Motorola launched their Q smartphone amidst a flurry of hype proclaiming it the world's thinnest, lightest, and most stylish handset to feature a full QWERTY keyboard. Still a hair's-breadth skinnier than the new Samsung Blackjack, the Q is amongst the chicest handsets to offer the full productivity of the Windows Mobile platform ... at least until Motorola's forthcoming q9 debuts later this year.
The Q is now available for use on Sprint's CDMA network with high-speed EV-DO data services. Early adopters of the Q on Verizon complained about middling processor speeds that led to unbearable hang times when multitasking and/or switching between applications. Has Motorola found a sweet spot between style and performance with this latest Q, or is it still a case of a piece of good-looking hardware that doesn't have the juice to run the software that's installed on it?
I spent a few weeks with the Q for Sprint to find out. The answer says as much about the state of the US cellular marketplace as it does about the handset itself. If you want the price and customer service advantages that come with a carrier supported handset, the Q for Sprint is a decent choice for a Windows Mobile smartphone. However, if you're willing to go outside the box (and can use a GSM network like Cingular or T-Mobile), there are other WinMob devices that offer more in the performance department without sacrificing too much style.
Motorola really did a bang-up job on the Q's industrial design. The housing is finished a grey plastic that's at once pleasantly forgiving to the touch and 'grippy' enough to stay put in your hand without the need for cramp-inducing application of force. While a bit wider than the Samsung Blackjack (its primary competitor in the fashionable smartphone arena), that extra space affords a much more comfortable keypad layout. Just about my only complaint with the Q's design lay in the somewhat sharp lower corners - the bottom right corner had a tendency to jab into the flesh on my right hand thumb pad when I used the phone one-handed.
Measuring 117 x 64 x 11.5 mm and weight a scant 115 g, the Q certainly lives up to all of the "thin and light" hype. The device fit comfortably into pants and jacket pockets, and really made me rethink my aversion to carrying around a long, wide phone: the Q's remarkably thin profile helped me to forget the large footprint that's part and parcel of any smartphone.
A 2.4" screen sits just below a blue Motorola logo - flanked by earpiece speakers - on the front of the device. Below the display sits a two-row array of buttons featuring two softkeys, call, call end/power, Home shortcut, and backspace keys as well as a five-way directional pad. These buttons are plenty large for easy access, and the D-pad is raised a few millimeters above the other flush-mounted buttons for convenience. I do question Motorola's decision to place the backspace key here as opposed to at on the top right corner QWERTY keypad below; I found myself annoyed at having to hunt for it when composing an email or SMS message.
The QWERTY layout that occupies the lower third of the front panel features small oval shaped buttons that are mounted diagonally, which makes the keys feel a bit larger than they are and results in easy typing relative to the narrow overall width of the handset. While the Q's keyboard isn't as roomy as those found on full-sized Blackberry devices, it's head and shoulders easier to use than the cramped buttons on the Blackjack. Keys are finished in black with white labels save for the ten buttons which double as the phone's dialing pad. Dedicated shortcut keys for Email, Camera, and Speakerphone are a great touch here, though I did wish the keyboard featured a backlight as found on Verizon's version of the Q.
A scrollwheel and back-button combination on the right panel of the Q allows for one-handed access to many functions, a la Blackberry devices. The controls are easy to use, though the thick plastic ridge that frames them seems a bit overdone to me. A standard mini-USB jack - which is used with the included AC adapter as well as for data connectivity - and a rubber-capped slot for mini SD memory cards adorn the Q's left panel. The rear panel of the Q is largely taken up by the battery cover (an optional extended life battery adds just a hair of thickness to the device), with the camera assembly at the top and dual speaker grills at the bottom of the panel.
Overall, I found the Q's design very pleasing. The font used to label the alphanumeric keys is pleasing to the eye, and the overall layout of the controls and QWERTY board is as roomy and easy to use as one could expect on a device that packs this many buttons into such a small space. As mentioned, the lower right corner of the phone pressed uncomfortably into the fleshy part at the bottom of my thumb pad during one-handed use, but aside from that I liked the design of the Q.
