Motorola V9mMotorola’s RAZR is an icon of cellphones, technology, and design in general.  The V3 and all of its brethren collectively became the second most successful mobile handset in history, and the word “RAZR” has become synonymous with “thin flip phone” in gadget parlance.

But the RAZR eventually grew a little long in the tooth, and Motorola’s dominance in the cellular world eroded over time.  After a legion of “four letter phone” offshoots - KRZR, ROKR, RIZR, PEBL, FONE, et al - Moto finally released the long awaited sequel to the RAZR: The RAZR 2. 

RAZR 2 dropped on nearly every major US network at the same time, and while there are differences from carrier to carrier, the new RAZR’s overall look and feel is the same across its variations.  RAZR 2 is thinner but heavier and taller than the original, and its traded those razor-sharp edges for rounded corners and curvier lines throughout.  The new RAZR is also built like a tank - it feels luxurious and nearly indestructible in hand.

But in a world where handsets let you do everything from watch TV to parse RSS feeds to find your way when you’re lost, is Moto’s new RAZR too little too late?  I took the Sprint variant - the RAZR2 V9m - for a spin to find out.

Just 11.9mm thick, the RAZR 2 V9m is one of the thinnest clamshell handsets currently available, and thinner than the RAZR V3m by more than 2mm.  The V9m is 103mm long by 53mm wide and weighs in at 117g, which is a surprisingly big number for a RAZR.  But this RAZR doesn’t feel heavy in a bad way - instead it feels solid like a luxury class product should.  The handset sports a stainless steel internal frame and hinge, which accounts for both that weight and the feeling that the handset could stand up to a pretty good lickin’ and keep on tickin’.

In find this RAZR much more attractive than the original, as well.  The combination of rounded corners and hardened glass on some exterior surfaces is modern and sexy.  And while some folks find the V9m’s pearly gray a little drab, I think it looks understated and classy (RAZR2 variants from other carriers are available in other colors).

A clamshell phone, the front panel of the V9m features a huge 2” external display with three touch sensitive controls along the bottom edge that provide haptic (vibrational) feedback when you press them.  The lens for the two-megapixel camera is center mounted along the top edge of the panel.  There’s a volume rocker switch and softkey along with a usb/charger port the left spine of the handset and a camera key on the right spine.  Removing the battery cover on the back panel of the handset provides access to the microSD memory card slot as well as the battery.  While it’d be nicer to have an externally-mounted memory port, at least it’s not hidden behind the battery itself.

Flip the V9m open and you’ll find a familiar, if updated, layout: screen on top, buttons on the bottom.  The main display is larger than the external screen, though barely, at 2.2 inches.  The button layout is a flush mounted, etched metal affair, with font faces that echo the futuristic vibe of this newest RAZR.  A 12-button dialing array is topped with a navigational layout built around a shiny circular D-pad flanked by two softkeys, speakerphone and back keys, and call and cancel keys.

While all of the buttons on the inside of the V9m are flat, they offer better tactile feedback than most other flat/etched keypads I’ve tested.  The buttons here have a bit of a slippery feel to them, but they have pretty good travel.  Brushed metal on the D-Pad makes it rather nice to use, even without looking.

I give MOTO a general thumbs-up on their RAZR redesign.  Obviously the original was a huge hit, but I never really liked the way it felt in hand.  RAZR 2 fixes that issue by rounding over sharp edges and using pearly glass and a stainless steel hinge to give the handset the feel of a fine object from the near future.


Features

Some features will be common to all RAZR 2s, while others are of course carrier-dependent.  Sprint decided to put that big external display to good use by making the V9m compatible with Sprint TV, and programming the handset to display programming on both of its screens.  I was able to launch, watch, and change channels on Sprint TV without opening the handset, which is a neat trick that avid viewers might find pretty useful. 

The Sprint TV app underwent a minor face-lift for the V9m, but the Sprint Music Store sadly is still in need of a redesign.  I love Sprint’s Groove Mobile-powered Music Store for its huge catalog, quick downloads, and 99 cents per track pricing; I hate the fact that you can’t shop buy album or even manually add an album’s worth of tracks to your shopping cart for automatic download.  Rumor is there’s an upgrade to the store coming in mid-November; my fingers are crossed.

