Palm and Motorola have taken very different paths to get where they are today; one began life as a scrappy Valley start-up founded by a tablet computing pioneer, the other traces its roots to all the way back to the early days of consumer electronics and the automotive industry. Yet somehow, through years (decades, even) of adventure, success, and misfortune, they've found themselves in exactly the same situation here in 2009: it's do-or-die time. Palm, of course, has elected to try its hand at resurrecting the very thing that took it to superstardom in the first place -- an elegant, tightly-controlled software platform of its own with hardware to match -- while Motorola has thrown virtually all of its remaining weight behind Android in the hope that it can catch a little mojo from Google's ecosystem.
For Motorola, it's the wireless equivalent of stepping up to the roulette table, putting what's left of your depleted life savings on red, and letting it ride just as you see security guards off in the distance coming to throw you -- penniless -- off the premises. It's a gamble of the highest order, but it's also a gamble Motorola's painfully aware that it needs to take. North America's only top-five handset manufacturer needs nothing less than magic (and a little luck) to earn its way back into the world's wireless elite -- and that risky play starts right here, today, with the CLIQ / DEXT.
So does the CLIQ pave the way to a New Motorola, or did the RAZR's checkered legacy ultimately dig a hole too deep to escape? Read on.
An exciting product often starts with exciting (or at least interesting) packaging, a trend that has been particularly dominant in the wireless and wireless accessory industries the past couple years. From the iPhone's minimalist surrounds, to the Pre's angled white and orange box, to the Touch Diamond's geometric oddity, to the Jawbone's gravity-defying pedestal, companies seemingly invest as much research and engineering into shelf appeal and the customer's unboxing experience as they do into the device itself. The CLIQ's no different in this regard, and Moto has actually managed to do something pretty unique here with a locking mechanism that keeps the red inner box from sliding out of the sleeve until you press both sides of the sleeve inwards. We were skeptical when we first looked at it -- the half-circles on the sleeve imploring us to "press to open" just confused us more than anything else -- but it actually works quite well, and it's reusable. You won't tear anything apart getting it open for the first time.
Once you get past the fantastical experience of opening the box, you're immediately presented with the CLIQ itself resting atop a cardboard cradle. Even though this phone represents the first volley of a wholly, genuinely reinvented Motorola, there's something... well, still very recognizably "Motorola" about the industrial design, and whether that's a good or a bad thing is largely a matter of personal opinion. For one thing, that means that virtually every part of the phone looks and feels over-engineered, which leaves you with a device that's both heavier and bulkier than it realistically had to be. For us, that wasn't a problem -- it generally gave the phone a substantial, reassuring, high-quality feel -- but for fans of tight jeans or svelte, sexy handsets, it's important to remember that the CLIQ clocks in over a millimeter thicker than the keyboardless myTouch 3G. That sounds like an insignificant difference, but between the added weight and girth, we found that the CLIQ was much more noticeable in a pocket (both to you and to people who happen to be glancing at your pocket for whatever reason).
The slider on the CLIQ is definitely rock solid. While we felt a tiny bit of give on screen presses when the phone is closed, generally the two-piece device still feels like a connected whole. Sliding open the keyboard produces an enthusiastic "chunk" sound, while it snaps back in place with a reassuring tightness. Compared to other slider phones of this ilk, it's a major step up.
That brings us to the phone's inevitable parallels to the HTC Dream / T-Mobile G1. The G1 has a special place in our hearts as the very first Android device to reach retail -- and it's held its ground admirably over the past year as the only QWERTY slider for Android to launch anywhere in the world -- but there's no getting around the fact that it's aging rapidly, thanks in particular to anemic internal storage (the only place Android allows apps to be installed) and a balky, plasticky design that always suited all-out geeks better than it did a mainstream audience. The CLIQ definitely steps up to the plate here, ditching the wacky arc-shaped screen opening mechanism for a traditional slide, losing the angled chin, and generally upping the quality of materials throughout the phone -- but the keyboard is another story.
The CLIQ's keys are heavily domed to maximize the odds of finding the one you're looking for and the oversized Enter key is a welcome touch, but we wouldn't say the overall design is a slam dunk over the G1's; we suspect some folks will still prefer its rubber keys (the CLIQ's are hard plastic), generous key separation, and less extreme clickiness. The biggest issue with the CLIQ's keyboard, though, is the placement of the spacebar, Alt, Symbol, Search, and back keys. Unlike the rest of the pad, that bottom row is concave rather than convex, meaning they're essentially buried beneath the edge of the device. We can't count the number of times we hit V instead of the spacebar -- just missing it outright due to its low clearance. We recognize that Motorola had to do something about the sliding mechanism, but it makes typing on the phone twice as difficult. It's just bad design. The CLIQ also suffers from a spacebar that's no bigger than the special use keys around it, making it harder to find in a hurry -- we would've gladly traded normal-sized Alt and Sym keys for a spacebar three or four letter keys wide (or, maybe even better, two spacebars along the bottom).
