Phone Introducing: Motorola Q9m

I first glimpsed the successor to the MOTO Q back at CTIA Orlando in April of this year. A Motorola executive seated next to me at a Smartphone Summit panel discussion pulled a pre-production Q9 from his packet and used it to check his email while I tried to sneak a look. Eventually he noticed, and after I introduced myself he let me check the device out. I remember being impressed by the new Q's QWERTY thumbboard - the layout and individual buttons felt much more comfortable and responsive than the keys on the original Q. Beyond that, I remember thinking the Q9 looked sorta cool - well, sorta cool for a smartphone anyway - but that was about it.

After some time with the Verizon Wireless version of the Q9m, I've more or less come back to that first impression of the new Q. The Q9m - the consumer-targeted, music-oriented sibling of the all business Q9h - is a slightly faster, slightly more capable upgrade to the original Q. That new QWERTY board is, in fact, better than the original, and the Q9 also ships with Windows Mobile 6 and VCast multimedia capabilities. But it's bigger and heavier than the original, and not as powerful or versatile as the competition it faces in today's smartphone marketplace. Is the Q9m worth a look if you're considering smartphone power with media-friendly features? Yes, but serious business users will probably want to look elsewhere for their next handset.

The original MOTO Q was a breakthrough in smartphone design. Q's tall, wide, and thin candybar form factor made the idea of a stylish, business ready device a reality - as a result, Motorola sold tons of the things to fashion-conscious executives, first time smartphone owners, and a fair number of young, geeky hipsters. Even though Q's performance and battery issues turned me off, its form factor really made me rethink the idea of a smartphone that would fit comfortably into the front pocket of my jeans. And it spawned a legion of similarly designed smartphones from HTC, Samsung, and others.

This new Q is a little bigger all around as compared to the original. At 117 x 65 x 11.9mm and 135g, the Q9m isn't exactly chunky, but it's noticeably thicker and heavier than the Q. Verizon's Q9m is finished in a sporty black and red color scheme, and features nice, big, clearly marked buttons and a large, silver-finish D-Pad in the middle of its navigational array.

A 2.5" TFT display - the same size as the original's screen - takes up the top third or so of the front panel, bordered by a silver Motorola logo on top and a navigational array on the bottom. Navigational controls include Call and Cancel/Power keys on the far left and right and two softkeys and Home and Back buttons bracketing a five-way D-Pad in the center of the horizontal layout. The D-Pad is raised up and the four sides of the rectangular pad slope gently towards a select key in the center. The ridged plastic of the D-Pad makes for easy one-handed use, and even though the other controls are flush-mounted with the surface of the handset, I also found them quite comfortable to use.

The QWERTY keyboard located on the bottom third of the handset is excellent. I much prefer the Q9m's rectangular buttons as compared to the Q's bubbled, oval-shaped keys - they actually remind me of the QWERY boards on RIM's BlackBerry 8800 series handsets. Even though there's no spacing between the buttons in the Q9m's QWERTY, they're big enough that it doesn't matter - the keys textured, provide good tactile feedback, and I didn't have any problems accidentally slipping from the key I wanted to an adjacent button during typing. Twelve keys on the left side of the QWERTY layout double as the phone's dialing layout, and are labeled with red letters as well as the standard white numbers and symbols found on the other keys in the thumbboard.

On the left side of the phone there's a mini USB port and covered slot for miniSD memory cards. The right side features a customizable shortcut key and a scroll wheel that can be pushed to select on screen items. The wheel itself works well, but a plastic ridge similar to ones found on Sony Ericsson smartphones made it kind of hard to click the wheel in - I'm not entirely sure what purpose the ridge serves, actually.

The top edge of the Q9m houses a 2.5mm headphone jack, while the back of the phone features the camera lens and flash assist light along with dual stereo speakers. Removing the lower portion of the back panel gives access to the phone's battery slot.

This Q is bigger than competitors like the Samsung Blackjack, and a little blockier looking than the HTC Dash. It's still small enough to fit into a suit jacket or jeans pocket, and while not exactly cool, the red trim definitely works to give the handset a bit more mainstream flash than buttoned down all grey look of its predecessor.

Verizon Wireless' Q9m is a full-blown smartphone designed to be consumer-friendly and music-centric. What's that mean in English? On top of the standard Windows Mobile 6 interface, VZW has added a custom home menu designed for easy access to their VCast music store, and a hardware key dedicated to bringing you back to said screen whenever you feel the urge to rock out.

