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CES 2009

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Motorola's major phone announcement at CES was the MOTOSURF A3100, a unique phone that combines Ming heritage, Windows Mobile, and a form factor that looks like an oval iPhone.

MotoSURF A3100  

The hardware of the Surf is quite respectable, although no features really stand out as super-impressive. The spec sheet includes quad-band GSM, tri-band HSDPA/HSUPA (including 850/1900 for the US), WiFi, GPS, and a 3 megapixel auto-focus camera. The display is QVGA. A higher-resolution camera or display might have added a little wow factor, but the specs ares still nothing to sneeze at.

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The body is about average. It's not huge nor small, light nor excessively heavy. It is very, very rounded. The build quality seems fine, except for the send/end keys, which feel a bit cheap.

Like everyone and their mother making a Windows Mobile these days, Motorola has a new "top layer" UI to make basic features easier to use than stock Windows Mobile. It uses simple four-way navigation that can be used very quickly and easily with the trackball. We've seen that on Windows Mobile Standard devices, but this is a Windows Mobile Pro phone with a touch screen. Motorola's interface is also finger-friendly, of course, and having that option of finger touch or the trackball is nice.

Motorola's UI has a simple row of icons across the bottom (much like TouchFLO 3D) that you can scroll through to pick a screen. Some screens have their own settings menu, which is also finger-friendly.

Unfortunately, once you leave Motorola's UI, everything is standard Windows Mobile. There are no special finger-friendly versions of full applications like on Samsung's Omnia.

With full support for AT&T's 3G network, you'd think the SURF was headed for the US, but Motorola says the jury's still out on that. For now it's only confirmed for Asia.

Motorola also announced the W233 Renew for T-Mobile. This is a very entry-level phone, although it does have a music player and memory card slot. The headline feature, though, is the eco-love. This phone uses recycled and earth-friendly materials in the phone itself as well as the packaging. It also has an extra-efficient charger.

Moto Renew W233  

The Renew looks and feels good physically. The one major drag is that the screen is about as small and dim as they come these days.

We also had our first hands-on time with Motorola's new luxury phone, the Aura. This status symbol contains the kind of extravagant technology and materials that only $2000 can buy, including an ultra-high-resolution circular display and a watch-quality spinner mechanism that would make the Swiss proud, complete with a window to watch the gears spin. The mechanism exudes quality in both appearance and feel of the action.

Moto Aura  

The display is beyond gorgeous. The circular shape, lens-shaped curved glass, high resolution, and beautiful graphics all come together to create something that looks like Hollywood special effects come to life.

The phone is small, but heavy. That's fine for a phone of this type, where - if you spent that much money - the last thing you want is a phone so light it feels cheap. Far from it, you will be reminded every time you pick it up that it is crafted from solid stainless steel.

The Aura does have one small flaw, and that is the d-pad... if you could call it that. The circular control centered below the display is a four-way d-pad, but its small size hinders usability a bit. It works, it's just not the pleasure to use that we would expect from a phone of this caliber. More seriously, you can not press down in the center to select something, as is standard on most phones. Rather, you must press the separate "OK" key on the left. This action is not physically intuitive, and mars what would otherwise be a luscious experience. It's certainly something most people would adjust to over time, but it's a clear case of form at the expense of function that would annoy any usability purist.

Fortunately, the rest of the keys functioned admirably for us, and the experience in general was fun and satisfying. If you want a phone that looks like something from the future, and don't mind paying a hefty time-travel tax, the Aura is worth a look.

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