Moto's Q arrives but will it survive (the test)

Summary:Per the promise of Motorola CEO Ed Zander last week at both JavaOne and Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, Moto announced today that its Q smartphone is finally shipping and, not surprisingly, Verizon Wireless is the launch carrier.  Sprint will very likely be next as the Q is CDMA-EVDO ready (Sprint and VZW are both on CDMA/EVDO).

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Per the promise of Motorola CEO Ed Zander last week at both JavaOne and Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, Moto announced today that its Q smartphone is finally shipping and, not surprisingly, Verizon Wireless is the launch carrier.  Sprint will very likely be next as the Q is CDMA-EVDO ready (Sprint and VZW are both on CDMA/EVDO).  Support for the 3G wireless flavor run by Cingular and T-Mobile won't come until the end of the year at the earliest.  So, now the question is whether or not the Q will redefine mobility for both mobile office workers as well as consumers. 

Last week, Zander said that positioning the Q was one of Motorola's bigger challenges.  Actually, it's a challenge for any Windows Mobile 5.0 device (of which the Q is one) because of business technologies (Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Pocket Outlook, VPN, MS-Exchange connectivity, etc.), the consumer technologies (audio/video playback technology, image viewing, etc.) and combo techs (like the wireless Web) that the operating system includes out of the box.  On the consumer side, throw in the Q's 1.3 megapixel digital camera (some applicability to business) and you can see how Moto has a challenge. By the way, at Gartner, Motorola's Zander also talked about how you'll be able to dock your Q in a Motorola digital video recorder in a way that recorded television and cable content can be synched into the Q.  Very cool.  No word on how the incompatible digital rights management systems (between your cable operator and the portable Windows Media Player) will be resolved.  Zander admitted that was one challenge.

All this said, I can't wait to get my hands on one to give it a test. Why would I want to test the Q running Windows Mobile 5.0 when I've already dissed Palm's 700w running the same OS.  Can industrial design make that much of a difference?  Well, as it turns out, it can and one reason for this is that the version of Windows Mobile running on the Treo 700w is not the same as the smartphone version that the Q runs.  Whereas the Q, for example, has no stylus, the 700w has one (along with some matching corners in the user interface that where the stylus is required).  Review units are apparently on rations right now but once I lay my hands on one, here are some of the tests I'll be subjecting it to  (broken down into single-handed operation, thumbboard ergonomics, phone capabilities, battery life, voice/data connection quality, and Bluetooth capabilities):

Single handed operation: Going back to the bit about the stylus, the minute you have to pull one out, you've just left the single handed mode (one hand to hold the device, the other to hold the stylus).  So, I'm really interested in seeing how Microsoft tweaked the Windows Mobile 5.0 smartphone OS to overcome some of the stylus-based limitations found in the 700w.  One industrial design decision that could finally lead Windows Mobile 5.0 into Blackberry territory is the thumb-wheel on the right-hand edge of the device.  Blackberries have these thumb-wheels and they're an integral part of the Blackberry's ability to serve their users in a single-handed mode because of how tightly the wheel is married to the interface.  Not only does spinning the wheel scroll the user through the available options in the UI at any given time, pressing the wheel with your thumb (into the body of the device) is the equivalent of a mouse click.  It selects whatever item is highlighted.  I'm very interested at (1) how good a job Microsoft did at stripping the stylus dependencies out of Windows Mobile and (2) how well the thumbwheel has been integrated into the user interface so as to improve single-handed operation.

Thumbboard ergonomics: Another feature of the Q that may lead Windows Mobile 5.0 into a Blackberry zone where no Windows Mobile device has ever gone before is its thumbboard.  I'm 6'1"with the hands to match.  When the Blackberries first came out, I loved their thumbboards.  The keys on the keyboard may have been small. But what made them usable for me was the the just-right spacing between them.  Over the years, Research in Motion (RIM, makers of the Blackberry) has gone to great lengths to trim the width from its various Blackberries: an industrial design decision that has invariably resulted in reduced spacing between the keys.  When you're 6'1" tall with the hands to match, reduced spacing equates to reduced usability. 

As far as I'm concerned, if RIM could bring back the old design with the new software, it would have a winner on its hands.  But right now, in terms of what RIM offers in the way of a converged device (phone/wireless PDA), none of its offerings work for me.  They have the right software, but an unusable industrial design.  For me.  I often end up pressing two keys at once because of how close together they are.   With the Palm 700w, the situation is actually worse.  Little tiny buttons with barely any space between them and a shiny slick rocker button in the middle of the face plate that my thumb routinely slides off of when I'm trying to do something with it (resulting in navigation to some feature I don't want).  The thumbwheel, if implemented right, can completely replace the need for such a clunky rocker like button on the front faceplate.  But, more to the point of the thumbboard, I have played with the Q and based on that experience alone, it's better than the Treo 700w for someone with hands like mine, but probably not that much better than RIM's newer BlackBerries.  But only some real world testing will surface my final opinion.

