Review : Backflip or Backflop? Motorola Backflip for AT&T

The Motorola Backflip, AT&T’s first Android device is both interesting and confusing. Motorola’s social-networking centric custom user interface running atop Android 1.5 OS is a step forward with AT&T, which offers one other Android device at the moment. Why AT&T chose this particular device as their first Android device may never be known, but as a mid-range smartphone, this may be the device for you. So I pose the question, is this Android phone a “Backflip or BackFlop?”

Read on to find out!

AT&T Motorola Backflip
Available from AT&T for $99.99 with new 2-year contract

The Backflip was, at launch, AT&T’s first venture into the Android arena, and already they are shooting themselves in the foot by blocking applications from being downloaded from places other than the Android Market. They have stripped out Google Search on the device, and replaced it with Yahoo! Search. Lame. Sure there are Google applications pre-installed into the Backflip, but AT&T decided to take Google search out of the device… Ya know, the thing Google is famous for. These may not be reasons not to buy the Backflip, but blocking options off like this is just a tad irritating, especially if you’ve been waiting for an Android phone to hit AT&T.

It’s not all bad though. The Backflip excels when it comes to social networking integration. Friends from Facebook, Twitter, Google, MySpace, Picasa, and more can all be found in one convenient place – the Homescreen. There’s no longer a need to close out of an application and the go into another one to view certain friends from certain social networking sites. Thanks to Motoblur’s homescreen widgets. There’s no doubt that Motorola’s custom UI is being targeted to a younger audience. And, what more do tweenagers want to do than to sext each other? Share their sexts with all of their friends, of course! We kid.

On to the review.

Pros:

  • Very versatile in navigation, Touchscreen, Backtrack, direction keys on keyboard
  • Great integration with social-networks
  • Interesting form-factor
  • Turns into desktop clock when in 90 degree angle

Cons:

  • Motoblur looks kid-like, and is not for everyone.
  • Backtrack is more of a bother than useful
  • No option to download applications from anywhere else than Android Market.
  • Not the best keyboard available

Hardware specifications / Spec-sheet overview

  • 3.1-inch HVGA (320 x 480 pixels) touchscreen
  • 5-megapixel camera with LED flash
  • 3G data
  • WiFi
  • GPS
  • microSD card slot
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • 2GB onboard storage
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

Hardware
The Backflip is your standard MotoBlur device, with specs sizing up with most other devices running Motorola’s custom UI. The CLIQ, CLIQ XT, and even the upcoming Motorola i1 all share the same 3.1 inch display, as well as a 5 megapixel camera with LED flash. The Devour only has a 3-megapixel camera, but makes up for it with Flash lite pre-installed (the web technology, not the camera flash). The Backflip’s material quality seems a bit cheap and plastic-like, but it should be able to handle a good amount of wear and tear. Should, being the keyword.

The Backflip is one of the more interesting phones you’ll ever see. The Backflip gets its name from its interesting form-factor. While closed, the full QWERTY keyboard remains exposed (but inactive). Hence Backflip. Sometimes, after your done typing a message on the device, I’d sometimes quickly try to close it the wrong way, folding the keyboard inwards. I’ve already heard a report of someone successfully doing this… and breaking the phone in half. So just a warning to those considering the phone – be mindful of the backwards folding keyboard!

The capacitive touchpad (like the kind found on a laptop computer) found on the back of the screen, called the Backtrack, is horrible. It takes work to get through the menus, and I struggled to accurately click on the items I wanted. My fingers would also accidentally tap on the trackpad when I was typing away on an email, making it me start typing in a different area. Once I was more conscious of the backtrack, this happened more often. But in the end, I went ahead and disabled the backtrack all together.

On the front of the device, you’ll see the standard Motoblur capacitive buttons, Menu, Home, and Back. While the search button is found on the keyboard, I’ve become accustom to having it on the front, and makes me wish it was added. Not a total loss, but just a personal preference. The side of the device houses a volume rocker, USB port for charging, and a dedicated camera button. On top of the Backflip, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a power/lock button. On the other side of the keyboard, you can find the battery compartment, which is covered by a metal plate. It is easily removable with a small tab to press on, but doesn’t seem like it will fall off on accident.

