What's hot: An Android phone with a keyboard and solid features for a nice price. Unique design.
What's not: Battery life is never great with MOTOBLUR. Unique design either captivates or deters. AT&T bloatware-- will they never stop?!
Reviewed March 8, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Was it a severe case of iPhone-itis that kept Android phones off AT&T shelves for so long? Whatever the reason, AT&T was certainly selling itself short by being the only big 4 US carrier to not offer one of the hottest commodities of 2009, an Android smartphone. 2010 is here and perhaps their first Android phone, the Motorola Backflip, signals the end of the drought. The Backflip is an attention getter thanks to its unique design where the keyboard and display face out when the phone is closed. Think of it as a reverse clamshell. This isn't a bad design: the display is always available, just like bar form factor touch screen phones like the iPhone 3GS and myTouch 3G. That means no fiddling, folding or flipping to gain access to the phone. The keyboard is simply humongous since it need not fit inside a clamshell or fold against the display: Moto had the freedom to let the keyboard be all that it could be. Yet the Backflip is surprisingly compact and certainly much smaller than its beefy and industrial looking sibling, the Devour, on Verizon.
The phone can flip at 90 degrees and turn into a desk or nightstand alarm clock with weather and slide show functions (no need to pay $50 extra for a dock to get this feature as with the Nexus One). This is a smart flip: it knows the hinge position and disables the keyboard when closed and it turns on clock mode when the hinge is at approximately 90 degrees (it's a little fiddly finding that position). But we're sure the design isn't for everyone-- just as there are those of us who crave novel designs, there are those who hate oddball phones. And though Motorola says the keyboard is sturdy enough to survive life in your pocket, phone conservatives will worry.
The Backflip is Motorola's third Android smartphone with their MOTOBLUR social networking software. If you hate Twitter, avoid Facebook and think MySpace is for your kids, not you, then look elsewhere... or disable the MOTOBLUR social networking software. You're still left with Motorola's added MS Exchange support and a few other goodies. Motorola's MS Exchange support is better than average for Android and you can sync email, calendar and contacts two-way via Exchange Activesync.
The phone has caught some early flak from the likes of Engadget and Gizmodo for not being a super phone like the Nexus One and Motorola Droid. To be fair, those sites cater to technology addicts and early adopters, so their target audience likely craves high end devices. But to the rest of the world, the Backflip is a pretty cool phone, in fact a great one for the price. While us techie types might wish that AT&T's first Android phone was one that could smack down the Motorola Droid on Verizon, a mid-range phone makes sense not just because it doesn't threaten the iPhone's supremacy on AT&T's lineup, but because this is a phone that the huge midrange of customers can appreciate and afford.
The Backflip's feature list is respectable: an HVGA 320 x 480 capacitive touch screen (the same resolution as the iPhone 3GS, Droid Eris, myTouch 3G and Motorola Cliq among others), 3G HSDPA 7.2Mbps, WiFi, Bluetooth, a GPS that works with Google Maps and AT&T Navigator, and a 5 megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash. The build quality is solid and the phone looks nice. While the Cliq looked plasticky and cheapish, the metal alloy and plastic Backflip looks like a nice piece of tech (granted not as high end as the metal-clad Moto Droid and Nexus One). It's not a phone that would embarrass an adult, though its social networking features should appeal to teens as well as cyber-social adults.
The Moto turns into a desk and alarm clock in the 90 degree position, and the screen stays powered on if the phone is plugged in to AC power. It can also do an impersonation of a photo frame via slide show and it handles media playback.
Like the Motorola Cliq and Devour, the Backflip has Motorola's MOTOBLUR social networking software running on top of an older version of Android. And that's a sore point: power users and upgraders won't be getting a new version of Android if they purchase the Backflip since it's running the original 1.5 Cupcake OS. Motorola and AT&T have indicated that an update to 2.1 is coming in approximately 2 months, which bodes well for the Backflip. That said, if you're an Android newbie or even a moderate user, the difference between Android OS releases is subtle. The 2.1 OS adds necessary support for spoken navigation in Google Maps and 2.0 adds support for multi-touch (pinch zooming, though only the Nexus One supports this natively), and these are the two biggies that separate the new from the old. MOTOBLUR and Motorola's/AT&T's software make up for some of the older operating system's deficiencies anyhow. For example, Motorola adds MS Exchange support that's better than the fairly weak Google implementation in 2.0, and AT&T and Moto have added multimedia software that's better than Google's also weak default players. That said, we miss the updated OS' convenience features such as favorites for calling and more features in the Android Market.
