Motorola DEXT review

The Motorola DEXT is a QWERTY side slider running the Android OS, so differentiates itself from recent touch-only handsets out there. It's a format that divides people: if your touch system is good enough - like the HTC Hero or the iPhone - you potentially don't need the physical keyboard.

The phone is weighty enough to be taken seriously at 163g and seems to be solidly constructed. There is some creak and movement around the slide mechanism, but it feels positive enough, and should last your perhaps lengthy contract. The choice of materials is good: although plastics are used throughout, it stays relatively free from fingerprints.

The design though is something of an oddity. It features a 3.1-inch, 320 x 480 pixel, touchscreen display, but that sliding keyboard does account for it being a rather chunky phone. It measures 58 x 114 x 15.85mm, so is relatively thick, but if you like keyboards, that shouldn't put you off.

It is at first glance similar to the LG GW520 in design, although Motorola have made the bottom slightly larger than the top. Rather than an almost seamless fusion of the two halves like the Palm Pre, you can't help but notice you're holding two distinct lumps. Unusually the button labels on the right-hand side for the lock/power and camera shutter are almost obscured by the screen (when closed) and once the phone is opened, the buttons are then lurking around the back of the screen and difficult to get to.

Other hard buttons include a volume rocker on the left, with a neat hard slider that turns the ringer off. A Micro-USB socket sits on the left side too. The top features a 3.5mm jack for your headphones.

Around the back of the phone is a 5-megapixel camera, lacking a flash. Given a steady hand and plenty of light, the DEXT will give you a decent image. It suffers the normal problems of shutter lag, an inability to deal with high contrast scenes and noise in shadows and low light however.

The video capture is a surprising let-down for this level of device. It records at a maximum of 352 x 288 (HVGA) at 24fps, which is notable only because of the low resolution. The results are of little use, fine as novelty, but in the age of sharing via YouTube the DEXT won't compete with other handsets.

Motorola has tackled the social networking trend with Motoblur. Like the INQ, HTC's Sense UI and more recent Vodafone 360 People application, it tackles your existing online existence by mashing this information up together – hence the "blur". Essentially, like the Sense UI, it is a skin that sits over Android to make things immediately more user friendly.

First-up it presents you with five customisable pages that you can thumb between. Each of these pages can be populated with widgets, folders, shortcuts to applications or contacts and so on. The widget selection is good too covering most bases.

When you take your shiny new Motorola DEXT out of the box, you are asked to supply your details for various social networks and services: Google, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Picasa, LastFM and Photobucket are all ready to rock. You can also add POP or IMAP accounts as well as setup your Exchange email. Email refresh is a rather slow 15 minutes at the fastest setting.

Your Google account is already central to the Android experience and a simple way of bringing your contacts and calendars to the fore. Motoblur takes this a step further and integrates information from the other networks so you have one uber contacts list and one uber update stream.

The uber update stream is what Happenings essentially is. It will sit as a widget on the home page and pump updates at you. Sounds great, and for light social networkers, it is. For Facebook updates it works well, giving you the chance to see things happen and respond, without opening up a separate Facebook app.

It's a nice idea and it seems to work well enough, but it isn't without its problems. Occasionally we found the blur too literal: when Happenings just didn't update. There doesn't seem to be a way to force a refresh either, it just tells you that you're looking at an update from 6 hours ago.

Heavy Twitter users might also find that having 500+ Happenings a day is a little to much to bear. Fortunately you can filter the Happenings application (rather than the widget) to display only one of your streams, so you can then scroll through Twitter in a more traditional format.

Of course, this being an Android handset, you could opt out of the Twitter integration and install Twidroid (or whatever) through the Android Market. As with the iPhone's App Store, new apps are always appearing and there is plenty of choice to make your handset do what you want it to.

Happenings aside, Motoblur gives you a great Contacts book. Taking your existing Google Contacts, adding in Facebook pictures (or Twitter pics) and mashing all that information together is impressive.

Open up a contact and you have all your options to communicate with that person. You can phone, text, email them, message them on Twitter, you can write on their Facebook wall or Poke them, or use IM. You'll find their birthday there. When you place a call, you'll see their latest status on the calling screen – an instant ice breaker, or something to avoid asking about.

