Posts Tagged ‘Smartphones’

Moto Maxx review

April 6, 2015

I hold the opinion that technology should enhance my experience of life, not distract me from it, especially while driving. I should not need to stop watching a concert in order to share this experience with my friends; nor should I need to pull out my phone, unlock it, navigate to Shazam and activate the listening feature in order to know the name of a song in a club.

To be honest, I am looking for my own version of Jarvis.

The Moto line, and its Droid variant, has set itself apart from other brands through the idea that your phone itself could be your personal digital assistant. They achieve this feat through the Moto suite of apps that are exclusive to Motorola phones:

  • Moto Voice allows you to control your phone with your voice even while the screen is off.
  • Moto Assist provides contextual awareness; it can tell when you’re driving, which triggers the reading out loud of incoming texts and allows you to compose replies by voice. It also silences your phone at night and during meetings.
  • Moto Actions allows you to use gestures to control your phone, such as twisting the phone to open the camera app.
  • Moto Display periodically shows notifications on the screen while off.

So towards the end of last year, I found myself facing a dilemma. Which Motorola phone should I buy, and to what lengths should I go to get it? The choices were:

  • Moto X 2014
  • Droid Turbo (only available on Verizon)
  • Moto Maxx (only available in Latin America and India)
  • Nexus 6

The Moto X 2014 came out towards the end of 2014 with outdated features such as 2Gb of RAM. The Nexus 6 had the feature specifications that the Moto X should’ve had, but it lacked the Moto suite of apps. Even though the Nexus 6’s active listening feature is an adequate replacement for Moto Voice, and its Ambient Display could give replace Moto Display, the Nexus 6 has no native answer for Moto Actions; it doesn’t read out texts aloud, nor does it repeat aloud what you composed via voice, so you have to look at the screen again. The Droid Turbo has upgraded features as well as the Moto Apps, but is only available on Verizon—and I’m on T-Mobile. The Moto Maxx is the international version of the Turbo that is only available in Latin America (and now India), but it was a lot easier to obtain than getting the Droid Turbo to T-Mobile. Trust me, I tried.  

So, I chose the Moto Maxx three months ago because I wanted a phone which could be my invisible personal assistant, and I am now here to tell you how it has lived up to that promise.  

Good news first. Moto Actions works consistently; I can literally access my camera with two shakes of my hand. Moto Display also performs well; in fact since I just got the Lollipop upgrade, I got to test it on the same phone against Ambient Display, a competition which Ambient Display lost. Moto Display combines with Moto Actions to show me notifications when I wave my hand over the phone whereas Ambient display follows its own cadence, oblivious to my handwaving. Moto Voice enables me to have my custom launch-phrase instead of “OK Google Now”, and while it can’t be as simple as “OK Jarvis!” I’m still able to have something I like. Moto Voice picks up my activation code about 70% of the time, which is a lot better than I was doing with S Voice in the Note 3 or Note Edge. Lastly, Moto Assist works to silence my calls during meetings based on my selected calendar.   The battery life is phenomenal. I haven’t attempted to prove the claim that it lasts 48 hours, but it is great to be able to have GPS, Bluetooth and all other energy-sapping features on throughout the day without a worry that I will not have enough juice for the night. Last Friday, as we waited for an uber at about 3am, a friend remarked that the only people with still working phones had Android, and I still had hours of battery life to spare.   Another great feature is the fact that it comes with 64GB of memory. Most people may say that they never need that much memory, but I can assure you that you will, especially with a 21 megapixel rear camera. I am busy trying to free up space on my 32GB Note edge by deleting videos, but memory is not a worry I have with the Moto Maxx.  

That said, I didn’t get this phone for its battery life or its memory, but rather for its potential to be an invisible personal assistant with whom I can converse without looking, especially while driving. Unfortunately it does not live up to that promise. Moto Assist is temperamental while driving; it does not always read out incoming text messages even though it knows I am driving. Furthermore, Motorola hasn’t completely worked out the priority between Moto Voice and other apps e.g. voice navigation with Google Maps. It is not only really annoying when they speak over one another, but also confounding; I miss both the directions given and the information about the caller/message sender. Finally, Moto Voice passes my commands to Google Now, which does not repeat out loud any composed message as it does when replying to a text while driving. Google Now requires me to read the message and confirm. As a driver, that workflow is distracting and takes away from the “eyes-on-the-road” vision that I had when I got the Moto Maxx.  

There are other peeves, but they don’t significantly detract from the personal assistant vision promised by a Moto phone.
First, one would think that Moto Actions–which turns the screen on in response to hand gestures–would allow you to wave at your phone while on a call to bring up the phone app; but it seems that being on a call deactivates all IR sensors when you’re on a call and using either wired or bluetooth earphones. It may be trivial, but after getting used to waving at the phone to turn on the screen, it feels very odd to find a time when this feature doesn’t work.
Secondly, the phone has started experiencing lags and hang ups. My google maps has frozen on me more than once while I’m using the voice navigation to go into San Francisco, which I do not appreciate. Given that I tend to have more than 15 chrome tabs open on average, I am not surprised; but I am disappointed since the Moto Maxx came with more RAM and supposedly better processing capabilities. This kind of thing should not be happening.
Finally, the camera is a cautionary tale that quantity does not mean quality. The default camera is especially lousy when it comes to reducing blurring, and I would rather take pictures with my Note Edge’s 13MP camera than the Moto Maxx’s 21MP shooter.

