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Google’s New Moto X Phone: Cool Enough to Compete With the iPhone?

Aaron Pressman
The Exchange

Have you heard? Google's (GOOG) Motorola division has a new phone called the Moto X. The widely rumored device got an official unveiling Thursday in New York, and it's as cool-looking and full-featured as any flagship model in the industry. It also comes in 18 colors.

But the most important part of the announcement was just a 10-second aside at the glossy intro event: The phone will be available on the five major U.S. carriers in a few weeks for $199.

Google has sold its Nexus line of Android phones for years, but they've never made a dent in the sales standings, despite carrying the pure Android software unsullied by carrier crapware. That's largely because consumers have to pay full price for the Nexus phones at Google's online Play store, wait to get the phone delivered, then go to a physical store to arrange for service.

Straight for the mainstream market

The Moto X is going straight for the mainstream market — subsidized phones sold directly to customers in carriers' stores when they pick a two-year service plan.

That kind of simple and convenient marketing plan — sell phones to people where they most commonly buy them for the price they most often pay — could make the Moto X a bigger contender than prior Google efforts.

The phone itself has a large screen – 4.7” – and a curved, lightweight plastic back. It’s noticeably taller and wider than Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 5 and feels light in the hand, although it actually weighs more than the iPhone, at 130 grams vs. 112 grams.

About those new features – they do look pretty cool.

First is the customization. At a "MotoMaker" website, customers can choose from 18 colors for the back, seven "accent" colors for the buttons and bezel around the camera, plus a black or white front.

Motorola is promising delivery in the U.S in four days or less. That's why, the company says, it's assembling the phones in Fort Worth, Texas, instead of an overseas factory with lower labor costs.

Apple may be about to make a similar multicolored move with the iPhone, however. A new, low-cost iPhone rumored to be coming out later this year is – again, rumored – to include multicolored plastic backs.

The Moto X’s camera also has some new innovations, including the easiest way yet to turn it on a phone. Pick up a Moto X and give it a few quick wrist twists and the phone turns on with the camera app open. Tap anywhere on the screen and take a picture; hold a finger down on the screen to snap multiple shots.

The Moto x also tries to take voice control to the next level. By uttering the phrase "OK Google, Now," a Moto X user can control the phone – place a call, dictate a text or play a song – even if it's in a pocket or a cupholder in your car. At least that's how it worked in the demo.

Even if all goes as planned and the phone is a big seller, Google still has a ways to go to earn back the $12.5 billion it spent buying Motorola in the first place. Actually, more like $7 billion – Motorola has $3 billion of cash from when it was acquired and Google sold off the set-top box division for $2.4 billion.

And Google has to be careful that its move to directly compete with other Android phone makers such as Samsung (005930.KS) and HTC (2498.TW) doesn't prompt those vendors to jump ship or put more effort into selling phones running Windows.

Can a phone from Google actually make a dent in the smartphone market? Based on the demos and distribution, it sounds like the Moto X definitely has a shot.