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Camera ready in two shakes: Motorola Moto X camera review
Peter M Ferenczi | Published: Mar 3, 2014 at 23:05 UTC37
The Moto X doesn’t look like a flagship phone on paper, with its capable but not top-end processor and its not-full-HD screen. However, the phone is more about innovative usability than benchmarks, and in this respect is delivers on several counts unrelated to mobile photography.
Image quality is a mixed bag, with solid higher ISO performance helping in low light, but sometimes-poor exposure choices and the lack of optical image stabilization dimming that star in comparison to key competitors. In bright light, results can be good but are uneven, sometimes marred by color inconsistencies and a tendency to overexpose.
With a smaller, lower-resolution screen than much of the high-end Android competition, the Moto X isn’t as much fun for reviewing pictures. But the relative compactness and a good case design make for decent photographic handling, albeit hampered by the lack of a shutter button.
There’s a lot about the Moto X that’s interesting, but people who prioritize photographic performance will usually be better served by other handsets.
Features and Operation
The Moto X has an innovative gestural camera shortcut that launches the camera app with two twists of the wrist. Otherwise, there’s a standard lock screen short cut. Start times are middle-of-the-pack, and shot-to-shot times are sluggish, though HDR shots cycle in a relatively zippy two seconds. Focus is confident and feels adequate but not impressive.
The Moto X’s camera app is simplistic with a bare minimum of user input. The app feels stripped-down rather than streamlined. Some questionable interface decisions make user interventions more work than they should be.
The camera app’s standout highlight is an automatic high dynamic range mode that shoots HDR images as needed. This is truly handy, though the HDR mode is good enough (or better enough than the standard shooting mode) that in decent light users might consider leaving it enabled all the time.
Other features feel phoned-in, with a lackluster and buggy panoramic mode and an anemic burst function filling out the whole of the bill (the burst, at least, is available without diving into a menu).
The Moto X features a photo editor very similar to the excellent stock KitKat feature we enjoyed in the Nexus 5, and even without the extremely useful control point adjustments that for some reason didn’t make it to the Moto X, it’s one of the best native photo editors we’ve seen.
In bright light, the Moto X captures a good amount of detail, though not as much as the best of the higher-resolution competition. Colors are less saturated than usual for a phone. They’re also often less accurate: magenta color casts are a too-frequent problem, cloudy scenes are rendered too blue, and even in warm light photos sometimes look too yellow. These problems don’t affect every image, but they appear too often.
In a certain mid/low brightness range, the Moto X’s high base ISO helps keep photos clean and blur-free, a real advantage, but one that’s particular to a certain type of scene. That advantage becomes less apparent at the extremes of the ISO range, but it still holds its own. However, with a lens that lags the fastest by a half-stop and no optical image stabilization, the Moto X enters the low-light races a lap behind the best of the competition. The camera’s tendency to overexpose dark scenes also undermines the capable sensor.
In good light the Moto X turns in a respectable video performance, although the color inconsistencies seen in still output remain an issue. In low light, the camera drops the frame rate for a less satisfying result.
The Final Word
The Moto X is a phone that a lot of people could love, but it’s a harder sell for a committed mobile photographer. The Nexus 5 has a similarly competitive unlocked price in the US, which buys a stock Android experience not much different from the Moto X’s lightly tweaked KitKat build, but with more impressive hardware overall and better all-around image quality. Indeed, most of the leading handset choices for the photographically inclined, including the Nokia 1020, the iPhone 5s, and the Samsung S4 (and perhaps the upcoming S5) are better all-around cameras than the Moto X, though the Moto X does deliver good results under certain circumstances.
There are 17 images in our Motorola Moto X samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.
Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution.