. At higher sensitivities that advantage becomes fuzzier, but the Moto X turns in a respectable performance (by phone standards) through ISO 1600. Above that, image quality falls to pieces, but no more so than most of the competition.

Even so, the Moto X is not quite a low light master. It lacks optical image stabilization (OIS), an increasingly common feature that is a boon for photographing static subjects in low light. Its lens is also a half-stop slower than the best. Also, it tends to overexpose in low light (and there’s no exposure compensation in the native app). Apart from the highlight clipping and general bad look it produces, this also pushes the ISO higher than it needs to go. Careful use of the spot metering mode can offset this, but most phones don’t need that kind of handholding very often.

The Moto X tries to keep shutter speeds above 1/30 sec, which is good because without OIS, lower speeds invite shake-induced blur. In desperate cases it will drop as low as 1/12 sec, but the phone is very hard to hold steady enough for a clear shot at those speeds, especially without a hardware shutter button or even a "capture on release" onscreen button. 

ISO 160, 1/48 sec
The Moto X stays at its base ISO of 160 for this indoor shot. Detail looks good, though there are lots of blown highlights.
100% crop
ISO 320, 1/38 sec
The Moto X kicked into HDR mode for this image. Detail is good and noise is very controlled, possibly with the help of HDR image stacking.
100% crop
ISO 640, 1/50 sec
This night scene still looks good at screen resolution but zooming in reveals processing artifacts and an erosion of detail.
100% crop
ISO 1600, 1/17 sec
This dim indoor scene is overexposed. A lot of detail has been blurred away by noise reduction and some highlights are clipped.
100% crop
ISO 1600, 1/33 sec
This scene is overexposed. Sensor blooming (where overexposed areas “spill over” into adjacent pixels) and lens flare don’t help.
100% crop
ISO 3200, 1/14 sec
There is a lot of noise in this image much chroma blotching) but it is still adequate for web sharing. 
100% crop
ISO 640, 1/12 sec
This HDR image looks better than the one above, but other HDR shots taken of the same scene did not. Shutter speeds are also lowered, which increases the risk of blur.
100% crop

The Moto X has a bad habit of overexposing portraits of light-skinned people, a problem that’s exacerbated by the lower dynamic range of high-ISO shots -- the camera app doesn’t seem to use any kind of face detection, which would help avoid this. The solution is to turn on focus point selection, since exposure is then calculated narrowly from the focus area.

ISO 2000, 1/15 sec
Portrait normal
ISO 1600, 1/20 sec
Portrait with Spot Metering

Flash

The Moto X has a single LED flash, center-mounted next to the camera. It has the usual on/off/auto settings, and when left on auto mode it doesn’t kick in until the scene is very dim. There’s a pre-flash focus assist, so shots are usually in focus even in total darkness.

The flash is plenty bright for low-light portraits, but the resulting image quality is highly variable. Flash mode can produce nicely exposed shots with plenty of detail and pleasing color balance. But it might also yield soft, high ISO exposures, and/or weirdly desaturated colors when faced with the same scene. Your best bet is to check results or take several shots (though flash-dazzled subjects may not appreciate the latter strategy). On the plus side, the Moto X is very good at removing red eye, leaving only a barely-visible lightness at the center of pupils.

As you can see in the samples below the Moto X’s flash output is uneven. Given the same scene, the image can be very pleasant, marred by high ISO-softness, or badly desaturated.

ISO 2000, 1/20 sec
100% crop
ISO 1000, 1/48 sec
100% crop
ISO 1000, 1/48 sec
100% crop

Comments

Total comments: 36
Paul Kersey Photography
By Paul Kersey Photography (5 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 (5 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
TonyMhoffman
By TonyMhoffman (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
iharley
By iharley (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (6 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 (6 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 (6 months ago)

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

3 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
JohnEwing
By JohnEwing (6 months ago)

Terrible promotion images - they look grubby.

0 upvotes
dagobah
By dagobah (6 months ago)

The image makes the screen look broken.

Comment edited 31 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (6 months ago)

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

1 upvote
Jogger
By Jogger (6 months ago)

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

2 upvotes
lenseye
By lenseye (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
Howard
By Howard (6 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 (6 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 (5 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
Menneisyys
By Menneisyys (6 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 (6 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 (6 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 (6 months ago)

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

0 upvotes
Total comments: 36
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