The VCast store is quite good, second by the slightest of margins to Sprint's music store when it comes to over the air purchase and downloads in the U.S. Unfortunately the Q9m doesn't support VCast videos, which makes the video and mobile TV compatible LG Voyager a more appealing choice in VZW's lineup for true multimedia fanatics.

Personally, I found the new multimedia home screen a bit confusing and pretty unattractive, to boot. But several people I know really like the new look, and the standard WM6 Home Screen is an available option on the new Q, so it wouldn't be fair to take points away from the device based on the "New Home." What is fair to mention, however, is that while Motorola and VZW loaded new features into the Q9m, they didn't do enough under the hood to help the device run those features smoothly. I suffered many a delay, stutter, hiccup, and freeze when trying to do more than one thing at a time on the Q9m, which gave me flashbacks to my painful go-round with the original Q. If you're going to market a handset as a smartphone, make sure it's smart - the new Q is better than the original, but it's no match for more robust WM6 devices currently offered by the likes of HTC and iMate. If you're planning to run more than one application at a time on a regular basis, think twice before buying the Q9m.

In addition to WM6's support for HTML Email and other productivity goodies, VZW ships the Q9m with DataViz's DocumentsToGo package instead of the standard Pocket Office install found on other WM6 smartphones. DocumentsToGo supports PDF viewing along with MS Office document creation, and works noticeably better than Microsoft's own Pocket Office apps. DocumentsToGo also lets you, gasp!, cut and paste between Email messages and Office documents which, believe it or not, is a revelatory experience on a mobile phone.

The standard, extensive PIM and synching options found on other WM6 devices are also present on the Q9m. Without launching into a diatribe, it suffices to say that WM6 is clunky to use but compatible with so many corporate IT environments that it's become something of a necessary evil for business users who don't want to run their own tech support.

Motorola Q9m Camera
The VZW Q9m features a pretty run of the mill 1.3 megapixel camera with a flash assist light and 6x digital zoom. Given that the Q9m is the long-awaited upgrade to Moto's flagship smartphone, I would have thought a bump to a 2MP shooter in order, but apparently Motorola and VZW felt differently (note that the newer Q9h does feature a 2MP camera).

Photos taken with the Q9m were sharp if a bit dull - that is, image details rendered clearly, but colors lacked pop and richness. Photos taken in low-light and/or with the flash assist light were flat-out blurry. Five resolution settings, three shooting modes, and white-balance and brightness settings let you tweak your images, but honestly there's not much you can do when the camera optics themselves are pretty mediocre. On the bright side, the Q9m's software makes it pretty easy to attach photos to MMS and Email messages, or to transfer them to a PC via Bluetooth.

The Q9m's camera is handy for "I was there!" snapshots on the go, and the new full screen viewfinder is a nice touch, but it's not going to replace your digital camera. Not by a long shot.

Video capture is also supported on the Q9m, with clips capped at 30 seconds in length and resolution of 176 x 144. Audio capture is supported in video mode, and video clips may be sent as MMS messages.

The 2.4", 320 x 240 pixel display on the Q9m is fairly average by current smartphone standards. QVGA resolution isn't at all bad, but the 65k color depth is a little behind the 262k or 16 million colors supported by Q's competitors. Menus, images, and text all rendered clearly and crisply on the device, and unless you're used to a more state-of-the-art mobile display you probably won't really notice the relatively limited color spectrum found here.

Direct sunlight rendered the Q9m's display almost impossible to read, but it held up pretty well in most other conditions. An ambient light sensor adjusts the screen's backlight according to external conditions; there are no manual brightness or contrast settings available on the device.

As mentioned earlier, the new Q features two home screen options. While the custom multimedia screen is supposed to make it easier to access your music, images, and videos, I found it pretty unwieldy and wound up using the standard Windows Mobile home screen most of the time. T-Mobile and HTC did a great job of "masking" the WM6 user interface on the new Shadow; VZW and Motorola missed the same mark here with the Q9m.

Note also that the Q9m's display is not a touchscreen. In and of itself this isn't a problem, as the five way D-Pad and thumbwheel provide plenty of navigation options. However, given the recent trend towards finger-friendly touchscreens on high-end featurephones and smartphones alike, this leaves the Q9m's targeted buyer in a bit of a pickle. How attractive will the Q9m really be to the multimedia-focused user with flashy touchscreen devices like the Apple iPhone, LG Voyager, and HTC Touch also vying for his attention and wallet?

I tested the CDMA Q9m in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California. Voice calls were generally loud and clear with a little bit of static here and there but no notable reception problems or dropped calls. The rear-mounted stereo speakers were plenty loud for voice calling and surprisingly decent for music playback, and the speakerphone also performed quite well as compared with other handsets.

