At long last, Android has landed on AT&T. The last of the Big Four American carriers to carry an Android device, AT&T is now on board with the Motorola Backflip. Backflip is named for its unique form factor, which takes a horizontal flip phone and turns it inside out, placing the touchscreen and full QWERTY board on the outside of the device instead of the inside. And get this: While Backflip runs the Google-built operating system, it’s been stripped of every possible reference to Google, right down to defaulting to Yahoo! for all search engine queries. All of which makes Backflip the most Un-Googly Google Phone yet to hit the market.
Design & Features
AT&T could have come in high-end with its first Android phone, but they instead went after the Sidekick/messaging crowd with a low-to-mid range device, perhaps to avoid any head-on competition with their flagship device, Apple’s iPhone. Backflip – and it’s Motorola cousin, the Verizon Devour – are part of a growing trend of lower cost, lower spec smartphones that have started to squeeze the featurephone out of the picture. Where two years ago a texting and social networking hungry consumer might have opted for a Sidekick or LG Voyager, now they can choose from a growing range of Android-powered devices including the $99 (on contract launch price) Backflip. Backlip and Devour look, feel, and act much like the Sidekicks and Voyagers of yore, but with the added power of a full-fledged smartphone operating system in Android.
Backflip’s industrial design is interesting and clever, though I’m not sure it’ll catch on in a big way. As mentioned, when the phone is closed its touchscreen and QWERTY board are still exposed. This affords a number of potential advantages, including using Backflip tablet-style via the 3.1″ HVGA touchscreen in portrait orientation, being able to open the device partway and prop it up on a table to watch movies, and the inclusion of a unique rear-mounted trackpad. The trackpad, which resides on the backside of the display panel, acts like a laptop trackpad, allowing the user to navigate around the display and double-tap to select icons and links. At first I found myself inadvertently grazing the touchscreen with my thumbs while reaching back to the trackpad with my index finger, but eventually I got the hand of it and found the pad quite handy.
The phone’s design also allows for a roomier QWERTY board than a similarly sized horizontal slider – like Moto’s Droid for Verizon – could offer, as no room is taken up by the sliding mechanism itself. Backflip is actually pretty compact and light for a touch/QWERTY hybrid, measuring 108 x 53 x 15.3 mm and weighing a reasonable 133 grams. Chalk the relatively light weight up to the use of “Platinum Silver” colored plastic in the phone’s compact housing, as opposed to Devour’s fancy but bigger and heavier aluminum unibody shell. But wait, there’s more! Motorola got extra clever and mounted the 5 megapixel camera (and flash) on the edge of the QWERTY board, which means it’s easily swiveled between inward (self-portrait) and outward facing modes.
There’s a downside to Backflip’s design, though. Leaving the touchscreen and QWERTY board constantly exposed means you run a greater risk of damage when the device is stuffed into a pocket or purse while not in use. Phone displays are routinely exposed like this, so there’s no greater risk of scratching Backflip than any other touchscreen phone, but exposing the QWERTY board like this seems like it’s tantamount to begging for lint, coins, and other goodies to poke, prod, and embed themselves in between the keys. I didn’t experience any such problems in five days of testing the device, but I obviously can’t speak to the long-term risks involved here.
Usability & Performance
First off, phone calls were good and battery life decent on Backflip. AT&T claims they’ve taken measures to upgrade phone performance in the San Francisco, CA area where I live and work, and it seems like they might just have done a little good over the past few months. I didn’t experience any dropped calls during four plus days of testing, and call quality was generally pretty good both in the East Bay and during a quick trip to downtown San Francisco. Data connectivity via AT&T’s GSM/HSPA network and over WiFi was also pretty solid.
Backflip is quite similar to Motorla’s other MotoBlur devices, Cliq (T-Mobile) and Devour (Verizon) when it comes to usability and performance. MotoBlur, Motorola’s custom user experience, adds a layer of social networking-based widgets and apps to the standard Android install, and this latest version of MotoBlur is the same no matter which device you run it on. What’s odd, though, is that Backflip ships with Android 1.5 installed, instead of the newer version 1.6, which comes standard on most anything else these days not privileged to run Android 2.0/2.1. (Note that Backflip is officially upgradable to Android 2.1, at some point in the future, as per Moto’s official product page).