The hinges of the Backflip seems weak compared to other devices. I’d have liked to have seen the quality of the Devour’s sliding mechanism on the Backflip’s hinges. I know, the Devour is a slider, but when you push that keyboard up, you know it’s up. You can feel how solid the sliding mechanism is on the Devour – I just wish Motorola would have looked to try to get that solid feeling on the Backflip. Still, the Backflip is by no means fragile – chances are it will it wouldn’t survive if you were to accidentally step on it while it was open, but it should stand up to daily use just fine. The overall build quality of the device is quite solid, just not as solid as I’d like it to be. That might have something to do with the materials used (plastics).

The battery on the Backflip could also use a shot in the arm. With Motoblur constantly pulling down data, the battery drains fairly quickly. You might get a full day’s worth of use out of one charge, but that’s pushing it for most moderate to power-users. If you barely use your phone, the battery should last a day before needing a recharge.


Software
The Backflip has been adorned with Motoblur. For those who don’t know what Motoblur is, it’s Motorola’s attempt to skin the Android OS. Motoblur offer a very kid-like, social network-centric skin. The preloaded Motorblur widgets keep you updated with what’s going on with all of your friends, so you’ll never be out of the loop. The widgets automatically update with status updates from your social networks and news from your news feeds. While Motoblur can produce some considerable lag at times, for the most party it’s quite snappy.

There are a lot of Motoblur widgets included with the Backflip. First up, there’s the Happenings widget, it streams all of your friend’s status updates right to the widget, updating constantly. Other widgets of the sort include a status update widget, that allows you to write in your update, and either update to just one, or all of your social-networks all at once. There’s also a custom news widget where you can add feeds to stay up to date with things that are happening in the real world, and condensed to one-liners to fit in your busy info-centric phone world.

With all of these widgets you’ve got running on your device, keeping you oh so connected to your friends and the world, what more could you possibly ask for in a device? Better battery performance. With all widgets running, constantly updating your status on “getting ready to go to work!”, the Backflip doesn’t stand a chance making it through the entire day on one charge. Well, it may, if your day ends at three in the afternoon. The biggest culprit of the widgets seems to be the Happenings widget, as it is updating the most, pulling all sorts of information constantly to your phone.

There are small touches to like about the software on the Backflip. For instance, if you open the phone up in a 90 degree angle, it will automatically opens up the desktop clock. It’s a small addition, but it surprised me, and I really liked that about the phone. Now, on to the less impressive part, and this has little to do with Motorola and more to do with AT&T. To this day, this the first Android device that does not allow users to download applications outside of the Android Market, in the US at least. The option is simply not there. Why AT&T chose to do this could be for many reasons, but I think it was a bad move. Not horrible, but bad. Why? Android devices need as many applications as it can get. The Android Market is growing at alarming rate, but is incomparable to that other AT&T phone. But more than likely, if you’re a fan of Android devices, you’re probably not going to rush out for this phone anyway. With devices like the Nexus One, Droid Incredible, and even the Motorola Droid, the Backflip feel very sub-par, and limiting where you can download your applications only makes it less appealing to some.

I added as many accounts as I could on the review unit, but I just don’t utilize the phone as it should. I use Twitter, and that’s about it. I have, but absolutely hate Facebook, and most of my news I get from elsewhere, so it may not be completely fair for others. I’d say since my lack of use of all of the social-networks I had available to, I probably saw more battery life than an average user who utilizes the device to a greater extent would.


Web browsing, Multimedia, Camera, Video
The web browser found on the Backflip is pretty much your standard Android 1.5 browser. Multi-touch APIs aren’t available in Android 1.5, so one has to make do with the plus and minus buttons, or the magnifying window solution to zoom in or out. I really don’t use mult-touch all too often, but double-tapping to zoom is a must for me. Sadly, that isn’t an option either. But with recent news that the Backflip will be getting Android 2.1 in the third quarter, there may be some hope.

