Review: Motorola Flipout – Neat, but Uncomfortable Shape

Motorola-Flipout-Open

The second Motorola Flipout was announced, it was hard not to flash back to the Nokia Twist. Both featured a new, eye-catching twisting design of questionable function and comfort. The Twist was more of a feature phone, but for those who were looking for something a bit smarter, Motorola would try their hand at the idea with Android at the helm. Moto hasn’t been shy about getting a little crazy with their Android form factors, including a reverse-swivelling Backflip, equally blocky Charm, and a flush-sliding Devour, along with with more traditional shapes, like the Droid X slate and Droid 2 slider.

Now that it sounds like AT&T will be offering the Motorola Flipout after all, some folks in the U.S. may be wondering if it was worth all of the back-and-fourth drama. Lucky for them, we’ve had it up here in Canada since August, and are more than happy to tell you all about Flipout.


Motorola Flipout

Available for $29.99 w/ 2-year contract on Rogers

Specifications (Specs – sheet)

  • 2.8-inch QVGA (320×240) capacitive touchscreen
  • 600 MHz CPU
  • 3-megapixel camera with autofocus
  • 512 MB RAM, 512 MB ROM
  • 3G (dual-band 7.2 Mbps HSDPA), 2G (quad-band EDGE)
  • Wi-Fi (b/g/n)
  • GPS (aGPS)
  • microSD memory card slot, supporting up to 32 GB
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Rotate-out QWERTY keyboard

The Good

  • Comfortable, spacious keyboard
  • Unique rotating design
  • Affordable
  • Pocketable
  • Runs Android 2.1 smoothly
  • Snappy browser with Flash Lite support

The Bad

  • Uncomfortable for calling, extended typing
  • Some app incompatibilities
  • Occasionally lags, feels like underpowered processor
  • Middling camera, despite good sharing features
  • Low-resolution screen

Hardware

At first it didn’t feel like the Motorola Flipout’s spring mechanism had quite enough kick to it, but after awhile I got used to needing to give it a good push to flip out. The very first thing I noticed when opening it was that the top section wasn’t perfectly squared off with the lower (just take a look at the title image above). Again, distracting at first, but I got over it. In terms of materials, the outer casing was mostly standard plastics. The keyboard had a nice matte finish for some added grip, and the outer bezel around the screen felt like a nice tough metal that could easily weather long-term wear and tear.

Under the hood, the specs were mid- to low-end: QVGA touchscreen, 3 megapixel camera, 600 MHz processor, and 512 MB of RAM. Despite that everything tended to run smoothly, but more on that in the software section.

Form Factor

One of the key things about the Flipout was, obviously, the form factor. After browsing through a dreary lineup of candybars and the odd slider, the Flipout would pop out immediately, but was it practical? There were a few bonuses to having an opening mechanism. For one, it automatically unlocked as soon as it was opened, which was much easier than fiddling with the lock key on the side or dealing with the on-screen unlock gesture when I just wanted to do something quickly. The reduced profile provided by a rotating mechanism made it easy to pocket and grab a hold of.  The design also meant that if there was any pressure on two of the four sides, it wouldn’t accidentally open, when by comparison standard two-way sliders would be prone to opening if just one particular side wasn’t braced.

There were downsides to the fancy swiveling, though. As nice as the keyboard was, there wasn’t much to hold onto on the back of the lower half, leaving fingers to drift up to the back of the screen portion. This could be cramped, and even once up there, there was little place to rest my fingers. The form factor was awkward and uncomfortable to take calls on; the microphone was placed so that either the top metal bezel dug into the side of my ear, or alternatively my eardrum was too far from the mic, dab smack in the middle of the touchscreen. The width of the device also made it hard to hold for extended calls, even with bracing my thumb on the upper portion and the base of the thumb to the lower at a weird angle. A single unified profile like a standard cell phone would make grip a lot easier, but for those that spend most of their time typing rather than talking, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Keyboard

I was really happy with the Flipout’s keyboard. Four rows (five if you count the spacebar with function keys) made for a really spacious, welcome place to type. The solid separator down the middle I found a bit cumbersome, since sometimes my giant thumbs reach over to the other half to type, but I quickly adapted to that, and those with normal, human-sized mitts won’t have anything to worry about. The keys themselves were amply rounded with a matte finish for significant grip and catchability. It would be nice to have something a little more ergonomic than a grid layout, but I’m spoiled by BlackBerry.

Fit and Finish

The overall build quality of the Motorola Flipout was decent. I do worry that having all of the pressure on that one swivel point was just asking for disaster. One wrong bump, and that top half could pop right off. I was already under the impression that it was misaligned out of the box, and after a thousand flips, I wonder if the problem would be amplified.


Software

The Motorola Flipout ran Android 2.1 – a nice and recent software build for such an entry-level smartphone, and a fact that puts higher-end phones like the X10 and Streak to shame for launching with 1.6. Of course, Motorola had implemented their custom Motoblur user interface and services for a few features you wouldn’t find on a stock Android phone. The service element gave some remote security options via web browser, such as locating the phone and remotely deleting data.  On top of that, one could load in contacts via a CSV file, in addition to pulling in data through social networks and Google like usual.

Personally, I found my address book was a little crowded with everyone I followed on Twitter listed in there, and there was always bound to be some hassle with dealing with duplicate contacts after set up; either Motoblur wouldn’t recognize a particular Twitter name to go with a particular Facebook friend, or worse still, it would guess wrong, and I had to unlink then relink to the right profiles. Even though that’s a necessary evil of such amalgamated contact schemes, it was a one-time trouble, and once done with, the contacts layout was actually pretty convenient.

