It's not that rugged phones haven't existed, of course. Far from it: Nextel and Motorola practically invented (and thrived off of) the concept, and options like AT&T's Samsung Rugby and Verizon's Casio G'zOne series have been available for some time. By and large, though, it's been a field devoid of smartphones -- and these days, that's just not going to cut it. The kinds of people that need a phone that can take a few knocks don't necessarily want to buy them at the expense of power or capability anymore. On that note, Motorola's new Android-powered Defy for T-Mobile USA (and other carriers abroad) is one of the few to take a shot at elegantly combining environmental resistance with a no-compromise smartphone experience, featuring Blur atop Android 2.1 with a 5 megapixel autofocus cam, LED flash, 800MHz TI OMAP3610 core, and a 3.7-inch 854 x 480 display. In other words, on paper, it's no slouch -- but can it hang? Let's find out.
- Looks sharpWithstands scratches, splashes, short fallsReasonably fast
- Motoblur still sucksBattery cover is trickyNo physical camera key
Physically, the Defy is unusual in that it looks so... well, usual. Typically, ruggedized phones are overbuilt, over-engineered behemoths that are obviously designed to look tough, and that's just not the case with this one. For the overwhelming majority of potential buyers, we'd say that's a good thing. It feels neither unnecessarily heavy nor inappropriately light in the hand, and there's very little bezel beyond the screen -- a characteristic that tends to give phones a premium look. From the front, in fact, there's no hint whatsoever that this is a tough device -- all you see is the big, flat, glossy black surface indicative of a modern smartphone; it's on the sides and rear where you get your only hints that this thing might be able to take a splash or two. The sides are a smart-looking combination of black and white plastic, both of which feel really high-quality with a soft touch finish. The two bands of color are fused with a series of six small Torx screws (at least, they seem to be Torx to our untrained, non-mechanically-inclined eyes) -- and really, that's probably the Defy's single biggest hat-tip toward its rugged roots. The side-mounted micro-USB port and top-mounted 3.5mm headphone jack are both protected by covers (since holes are a weak spot when you're trying to waterproof a phone, obviously), though they differ in design; the jack gets a soft flap, while the USB port has a harder material cover that rotates out. The jack's flap is a little annoying to use if you listen to a lot of music on your phone -- and it could be nearly impossible to dislodge if you don't have fingernails -- but the USB cover is fine. Rounding out the side detail is a white volume rocker on the right side; we found it just a little difficult to find and press while on the phone, partly because it's quite short, but it's probably all in the name of water resistance. Not a big deal.
The rear cover seems to be made of the same soft touch material as the black strip on the side, and it's quite nice. The cover design and latching mechanism is a little unusual -- once again owing to the water resistance requirements -- and it's a little tricky to close correctly. There's a slider at the bottom that you slide to the right (with some difficulty) to unlatch, then the cover will basically spring open -- the latch is actively holding the cover tight. Inside, you'll find the battery along with the microSD card and SIM card underneath. If you look closely, you'll notice that there's a raised edge on the underside of the cover that slips inside a rubber gasket in the battery compartment to help keep water out, but you've got to be careful -- it's pretty easy to reinstall the cover in such a way that it's not latched fully, potentially allowing nasty substances inside. We actually found this out the hard way: one of our Defys died in a water test, and though we were able to recover the phone itself after being dried in rice overnight, the battery was toast. Obviously, it probably isn't your goal (nor Motorola's) to leave the Defy in water for any length of time, but you really wouldn't expect a gasket-sealed cover to be the breach point when the phone finally does succumb to your abuse. Motorola probably could've fixed this by adding metal contacts on the back and showing a warning on the screen when the cover isn't latched correctly (the Streak can't be turned on if the cover is missing, for instance), but perhaps not without raising the price a bit.
The display is, as you'd probably expect, fashioned from Gorilla Glass -- so it should hold up admirably against your careless (and non-malicious) handling. We didn't try too hard -- we've got souls, after all -- but we weren't able to scratch it in our casual testing. It's got good feel and good tactile response; we never found ourselves in a situation where we felt like the screen had missed a tap. Like many of Motorola's other Android devices, the Defy doesn't feature any fancy screen tech like IPS, SLCD, or AMOLED, so although it looks great straight-on, it starts to wash out about 30 degrees off-center in any direction. Most users won't be bothered by that, but it's something to keep in mind. Perhaps more importantly, we found that the screen stays readable outdoors, which is more than we can say for many AMOLED components.
