We can't say this was a complete surprise, but AT&T made it official in February and introduced the Motorola Backflip as its first Google Android device. The Backflip made its grand debut at CES 2010, where we awarded the smartphone with our Best of CES award in the cell phones and smartphones category for its unique design, which includes a rear-facing QWERTY keyboard and a trackpad behind the display. Unfortunately, after now spending some time with the device, this seems to be the only real highlight of the phone. The Backflip suffers from performance issues and runs Android 1.5, making it a rather disappointing Android debut for AT&T. It's OK if you're upgrading from a feature phone, but with four other Android devices expected in the coming months, we'd wait to see what else is out there. The Motorola Backflip will be available starting March 7 for $99.99 with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate.
The most memorable thing about the Motorola Backflip is its design. You wouldn't necessarily know it by looking at the phone straight on, since it doesn't have any notable traits. In fact, it largely resembles the Motorola Cliq with a rectangular shape and rounded edges, but with a slightly smaller footprint at 4.25 inches tall by 2.08 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick.
Unlike the Cliq, however, the Backflip is a flip phone instead of a slider and this is where it gets interesting. When closed, the keyboard is actually located on the back of the phone, so when you swing it open, the keyboard sits right beneath the display. The layout makes sense and the hinge is strong but we just worry about the long-term durability of the keyboard. Though Motorola says the keyboard is rugged enough to withstand the exposure, we're curious to see what condition the phone will be in after an extended amount of time placing it down on a surface or mixing and mingling with other objects, like keys, in a pants pocket or bag.
As far as the keyboard itself, we found it quite good. It's spacious and the square buttons are a good size, minimizing mispresses but we do wish they were a bit more domed like the Cliq's keyboard. The keys provide a nice springy feedback. The number and symbol keys (marked in blue) are doubled up with the letters (marked in white), and a nice, bright backlight makes it easy to see whether you're in a dark room or outdoors. There are a handful of shortcuts along the bottom row and left side for quick access to the Web, search, messages, as well as to the home and menu screens. Also, tucked away into the corner of the keyboard is the camera lens and flash.
Flipping back to the front of the phone, you'll find a 3.1-inch HVGA (320x480) capacitive touch screen. It displays 256,000 colors but lacks the vibrancy and sharpness of some of the other Android devices, such as the Motorola Droid and Nexus One. The Backflip's screen is also on the smaller size, so it's a bit of strain on the eyes when viewing e-mails and Web pages.
There is no pinch-to-zoom support but you can double-tap the screen to quickly zoom in on a point. The screen also has a built-in accelerometer that works in certain applications, such as the browser and maps, so you can get a wider picture in landscape mode. However, there can sometimes be a noticeable lag, including when you open and close the phone, and scrolling through lists stutters occasionally. The delays aren't crippling but you also get the feeling that the Backflip is underpowered (see Performance for more).
That said, you don't always have to rely on the touch screen to navigate. Behind the display you will find what Moto calls the Backtrack navigation pad. It works just like a trackpad, letting you move between home screens and photos and scroll through lists and apps with the swipe of a finger. The idea is that using the Backtrack gives you an unobstructed view of the display, since your fingers are out of the way. Frankly, we don't find this to be a huge issue; you swipe to your destination, tap to launch, and remove your hand. Done. That's the whole purpose of having a touch screen in the first place, right?
The Backtrack isn't a bad idea. It works as advertised and at times it offers smoother scrolling experience. Ultimately, though, it doesn't really add a ton of value to the device. Part of the problem may be the location of the trackpad. Having it behind the display makes it a bit awkward to reach and use, but perhaps we just need more time with it. We definitely give Moto props for trying something different, but maybe it tried a bit too hard to be different.
Some final notes about the phone's design: there's a volume rocker, a Micro-USB port, and a camera activation/capture button on the right side. On top, you will find the 3.5mm headphone jack and power/lock button, while below the display, there are touch-sensitive controls for the menu, home screen, and back button. The microSD expansion slot (supports up to 32GB cards) is located behind the battery door, which sits opposite to the Backtrack.
AT&T includes only the essentials in the sales package: an AC adapter, a USB cable, and reference material. One accessory you probably won't have to get is a desktop dock. Opening the Backflip to a 90-degree angle sends the phone into media mode much like the Droid when it's docked into the multimedia station, so it will display the date and time, weather, and alarm clock. You can also launch a slideshow and have the Backflip act like a digital photo frame. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and home page.
Similar to the Cliq and the Motorola Devour, the Backflip uses Motoblur software, which helps merge contact information from various e-mail accounts and social networking sites, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Exchange, Twitter, and Picasa, into a master list. In addition, e-mails (aside from Gmail) are combined into a universal in-box and appointments are also combined into one calendar.