Phone capabilities: I've been using the 700w for a few months now and, for some reason, just dialing a number still feels cumbersome to me.  Windows Mobile has enough entry points into your list of phone numbers to satisfy even the most finicky of users.  But I'm still "dialing-challenged" when it comes to using the Treo.  I'm not sure why.  It may have to do with the way I've set the device so all its buttons are deactivated when it's in my pocket (where buttons often accidentally get pressed). 

There's a red button on the Treo 700w that doubles as the END CALL button and the POWER-DOWN/STANDBY button.  For some reason, when I pull up a menu, I instinctively hit the RED button as though it means ESCAPE (or take me back to where ever I was one step ago).  But to step back on level, you actually press the OK button which, in some contexts, means, "OK, yes, I want this option" (referring to whatever option is highlighted).  This makes almost as much sense as having to press the START button to stop Windows.  Bear in mind that both operating systems come from Microsoft.  So, I am interested in seeing if dialing outbound numbers is more intuitive on the Q than it is on the 700w.

I'm also interested in how well the speakers work.  For some reason, it seem like every smartphone I test leaves much to be desired in terms of how loud the speaker (regular or speakerphone) gets.  I routinely have an easier time working with dedicated cell phones in noisy situations than I do smartphones.  I'm not sure why and never bothered to ask.  But I suspect picking quieter speakers conserves cost and battery life which leads me to my next testing point.

Battery life: Suppose I use this device for all of its cool business and consumer wizardry.  I want it as an audio player, a podcatcher (for retrieving podcasts),  video player, and my mobile messaging device.  Not to mention a phone.  If I'm using it for all of the above, how long can I realistically expect the battery to last, how much money does it cost to purchase additional batteries, and what happens if I pop the battery out if the device is in use?  One day, someone will come up with a split battery design where there are (essentially) two halves to the battery that can be removed and re-inserted one half at a time.  That way, the device stays constantly powered and you can do a battery switch in the middle so your voice or data connection doesn't drop in the middle of something important.  Or, someone will include a permanent battery in the phone that keeps the device alive for like 20 seconds or something while you replace batteries.  I used to have a phone like this and I'm pretty sure it was from Motorola.  Why not a smartphone?

Voice/Data Connection Quality: Why can some people talk forever when they're standing right next to you while you have no connection?  Even if you use the same wireless carrier?  Some devices are just better at holding their connection in weak signal spots than others.  Some of this is related to how powerful the device's radio is.  By the way, there's a direct correlation between radio strength and the specific absorption (SAR) rate rating: the rating that most people associate with the "will it give you brain cancer?" question.  But, I'm not sure that radio strength is the only thing that affects signal quality.  One day, I'll do a test where I try to see if phones with stronger radios get better connections than weaker ones 100 percent of the time.  I'll be the answer is they don't and I wish I knew why.  Perhaps someone reading this can shed some light on the other mitigating factors. 

But, at the end of the day, these devices lose a lot of their utility (almost all of it) once they can't connect to a network for voice or data. So, I will be interested to see how well it maintains connectivity in weak spots and hopefully it doesn't follow in the footsteps of other Motorola phones including the new Slvr L6.  According to CNET's SAR rankings, nine of the ten highest SAR rated phones come from Motorola.  Bear in mind that I'm not saying that cell phones cause cancer.  But based on the data I've been able to accumulate (and I've done quite a bit of research here), it's clear to me that the jury is still out and that a lot more research needs to be done before we have a definitive answer.  Given that, I have preference for phones that don't push the limits of the maximum allowable SAR rating (1.6).  My preference is for something that strikes a balance between good connectivity and SAR.  I haven't looked the Q up yet.  Perhaps someone knows off-hand what it's SAR rating is (sadly, this information isn't front and center when you go to buy phones: here is Verizon Wireless' big promotional page).  One way to mitigate the risks of phone radiation is to use the much lower powered Bluetooth.  Provided the device has support for the hands-free profile of Bluetooth, you can hook one of those funky Bluetooth radios to your ears and keep the phone at a safe distance from your head and body (the body can absorb radiation too... for this reason, the FCC requires separate SAR ratings for the head and body).

Bluetooth capabilities: It's always great news to see these devices with a Bluetooth radio.  But the implementation is often a let down.  This is in part the manufacturer's problem, in part the wireless provider's problem, and in part the operating system provider's problem.  The main questions are: What Bluetooth profiles are supported (often a carrier decision)?  How difficult is it to set up (often an OS issue)?  And, how well does the radio work (a manufacturer problem) given the profiles that are supported.  Just because something supports Bluetooth doesn't mean that it does everything Bluetooth does.  Bluetooth's capabilities are embodied in something called Bluetooth profiles and not all Bluetooth-enabled devices support all of the Bluetooth profiles they could.  For example, the Dial-up Networking profile which allows your Bluetooth-enabled PC to turn your smartphone into a 3G modem without using any wires is often disabled by carriers who don't want you pumping terabytes of data through their networks (to and from your PC).   I could go down the path of all the things that could or will go wrong with Bluetooth, but I won't.  Instead, I'd rather just wait for the device to come so I can put its Bluetooth radio through its paces to see what it can do, what it can't, and how much faster the battery runs down when it's in use.

There's so much more to testing these devices.  Hopefully, I'll get one soon so I can give it the sort of real-world test it deserves. 

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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