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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The Axon 7 finally fulfills ZTE’s ‘affordable premium’ promise

Over the years, smartphones have either been high end and expensive, or dirt cheap and shoddy. But, two years ago, the industry shifted and midrange phones that had great specs for lower prices started to fill the gap. ZTE has long been a proponent of what it calls the “affordable premium” device, and has thrown out middling handset after middling handset that met only the “affordable” part of that promise.

Last year, the Chinese company debuted its Axon line, which was stuffed full of features to fulfill the premium promise. But the Axon Pro fell short, with an oddly hollow metal body, glitchy software and short battery life. It was also more expensive than last year’s OnePlus. This year’s Axon 7, however, is shaping up to be a far better contender, with the same $ 399 price as the OnePlus 3 and offering a higher-res screen, sharper camera and more premium design.

The Axon 7’s design is the result of a team up between ZTE and BMW DesignWorks, and it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor. My gold review unit has a smooth matte finish on its metal body that helps it reject fingerprints and is accented by eye-catching glossy chrome edges that are also around the camera and recessed fingerprint sensor. It looks and feels gorgeous in an elegant way that upstages the OnePlus 3.

Just like its predecessor, the Axon 7 has a row of dot cutouts on the top and bottom of its front face, but unlike the Pro, these grilles actually hide speakers. (The old Axon’s grilles misled a lot of people into thinking it had dual speakers, but it only had one.) Below the display are capacitive keys for Back, Home and All Apps. There’s also a dual SIM card slot on the left edge — a welcome feature for frequent travelers.

ZTE says the Axon 7 will eventually be ready for Google’s “Daydream” mobile VR platform, and its display certainly seems prepared for the task. The 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED screen was a great canvas for my Netflix binging and Instagram sprees, but it was unfortunately dim in sunlight. Although it doesn’t fix the lack of brightness, the Axon offers built-in software that lets you customize the display’s color output. The tool lets you pick from three saturation profiles — “Natural,” “Colorful” and “Gorgeous” — as well as “Warm,” “Normal” and “Cool” color temperatures. I set the screen to “Gorgeous” and “Normal,” which delivered higher contrast levels and deeper hues.

Complementing the screen is a HiFi audio setup. Not many smartphone makers pay attention to quality sound, but ZTE is so proud of its system that it devoted six pages out of a 33-page reviewer’s guide to it. The only other component that got as much love was the camera. For the most part, the coverage was justified.

The Axon’s dual front-facing stereo speakers pumped out distinct, clear sound that drowned out my laptop’s speakers while both devices were set to their maximum volumes. The phone’s speakers were so clear, in fact, that I could easily hear the crinkling of wrapping paper in the background of a scene over dialogue and overlapping music. The Axon was also loud enough to hear from another room. Dolby Atmos enhancements created a surround sound that is more immersive than I’ve experienced on other devices. One of the few other phones to place such a heavy emphasis on audio is the HTC 10, which lets you tailor music output to your hearing.

Continuing its quest to outdo the competition, ZTE also stuffed a 20-megapixel rear camera into the Axon 7. That sensor is sharper than what you’ll find on the iPhone 6s, Nexus 6P and Galaxy S7. The Axon 7’s camera has phase detection autofocus (PDAF), with optical and digital image stabilization that, when combined with the high megapixel count, should theoretically result in crisp pictures. However, real-world image quality was hit or miss. My shot of mosaic art at the 8th Street NYU subway station was clear enough to show individual tiles on the wall, but landscapes with buildings in them sometimes looked blurry.

The camera struggled in low light, too. Upper East Side buildings looked like grainy, dark brown, blobs in a nightscape, and the whole scene was covered with artifacts. Other phones, such as the similarly priced Alcatel Idol 4S, fared better in the same situation.

Up front, the Axon 7’s 8-megapixel front camera takes decent portraits that have accurate colors and are sharp enough to see details such as my individual eyelashes. Thankfully, the “Beautify” mode erases imperfections on your face without going overboard and making you look like a painted-over caricature. Unlike most of this year’s smartphones, though, the Axon doesn’t offer a front flash feature for low-light selfies.

Armed with the same Snapdragon 820 chip as this year’s Android flagships, the Axon 7 was impressively responsive. I relished taking down an enemy Pokémon Go gym as well as catching an oddly evasive Pidgey without any annoying lag — in both cases with a host of apps running in the background.

Even when I used AZ Screen Recorder to capture my exploits while switching between the game and a Netflix video, the Axon kept pace without missing a beat. The only app in which I encountered delay was Pokémon Go, but that appeared to be a server issue rather than the device’s performance.

You’ll be able to enjoy day-long Pokémon Go expeditions without fear of running out of juice, too. The Axon 7’s 3,250mAh battery typically lasted about a day and a half of light use, and I was surprised by the hours of “White Collar” I was able to stream (an impressive 6.5) before the low-battery alert popped up. When powered up with the included charger, the Axon 7 can get back up to 50 percent life in just 30 minutes, the company said.

Although it runs a pretty clean version of Android 6.0.1, the Axon 7 comes with some ZTE-made software changes that I was surprised to find helpful. Most interesting of these is the Power Manager that not only lets you monitor your battery consumption but also gives you the option of setting “power-saving policies” for individual apps such as disallowing autostart, scheduled background wake-up and allowing deep sleep.

A cool Mi-Pop tool adds a floating shortcut to the screen that you can place within reach of your thumb so you can access essential navigation buttons such as Back, Home and All Apps without stretching across the phone. This is a handy tool because trying to reach across the Axon’s face can cause you to drop the phone.

There’s also an intriguing “Voiceprint” function that’s supposed to let you unlock your phone with your voice, but after I excitedly went through the setup process and said my keyphrase three times for the Axon to store it, the method never worked. No matter how many times I said, “Hello there” to the phone, whether its screen was on or off and regardless of the angle at which I held it (ZTE recommends 45 degrees away from your face), I couldn’t get into my phone.

A small thing that infuriated me: Taking a screenshot doesn’t automatically save it to your phone. You’ll have to tap a checkmark below a preview of your snapshot to keep the file. What a waste of time.

Though software glitches like this exist, they’re thankfully rare, and overall the Axon 7 feels like a dependable, well-made handset. If you want a cleaner OS and can live with a less-sharp screen, the OnePlus 3 is a better bet at the same price. But those who prefer a great multimedia experience and a distinct aesthetic will find a more suitable companion in the Axon 7.

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