It's always a risk to define a cell phone by its design; even the most unique and eye-catching handset must also be easy to use. Motorola tried to strike that balance with its new Flipout for AT&T, but ultimately the Android handset falls short. Like the equally square Nokia 7705 Twist, the Flipout has a great keyboard that would make it a perfect messaging device. And if Moto had stopped there, we'd be singing its praises. But as a smartphone, the Flipout just doesn't work. Its camera is only average, its data connection can be slow, and its display is much too small for Web browsing, multimedia, and the touch-screen interface.
Yet, we wouldn't say that the Flipout is a total loss. It runs the 2.1 version of the Android OS, call quality was fine, and it offers some features not common on Android phones. You also can't go wrong with the price, which is just $79.99 with a two-year contract (that's $379.99 if you pay full price). If you can handle the design, then we'd rate the Flipout as a good buy. But if you're hoping for a sparkling display that is optimized for multimedia, then we suggest moving on.
In addition to being square, the Flipout shares the Nokia Twist's swivel design. Though common several years ago, swivel models are quite rare today. It's also quite compact for a smartphone at just 2.64 inches long by 2.65 inches wide by 0.67 inch thick. It will fit in smaller pockets, and at 3.8 ounces it won't weigh you down when you're on go. Fortunately, the Flipout has a solid, sturdy feel, and the swivel mechanism isn't too loose. We also liked that you could type on the Flipout's keyboard without the handset feeling top-heavy.
Of course, the trade-off of a small phone is that everything on it also will be small, including the display. At just 2.8 inches, the Flipout's screen would be more than adequate on a regular phone, but it's much too cramped for a touch-screen handset. Tapping and scrolling through the menus was a rather tedious affair, even if the touch interface is responsive and the Android 2.1 interface is familiar and intuitive. The display supports 16 million colors, but the pixel resolution (320x280) is just average. Some graphics and photos looked rather fuzzy.
But wait, there's more. Though the Flipout has seven home screens thanks to Android 2.1, each screen is big enough for only a few icons, folders, and widgets. So while you can customize in the usual Android manner, you'll have to be selective. When we put the Google search bar and the Motoblur "Happenings" widget on the same home screen, for instance, we had little room left. Curiously, the Flipout lacks the menu tab that you can pull up from the bottom of the screen on other Android phones.
Below the display are the Home, Menu, and Back touch controls. They're also a bit cramped, but they need only a light touch. Around the edges you'll find other controls. When the phone is closed, the 3.5-millimeter headset jack and power control sit on the right side of the phone, the volume rocker is on the top, and the Micro-USB port rests on the bottom end. Around back are the camera lens and self-portrait mirror. Unfortunately, you'll have to remove the battery cover to access the microSD card slot.
Given the Flipout's size, the physical keyboard is surprisingly spacious and comfortable. With four rows of buttons, numbers and letters don't have to double up. Also, the domed keys make for a quick and accurate typing experience. The return, control, and space bar keys also have a good design, though we'd appreciate more shortcut buttons (there's just a search control). On the bottom left corner you'll find a square navigation toggle with a central OK button. It's convenient, even though we didn't use it that much.
The Flipout has a virtual keyboard for typing when the phone is closed. We suppose that it could be useful in a pinch, but we avoided it at all costs due to its tiny size. Even if you have small hands, we'd guess that you'd avoid it, too. Dialing is accomplished through a virtual keypad. It's comfortable to use, and you're offered shortcuts to the recent calls list and your phone book. The integrated accelerometer makes the display orientation rotate accordingly.
Though Froyo (Android 2.2) is our first choice, we're grateful that we got Android OS 2.1 at the very least. Yes, the Flipout will be upgradable to Froyo at some point, though Moto hasn't said exactly when that will happen. The Flipout also includes a slightly revamped version of the carrier's Motoblur interface that debuted on the Cliq (see our Cliq review for a full description of Motoblur). You'll need to register for a Motoblur account when activating the Flipout--just as you must have a Google account--but how you use the feature is up to you.
All the familiar Motoblur elements are still here, including the unified e-mail box, the news and weather feeds, and the "Happenings" widget that offers a steady flow of e-mails, messages, and social media updates (Facebook, Twitter, and so on). This time around, though, you can resize the widgets, get more access to your corporate directory, retweet Twitter updates with one touch, and better filter the Happenings widget. That last change is especially welcome since we found the widget to be so overwhelming on the Cliq that we deleted it.
The Flipout runs in the middle range of Android phones. It certainly won't blow you away with its functionality, but it offers everything you need for communication and simple multimedia. The phone book size is limited by the available memory, with each contact holding phone numbers and e-mails, street addresses, an instant message handle, a company name, a birthday and anniversary, a nickname, a URL, and notes. You can save contacts to groups and pair them with a photo and one of 12 polyphonic ringtones for caller ID. And if you really don't like someone, you can choose to send his or her calls directly to voice mail.
When you're not making calls, you can use the integrated text and multimedia messaging features to keep in touch. The Flipout also offers instant messaging and you can sync the handset with your Gmail account and most POP3 services like Hotmail and Yahoo. The setup process through Motoblur is straightforward and we like the universal in-box. Corporate e-mail support will vary depending on your company's policies. We were able to use Outlook Web Access to sync our CNET Outlook mail.