Motorola ICS UI review this isn't the Blur we used to know

Ah, what a difference a couple years can make. After earning notoriety for is frustrating MotoBlur skin, the manufacturer has made strides on the Android user interface front. Its next attempt, known by many as "BlueBlur," was a far better experience, if only because the original user interface could hardly get any worse. These modest improvements aside, though, we've always wondered how the company would make its mark on Android 4.0, a newer version of the OS that ushered in a major redesign. Would Motorola once again choose a heavy, proprietary skin, or would it be more heavily influenced by its new Google overlords and develop a UI more in line with stock Ice Cream Sandwich?

Unfortunately, Motorola kept us waiting in suspense longer than any other major OEM: Samsung, HTC, Sony and (gasp!) even LG have already started shipping devices loaded with skinned versions of ICS. But while Motorola popped the update onto one specific tablet earlier this year, it only managed to push test copies of Ice Cream Sandwich to a handful of Droid RAZR and Droid RAZR Maxx devices before Jelly Bean was announced. Even now, we still haven't seen how the now-antiquated firmware will look on new Motorola handsets (though we hopefully will find out with the upcoming Atrix HD, RAZR HD or Photon Q). We have to wonder if the drawn-out acquisition process put the outfit in an awkward holding pattern, preventing it from cranking out fresh handsets and accompanying firmware updates.

So is HelloMoto making a grand entrance by being the last to show up to the Ice Cream Sandwich social? What makes Ice Cream Blurwich tick? We'll take you through the major elements of the user interface to give you a sense of what to expect when your Motorola phone is ready to make the jump.

Motorola ICS skin overview

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First impressions

We'll come right out and say it: we like Motorola's new and improved UI. Shocked? So are we, especially given the OEM's atrocious UI design history -- MotoBlur was one of the most abhorrent interpretations of Android we've ever seen, so it goes to show that you can't judge firmware solely by a company's past performance. Of course, it's no secret that HelloMoto isn't too proud of its Android roots either, considering it swiftly distanced itself from the Blur moniker in favor of a less painful, nameless user experience.

We'll come right out and say it: we like Motorola's new skin. Shocked? So are we.

As if it's trying to fit in, Motorola is seemingly attempting to embrace its new Google heritage with its ICS firmware because it offers an incredibly close resemblance to the pure vanilla Android experience while still exhibiting a personality of its own. It doesn't saturate your eyeballs with cartoonish icons, restrict your handset's performance or require proprietary login credentials. Essentially, it takes one step toward Google's preferred ICS design and one step away from Motorola's previous efforts.

Lock screen

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It makes sense to begin our review with the very first screen you're greeted with after the phone boots up: the lock screen. It features a radiating circle in the middle of the screen with a key inside. Touch the circle and you'll see four shortcuts: unlock, a dialer, messaging and the camera app. Our only complaint about this setup is that it doesn't appear to be customizable, meaning you can't swap in your most-used apps. The date and time still sit in the upper-left corner, but this is also where you'll first see that signature Roboto font. Over on the top right is an easy-access toggle switch to turn vibration mode on or off. As you'd expect on ICS, the notification bar is also accessible from this screen (more on this later). Also staying true to stock Android 4.0, you can use Face Unlock to bypass the lock screen, in addition to a dot pattern, PIN code, password or slide gesture. Audio controls are also accessible from the lock screen, though we were slightly disappointed to discover that it doesn't act as a shortcut for the music application itself. You have the option to pause, go back or move forward, but you're not allowed to go directly into the Now Playing screen. Note that we're only calling it a slight disappointment: to solve this problem, just drag the notification bar down in the lock screen and you'll find the music player access there. Still, it feels like a superfluous step.

Home screen

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Okay, you've made it past the lock screen and now you're staring at the home panel. As ever, the screen is comprised of a 4 x 4 grid of icons, but the bottom row (or app dock, if you will) makes room for five icons, including the app drawer launcher in the center. The other four are completely customizable, which means you can program shortcuts for your favorite apps and they'll stay with you as you flip between the five available home screens. You can even leave open spots in the dock, if you like. The font of choice for ICS is Roboto, and it looks as good as ever on our RAZR Maxx. Despite the fact that screen resolution hasn't changed, we did a double take when we first looked at the display -- at first blush, the screen actually looks sharper with the new font. Upon closer inspection you'll still see some pixelation, but Roboto helps tighten things up for a much cleaner appearance.

