Motorola Q and its OS (Windows Mobile for Smartphones) are disappointments

It was one of the most anticipated smartphones to reach the marketplace. It was hailed as being revolutionary both for its industrial design and the steps forward it represented for Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
It was one of the most anticipated smartphones to reach the marketplace. It was hailed as being revolutionary both for its industrial design and the steps forward it represented for Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system. And, it launched amongst much fanfare upon its arrival. But now that's its here and I've been using it on a daily basis, I have to say that, had I been working for Motorola or Microsoft prior to its planned release, this is one device that leaves so much to be desired that I'm not sure that I would have let it out the door.

The Q's most obvious characteristics -- the ones that should appeal to business users and consumers alike -- are its QWERTY keyboard, a thumbwheel on the right edge (to aid in Blackberry-esque single handed operation), a back button (for backing your way out of some place you've drilled into), it's size and thickness (11.5 with the standard battery), and its operating system. 

The Motorola Q is one of the few smartphones in the American market to use Microsoft's smartphone edition of its Windows Mobile 5 operating system. The key difference between the smartphone edition and the other editions of the same OS that appear in other phones like the Windows Mobile-based Treo (also a disappointment if you ask me) is that the screen cannot be tapped with a finger or a stylus. In other words, compared to all previous versions of the Windows Mobile OS (including the older PocketPC OS), the smartphone edition has to give end-users access to any menu item or button that's on the screen at any given point in time through the keyboard, the device's "softkeys" (two buttons that appear below the display and whose role is defined by whatever software is running at the time), a rocker/button that can be used for screen navigation/menu item selection, and the thumbwheel (also used for navigation/selection and volume control). 

The degree to which these physical interface elements gracefully integrate with software that comes built-in to the phone (as well as third party software) is largely the degree to which this phone lives up to the hype, or the degree to which it's a let down. To me it has been the latter and I want to explain why.  But there's too much ground to cover in one post.  So, I've decided to break it up into a series of posts that will available through a devoted category (see the category links further down on the right) called "Motorola Q Review." I'll try to do this in digestable chunks using photos and screenshots where possible.  But before I get into the first chunk, there are few more higher-level items to touch on with respect to this smartphone.

The first of these is where you can get it from and how much. Although other carriers will be eventually offering it, Verizon Wireless (VZW) is currently the only US-based carrier to be offering the Q. What this means is that the phone relies on EVDO for its wireless connections for voice and Internet (Sprint is the other EVDO carrier).  In practice, EVDO has been the fastest of the "wireless broadband offerings" (and, in a future review installment, I'll talk about  the Q's Internet performance). If you're willing to commit to a two-year contract, the Q is available for $199.  Otherwise, for a 1 year contract, it's $349.  This is significantly less expensive than the $399/$549 price tags for the same VZW contracts when paired with a new Palm Treo 700w (the Windows Mobile, non-smartphone version).

While a first glance at the phone reveals some of it's more endearing traits (aforementioned), there are some other less obvious attractions to this smartphone. Two of them that Motorola CEO Ed Zander pointed out to me are the built-in stereo speakers on the Q's backside (pictured left).  It's a feature I wouldn't have paid attention to unless Zander mentioned it. But, when you think of it, most handsets have a single speaker which is for speakerphone usage and in many cases, it's not very good.  But, the Motorola Q is a multimedia machine too, capable of not just speakerphone usage, but also of playing back music and videos with stereo audio (it's built in Windows Media Player can synch with your desktop WMP).

In fact, this convergence of video iPod-esque ability with wireless messaging (the main point of the keyboard) is one of the key features that will attract consumers (vs. strictly business people) to the Q. Not only that, it makes the Q rise above the other keyboard/thumbwheel/backbutton-enabled device on the market which has lacked great multimedia capabilities (forcing people to put multiple devices on their hips): RIM's BlackBerry.  Anyway, whereas other stereo-capable handsets might relegate stereo-playback to the headphones, the Q has built-in stereo speakers and in my tests, they were plenty loud for most applications.

