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Motorola Z9 (AT&T) review: Motorola Z9 (AT&T)

Motorola Z9 (AT&T)

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
7 min read


Motorola Z9 (AT&T)

The Good

The Motorola Z9 has a sharp design, a generous feature set, and satisfying music and video quality. But most of all, its call quality is outstanding.

The Bad

The Z9's 3G performance was variable. Also, its photo quality wasn't as sharp as it could be.

The Bottom Line

The Z9 may not offer anything new but it's a fine cell phone in all regards. It offers an attractive design, a great feature set, and superb call quality.

For the past two years, Moto has been under enormous pressure from many camps (us included) to come up with something completely new. So when we first held the new Motorola Z9 for AT&T, we were a bit disappointed that it doesn't stray very far from the company's Razr-heavy past. Indeed, it has a familiar look in many ways. It has the same shiny mahogany color as the Razr2 V9, it shares similar dimensions, and the bright 262,000-color display is almost identical. So while it's all very pretty, it's also very Motorola.

Yet, the Z9 is a phone that warrants a closer look. During the few days it was sitting around the CNET offices, it won praise from quite a few people--even from one of the most serious gadget enthusiasts we know. It also has a solid and comfortable feel when held in the hand, and the slider mechanism is sturdy without being stiff. Inside is a generous feature set including 3G support, AT&T Navigator GPS service, a digital music player, stereo Bluetooth, an Opera Web browser, a 2-megapixel camera, and Moto's nifty CrystalTalk technology. It's somewhat expensive if you pay full price ($399) but you can get it for a very reasonable $149 with service and applicable rebates.

As we said earlier, the Z9 is easily recognizable as a Motorola phone. In fact, it almost looks as if someone took the Razr2 V9 flip phone and squashed into a slider design. Though some have taken issue with the mahogany color, we quite like it. The hue is a nice change from the standard black and silver, and it certainly makes the Z9 stand out in the cell phone crowd. The bright, vivid display is a sight to behold. It measures 2.4 inches (320x240 pixels) and supports 262,000 colors, so it shows just about everything well, from graphics to photos to text. You can change the brightness and the backlighting time. The menu interface is generic Moto, unfortunately. It's fairly easy to use, but we're hoping for an update soon.

The Z9's navigation array is dominated by a large Razr-like toggle with a central OK button. It's surrounded by a tactile silver ring, which makes it easy to use. The remaining navigation controls (two soft keys, a Web browser shortcut, the Talk and End/power controls, and a Clear/back key) are flush, without any clear separation between them. Yet, a closer look will show that they're not touch controls; rather, they offer a tactile "push" feel and a soft "click" sound when pressed. They're also covered by tiny silver bumps that are similar to the Motorola Rokr E8. The bumps are a nice addition as they allow us to use the controls by feel.

The keypad buttons have a similar design except they rest on a slippery, reflective surface. That can be an issue for fast texters, and we would have preferred a brighter backlighting. Another problem we noticed was that the area surrounding the 5 key had a bit of a "bounce" feel to it. It made us wonder about the keypad's long-term capabilities.

Yet, with little plastic in its body, the Z9 has a wonderful, firm feel in the hand. It's particularly comfortable to hold against the ear while talking, and the slider mechanism has a great construction. We could easily open the phone with one hand, and it slid solidly into place on either end. Also, at 4.48 inches by 2.41 inches by 0.55 inch and 4.93 ounces, the Z9 is very portable.

The Z9's memory card slot is located behind its battery cover next to the SIM card.

The camera lens and flash sit at the top end of the Z9 on its rear side. Unlike some other slider phones, you don't need to open the handset to use the camera. The remaining controls are a volume rocker and a music shortcut on the left spine and a camera shutter on the right spine. Though the side controls are small and thin, they offer the vibrating feedback that we saw on the V9. Just above the camera shutter is a microUSB port for the charger. Included in the box is an adapter for miniUSB devices.

The microSD card slot is located behind the battery cover. Though that's not the most ideal location, we're glad to see that you don't have to remove the battery as well.

The Z9 is packed with a wide assortment of features that should appeal to basic users and multimedia fans alike. It also offers a couple of firsts: it's the first Moto phone to support not only the AT&T Navigator but also AT&T's Video Share service.