MOTOBLUR extends the standard Android home screens from 3 to 5 and it has widgets for Happenings (an aggregate of all social networking tweets/posts/whatever), a Twitter widget where you can Tweet, a Messages widget (ties to the universal inbox that handles text messages, email and direct/private messages in your social networks), Social Status (you can send updates to your social networks all at once if you like) and more. It's cluttered if you turn everything on, but you do have 5 screens to spread things out and you can remove any widget that bugs you. As we noted, MS Exchange 2003/2007 support is on board and MOTOBLUR adds a few other handy services. Using your computer and a web browser you can log into your MOTOBLUR account and locate your lost or stolen device (using its GPS) and remote wipe the phone. The bad news is that you must create a MOTOBLUR on the Backflip before you can use the phone (yet another account in your life). That account will sync with only 1 MOTOBLUR phone, unlike Gmail and Google sync which allow you to sync one account to multiple phones. If you get a new phone, you'll have to delete your MOTOBLUR account from the old phone (the nice part is that you can use MOTOBLUR to transfer your data to your new phone).
That pad on the back behind the display panel is a trackpad
which works quite well though we don't see why one is needed with a touchscreen phone.
Given the Motorola Backflip's unique design and MOTOBLUR software, it's much easier to give you a feel for the phone using video. We show you every twist and bend, and take Google Maps, AT&T Navigator, the web browser, YouTube player and AT&T Video through their paces. We also do comparisons with the Acer Liquid (an unlocked Android phone with high end specs and AT&T 3G on the 1900MHz but not 850MHz band), the Motorola Devour, the Nexus One and the iPhone.
As you can see from the video, the 528MHz Backflip is a decent performer but it's not as fast as the 1GHz Nexus One. It's just slightly slower than the Motorola Devour. Despite the added burden of Motorola's software, the Backflip is no slower than the myTouch 3G which runs vanilla Android on the same CPU. For $99, you don't get high end Snapdragon or Cortex-A8 CPUs, sorry. But we find it tolerable enough. The phone has 256 megs of RAM which is enough to run Android 2.1, and it has 512 megs of flash storage. The SDHC microSD card slot is compatible with cards up to 32 gigs and a 2 gig card is included in the phone. The card slot is under the battery door.
Phone and Data
The Moto is a quad band GSM world phone and triband 3G HSDPA 7.2Mbps world phone with 3G on AT&T's bands and 2100MHz for Europe and Asia. Here in the Dallas area we have solid HSPA 7.2 coverage and the phone averaged 3,000kbps via the Speedtest app available on the Android Market and 750kbps on DSL Reports' web-based beta iPhone speed test. Web pages load quickly (thanks to the fast connection rather than the slowish CPU) and apps download quickly on the Android Market. Note that AT&T requires a data plan with smartphones, so you'll have to pony up $30/month for their smartphone personal plan if you buy this phone with a new contract.
Voice quality is loud and clear via the earpiece, though on some calls we could hear our own voice transmitted back. Our callers said we sounded very clear and the phone's DSP did a good job of whacking background noise. The speakerphone is fairly loud and fuller than average, and made for clear calls on both ends. The phone worked well with the Plantronics Discovery 925 Bluetooth headset as well as the Jawbone Hero and as you'd expect music sounded good with the Motorola S9 HD stereo Bluetooth headset. The phone has a 3.5mm stereo headset jack, but no headset is included in the box. The Backflip has both speed dialing and voice dialing.
The 320 x 480 pixel capacitive display is very sharp, clear and bright. There's no auto-brightness setting but the phone does have a proximity sensor (no cheek dialing) and an accelerometer (which you can turn off if you one want the phone to switch orientation when the keyboard is deployed). The 3.1" display suits the resolution and text is readable but not overly large. We'd love a higher resolution display but that would make the phone larger and more expensive, and we do appreciate the Backflip's small size.
The keyboard is very large and backlit in white. The keys are slightly domed and don't have a huge amount of travel (but more than the Moto Droid's). They're large and easy to type on using the pads of your fingers and there's no need to poke carefully with fingernails. This is definitely a good keyboard for large-handed guys, while those with small hands might find it hard to reach the center keys. There are dedicated keys for menu, search, back, home, email and the web browser. The camera lens and LED flash are embedded in the lower left corner of the keyboard.
Software and a bit more about syncing
Like all Android phones, the Backflip cloud syncs to Gmail for email and contacts and Google Calendar. There's no cable syncing to Outlook on the desktop since the OS doesn't support that (HTC's Sense UI enhanced Android phones do come with HTC-developed desktop syncing software). As we mentioned, you can work with several other popular social networking services, MS Exchange and get POP3/IMAP email too. MOTOBLUR integrates all synced services in your address book and does its best to avoid duplicates. Photos for caller ID are pulled from your Google, Exchange and social networking services.
Given AT&T's relationship with Yahoo, they've chosen to override the standard Google search with Yahoo search-- what a strange concept; a Google phone that uses Yahoo search. All other Google Android goodies are intact: Google Maps, Gmail, Google's YouTube player, Google Talk and more. And you can of course use the excellent webkit web browser to get to Google's search page. Still, we're less than pleased with the switch.
