Motorola Moto X: hands-on preview

The Moto X has arrived. After months of speculation, leaks, and cryptic tweets, Motorola's new flagship smartphone is upon us, ready to do battle with its Android counterparts and Apple's iPhone.

The phone will be released in the US on all four major carriers and US Cellular later this month or in early September for $199.99 (£132). As for the UK release date, that still hasn’t been confirmed, but we’ll keep you updated on that score.

At any rate, we got some hands-on time with the new gadget at the New York unveiling yesterday. So how does the handset stack up against the competition? The Moto X includes a 4.7in display, which is fairly standard for Android smartphones these days, and not quite phablet territory. It's a 1,280 x 720 display boasting 316 pixels per inch, which doesn't quite stack up against the 1,920 x 1,080 full HD displays on the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, but the average phone user probably won't notice.

The Moto X sports a curved back, which Motorola said it selected because "your palm is not flat." This curve is more pronounced than that of the HTC One, for example, making it feel a bit heftier (see the image below for a comparison of the profile of the two handsets – the HTC One is on the left). But in reality, the Moto X weighs in at 130 grams to the HTC One's 143 grams. Motorola said the phone's custom-shaped battery fills that curve to really take advantage of the space.

The back of the phone is patterned but smooth, and looks a bit like snakeskin, which can be a bit trippy if you stare at it for too long.

Among the features that Motorola talked up during yesterday’s meeting with reporters was touchless control. Once activated, you can talk to your Moto X from up to 15 feet away, asking it to call certain people, look things up online, or get directions. You say "Okay Google Now" to wake it up and command away.

You're stuck with the "Okay Google Now" command; no passphrase customisation is allowed. But you will need to set it up so that your Moto X can better recognise your voice. To do this, you can go to Settings > Touchless Control, make sure you're in a quiet room, and record your voice for better results. The service worked pretty well in a hands-on demo at the Motorola event – but we'll really put it through its paces in our full review of the device.

The Moto X also includes an active display, which will show you the time and other selected alerts – text messages, missed calls, and so forth – without having to wake up your phone. I got it to work when flipping the phone over and picking it up off a desk. It's also supposed to work just by tapping the screen, but that one was a bit more temperamental. Sometimes it worked great; at other times I was just jabbing at the phone like a nut when I could've just hit the power button.

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For quick photos, the Moto X will pull up the camera app with two twists of the wrist. Flick your wrist to the left or right twice and the camera appears without the need to enter a passcode, allowing you to take pics in less than two seconds, Motorola claimed. The feature worked well enough, though you might feel a little dumb flicking your phone around – especially if it doesn't work on the first take. It reminded me a bit of "shake to shuffle" on iOS, which I quickly disabled after my iPod would change songs as I walked.

These features will all be powered by the new Motorola X8 mobile computing system that includes several chips: A 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, as well as a natural language processor and a contextual computing processor that handles the sensors, both developed by Motorola.

The elephant in the room is that a number of these features are available on Motorola's new Droid line-up, which it unveiled last week. The Moto X differentiates itself from those phones with customisation options – colours, engravings, and welcome screen greetings. Since Motorola is assembling the Moto X in Fort Worth, Texas, Rick Osterloh – Motorola's senior vice president of product management – said that US users should have their coloured Moto X within four days of placing an order.

The phone will run Android 4.2.2, and looks very close to stock Android. It could be upgraded to Android 4.3, but Motorola had nothing to announce on that.