Homescreen

Motorola’s custom Motoblur widgets were prevalent on the Flipout’s homescreens out of the box, enhanced from what it was originally on the Cliq. News, Messages, and Happenings (from social networks) all followed a similar format: multiple sources were perpetually refreshed to show the latest updates in a thumbnail on the homescreen widget. Tapping the widget opened up the newest content, and navigated to the next latest with a swipe, or offer simple functions like favourites, retweets, or replies. Tapping the title drilled further down into a full view, complete with action options like sharing or replying. Filtering based on source or contact allowed the widgets not to get flooded with updates I didn’t particularly care about, which is a nice touch for the real social busybodies.

Beyond content, there was also some great quick contact widgets, which gave favourite people some home screen space, and the ability to immediately launch into some favoured modes of communication – e-mail, call, instant messaging, or text. Quick contacts benefited a lot from Motoblur’s recent ability to resize widgets; the bigger it was made, the more kinds of communication were available. This was much more elegant than flooding the widget library with three different sizes for the same app.

I found Happenings to be a bit more interactive than alternatives, like Sony Ericsson’s Timescape, HTC’s Friends Feed, and BlackBerry’s Social Feeds, namely in that you could comment, like, retweet, and otherwise respond to updates after the first tap. It seemed strange that you couldn’t reply to tweets, though – the only options were favourite and retweet, which meant you have to tap through for the full update in order to reply.

General e-mail functions were alright, but Gmail remained inconveniently excluded from the Messages widget and Universal Inbox. I understand Google wants to control their experience with stars and labels and all that, but it really would make life easier to have everything in one spot as advertised.


Multimedia

Browser

The Flipout used Android’s stock WebKit browser, which was typically smooth, and the addition of Flash Lite support meant there wasn’t any awkward gaps where ads usually went. As nice as you might think it is not having to deal with them in a browser, I find it  a little jarring when they’re not there. Despite the smooth browsing and the ability to pinch to zoom, the QVGA display put a damper on any real sense of fidelity; typically, a solid zoom was needed to make out text.

Music

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the Flipout’s custom music player. Built within it was TuneWiki lookups that streamed lyrics if they were available (in time with the track as it played, no less), pulled album art in much more quickly than I was used to, and a social blip feature enabled easy sharing of music to Twitter or Facebook. You could even jump in to Google Maps to see what nearby TuneWiki members were listening to. The only complaint I had was the position of the headphone jack as it was tricky typing when listening to something; placing the jack at the bottom of the device (facing the body) would have made more sense.

Camera

The 3 megapixel camera was nice to have around as a strictly practical thing, but the lack of flash, and the low quality of the pictures made it very limited. There weren’t even any white balance options available to adjust for lighting conditions. Regardless, pictures were easily shareable through Motoblur – Picasa, Twitter, Facebook, and others were all built in and ready to share mediocre shots with the world. The “quick upload album” option was kind of nice, if you’ve got a single web destination you tend to share everything to. Here are two samples, but I’ll spare you the low-light, since nothing came out at all.


Call and Battery Quality

Call Quality

Call quality on the Motorola Flipout was fine using Rogers in Ottawa (no dropped calls, loud and clear speaker), but as I mentioned earlier, the real problem with voice calls was comfort. The form factor was awkward to hold for any significant length of time, and the microphone was so high up on the front face, that the metal bezel dug into the ear. If the big keyboard was any indication, the Flipout has clearly been made for heavy texters before those who talk via voice.

Battery

I wouldn’t trust the Flipout to make it through a full busy day with all guns blazing, but the native Android power bar is really helpful for responsibly and easily toggling screen brightness, Wi-Fi, GPS, and syncing. On top of that, the new version of Motoblur included two power management profiles to switch between, as well as a power monitor which showed which apps had been the busiest. With all of that social, e-mail, and news content pushing to the Motoblur home screen widgets, being judicious about when to turn on syncing was very important for handling battery life. Casual users shouldn’t have a problem using the Motorola Flipout as a daily driver, especially if they’re smart about using the many power management tools available.


Verdict

The Motorola Flipout certainly had its charm, and though the software was recent and generally ran smoothly, the odd lag (due to either RAM, processor, or something in between) and variety of Market app incompatibilities due to the odd screen dimensions made it clear that the Flipout was no replacement for a high-end smartphone. Even for a 3 megapixel camera, I wasn’t impressed with the image quality, and the QVGA display put a damper on what would otherwise be decent web browsing.

For what it tried to be (that is, a cheap, entry-level Android smartphone with a hip form factor) the Motorola Flipout did well, and by the same standard, there were no show-stoppers. At $29.99 on contract, the only thing buyers need to be sold on is the monthly data plan, and even then, you could coast on Wi-Fi and still get a lot of good utility and apps out of the Flipout. I would suggest the Motorola Flipout to folks who spend a lot of time instant messaging and texting, who aren’t prone to getting jealous of anyone else’s phone (because the Flipout can be easily outclassed), and want to dabble in occasional smartphone apps. In addition to a wide variety of third-party apps available, Motoblur’s social tools are a perfect fit for heavy-duty tweeters, and Facebook fanatics.

  • Hi

    im getting that phone

  • Sdkfnsjdb

    I like my Nokia Twist better. The colored ring makes it awesome.

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