8 reasons I like the Motorola Cliq Android smartphone and 7 reasons I don't

The kind folks at Motorola allowed me to spend the last week walking around New York City with their new Cliq smartphone. Here are 10 things I liked and five things I didn't.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The kind folks at Motorola allowed me to spend the last week walking around New York City with their new Cliq smartphone, and having spent that time getting to know the device a bit better, I'm comfortable discussing what I like about it and what I don't.

First, a refresh: The Motorola Cliq smartphone is Motorola's first modern entry into the hot smartphone space and will land on T-Mobile on Nov. 2 for $199 with a two-year contract. The phone is a touchscreen messaging phone, and has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard with D-Pad in addition to a 3.1-inch (320x480) display.

[Image Gallery: More hands on with Motorola Cliq]

It runs on the Google Android platform, but has the company's in-house layer of software and services, called Motoblur, integrated with it.

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The phone is important in several ways. First, it is Motorola's first major play in the smartphone space, a critical product for a company that has struggled for a hit since the runaway success of the Razr.

Second, it is the latest Android-based smartphone in a growing army of them from HTC, Samsung and others. While HTC's G1 (Dream) and myTouch 3G (Magic) were the early birds in the Android game, the Cliq -- along with the HTC Hero, the first Android phone on Sprint, and the Samsung Behold II -- are the first models to incorporate proprietary software that layers on top of the vanilla Android installation.

Here's a short video of the device, showing its dimensions, transitions and card-style widgets in action:

With that said, here are eight things I've come to like about the Motorola Cliq and seven things I don't.

What I like:

  1. Widgets. While Motoblur is part skin, part services and part software, the widget architecture is the most noticeably distinctive aspect of the Cliq. Whether you like it or not, our world revolves around communication, and any advances in simplifying this are welcome. Motoblur improves on the Android experience by offering widgets that can surface messages (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) or headlines (RSS, etc.) The Cliq has a five-screen "desktop," offering space for these units, which take up more room than traditional icons. They update on the fly, and offer a quick way to browse content without forcing you to dive all the way in.
  2. Unifying identities. Palm was the first to unify identities with its webOS, but Motoblur keeps pace by doing the same thing with all of your services. While the Cliq doesn't carry conversations across protocols in one spot like the Pre, it does combine things in sensible ways by allowing you to search for people based on knowledge known from other services. One simple example: when I receive a call from a contact, it displays their Facebook profile picture as well as their latest status update alongside their phone number and the "answer" button.
  3. Simplified button schemes. As I mentioned previously, Motorola made the "answer" and "hang up" buttons virtual, leaving just three physical buttons (menu, home, back) on the main control area. Besides the fact that it's a much nicer design experience, it also saves space.
  4. T-Mobile. If you don't have T-Mobile service in your area, this point is moot, but there's something to be said for using an underdog carrier in a major metropolitan area. I rarely had issues with speed in terms of downloading web pages the way folks with iPhones on AT&T do here in New York.
  5. Versatility. The Cliq offers a virtual keyboard as well as a competent physical one with wide keys. In a previous post, I said this was a power user's dream. That turned out to be mostly true -- sometimes I found myself typing short queries using the virtual keyboard, and sometimes it was easier to use the slide-out version, such as during extended instant messaging. Also: some early reviews questioned the use of a D-Pad, but after spending some time with the Cliq, I found that it was much easier to fix a typo or manipulate text with it than using your finger, like on the iPhone.
  6. Development. Android is still in its application infancy compared to the iPhone, but considering the amount of handsets hitting the market, it won't be long before all the essential apps (news, sports, finance, major social media services) are covered. I was able to find Last.fm (owned by this site's parent company, CBS), Facebook and geosociolocation app Foursquare rather easily, and the widgets natively handle a number of other services (Twitter, MS Exchange, MySpace, Google, Picasa, Photobucket, Yahoo!).
  7. Build quality. While the smooth matte finish on some of the plastics felt a little, well, plasticky, the expensive gunmetal finish on the phone's metal body exuded quality. The sliding mechanism was a little less resistive than the one on the G1, but quite smooth, and I found all of the outside buttons to be placed in logical places (the tiny indicators for the buttons beneath the slider were a nice touch).
  8. Business readiness. The Cliq comes preloaded with Quickoffice, meaning I can view Word, Excel and Powerpoint files on the device. Combine that with the QWERTY keyboard and D-Pad, and you've got a device that's a BlackBerry-killer in terms of usability. (Security/BES, another story.)