We suspect the CLIQ's d-pad philosophy is primed to stir a little controversy, too. Unlike the G1, the CLIQ lacks any directional control other than the touchscreen itself when the phone is closed; opening it reveals a left-aligned four-way pad with a select button in the center. Granted, the presence of a d-pad on a device like this is technically redundant, but the counter-argument is that putting an optical touchpad or recessed trackball in place of the CLIQ's Home button would've taken no additional space -- and realistically, it wouldn't be high enough when the keyboard's open to make it inconvenient to use, which means you could ditch the d-pad on the keyboard altogether and make the letter keys larger (or add additional columns of keys for, say, more frequently-used symbols). It's certainly not a big deal -- we never use the trackball on our myTouch anyhow -- but some Android veterans may struggle with the change.
Speaking of the Home button, a quick tour of the CLIQ's auxiliary controls and connectors reveals the usual fare -- plus a couple surprises. Directly below the screen, you've got the aforementioned Home button in a stylized red circle (just so it's extra hard to miss, we suppose) with a Menu button to the left and a Back button to the right. Bear in mind that these aren't Google-standardized icons for representing Android commands, and we actually had a hard time figuring out what the Menu button was before we pressed it -- but obviously, this is a one-time inconvenience before the button's function is committed to your brain and you never have to worry about it again.
On the right side you've got a two-detent camera button (which means you can autofocus before committing to taking a picture, just as you would with a regular camera) and a dedicated standby key that serves to lock the phone, toggle power, and bring up a menu of radios to toggle on and off if held long enough. The button is flush and can be difficult to find without cheating and looking, but we suppose that's by design -- it's not the kind of button you want to be hitting frequently on accident. Up top you've got the 3.5mm headphone jack (a big win over the G1, but something we expect to see on virtually all smartphones going forward) and on the right, we've got three goodies: a volume rocker, micro-USB port, and a Treo / Pre / iPhone-style mute switch, a welcome touch that makes it a whole lot easier to swiftly silence your phone. On the myTouch or G1, if you locked your display you'd need to log in just to make that happen, and frequent meeting-goers know just how frustrating that can be after, say, the third powwow of the day.
There's a catch with the CLIQ's silent mode, though: the vibrator is straight-up loud. We're not sure if it has to do with the weight of the phone's two halves, the materials being used, the size and power of the actual vibrator, or if there's some slop in the slider that's causing the halves to really bang up against one another, but depending on the surface that the CLIQ rests on, silent mode can end up being just as loud (if not louder) than when the ringer's on. The upside to this, we suppose, is that it makes it a little easier to feel calls and messages when it's in your pocket, but buyers should beware that full, vibrator-free silent mode is probably going to be warranted from time to time depending on the situation.
Moving around back, Motorola's put a pleasing amount of work making sure that you (and the people around you) won't get bored looking at what's usually perceived as the least-interesting side of a phone. The two variants of the CLIQ -- titanium and white -- each have unique battery panels, a three-dimensional wave pattern and a series of randomly-placed circular indentations respectively. We really like both, though we wish they were soft-touch plastic -- hard plastic always feels cheaper and makes a phone just a little less slip-resistant, and with the wave pattern pressing into your hand every time you hold it, you're constantly noticing that it's there. We think it's one of just a few hardware slip-ups that detract from an otherwise premium-feeling device.
Lighting on the CLIQ is a mixed bag. The most prominent lit feature, of course, has to be the large Motorola logo (well, technically a MOTOBLUR logo on account of the "blur" bubble to the right of it) that's mounted in the middle of the metal area behind the display that's only visible when the keyboard is open. It sounds gaudy, ridiculous, and unnecessary, but it's actually quite awesome. One of our favorite features of the entire device, actually. It's not overdone, it's tasteful, and for the phone's owner... well, you never have to see it anyway since you're looking at the other side of the display. In terms of cool factor, the keyboard's backlighting finishes a close second: it's actually got two independent backlights, one that illuminates the primary keys and a second that lights the secondary options only when the Alt key is pressed. In low-light situations, it definitely makes the keyboard a less-intimidating ordeal since you're effectively looking at half of the options most of the time.
