The Motorola Spice made its first official appearance in Brazil, bearing a striking resemblance to the Palm Pre form factor. There was obviously a lot of interest in a phone that had the same kind of smooth curves but ran Android instead. The entry-level specs would have turned off anyone looking for the best of the best, but here in Canada where new, no-contract carriers are blooming and looking for modern-but-accessible handsets, the Motorola Spice has found a comfortable home. Both Videotron in Quebec and Mobilicity elsewhere has picked this one up, and Mobilicity is offering it for a very attractive $200 without contract.
$200, not tied down for three years, Android 2.1, and a nice physical keyboard? What could go wrong?
Motorola Spice XT300
Available for $199 from Mobilicity, $59.95 w/ 3-year contract from Videotron
Specifications (Specs – sheet)
- 3-inch QVGA (320x 240) display
- 528 MHz CPU, 256 MB of RAM
- 3.2 megapixel camera with panorama stitching
- 3G via HSPA, Wi-Fi b/g
- A-GPS, Bluetooth 2.1
- 3.5mm headphone jack, micro USB slot
- Android 2.1
- 1170 mAh, 7 hours talk time, 9 days standby
- 97 x 61 x 16.8 mm, and 145 g
- Comfortable, ergonomic keyboard
- Better than average battery life
- Great value
- Low-grade display
- Laggy software performance
- Poor camera
The Motorola Spice gets high marks for a good form factor. I can’t remember the last portrait-slider Android phone I’ve seen, and having spent a lot of time with the BlackBerry Torch and recently the Palm Pre 2, I’ve come to really enjoy the benefits of both a large touchscreen and a physical keyboard that works one-handed. The build quality was decent, and the glass screen provided some solid scratch resistance, but the whole frame was plastic, which continually reminded me of how much Mobilicity was selling it for. The capacitive keys on the front face give a nice, seamless look to the device, and the steep bevel around the top half gives it some sharpness.
The keyboard was exceptionally comfortable, and about a million times more ergonomic than the square grid layout Motorola used in their other entry-level Android handsets like the Charm and Flipout. For folks who pound out a lot of e-mails or texts, the keyboard on the Motorola Spice will be a godsend.
One thing that will throw newcomers off is that little square at the back near the top. That’s the Backtrack, and users will love it or hate it. It’s a little touchpad that basically lets holders issue touch commands without smudging up the front screen. On its own, the Backtrack can do full-screen gestures, like panning through the browser or switching homescreens, and activate an on-screen cursor with a double-tap for more specific selections. Personally, I found the whole thing more or less distracting (especially the cursor), even though the sensation of leisurely panning through text-heavy websites without having my view obscured was kind of neat for awhile. Luckily, that can all be disabled through the software settings.
Despite being entry-level, the Motorola Spice ran Android 2.1, which was pretty recent in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t officially run Motoblur, but there’s still some signature Motorola Android UI elements. In addition to the smooth user interface and tight integration with Google service that are part and parcel with the core Android experience, Motorola did throw in a few customizations. There was a quick contact home screen widget which could help call or text two, three, or four people in one tap. The flashiest (and I use that term loosely) app preloaded was called Flashback, which put all e-mails, calls, and texts into one timeline which could scrolled through with a gesture along a static graphic. It was reminiscent of Sony Ericsson’s Timescape in that tapping through would give a somewhat-useless view of the item for which one would have to drill even further down to do anything useful. E-mails in particular wouldn’t render HTML in Flashback, so I only really got any use from it for social networks.
As far as third-party apps go, I didn’t have too many issues with compatibility. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla, Poynt, and Vlingo all installed and ran fine. No dice on GetGlue, unfortunately. The selection remained fantastic, and this was actually my first chance to use the new Google Reader app; I’ll definitely miss it after shipping the Spice back home. In terms of overall performance, I found the Motorola Spice to lag, but at least the thing was predictable about it. With a 528 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM, you can’t expect much, and as soon I got used to that, the delays in apps opening and executing actions doesn’t seem so bad. Besides, the first-time smartphone buyers that this phone will appeal to will have no basis of comparison anyway.
Web browser, Multimedia, Camera
The Motorola Spice came with the stock WebKit browser, though the rendering quality wasn’t quite done justice with a QVGA display as text was only legible when well zoomed-in. There was no Flash support, but I’m not sure that I would want any with so few system resources to spare.
Like I said, the QVGA screen resolution could be a serious downer for anything graphics-related. The Motorola Spice certainly streamed YouTube just fine, but it was not something I would brag about or rely on for seeing fine details.
Music, on the other hand, fared quite well. On top of having a great connected native player with lyrics lookup through TuneWiki, streaming radio, and music ID through SoundHound, there was also a plethora of solid third party music apps for Android, my most favourite being Grooveshark. The microSD memory card slot ensured I could always swap out cards if I needed more than 16 GB of tunes, and the 3.5mm headphone jack meant I didn’t have to deal with any kind of proprietary plugs.
The Motorola Spice came with a fixed-focus 3 megapixel camera which I wouldn’t rely on for anything more than utilitarian photo capture. No flash meant I was screwed in low-light conditions, and no autofocus meant close-ups didn’t turn out so well. Much like the display quality, this is really the most basic available on a smartphone, despite having some fancy software tools like auto-stitching, and easy sharing to Facebook and Twitter.
Call Quality and Battery Life
I found the battery life on the Motorola Spice was better than average, helped in no small part by the low-heat processor and the very handy battery management homescreen widget which could kill off various leeches (like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi) with a single tap. I wouldn’t worry about not getting through the day on a single charge, even with some occasional Wi-Fi and GPS usage and sync on.
Call quality was solid enough, but I did find that data connectivity cut out often enough on Mobilicity’s Ottawa network. It generally fell back to roaming on Rogers, so don’t worry about missing any calls, just don’t expect to only lose coverage when you leave town – there are still plenty of gaps.
It’s not much to look at, and the Backtrack thing will likely throw a lot of folks off, but the Motorola Spice has a lot going for it. Heavy messagers will quickly come to appreciate the Motorola Spice’s keyboard (and notification LED, come to think of it). The keyboard had a nice arc, and each key was domed just enough to catch thumbs when typing. Android 2.1 opens up the doors for a lot of great applications, though one may occasionally hit a snag when it comes to developers supporting a QVGA display. One of the biggest pulls as far as I’m concerned is the pricing and carrier availability. $200 for a solid, basic smartphone and $40/month for all of the data you need is a truly appealing offer; case in point, I’ve already had two good friends grab the Motorola Spice as their first smartphones. That being said, smartphone vets who already have a taste for quality and are looking for a no-contract Android phone will probably be more interested in the Nexus One, also sold by Mobilicity.