Though Motorola has succeeded in making a series of reliable, practical cell phones this year, the company hasn't been working the style angle that hard. Sure, the Z9 and Rokr E8 are attractive, but even those handsets put function over form. The Motorola U9, however, wears its style on its sleeve. Sporting a glossy surface and curvy lines, the attractive U9 reminds us of the Motorola Pebl U6. Beyond the pretty face, it offers a brilliant display, decent call quality, and a functional music player. Though we had a couple of concerns about its controls, and its menu interface was a bit sluggish, the U9 remains a stylish phone with substance. Just don't get too excited about its camera. It's available unlocked in North America for $150. To find accessories for this phone, see our cell phone ringtones and accessories guide.
Like the Pebl U6 before it, the Motorola U9 looks like it could skip several times across a pond. And like a real pebble, the U9's curvaceous shape and smooth, glossy skin would look at home in a fast-flowing stream. At 3.54-inches tall by 1.91-inches wide by 0.65-inch thick, the U9 has a pleasant size that fits squarely in the hand without taking up too much space in a pocket or bag. The hinge lacks the slide-and-open mechanism of the U6 but it has a solid construction. Its only quirk is that when open, the phone's front flap actually rests behind its rear flap. It's unique and it shouldn't make any difference to the user. We're a bit worried about the plastic skin on the phone's front face. Though we didn't subject the U9 to any torture tests, we wonder how the phone would handle a solid drop to a hard surface. Only the back of the U9 is covered in the soft-touch material that almost completely enveloped the Pebl U6.
The external display is hidden behind the U9's screen, so when its backlighting is off it disappears entirely. You can't change the backlighting time, but a flick of the volume rocker will reactive the screen. At 65,000 colors and 1.45 inches, it shows all the information you need, including the time, battery life, signal strength, and photo-caller ID. It also works as a viewfinder for the external display, and we like the flashy wallpapers and screen savers. What's more, when you're listening to tunes the music-player touch controls appear on the external display. Though they aren't always responsive, they are a nifty touch.
Completing the exterior of the phone are a volume rocker and the Moto "smart" key on the left spine and a voice-dialing shortcut on the right spine. The phone's single speaker sits on its back side. The U9 does have a microSD card slot but it's stashed behind the battery, unfortunately. Also on the downside, the U9 uses a micro-USB port for both the charger and the included wired headset. We prefer to see a standard headset jack (2.5mm or 3.5mm) on a music phone.
The U9's two-inch internal display supports 262,000 colors. It's a brilliant display in all regards, with bright colors and sharp graphics. You can adjust the brightness and the backlighting time, but the small text size is not changeable. As such, users with visual impairments should give this phone a test drive before buying. The U9's menu interface is the same generic design we've seen form Moto for a long time now. It works well enough, but we continue to hope that Moto invests some time in improving the appearance and organization soon.
Like many other Moto phones before it, the Pebl U6 included, the U9's controls don't exactly warm our heart. Though they're not a disaster, they're flat with the surface of the phone and rather slippery. There are few tactile features and, with the exception of the navigation toggle, the backlighting is dim. We were able to text and dial quickly but scrolling through menus felt stodgy and dialing by feel is tricky. The navigation array consists of a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, the Talk and End/power keys, a music player shortcut control and a clear/back button. You can set the toggle to act as a shortcut to four user-defined functions and you can program a secondary-shortcut menu through the left soft key.
The U9 has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, three e-mail addresses, a street address, a nickname, and notes. You can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 21 polyphonic ringtones. What's more, you also can save MP3 files as ringtones. Basic features include text and multimedia messaging, a vibrate mode, an alarm clock, a world clock, a task list, a notepad, and a calculator. You'll also find full Bluetooth with a stereo profile, Web-based POP3 e-mail, PC syncing, a voice recorder, a file manager, and USB mass storage.
Like the E8, the U9 offers a Talking Phone feature that will read out contacts, menu choices, dialed numbers, e-mails, and text messages. The feature is quite effective, as the robotic voice is audible. Just make sure you really want to use it since it can get annoying after a while.
Though the U9 bore the "Rokr" moniker when Moto introduced it a year ago, it's now fallen out with that family. But, even, so the U9 offers an attractive music player. Features include playlists, repeat and shuffle modes, an airplane mode, an equalizer, spatial audio, and bass boost. The interface is Spartan--you won't find album art or visualizations--but it's straightforward and user-friendly. Controlling songs with the toggle is relatively easy and, of course, you can use the touch controls on the external display, as well. We were also pleased with how simple it was to load music on the phone. You can use one of three methods: Bluetooth, a memory card, or a USB cable. We used the latter method and didn't have any problems. Our PC recognized the phone right away and we synced our tunes using Windows Media Player. Be advised that music can be stored only on a memory card.
The 2-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions and three quality settings. Other editing features include six color tones, a self-timer, a night mode, a multishot mode, a brightness setting, an 8x zoom, and six shutter sounds, plus a silent option. You can add a photo tag as well. Photo quality was just average. Colors were faded and our pictures were dim with a lot of image noise. Like the E8, the U9 is not a phone you buy for its camera.
The camcorder takes clips with sound in two resolutions. Editing options are about the same as the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 10 seconds; otherwise, you can shoot for as long as the available memory permits. Videos were average: the sound was rather quiet and it couldn't handle quick movements. That's hardly unique for a cell phone, though. The U9 offers 250MB of internal memory.
You can personalize the U9 with a variety of wallpapers, themes, and alert tones. You can download more options and additional ringtones with the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Games are limited to two titles: Platinum Sudoku and Need for Speed: Carbon. You can buy more titles if you wish.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Motorola U9 in San Francisco with AT&T service. Call quality was quite decent with loud volume, no static, and good voice clarity. We could understand our callers without any problems, even when were talking next to a busy street. We had a bit if trouble hearing in large rooms with noisy PA announcements, but that's not unusual with a cell phone. On their end, callers could hear us well, but a few reported the phone picks up a lot of wind noise, but it was nothing we heard.
Speakerphone calls were a little tinny but were satisfying overall. The volume can get pretty loud even if the speaker is facing away. Callers grumbled a bit about static but, again, it was nothing that we heard. Bluetooth-headset calls were mostly satisfactory, as well.
We noticed that the menus on the U9 were a bit sluggish. As we selected options and closed menus there was a short lag between when we made the connection and when it actually happened. It was only a second or two but it was long enough to be noticeable.
The music player delivers respectable performance, but it is a few notches short of excellent. Audio through the external speaker was tinny and, though the volume output is loud, the sound becomes distorted at the highest levels. A headset will provide the best experience.
The U9 has a rated battery life of 7.16 hours talk time and 14.58 days standby time. We had a tested talk time of 7 hours and 23 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests the U9 has a digital SAR of 1.36 watts per kilogram.