What we didn't like as much was the alert lighting, which is unfortunate on a device as socially connected as this where there's a good chance that you're literally getting new communication (in one form or another) literally by the minute. The phone's only alert light is a pinhole-sized white "breathing light" -- to borrow a common Nokia term -- that can only be set on or off to signal the arrival of new notifications (regardless of what they might be). The myTouch doesn't offer much more configurability here, but we do like the fact that HTC's device at least lets you distinguish between an email and a missed call or text message by featuring a blinking LED up top paired with a breathing light in the trackball. We think that the CLIQ -- particularly with BLUR -- could've used at least two independently-controlled lights, because like many users, we found that we were getting enough emails to render the light meaningless. It basically became The Boy Who Cried Wolf for us within a few minutes and we found ourselves ignoring it.
Current G1 and myTouch owners should be happy to hear about the bump up to a 5 megapixel camera, though we had mixed results; focus seemed a bit soft at times and the apparent lack of a (or at least unpredictable) macro mode made close focus impossible altogether. The second shot here is a 1:1 crop -- with no digital zoom -- taken with normal indoor incandescent lighting; the focus indicator suggested that we'd locked on the keyboard, but even if you take motion blur out of the equation here, it still isn't a nice, crisp focus by a long shot. The good news is that camera issues like this have a tendency to be corrected in firmware, so we're hoping this gets addressed -- it's no Nokia Nseries for raw picture quality, but we're not writing it off just yet.
The CLIQ's battery clocks in at 1390mAh, fairly typical for a phone of this style. Unfortunately, Android has a reputation for guzzling juice, and we're sure that the fact that MOTOBLUR syncs up with yet another cloud can't help matters, because we found that we just barely skated through a day of typical use before the phone shut down. Not "gave us a low battery warning," but actually shut down. Kaput. That's a little worse than the performance we typically see out of a myTouch, and it's a surefire sign that you'll never want to be too far away from a charger -- if not a second battery. We'd have liked to see a 1500mAh pack installed here (maybe even bigger), but then again, the CLIQ is pretty heavy and bulky as it is.
Motorolas have a longstanding reputation for being able to pull even the weakest signals, but we're sad to say the rule doesn't really apply here -- everywhere we went, the CLIQ essentially matched the myTouch and switched from 3G to EDGE (and back) in the same areas. We'd hoped for another bar or so on average, but if you live, work, and play in areas with decent T-Mobile reception, you'll be fine here.
The screen can only be characterized as the strangest capacitive screen we've ever used, because it feels... well, resistive. We found it usable but perhaps the balkiest of any Android phone to date, giving the user plenty of motivation to slide open the keyboard rather than trying to deal with the virtual one. Although it's nothing more than a reskinned version of the default Cupcake keyboard, it was basically impossible to use without injecting enough mistakes to make it more trouble than it was worth -- a problem we haven't had (at least not to this extent) on the myTouch. The issues might be exacerbated by the fact that the CLIQ features a display slightly smaller than the G1 and myTouch, coming in at 3.1 inches -- just a tenth of an inch smaller in diagonal than HTC's models, but it does make a noticeable difference. Strangely, there's enough bezel around the screen so that Moto could've easily slipped in a larger component (in our totally non-technical opinion, anyhow), so it may have been nothing more than a cost-saving move. Hard to say.
Both the earpiece and speakerphone on the CLIQ are loud and clear, we've got no complaints there -- and the phone has an absolutely critical feature that the myTouch and G1 both lack: an honest-to-goodness proximity sensor. The display faithfully disengages when you're on a call and you hold the phone to your face, springing back to life when you pull it away. It sounds like a luxury at first, but any Pre or iPhone user can tell you how important it is the moment you need to enter a digit while on a call or switch audio sources -- on the myTouch, for instance, it's a minimum of two steps just to get to a dial pad once you're connected, and showing the dial pad can be excruciatingly slow depending on how laggy your phone is at the moment. In fact, we might be crazy, but for heavy voice users who want to be on Android, the proximity sensor could very well be a selling point in itself.
Of course, the CLIQ isn't just about Motorola making an Android phone for the first time -- it's as much (if not more) about the socially-connected skin that the company has grafted on top of the whole package, MOTOBLUR. In a nutshell, MOTOBLUR is Motorola's version of Palm's Synergy -- an independent set of servers that Motorola owns that memorizes all of your email and social networking accounts, keeps them linked together, and lets you communicate in a blended way across services. In theory, it's a great idea; everyone's got a Facebook page and a Twitter account, countless contacts distributed among several disjoint repositories, and no cohesive way to manage it all from a central location, which is the problem that MOTOBLUR tries to solve in your pocket.
