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Review: Motorola Backflip

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Mar 9, 2010, 12:34 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

AT&T lands the Motorola Backflip as its first Android handset. Based on our experiences, it's tough to recommend to anyone other than the most diehard Motorola and AT&T fans.

Form

Is It Your Type? 

The Backflip by Motorola is what we at Phone Scoop refer to as an "odd duck." Why odd? Well, it has a unique form factor in its back-flipping keyboard. That oddity aside, the Backflip is a much better effort from Motorola when compared to the Cliq and the Devour -- at least as far as the hardware is concerned. It's also AT&T's first Android handset. If you're an AT&T customer and have been longing for an Android handset, this could be your ticket to tech bliss, but there are a few major drawbacks worth noting.

Body 

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

The Backflip is not the most svelte device on the market, but its good looks make up for a slightly chubby footprint. It is made with metal and plastic materials that have a high-quality feel to them. Construction is rock solid. The hinge is one of the strongest I've ever encountered. The solidity comes at a price: weight. It's a heavy phone. With its blocky shape and weight, you feel it in your hand and you'll feel it in your pants pocket. This phone is not going to be friendly to tight, hipster jeans. I'd also avoid dropping it on your foot when you aren't wearing shoes. It's gonna hurt.

The front of the Backflip has the display, framed in back, and three capacitive touch buttons underneath. These buttons work pretty well and offer haptic feedback as they are pressed. The Backflip's trick feature is that the keyboard is stowed on the back surface of the device when it is closed. That means the keyboard is always exposed. Rotate the Backflip counterclockwise to open and use the physical QWERTY keyboard. Motorola said it chose this design both because it is unique and because it let Motorola create a larger keyboard for the device.

The keyboard is an interesting animal. Without a doubt, I can say that it is better than all of the other keyboards that Motorola has designed for its Android devices -- but that's not saying a lot. The keyboards on the Droid and the Cliq are poor. The keys of the Backflip's QWERTY are large and well spaced. They have just the right amount of travel and feedback. My problem with the Backflip is the shape of the keys. Because the keyboard is always going to be exposed (in your pocket, in your bag, purse, etc.), Motorola had to minimize the profile of each key. The keys are essentially flat, with a minute gap to let users tell them apart. Long story short, I didn't like typing on the Backflip. It is too difficult to tell the keys apart by feel when typing quickly, and that makes for error-filled text.

On the plus side, Motorola did include some specialized keys. These include shortcuts that launch the browser, launch the search tool or initiate a text message. There are navigation keys and keys to open the menu and return to the home page. Thankfully, there are dedicated period and comma keys. There are no keys that make typing easier, such as an emoticon key or a ".com" key, etc. Worried about how tough the keys are, and how quickly they'll break off? Don't be. Motorola did a very good job making the keyboard a tough unit. Since the keys are not individual buttons, you don't have to worry about them getting snagged on anything. The surface of the keyboard is also scratch resistant. I took the edge of a quarter to it and punished it a bit. It survived without so much as a nick.

The Backflip's other neat-o feature is a touch pad, like on a laptop. Where is this touch pad, you ask? On the back of the phone, on the surface behind the display. It can only be used when the phone is open. Motorola decided that it might help on-screen navigation when holding the device if people can use their index fingers to navigate around the screen. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but after some adjustment I really liked it.

Finishing our tour around the Backflip, there is a lock/power key on the top. It has good travel and feedback, though it's a bit harder to find with your finger than I'd like. A 3.5mm headset jack is next to it, which means users can take advantage of their own headphones if they wish. The volume toggle is on the right side of the Backflip, close to the top. It's easy to find, but the action of the button is a bit disappointing. The action is rather mushy. Below that is a microUSB port for charging and data transfer. Last is the two-stage camera key. Both the half press and full press had defined action and felt good.

Speaking of the camera, the lens and sensor are hidden in the very corner of the keyboard on the back. Guess what? You're going to get thumb prints all over it. The lens cover is recessed perhaps a millimeter. This isn't enough to protect it from becoming smudged.

I thought the battery cover was somewhat annoying to take off. You have to remember to lock the screen first, otherwise you might send an accidental text message to your Aunt Tilly. Once the cover is off, you have access to the battery, SIM slot and microSD card slot. Thankfully, the microSD card can be removed without pulling the battery.

The Three S's 

Screen

The Backflip's display is identical to the Cliq's and measures 3.1 inches with 320 x 480 pixels. It looks okay, but doesn't hold a candle to the AMOLED displays from Samsung or the HTC HD2, for that matter. It is bright enough indoors and is colorful, no doubt. It is completely useless outside, though. Android's black menus make it impossible to read in daylight. As with the Cliq, given the size of the phone, I wish the display were a couple tenths of an inch bigger.

