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Review of GSM/UMTS-handset Motorola MOTO U9
Live photos of the Motorola MOTO U9
This phone was originally meant to be a follow up to the Motorola PEBL, but it had it to make a nice duo with the Motorola RAZR2 V8 at that. And don’t you find this a little bit familiar? The Motorola PEBL exercised exactly the same approach and was in this very situation some time ago – however, back then the centerpiece was the Motorola RAZR, whereas the PEBL had to accompany it. The maker thought it could appeal to the masses and generate some good sales, but against the backdrop of the craze sparked by the original RAZR, it couldn’t do much. And today, nothing has really changed, except for one detail - the RAZR2 is not as popular as its predecessor.
Motorola is really into the LJ (MOTOMAGX) platform these days – as far as the platform is concerned, it is worth a note that the RAZR2 V8 comes in as the first L6.1-based device, while the Motorola U9 runs the L6.3 version. Software-wise, these two are different, but what about positioning?
This is where the U9 gets confusing, just like some other solutions rolled out by Motorola. Initially, this handset was designed to be a fashion-savvy offering; but the marketing department deemed it a somewhat unsophisticated approach, so it could really use a special touch, like being marketed as a music-heavy device. However, they didn’t find a place for it in the ROKR line-up, primarily because of the design, that’s why the U9 is a mere “MOTO-“ phone. As regards its membership in the U-series, it is easily explained by its curves and the index suggests it is one of the top models.
If you delve into this mess and take a good look at every detail, you will see that the MOTO U9 is a fashion handset that they tried to rebrand into a music-minded offering. For instance, the Sony Ericsson W910i employs the same trick, although at least its music department is backed up with custom player features, whereas the U9 offers no bells and whistles on this front.
Incongruity of the claimed features and the real abilities of the phone, bog-standard functionality comparable with the main product, the RAZR2 – all this leaves the MOTO U9 with only one thing going for it – quirky looks. And again we come to think that the bulk of the U9’s sales will be generated by emotions-driven purchases, and that it aims solely at women. The same held true for similarly designed Sony Ericsson’s solutions, like the Sony Ericsson Z610i. Marketing-wise, the manufacturer has made a couple of missteps, so the way the U9 is positioned is far from perfect – the attempt to cover the broader audience, instead of focusing on a particular niche, where the handset could well be successful, eventually decentralizes the sales and thus cuts some revenue off.
The handset measures up at 90x48x16.4 mm and tips our scales at 87.5 grams. The U9 feels well in the hand, especially when closed, and it will readily slip into just about any pocket or purse. If we were to make our pick between the PEBL and the U9 based on the materials used alone, our vote would go to the former, for its entire surface was decked out in soft-touch, what is more, the PEBL incorporated metal accents. In its turn, the U9 employs plastic parts, and while the rear still enjoys velvety coating, it doesn’t deliver the same tactile feel because of its glossy front and slimmer profile. Generally speaking, it doesn’t seem to be different from an ordinary plasticky phone. By the way, the Sony Ericsson Z610i is in the same league – feels the same, fits in the hand in a similar fashion and has nothing special to it, unlike the PEBL.
As of today, there seem to be three colors available for the U9 – black, pink and wine red, although our guess shouldn’t be too wide of the mark if we say that more trims are to come during the first half of 2008, just like they did for the PEBL.
The dark plastic on the front fascia is glossy and thus attracts loads of grease and smudge. Those who like their phones clean and neat will have to rub it down on a regular basis. After a minute in our hands, the MOTO U9 had all the makings of a really dirty phone – greasy spots all over the surface etc. This is the letdown endemic to all similar devices, nobody has managed to get a shining mirror-like surface without making it a fingerprint-magnet so far. The Nokia 8800 Arte utilizes some sort of smudge-resistant compound, although it doesn’t seem to be a great help, as the handset got all muddy after our hands-on session with it.
Another issue of note is the U9’s plastic hardness, which is basically quite soft, so the handset is prone to scratches and various scuffs. While skin-deep scratches are nothing to be concerned about and become visible only if you stare at the U9 for some time, occasional and deep scuffs pretty much ruin the handset’s looks and what’s worse, they are right on the surface and very visible. Over the month that we spent with the device, we had a couple of these scratches, although we treated our unit with all due care. Women that normally throw their phones into bad along with keys, cosmetics and similar things risk getting a multitude of unsightly scratches.
