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Motorola Moto Q 9c (Sprint/Telus)

April 14th, 2008
A very capable phone that offers a budget alternative to BlackBerries.

the Q's history and the Q 9

Motorola generated a lot of early buzz with the Q, which was understandably pitched as the bringing the RAZR's still-hot aesthetic to smartphones. At the time, this was nearly the only help the company needed to give the phone a boost: while not the blockbuster hit the RAZR was, many bought it because it promised a cheap entryway into a normally expensive world.

Like the RAZR, though, Motorola let the Q continue in the market for a long time and wasn't as quick to improve on the formula as some would have liked. By 2007, the phone was almost a giveaway item; carriers like Amp'd Mobile turned it into a social networking phone rather than the business phone Motorola originally meant it to be. There were also a number of key flaws, such as cramped keys and limited software.

Despite the name, the Q 9 is Motorola's first real update to the Q since its launch in 2006 and is built to fix flaws and take the Q back upscale. It's already been on the market for a few months as the Moto Q Global at AT&T and the Q 9h at most GSM phone providers; with the Q 9c, it's now time for CDMA providers such as Sprint in the US and Telus in Canada to have their turn at the device.

design and hardware controls

A first hands-on with the Q 9c makes it clear: this phone is large. Holding the phone requires a fairly deliberate, open grip, and will make phones like the BlackBerry Curve or the Samsung BlackJack II (known as the JACK in Canada) feel thin by comparison. It's not uncomfortable, but the sensation of bringing it to your ear isn't quite as intuitive as it is for other phones that provide more room to curl your fingers around the front. Motorola supplies a belt holster for the phone that is seemingly there to accommodate Q owners with narrow pockets as much as it is for workers who want the phone always at the ready.

Thankfully, there are some positive tradeoffs to the added girth -- namely, the keyboard. The width makes for an extremely comfortable and friendly key layout which is flatter and gentler than on the original Q and more accurate than on a lot of narrower devices. While it would be overstating the case to say that other phones are accident prone, there was also no looming sense that each press was about to bring a mistype, which is slightly more likely in the case of the BlackJack II or other designs. If there's a complaint, it's that dedicated media keys aren't as clearly labeled as they ought to be.

The directional pad is an improvement on both the original Q's somewhat crude-feeling pad and also the Q 9h/Global, which uses a circular pad instead of the squarish design of the 9c. The thumbwheel isn't quite as refined as on BlackBerries, however, and feels somewhat simple (if precise); the lack of readily identifiable hardware volume controls is also a minor but noticeable problem.

It must be said that the Q 9c does carry a sense of class that sometimes isn't present for other smartphones. The chrome trim is perhaps flashy, but the phone as a whole looks upscale and feels well-built, even if this does come at the expense of some bulk. Kudos also go to Motorola for a subtler backlight than on some phones: it always glows a dim but visible blue and cuts down on eye strain at night.

call quality, reception, and battery life

Whether it's a virtue of CDMA technology or the local network in particular, call quality on the Q 9c is strictly average and compares closely to other CDMA phones I've tested. There's a slight muffled sound, but calls are always intelligible and there were no dead spots in testing. Recipients said incoming calls were clear, though louder background noises could still filter through.

There are concerns for the Q's signal strength. In testing around various spots in Ottawa, the new Q often registered lower reception than other regular phones and smartphones on the same network. Places where other phones were known to reach a steady four bars periodically dropped to three or two. This may also have played into a recurring Internet connection problem where Windows Live Messenger would disconnect without warning. Before buying, it would be a good idea to check the coverage areas to make sure you're not on the fringes where you live or work, since the connection may be slightly less stable than on other devices.

Battery life is at least on the better side of average. Perfectly accurate results are difficult to measure, but in light but consistent use of the phone and data, the Q lasts for roughly two to three days before needing a recharge; this is a blessing in an era when some phones need a recharge if they're used at all. Motorola's target audience of mobile professionals will likely still want to plug the device in every day, especially since the phone's official 4.5 hours of continuous talk could leave the phone short on heavy use. It does, however, give the phone about half an hour of extra life than the early Q.

Windows Mobile 6 on the Q 9c

While some might criticize Microsoft for the interface behind Windows Mobile 6 (and not without merit), the operating system as a whole works well with the controls provided by the updated Q. The HTC Touch tested last year unfairly soured the experience of the software through an attempt to shoehorn an iPhone-like finger touch experience into an OS that was originally designed years ago for a PDA's stylus. Motorola's take is at least honest and makes it relatively easy to hop between calls, e-mail, and the web, even if the execution isn't as slick as on some newer platforms.