Still, the V9m makes it easy to access your multimedia and messages from the external display, and the handset is pretty feature-rich for a “non-smartphone.”  In addition to solid organizer apps, you can also do nifty things like assign Photo and Video Caller IDs to your contacts.  The handset also supports J2ME Java gaming, and four demos came pre-installed on my review unit.  Would it kill you, Sprint, to give us the full-version of Ms. Pac Man for free?  Please?

Sprint also offers a bunch of extras including the excellent On Demand program for quick News, Weather, and other info-centric updates, and NFL Mobile for all you football junkies out there.  In addition to the Sprint TV offerings, you can also rent and view full-length feature films on the V9m in true pay-per-view style.  Streaming video quality wasn’t great, but honestly it was on part with other Sprint TV-compatible handsets I’ve tried.  Programs were a bit pixelated and tended to stutter during playback.  The full-length movie I rented actually played back quite a bit more smoothly than Sprint TV offerings.

Integrated A-GPS offers location-aware services on the V9m.  Sprint’s GPS offerings include “Where” and the TeleNav-developed Sprint Navigation.  I was a little partial to Where.  The phone is also compatible with Sprint’s Wireless Backup system, which saves your contacts and other info to a server for wireless restoration if you need it (in case you lose your phone, buy a new one, etc).

Generally all of the offerings on my sample V9m worked well, but I did run into some hiccups and glitches now and then.  While I always checked the “do not remind me again” box when warnings about applications wanting network access popped up, I seemed to always be warned and asked permission the next time, anyway.  Also, some amount of flipping the handset open and shut seemed to be necessary to navigate or exit applications from the external screen.

Motorola V9m What’s cool about the V9m’s camera is that it’s mounted above an external display that doubles as a viewfinder - perfect for those wacky self-portraits of you and your girls at the club!  What’s bad about the V9m’s camera is that there’s no flash or assist light, so those photos snapped in the dark of the club aren’t going to come out.

The V9m’s two-megapixel shooter is about average for a 2MP cameraphone, which is to say that photos come out pretty well so long as they’re taken in good lighting.  Colors and detail were pretty good in optimal lighting conditions, but degraded as lighting diminished - that’s on par with most cameraphones in this range.  Photos taken in the dark are going to be fuzzy and grainy at best.   There’s also a 4x digital zoom and your choice of five resolutions in which to capture your photos.

Photo-related software on the V9m is better than average, with great options for sending your photos off via MMS or Email or even uploading them directly to the Web after you’ve snapped them.  You can also print photos directly on a compatible printer or through a Sprint-offered pay service, or transfer them to your computer via Bluetooth.

Video capture is also supported on the V9m.  Videos shot in MMS mode are capped at 10 seconds, while standard video clips can be as long as you want so long as there’s available storage space in the phone’s memory or on an inserted microSD card.


Display & Audio

The V9m’s external display is so big, and can do so much, it almost makes me wonder why there are two screens at all.  And then I remembered that flip phones are cool, and generally quite comfortable to talk on.  Still, a handset with two displays running at nearly the same size and resolution is either approaching the pinnacle of utility or total overkill.

On the outside of the V9m is the 2” secondary display running at QVGA (320 x 240) resolution across 65k colors.  As mentioned, you can use this display to watch TV, browse your music collection, and do all kinds of other things via a row of three touch-sensitive controls aligned along the bottom edge.  Pressing any of the touch controls results in a jolt of vibration that lets your finger know its intent was received.  This display is bright and clear and shows off the most user friendly user interface I’ve seen on a Motorola handset in quite awhile.  As also mentioned, there are certain navigational tasks I expected to be able to handle via the external controls that required opening the phone up, which was a little disappointing.

Flipping the handset open reveals a 2.2” primary display which also runs at QVGA and 65,000 colors.  I’d really liked to have seen this screen bumped up to 262k colors like on the GSM RAZR 2 (V8) - why the CDMA versions get a lower-res internal display is beyond me.  In any case, the internal display is more than adequate to make good use of that much improved UI and all of those Sprint Power Vision multimedia services.  It’s not a state-of-the-art display, but it’s certainly not bad in any way.