Sprint's version of the Q features the standard Windows Mobile 5 installation with a few key additions that really add to the device's usefulness. The downside is that while the Q's operating system is designed for multitasking across a variety of communications, productivity, and information management applications, the system isn't all that zippy to use. Whether it's the OS itself or the 312-MHz XScale and 64MB of RAM that it's running on (and I think it's a combination of both), my Windows Mobile 5 experience on the Q tended to start out strong and then steadily build - or slow down, as it were - to a point of frustration as I used the various features and applications on the phone. To be fair, the Q did perform a bit better than the Cingular's new Blackjack, which is also a WinMob 5 device.
Power users of the Windows Mobile platform are eagerly awaiting the release of Win Mob 6 devices, as the new smartphone OS will feature a full version of MS Office with editing capabilities. As it is, Win Mob 5 phones are limited in their capabilities to deal with office documents. Like Verizon, Sprint shipped their version of the Q with the excellent Picsel viewer application, but while Picsel allows for smooth viewing of documents, Q owners will have to shell out an additional $30 for DataViz's Documents to Go application if they want to edit Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents on their phones. Note that the enterprise-only Q Pro ships with Documents to Go standard.
Sprint also included Handmark's On Demand program, which allows for one-click access to commonly used information such as news, weather, sports, and entertainment listings. I actually found myself using On Demand as much as possible, both because it was easy to personalize to my own information and location preferences, but also because I preferred it to Internet Explorer on the Q. Though IE worked better on the Q than on some other Windows Mobile smartphones I've tried, the program just can't handle many Web sites with the ease of Nokia's browser or Opera Mobile.
Outlook mobile handles email, contacts, and organizer functionality, and should be familiar territory to users of its desktop counterpart. Caller and photo caller ID are supported. Scheduling and editing Outlook appointments was easy using the Q's front panel controls, and scrolling through calendars with the phone's right-side scrollwheel was a snap, as well. That being said, Outlook Mobile's user interface is serviceable but certainly nowhere near as pleasant in terms of look and feel as calendar apps found on Symbian devices. Again, Windows Mobile devotees are eagerly awaiting the updated version of Outlook soon to arrive on WinMob 6.
Windows Media Player 10 Mobile handles audio/video playback, and it works well with media files loaded onto the Q via Bluetooth and miniSD memory card, as well as those downloaded directly from the Net. Though it lacks the grace of iTunes or even Nokia's mobile music player, Windows Media works well as a digital audio player, supporting playlists and album art display. Video clips looked excellent when viewed on the Q's QVGA screen.
Unfortunately, Sprint's PowerVision multimedia offerings would not run on the Q. If you're in the market for a smartphone that can connect to streaming and downloadable media offerings, you'd do better to check out the Blackjack, which is compatible with Cingular's new 3G music and video services.
Myriad productivity and entertainment applications are available to Q users via downloadable Windows Mobile 5 applications, both from Sprint's online store as well by hunting around the Web.
Motorola built the Q with a 1.3 megapixel digital camera featuring 6x digital zoom. The camera is housed at the top center of the back panel of the phone, and an LED flash assist light sits just below the optical sensor. A dedicated button on the front of the handset activates the phone, and the Q's display doubles as a color viewfinder.
I found the Q's camera to perform in the middle of the road as compared with other 1.3 MP cameraphones. Photos came out pretty well in good lighting conditions, were editable using on-board tools for rotating, cropping, and basic color adjustments, and were easily attached to emails and MMS messages, or transferred to a computer via Bluetooth or miniSD card. While the flash assist light made picture taking possible in bad lighting conditions, the results tended to be grainy with unnatural color tones. With the current crop of smartphones moving to two and even three megapixel sensors, the Q's camera certainly isn't its primary selling point.
A video capture mode is available, as well, and movies can be captured at one of three resolutions: 126x96, 160x120, and 176x144. Zoom functionality is not available in video capture mode.
The 2.5" diagonal, 320x240 pixel touchscreen on the Q is really a standout. While the 65K color specification isn't state-of-the-art, the display is quite bright and colors really pop in both text and images. Viewing documents, reading messages, and watching movie clips were all a pleasure on the big, vivid screen (so long as I wiped it free of the smudges that it tended to attract).