On the face of it, the U9 doesn’t seem to have an outer display, but it is actually there – we will talk about why it is so in the next section of this review, and what we want to highlight here is that the front of the handset houses the lens of its 2 Mpix camera and the loudspeaker. Flanking the latter is the service LED that glows in green when the U9 is charging up and blue with its Bluetooth module is online.
The left-hand spine rooms the volume rocker, as well as the task-relevant Smart key positioned slightly below – it can do various things, depending on which menu you are currently in. And looking on the right you will find the voice button (voice dial or voice recorder, during a call).
What most girls are fond of is lanyards for their phones, and the U9 can be carried with one – the holes can be found on the top edge. The interface connector is mounted at the bottom – in fact it is a microUSB socket covered by a flap. No other slots are available on the U9, meaning that the only way to attach headphones is via the microUSB slot.
The MOTO U9 is a well-built handset – we encountered no loose-fitting parts, the halves also felt robust, and it didn’t creak even when we crunched it in our hands. Among the U9's shortcomings in ergonomics is its somewhat clunky opening process – unlike the PEBL you have to flip it open manually. While women with their smallish hands it won’t be a real challenge, most other users will experience certain inconvenience with the U9. Other things of note include the handset’s non-standard angle between the halves, when the display ends up below the bottom portion of the clamshell – not everyone will appreciate this setup.
So, while physically the PEBL and the U9 don’t seem to much different, they deliver completely different experiences in the sense of materials, tactile feel and ergonomics, flip action and controls.
The foremost highlight of the MOTO U9 is the way its outer display is implemented – essentially, it is the best thing about the phone. As the maker himself claims, it is the first display to have no visible contours and the truth of the matter is that is has none. No matter how long you stare at it, be it in the sun or indoors, you will never suspect there is a screen hidden underneath the surface. The Sony Ericsson Z610i with its comparable plastic and surface quality, the external display and its profile are quite discernible.
That may not seem like much, but in effect this small distinctive detail will allow for a whole echelon of more design-savvy solutions in the future. The technical specifications of this display, however, are nothing to shout about – it is an OLED unit, capable of showing up to 65 K colors at the resolution of 128x160 pixels (1.45 inches).
Why invisible display contours are so important? You get it only when you take the MOTO U9 in your hands and see the screensaver with flames playing on it – stylish, magnificent and unprecedented. The handset comes preinstalled with 29 animated screensavers – some are interesting, some are not. Personally, I liked around 3-4 of them very much.
From a design standpoint, the display and its styling are next to perfect and can’t possibly not astonish the user. Much like the Motorola RAZR2 V8 there are touch-sensitive music buttons that pop up only in the music mode – with their help you can skip forward/backward within tracks and also jump between songs.
The U9 also adopts the suite of features that comes with the RAZR2 V8’s external display – that is, it allows you to read an incoming message on it, and also reply, using one of the templates, without having to unfold the phone. Profiles can be changed in this mode as well.
The display has nothing against performing in the sun – it remains quite readable, although the picture gets somewhat washed out. Viewing angles weren’t an issue with the U9 either, as the outer screen was well visible from all angles.
The main display enjoys the TFT technology along with QVGA resolution (240x320 pixels or 30x40 mm, 2 inches) and shows up to 262 K colors. The picture rendered by the MOTO U9 is decent, being in line with the RAZR2 V8, where the internal display sports a larger diagonal, yet its picture is close to the U9 quality-wise. Unlike most other displays available these days, Motorola’s solutions deliver vibrant, juicy and high-contrast pictures and not overly sharp at that, which makes all the difference in the way they are perceived.
Due to its size, the U9’s main display is not the best performer under direct sunlight, nevertheless it doesn’t fade completely. It can accommodate up to 10 text and 3 service lines at a time. The ambient light sensor has nothing to do with the display and adjusts only the keypad backlighting.
Flip-open, the number pad ends up above the display, which instantly gives away where the designers got their inspiration from – some Japanese handsets. However we don’t quite get why they would need to employ this setup, as it doesn’t bring any substantial benefits. The developers said that it makes for a more comfortable angle between the keypad and the screen, although we didn’t experience anything like this during our hands-on session with the U9.
The buttons themselves have a limited travel distance and share one slab, while separated from each other with tiny insets. The keypad ergonomics was quite average in our book – no real advantages, yet no serious drawbacks either. The handset comes equipped with an ambient light sensor that adjusts the keypad backlighting, which is pale violet (whereas early engineering samples boasts green color).