So if we haven't made it clear, apart from a couple niggles, we really like the Defy's hardware -- it feels premium in a way you're probably not used to. It's a little off the beaten path, and we mean that in the best way possible. From a software perspective, it's more of a mixed bag. This is a Motoblur-enabled phone, featuring the UI customizations first introduced on the Droid X earlier this year. Here's the problem: we can honestly say with a straight face that we don't like Blur any more than we did when we first saw it on the CLIQ. When you take into account Android's improvements in social network integration in Eclair and Froyo, the concept of Blur makes less and less sense -- and we just always had the vague sense it was slowing us down, not making us more efficient in any way. Here's a prime example (and it's something we've seen on every Blur phone we've tested this year): when you first sign into your Blur account, the phone will start downloading Twitter messages you've "missed" since the last time you signed into Blur. And it'll keep downloading them... and downloading them... and downloading them, by the thousands, until it has caught up. What does this mean for you? It means you'll get a notification every few seconds that you've received 500 new tweets, and you'll keep getting them for quite a while if you haven't been on Blur recently. Obviously this isn't a problem for many users, but it's a microcosm of the basic usability misses Blur suffers from throughout.
The good news is that the Defy seems to perform admirably despite being saddled with Blur's nonsense. Though it would occasionally lag very badly for a moment -- seemingly without reason -- the phone performed smoothly and swiftly for the most part. We scored 782 in Quadrant, which is roughly on par with a 1GHz Hummingbird-powered Samsung Galaxy S and well ahead of both the Android 2.1-powered Nexus One and the original Droid... though it pales against the Nexus One, EVO 4G, and Droid X running Froyo. And therein lies one of our biggest beefs with this phone: it's shipping with Android 2.1, which is pretty insane these days, particularly in light of the fact that Gingerbread is just around the corner. We've no doubt we'd be getting better numbers with 2.2, but Motorola's spotty track record delivering timely updates worries us how long it's going to take to get there (much less to 2.3).
One high point among Motorola's many UI customizations is the multitouch soft keyboard. As on the Droid X and others, we adore it -- in fact, it's the only third-party Android soft keyboard that everyone seems to agree is superior to the stock one. When we reviewed the Droid X, we were thinking that part of our love for it could be attributed to the ease of typing on a giant 4.3-inch display, but happily, the experience actually translates very well to the Defy's much smaller screen. And if you're not into it, the phone also includes Swype -- which always works great for us -- in ROM.
In our experience, the Defy seems to have stellar battery life, which is relatively hard to come by among Android phones. Not only we were able to consistently make it comfortably through an entire day on a charge, but we were surprised to find that after putting the phone away with about 75 percent charge, it was still on with 21 percent remaining two days later. Granted, it spent most of that time in WiFi calling range (which disables the cellular radio), but many smartphones give up the ghost from 100 percent charge in less time, so we were pleased to see that. A low point, though, is charging a dead battery: like most Motorola smartphones, there's a pretty long delay between plug-in and when you're finally allowed to turn it on. The Defy reaches that point quicker than the Droid or Droid 2 do, but it's still annoying -- we can think of plenty of phones that can be powered up immediately when you start charging.
The shooters on most recent Blur-equipped phones have typically been lackluster 3 megapixel fixed-focus affairs, so it's refreshing to see the Defy join the ranks of the CLIQ, CLIQ XT, and Backflip with a proper 5 megapixel autofocus camera. For stills, the results are pretty good (on par with the Droid and Droid 2). White balance is sometimes off, but exposure and color balance are decent. Noise is managed well, and low-light performance only suffers from a slight lack of detail. Thankfully, this is somewhat alleviated by the presence of an LED flash. Video capture is smooth (clocking in at 30fps) and compares favorably to other VGA recorders. Audio is better than most Android devices, thanks to a smart choice of codec (AAC, as opposed to AMR). The camera interface is similar to other Android phones from Motorola. Most settings are easy to access, but some live buried deep within menus. There's no touch-to-focus and no 2-stage shutter key -- or any physical key at all, for that matter; we're guessing Motorola tried to minimize the number of possible entry points for water, and camera controls suffer as a result. The camera only focuses when the on-screen button is pressed, and the delay makes it easy to miss that special moment. The lack of physical controls means you can't take pictures under water (since the capacitive touchscreen is unresponsive when wet), but you can start recording video and then submerge the device. Just remember, it's only water resistant, not waterproof.
At $99.99 on contract at launch, it'd be easy to write off the Defy as a forgettable midrange device -- after all, Motorola has yet to really prove its muster making decent Android phones that aren't high-end $200 monsters. Happily, this thing is genuinely good. Seriously! We're not going to pretend to like Blur -- we still don't -- but Moto seems to be getting better at making sure it doesn't ruin the phone completely (and we're guessing the fast OMAP3610 core helps, too). Additionally, the fact that we kept forgetting this is a genuinely rugged phone while using it really speaks to Motorola's efforts to keep mass market appeal in mind as they designed it. So hey, you know... if Blur finally sends you over the edge some day, don't expect a softball throw against the wall to end the Defy's life. That's a good thing, right?
Additional reporting by Myriam Joire