Camera ready in two shakes: Motorola Moto X camera review
Design & Hardware
The Moto X’s camera is built around an unusual sensor. Few digital camera sensors can actually "see" color: they only capture levels of brightness at each pixel. Color is determined by covering each pixel with a red, green, or blue filter, and then interpolating colors from the filtered input. One downside is that light soaked up by the filters is wasted, resulting in lower sensitivity (and more noise at a given sensitivity). The Moto X’s sensor uses a novel filter array with a number of clear (unfiltered) pixels, the "C" in the RGBC sensor designation. In theory, this should produce a higher base sensitivity with a minimal noise penalty and better low-light performance. Indeed, the Moto X’s base sensitivity is ISO 160, the highest we’ve seen in a phone, and at least a full stop faster than most.
Besides the unconventional filter array, those 10 megapixels are on a generously sized 1/2.6-inch sensor. At 1.4 microns, the pixels are larger than the 1.1-micron photosites of the Samsung Galaxy S4, though a little smaller than the iPhone 5s' 1.5 micron pixels. Bigger is better when it comes to pixels, as long as there are enough of them. In theory, this should also give the Moto X a boost in low-light performance.
The sensor’s aspect ratio is, unusually, 16:9. This is the format of most modern screens (including the Moto X and your flat-screen television), but is wider than the far more common 4:3 ratio found in most phones and compact digital cameras. Although entirely a matter of personal taste, few photographers are likely to find the format an ideal fit: it works well for landscapes, but otherwise feels odd if you’re accustomed to composing in a 4:3 or 3:2 (the most common DSLR format) frame. Cropping to 3:2 yields a 9MP image, while 4:3 cuts down to 8MP, but you may have to do that in post, as the included camera app only supports shooting in the native aspect ratio.
The sensor backs an F2.4 lens, which is a half-stop slower than the fastest phone lenses, representing a small but significant disadvantage in low light. For example, lighting and ISO being equal, a handset with an F2.0 lens could use a shutter speed of 1/45 sec when the Moto X used 1/30 sec.
The lens has a roughly 28mm-equivalent field of view. This is fairly standard for phone cameras, which have been trending towards the wide end for some time. Note that the 16:9 sensor means you’ll get less vertical coverage across that wide field of view than with most other cameras.
Viewed from the front, our black Moto X is minimalist, a chrome inset around the earpiece being the only ornamentation. But even from this angle, the soft corners and rounded edges give the phone a comfortable look that’s confirmed when you pick it up. If you like phones flashier than black or white, Motorola offers a remarkably wide range of color and materials options via its Motomaker site. You can separately pick colors for the backing, the buttons and accents, and the front surround. Four real wood backs are also available at extra cost.
The Moto X’s basic photographic ergonomics are decent thanks to the rounded edges and modest size. The backing provides a fair amount of edge grip despite the potential slipperiness of the shiny screen bezel. The camera and flash are center-mounted, nicely away from your fingers. The parade is rained on by the lack of a camera button, and the native camera app doesn’t even support using the volume buttons to take a picture. In any case, they’re not well-positioned to do so.
The Moto-X’s 4.7-inch display lets the handset avoid the gargantuanism manifesting in the Android phone market, which is good news for photographic handling. Though you feel the smaller screen real estate when reviewing images (compared to 5-inch-plus screens), the fact that 16:9 photos fit perfectly on a 16:9 display somewhat offsets this. The 1280 x 720 resolution makes for a pixel density of about 316 ppi. The display isn’t as sharp as full-HD screens that top 400 ppi, but in typical use you’d be hard-pressed to see a difference in sharpness. The screen remains roughly visible in bright sun, but washes out more than some.
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