Did Motorola finally deliver a great camera in the Moto X Pure Edition?

We put Motorola's newest smartphone to the test, comparing it to last year's Moto X and the Galaxy Note 5.

moto x camera
Derek Walter

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A good camera has always been the missing ingredient in the Moto X series.

Motorola promised to fix it for good with this year’s Moto X Pure Edition. Along with bumping up the screen to 5.7 inches and Quad HD resolution, Motorola paid a lot of attention to the camera, packing in a 21MP shooter with an f/2.0 aperture. It’s a good bump from the 2014 model, which had a 13-megapixel camera with an f/2.2 aperture.

However, specs never tell the whole story. Consider that the iPhone 6, with its 8 megapixel f/2.2 camera, takes stunning photos, far superior to those of the 2014 Moto X. Given that the lackluster camera on the 2014 Moto X was a sore spot holding back an otherwise fantastic phone, we decided to pay special attention to the camera on this year's model.

The test parameters

For comparison we're using three phones: a freshly-arrived Moto X Pure Edition, 2014 Verizon-branded Moto X, and a Galaxy Note 5 (arguably the best camera on an Android phone today). 

While there is a certain amount of subjectivity in what makes for a great photo, there are some common principles we can use to determine picture quality. A good camera is able to balance out the light, reproduce the color accurately, and work well in a variety of situations.

The following were all taken with each phone’s default settings, with no post-production editing. Certainly the right tweaks may improve your experience, but for comparison purposes we wanted a flat line to start with.

Cat pictures

It wouldn’t be a true photo test without a cat picture. I was able to get my cat, Sherlock, to (mostly) stay in one place for a series of pictures with all three phones. These were taken from my home office, which has a lot of light and neutral, beige walls.

moto x camera test kitty Derek Walter

In this case the Moto X Pure Edtion held up rather well in comparison to the Note 5 and 2014 Moto X.

With the Moto X Pure Edition, you get a good picture that captures most of the color in the room accurately. It’s much better than the 2014 Moto X, which loses too many details in the shadows, especially on Sherlock’s body.

However, I still found the Galaxy Note 5 to be the top choice here. Notice Sherlock’s fur - it’s an accurate gray that looks just as he does in real life. The Note also balances the rest of the light well on the lower portions of the cat tree, and provides more detail in all the fur and carpet. The Pure Edition does a respectable job, but the Note 5 is still tops.

Indoors, without the felines

Here’s another comparison of the three with indoor shots and less stark lighting. It makes for a good chance to compare how the cameras perform in a setting that shouldn’t be too challenging for any decent camera. 

The Moto X Pure Edition performed rather well, producing a great shot of the fall critters sitting atop the table.  

moto x pure critters

The Moto X Pure Edition camera reproduces the color well and provides good detail in a well-lit room.

The light is balanced well and you can clearly see all the colors on the friendly animals. Even though the light is coming in from an angle, it’s not bleeding over to other parts of the photo.

moto x fall criters

Even in good conditions, the Moto X (2014) still would produce a photo with a weird filter.

The 2014 Moto X looks like it has a filter over it—notice the beak of the crow. It’s washed out. Also, at the sides of the table the darkness kinds of bleeds over, and there's considerable noise in the tabletop.

note 5 fall

The Galaxy Note 5 delivers crisp photos with good lighting in conditions like this.

Again, I still feel the best picture here belongs to the Galaxy Note 5. The beak and the feet tell the tale—this has the best “pop” and creates a brighter all-around photo. But it’s only a smidgen better than the Moto X Pure Edition.

Improved outdoor performance

The Moto X camera shines best when it comes to outdoor performance. Even last year’s phone would struggle at times, but I found the images from the new model to be of great quality.

moto x pure flowers

The Moto X Pure Edition does a good job at realistic outdoor photos.

If you look at the flowers you’ll see their color is reproduced well. You can also distinguish the different colors on the pot, porch, leaves, and wood chips without problems.

moto x 2014 flowers

Even in good light, the Moto X (2014) just doesn’t get a lot of colors right.

Again, the previous Moto X looks like it’s washed out with a bad Instagram filter. The leaves are not as realistically green, though the flowers turn out decent enough.

note 5 flowers

The Galaxy Note 5 really captures the true-to-life colors of the plant and other elements in the photo.

I found the Note 5 marginally better at reproducing the details of the flowers. There’s an ever-so-slight focus problem with the Moto X Pure Edition, but none here with the Note 5. It could be a case where the Optical Image Stabilization, something absent in the new Moto X, really pays off, but in bright outdoor light the shutter speed should be so fast it shouldn't make a difference.

A low-light test with a snake on a chair

The Achilles’ heel of the 2014 Moto X was the camera’s underperformance in low light settings. The situation has vastly improved with the Moto X Pure Edition. But as you’ll see, you’re still more than likely not going to turn out with a great picture.  

The Moto X Pure Edition still struggles in a moderately dark room.  

moto x pure snake on a chair

Check out how noisy the wall is behind the chair.

The background is entirely too noisy, and the camera doesn't replicate the color well. Unfortunately, you'll have to rely on flash or super powered editing skills to improve a photo like this 

moto x 2014 snake in a chair

The Moto X (2014) just isn't any good in low light.

However, last year's phone is even worse. It's dark, lacks detail, and is so full of digital noise that it looks like its covered in ants.

note 5 snake on a chair

The back wall isn't nearly as busy with the Galaxy Note 5. The chair and snake also pop much better.

It's no contest: the Note 5 actually pulls off a decent photo in a less-than-ideal setting. The snake actually pops thanks to how well the camera catches the different color schemes, and there's drastically less noise throughout. 

The verdict

The Moto X Pure Edition has the best camera Motorola’s ever produced. It should suffice for most situations, save for very low light settings. As the photos indicate it’s also a substantial improvement over 2014’s Moto X. If you want to explore a few more pictures from the Moto X Pure Edition, here’s a gallery of some that I took during a recent weekend in San Francisco. 

If you want the absolutely best Android camera available you’re still best to go with one of the flagship Galaxy phones (Note 5, S6, S6 Edge, or S6 Edge+) or the LG G4. The optical image stabilization and years of smartphone camera know-how still put them at the top.

Yet for a phone that costs $300 less than Samsung’s devices, Motorola is punching above its weight. You won’t get the number one camera, but you’ll get a rather good one in a highly customizable package without any bloatware.

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