Like Synergy's Palm Profile, MOTOBLUR requires its own account that you're prompted to set up the first time you turn on the CLIQ, and you're walked through the process step-by-step. It's easy and quick, and once you do this, you'll get a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that your account information and linkings will be transferred to any MOTOBLUR-equipped device you happen to own in the future. Afterwards, you're invited to add supported account types, a list that currently includes MySpace, Facebook, Google (obviously), last.fm, Twitter, Picasa, Photobucket, and Yahoo Mail, plus separate entries for generic POP / IMAP email and Exchange ActiveSync (which Motorola bills as "Corporate Sync"). It's a pretty impressive list and should cover 90 percent of the average user's social networking and email needs, but there's a problem: we're being told that BLUR is a closed platform. There's no API that would allow third-party developers to add account types into this mix, and as far as we can tell, Motorola doesn't intend to add one -- BLUR is being billed as "the special sauce" that Moto owns and controls completely. We don't really get that approach -- the best thing Moto could do would be to open this up and garner support from anyone it can, but for the moment anyway, that's not the strategy they're subscribing to. On the flipside, Moto also says that it could add new services into BLUR very quickly and easily, but again, it shouldn't necessarily be at their sole discretion to do so -- let third-party developers add as much value as they can, we say. There's nothing Motorola needs more right now than a vibrant ecosystem that it can call its own.
The next thing that'll happen after you've added your account information is the CLIQ will start syncing your contacts -- and we mean all your contacts. All of them. And there's no way to stop it from happening. Every Twitter follow, every Facebook friend will suddenly be a mere touch away on your phone. This is the same issue we had with the Pre, and Motorola seems to have learned nothing from Palm's mistake. Whether or not this is an intentional decision or technical hurdle that couldn't be bypassed, it's annoying; we simply don't need quick access to Barack Obama from our phone (don't get us wrong, we wish we did, but we think we're at least several rungs below Yankee White security clearance). The good news is that you can create your own contact subgroups, though setting them up could quickly devolve into tedium when you're getting the phone going for the first time. The contact manager also has a bar across the top that lets you filter by source -- Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on -- but by default, you see all of them. Basically, we think it can be a little overwhelming, leaving a new user asking "why would I want to see all of these people when I'm just trying to make a call?" Indeed, BLUR -- and the concept of managing everyone you know on your phone, regardless of social medium -- has a ramp-up phase that we're not sure everyone's going to want to bother with.
Once you get past the initial account setup, you're presented with a very busy home screen -- far busier than anything you see out of the box on a so-called "Google Experience" Android device. This is the very essence of BLUR, a place where everything that everyone in your universe says to you sort of collides into a giant pile. For folks who feel the need to be ultra-connected (that is, beyond the mere email and voice that most of us old-timers consider to constitute "ultra-connected") at all hours of the day and night, this is certainly one way to make it happen. The BLUR-based home screen experience is powered by a handful of widgets that can be configured and repositioned just as you would any others; the big ones are Status, Messages, and Happenings, while News and Weather don't really tie in to the functionality but still get BLUR branding as a part of Motorola's value-add.
First up, the Status widget has three main lots in life: letting you know what your most recent social networking status update was, gently reminding you to update your status if you haven't recently, and giving you an easy way to update. You can update synchronously across all your accounts or update individual ones (Twitter alone, for example, which we imagine will be a frequent use case). It's a simple widget and it does its job admirably. Messages, meanwhile, aggregates all forms of communication that are directly to you -- SMS messages and Twitter direct messages, for example. A snip of the most recent unread message is displayed on the widget itself along with the sender's avatar -- a possible privacy concern for some -- but the bigger problem here might be that the widget doesn't show so-called "@ replies" in Twitter, just direct messages. Motorola's justification here is that @ replies are public, therefore belong in the Happenings widget (which we'll get to momentarily), but the fact is that you want to see them -- they're directed at you, after all -- and none of the widgets here make it easy to do that.
Finally that brings us to the Happenings widget, which is a mishmash of all of the noise your follows, friends, frienemies, and acquaintances are making around the networks. Aggregation is often good, it really is -- but it doesn't take a lot of noise to effectively render the widget useless with an endless stream of status updates. Happenings has two core problems. The first is that your main navigation only lets you see one message per screen, and it requires a horizontal finger swipe to move to the next message; after reading ten or maybe fifteen updates about your BFF's bar crawl, your thumb's tired and you're ready to give up. If you've got, say, a couple hundred Twitter follows (a conservative figure by many users' standards) and, say, fifty or a hundred Facebook friends, you can see how this gets out of control really fast. The good news is that you can click on the widget's header to get bumped out to a proper scrollable list of updates, but by the time you've done that, you've already started to defeat the purpose of displaying this information as a quick, glanceable widget. The second issue, and what we consider to be a more serious drawback -- is that fact that those aforementioned @ replies from Twitter are pushed into your main stream of updates here, with no way to see messages directed towards you. If you follow more than 10 people, it's all but impossible to see who's trying to strike up a conversation. This is one of the most basic functions of almost every Twitter app available, and yet Motorola failed to include it with the CLIQ. It's as if the people who designed the software don't actually use the service.
