Motorola's industrial designers seem set on eschewing traditional handset styles. First they rolled out this spring's reverse-folding Backflip, and now they've released the tetragon-themed Flipout.
The most striking feature of this Android 2.1-powered smart phone is its relatively small and almost perfectly square 6.6-by-6.6 centimetre surface, which immediately stands out in the current sea of longer, rectangular handsets. The top of the phone, which plays host to a small touch screen, swivels on a corner hinge to reveal a five-row QWERTY keyboard below, transforming the device into a more standard oblong shape. It's a comfortable, habit-forming motion; I found myself absentmindedly flipping it up and down over and over again while standing in lines. And while a single hinge sounds like an engineering weakness just waiting to be exploited, the phone's solid metal parts and smooth, firm movement led me to believe it may not be as quick to break as one might think.
I wasn't able to dismiss my misgivings over its thickness as easily. One-point-five centimetres of depth makes it feel pretty beefy next to most touch-screen phones. Its unusually diminutive top creates the illusion that it's even thicker. Think of what it would be like to fold an iPhone in half and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it feels like. It's a bit thinner than that, but it still makes for a lump in your pocket.
And none of the buzzy B-words - big, bright, bold, beautiful - currently being attached to the displays of higher profile phones apply to the Flipout. Its 320-by-240 pixel 2.8-inch screen is perfectly functional, but not ideal for, say, media consumption. It's nearly a complete wash in sunlight.
But keep in mind this is a relatively inexpensive smart phone (it goes for just $30 with a three-year contract through Rogers and is $375 on its own). If you want a bigger, better screen, expect to pay for it.
In addition to keeping the handset cheap, the utilitarian display prevents the Flipout from being an ideal photo and video playback device. However, Motorola's new partnership with Kodak is proving beneficial. The pictures I snapped were about what you'd expect of a three-megapixel phone camera (which is to say merely serviceable), but Kodak's Perfect Touch software coloured and brightened up dull-looking photos considerably at the tap of a button.
Motorola also makes good use of the customizability of Google's mobile operating system. Users are provided seven panels that can be accessed with a swipe of the screen to sort out their widgets - a good way of combatting the lack of real estate on the smallish display.
And I'm a big fan of Motorola's MotoPhone Portal. Just tap the icon to call up a URL that can be entered into your PC's web browser to create instant and complete access to everything on your phone. You can grab pictures, change settings, and manage contacts with the comfort of a keyboard and mouse. I found it extremely handy.
Motoblur, Motorola's social networking hub for Android phones, remains a useful way to keep track of the doings of Twitter followers and Facebook friends and collate text messages and e-mails all in one place. It's not the best such application I've seen - I'd like more ways to quickly sort incoming updates - but it does the trick.
Should you want to communicate with people on your phone the old fashioned way you'll find call quality and reception to be about average. I only made a few calls, but voices were clear on both ends and the signal never dropped.
People with sensitive fingers will be interested to know the battery burns hot. The bottom half of the phone became surprisingly warm to the touch after watching just a couple of short YouTube videos. What's more, power depletes quickly. I didn't use the phone very much outside of testing specific functions, setting up accounts, shooting some pictures and a bit of video, and making some test calls and texts, and it needed recharging within a day.
I asked a Motorola rep who he envisioned using the Flipout. He said he thought it was a good handset for students, but that focus groups suggested it would be appealing to a broad range of ages and both sexes. I found the latter pronouncement particularly surprising. I honestly thought it would skew to women, since its square shape made me feel a little like I was holding a makeup compact.
Also, I don't think most of my adult friends, male or female, would go for the Flipout. It has an interesting design and some handy functions, but plenty of other smart phones offer bigger screens, more robust features, and are just plain prettier. It's a fine choice for teens and university students on a budget who want a cute phone that meets their digital socializing needs, but more affluent and sophisticated users should keep looking.