Motorola Milestone 2 review

The Motorola Milestone 2 looks to build on the successes of its forebear namesake. For a time, the Milestone/Droid was pretty much the only high-end QWERTY Android device out there, until HTC threw their hat into the ring with the HTC Desire Z. Although there are lower-spec options, like the LG GW620 and Motorola’s own Dext, this is where the duel is drawn: HTC vs. Motorola, QWERTY keyboards at 20 paces.

The Milestone 2 is the half-brother of the Verizon Droid 2 which you’ll find in the US. The most significant change over the Milestone – aside from the new hardware – is the inclusion of Motoblur. Motorola told us this was in response to customer feedback, perhaps realising that pushing the Milestone 2 as a “business” device solely because it had a physical QWERTY keyboard no longer made sense. After all, aren’t business folk also social human beings?  

There is no denying that the Milestone 2 is hefty device. Measuring 60.5 x 116.3 x 13.7mm, it tips the scales at 169g, putting it towards the heavy end of smartphones; the HTC Desire Z is larger and heavier, yet both pack a 3.7-inch display. We criticised the Desire Z for its keyboard because it wasn’t the most comfortable to use: it felt slightly awkward because it was too wide. The Milestone 2 slaps down its biggest trump card here: although the Desire Z keyboard might be more elegantly designed, the Milestone 2 will let us rattle off emails at an embarrassing rate. And that, surely, is the point of having a physical keyboard on your phone.

The Milestone 2 keyboard offers each key backed by a slightly raised bump on the rubberised deck. Getting up to speed only takes a matter of minutes and perhaps the only gripe is that there is only one ALT key, meaning you have to hold this down (or lock it) on the left to access the various numbers and symbols, although thanks to the Milestone 2’s predictive text, you get a selection of common punctuation characters appear on screen when you press space, so often all you have to do it touch the screen and resume typing.

But the Milestone 2 keyboard packs in some things we like in a keyboard. It has cursor keys so you can navigate around with consummate ease. You’ll also find most of the pertinent Android navigation buttons you need, except menu. This perhaps explains the rearrangement of the touch controls under the screen, with the menu now occupying the far left slot (when viewed in portrait), within easy reach of your thumb when using the keyboard in landscape. This means that menus are never too far away.

You’ll also find that Motorola’s Motoblur features rotate nicely to accommodate use in landscape with the keyboard. You’ll still find a number of Android apps that don’t rotate, but we’re glad we can use the phone in landscape pretty much all the time, something that not all devices will let you do.

So you’ll be spending plenty of time sliding that keyboard out, as it is a great keyboard to use. Unfortunately the action isn’t as grand, there is no spring or pop, it just sort of moves from open to closed, stopping on the way if you want it to. There is no sign of twist or flex when open, so for all it lacks in elegance, it makes for with resilience.

Otherwise the build quality and finish is good, with a textured back providing some purchase on your fingers when you grip it. A slight lip on the bottom rear provides a little extra grip too, although to think that this provides some support for the camera (with dedicated button) would be naïve.

The 5-megapixel camera sits in the back ably supported by a dual LED array. The camera returns results on a par with many similarly equipped mobile phones, so copes well in good light conditions. There are various settings, although they are unnecessarily fiddly to get to for the most part. A range of scene options are available, but having to swipe through them means you’ll probably never bother. But hey – this is a phone and you’ll find that the scenes don’t make much of a difference anyway. The dual LED flash can provide a decent amount of light, but this isn’t very evenly distributed and leaves a typical yellowish cast.

Video can return some nice results and with an HD setting of 720p at 30fps, it keeps up with its rivals. We tested the video out in a tricky snow storm too and apart from the excessive wind noise – always a problem – the video coped well, giving us usable results.

Power the Motorola Milestone 2 on and you’ll be greeted by Android 2.2 – with Motorola not putting a date on an upgrade to Android 2.3 – sitting under Motorola’s Motoblur skin. Still, Android 2.2 offers a stack of features that work on the Milestone 2, so you get all the convenience of Android’s syncing with your Google accounts, meaning that your email, calendar and contacts fall right into place.

But the Motoblur side of the device can’t be ignored and as we saw on the Motorola Defy recently, Motoblur aims to pull in all your social networks, giving you the option to sign into a variety of different accounts, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Picasa, Twitter, MySpace, LastFM, Photobucket, Bebo and Yahoo mail. A comprehensive offering that leads to an address book packed full of a dizzying spectra of information, all linked. The new Motoblur "enhanced" that the Milestone 2 comes with offers more control than the previous version which was a little bit too full-on with updates. Visually you won't find it looks much different however.

For all it’s connected skills, Motoblur doesn’t offer a complete solution: it is keen to grab your login details and let you snack on the information, but less keen let allow you to fully engage with it. For example, dive into a contact and click on their linked Facebook profile and you’ll be diverted to the browser. Use one of the Motoblur widgets to see the latest Twitter updates and you can’t do anything apart from reply or retweet – there is no option to forward that message to someone else, likewise you can’t go into the update status section and add a photo – that has to be done from the photo itself. So there are a number of dead ends where things don’t quite meet up to complete the experience and you may find that you end up downloading and installing the regular Android apps – remembering of course that the likes of Twitter and Facebook will integrate with your contacts anyway and then you get the advantage of all the latest features, such as Facebook Places. At least Motoblur gives you the option and if you don’t like it, you can leave it alone and go with native Android apps.