The Q9m features a 2.5mm stereo headphone jack, but the retail package does not include a wired headset. I used a 2.5mm to 3.5mm adapter to connect earphones to the device, which yielded good results when listening to music. I also tried a standard 2.5mm mono earpiece with an inline mic, which worked well for voice calls. Voice dialing is also supported on the Q9m, and it worked well for me with all of the headsets I connected to the phone.

Mogul supports mono and stereo Bluetooth audio, and I had no trouble pairing headsets with the device. Audio quality over Bluetooth was very good, both for voice calling (mono) and music playback (stereo). The Q9m's color scheme also matches nicely with Motorola's S9 stereo Bluetooth headset, if you're into that sort of thing.

Messaging on Q9m works quite well. SMS and MMS messaging is supported, as are various types of Email accounts. A configuration wizard will attempt to set up your POP and IMAP Email for you based on your Email address, or you may enter account settings manually. Corporate Email is of course supported by WM6, including MS Exchange and Good Mobile Messaging. Verizon's own Wireless Sync system is also supported, though I don't have much to say about it that's positive.

Outlook Mobile features good integration between messaging accounts and contacts, and Windows Mobile 6 upgrades Outlook to support full HTML email. Email attachments are also supported, and as mentioned, the Q9m ships with the DataViz DocumentsToGo application, which lets you deal with MS Office and PDF Email attachments on the go.

Internet Motorola Q9m
While the Q9m doesn't feature integrated WiFi, Verizon's EV-DO network makes for robust Internet access wherever there's network support - even though the Q only supports Rev 0 EV-DO, and not the speedier Rev A. If you're really jonesing for WiFi, however, you can install a WiFi card in the device's MiniSD slot, which is a pretty neat trick.

Web Browsing using the included Internet Explorer browser was okay, but things perked up considerably when I downloaded and installed Opera Mobile. IE has never been my favorite browser, and the mobile version suffers from quirks and crashes more than its desktop counterpart does - particularly so on a device with underpowered hardware like the Q9m.

That being said, IE did a generally okay job of rendering Web pages but the experience on Opera Mobile was just an all-around smoother, better one. The Q9m is also compatible with Verizon Wireless' VCast music store for over the air browsing, purchase, and downloading of songs. VCast music store worked pretty well on my review unit, and downloads were sufficiently speedy.

The Q9m may also be used as a cellular modem. Note that VZW's data plans are generally a bit pricier than comparable plans offered by Sprint, whose Q9c variant - the Q9c - is now available.

The Motorola Q9m for Verizon Wireless is locked to VZW's CDMA network in the United States for voice and data access. The device features a relatively small amount of internal memory - 64 MB, of which 50 MB is user-accessible - and has an integrated slot that officially supports removable miniSD cards up to 32GB in size. A 128MB miniSD memory card is included in the retail packaging. The card slot also supports WiFi expansion cards for 802.11b/g network access.

Motorola built Bluetooth v2.0 into the Q9m, and file transfer, information synching, voice dialing, laptop tethering, and both mono and stereo (A2DP) audio are supported. The device also supports GPS, but only for emergency 911 purposes. An integrated mini-USB 1.1 jack can be used to connect to a computer for synching, file transfers, and use as a cellular modem. A 2.5mm headphone jack supports mono and stereo audio devices including earphones.

I had a bad experience with the original Q when I reviewed it some time ago. While I loved the smartphone's slim profile, QWERTY thumbboard, and always-on EV-DO connectivity, it crashed on me so often that I found it more frustrating than useful. I still remember being stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed connecting flight and trying to kill time browsing the Web on the Q. It crashed and crashed and crashed some more.

The new Q9m is a bit of an improvement over the original in most regards, but packs basically the same hardware under the hood as its predecessor did. As such, Motorola has basically given us a cosmetic upgrade featuring a roomier, more comfortable keyboard, and not much else. Windows Mobile 6 is a bit of an upgrade on WM5, but the Q9m doesn't really have the horsepower to make the most of its multitasking, document editing, and HTML email features. Don't get me wrong, it's a serviceable device ... so long as you don't plan on doing much multitasking.

If you look at the Q9m as less of a true smartphone and more of a messaging phone with access to the VCast music store, you might be happier with what you see. Verizon Wireless customers who want a handset that can do Email and music but don't like Voyager's bulk (or price tag) might just opt for the Q9m. If you're one of them, just make sure you install Opera Mobile and don't run too many apps at once on the Q9m - used within its limits, the new Q is a perfectly capable handset for the music hungry consumer who doesn't demand too much from his smartphone.

Motorola Q9m group

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