The handset comes installed with around 26 Mb of memory, which can be used both for applications and data storage purposes. Beneath the battery is the microSD memory expansion slot that supports high-capacity units as well (we successfully coupled the U9 with an 8 Gb card). No hotswap here whatsoever, but it is pretty evident. What is interesting about the memory card not being hot-swappable is that it is another proof of the fact that the U9 wasn’t designed as a music-minded solution in the first place.
The U9 utilizes a 900 mAh Li-Ion battery. According to the maker it can keep the phone up and running for up to 350 hours in standby or provide 7 hours of talk time. In Moscow we squeezed around 3 days out of the handset, when we where light on its features (an hour of calls, a couple of messages). Should you get heavier on it, its battery life will drop down to 1-2 days. It takes the U9 roughly two hours to charge from empty to full.
Positioned as a music phone, the U9 should make for long non-stop music sessions, and we got around 12,5 hours of music out of it – obviously, not the best performance we have seen, yet by far not the worst either.
The handset comes with a 2 Mpix flash-less camera module, which starts up whether the phone is open or closed, though in the latter case the external display acts as the viewfinder, while the right key pulls the trigger. However this is useful only when you want to take a pic of yourself, or do some spy-shooting, but I have certain doubts about the “spy” thing.
The camera quality is quite average, and while the shots look fine on the U9’s brilliant display, when viewed on PC they become much less vibrant and sharp.
Three image resolutions are available – Large (2MP), Medium (1.3 MP), Small (480x640), X-Small (240x320 pixels). Two levels of compression are at your disposal. Other settings allow turning off the shutter sound, vary exposure from -2 to +2, selecting the lighting type (auto, sunny, cloudy, indoors, office). Self-timer feature is also enabled.
Best results are achieved when shooting in bright sun light, whereas in other cases color saturation is far from satisfactory. The good thing about the U9’s camera is that photos are shown in full-screen mode when working with the camera, while icons and captions are semitransparent. You can change the lighting settings by pressing the navigation button up or down, as well as select various effects (Black&White, Negative, Sepia, Solarize). Digital zoom (up to x8) is at your disposal. The U9 also boasts the multi-shot mode.
The handset records video in the 176x144 resolution, clip duration may be unlimited. The quality you get with the U9 isn’t exactly stellar and can’t compete with many contemporary solutions, although it actually trumps some, for occasionally manufacturers deem the video recording functionality useless.
Just like the Motorola Motorola RAZR2 V8 , this handset enjoys ARM 11 CPU, running at 500 Mhz, which still gives it highest performance rates on the market. And if you narrow the range to “slim” folders alone, then this would definitely be the best performer.
USB. The MOTO U9 employs the microUSB slot, which is a bit slimmer and thus differs from the miniUSB we all have gotten used to. The vendor says that the handset supports USB High Speed 2.0, and it does indeed, in the USB Mass Storage or MTP modes USB connection offers average data transfer speeds - around 1100-1250 Kb/s. This way, copying a 75 Mb album takes less than a minute, which is quite adequate performance for today’s handsets and one of the market’s best offerings. Upon a USB connection in the two modes mentioned above, the handset’s functionality gets disabled, although you will still be able to receive calls, as the phone’s wireless radio part remains online.
In the settings you can find several options for connecting the U9 to a PC: Media Sync (MTP protocol), Memory Card (USB Mass Storage, no drivers required), Tools (synchronization with Mobile Phone Tools), Modem&Tools (synchronization and modem mode), USB Printing.
Speaking of other amenities, we can’t overlook the full-fledged support for Windows Media Player 11, so you are free to use your PC to compose own playlists and then transfer them onto the handset. In the future the support for this player will become par for the course in all Motorola-branded devices.
Bluetooth. The U9 comes with EDR-enabled Bluetooth 2.0, the list of paired device can be up to 16 devices long. The following profiles are supported:
The Bluetooth implementation is, as always though, nothing to complain about, we encountered no issues with handling this type of connections. On the downside, the standard timed visibility over Bluetooth is still some sort of a barrier; the handset can’t stay in always-visible mode.
The first handset to sport the L6.3 onboard is the Motorola MOTO U9, coming in with a couple of changes, some of which are quite important and others are mere face-lifts. Learn more about the platform’s standard functionality here.