As an Android 2.2 device you’ll find that the Motorola Milestone 2 is fluent in Adobe Flash 10 video, serving you a more complete internet experience when browsing on the device. The Android browser is pretty good too, with pinch zooming being fast to respond and re-render pages, although the action isn’t quite as precise as we’d like it to be.

That’s something you’ll notice around the Motorola Milestone 2 – despite having a 1GHz processor, the handset doesn’t feel as fast as some of the rivals. It lacks the snap of the Desire HD and falls behind HTC’s flagship when it comes to RAM. At times the Milestone 2 seems to drag its feet, showing that unwelcome lag as you try to move around.

Some of this is probably down to the layering of Motoblur over the top of Android and there are some strange quirks, like the swipe to unlock, which is usually a silky smooth action which stammers and vibrates the phone. It feels awkward and was the same on the Defy. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by spending time with the Google Nexus S, which is, by comparison, much faster. Hopefully updates to the Milestone 2 can go some way to making it a smoother user experience.

Motorola haven’t just approached social networking on the Milestone 2. It also tackles your network contents, letting you stream content to and from the handset. This means you can easily share your captured HD videos with compatible DLNA devices, or listen to music you have on a network drive for example. You also get the option to save content locally on your phone, meaning that if Motorola’s software won’t play the particular file type, you’ll be able to play it using an app from the Android Market. The Milestone 2 purports to play 720p content, but only really copes with the content it records, or that from other mobile devices, as it generally struggled to play content from camcorders.

The 3.7-inch capacitive display is an almost typical 854 x 480 and looks fantastic. It is vibrant and displays colours well, with some of Motoblur’s widgets adding interest. Motorola have done a good job with collecting avatars from various accounts and displaying them with nice crisp detail, something that Sony Ericsson’s Timescape fails to do.

When it comes to music, you’ll find a connected music player which offers local content, internet radio, music videos, TuneWiki Community content and finally a SoundHound music ID app. It’s odd that given that the device already contains DLNA compatibility that you don’t then get access to your network music here. But as a music player it works well enough – you don’t get any control from the lock screen, but a widget will give you instant access to music controls from a homepage.

Talking widgets, Motorola offer up a whole stack. Some revolve around the Motoblur accounts, but others will let you drop a contact on to your home page with two contact options, which is great for quick and easy access to the people most important to you.

Thanks to the built-in GPS and the all new Google Maps 5, you’ll enjoy the best looking mobile mapping out there, with all the excitement of vector drawing, 3D buildings in selected cities and compass orientation. It sounds like a demanding application but it is really slick on the Milestone 2 and although the free turn-by-turn navigation is a little rudimentary, it will save you from getting lost in a pinch. You can check out some Google Maps 5 video action with the Milestone 2 here.

Internally you’ll find a fairly generous 8GB of memory, with another 8GB as a supplied microSD card. If you want more storage for your photos, music or movies, you can expand this up to 32GB, via the slot internally nestled alongside the 1400mAh battery. Battery life isn’t the strongest point for the Milestone 2 and as is normal, we’ve found ourselves recharging it every night under normal use and you might find it wants to snack on your mains charger during the day if you make a lot of calls. 

Calling came across loud and clear, although the neatly grilled rear loudspeaker isn’t the best. The design of the phone means it can be slightly uncomfortable against the ear, but it wasn’t generally a problem for us.

Should you decide you don’t want to use the physical keyboard, the Milestone 2 is equally able to serve you with an on-screen interface, again given the Motorola treatment. The keyboard serves up a nice selection of predicted words as you type and we found there was enough space to use the on-screen QWERTY keyboard both in landscape and portrait on the device.

Verdict

The Motorola Milestone 2 presents a realistic rival to the HTC Desire Z. Both offer up a wide range of connected features, drawing in your social networks and serving them up in various ways. Of the two, HTC’s widgets have the most gloss, but we like the fact that Motorola is closer to the native Android. Make no mistake though, both devices have their skins deeply integrated.

The Motorola Milestone 2 doesn’t do anything especially wrong, but we feel that it could be better. A lot comes down to the service that you get from Motoblur. It’s great to see so many services covered, but there seems to be too many dead ends. Iron these little quirks out and the Motoblur experience would become more natural and more complete. As it is there are stacks of features and you get the advantages of a phone that deals with all the great Android apps without issue – it gives you Flash video, it works with Skype, all the features of Google Maps 5 work, for example.

The build is good, but you are left with a device that is definitely on the chunky side. This might be an acceptable compromise if the keyboard is what you are after. We actually like the keyboard and appreciate the speed with which it will let you get to work on writing longer messages.

When it comes to choosing between the Milestone 2 and the HTC Desire Z, despite the superior design from HTC, we think we’d go with the Milestone 2 because, at the end of the day, the keyboard is better.