One caveat to the display is that it's not a touchscreen. As such, the Q lacks some of the PDA ease-of-use that users of Treos or stylus-capable Windows Mobile devices might be used to. Blackberry users will probably be more accustomed to the Q's scrollwheel-heavy navigational scheems.
Windows Mobile 5 allows for customization of the display including installation of background images on the Today screen. Font styles and sizes can also be customized throughout the system.
One thing Motorola seems to have down pat is manufacturing cell phones with excellent reception. Call quality on the Q was great, and voices came through loud clear through both the earpiece and speakerphone. Wired stereo earbuds will work with the Q's headset jack, and a 2.5-to-3.5mm stereo adapter is available for use of standard stereo headphones with the Q. The phone also supports stereo Bluetooth using the A2DP profile.
Windows Mobile allows for extensive customization of ringtones and system sounds on the 700wx. WAV and mp3 files can be assigned to ringtones, caller ID tones, and a plethora of system sounds. While Windows Media Player does a fine job of handling music playback, a variety of third-party audio applications are available, including PocketTunes, which allows for integration with iTunes PC software.
Sprint's EV-DO "Vision Network" provides a high speed data connection that allows for near-Broadband speed Web surfing and data services so long as you're within a network coverage area. Web surfing and Email on the Q was very speedy, though I did hit the occasional dead spot in Sprint's EV-DO coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Q does not have an internal WiFi antenna, so Internet connectivity is limited to EV-DO cellular data. With a strong signal, EV-DO speeds can get quite fast and so the lack of WiFi isn't a problem. However, if you hit a dead spot where you live, work, or travel, the Q becomes useless as an Internet device. As such, business users dependent on Email and Web services should think twice before buying a WiFi-less phone like the Q.
As mentioned, smartphone aficionados will cry foul at Q's lack of WiFi connectivity. It's true - 802.11 connectivity is fast becoming a "must-have" for smartphone buyers, and many new models pack a WiFi antenna. Sprint's EV-DO network provides excellent data transfer speeds, but if you travel out of range you're stuck without an 802.11 option.
Being a Windows Mobile device, the Q relies on ActiveSync for syncing of organizer, contact, and email data with Windows PCs. Syncing is supported over Bluetooth 1.2 and USB connections. Bluetooth also supports mono and stereo audio devices and file transfer, and laptop tethering is available via both wired and wireless connections.
I tested the Q with a few Bluetooth headsets and it worked fine, pairing easily with both mono and stereo devices. A 2.5mm stereo headset jack also allows the use of wired headsets, and a 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter will open the Q up for use with standard stereo headphones.
The Q also has a miniSD card slot which supports removable memory cards. No memory card is included in the retail packaging, but the handset does have roughly 60MB of internal memory available for storage.
A few people I know purchased the Motorola Q when it first debuted on Verizon's network. Most of them returned the device after a few weeks in favor of a Blackberry, citing the Q's lackluster performance and tendency to lag when switching applications as more trouble than it was worth. Though Sprint's version of the Q is built around the same internal specifications as Verizon's, it seems to work at least a little better.
Still, the Q is somewhat outdated as a smartphone for heavy business users, at least when compared to offerings from HTC, Eten, and other cutting-edge handset makers. Trouble is, if you're a Sprint or Verizon customer in the US, your smartphone choices are limited; most of fancy powerhouse Windows Mobile devices in the world only work on GSM networks.
The Motorola Q for Sprint is an icon of industrial design that achieves levels of performance that the average user will find acceptable, but power users may well grow frustrated with. The Q's combination of thin, light, and comfortable to use design, Windows Mobile integration, and high speed data access on Sprint's network will definitely more than suffice for Email, scheduling, and occasional Web use. However, if you're looking for a powerhouse smartphone that can do it all on the go, you might want to look elsewhere - or at least wait a bit to see if Motorola announces a CDMA version of the q9 with Windows Mobile 6 preinstalled.