The Motorola Q 9h may be the coolest-looking PDA phone ever. For industrial design, I’d give it an A+, putting it a nose ahead of the BlackBerry Curve – which is saying something. In fact, it gives the Curve a run for its money in just about every category.
A Windows Mobile 6-based quad-band GSM/HSDPA phone with a full QWERTY keyboard, 2-megapixel video-capable camera and built-in GPS, the Q 9h is available in the U.S. from AT&T (as Moto Q Global) for as little as $200 with a two-year contract, and in Canada from Rogers, for as little as $250 CDN with a $75-a-month three-year plan.
What’s so appealing about the Q 9h? It’s very thin – 11.8 mm to the Curve’s 15.5 mm. The QWERTY keyboard features well-marked keys with a roughened surface that prevents fingers slipping off them – a problem with many PDA keyboards.
The buttons and soft keys around the four-way navigator on the front are iPod style: a flat, smooth, flexible surface with buttons underneath. And the whole front face has a nice Euro-style look about it. The screen, a 2.4-inch (diagonal) 320×240 TFT able to show 65,000 colors, is sharp and bright.
It does everything reasonably well, including playing music and videos, taking pictures and video and navigating. And for a cell phone, it does Web surfing brilliantly – when you’re using an HSDPA network such as Rogers offers in my area.
Under the hood, the Q 9h features a 325MHz TI OMAP 2420 processor, 256MB of flash memory and 96MB of RAM, plus a MicroSD slot that can take cards up to 32GB – except of course there aren’t any cards that big yet. The processor has a slightly faster clock speed than the BlackBerry Curve’s 312 MHz Intel Xscale chip. No big advantage there, but the Motorola product also has quite a bit more memory than the Curve’s 64 MB of flash.
Even more surprising, the Q 9h beats the Curve on battery life – long a strong suit for RIM. Motorola claims up to nine hours of talk and 30 days standby, compared to four hours and 17 days for the BlackBerry.
The Q 9h is good but it’s not perfect. Too bad it doesn’t include Wi-Fi, for example. Too bad there’s no touch screen or stylus input – but, hey, you can’t have everything. And too bad, the Skype client for Windows Mobile doesn’t work on this phone, though maybe some future version of the software will work.
The user interface, however, is about as good as it can be (absent touchscreen and stylus). Below the screen, the four-way navigator with center Select button has a nice, positive feel to it. Above it are two soft keys, below it, Home and Back keys. On the outside edges you find dedicated buttons for the Web and Mail, and the green Answer and Red Stop/Power keys.
The keyboard is also about as good as it can be – given tiny, crammed-together keys. All the special characters you need, including @, $, %, &, etc., along with the numbers are visible on the letter keys and accessible using the big function/ALT key. A separate Shift key lets you select upper case letters. There are also clearly marked space and Enter keys exactly where you’d expect them to be on a QWERTY keyboard.
Below the main QWERTY array, flanking the Space bar, are dedicated keys for launching Calendar, Address Book, Music Player and Camera applications, plus a key for toggling the speaker phone on and off.
The only other keys are on the right hand edge: Up, Down, Select and Back. They’re convenient for righties to use their thumbs for scrolling Web pages and menus and making selections, perhaps less convenient for southpaws.
As a phone, the Q 9h is one of the best I’ve tried, although it’s always difficult to separate handset performance from network performance. Still, voice quality was consistently good and, always important, loud. The speaker phone was particularly effective – again, clear and plenty loud enough.
The Web surfing experience was also about the best I’ve tried on a PDA phone. This definitely has more to do with the network. Rogers’ HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) service really does deliver near-DSL speeds. Of course, the hardware can’t process incoming data as quickly as a computer so overall time to display is still slower. And it’s still a pain navigating full-size Web pages on a tiny PDA screen.
The Q 9h is no slouch as a media player either. I tested it with an 11-megabyte MPEG video file rendered for 320×240-pixel displays. It played more or less smoothly, with the odd noticeable jump, and the image appeared quite sharp (although of course tiny).
More important is music player performance as this is a core function for many users. Like some other very thin PDA phones – the BlackBerry Pearl, for example – the Q 9h does not include a standard stereo headphone jack. This in my opinion is a serious design flaw in a device that is supposed to be a music player. You could put it down to a compromise forced by the ultra-slender design – except the even smaller and thinner iPod Nano does have a proper headphone jack.
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The device’s single external port, a micro USB jack, does multiple duty – AC adapter, USB sync cable and hands-free phone. Music played through the included monaural hands-free phone sounds awful, which is hardly surprising.
There are a couple of solutions. Motorola sells an adapter that lets you plug in any standard 3.55 mm headphone jack ($11). Why not include this in the package? Well, the company would rather sell you a Motorokr S9, a Bluetooth stereo headset and hands-free phone, for $150. In fact, the Web page for Q 9h accessories doesn’t even show the headset adapter.
I tried the S9 headset. Music sounded pretty decent, certainly miles better than the included monaural earbud, but also nothing like as good as my Bose Quiet Comfort II headphones, or any good wired headphones. The S9, however, can be worn even when walking or jogging, and it’s also a hands-free phone that works surprisingly well, automatically switching between calls and music listening.
I found the S9 excruciatingly uncomfortable, but that may be just me. (I have a big head and sensitive ears.) It wraps around the back of your neck with ear hooks and rubberized ear pieces that fit partly inside your ear.
Regular readers will know I’m not a great believer in or user of phone cameras. The Q 9h camera hasn’t changed my mind. You still get the fuzzy images typical of cheap fixed-focus lenses and the hit-and-miss results on exposure, but it does at least have a flash, and it’s generally better than many, possibly most. I also liked the way the camera application includes a menu item for uploading pictures to your Windows Live MySpace, a very easy way to get pictures off the Q 9h.
One of the best things about this product is the integrated GPS receiver. AT&T and Rogers both offer TeleNav GPS Navigator service from TeleNav Inc. – $6 a month for up to 10 routes or $10 for unlimited routes from AT&T, $10 CDN a month for unlimited routes from Rogers. You can also get real-time traffic information with the AT&T service. For TeleNav to work, you also need a data plan.
The TeleNav client software on your device sends GPS location information over the cellular network to a server which then sends mapping and directions back to the device – thus saving the Q 9h having to store huge map files. Plus, its maps are always up to date. With stand-alone GPS navigation devices, you pay as much as $200 for updated maps.
In practice, TeleNav is somewhat slower than stand-alone devices that store maps and do processing to calculate routes locally. It can take as long as 20 or 25 seconds to download a route. I also experienced a glitch that caused TeleNav to not be able to provide audio prompts, but the problem was easily corrected by uninstalling and reinstalling the client software.
In every other respect, the Q 9h and the TeleNav service worked together very similarly to GPS navigation appliances, which is impressive given everything else this device can do.
Another option is to use Google Maps, a free download that won’t provide real-time, turn-by-turn directions with automatic rerouting you when you make a wrong turn, but it does provide turn-by-turn directions from your current GPS location. Other GPS software may work with the Q 9h’s GPS receiver as well, including some that let you load maps on a microSD card.
Bottom line: The Q 9h is a keeper. The industrial design is approaching Apple quality. Functionality is almost everything you could ask for – and with a device this small and light, you really shouldn’t ask for everything anyway.
This article was first published on PDAStreet.com.