Motorola ICS home screen

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Removing an item from the home screen still involves the same steps as before (long-press on the item, drag it up to the top of the screen), but ICS offers a simple X button with the word "remove" on its side. In contrast, Motorola's Gingerbread UI employed a trash can framed by an eerie red glow. Much like stock ICS, long-pressing the screen brings up a menu allowing you to choose a wallpaper from various sources. This action in Gingerbread gave you the ability to place widgets (now in the app menu), shortcuts (now gone) and folders (now just drag and drop one app on top of another to create them). Though some of the changes in widget offerings come part and parcel with ICS, at least one difference here seems indicative of Motorola's overall change in UI strategy. That would be the approach to status updates. The social networking widget found in Moto's Gingerbread build has completely disappeared in favor of common first- and third-party options -- a move that effectively erases the last vestiges of Motoblur.

Notifications

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We never had much of an issue with notifications on Motorola's Gingerbread UI, but its ICS skin nonetheless takes a gentler approach. It's almost completely stock here, although settings access has been pushed over to the right, with a gear symbol taking the place of the usual icon. The individual notifications are the same, as is the ability to clear them all out in one fell swoop. And, of course, you can easily swipe any alerts or notifications that are getting in your way. The only frustrating thing about all this is that music controls in the notification bar feel like an afterthought. We mentioned earlier that you can pause, go back and go forward using the controls in the lock screen, but can't use it to directly access Motorola's music app. The notification bar presents the opposite conundrum: you can press it to go into the Now Playing screen, but there's no way to quickly control the music without diving into the app itself. If this is an issue, you'll either want to throw a music widget on your home panel or look into a third-party app that handles notifications differently.

App menu

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If you needed more proof that Motorola is trying to match the general design of Ice Cream Sandwich, look no further than the app menu: you'll find separate tabs for applications and widgets, as well as access to the Play Store. Just slide left or right to navigate through the various app screens, and keep flicking right if you want to reach the widget panels. Tapping on the menu key brings up two options: task manager and system settings. This is pretty limited compared to what you'll see on other skins such as TouchWiz, though it ultimately stays true to pure ICS. Motorola did stick to its traditional UI in one area, but fortunately it's very cleverly placed -- the "all apps" tab actually works as a pull-down menu that lets you add, edit and change other groups of apps. Only care about your 10 favorite programs? Just create a group, throw them in and never worry about going back to the "all apps" category again.

Motorola ICS app menu

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Happily, one of our least favorite parts of Motoblur is MIA. Long-pressing an icon in the app menu will bring up the home screen, giving you the ability to place it anywhere you like or drag it up to "more options" at the top of the screen. What are these options, you ask? Typically, you can share or uninstall the app, or be taken into its screen on the app manager to clear out its cache or perform a force stop. This particular setup represents an immense improvement in user experience -- previously, you had to go through an extra pop-up screen between the app menu and the home panel. We appreciate that easier flow, in which everything is accessible with just one tap.

Camera

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Going from Gingerbread to ICS, you're not going to see a significant difference in the user interface for Motorola's camera application. In fact, the viewfinder layout is precisely the same. The only change we noticed is the inclusion of some ICS design elements, including a simple blue line underneath the camcorder toggle (as opposed to a pill-shaped switch) and another line for the zoom on the left side of the viewfinder (rather than a bar). In the settings, boxes and menus are transparent and minimalistic, featuring blue lines rather than Gingerbread's distracting white boxes. Groundbreaking stuff, right? Maybe not, but one welcome addition to the camera is the ability to take pictures while you're rolling video -- again, something you'll find in stock Ice Cream Sandwich. Moto's also added its own Auto Upload feature, a time-lapse mode for video capture and a volume key function toggle in which you can choose to use the volume rocker to zoom or capture images. Effects and scene modes haven't changed. We'd also love to see a few extra settings, such as ISO and white balance, to name a couple examples. Another marquee ICS feature is the vast improvement in shutter lag, but when comparing the two RAZR Maxx units side by side, we saw virtually no decrease in lag time -- in fact, there were some occasions in which the Gingerbread model beat the ICS version. We imagine native hardware will do much better in this department, so we'll reserve judgment here until we have the opportunity to give it a whirl.