What I didn't like:

  1. Sluggishness by hardware. This isn't inherently the Cliq's fault, but it's exacerbated by the widget-heavy Motoblur layer. In my experience with Android phones, I've found that they've all been just a bit hesitant in terms of how quickly they react to my touch. (I've found the iPhone experience to be better overall.) This doesn't happen all the time; rather, it happens intermittently, which can be frustrating. The reason? Hardware. Anand Shimpi explained in detail yesterday why the 528MHz Qualcomm processor in all of the most recent Android phones is the weak link. The user can help the situation by turning off more services and widgets and things, but then why use a smartphone if you've disabled its intelligence?
  2. Currency. The widgets were indeed nice, but sometimes they didn't update frequently enough to be useful. Examples: Twitter, RSS. I found that my e-mail and other essentials updated instantaneously, but on occasion I found that the widgets didn't surface recent blog posts. Several times, the widgets reflected content that was hours old -- years in Twitter time, and an impossibility, given how many people I follow on Twitter alone -- and, to my knowledge, there was no way to manually refresh the widget. Side note: when you boot the phone, all the apps try to update at once, and there's no way of halting this train. It's unnerving.
  3. Upgradeability: That extra layer of services presents a problem for Motorola, who in addition to providing cloud services and resources for the effort are also the gatekeepers to progress on Android development. For example, even though Android 1.6 Donut rolled out to existing Android handsets on the market (G1, mytouch), the Cliq will hit shelves with 1.5 Cupcake. Why? Because the Motoblur architecture is hooked into the Android platform, so Motorola can't update to 1.6 without also updating its Motoblur software. For sure, some Motoblur features may become standard Android features over time. But that puts the onus of development on Motorola -- particularly the pressure to both keep pace with open source Android development as well as its own, and not branch off.
  4. Choice. I mentioned versatility as something I liked about the Cliq, and that's true. But people have preferences -- personally, I prefer a lighter, slimmer, full touchscreen phone with no physical keyboard at all (like the HTC Hero, but that's on Sprint). So there needs to be more choice among form factors for Motoblur. Motorola told me it was preparing another Android phone for launch before 2010, but one without Motoblur. It seems to me that it's a no-brainer to provide a touchscreen-only Motoblur phone as a foil to the Cliq.
  5. Screen size. It seemed a little silly to me that the one surface with the screen on it actually had the least amount of area compared to any other flat surface on the device. Why is this? The Cliq device itself is much smaller (width and height) than the established iPhone (screen: 3.5 in.). The Cliq's smaller screen means I have less room for those big widgets on my home screen.
  6. Media player. Motorola says it didn't Motoblur-ify the default, underwhelming Google Android media player. That's a shame, because if we're really moving toward converged devices, I shouldn't have to carry around my iPod touch, too, just to get a complete multimedia experience.
  7. Android market. My main beefs with Android market are that it's very hard to surface apps and you can't tell which apps are legitimate. For example, there's a New York Times app in the market's Top 10 apps, but it's not developed by the New York Times Company. The Android market is still a burgeoning movement, and it was a little ironic that some of the apps for the services promoted on the Cliq's box weren't preloaded (Facebook, Last.fm, etc.).

Final thoughts: Motoblur's a great platform, but the hardware is visibly taxed by it. For T-Mobile users, this is the phone to get. Period. It's much better than a G1 and a myTouch 3G. For others, it's a harder sell, and depends on your local carrier situation.

The device is a toss-up with the HTC Hero on Sprint -- if you prefer physical keyboards, this is your device. It all depends on your hardware preferences.

That's not all there is to say about the Cliq, but that gets to the heart of the experience.

Motorola Cliq: deal or no deal?

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