Motorola Backflip Review: Not For Us, But Maybe For Them

AT&T's first Android phone, the Backflip, is a smartphone for people who probably wouldn't otherwise buy a smartphone. And for them - and only them - it might just work.

The Price $US100, on a two-year contract with AT&T. As usual, you can expect retailers to beat this price, and soon. (Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Backflip end up free, or nearly free, within a close timeframe.)

The Theory It's cute. It's ever so slightly odd. It's, in short, the opposite of what nearly every other Android phone on the market has strived for. But where Motorola's Cliq and Devour had identity issues - the Cliq was unavoidably viewed as Motorola's grand entrance into Android, even though it was a second-tier product; and the Devour suffered from perceptions of downgraded Droid-ness - the Backflip knows what it is, and who it's for: a budget phone, for the masses.

The Hardware

The first thing you notice about the Backflip is the way it unfolds. It's weird! Quite weird! Instead of closing screen-to-keypad, clamshell-style, it closes with the screen and keypad facing outward. (Contortionist-style?) Behind the screen is a hidden trackpad, which does what a trackball or d-pad does on other Android phones.

The advantages, as far as I can tell, number three:

• since the keyboard doesn't have to slide inside of the screen, it's free to take up the entire surface rear surface

• when the phone is closed, you can still see the screen

• the phone can be propped halfway open, so you can set it down on a table for movie watching.

It's a concept that works if only because the Backflip is fairly compact, just a bit thicker than the iPhone, and smaller in every other way. The rounded outside edges mean the body slides in and out of your pocket with ease, and that it feels even smaller than it is. The keyboard is spacious, and despite its smooth surface and lack of gaps between keys, provides juuuuust enough surface differentiation and feedback to make typing effortlessly fast. The rear trackpad strikes me as a gimmick most of the time, especially since you can only use it when the phone is open, but I will give it some credit - it's no worse than a trackball for most tasks, and for scrolling through long email messages and web pages, I actually prefer it to a Droid-like d-pad.

It's when you drill down past the surface that the Backflip really underwhelms. The touchscreen is resistive, and a bit squishy to the touch. Wi-Fi and GPS are all included, but really, how couldn't they be? And that camera, with a 5.0-megapixe sensor and LED flash, couldn't be classified as better than "good enough", though the fact that it's mounted on the keyboard makes MySpace-style self-portraiture dangerously easy.

The processor is an outdated 528MHz Qualcomm number, and the whole system is propped up, Motoblur and all, by 256MB of RAM. In terms of raw hardware specs, the Backflip is really no better than the Cliq, and more damningly, the G1. If you're the kind of person who snaps up phones from the bleeding edge, the Backflip isn't for you. Just buy a Droid.

The Software Last I saw Motoblur, Motorola's social networking-centric Android skin, it was on the Motorola Devour, a similarly-placed Android phone on Verizon. I'm not a huge fan of the interface, but I get what it's going for, and who might like it - it makes sense for social networking hounds, even if it's a little clumsy sometimes.

But here's where it gets weird: The Backflip runs Motoblur atop Android 1.5, which means that at its core, its software is older than the G1's. And there's no way around it: This is a bad thing. New Google apps like Google Maps Navigation don't even show up in its App Market, third-party apps increasingly won't support it, and 1.6+ accoutrements like voice commands just aren't here. Add to that Motoblur's inherent slowness, and you've got a decidedly strained software experience.

This would be a dealbreaker - even for the smartphone noobies the Backflip is targeting - if not for one thing: Even though they couldn't give me a timeframe, AT&T tells me that a software upgrade to 2.1 is coming - something which I couldn't confirm for the Devour, which shipped with a slightly more futureproof 1.6. On the one hand, this is reflective of a truly bizarre software and upgrade strategy on Motorola's part; on the other, it means that the Backflip could actually be a buyable phone - for the right user.

The Right User If you've read through this review and you're feeling flat about the Backflip, don't worry - it's not for you. And honestly, it's not for me. There are objectively more capable phones on other carriers, and soon, probably, on AT&T as well. But if you're not even sure you need a smartphone, plan to spend most of your time texting or on Twitter or Facebook, don't really know about (or care to know about) the newest apps, and aren't bothered by quirks like Motorola's replacement of Google search with Yahoo search, don't count the Backflip out. Just keep in mind what we don't know for sure:

• When exactly to expect the software upgrade to Android 2.1

• That Motoblur on 2.1 will be significantly faster that Motoblur on 1.5 (The enhanced speed of 1.6 on the Devour could be attributed to its fast processor)

• That newer apps in generally will perform well on the Backflip's 528MHz processor

• That AT&T won't release another Android phone that'll instantly nullify the Backflip entirely.

These are some serious caveats for a new phone, to the point that even my tempered recommendation to buy comes with a separate recommendation to wait and see - what Motoblur has in store for Android 2.1, what AT&T has in store for Android, and what retailers have in store for the Backflip's price. To us, the gadget nerds, the phone is basically unbuyable. But Android's future is as much about Backflips as about Nexus Ones - not because the Backflip is comparable to the Google Phone, but because it's not. As an agent from Android's budget future, the AT&T's firstborn gets a lot right.

It's more functional than the messaging/feature phones it's attacking

The backwards folding mechanism is surprisingly functional

Android 2.1 to come

Spacious keyboard

Launch price too high, though it will probably fall

The rear trackpad: great when the phone's unfolded, but useless when it's closed

Ships with Android 1.5

Resistive screen

Underwhelming hardware specs

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