As a 3.5 phone, the Z9 supports AT&T's Cellular Video service and AT&T Music. The former application offers tons of streaming video content, while the latter offers wireless music downloads. Click on the links for full reviews of each service.

The music player (WMA, AAC and MP3 files) isn't too fancy but it offers a few useful features including playlists, shuffle and repeat modes, spatial audio, and bass boost. The Z9 also brings a solid selection of music-related features such as support for XM Radio Mobile and Pandora, music videos, a Music ID application, a Billboard Mobile channel, and a community section with access to fan sites and downloads. And for further multimedia fun, the Z9 has MobiTV, My-Cast 5 Weather, and a special mobile version of the Internet Movie Database.

The Z9's camera offers a flash but no self-portrait mirror

The 2-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions (1,600x200, 1,280x960, 640x480, 320x240) and three quality settings. Other camera settings include self-timer, five shutter sounds with a silent option, five lighting options, six color tones, exposure metering, and an 8x zoom. Fortunately there's a flash, but with no self-portrait mirror, vanity shots will be tricky. Picture quality was decent but not without its flaws. While our images were mostly sharp with adequate lighting, the color weren't very bright. Also, some smaller objects could be blurry. The camcorder shoots clips with sound in three resolutions (320x240, 176x144 and 128x96) and three video quality settings. Videos meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise, you're limited only by the available memory. Internal storage is a decent 45MB but you can add a microSD card for more space. And as with all Moto camera phones, a convenient meter tells you how much internal memory is available.

The Z9 offers good photo quality.

Basic offerings include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, an alarm clock, a world clock, a calculator, a speakerphone, and a voice recorder. On the higher end, you'll find stereo Bluetooth, voice dialing, e-mail, and instant messaging. Also, you can use the Z9 to send voice messages directly to another cell phone.

The Z9's phone book accommodates a generous 2,000 entries (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). Each contact holds six phone numbers, three e-mail addresses, a URL, three street addresses, a nickname, and a birthday. For caller ID you can match callers with a photo and one of 25 polyphonic ringtones and alert tones. Three caller groups are available as well.

You can personalize the Z9 with a selection of ringtones, wallpaper, color skins, themes, screensavers, and function tones. More options are available for download through the Opera 8.5 wireless Web browser. Gamers get demo versions of four titles: Lumines, Scrabble Blast, Tower Bloxx, and Super KO Boxing. You'll have to buy the full versions for extended play. And for your business needs, the Z9 offers a Mobile Banking application.

We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; WCDMA 850/1900) Motorola Z9 world phone in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Thanks to Moto's CrystalTalk feature, the handset's call quality was very good, particularly the volume level. In fact, it was the best we've heard from an AT&T phone in a long time. The noise-canceling feature automatically adjusts the sound level to compensate for the surrounding noise. We could hear our callers with no trouble even outside on a busy street. Voices sounded natural as well and we encountered no interference or static. We also had no issues getting a signal.

On their end callers said they could hear us fine. In fact, at times they couldn't tell we were using a cell phone. On a few occasions callers said we sounded a bit tinny, but that was far from a universal assessment. Automated calling systems understood us most of the time, but we encountered more trouble if we were in a noisy environment.

Speakerphone calls weren't quite a satisfactory. Though calls were clear, the volume level could be rather soft unless we stood close to the phone.

The Z9's 3G reception was solid for the most part, but we wish the connection was more reliable. While some Web pages and videos loaded quickly, others took noticeably longer. There didn't seem to be a pattern to the performance but it definitely varied over the course of our test period. Videos were quite decent. We never had to pause to rebuffer, and none of our videos froze while playing. Of course, videos could be a bit fuzzy, but that's not surprising for streaming media. All videos are Real Player enabled.

Music quality also was agreeable. Though the main speaker is on the Z9's rear face, it does have powerful output and clear audio. The music experience was even better when using a headset. Also on the audio side, the sound matched the speaker's mouth in videos.

The Z9 has a rated battery life of four hours talk time and up to 13 days standby time. Though the standby time is respectable, the promised talk time is relatively low for a GSM phone. According to FCC radiation tests, the Z9 has a digital SAR


Motorola Z9 (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8