Two of the most buzzed-about, speculated-upon and long awaited Android phones are finally here: the Nexus 5 from Google and LG, and the Moto X from Google-owned Motorola. Despite being step-siblings of a sort, there are plenty of differences between these phones. Fortunately, I've spent quite a bit of time with both phones and will try to sort out the strong points and weaknesses of each, to make the decision a little easier for such a devoted Android fan as yourself.
Look and feel
The unique shape and curved back panel of the Moto X make it the most pleasurable phone to hold in the hand that I've ever experienced (ironic, given that one if its other top features is touchless control). It's a little smaller than the 4.95-inch Nexus 5 screen, which is at the center of a bulkier body. Instead, the Moto X sports a 4.7-inch screen that feels substantially smaller.
While the Moto X has the most handsome backside, perhaps in the entire history of smartphones, the side of the Nexus 5 that you'll actually spend the most time looking at is in a completely different class. The 1280 x 720 AMOLED display on the Moto X is just fine, but the Nexus 5 boasts a 1920 x 1080 HD IPS display jamming 445 pixels into each inch that's a real pleasure to tap, swipe or just stare at for a bit.
Even with the Nexus 5's display edge though, the Moto X simply has a superior industrial design and size that looks and feels better in the hand or pocket.
Advantage: Moto X
As I've mentioned, the display on the Nexus 5 really outdoes the Moto X, and a big part of this has to do with the superior guts behind that sheet of glass. At the center of the Nexus 5 is the top-flight Snapdragon 800 quad-core 2.26 GHz CPU married to an Adreno 330 450 MHz GPU that essentially banishes all lag and creates a super snappy and responsive touch experience.
Motorola's "X8" system in the Moto X, which is based around a dual-core Snapdragon S4 1.7 GHz CPU and Adreno 320 GPU, is certainly no slouch either, but it is a notch down from the Snapdragon 800. Possibly extending the Nexus 5 advantage here is Android 4.4 KitKat, which is optimized to run on devices in emerging markets and elsewhere that might have less brawny components. Fortunately, Motorola's CEO recently said that KitKat will be headed to the Moto X in "a matter of weeks."
Both devices also get 2 GB of RAM and 16 or 32 GB of storage as well. The batteries hold nearly the same amount of milliamp-hours, but I'd give a slight advantage in terms of efficiency to the smaller Moto X and its custom chipset in my experience.
Advantage: Nexus 5
Android KitKat and other sweet software
For most Android enthusiasts, you might assume this one is a gimme for the Nexus 5, which has the advantage of getting the most up-to-date version of the mobile OS and being free of the normal bloatware imposed by carriers and OEMs.
However, since the OEM behind the Moto X is owned by Google, it comes with some pretty awesome native tweaks from Motorola like Touchless Control, Motorola Connect, a pulsating "active display" and Motorola Assist (more details on these in my two-week Moto X review).
You'll probably still get some bloatware courtesy of your carrier on the Moto X, which is another advantage to an affordable unlocked device like the Nexus 5.
For the moment though, Android KitKat is the most desirable software package on either of these devices, offering the most fluidly integrated way to access the entire Google ecosystem yet, with Google Now becoming a more central part of the entire experience.
When the Moto X eventually gets KitKat, it will be worth revisiting this comparison, but for now, the advantage is clear.
Advantage: Nexus 5
Ease of use
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me in the Nexus 5 is its lack of the touchless control feature introduced in the Moto X. Motorola had to custom design a chipset to make the feature possible without sacrificing too much battery efficiency. The Nexus 5's Snapdragon 800 comes with similar voice control ability built in, but Google opted not to fully utilize it.
Unlike the Moto X, which is always listening for a specific voice command – even from across the room – to wake itself up and await further direction, the Nexus 5 has to already be awake and unlocked before voice control is available.
The pulsing lock screen on the Moto X, which provides more notification data when touched, is also one of the smartest software innovations of the season, which is imitated in the increased functionality of what can be done from the lock screen in Android KitKat.
Overall, this is one of two areas where the Moto really outshines the Nexus.
Advantage: Moto X
It's difficult to get excited about the camera on either device. Both phones are designed to offer a top-notch experience, but do it while undercutting the price of super-hyped competitors like the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5S.
It seems like one of the corners that may have been cut to make this happen in both cases was with the camera.
Neither shooter is particularly bad, they're both just middling. If I have to choose, I'd consider that the Nexus 5 has an HDR+ mode that takes much better shots than were possible on the Nexus 4, but that's not saying much.
In the end, the Moto X's 10-megapixel camera comes with more modes and features and just has a slight edge here.
Advantage: Moto X
This is not something I'd normally mention in a comparison, but the contrast is so stark that it would be silly to ignore it.
The Moto X seeks to offer a full (and pretty unprecedented) customization experience through its Moto Maker site and kiosks, which let customers essentially design their own device with a variety of color combinations and even the promise of that elusive wood backing.
Partner Sol Republic also offers some pretty nifty matching headphones and Bluetooth speakers in a spectrum of hues.
But coolest of all is the little magnetic NFC "Skip" tag that was being offered free with a new Moto X at last check. Simply clip a magnetic Skip or affix an NFC-enabled sticker anywhere (like on your car dashboard) and it automatically unlocks your Moto X anytime you wave the phone next to it – an easy way to skip inputting a password on the go.
Little, thoughtful tweaks like this are the real strengths of the Moto X. The Nexus 5, by contrast, has only one available accessory from Google – a cheap plastic case that makes the side buttons significantly harder to press.
Advantage: Moto X
Where it works; What it costs
In choosing between these two phones, it's very possible that many people (including me) will need to disregard everything I've written to this point and make a decision based on this section alone, and how it applies to each unique situation.
An unlocked Nexus 5 is probably one of the best deals in smartphone history at the moment. In most of North America, it retails for half the price of comparable devices, and with no ties to carriers. However, it is not compatible with the largest carrier in the United States (Verizon) and comes in two versions aimed at North American customers and another at the rest of the globe. The North American version reportedly won't work on many networks outside the continent, a real shame for a great unlocked phone if you travel.
The Moto X comes in a more traditional fashion – either as a pricey unlocked model, or locked to a North American carrier. There's a glimmer of hope, though, in that the Moto X has just become available on Republic Wireless, a newer carrier in the US that's offering it for only US$299 without a contract, but still locked to Republic's network, which piggybacks off of Sprint.
Advantage (by less than I would have guessed): Nexus 5
Overall advantage: Moto X? If we give equal weight to all seven of the above categories, the Moto X comes out on top, 4 - 3. However, most people will tend to give a little more weight to the final score on price and compatibility. For an unlocked phone, the Nexus 5 is a deal that's tough to pass up, so long as Verizon isn't the only quality network in your area and inter-hemisphere travel isn't your main motivator.
If price and network compatibility aren't as much of a concern, I think most average users will build a stronger relationship with the Moto X, while power users might be drawn to the brawn of the Nexus 5.