The Motorola Backflip comes to AT&T as the carrier’s first Android handset. Like the Cliq for T-Mobile and Devour for Verizon Wireless, this $99 device features Motorola’s Motoblur user interface, which conveniently aggregates all of your social networks into once place. What makes this phone different is its unique reverse flip design and small touchpad behind the screen that’s supposed to let you navigate without touching the display. Unfortunately, both of these supposed perks backfire on the Backflip, which also has a slower processor than the Devour. Add in the odd fact that Yahoo is the default search provider and that most of AT&T’s bundled services don’t add much value, and you have an Android phone you’ll likely want to avoid.
It’s all in the name: Backflip. Motorola’s design here requires that you flip the phone backwards to open it. When fully closed, the screen is exposed on one side and the keyboard on the other. It’s an interesting yet awkward concept, and it takes some getting used to. We’re also concerned about the durability of the keyboard, camera and flash since they are exposed to whatever might be in your pocket or purse.
At 4.3 x 2 x 0.6 inches and 4.7 ounces, the Backflip is quite small and very pocketable. For a flip phone that also has a touchscreen, we’re quite pleased with its size. The phone’s solid build is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Motorola handsets, and it seems like it could take some abuse. The hinge is sturdy, and while it doesn’t lock into place when it’s open, there was no give whatsoever.
Click to enlargeOn the face of the Backflip is a relatively small 3.1-inch, 480 x 320 HVGA touchscreen along with Menu, Home, and Back buttons that are essential to Android devices. While the screen is vivid and bright, we would have liked it to be a bit bigger. Icons and widgets were easy enough to see, but pictures and videos would have looked much better on a larger screen. Behind the display is a touchpad that can be used when the device is open. Motorola calls it Backtrack, but we’re not sure why it’s here. You can use the pad to swipe between icons or screens, and tap it to make selections, but we found it occasionally unresponsive. It would sometimes take several taps for a click to be registered, and swiping around with it wasn’t always smooth.
On top of the device is a 3.5mm headset jack and a power button that also acts as a sleep/wake button when the phone is on. Around the sides are the usual volume rocker, micro-USB port, and a dedicated camera key.
One thing about the Backflip’s strange design is that it does allow for a dock mode, which is nice to have. All you have to do is set the phone down at close to a 90-degree angle with the display facing you, and the screen will automatically show the time, date and current weather.
Since the on-screen keyboard is so small, you will come to rely on the Backflip’s physical keyboard. Because it is exposed and acts as the backside when the phone is completely closed, the keyboard is rather flat. It’s not ideal, but the keys are large enough to build up speed over time.
User Interface and Performance
Click to enlargeMotorola’s Motoblur user interface makes the standard Android 1.5 OS a little prettier and more manageable, just like the Motorola Cliq and the Devour. It includes widgets that show your current Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter updates and can also integrate LastFM, Picasa, Photobucket, and Skyrock. These services are synced up to a Motoblur account, which can be linked to an e-mail address so that your information is backed up to the cloud. If you ever lose your phone, you can remotely wipe all your data from the device and reload it onto a new one.
We didn’t experience any lag in opening applications, but scrolling through screens or the main menu would sometimes be a choppy affair. As mentioned previously, this phone uses an older 528-MHz Qualcomm processor, while Verizon Wireless’ Devour uses a snappier new 600-MHz CPU.
Messaging and E-Mail
Click to enlargeThe messaging feature on the Backflip aggregates your text messages and messages from your Facebook inbox, Twitter Direct Messages, and MySpace inbox. There is also an option to view them all in the Universal Inbox. The interface is clean and very intuitive, and we had no problems communicating with our friends via several different social networking platforms in one inbox.
Being an Android handset, Gmail is king on the Backflip, and setting up your account is a snap. The device pulled in our new messages and Google contacts, and linked our social networking friends with them.