That said, it quickly becomes evident that Motorola's focus on messaging and work over entertainment quickly becomes clear: there's very little preloaded on the Q besides what Microsoft offers, and the expectation is that you'll download more. There are a few key additions that Motorola has made beyond stock: the most notable is DocumentsToGo, which wasn't normally included with the first Q and serves as an alternative to Microsoft's own Office Mobile. It's simple, but it's enough to create basic workable Office documents and is definitely up to the task of opening attached documents. Handmark Pocket Express is also a useful extra which, though not completely free, makes for a much quicker way of pulling down news, weather, and other info than would be possible by visiting websites one by one.

Out of the box, the combination of the Q 9c's solid keyboard and Microsoft's messaging apps does work well. It was quick to setup and manage an ordinary home e-mail account, and Windows Live Messenger works well. All the same, hopefully future carrier launches bring non-Microsoft instant messaging clients, since it's unfortunate that users either have to find an alternative themselves or else trust their live chat to Microsoft's service.

media support and the camera

The decision by Alltel and US Cellular to carry a lime green version of the Q 9c and position it as a home user's phone is a strange one. While the device is certainly friendly when it comes to mail and messaging, it just doesn't hold up in terms of media playback. There's roughly 52MB each of available RAM and internal flash memory -- not enough to hold more than a few songs or a video -- and Motorola is still keeping to its unusual choice of miniSD cards for expansion, which aren't as ubiquitous as the smaller microSD variety. Headphone support is also relatively poor: no earbuds are included in the box, and support is limited to either Bluetooth stereo headphones (a new addition to the Q line) or else a wired mini USB connector.

If you meet both criteria, there's still a certain amount of disappointment in the software. Windows Media Player in Windows Mobile 6 is still a basic program and, on the Q, is there more to play the occasional audio attachment than double as a true jukebox. While this isn't a severe blow to the handset and isn't really Motorola's design choice, anyone investigating the Q should still hang on to a dedicated portable media player for entertainment rather than attempt to make it an iPhone substitute. In North America, the BlackBerry Curve or Pearl (especially the later generation of either) is arguably a better choice.

To some extent , that also speaks true of the camera. Despite the two year gap between Q variants, the 9c still has a 1.3-megapixel sensor, lower than the 2 megapixels of newer BlackBerries and some competing Windows Mobile phones. Motorola does supply a flash while Microsoft provides some fairly broad manual adjustments such as white balance and manual zoom; still, as with Media Player, the camera exists chiefly to fill in an expected feature and isn't the centerpiece it is on some devices.

wrapping up

Motorola has talked a good deal about sparking new life in its handset business. In some areas, the Q 9c very much represents the company's business as usual: the company hasn't made any distinct attempts to blur the lines between work and play, and the wide (if reasonably thin) dimensions may put off those expecting the chic of the increasing number of designer models in shops. At $150 on contract with Telus ($100 for Sprint), the smartphone is likely to prove pricey for those who simply want more advanced features than an everyday flip phone.

As a replacement for the original Q, though, the 9c succeeds in just about every way; it drops the somewhat flimsy-feeling design of the 2006 unit for a quality feel and, with its excellent keyboard is decidedly friendlier to anyone who expects to message others often. Better software support (particularly DocumentsToGo) and incremental updates like its enhanced Bluetooth support should make the decision obvious if you're upgrading from either the original Q or else an older handset. First-time smartphone owners would be hard-pressed to actively complain, as long as they understand the particular quirks of Windows Mobile.

The real question is whether the Q 9c can entice users either of lower-cost phones, like the BlackBerry Pearl, or else save money on a more expensive device. That can depend almost entirely on whether or not the idea of a QWERTY keyboard smartphone is appealing, and whether carrier deals help trim the price. On the low end, the Pearl and (where available) the Palm Centro are likely better bargains if cost is the primary factor. But as an alternative to other phones with full keyboards, Motorola's offering does start to make more sense. It can cost significantly less than the BlackBerry Curve 8330 ($100 less on Telus), and it's less cramped than similarly-priced but often somewhat compromised alternatives.

Media playback still falls short and may possibly be the phone's greatest challenge in a world where this is increasingly expected. But if replacing your iPod isn't your goal, certainly give the Q 9c a closer look. Several days of testing generated few complaints about the phone's day to day use, and in a market where some companies can seemingly fail on the most basic criteria like good keyboards or build quality, a phone like Motorola's is worth investigating for how well it handles those fundamentals that make up a good smartphone.

- Superb QWERTY keyboard and D-pad.

- Quality fit and finish.

- Good (though not great) battery life.

- DocumentsToGo and Handmark Express out of the box.

- Solid call quality.

- Unusually wide (though not thick) among smartphones.

- Camera is below-average in a world of BlackBerries.

- Not a media phone; no dedicated headphone jack or headphones.

- Potentially below-average signal strength, though it didn't affect tests.

- Relatively spare amount of extra software.