Speaking of stereo playback, the Q is also one of the first smartphones to support the A2DP Bluetooth Profile. What's special about this is that it facilitates simultaneous "pairing" with a Bluetooth-based wireless hands-free headset as well as with Bluetooth-based (wireless) stereo headphones. Or, you can do what I did which was to purchase a single piece of headgear that is both in one (which the Q can work with as well). In my case, I purchased Motorola's HT820 (pictured right) for $70.  One of the coolest features of the HT820 (common to all A2DP-compliant headgear) is that if you're listening to music when a call comes in, you can pause that music to take the call, and then pick up the music where you left off when the call is finished.

Not natively supported however , in the Q, is Bluetooth's Dial-Up Networking (DUN) profile. This is the profile that let's a Bluetooth-enabled PC connect wirelessly to the phone so it can make use of the phone's access to VZW's wireless broadband EVDO network for Internet access.  The typical application is where you go anywhere in VZW's coverage area, pop open your notebook (while your Q is in your pocket), and voila, you're on the Internet.  While DUN isn't natively supported by the phone, there are third party utilities that apparently get the job done (more on that in a future post).  The Q's lack of DUN in many ways represents the difficulty in bringing a full-featured smartphone to the market because of the way there are three parties that must work together all of whose interests must be served: the phone manufacturer, the operating system provider, and the wireless carrier.  The Q is capable of natively supporting DUN. But VZW chose not to include such support in the phone.  Also supported is Bluetooth's profile for wireless keyboards (an interesting inclusion given the noticeable absence of Pocket Word and Pocket Excel -- both of which are found on most other Windows Mobile devices).

As if the Q doesn't already have enough packed into its tiny package, it also has a 1.3 megapixel camera with a 6x digital zoom that can shoot still mages or movies. It's unquestionably one of those smartcameraphones (SCPs) that's likely to give security personnel -- the ones whose jobs it is to keep people from using cameras in banks, concerts, etc. -- fits. But one other cool feature this SCP has that you're not likely to find on other SCPs (let alone camera phones) is a miniature bulb that automatically comes on when the camera is in use -- one that is amazingly bright for its size and that does a suprisingly good job illuminating people or objects within a reasonable range of the camera.  Although it's not going to win any awards, the photo to the left (it has been cropped) was one of those pictures where I was wishing I had a camera with me when I suddenly realized that I did, i in the Q.  It's of my son letting a caged rabbit at a farm sniff his hand. It may not be the best picture. But in terms of capturing the moment, it can sometimes get the job done.  Using Windows Mobile's Pocket Outlook or built-in multimedia messaging (MMS), any image or movie and be sent or messaged to someone else.

The last sort of tops of the waves item that isn't often discussed is the the expansion capabilities.  The Q sports a MiniSD slot. MiniSD cards are a lot smaller than regular SD cards, of which I had many.  But knowing that I would be loading third party software onto this phone (for example, SkookumMobile so I can use the Q to subscribe, download-over-the-air, and listen to my favorite podcasts) that in turn might consume a lot of storage space, I went out and purchased a 1GB MiniSD card at CompUSA for $70.  Another $10 got me a USB-key adapter that the MiniSD card can be used with so that I can load stuff (eg: music, photos, Photo Story movies like this one of my baby daughter, etc.) from my PC into the MiniSD card which in turn gets inserted into the Q where all that content can be accessed on the go. Why do I keep mentioning prices? Well, that's the untold story of smartphones -- you may be able to get the Q for $199. But to take real advantage of this and other smartphones, the price tag is actually a bit higher once you've got it fully tricked out.  More on that in a future post.

So, at this point, you're saying "Wow, David," so far, you're giving the Q a glowing review.  With all these great things to say about it, why are you also saying it's not ready for prime time?"  It's true.  As neat as this phone is, I was quite surprised by the fact that this was let out of the lab with so very much room for improvement. Obvious user interface stuff (at least to me, it's obvious) that's really detracts from this SCP's potential.  For example, see why you'll never be able to easily access a companies telephone directory with the Q.

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