Setting up other e-mail accounts is equally easy, as you only have to type in your e-mail address and password. The Backflip automatically searches for the proper settings, and it only takes two or three minutes before your account is up and running.
Web browsing on the Backflip was a pleasure. Pages look clean and are rendered as you would see them on your desktop browser. Navigating was also very easy and intuitive, although you won’t find multitouch support for pinching to zoom in.
We tested the Backflip in Brooklyn, NY, on AT&T’s 3G network. Pages loaded impressively quickly; ESPN’s mobile website loaded in just 4 seconds, and NYTimes.com finished in 5 seconds.
AT&T customers are finally getting treated to Android’s App Market. There are more than 20,000 applications, which include categories such as entertainment, games, productivity, social networking, and more. Unfortunately, unlike Android handsets on other carriers, AT&T customers are limited to what’s in the Android Market. Downloading applications through the web browser would normally prompt a user before continuing with the download on other handsets, but that option doesn’t appear on the Backflip.
Worse, AT&T has loaded the Backflip with what some might consider crapware. These applications, such as AT&T Music, cannot be deleted from the device; similar applications can be downloaded and used for free if you dig around the Android Market. Perhaps the only useful preloaded app is AT&T Navigator, but that costs a little extra, as you’ll see in the next section.
Google Maps Navigation would have been great on the Backflip, but unfortunately it’s only available on devices running Android 1.6 or higher. If you want spoken turn-by-turn directions you’ll have to sign up for AT&T Navigator (an additional $9.99 per month). In Brooklyn, the application took almost a minute to grab our location, but then took only about 7 seconds to plan our route. The navigation voice was very loud and clear, and we did not have any problems understanding the directions.
The Backflip has a 3.5mm headset jack, so you can use your own headphones with the device. Sound quality through our own headset was crisp and loud enough to hear music well during our subway commute. Through the built-in speaker, however, music and audio was occasionally garbled.
As far as preloaded media, the Backflip comes with AT&T Music, AT&T Radio, MobiTV, and YouTube, but you can also load it up with your own music via the microSD Card slot, which is expandable up to 32GB.
Video quality over Wi-Fi was quite good, and we experienced little to no buffering delays for most of the YouTube videos we played. On AT&T’s 3G network, however, images looked pixelated and would sometimes freeze until the videos finished buffering.
Click to enlargeAlthough it sports a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, the images taken by the Backflip left much to be desired. Pictures looked grainy and washed out, and nighttime images taken with the flash were even worse. This is the type of camera you’d use for emergencies or very candid shots. Recorded video, however, looked better. Although the colors were still rather washed out, the 25-frame-per-second playback was smooth, and the microphone recorded audio well.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Phone calls on the Backflip were loud and clear on our end; voices came through very natural and not too tinny. Our callers said we sounded relatively clear, although they could tell we were on a cell phone. On speakerphone, callers sounded excellent and loud, but our friends on the other line said it seemed like we were in a room that caused an echo—even while outdoors.
Battery life on the Backflip is rated for 5.5 hours of talk time and up to 13 days of standby. We were able to get through the day with constant e-mails and text messages, while also having a Twitter and Facebook widget pull live updates on the home screen. Upon disconnecting the phone from the charger at 9 a.m., we could expect to get to 7 p.m. without worrying too much about running out of juice. After 7 p.m., however, the battery was down to about 20 percent, and we started monitoring our usage and limiting our phone calls in order to get home without our phone dying.
At $99, the price is right but too much else is wrong. Although we like the Motoblur interface and appreciate that Motorola is trying to push the form factor envelope, ultimately the Backflip is more confusing than exciting. The touchpad feels gimmicky, the camera is lacking, and the inability to download apps outside of Android Market (paired with the bloatware) is annoying. If you’re in the market for an Android smart phone, get the faster Devour or the larger-screened Droid from Verizon Wireless. Otherwise, wait and see what HTC has up its sleeve for AT&T, or just get an iPhone.