Using Backflip, to go back to my earlier comparison, is a lot like using a messaging phone was a few years ago. The design is edgy, there are a lot of cool features packed in, but the whole thing suffers from a bit of performance lag. Whether you’re scrolling, panning or opening the phone to switch screen orientations, you’ll feel some lag in pretty much all parts of the user experience. Built around a 528 Mhz Qualcomm processor and 256 MB of RAM, Backflip is no Droid or Snapdragon-powered Nexus One, performance-wise. Running MotoBlur atop Android puts some extra drain on the system, as well, and you’re also getting an old version (1.5) of Android no doubt slowing things up a bit more.
So while the phone is certainly plenty usable, it’s a budget smartphone experience you’re getting on Backflip, not a top of the line ride. Then again, you’re paying a Honda Civic, not BMW 5-Series, price for the phone, so you can’t really expect high-end. And it’s worth re-iterating that a 2.1 upgrade is coming to Backflip, which is reassuring if you’re signing up for two years with the device. Then again, who knows how 2.1 will perform on Backflip’s somewhat outdated hardware.
Backflip’s display is clear and bright and sharp enough, if not of the AMOLED-Stunner variety found on its higher-end Android brethren. 3.1″ looks kinda small next to the 3.5″ and 3.7″ screens found on Droid and Nexus One, but it’s good enough big for swiping and tapping through social widgets, Web pages, and Email Inboxes alike. Then again, there’s so much empty space surrounding the display on the phone’s bezel that it’s hard not to feel like they should have made the screen bigger.
You won’t get multitouch on Backflip’s display, but that funky rear-mounted trackpad came in handy when I navigated through Web content packed full of small HTML links. I actually found it preferable to using either Devour’s optical pad or Droid’s old-fashioned D-Pad. As for the QWERTY board, what it lacks in tactile feedback is offset by the sheer size of the buttons – it’s like a Droid’s keyboard but with more of a membrane feel to it and much larger buttons. I got used to it after a few days and found it good enough, if not stellar.
As for the software itself, I still find MotoBlur to be a good idea but kinda confusing all at the same time. The RSS reader widget and Universal Inbox are cool. “Happenings” reminded me that, oh yeah, I still have some use for Facebook, but frustrated me when I tried to use it to dive deeper into my social networks. So I wound up installing Twidroid to deal with Twitter, went back to ignoring Facebook altogether, and disabled both Happenings and Social Status. But hey, that’s what makes Android cool: You can rock MotoBlur, you can disable it and run your own widgets setup, or you can root the phone, flash the ROM, and illegally install someone else’s software. Wait, actually, you can’t do that last part without breaking the law, so nevermind. But you get the point – it’s super easy to customize Android to your liking.
Except, that is, for the fact that AT&T and Motorola disabled every instance of Google Search from Backflip! Seriously – there’s no voice search widget, there’s no setting something other than Yahoo! as your default search provider in the Browser, there’s nothing Google here except the Android platform itself. It’s crazy!
The rest is pretty standard fare, though standard on today’s smartphones is really pretty nice: 5MP camera with flash and camcorder, 3.5mm headphone jack, HSPA data, GPS, 802.11 b/g WiFi, accelerometer, microSD slot, microUSB and Bluetooth connectivity … all of which perform well, but not abnormally spectacular as compared to similar devices. The camera software handles geotagging, Android is great with media sharing, and so on, and the camera itself actually seemed to perform a bit better than Droid’s image-taker did.
I always like seeing innovation in gadget design. Sometimes new designs catch on and sometimes they don’t. While I’m not about to put money on Motorola Backflip’s reverse-folding, rear-mounted trackpad concept catching fire in the wireless world, I actually think it’s kind of cool and kind of handy after a near-week of testing. Over the long haul I’d have concerns about exposing my phone’s QWERTY boards to the elements in (and out of) my pocket on a daily basis, but this review cycle didn’t allow for long-term testing, so who knows what all of those Backflip keyboards will look like six months down the road.
Backflip is another in the growing ranks of Android-powered budget smartphones, phones set apart . Like MotoBlur and want AT&T? Awesome! Backflip gets you some MotoBlur on AT&T. Like Android and dig Backflip’s funky design? Great! Swallow a wee bit of performance lag right now and you’ve one unique Android phone that’s ready for its 2.1 upgrade. And if you just want to TXT, tweet, and Facebook on the go, look at Backflip as a newer, more futureproof version of that Sidekick LX or enV Touch that your friend from Algebra class has been carrying for the past nine months.
Just don’t expect Droid or Nexus One type performance – or any sort of Google-powered search whatsoever – and Backflip should hold up as an Android messaging-smartphone on the cheap. Motorola has finally ushered in the age of Android for AT&T users.