Moto X4 hands-on: Premium looks and features on a budget

The world may be distracted by the advanced, high-end technology of the Galaxy Note 8 and the highly anticipated iPhone 8, but those devices also tend to come with appropriately hefty prices. For people looking for budget-friendlier options that look just as premium and perform respectably will soon have a new candidate to consider. Here at IFA in Berlin, Moto unveiled the X4 — its latest midrange handset which will retail in Europe for €399 in September. It offers dual cameras and an elegant design for the price, and after a brief hands-on with the new handset, I’m pretty taken by how it looks.

Seriously. The first thing I noticed about the X4 is its beautiful, shiny body. This highly-reflective aesthetic seems to be the flavor of the year for smartphones (think: Sony’x XZ Premium and the LG V30), and so far I’m into it. The eye-catching sheen attracts fingerprints, though, and I frequently had to wipe down the handset during my preview. I also liked the X4’s gentle curves, which made it easy to maneuver.

That’s not to say the device is an unwieldy size. With a 5.2-inch full HD display, the X4 is manageable. The screen’s 424 ppi pixel density also helped make graphics on the phone’s Android 7.1 Nougat interface look rich and crisp.

A nice display is an important basic to nail, but the X4 also has plenty of bonus features even at this price. The most interesting of these is the new dual cameras setup on the rear. Like most other phones with a pair of lenses, the X4 can create an artificial depth-of-field effect that blurs out the background to highlight your subject. Moto uses a 12-megapixel f/2.0 sensor in tandem with an 8-megapixel wide-angle version in the X4. However, in my short time testing the new phone, I found this software, which Moto calls “Depth Mode,” somewhat odd.

Like the Galaxy Note 8, the X4 allows you to see the blurred effect as you frame your shot in the viewfinder and adjust the intensity before you snap. But while Samsung lets you tweak the amount of blur after shooting, Moto doesn’t.

That would be a small issue if not for the fact that the depth-of-field effect doesn’t appear to be very accurate in the viewfinder — the blur seems to be a little haphazard. But when I looked at the image afterwards, the coffee cup that I focused on was crisp, while all the background around it was hazy. The X4 was great at identifying object outlines, but the contrast between the sharp and blurred out areas of the photo was so stark that the overall effect was disorienting.

Moto told us that the software we were testing is still an early version, and that it will likely be updated before the phone ships to consumers.

A couple of other new camera features for the X4 include a Panoramic Selfie for the 16-megapixel front camera, which lets you tilt your phone around to take a wider portrait, as well as a “Landmark Detection” tool that helps you identify places of interest around you. I didn’t get to try out the latter, but the wide selfies I shot were surprisingly clear. I couldn’t tell where they were stitched together even upon zooming in to the photo. Neither of these two are particularly novel updates for smartphones, though. Selfie panoramas have appeared on a few other phones, while many third-party AR apps can already recognize landmarks and give you more information about them.

One more distinguishing feature for the X4 is its integration of Amazon Alexa. Like the HTC U11, the Moto X4 lets you talk to Alexa without having to first launch an app or press a button. You can also talk to Amazon’s assistant even when the X4 is locked, and the system will recognize your voice before responding. A Moto rep asked Alexa for the weather on her X4 without waking it from sleep, and it responded quickly. You can’t use Alexa to change things on the handset like display brightness or audio volume, though, since Google Assistant will still be the main controller of those settings. It’s mostly nifty to have Alexa on the X4 to read audiobooks to you or to control smart home devices that still don’t work with Assistant.

The rest of the phone’s specs are reasonable for the price. The X4 runs on a Snapdragon 630 processor with 3GB or 4GB of RAM (depending on the region), and packs a 3,000mAh battery in its IP68 water-resistant body. It also supports Bluetooth 5.0, and uses technology that Moto says allows the X4 to connect to up to four Bluetooth devices at once. Fans of Moto’s Maker customization service will probably be disappointed though — the X4 won’t have personalization options.

