What exactly is an Android phone? It depends on which brand is in your pocket. Apple Inc. strictly standardizes the iPhone's software and hardware, but Android phone makers HTC, Samsung, and LG each serve up starkly different devices.
Then last year Google Inc., the creator of Android software, bought Motorola Mobility, the hardware company that invented the cellphone. At last, Google could build the definitive Android phone, a seamless blend of hardware and software.
I expected to be happily blown away by the results.
But my socks remain firmly in place after testing Google's new Moto X, which will soon be available from major US cellular carriers. It doesn't seem worthy of its $199.99 price tag. That's the same as you would pay for higher-end Android hardware like the Samsung Galaxy S4 or my beloved HTC One, but with the Moto X you get middling hardware features and a decent but unexciting design.
Most phones in this price range have quad-core processors; the Moto X gets a dual core. Its screen is smaller than other higher-end phones, and its resolution is lower. But knock $100 or so off the price, and I'd call it a keeper.
To its credit, Google hasn't stuffed it with gaudy gimmicks, like the Galaxy S4's eye-tracking technology. Instead it has delivered innovations of the best sort — the kind you may actually use.
I tested a Moto X sheathed in pearly-white plastic, not the best look for me. But Google has done an exclusive deal with AT&T Inc. to offer customized Moto X phones at no additional cost. Want one that's black in front with a red backplate? No problem. You can choose from hundreds of possible color combinations, and get the phone delivered to your home in about four days. It won't be flown in from a Chinese factory, either; Google is building the Moto X in Fort Worth.
The new phone takes Android's speech-recognition capabilities to a new level. These days, you must launch the Google Now search app before rattling off commands. The Moto X uses a new version that is active at all times. You first train the phone to recognize your voice, then activate it by saying "OK Google Now." After that you can issue a variety of voice commands. Tell it to place a call to your spouse's cellphone, look up the Red Sox score, or tell you tomorrow's weather.
You can do all this without touching the phone; you just start talking.
Even when the Moto X is asleep, it's awake. With a battery-conserving on-and-off pulse, the phone displays the time, as well as icons that alert you to incoming texts, e-mail, and voice mail messages. According to Motorola, the Moto X knows when it's in your pocket and shuts down the display completely, like a refrigerator light when the door is closed.
Motorola's Droid phones have long offered Smart Actions, an app that varies the phone's behavior depending on what the user is doing. This service has been rebranded as Motorola Access on the Moto X. When you're driving a car, Access can read incoming text messages aloud. Then you can tell the phone to send a generic reply, basically, "I'll get back to you later." Or tell Access your hours of sleep, and it will shut off the phone's ringer every night at bedtime.
The Moto X shares another slick feature with the newest Droids — a quick way to take pictures with the phone's 10-megapixel camera. The camera itself is pretty standard for smartphones, with adequate image quality that goes south quickly if you use the digital zoom feature. But what if the phone is asleep and you need to take a shot right now? With the Moto X, you just twist your wrist two or three times. The phone wakes up and activates the camera app.
Still another brainy feature, Motorola Connect, lets you access phone features through your desktop computer. Install an app in Google's Chrome browser, and you can see a log of incoming phone calls or read and reply to text messages.
These upgrades may seem less than spectacular. But taken together, we can see where Google is heading. Enough with constantly stroking screens and launching apps. Google wants Android devices with an elegant simplicity that even the iPhone can't match, phones so well-attuned to their users that we'll hardly need to touch them.
The Moto X is a bit underpowered and overpriced for my tastes, but it's a good first step.