We know we're a bit late reviewing the Motorola Ming A1200, but even we had a hard time getting it into our hands. Since it's not available with a North American carrier, and Motorola wasn't forthcoming with a review model, we had to turn to other sources. But now, almost a year since our comrades at CNET Asia gave the Ming a shakedown, we can do the same. And from what we can tell, the Linux-based handset was worth the wait. Though it ran a bit short in the feature department--there's no 3G or Wi-Fi--and its performance was occasionally sluggish, the Ming is nonetheless an intriguing smartphone. Call quality was satisfactory and the design, while certainly quirky (touch screen anyone?), is unquestionably distinctive. Without carrier rebates the Ming isn't a steal--it's $254 from Mobileplanet.com--but if you're looking for a unique smartphone that's not overwhelming, the Ming may be just the ticket. To find accessories for this phone, see our cell phone ringtones and accessories guide.
Considering the avalanche of Razrs, Krzrs, and Rizrs that we've endured over the last three years, we can't tell you how enjoyable it is to review a Motorola handset that's so completely different (we also love that Moto didn't drop any vowels from the Ming's name, but that's another story). Make no mistake that the A1200 would stand out in any smartphone crowd, mostly because of its diminutive size. At 3.77 inches by 2.94 inches by 0.85 inch, it's much smaller than the Palm Centro or the RIM BlackBerry Pearl, and at 3.63 ounces it won't weigh you down. What's more, it fits comfortably in the hand and the rounded edges give it a streamlined appearance. We like the red color scheme on our review model, but it comes in a more minimalist silver hue as well.
Though the Ming is not the first smartphone to rely so heavily on a touch screen, it is one of only a few handsets we've seen to feature a protective cover. Though the cover is transparent, it has a slight gray color that gives it a sleek and futuristic look. In fact, this is the first plastic cover we've seen that so enhances a phone's overall aesthetics. It's eye-catching even in the open position, as the Ming almost looks like one of those communicator gadgets from Star Trek. It's worth noting, however, that the cover doesn't open at the touch of a button. You must open it the old-fashioned way (by using your finger), but the hinge has a sturdy construction. Some users complained of difficulty in opening the cover, but we didn't have a problem.
In another unique move, Moto stashed the earpiece/microphone in the middle of the cover. The silver disc may appear innocuous, but a closer look will show that it's connected to the phone by two thin wires. This means that, except for when you're using a headset, you must have the cover open to make or receive calls. But that wasn't a problem for us.
The Ming's touch screen measures 2.4 inches (320x240 pixels) and supports 262,000 colors. Visually rich with bright colors and graphics, the screen is a treat to use, but anyone with visual impairments should take the Ming for a test drive first. The menu font size is adjustable, but the virtual keyboard is pretty small. We had to squint when using the keyboard in the dark and at times we had trouble tapping the correct key. You can change the display's backlighting time, the wallpaper, and the color scheme, but not the brightness level.
Screen input on the A1200 is best handled through the included stylus that's stored in a slot on the back cover, though you can use your finger, as well. You can enter text via the virtual keyboard mentioned above or you can use the Ming's handwriting recognition software. The latter worked well for the most part; it recognized most of our entries accurately, and the onscreen letter suggestions and the predictive text were helpful. Also, we like that you're given two squares in which to write. You can use the handwriting recognition to enter Chinese characters--that's one feature we didn't test--and it supports Chinese-language menus, as well.
As mentioned earlier, the Ming uses a Linux-based user interface. On the home screen, you're greeted with the date, the time, and the usual battery and signal indicators. At the top of the display are four static icons that open the main menu, your contacts list, the messaging folder, and the numeric keypad for making calls. Your calendar events for that day are conveniently displayed in the middle of the screen, but you can turn that setting off if you want. Finally, at the bottom, are five shortcut icons that are user-customizable. The main menu interface is easy to understand, as well. Graphical icons represent the various functions or you can choose a standard list view.
Below the display are the only three buttons on the front of the phone: a Talk key, a select button, and the End/power control. In standby mode, you can use the select control and the Talk key to browse through your calendar events or to open one of the five menu shortcuts at the bottom of the display. Though the process isn't confusing, it is a bit tedious, so we preferred to use the stylus whenever possible. Also, like on all other cell phones, you can access your recent calls list with the Talk button. On the downside, we found it annoying that the A1200 doesn't give you one-touch access to the main menu through a button. Instead, you have to bust out the stylus and tap the main menu icon.
On the Ming's left spine are volume buttons and the traditional Motorola smart key. Besides changing the ringer profile, you also can use these controls to select icons on the main menu. There's also a headset jack on the left spine, but it's only 2.5mm, so you will need an adapter for 3.5mm headphones. On the right spine are a camera shutter and a button for activating the voice recorder (with a short tap) and the voice dialing (with a long tap). The camera lens is on the rear side of the Ming at the top. It comes with a self-portrait mirror and a Macro switch, but we were disappointed there's no flash. We also didn't like that the microSD card slot is stashed behind the battery.