Although we don’t yet know how much the phone will cost when it arrives in the US (and it’s coming), it is likely to be in the same range as its European counterpart. If that’s true, the combination of a rich display, elegant body and capable cameras (albeit with some finicky software) for the sub-$ 400 price makes this a compelling proposition.

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Xiaomi aims to be more than king of the budget smartphones

The day after the Mi Note 2 and Mi MIX launch last week, the flagship Mi Home store next to Xiaomi’s headquarters was packed with visitors. Nope, they weren’t there to spend their yuan, but to simply wait for their turn to play with the new phones. But the real star was clearly the Mi MIX “concept phone.” People were drawn to its near-bezel-less display and fancy ceramic body. Despite this being Xiaomi’s most expensive smartphone ever, I heard many visitors ask if they could buy one immediately, only to be let down when told they have to wait until November 4th. Xiaomi must be doing something right

The Mi MIX didn’t just happen over night, of course; it was a two-year project with contributions from French designer, Philippe Starck. This man is no stranger to the tech world, he’s helped design headphones, hard drives, a smart radiator valve, electric bicycles and, even, the late Steve Jobs’ yacht. Barra described Starck’s role in the Mi MIX project as setting high-level priorities, especially when it came to convincing the Xiaomi team to keep things clean and simple.

Xiaomi’s aim with the Mi MIX is to showcase some of the breakthrough mobile technologies that will eventually trickle down to its mainstream devices. In this case, we have Sharp’s near-bezel-less display which we knew was arriving sooner or later. Hidden underneath that is Elliptic Labs’ ultrasound-based proximity sensor, which replaces the ugly infrared dot and turns the screen off when the phone is placed next to your ear. Last but not least, the full ceramic body is a nice alternative to the aluminum we’re accustomed to. The company hopes these experiments will lead consumers to see Xiaomi as home to serious innovation, rather than a budget brand.

Some would argue that it should be giants like Apple and Google bringing out devices like the Mi MIX. While Barra declined to comment on the iPhone 7, he was happy to praise his previous company’s efforts with the Pixel and even went as far as saying the series “sets a bar for the whole world.” He described Google’s latest phones as being “all-around optimized,” “very responsive” with “great battery life” plus an “awesome camera,” though he did say that they don’t necessarily have the best industrial design — especially with their “very tall chins.”

Could Google have done a phone like the Mi MIX? Barra defended his former colleagues by saying it would have been difficult for them to justify the risk of delivering a phone like this, as it wouldn’t sell in large quantities. The Pixel, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem. “I think they’re gonna sell a lot of Pixels. Every Android enthusiast is going to try what they can to get their hands on one.” Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if Barra is still working for Google.

Save for the Mi Home’s strong resemblance to any Apple store, the Mi MIX could have almost peeled the copycat label off Xiaomi for good. Alas, people were quick to compare the Mi Note 2’s 3D curved body to Samsung’s S7 Edge and its discontinued Note 7. Barra was keen to point out that Xiaomi was actually the first company to release a smartphone with a 3D curved glass back — the original Mi Note. The same industrial design was applied to the smaller but more powerful Mi 5.

“I’m not worried about what people are going to say.”

Samsung then combined the 3D curved screen and the 3D curved glass back for the S7 Edge, to which Barra said, “Well, no one is going to give us credit for a curved back, right? They just care about the front.” It wasn’t until the Mi Note 2 when Xiaomi followed Samsung’s suit, courtesy of the flexible OLED display allegedly supplied by LG.

“In how many ways do you think you can design a curved display? Exactly one way,” Barra argued. “I don’t think that anyone can outright claim ownership of that as an invention because it’s kind of like a logical thing. They can claim that they were the first ones to do it, but certainly not the ones responsible for the most incredible idea in the world because it’s just a very straightforward engineering thing: As soon as you can come up with a flexible OLED display, you can design a screen like this.

“I’m not worried about what people are going to say, because we’re pretty confident in our design capability. I think [the Mi MIX unveiling] was a pretty clear demonstration of that.”

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