Motorola Q eats batteries alive

When I first unboxed the Motorola Q, I knew I was in for disappointment when I saw how small its brick-of-a-battery was and what I'd be expecting the Q to do. To put it bluntly, to own a Q, which should involve taking advantage of some of its most prominent features, Verizon Wireless' prices of $199 (requires a two-year and online purchase to get the $100 discount from $299) or $349 for the one-year contract version (no discount available) are misleading and here's why.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

When I first unboxed the Motorola Q, I knew I was in for disappointment when I saw how small its brick-of-a-battery was and what I'd be expecting the Q to do. To put it bluntly, to own a Q, which should involve taking advantage of some of its most prominent features, Verizon Wireless' prices of $199 (requires a two-year and online purchase to get the $100 discount from $299) or $349 for the one-year contract version (no discount available) are misleading and here's why.

The Q has four basic features that you should really want in your next phone before buying the Motorola Q.  They are:

  • the telephone (for making phone calls)
  • e-mail capabilities (why else would you want the QWERTY keyboard?)
  • Bluetooth
  • ability to play videos and music

Some people might disagree on that fourth item, but it's the reason I really wanted to test the Q in the first place.  A lot of what went into this phone is designed to support its multimedia capabilities.  For example, built-in stereo speakers.  Motorola considers this to be an important differentiator. The last time I met Motorola CEO Ed Zander, he pulled a Q out of his pocket and made it a point to highlight that it had stereo speakers and that they had great sound. It does have stereo speakers and, barring the occasional volume problem which usually requires me to reboot the Q, they are darn good for such a little device. Then, there's the  inclusion of the mobile version of Microsoft's Windows Media Player (WMP), the mini-SD slot (good for expanding the Q's memory so that you can take a lot of music and videos with you), its 2.5" display (which I think is about where the "usable range" starts for viewing pictures and movies), and finally, the Q's support for the A2DP profile of Bluetooth. 

The Q is one of the few smartphones on the market to support A2DP.  What makes A2DP special is that it simultaneously supports Bluetooth's wireless headset profile (for making phone calls without the need to run a wired headset to your head) and Bluetooth's stereo headphone profile (for wirelessly listening to music).  The wireless headset support includes the ability to wirelessly control the phone (pick up the phone, hang it up, make a phone call with voice activation, etc.) from the headset itself.  Likewise, Bluetooth stereo headphone support also includes the ability to wireless control the volume level, start and stop music, and skip to the next track.  Finally, one of the features that makes the A2DP profile special is how it automatically pauses any music that's playing when a phone call comes in (or, when you want to make a phone call). When you have a some A2DP-compliant headgear on your head (like the Motorola HT820 that I use), it's all a seemless experience.  You hear the phone ring in the ear cup, you press the button on the outside of the ear cup to pick up the phone, the music stops, and as soon as the phone call is over, it automatically starts again.

But when these four features (voice, email, Bluetooth, multimedia playback) are put to normal use, you cannot expect the Q's stock battery to get you through the day.  For example, in my experience, when the Q is paired with some Bluetooth headgear, that short-range radio (compared to the longer range EV-DO radio used for making phone calls) puts a fairly significant additional load on the battery (in other words, I have to get the Q back to a charger much sooner than I otherwise would if its Bluetooth radio were not in use).

I don't think of the phone as putting an additional load on the phone.  If I use the Q has a phone and nothing else, the battery life is actually pretty good. But, if that's the way you're going to use the Q, you might as well buy a different device.  As phones go, there's really nothing special about the Q that makes it a great phone when compared to other cell phones on the market. In fact, I would argue that it's a little bit problematic since its hard to dial numbers like 1-800-ROADSIDE (GM's toll free number for roadside assistance if your vehicle breaks down).  The Q's embedded telephone keypad doesn't include any visual cues for alphabetic dialing.

The Q's messaging capabilities are one of the features that make it special. That a device so small and thin can be an email power tool (taking on the BlackBerry) is great. That said, in order to take advantage of the Q's "always on" capabilities (in other words, the ability to have e-mail show up on your Q at any time), the Q must constantly be engaging in data communications over the EVDO radio.  That's another constant draw on the battery. 

Going back to the support for Bluetooth A2DP, the reason for A2DP support in the first place is the Q's multimedia features. With its built-in media player (and camera, and image viewer), you can mix business and pleasure (provided your primary interest in the Q is a business usage one) by not only keeping pictures and videos of your family in your Q, but also keeping your music collection in it as well. In my Q, I have a whole bunch of music that I ripped from CD to MP3 (I don't buy music one song at a time online because of the DRM-based copy protection) as well as videos that I've made with Microsoft's PhotoStory (a free software tool that mixes still images, special effects, and any audio to produce movies that work on any version of WMP). Showing one of these movies of my kids with music in the background really brings my pictures to life for the people I'm showing them too.  But, using the media player -- be it for showing off your family or just for playing back MP3s -- is also a drain on the battery. And it's not like I listen for hours and hours straight.  I'm actually talking about lower than average usage when compared to your everyday iPod toting teenager.

Obviously, mileage will vary. Given this "profile" of usage which involves some multimedia playback, Bluetooth usage, an average number of phone calls, and always-on email communications, I've found that the phone will last around 10-12 hours on a single charge, but that beyond that, you're pushing your luck.  Another Q user made the same observation to me and pointed me in the direction of one solution that helps to alleviate the problem: an extra capacity battery.

I've yet to buy one. They cost around $45 which includes a new battery door that replaces the existing one on the back of the Q.  The new door is necessary because of the extra capacity battery's thickness.  So, when you put the new door on, the overall thickness of the Q changes at which point, it may no longer be the thinnest and lightest smartphone on the market as Verizon Wireless advertises. That said, I'm not counting (or measuring).  I'd gladly take the thickness if it extends the battery life to get me all the way through a day up until right before I go to bed.  So, add $45 to the cost of the phone.  Second, the phone doesn't come with a car charger and I know of no one that doesn't take (or want to take) as much drive time opportunity as possible to pour some extra juice into their phone. Especially since drive time could end up as a large block of battery draining talk time.  For a car charger, add another $30 (according to Verizon Wireless' Web site).

Note that I'm not even including the cost of the Bluetooth headgear which can set you back anywhere from $30 to $200.  At bare minimum, to really outfit the Q for everyday usage, you're going to spend an extra $75. I'd argue that an external battery charger for around $25 is necessary to.  This means that you can charge two batteries at once (one with the phone, and the other in the external charger) which is what you'll want because it's not easy to keep two batteries fully recharged when all you have is the phone to charge them.  So, make that $100 in additional costs (above and beyond the purchase price) to really make the Q usable.

Finally, a word on swapping batteries. I've made arguments for this before and have yet to see this problem solved. Maybe the challenges are just too difficult to overcome, but wouldn't it be great if, when you lifted the battery door on a Q (or any other phone for that matter), you saw two brick-batteries instead of one.  This way, you could replace one of the batteries while the phone gets power from the other thereby not requiring a reboot of your phone. I can't tell you how many times my phone has decided to die on me in the middle of a call that I'd really prefer not to have to restart. A long time ago, I had a cell phone that would retain a charge for about 15 seconds while the battery was changed. So, I know that the engineers were thinking about this problem more than a decade ago.  Perhaps they can start thinking about it again. I'd gladly trade some thickness in to have this capability.

Other posts in this series detail my experiences with Motorola's new Q smartphone. The Q is based on the latest, greatest smartphone operating system to come out of Microsoft (Windows Mobile 5 for Smartphones).

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