The L6.3 browser’s feature pack is pretty much comparable with Opera 8.5 that comes preinstalled in other models. It supports page scaling, font adjustment, as well as the Fit Screen mode, when the handset crops a web-page so that it would fit the display. The browser also enables you to work with several windows at a time, boasts folder trees for bookmarks and a pop-up window killer.
There are two games that come bundled with the phone – football and Sudoku. Nothing special about them.
The U9 also has three themes onboard, which you can use to create some of your own.
The player installed in the U9 is pretty much par for the course for the platform it runs on, but unlike the RAZR2 V8 it also packs equalizers. They make some difference in the way the handset sounds, however using them is not always justified. Our main gripe with the U9 as a music phone is that it has no 3,5 mm audio jack onboard, so the bundled headphones connect to its microUSB socket, and at the same time, digging out a 3,5 mm adapter is not going to be an easy walk.
The sonic experience delivered by the U9 is pretty good – the phone holds its own even compared with, say, the Motorola ROKR E8, although it is quite another matter that the impossibility of using custom earphones negates this advantage, as the U9 doesn’t seem to be much different from the rest of the pack with the default pair of headphones plugged in. On top of that, no hot-swap for memory cards and missing FM radio don’t do the phone’s music department justice. All up, the U9’s positioning is rather a tribute to the latest fashion, for this handset is by no means a marvel as far as music goes.
When the phone is closed, the touch-sensitive buttons on the front allows you to control the music player, specifically jump between tracks or skip within songs at a fixed step. The U9 gave us no problems with handling stereo Bluetooth headsets.
So happens I know a Motorola PEBL U6 worshipper, so I was quite happy to hand her the MOTO U9 and occasionally asked her for some feedback. And keeping in mind the fact that she fit the phone’s target audience profile nicely, it was one decent experience. The handset’s innards and functionality were given short shrift, although one of the observations sound like “It seems the menu has changed a tad, but I don’t really mind – more importantly, it is clear how to submit new contacts and write messages”. Among the things she liked about the U9 – the outer display screensavers, and “the bad” included the phone’s somewhat fiddly keypad and having to open the clamshell manually by hooking the top portion of the U9 up (although it sound strange given her moderately long nails). While the keypad was passable, the previous model offered better experience.
After two weeks of use, the U9 was put back in the box with the following verdict: “cool, but that’s not my cup of tea”. Her major niggle was the handset’s insufficient volume when it was carried in a bag – it was low enough to miss occasional calls. The handset’s battery life was fine, and the plastic wasn’t quite fine, as it got muddy in no time.
The reception quality of the U9 was never an issue, for it is a typical Motorola-branded phone. The loudspeaker’s volume is pretty average, though you won’t miss calls when the handset is in your clothes; the vibro alert is moderate strength-wise or a tad better than that.
It may sound strange but the U9 has no direct competition – neither the Sony Ericsson Z610i nor the Sony Ericsson Z750i is among them, although they sport similar finish, plastic and styling. These phones are too different dimensions-wise and will appeal to completely different audiences. We could waste a ton of time trying to find a rival for the MOTO U9, but just like it was with the Motorola PEBL, the truth is that there are none. As for its indirect competition, this would be almost any folder-type phone aimed at women.
Much like the PEBL, it is a niche model with no real aim at the top of sales charts. However, its owners will also benefit from this situation – the device won’t be too ubiquitous, and yet it will carry a name of a known and respected maker. Another thing to keep in mind is that the U9 isn’t much of a music phone – this positioning feels very made-up for this particular solution.
Having addressed the previous missteps with pricing policy, Motorola has learned the lesson and set the price tag for the U9 at 380-400 USD. In Europe it will sell for 250-275 Euro (before taxes or carriers’ offers), which is a steal for a device like this. If you look at the pricing policy applied to the company’s other latest and greatest offerings, you will notice that in every case it strives to get the maximum possible premium, and with the U9 it seems to ditch it. Why? Do they really feel that the MOTO U9 is such an important product? By no means. The fact of the matter is that over at Motorola they don’t believe that they can make it vastly popular, and they don’t want to end up with another PEBL on their hands, when it retailed for 140-150, which was a joke for a pretty good fashion-savvy device.
The MOTO U9 starts shipping early in January in most European countries. First supplies will get to Russia late in February, and before this moment the market will probably receive some grey phones going for 600 USD and more, however getting the U9 for this much money is very unwise.
Published — 11 January 2008
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