Because they're so portable, smartphones get placed in harm's way often, whether that's when careless users leave them out in the rain, pocket them next to sharp keys, or simply soak them with beverages by accident. One major drawback to durable phones though is that they've traditionally resembled hulking military hardware, not the more common sleek and futuristic handsets of today. The $99.99 Motorola Defy XT for U.S. Cellular is an attempt to break the mold, offering protection from dust, water, and scratches without the ugly bumpers or garish colors found on the typical rugged phone. At first glance it's easy to mistake the Defy XT, discreetly wrapped up in a compact and attractive package, for your average handset. The device also features a bright screen you can read under strong sunlight. However, equipped with woefully outdated components, aging Android software, and 3G data, the Defy XT won't break any performance records, so power users should steer clear.
I'd bet if you held the Motorola Defy XT in your hands, you'd never guess it was a hardened and rugged smartphone. I was surprised by the device's claims of toughness as well, since the Defy XT is very compact and lightweight. Weighing a mere 4.6 ounces and measuring 4.5 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, it may not be ultrathin but fits into pockets easily. It's actually close in size to the HTC One V (4.74 inches by 2.35 inches by 0.36 inch, 4 ounces), another petite handset available on U.S. Cellular.
The phone's handsome black-and-gray color scheme and conservative oval slab shape also lend it a business-casual aesthetic. For instance, it doesn't have gaudy off-road-vehicle-style bumpers like other rugged mobile models such as the Casio G'zone Commando. Even the Defy XT's predecessor, the original Defy, had a much beefier design complete with unsightly screws meant to drive home its industrial-strength construction.
In fact, the only real clues to the Defy XT's rough-and-tumble pedigree are discreet rubber flaps covering the phone's USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack. Another hint is a switch on the back of the handset that locks its battery cover. The cover, coated in an attractive soft-touch surface, protects the 1,650mAh removable battery and microSD card slot.
With its hidden durability, Motorola claims the Defy XT is ready to rumble. The company promises that the handset can survive exposure to dust, submersion in water, and the odd scuff. The phone's screen is also billed as scratch-resistant, featuring Corning's Gorilla Glass treatment. That said, Motorola doesn't say the device adheres to any particular international or U.S. military standard for durability.
The Motorola Defy XT's 3.7-inch display is on the small side when you look at today's Android superphones. With a low 854x480-pixel resolution, the phone's screen certainly won't blow you away with its sharpness or color production. When I viewed the Defy XT side by side with the HTC One V, it was clear that the One V's display had more vibrant color and wider viewing angles. Also, though the Defy XT didn't create oversaturated hues (something the One V was guilty of) its screen had an blueish tinge that was not appealing.
One positive thing I can say about the Defy XT's screen is that it is very easy to read in strong sunlight, conditions where most smartphones falter. That's very useful considering that people in the market for a rugged phone will likely use it outdoors often.
Software and apps
If you expect to find a modern operating system on the Motorola Defy XT, prepare to be disappointed. The phone relies on an aging version of Android, 2.3 Gingerbread, and not Google's latest Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, or even Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
Still, as an Android device the Defy XT connects to Google's Play digital market, which offers over 700,000 apps for download. Support for Google services is here too, including Gmail, Google+ social networking, and Navigation for turn-by-turn GPS guidance. The Play storefront also hawks a selection of digital books, movies, games, and music. Motorola places a few apps on the device to help you better enjoy the great outdoors too. A digital-compass application will point the way, while a DashBoard app logs the speed and distance traveled during runs and hikes and functions as a pedometer.
Third-party applications preinstalled include Amazon.com, Amazon MP3, and the Audible audiobook subscription service. U.S. Cellular has installed a selection of its apps as well, such as Daily Perks for news and weather, and Mobile TV, which offers both live programming and full TV episodes and movies. The service costs an extra $9.99 per month and will blow a hole through your data minutes if you're not careful -- using it over Wi-Fi isn't an option.