In summary, the Moto line has fallen short of the vision of my phone as an actual personal digital assistant. However, Motorola’s implementation of this feature surpases that of recent Samsung phones (review pending). With regards to its cousin, I would still recommend the Moto Maxx over a Nexus 6 because I hope that Motorola has an update in store for Moto Assist (which provides useful functionality that has yet to be duplicated by Google). It also beats the Nexus 6 and Samsung Note Edge with gems such as great battery life and a huge memory capacity–a combination which doesn’t come with many other mainstream phones. There are a lot of issues that Motorola has thought through (for example the Motorola Hint bluetooth earpiece which stays out of sight while allowing you to listen and talk to your phone), but there are a lot more work to be done. On the Jarvis scale, I would give the Maxx a 5 out of 10.
For the next iteration of the Moto line, I suggest that Motorola think about how to make a phone for a blind, mute person.


Why and how Sony should double down on its Mobile Handset division

March 14, 2015

Sony executives recently quashed rumors that they planned on selling their struggling mobile handset division[i], which makes the Xperia phone among others. This announcement reduced some of my angst brought on by Sony’s success in squandering opportunities to be a dominant media/technology conglomerate: ditching mobile would have been the equivalent of Russia selling Alaska to the USA, only for vast quantities of oil to be found in Alaska about 100 years later. The Economist recently reported that the number of people using smartphones is estimated to double from 2Bn to 4bn by the end of the decade[ii]; which means that there is a lot of money to be made. Now the question is, how—especially for Sony?

The current state of the phone landscape is similar to personal computers 10 years ago when the ubiquity of Windows meant that computer manufacturers were selling items that provided the exact same experience after turning on the device. Now, as smartphone technology matures and features become standardized, smartphones are becoming commodities; meaning that a user can replace one brand with another without losing or gaining much of significance. Various attendees of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year lamented this fact[iii] and the big manufacturers during last week’s Mobile World Congress confirmed this trend. Their “new” products increased screen resolution, processing speed and battery life compared to last year’s products. Even then, these improvements are mostly unnoticeable in daily use. And while this commoditization phenomenon is especially prominent in the Android world, Apple is not immune. Fingerprint scanners and NFC payment services are available on both sides; but Apple has mastered the art of making you pay a lot more for those same features. You know things are bad when the big news is the mere fact that iPhones are now bigger, and people are excited that Samsung Galaxy phones now have curved edges that add minimal functionality but significantly hinder the user experience[iv].

The standardization of features turns this scene into a drab specs-race in which unknown manufacturers like Saygus are bringing powerhouses like the V2 phone, which contains higher spec’d versions of these same features, at prices lower than the big manufacturers can or should charge. So what are the big manufacturers to do?

Well that depends on the manufacturer’s strengths and weaknesses[v]; and just like Bryan Mills, Sony has a unique set of strengths that is has cultivated over a long career[vi]. Through its Playstation platform, Sony understands gaming and gamers like no other (or at least it ought to). Furthermore, the fact that more and more people are using their phones for gaming purposes makes Sony’s insight into gaming invaluable. If I were a Sony Mobile executive, my vision for the mobile division would be that “Anybody interested in experiencing a phenomenal gaming or game-like experience on a mobile device should be getting a Sony mobile device.” Just as Japanese cars are known for reliability and Mazda within that category is the sporty car; Sony’s phones should be “The phone on which to experience gaming”, and if this strategy means cannibalizing its own PlayStation in the long run, better that Sony does this to itself than having Apple take their lunch, again.

And if Sony is having trouble seeing this, they can call me to run their Smartphone division for them.



[ii] Planet of the Phones; The Economist Feb28th-March 6th issue.


[iv] I don’t say this out of ignorance, I currently use a Samsung Note Edge, LG Nexus 5, Moto Maxx [not the Droid Maxx], and a Lumia 520 and recently sold my Xperia Ultra Z. My iPad mini is an iPhone 6 plus that can’t make phone calls, and I am yet to be convinced by Apple of a need to switch. I bought an HTC one (M8) last year and sent it back because apart from the nice metallic finish, it was not only boring but also inferior to my then Note 3, which I later upgraded to my current Note Edge, much to my disappointment. I am eagerly awaiting the Saygus V2, which I expect to be a boring phone with all the highest specs.

[v] Samsung should focus on the Note for the business segment; Motorola should go back to Google to showcase Google’s idea for Android (or it should work with me on the BeastPhone project).

[vi] In the heyday of Steve Jobs Apple-Disney alliance, I wrote that the only company with the resources to challenge that power couple was Sony, which is both a content and product company.