Signal

The Backflip has quad-band GSM/EDGE and tri-band (850/1900/2100MHz) WCDMA. Performance was excellent on all signal tests I conducted. The phone remained connected to AT&T's 3G network the entire time I used it. Not once did it drop to EDGE. How did that translate into phone performance? I had no problems making phone calls with the Backflip, nor did I miss any. On the data side of the equation, the Backflip's 3G performance was decent, but I've seen faster. It never stalled on me, however, and always delivered SMS/MMS messages with no delay.

Sound

True to Motorola form, the Backflip excelled at phone call quality. Calls I made were crystal clear in both directions, and neither I nor my callers noticed any noise or problems. Volume could be made sufficiently loud so that there was no problem hearing through the earpiece in environs such as a coffee shop or walking a city street. The speakerphone also worked well, and was loud enough for a home-office situation. It wasn't blaringly loud, though, so it might not be enough for use in a noisy office. Ringers could have been a bit louder, in my opinion. I didn't miss any calls due to lack of ringer volume, but more wouldn't hurt.

Battery

Just as with the Cliq, battery life is horrid. I bashed the Cliq for battery life that barely lasted 6 hours (in some instances), and asked Motorola to do something about it. They didn't. You can blame the Backflip's battery woes on Motoblur, which is a radio-intensive app that is always connecting to the Motoblur server looking for information. I tweaked every setting possible, and the very best I was able to achieve was 12 hours of battery life. That's simply not acceptable. In one instance, the battery fully depleted in less than 7 hours. Motorola needs to do better, and AT&T should have a higher standard for battery life.

Touch 

The Backflip uses a capacitive screen. The screen itself does not have any performance issues. However, because Motoblur and the user interface itself can be sluggish, it would be easy to blame the display for poor performance. Rest assured, it's not the screen. It's the operating system.

Oh, and about that rear touch pad. Be careful. It's way too easy to send the cursor somewhere you don't want to, or jump forward or backward a page. It's sensitive .

Basics

Menus 

The Backflip runs Motoblur, same as the Cliq and Devour. As far as I can tell, Motorola has made no changes to Motoblur between the first release (on the Cliq) and now.

Out of the box, Blur's Happenings, Updates and Messaging widgets are on the home screen. Happenings is a constant live stream of all your friends' Twitter and Facebook status updates. Updates are all of your Twitter and Facebook status updates. Messaging is a master inbox that combines your SMS/MMS and IM messages with Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages.

As I mentioned in my review of the Cliq, I love the concept of having a live feed of all my friends' updates on my phone's home screen. But in reality, it can be overwhelming. If you follow more than a few hundred people on Twitter, Blur threatens to be a real distraction, as it is updating constantly. In the end, I turned Twitter off within Blur and had it only sync Facebook and my messages. This is a shame, as the concept remains to be cool. It's only the execution that is lacking.

The main menu has been littered with AT&T apps, such as AT&T Music, AT&T HotSpots, MobiTV, MusicID, etc. None of these add any real value to the Backflip. All of the widgets can be customized, deleted, moved, whatever. Each user has plenty of choice when it comes to making the basic experience of the Backflip their own.

The Backflip is sluggish, but not as sluggish as the Cliq was. Screen transitions were slow and herky-jerky at times, but better than what I experienced on the Cliq. Performance doesn't come close to matching the Droid.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Calls/Contacts 

Calls

The dialer application is launched from a dedicated software button on the Backflip's home screen. There are no physical send/end keys. The main dialer has a large numeric keypad in the middle, with four tabs along the top and three buttons at the bottom.

The top tabs take you to the dialer, recent calls, frequently called numbers, and your speed-dial/favorites list. The default action when you launch the dialer is to search through your contacts. It's annoying that you have to turn the phone sideways and open it up to actually type in this search box (same as on the Cliq). It isn't possible to launch the software QWERTY on this screen.

The three buttons on the bottom let you open the contact list, call whatever number is on the screen or open up the voice dialer.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Contacts

Motoblur incorporates every single contact database you have into one, massive list, which makes the address book almost unusable. Twitter is the main culprit -- but only if you follow a lot of people. I do, and that's a problem for me. I had to remove Twitter from my Blur services to make the contacts database more manageable.

Search is still the best way to sort through a large list of contacts. Similar to the way Windows Mobile devices work, simply start typing in the name of a contact from the home screen, and the Backflip will auto-sort through your contacts to find someone.

Motoblur is still hit or miss in the way it organizes your contacts. Sometimes it finds all the right email addresses, phone numbers and such for a person and puts them in one place, and other times you'll have five different versions of the same contact. Blur is not perfect.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Messaging 

As with the Cliq, messaging is built directly into several key aspects of the phone. Blur integrates tightly with all your contacts, so when you open your address book and look at any given contact, you'll see the latest message they've sent you or some of their latest status updates. No matter where you go, you can't help but see Twitter and Facebook updates.

