Review: Motorola Backflip Smartphone

It’s about time Motorola did something crazy. The Cliq was predictably sleek. The Droid was pragmatically chunky. But AT&T’s new Backflip is just … odd.

At first glance the touchscreen channels the Cliq, but flipping it over reveals an exposed QWERTY keyboard. The phone opens like a reverse clamshell, and once you swing the keyboard around through 180 degrees, it’s facing you, resting beneath the screen. And, get this — hidden away on the back of the touchscreen is a small navigational touchpad (called the “Backtrack”) used for scrolling and selecting menu items.

Of course, this odd design choice inspired a slew of questions around the office: “Won’t the exposed keyboard type in your pocket?” (No.) “Will it snap if you open it the wrong way?” (Absolutely.) “Wait, so that touchie-nippley thing is on the back? Why?!” (We don’t know either.)

At 4.7 ounces it has a satisfying pocket weight, and its slightly cramped 3.1-inch touchscreen — though not as vibrant as other phones — is mostly responsive. We were able to squeeze out 320 minutes of talk time, while also tinkering with the usual multimedia and productivity accoutrements (music, video, GPS, 3G/WiFi data, and mobile TV).

Despite its running an older version of Google’s Android OS (1.5), all the bread-and-butter phone features make cameos on the Backflip and perform as expected.

Unfortunately, even though this is AT&T’s first Android phone, it isn’t a blank canvas like the Nexus One or Droid. Like T-Mobile’s Cliq, the Backflip runs the Motoblur Android skin. This take on the Android OS eschews the standard, grid-like home screen in favor of a widget-based user interface. On the bright side, these widgets are customizable and run the gamut in terms of functionality: News, weather, search and a bevy of social networking sites are all fair game.

Unfortunately, running more than a handful of these widgets simultaneously proves problematic. Not only does the Backflip’s 528-MHz processor start to get sluggish, but the on-screen presentation of simultaneously updated feeds from Facebook/Twitter/E-mail/Text/Weather/RSS is of location-aware, real-time data. It’s just too much.

Motorola attempts to address this by offering multiple home screens (accessible via left- and right-finger whisks), but there’s only so much one can do with 3.1 inches.

Although hardly great at presenting data, the Backflip’s icon-driven interface does offer a silver lining. With the right widget combination (and savvy placement), we were able to get a snapshot of every social facet of our lives on one screen.

However, when a co-worker asked to borrow the phone, we were suddenly a bit reluctant to hand it over. Why? Because pretty much anyone who sees the home screen has access to the explosion of personal data spewing out there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (unless you have secrets to keep), but it perfectly underscores our issues with the Backflip. On top of its plodding performance, the phone only excels at serving one type of user: the mobile-tweeting, Facebook-feeding, geo-tagging oversharer.

Unless you fall into that category, it’s just not worth bending over backwards to use the Backflip.

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