AT&T has loaded the phone with their usual mess of software, some for good and some for bad. We'd say this is the most carrier customized version of an Android phone yet, but thankfully they haven't done more than add apps and switch the default search. The "good" apps are AT&T Music-- not that we're 100% in love with this app but it does improve upon the weak Android 1.5 music player. The AT&T Radio seems nice since it aggregates a variety of popular Internet radio stations into one easy to use app, but somehow AT&T sees fit to charge a monthly fee for content you can otherwise get for free using other Android Market applications or the phone's web browser. AT&T Mobile Video is on board for streaming video and it works quite well on the Backflip. Likewise, we still like AT&T Navigator (powered by Telenav). It gives excellent spoken turn by turn directions and has a good POI database. The service costs $10/month and augments Google Maps which doesn't have spoken directions (at least not until the smartphone gets Android 2.1).
The rest are the usual AT&T bundled apps and junk: MobiTV, Mobile Banking, Where, Yellow Pages Mobile and MusicID, all of which require a monthly subscription and many of which can be replaced with free apps or the phone's web browser. They make some sense on a feature phone but none on a smartphone.
Normally you'll use the Android Market application on the phone to download new free and paid applications. And you can indeed do this unfettered on the Backflip. But you can't install applications that come from other sources since the usual setting that allows you to install non-Android Market applications is missing on the Backflip. While the overwhelming majority of applications are available on the Market (getting approval isn't the mind-bogglingly difficult experience that it is on the iTunes store for iPhones, in fact it's a quite easy and open process), there are some beta applications that are available off-market. Also Android developers may want to test their developing applications on the device rather than in a PC emulator. They can't do this with the Backflip because of that missing setting. Yet again, we'll say that this isn't the phone for power users who want to test beta software that's not available on the Android Market, nor is it a good phone for Android developers. OK, I partially take that back: developers, you can load apps over USB using adb (part off the developer SDK for you normal types reading this). Is this an AT&T conspiracy to make the Backflip more iPhone-like? Did they simply want to lock down installation of potentially iffy software? Did Moto just have a dim moment and forget to turn this setting on? Who knows. Will this matter to the average user? Nope. Will it matter to you? If you understand what I'm talking about and it bothers you, then the answer is yes.
Camera and Battery Life
The Backflip has a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and LED flash. That's a relatively high end camera for a mid-range smartphone, and it takes decent but not wonderful photos. Photos have good color saturation and accuracy but you can see digital artifacting at 100% zoom. Images are better than the Moto Droid and HTC HD2, but they can't compete with Nokia Nseries phones that rival a dedicated camera. The phone can shoot video at an unimpressive max resolution of 352 x 288 pixels, 24 fps.
Battery life is MOTOBLUR's sore spot-- all that keeping in contact of social networks takes its toll on battery life since it keeps the data connection active. The Backflip has 3 power settings and ships with the performance mode as the default. This gets you the best performance and provides timely social networking updates and GPS location updates, but battery life is just a day with only moderate use. The middle "smart" setting turns off the 3G connection after a few hours of inactivity and sleeps the GPS and that does improve battery life. But we did notice that upon rising in the morning our social networking hadn't updated for the past 5 hours (no surprise) and it took 30 to 45 minutes for the phone to catch up on social network updates. That's something of a bummer if you want to check out what's going on in Twitter and Facebook while you down your first cup of coffee.
The Motorola Backflip will either have you doing backflips or calling it the "Backflop". We can't and shouldn't try to change your mind since design is akin to personal statement these days. If you dig the Backflip's design and are looking for your first smartphone or just want to get into Android on AT&T, it's a solid choice. If you're the high end phone type, the Backflip probably isn't for you since the CPU, resolution and OS version aren't state of the art-- hold out for the Nexus One with AT&T 3G or consider the Acer Liquid. We like the clear and sharp capacitive touch screen and relatively small form factor. We appreciate that the backflipping design allows for a larger keyboard in a smallish smartphone. Voice quality and reception are quite good as are HSPA download speeds on AT&T's network in our area. We have no qualms with the unique design and find the phone usable and different. While MOTOBLUR isn't for you cyber-unsocials, it's great for those who are into social networking and the MS Exchange support is solid. We could do without the AT&T bloatware-- please stop that AT&T! Give us the useful stuff like AT&T Navigator and AT&T Mobile Video but axe the insulting Mobile Banking and Where apps that seemingly are there to dupe smartphone newbies into paying for services they can get other ways for free.
Price: $99 with a 2 year contract after rebate, $349 retail with no contract ($249 after AT&T's $100 rebate).
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz. 3G HSDPA 7.2 Mbps on the 850/1900/2100MHz bands compatible with AT&T's network and Europe. Phone has speed dial and voice dialing.
Camera:5.0 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and LED flash.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth.
Software:Android OS 1.5 with MOTOBLUR software. Standard Google Android apps including webkit web browser, GMail, Google Talk, Google Maps, Android Market and more. Custom video and music player software installed. AT&T apps: AT&T Navigator, AT&T WiFi Hotspots, AT&T Music, AT&T Radio (streaming Internet radio that AT&T charges for though you can get the same content free using other apps) and AT&T Mobile Video. Bloatware: Yellow Pages Mobile, Mobile Banking, AllSport GPS, MobiTV, MusicID and Where.