I tested the dual-band CDMA V9m on Sprint’s network in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.  Audio quality during phone calls was generally quite good.  Callers came through loud and clear on the phone’s earpiece, and they reported being able to hear my voice with no problems beyond the occasional crackle or distortion.  There were no notable problems with static or hiss during calls, and signal strength on the V9m was above average as compared to other Sprint handsets I’ve used.

The V9m’s built-in speaker is also quite loud, making for a more-usable-than-most speakerphone function.  Stereo Bluetooth is also supported by the V9m, and while I’ve read some reports of issues playing music wirelessly from the handset, I found that it worked fairly well with the Motorola S9 headset Sprint provided for this review.  No wired earpiece is included with the device, though its micro-USB port does support mono and stereo headsets.

 


Messaging, Internet & Connectivity

Messaging on the Sprint V9m is very good, with support for IM and email along with SMS and MMS messaging.  The T9 predictive text input system worked pretty well for tapping out missives on the 12-key keypad, though heavy texters may well prefer a device with raised buttons.

Email required a free client download, but once I’d installed the application it was pretty easy to set up an account and also configure the software to work with GMail, Yahoo! and other third-party services.  It’s worth mentioning here that you can’t read or write messages while listening to music on the V9m - unlike Sprint’s LG Muziq, the RAZR 2 doesn’t support any form of multitasking.

While the V9m’s Obigo Web browser only renders pages in single-column, and not full-page, mode, it still does a pretty good job of letting you browse full HTML sites on the go.  Sprint’s 3G EV-DO network is pretty fast, and while the V9m’s browser isn’t in the class of the Nokias and Apples of the mobile world, it’s great for mobile-formatted WAP sites and pretty good with the rest of the Web.

Simple WAP sites load within a matter of seconds and are responsive to scrolling and clicking.  More complex pages like CNN or the NYTimes site take awhile longer, but their images and text get parsed into a single column view and are generally quite readable and useful on the handset’s internal display.  Scrolling through pages like these requires a little patience, but you are afforded access to areas of the Wild, Wild Web that WAP-only browsers simply cannot handle.

For better Web browsing, the Java-based Opera Mini browser may be installed and run on the V9m.

The Sprint Motorola v9m is a dual-band CDMA locked to the Sprint network for use in the United States.  Data services are handled by Sprint’s EV-DO network, and the handset is compatible with the 1xEV-DO rev. 0 protocol.

Bluetooth implementation on the V9m includes support for file transfer, data synching and mono and stereo (A2DP) audio.  I had no trouble pairing the phone with headsets or a Windows-based computer, though I had to seek out some shareware plug-ins to get the V9m to work with my Mac via iSync.  Files may also be transferred between the phone and a computer via the included microSD memory card.

The V9m may also be connected to a computer via the included USB cable that connects to the phone’s micro USB port.  Data transfer, synching, and charging are all supported over USB.


Conclusion

The RAZR 2 will not become the iconic classic that the original RAZR was.  Too much has changed on the mobile landscape for that to happen.  But the new RAZR is a worthy upgrade to its successor.  I love the new softer, gentler look featuring curves and hardened glass where once only sharp metallic edges could be found.  And the RAZR 2 has a pleasant heft to it that speaks of quality in an age of featherweight plastics that must immediately be sheathed in protective casings.

It’s kind of odd that Motorola has just started pushing their new Linux-based platforms but chose to build the RAZR 2 family on the old OS instead.  Still, the V9m that I tested is a big step forward from the V3’s of old when it comes to user experience.  And it’s two giant leaps ahead of the V3 when it comes to features: Sprint’s V9m adds streaming audio and video support, over the air music downloads, and integrated Email to the solid core voice, organizational, and short messaging features of the device.

If you’re a longtime MOTO RAZR fan, Sprint’s RAZR 2 is definitely worth a look.  I wish it supported some level of multitasking, had an integrated headphone jack, and came with Email support and a full HTML browser out of the box, but it’s still a solid mid-range


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