Motorola ICS camera screenshots

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Multitasking

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We still aren't sure how Motorola will approach multitasking on future devices that have ICS (or Jelly Bean) natively installed. Will it opt for a menu button as Samsung did on the Galaxy S III -- forcing app switchers to long-press the home button to gain access -- or can we expect a setup similar to the HTC One series, with each phone offering a dedicated multitask key? Will Motorola go with virtual buttons entirely, as on the Galaxy Nexus? It's hard to say what the future will bring -- the Atrix HD was announced yesterday (and we've heard plenty of rumors that Verizon and Sprint have phones in the works), so we'll likely have the opportunity to find out soon enough. For now, we can only observe how the process works on legacy devices -- specifically, those with four capacitive keys on the bottom. In the case of multitasking you'll still need to do a long-press on the home button, much like before. The difference here is that Motorola chose to go the stock route, which is our preferred option as well. Scroll vertically to find the app you want, and swipe left or right to get unwanted programs out of your sight.

Core apps

DNP Motorola ICS UI review this isn't the Blur we used to know

Ice Cream Sandwich ushered in massive improvements to the look and functionality of Android's core apps, and Motorola fortunately chose to honor most of those design changes. Taking a look at Gmail, calendar, Play Store, calculator and many other Google-branded applications, you won't see many significant variations -- at least not on legacy devices like the Droid RAZR and RAZR Maxx. In fact, the vast majority of the changes we found were mainly intended to compensate for the presence of a capacitive menu key, since the Galaxy Nexus only uses three virtual buttons on the bottom of the screen -- and not a single one of them accesses the menu. Taking that into account, the only application with major UI differences is the phone app. It isn't stock, but it at least has a similarly unobstrusive look and feel. The black-and-blue color scheme is the same, but the numbers use a thicker font and the call icon is flanked by "create a contact" and the mic icon for voice dialing. The tabs on top are different (dialer, recent and favorites) and are spelled out. The screen looks different during calls, too -- the options appear to be the same, but every button spells out the words, presumably to make it simpler for people who are new to ICS. Still, the experience doesn't wander too far off the beaten Android 4.0 path.

Motorola ICS browser

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Settings

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The settings menu offers a better-organized experience with ICS, and Motorola has largely embraced that design scheme. Wireless and Networks is on top, offering the usual suite of toggle switches (for Airplane mode, WiFi and Bluetooth) and data options, with the "more" option taking you into VPN and mobile networks settings. Continuing down the menu, you'll see sections for device, personal and system. Below you'll see a full gallery of screenshots depicting exactly what you'll find in each specific option.

Motorola ICS settings

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Performance

New firmware typically translates into bug fixes, better optimization, higher efficiency and improved performance all around, but there's something problematic about basing our review of Motorola's UI on our experience with just one phone. Naturally, the skin's behavior may vary widely depending on the hardware, so keep in mind that our observations relate to the the RAZR Maxx, specifically. For all we know, you won't get the same results on the Atrix 2 or Photon 4G. That disclaimer aside, we had the opportunity to test two RAZR Maxx units: one running Gingerbread and the other, ICS. First we ran benchmarks on both devices to see if we could detect any noticeable changes. Check out the table below:

Motorola DROID RAZR Maxx Gingerbread Ice Cream Sandwich
Quadrant 2,597 2,949
Vellamo 1,015 1,288
AnTuTu 6,065 6,073
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,896 1,841
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 27 29
CF-Bench 6,503 6,146
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Stock browser was used for testing.

As you can see, there are a few places in which we saw improvement: Quadrant and Vellamo saw the biggest improvements. Meanwhile, GLBench recorded decent optimizations in overall graphics performance -- of the series of 28 tests, ICS bested Gingerbread in 25 and lost only once. On the flip side, AnTuTu and CF-Bench -- tests that stress multiple threads -- don't deliver any boosts, and in fact the Gingerbread handset scored better in CF-Bench. What does this all mean? It means that if you're looking closely enough you may notice a little uptick in speed and overall performance, and we'd like to think that much of the improvement we saw is due to Motorola's decision to dress ICS with a lighter skin. But even then, these changes are incredibly subtle. While testing Moto's updated skin, we found one major bug that gave us pause. Again, your experience may vary here -- and for the better, we hope. The main issue we had with our review unit involved the camera. Even though it worked well initially, it refused to launch after we plugged the phone into a computer to transfer files. Thinking that somehow an errant file managed to make its way into the Maxx and corrupted the camera app, we performed a factory reset on the device, only to find that the program still wouldn't budge. Ever the troubleshooters, we downloaded a third-party camera app as a possible workaround; upon launching it, we received an error message: "Could not connect to the camera." Fortunately, the story ends on a happy note: two days later, the camera began working on its own after one of several reboots -- we're still not sure how the problem remedied itself. To be fair, we were unable to replicate the problem with other devices, so it may be a one-off.

