Motorola Krave ZN4 hands-on

Chris Ziegler
C. Ziegler|11.24.08

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Motorola Krave ZN4 hands-on

It's pretty fricking hard to believe that Motorola didn't have any touchscreen phones in the North American market before the Krave, isn't it? It's true, though -- so when it came time to draw inspiration for that all-important first device, designers looked to none other than Moto's own MING series, a popular (and fairly attractive, if we do say so ourselves) line of Linux-based smartphones sold in China for inspiration. In the course of its metamorphosis into a thoroughly Americanized phone, the Krave (Kring? MAVE?) lost GSM, gained CDMA and 3G, and found itself locked in to Verizon. All things considered, that's a pretty traumatic conversion there -- so how'd it end up faring? We took a quick look at the ZN4 to find out.


Say what you will about Motorola's industrial design, but generally speaking, Motos have a reputation for being built like tanks, and the Krave is no exception. The hinge on the lid (more on that little bit of magic in a moment) feels like it'll probably last one metric eternity, maybe longer. The entire phone feels great in the hand, thanks in part to a generous helping of soft-touch plastic around back. It's pretty thick -- about a millimeter thicker than the already-beefy T-Mobile G1 when its lid is closed -- but the tradeoff is that you get a solid, substantial phone that's still diminutive enough to slide into pretty much any pocket. It's hard to describe, but the Krave feels like it's the "appropriate" weight for its size; heavy, but not annoyingly so. Pick one up, and you'll see what we mean.

So yeah, back to that crazy lid. Chinese MINGs already have trick lids with micro-wires embedded inside the transparent plastic, connecting to an earpiece that seemingly floats without connections to the naked eye. It's a cool effect. The Krave takes it one big, important step further, though, by replacing the wires with a solid sheet of translucent conductive material. If you're not looking closely, you can't see it -- they've done a bang-up job of making it disappear -- but it's a critical feature of the phone that powers the earpiece and turns the entire lid into a second touch surface. In other words, you can use a few key features of the phone without bothering to flip the lid, which is more than a nice touch -- for the fickle American market, it's a must-have that saves users from constantly opening the somewhat unwieldy lid to perform even the most basic functions.

You're probably thinking, "but wait, wouldn't that huge earpiece get in the way when I'm trying to do stuff with the lid closed?" Ah, but Moto's one step ahead of you. Apps that are usable with the lid closed automatically shut off the bottom quarter of the screen when you flip it shut, which is less annoying than you might think. We found the responsiveness and the sensitivity of the lid to be every bit as good as the screen itself -- we only wished more apps were compatible in this mode. You can read text messages, use the music player, turn on VCAST TV, browse pictures, and use VZ Navigator, but that's about it; closing the lid with anything else running just boots you out to the home screen.

Opening the lid reveals one of the nicer screens you'll find on any phone sold in the US market today -- 400 x 320, exceptionally crisp and vibrant (it needs to be in order to be seen clearly through the lid), and a great feel for touch use. Atop the screen sit two backlit buttons, Home and Power; what possessed Moto to put 'em up there, we'll never know, because they're way out of the way. For Power, whatever -- that's fine -- but the Home button is going to get pressed way too frequently to require thumb acrobatics to reach. It looks like designers were just plumb out of room, found a little free space in the nooks and crannies on either side of the hinge, and took advantage, but they would've been better off moving the screen up a quarter inch and dropping the buttons down below (or Home, anyway).

The inconsistencies and difficulties continue as we move into the Krave's user interface. Don't get us wrong, it looks pretty awesome, but it's paralyzed by poor execution and a processor that's clearly struggling to keep up with the demands being placed on it. A great example of this is the overuse of screen transitions; the Krave never looks quite up to the task for them with jerky animations that make us think the software and hardware were designed by two very different groups of people that didn't talk very much. Similarly, scrolling through menus looks like a Herculean task for the poor phone -- it just never quite kept up with what we were trying to do, and we got to the point where we dreaded having to access a menu item that was off-screen. We imagine this could all be improved significantly with future firmware updates, which the Krave supports over-the-air -- but will they ever come? Hard to say; sadly, it's a lot easier for a feature phone like this to get lost in the fray, EOL'd, and quietly swept under the rug than it is a mega-popular halo device like the Storm or iPhone.

The browser, music, and navigation apps are all pretty weak -- symptoms of a closed platform and tight development deadlines with no plans for further improvement. The browser's essentially useless for browsing sites that aren't designed specifically for mobile consumption; visiting Engadget's full HTML site froze it right up (alright, Motorola, we can take a hint). The music and nav apps will be no mystery to anyone currently using a Verizon feature phone; they're basically carry-overs tweaked to take advantage of the Krave's touchscreen. The music app was usable but clunky -- we certainly wouldn't want it replacing our dedicated PMP, though the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack was a welcome touch (and we found sound with our Shure SE530s attached to be loud and clear). VZ Navigator immediately turned us off first by reporting a GPS error, and on a subsequent attempt, we realized that scrolling the map with your finger doesn't keep the map in the position you left it. It's hard to describe, but basically, it's the most annoying thing a mapping app could possibly do; you scroll the map, it starts to load portions that you've scrolled into view, and while it's doing that, it moves the app back about halfway between its current position and where you started. You'd think someone in either Motorola's or Verizon's testing process would've played around with that for about 15 seconds and said, "oh, hell no."

You might have some reservations on account of that bizarre earpiece, but alas, sound quality on the ZN4 is fantastic. It's also got one of the best speakerphones in recent memory, and as we mentioned above, the 3.5mm headphone jack was nothing to sneeze at, either. We couldn't really say the same about signal quality, though; we're accustomed to getting fabulous EV-DO reception in our area, but the Krave's 3G signal kept crapping out and sticking us with 1xRTT. Uncool. If this was a bought unit, we'd probably exchange it and try another; it could've been a fluke, or maybe the cells near our office were having a bad day. We're especially skeptical of our testing here since Motorolas are famous for insane reception.

Unlike MINGs, the Krave goes without character recognition (and without a stylus), relying solely on a variety of virtual keyboards to get words 'n stuff into the phone. In portrait orientation, you have traditional triple-tap and iTap keypads available, and a swift rotation of the phone automatically pops up a full QWERTY setup. The QWERTY keyboard here is one of the better virtual keyboards we've ever used, with reliable registration, non-annoying haptics, and pop-up letters that confirm you're pressing what you mean to. Unfortunately, the experience is marred by the always-present lid, which dangles off to the left side and seriously gets in the way. We guess we'd probably get used to it after a while, but new owners should be prepared to be driven to the brink of insanity as they try to find a comfortable way to hold the phone while typing (or give up and settle for iTap).

It's clear Verizon wants this to be one of its premier non-smartphone devices, chock-full of glitz, pretty much every feature in the playbook (including the still-rare VCAST TV), and a truly high-end build quality. Almost to our surprise, we came away absolutely loving this hardware -- but the miserable software package was ruined by Verizon customizations that make the phone really hard to recommend. If Motorola were to make this exact phone running Android, Windows Mobile, or heck, even S60 Touch, they'd have one hell of a product here. Hard to beat, actually.

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