The drab music player and photo gallery has been replaced with AT&T music and customized photo gallery. AT&T Music looks to be the exact same music player of Android 1.5, but it adds in AT&T Radio as an extra option. While not the most exciting addition, options are options, I say, and this is a welcomed one. The custom photo gallery is a step up from what you’d find in stock Android 1.5. It allows you to swipe through your photos instead of making you have to tap on the arrow buttons. The arrows are still present though if you like to tap through your photos. You can also choose what kind of transition you see when you flip through your pictures as well. Also, if you hold down on one of the arrows on either side of a picture, it will present you with a micro-sized slide show of all your pictures. These small additions are simple enough, but gain major points since the stock gallery is not the greatest.

Putting the Backflip into desktop mode (where you flip the screen up and use the keyboard as a stand, of sorts) allows you to view a slideshow of your photo gallery as the phone sits on your desk. It’s a handy little feature that could easily get passed over, but adds a certain flair to the device.

The camera performs rather well, but with the limited resolution of the screen, it may not seem to be. I tested the Backflip’s camera side by side my Nexus One, and while the Nexus One’s camera looked better on the screen on the device, sending them to my computer and viewing both photos from there shows how great the Backflip’s camera is. The camera is positioned on the keyboard itself, making for a great way to make new Facebook pictures of yourself. After all, that’s what this thing’s made for, right?


Keyboard
The keyboard on the Backflip is huge. There are dedicated keys to Yahoo! Search, Menu, Home, Back, and the universal inbox shortcut.There’s also a four-way directional pad, which I found very easy to use, and was much more comfortable than using the touchscreen when the keyboard is in use. I usually prefer a dedicated number row, but sacrifices had to be made to get all of the shortcuts on the keyboard. I would also would have liked to see another alt button on the keyboard, to keep up with consistency, but that would have taken away from the directional arrow buttons.

Overall, I’m not completely in love with the keyboard. The keys, while large, just do not travel far enough to give you good enough feedback when typing. Though you do get use to this after time, it’s almost enough to make you want to use the soft keyboard on the touchscreen itself. The hardware keyboard is not all bad, but if it was going to have a not so great keyboard, I wish it was something along the lines of the G1’s keyboard. While it was not the best keyboard on a device, there was enough space between the keys to know you were hitting the right key. As for the soft keyboard, it’s just too small to ensure an accurate typing experience on a 3.1 inch screen.


Call Quality and Battery Life
The battery on the Backflip is not the best, but I must say that after i took off the Happenings widget from my home screen, i noticed it did last a little longer through a day. I did not have an AT&T SIM at the time of this review, so I can not comment on call quality, but I will update the review soon. The device has always been with me, but it’s been hard to go to it instead of my Nexus One to look things up online. When it was fully charged, it performed rather well.

Without an AT&T SIM card to use, battery life conclusions are not definitive. I’d say that this part of the review may not be so fair, and it will be updated accordingly in the near future.


Conclusion and Final Thoughts
While it may have been a decent effort on Motorola’s part to make an interesting-looking device, the Backflip is just overall not a good device. But I say this because it’s just not for me. It may be for you, or your kid, and they may think that it’s perfect for them. That said, I wish there were more going on for this device. With it’s odd styling, too much of a kid-like experience from Motorola, AT&T’s tight grip on what goes on the device, with it’s additon of Yahoo! Search, and lack of outside of Android Market Application installs, there are enough reasons to continue your search for another Android phone. All that coupled with last-generation hardware are enough overlook the Backflip no problem.

That being said, the price-point of the Backflip makes it ideal for teenagers and Android experimenters unsure if they’ll actually like using an Android phone. For this demographic – especially the social network-savvy teens – the Backflip will be a great phone. This is a group of people that need simple features and easy-to-understand UI’s rather than high-end hardware and nearly endless customizability. If you want a cheap Android phone that makes it easy to stay connected with your friends and world news, the Backflip is for you. It just isn’t for me.