The Ming has a large, 1,000-contact phone book, but if that's not enough, the SIM card can store an additional 250 names. Each phone book entry has room for seven phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, two street addresses, a Web site address, a company name and title, assistant and manager names, a birthday and anniversary date, spouse and child names, and notes. You can organize callers into groups or pair them with a photo and one of 14 polyphonic ringtones (the A1200 also supports MP3 tones).
Organizer features include a calendar, a file manager, a calculator, a task list, a voice recorder, an alarm clock, a call recorder, and a world clock. We had a small gripe with the calendar; meetings are marked only at their start time rather than for the whole time they're supposed to last. Also, a few more PIM options, such as a stopwatch and a countdown timer, would be nice on a smartphone. Messaging options are plentiful, however. Besides the standard text and multimedia messaging, the Ming offers an integrated MSN Messenger and IMAP4 and POP3 e-mail with Exchange server compatibility. On-the-go types can also make use of the speaker-independent voice commands and the speakerphone. We'd like the ability to edit Office documents, however, as the Ming only allows you to view them.
The A1200 offers full Bluetooth for making calls, sending files wirelessly, and listening to music with stereo headphones. Other data features include a full HTML browser, PC syncing, USB mass storage and file transfer, and a dedicated application for using the Ming as a modem for a PC. You can use Bluetooth or a USB cable to make the modem connection.
The Ming's 2-megapixel camera offers fewer features than we'd expect on a high-res shooter. You can take pictures in just three resolutions (1,200x1,600; 768x1,024; and 480x640) while editing options are limited to a self-timer, brightness and white balance settings, a night mode, four color effects, and an 8x zoom. There's also the aforementioned Macro switch, but we'll say again that we were hoping for a camera flash. The camcorder records clips in three resolutions (352x288; 320x240; and 176x144) with sound and offers a similar set of editing options. On the upside, we like the camera interface. Almost all options are displayed directly on the display, which eliminates the need to sift through multiple menus to change settings. Also, you're given a handy meter detailing how much memory is remaining for your shots and clips. The Ming has 8MB of internal memory, which is quite small, but it can accommodate microSD cards up to 2GB.
Photo quality was decent, but we noticed a few flaws. Though most colors were bright, oranges and reds looked a bit unnatural and whites were somewhat fuzzy. Also, though object outlines were distinct, the flowers in our test shot were somewhat blurry. True shutterbugs can take advantage of the Ming's photo editor application, which allows you to alter your shots using basic tools. Videos seem fine as long as your subjects are close to the phone.
The A1200's camera also functions as a business card reader. When it's set in macro mode, you can use the shooter to snap photos of a business card and the text will then be translated directly into a phone book entry. It works best on horizontal cards with large, clearly labeled text. It didn't register every letter accurately, but even then it takes just a couple taps to correct the error. And in any case, it was much better than entering in all the information by hand. Cards with odd shapes or small type didn't fare so well, and it had a hard time reading cards that were crumpled or soiled.
For entertainment purposes, the Ming comes bundled with RealPlayer for watching videos and listening to music. The feature assortment--shuffle and repeat modes--isn't extensive, but the player interface is easy to understand and the music quality, though slightly tinny, was respectable. The Ming also comes with an FM radio, a talking dictionary, which we didn't test, and one game, Extreme Air Snowboarding. You can always download more games and applications.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Ming in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was admirable in most situations; voices sounded natural, and interference and static were almost nonexistent. The volume could be a tad louder, however, as we had some trouble hearing when were in very noisy locations. What's more, the sound level is not displayed on the screen when you're adjusting the volume, which makes it difficult to tell when you've reached the upper limit. At times the sound also cut in and out for a few seconds, but it wasn't enough to be distracting.
On their end, callers said we sounded fine, though they could tell we were using a cell phone. They also had trouble hearing us when we were talking in a loud place, but on the whole our friends didn't report any major problems. The A1200's speakerphone delivered clear conversations on both ends as long as we were relatively close to the phone. The speaker is on the rear face of the phone, but was quite loud. The voice dialing function performed well, too, but we discovered it was easy to press the voice dialing button when handling the phone. Calls using the included wired headset or a Bluetooth headset were satisfactory, as well.
It is unfortunate that the Ming's data speeds top out at pokey GPRS. While 3G support would be most ideal, even EDGE compatibility would be nice. What's more, we noticed the A1200 can be sluggish when performing certain functions. In particular, the camera and the media player took a few seconds to open and there was a noticeable delay when using the handwriting recognition. We also had to wait a bit when toggling between different menus and scrolling through the contacts list.
The Motorola Ming A1200 has a rated battery life of three hours talk time and up to 7.08 days standby time. Those may be low for a GSM phone, but our tests revealed a different result of 8 hours and 30 minutes of talk time. That said, we still wouldn't leave the touch screen on for a long time since it can be a battery drainer.