You also get a Messaging widget, which will filter out your direct messages so they aren't languishing in your uber Happenings stream. Messaging will give you Twitter direct messages, Facebook messages and emails all in one pot, with a universal inbox for everything and the option to flip through to individual accounts to make things easier to view.

The capacitive touchscreen looks good and has a nice sharp resolution, making it great for watching video content. There is no Flash support here as yet, but we suspect it will be along shortly.

The touch interface is responsive enough, but isn't foolproof. Flicking through pages in Motoblur is slick and arriving at a page (usually) delivers real live information. Flicking through Happenings pages likewise has a reassuring speed, only occasionally slowed down by the likes of images from a Twitter picture change and the like.

But lag does creep in on occasion, especially switching around some of the richer content. We also found that sometimes you'll just get no response. You'll be tapping a widget waiting for it to open and nothing will happen. These feel like software issues and hopefully can be rectified with an update from Motorola.

The onscreen keyboard is pretty good, giving you a pop-up letter to confirm a press. Press and hold gives you the character alternatives and as you write you get predictive suggestions in a narrow bar above the keyboard. You get onscreen QWERTY in both landscape and portrait modes, although not all applications will flip to landscape when the physical keyboard is closed.

The landscape onscreen QWERTY keyboard gives you a little more space for the keys, but you do lose much of what you were looking at. The keyboards are relatively fast, but don’t match the iPhone for satisfying precision.

However, chances are that you want the DEXT because of the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately it isn’t the best it could be. The keys are all individual, but sit flush to each other. This lack of separation means it's all too easy to hit a neighbouring key. If they were smaller, ironically, the keyboard might have been better, as it is in the LG GW520.

Specific weaknesses lie around the alt and spacebar, which are too indistinct ranged across the bottom with a Google search shortcut, symbol and back key. Google search is great, but not in the middle of your normal typing keys. There is no sign of hold a key for caps either, which is a useful addition when bashing out semi-formal emails.

The keyboard is backlit and when you punch the alt key, the alternative characters on the keys light up too, which is great for using in the dark. The four-way navigator on the left-hand edge is excellent, picking its way through webpage fields and navi buttons, or navigating menus, without the need to constantly switch between keyboard and screen control.

The browser is reasonably good too (and you can always download another if you don't like it). The browser was quick to load full pages, giving you all the content. Zoom is handled by a quick press on the icons on-screen – not as elegant as the iPhone, but works well enough. A quick scan navigator lets you jump back and run down the page to the thing you want, before jumping you back in to read the content.

You can also have multiple pages open with ease, and it's easy to grab a link and share through the medium of your choice in Motoblur.

A widget will allow music control from the front pages, with basic pause and skip controls. Dump your music on the microSD card hiding under the back cover and it is quickly arranged in to songs, album, artist and playlist.

In terms of hardware you have everything you'd expect from an Android device. You have HSDPA with Wi-Fi to ease the data burden and Bluetooth. You get AGPS, with geotagging of images and Google Maps, with Orange Maps preloaded on the UK Orange edition of the phone. You also get a digital compass, accelerometer and proximity sensor, so it knows when it is next to your face.

Battery life is something of a let down though so you'll have to charge it every night. A heavy day of calls will mean you need to top it up during the day too.

Verdict

But there is one more thing that disappoints with the Motorola DEXT and it's surprising: it's a poor phone for making calls. Yes, like the iPhone, the design means it is uncomfortable against your ear when make conventional phonecalls, thanks to a hard plastic ridge at the top of the screen. The speaker for calling is also poor and distorts heavily when you turn the volume up. If you happen to be somewhere noisy or someone is especially quiet on the phone, you'll never hear them.

So yes, there are criticisms, some of which may or may not bother you. The keyboard could be better, the video capture could be better. Motoblur's Happenings can become overwhelming. These things you'll have to live with, whilst the application switching lag, update downtime and occasional freezes could potentially be ironed out with software updates.

We loved the richness that Motoblur brought to contacts, filling them with information. We also like the fact the remote wipe, backup and a "locate my phone" service will be offered through the Motoblur website.

Overall, the Motorola DEXT is a good addition to the Android portfolio, but can be bettered. It's good to see Motorola taking the initiative and providing consumers with the sort of device they'll want. And if it's a QWERTY Android handset you want, then it is well worth looking at.