A very capable phone that offers a budget alternative to BlackBerries. (April 14th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Motorola
Price: $150 (2/3-year contract), $450 (no contract)
- 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.
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.
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.