The primary appeal of the Motorola Defy XT though is, again, its ability to withstand the elements. To put Motorola's claims of toughness to the test, first I made sure all the device's port flaps were sealed and the battery cover was locked. Then I literally dragged the phone through the dust and dry dirt at a nearby New York park. I even kicked it across the ground awhile for good measure.
Next I gave the Defy XT a lengthy rinse in the nearest water fountain. Just to be certain of the handset's resistance to liquid, I dunked it in a large pitcher of water, submerging it completely for well over 15 minutes. That's something I'd never do with most other smartphones I review, let alone one I own myself.
To its credit, the Motorola Defy XT emerged from these trials unscathed and in perfect working order. My attempts to mar the screen with the business end of a metal key were also futile. To be clear, though, Motorola doesn't claim the phone can handle drops from any height and if the company did, I wouldn't believe it. I've cracked enough Gorilla Glass displays to know that all it takes is one lucky corner strike for you to begin a very bad day.
With a 5-megapixel main camera, don't bet on taking award-winning photos with the Motorola Defy XT. The handset captures images slowly and lacking crisp details. This is especially true under low-light conditions; pictures I snapped in dark environs were murky and exhibited lots of color noise. The flash tended to blow out subjects in the foreground, so I don't recommend that tactic either.
That said, while still-life shots indoors were far from crisp, colors looked natural and exposed correctly, with the camera selecting the correct white-balance setting.
Outside, or indoors with enough illumination, image quality was acceptable. Colors though weren't very saturated even in strong sunlight. The Defy XT's camera, which ranges from QVGA resolution to 5MP, boasts a modest selection of scene modes and color filters. Notable settings include Action, Night, Sunset, and Steady Photo plus typical filters for Sepia, Solarize, Negative, and Aqua, to name a few.
Video quality was very low: the movies I shot at the camcorder's highest setting (800x400) were extremely blocky and choppy, with clipped audio.
The Motorola Defy XT might be a tank, but it also drives like one. Powered by an ancient single-core 1GHz Snapdragon S1 processor paired with a small 512MB allotment of RAM, the phone felt very sluggish and practically lurched through menus and applications. The device's low Linpack (single-thread) score of 24.98 MFLOPs completed in a long 3.36 seconds confirmed my suspicions. There's a reason why Motorola chooses not to disclose the make and model of the Defy XT's CPU. (However, the HTC One V's showing of 33.6 MFLOPs on the same test wasn't much higher.)
Call quality on the Defy XT for U.S. Cellular, roaming on Sprint's CDMA network, was mediocre but not outstanding. Callers reported that my voice sounded clear but compressed and they could easily tell I was dialing from a mobile phone. To me, voices on the other end came through without distortion, but volume was not very high even at the phone's maximum setting.
Motorola rates the Defy XT's 1,650mAh battery as providing 5 hours and 30 minutes of talk time. In my anecdotal tests, the phone struggled to play a video file for 8 hours and 56 minutes. That said, the playback stuttered the whole way through.
Another thing to consider is that the Defy XT is limited to 3G cellular data, so it won't surf the Web with any speed unless you connect it to a Wi-Fi network. Download throughput hovered around 0.7Mbps while uploads barely cracked 0.6Mbps.
There's no denying that there's a real need for tough mobile phones, since these devices tend to take a lot of abuse on the go. Certainly the $99.99 Motorola Defy XT is a big improvement over rugged handsets that came before it. Its compact and classy styling doesn't scream armor-plated like, sa,y the Casio G'zone Commando or even Motorola's previous Defy model. Still, the Defy XT's archaic components won't just be a buzz-kill for hard-core Android users who demand cutting-edge power. Average users too will be unsatisfied by the Defy XT's slow performance tackling everyday tasks.
If you're shopping for a highly portable Android phone on U.S. Cellular and for you, features play second fiddle to ruggedness, the $129.99 HTC One V boasts a better camera and a stylish metal design, plus it runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. And of course, those who have money to burn should strongly consider the current Android king of the hill, the $299.99 Samsung Galaxy S3. Even so, if you're set on buying an Android handset for U.S. Cellular that can really take a licking, the Motorola Defy XT is your best option.