The Happenings app is where it all happens, so to speak. From the Happenings app on the home screen, you can reply directly to any type of update or message via a link. You can also choose to view just Facebook updates or just Twitter updates or just MySpace updates. The Update widget on the home screen lets you update one or all of your social networks at once. That's handy if you like Twitter and Facebook to be in sync. The Messaging app can be viewed in one long stream, or you can parse out the different types of inboxes (SMS/MMS, IM, Facebook Email, Twitter DM). It takes a while to get used to how it works, but you can quickly scan through messages directed at just you.

As for Gmail, there's the stand-alone Android application for that. AT&T has also provided its own email client. Exchange email is supported, too. On the instant messaging front, Google Talk is built in, as is support for AIM, Windows Live and Yahoo.

The Backflip offers so many different angles to reach out to people, it takes a while to get used to.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Yahoo Search 

The Backflip does not offer any Google search services at all. Instead, AT&T has chosen to go with Yahoo for all search features. I am calling this out because it goes to the fundamental usability of the Backflip.

Google search on Android provides a lot of features. Some of them include Voice Search and local results. I realize conducting Voice Searches isn't always appropriate, but it sure beats the pants of typing when you have the chance. By switching to Yahoo search, AT&T has taken away the power of Voice Search. That stinks, in my book.

Same applies for local results. I performed a search on the Backflip for "pizza". The results include links to Pizza Hut and Domino's web sites. The same search on a Droid took me to a map with the five closest pizza joints pointed out, with phone numbers included.

Also, Google Search works to search the contents of the phone itself. Not so with Yahoo.

In my opinion, this makes the Backflip far less appealing as a "Google Phone."

Extras

Music 

The stock Android media player is on board, but good luck finding it. AT&T has buried it in a sub-menu, rather than loading it into the main menu of the Backflip. Users can choose to place a shortcut on the home screen or drag it out of the sub-menu and put it in the main menu. The player software itself has not been tweaked or adjusted at all, save for a link to AT&T's Music Store.

Attaching the Backflip to your computer automatically puts it in mass storage mode and it shows up as a hard drive on your PC. You can drag and drop files directly into the Backflip's Music folder and you're golden.

The player itself remains the bare-bones affair it's been since Day 1. You can sort through music via artist, album, song, playlist, etc. Album art is displayed if it is tagged correctly, and the interface for playing music is simple and easy to use.

Between Google, the Android Dev community, Motorola and AT&T, the stock Android music player should have upgraded by now. Sure, there are some free apps available in the Android Market, but this is one key feature where Android continues to lag behind other platforms.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Camera 

Camera

The Backflip thankfully adds a flash to its 5 megapixel shooter. The controls are almost identical to other Android phones out there. The dedicated camera key will launch the camera, or you could wade through the menu. The camera takes about two seconds to launch.

Once it's activated, you have a square focusing box in the center of the screen. You'll notice -/+ signs at the bottom of the screen; that's your zoom control. To the left of the zoom control, you'll see little indicator to let you know what resolution you've chosen and a "tag" icon. Tap it, and it tells you your current location. Any pictures taken with the tag present will be geo-tagged accordingly.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

If you want to take a picture, press the dedicated camera button halfway to focus and then all the way to snap the picture. You can accomplish the same thing by pressing the on-screen camera button.

Using the settings, you can alter the resolution (5PM, 3MP, or 1MP), add color effects, toggle autofocus on/off, set picture quality and even set the white balance.

Capturing an image takes perhaps a second to focus, another second to actually snap the shot, and then about 2 or 3 seconds to process and save the image. Android still has cruddy camera speeds.

Gallery

The Backflip's gallery app is identical to that of the Cliq. Pictures are laid out grid style. A little arrow on the left side of the screen lets you toggle between photo albums, which is nice. There's also a nifty timeline that runs along the bottom of the grid, so you can quickly jump to the pictures you shot in January or March. The timeline also shows if you took just a couple or a lot of pictures in any given month. You can drag the entire gallery from side to side to scroll through images.

The editing features are pretty good. You can adjust exposure, brightness, contrast, color saturation, red-green-blue levels, highlights and shadows AND see a before/after preview so you know what the edits will look like before you commit to them. You can also crop, rotate, add text bubbles, insert clip art, etc.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Photos/Video 

Photos

As long as you've managed to keep the camera free of smudge, the Backflip takes OK pictures. You expect a 5 megapixel camera to perform better, but the truth of the matter is megapixels aren't everything. When caught without a dedicated imaging device, the Backflip will surely get the job done in most circumstances. You'll easily capture images worthy of sharing through your various social networks. Colors look about right, white balance is well-handled and images are mostly sharp. There was some slight haziness here and there.