  • Phil Benanti

    The fact that it doesnt have Google as the default search is really not the end if the world, and so what that they use yahoo, its like OK, if your not going to use yahoo search just dont use it , and save google as your homepage. I did that on my backflip and moved on with with life. Its funny I love the backflip, and it makes me think, the person that wrote this review would have been fired if i was his boss. Oh well i guess not everyone that writes these articles is talented i guess. I hate to bash people but these types are ones that use microscopes to finds such tiny flaws in a device that wont even matter. What would like be without the pessimists ciao!

    • blake

      Good thing you’re not my boss. :)

      With all the smartphones coming out these days, this one was one of the biggest disappointments. It’s not a bad phone, it’s just not great. It’s not for me, and if you read the entire article, you’d see that I say this, and that it may be for you. Guess it is. Have fun with that!

      • Bea

        I really appreciate your review, I am very particular and I am not a tween, so I was just nodding along at many of your detailed points. I have an iPhone now and have been looking at this phone for a switch to android, but knowing myself, the way you described it, I would be miserable with this phone. You touched on many key points and I want to thank you for taking the time.

        • Seth

          yes really appreciate it, I’m getting this phone from a relative and I was looking for a detailed and non biased review. thanks again

  • conspicuouschick

    I've had this phone less than a week and the biggest disappointment imo is the camera. I traded up from a Motorola Krzr with a 3.2mp camera (sans flash) and find the quality of photos better than on the new 5mp Backflip. I use my camera to take A LOT of photos so this could possibly be a deal breaker for me. I'm seriously thinking about trading it in for a different phone, based on this alone.

  • Christine

    I've had this phone for two months – and I hate it. The touch pad doesn't respond a lot of times. It took me 5 trys to make one phone call because the touchpad wouldn't respond or it would knock me back to the main screen. Also, when the power level gets down to 15%, it turns itself off and will not power back up until you recharge it – so much for being able to make a call to 911 in an emergency. I do not use any of the social networking apps and have deleted them all – the battery life is still bad. At least with my non-smart old flip phone – it would beep a few times when the battery was low. The backflip just dies. Fortunately for me, I bought this at a warehouse store which gave me 90 days to exchange it – this phone is going back.

  • Katie

    I am extremely frustrated with this phone. The biggest issue is that it keeps powering down causing me to hit the power button and then the menu button to get back to what I was doing. It sometimes does this less than a minute after I have just powered up again. Very annoying. Also, actually answering the phone is challenging. Either it does not respond to my touch or I am just an idiot, but I keep sliding the green bar across the screen like it tells me to but no response; thus, I miss a lot of calls when I shouldn't have to. I am not impressed and will most likely take this phone back.

  • Robin Jones

    Once I learned how to answer my phone life was great. I really love my phone and all it's bell and whistles. It did take me abouy 3 weeks to navigate through the directions and video help but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Also I love the camera, it has a flash and my other one did not.

  • James

    I like this phone, i was having trouble with it auto restarting but the update fixed that, every once in a while i cannot answer the phone but ive learned not to auto answer, i pick up the phone let it ring for a sec, and then can normally answer it. The biggest problem i have is with the music player, it says that all my music is unknow author, unknown album, all of my music is in .wma format instead of mp3 which might be the problem but the time its going to take to convert all my music to mp3 is too rediculous to have to matter. Other than that i love this phone, having facebook, and myspace go right to the home page is awesome, as well as having all of my different emails go to my inbox, so that i dont have to pull them up to check them.

  • Tina G

    I recently purchased motorola backflip. Noticed that it st
    ill has the 1.5 firmware, very disappointing. Oh well. Roll with the punches right. Now three weeks into having the phone and I’m still unable to upgrade or download the newly release updates 2.1. What can I do? I have enjoyed the phone thus far pending a few cliches and having to take the first one back due to software issues. I really don’t want to go thru that again.

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