All of the widgets get updated through Motorola's BLUR servers -- not from the many places across the interwebs where the data originates -- which has its pros and cons. Motorola's big argument here in the affirmative is that its servers periodically aggregate information and push it down to the phone, rather than the phone polling a bunch of sites periodically, stemming battery drain. Given the CLIQ's already heavy drain, that's a good thing (and we've definitely seen Twidroid plow through a G1 in just a few hours with the polling interval cranked). The downside, though, is that you're not getting anything in real time. For random Twitter noise, no biggie, but generally speaking, you'd like to be clued into direct messages posthaste. It gives the supposedly ultra-connected home screen an air of staleness much of the time.
The CLIQ will launch with Android 1.5 (that's Cupcake, if you recall), and that may emerge as one of the CLIQ's biggest weaknesses: as a custom-skinned phone, updating the kernel is a far more intricate procedure for Motorola and T-Mobile than it is with a bone-stock Google Experience device like the myTouch. There's a reason the carrier was able to push Android 1.6 (Donut) to the G1 and myTouch so quickly after Google made it available, and we wouldn't expect that same kind of good fortune with the CLIQ and other MOTOBLUR-based devices in the future. All of Moto's customizations need to be ported -- which may or may not be a lot of work depending on what's changed in the trunk, but it's still work either way -- and then they've got to be validated both by Motorola and the carrier before getting pushed out. Fortunately, the CLIQ supports over-the-air updates, but this is still all assuming Moto ends up updating the CLIQ to 1.6 or any core release beyond that; no announcement has been made at this point.
As for overall device performance, don't expect miracles. At our first demos at Mobilize in September, we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw; UI components that we'd grown accustomed to seeing lag on the Magic (and early-firmware Heros) were snappy and smooth. Thing is, these were fresh devices that we didn't have an opportunity to bog down with endless accounts, emails, picture messages, and background apps -- and in reality, the fact that you're still running a 528MHz MSM7201A core here ends up catching up to you in the course of daily use. We found that it can take upwards of a second or longer for BLUR widgets to load after tapping in certain circumstances, most of which are realistically beyond the average user's control -- there's just too much stuff running in the background, and you can't expect Joe Sixpack to be killing tasks. The app drawer and browser both get jerky over time, too. Ironically, much of this seems better in 1.6, which as we said before, hasn't landed on the CLIQ so far. At any rate, Snapdragon, we eagerly await your arrival to take this platform to the next level.
Let's be very clear: though it fares pretty competitively against the aging crop of Google-powered devices on the market today, the CLIQ isn't the Android phone to end all Android phones. Then again, it's not supposed to be -- at least, we hope it isn't -- because a smallish HVGA display and an overworked, outmatched MSM7201A core aren't going to win any believers that haven't already been won over by HTC's stable. What the CLIQ does do, though, is lay the groundwork for something better -- a Motorola that doesn't cause eyes to roll, a Motorola that makes aspirational phones that people can want to own again.
In a perfect world, Moto would've kicked off its Last Stand by coming to the plate with an absolute beast of a phone -- massive processor, massive camera, massive display, the works -- but market realities and carrier demands have meant the middling CLIQ and DEXT are the first to get time in the spotlight. We think this is just the beginning, though; hardware will inevitably improve, and BLUR -- a system that is currently right in principle and wrong in execution -- will evolve to become a much more usable platform. How do we know? We don't -- but this is a humbled company with its back firmly pressed against the wall. They'll adapt and succeed, or they'll die. It's really that simple.
In the meantime, would we recommend the CLIQ? Against a G1, yes, if for no other reason than the fact that you're getting more internal memory and a more robust, modern, un-weird hardware design. In the bigger picture, though, we'd keep our wallets in our pockets for the time being -- the CLIQ looks and feels like a testbed, not quite ready for primetime but a genuinely heartening sign that Moto's still got a pulse.
Another way of putting it? Allow us to draw an analogy that's particularly appropriate in light of Motorola's situation: you might say the CLIQ is the DynaTAC. We're holding out for the MicroTAC and StarTAC.