Daytime performance outmatches night time performance, hands down. The flash is nice to have, but unless your subject is standing less than 4 feet away, it's worthless.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Video

Video captured with the Backflip isn't bad. It's good enough that you can get away with posting it to YouTube and not get too many complaints about the quality. It will certainly suffice to snag the kids' soccer game or baseball game, or your friend's drunken antics at a wedding.

I still wish the video capturing software for Android were better. I am going to challenge the Android community, once again, to take advantage of the platform's openness and come up with something better than what's currently being offered.


3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 1 MB

Browse/Customize 

Browser

Android's default web browser is based on WebKit and can render full HTML web sites. The browser is very capable and works well on the Backflip. Other than the baked-in Yahoo home portal, I didn't notice any other AT&T or Motorola customized features. Oh, except for the presence of Yahoo's crappy search client.

You can use your finger to navigate around web pages directly on the screen or use the touch pad on the back. There is a full list of settings that let you customize how the browser operates (such as enabling / disabling JavaScript, managing passwords and privacy). My favorite feature is that the browser lets you open multiple windows at a time. This lets you jump around between different web sites quickly.

Browsing speeds over AT&T's 3G network were good. Other phones on AT&T's network do better.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Customize

You can customize the Backflip about as much as you can customize any smartphone platform. Wallpapers and ringtones are easily altered. You can rearrange all of the menu items, clutter up the home screen with icons and more.

There are pretty robust ways to control the security of the Backflip, how applications are managed, how the microSD slot is managed, how data is synchronized, how location information is reported and on and on.

Extras 

Android Market

Yep, the Android Market is still alive and bustling. It is far more robust now than when it first launched in 2008. There are now nearly 20,000 applications to take advantage of. Many of them improve upon the features of the Backflip and Android. Be careful though. The Backflip runs Android 1.5. It won't support apps released for Android 2.0 or 2.1. What's worse, AT&T has apparently placed restrictions on what apps the Backflip can downloaded. Android devices allow users to download and install apps that don't come from the Android market. This feature needs to be enabled in order to work. AT&T has removed the feature completely, meaning the only place Backflip users can get apps is the Android Market. For example, want to try the new Swype beta? Forget it.

Bluetooth

The Backflip has Bluetooth and supports stereo headphones. Pairing was a snap with any sort of headset. Sound quality was pretty decent. This older version of Android still does not support a number of other Bluetooth protocols, such as PBA for integration with advanced car kits, no OPP, no FTP.

Clock

If you want to check the time quickly, the Backflip lets you do that. When the phone is asleep, press any button and a nice large digital read out of the time is displayed at the bottom of the screen. Alternately, you can dig up the old-fashioned clock from the settings and add it to the home screen, though it won't fit with all the Motoblur stuff that's on the central home screen out of the box.

GPS

The Backflip has GPS and is married closely to Google's Maps for Mobile product. Maps for Mobile is fantastic with the Android operating system. It was able to pinpoint my exact location within 15 seconds. AT&T also included its own mapping program and navigation program. In my opinion, Google Maps was far superior to AT&T Maps, which is powered by TeleNav. However, Google Maps doesn't offer voice-guided turn-by-turn directions (on Android 1.5), and AT&T's Navigator software does. AT&T's software costs $10/month.

Video 

Here is a short video tour of the Motorola Backflip:

Wrap-Up 

The Backflip from Motorola is not going to score a perfect 10 from any judge that I know. The form factor is odd for no good reason at all, though the larger keyboard and solid design help a little bit. Only time will tell whether or not people take to the backwards clamshell design.

The keyboard is strong, large, and the keys have good travel and feedback. The lack of any shape to the keys, however, means typing is a mixed bag.

It's neat to have a rear touch pad on a phone, but this one takes getting used to. For the careless, it can spell trouble.

Neither Motoblur nor the media experience of the Backflip have been updated in any way compared to the Cliq. This is not good news. Motoblur needs better power management and better control over Twitter. The music player and imaging experience offered on the Backflip don't match the competition.

For the AT&T customer longing for a decent Android handset, my guess is the Backflip will disappoint. Its poor battery life alone should enough to make you think otherwise. However, if you're never far from a power outlet, like half-baked software and don't mind a weird-looking phone, then perhaps the Backflip is worth flipping out about after all.

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Comments

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Subject Author Date
thanks for being honest... crackberry Mar 9, 2010, 1:35 PM
get real mediocre Mar 9, 2010, 6:13 PM
Great phone +potential fade1d Mar 9, 2010, 11:22 PM
Google Music taschaal Mar 11, 2010, 10:22 AM
design is just plain wacky bob a Mar 11, 2010, 6:49 PM
Outdoor visibility naplesbill Mar 11, 2010, 3:16 PM
AT&T ruined an already struggling phone InnocentEd Mar 9, 2010, 1:25 PM
Didn't agree with the review ALL2020 Mar 9, 2010, 6:17 PM
 
 
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