Webtop

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Webtop. Yes, it's still around, and in a very different way. With version 3.0, Motorola has made some serious changes, though admittedly it's likely a little too late to repair the product's reputation. Essentially, Motorola has shunned the old-school Webtop interface and replaced it with -- drumroll, please -- the Android 4.0 tablet experience. Your Android apps, the status bar, ICS email UI and even widgets are all here. It's a larger-sized representation of the firmware already present in the phone itself, rather than a completely unique UI with limited software availability and choppy performance.

Motorola's shunned the clunky, proprietary Webtop interface and replaced it with the ICS tablet UI.

True, Webtop was bleeding-edge when the product first launched, but the need for expensive accessories and the limits of a proprietary ecosystem caused it to sputter. Perhaps Webtop would have been more widely used if Motorola had waited until Ice Cream Sandwich was available: Android 4.0 offers functionality that makes it possible to use your phone as a desktop replacement through the use of HDMI cables, and Motorola cleverly integrates that capability directly into Webtop 3.0. As a result, the minimal hardware requirement is a standard mini-HDMI cable to hook into your HDTV or high-def computer monitor. That's all. You can still use a LapDock if your heart desires, of course, but now virtually everyone can give Webtop a fair chance without forking over $350 to do so.

Since the company is opting for a more familiar Android interface, it seems like Motorola is abandoning idea of establishing its old Webtop ecosystem, which never really gained any traction. Instead, it appears to be focusing on affordable alternatives to costly tablets (although the Nexus 7 will challenge this point going forward). We suspect customers will find a lot more practical use out of the new Webtop... if they bother even giving it a shot.

Miscellaneous

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Music: It's easy enough to download third-party apps on your phone, and you may already hold one close to the heart, so it's possible you'll never even get around to using Moto's default application at all. If you're interested, however, you can choose one of two apps: Google Play Music, which comes standard with most ICS devices, and a program called "My Music" Open the latter and you'll find Motocast. You can use the service to sync and share music between your phone and your computer using DLNA, as well as listen to streaming internet radio stations (you can get Shoutcast, LastFM and others). It's a similar story with photos and videos in other apps as well. As a sidenote, not all devices will have Motocast installed. Verizon seems to be the only carrier on board with the service so far, which means you can currently find it on the Droid RAZR, RAZR Maxx and Droid 4.

Motorola ICS keyboard

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Voice dictation: Motorola has taken the voice dictation functionality introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich and integrated it with its own Android skin. Provided you're hooked up to a data connection (we won't see offline use until Jelly Bean hits), just hit the mic button on the keyboard. The feature works just as well as it does on stock Android -- it transcribed most of our sentences quickly and precisely. Easter Egg: The Nyancat-style Easter Egg found in stock Ice Cream Sandwich is available here for your enjoyment. So if for some reason you can't get enough of the flying Androids with 8-bit Ice Cream Sandwich bodies, all you need to do is go into the "About" section of the settings menu and repeatedly tap the Android version number. Android Beam: Given the RAZR Maxx's lack of Near-Field Communication (NFC), Android Beam wasn't offered as an option in the settings menu. We assume this will be added to new devices that have NFC enabled, and we have little reason to doubt it'll be much different than the standard stock experience. Test mode: Typing *#*#4636#*#* on your dialer brings up the hidden test menu, which is a mode tucked away from plain sight so that only the largest phone enthusiasts will find it. If you fit the bill -- or just want to explore -- head on in. You'll find stats on your phone's battery, your current WiFi connection, how much you've used specific apps, a toggle switch for various connectivity modes (you can disable LTE here, for instance) and other information that'll likely only be of interest to, well, field test engineers. Still, it can be fun to explore.

Wrap-up

DNP Motorola ICS UI review this isn't the Blur we used to know

Call it a response to customer feedback. Call it a result of the Google acquisition. Perhaps it was a long-planned change in strategy. Whatever it was that sparked a flame under Motorola's UI designers, it seems to have done the trick -- this is the first time we've been wowed by the company's Android UI. It feels like we're using an Ice Cream Sandwich device, and that's the highest compliment we can give. It's delectably light and is shaping up to be one of our favorite skins yet. It's unfortunate it didn't drop until after Jelly Bean was announced, but we're at least happy that our long wait wasn't rewarded with a dud.

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Motorola ICS UI review: this isn't the Blur we used to know