The Dext smart phone is no beauty, but it does what it says on the tin, providing a solid Android experience, with some handy social-networking extras, packed up with a full Qwerty keyboard. It has some flaws, like widgets that can't quite get their act together and terrible call quality, but a snappy touchscreen and powerful operating system more than make up for its deficiencies.
The Dext will be available for free on a £34-per-month, 24-month contract exclusively on Orange. We'll let you know as soon as we have a SIM-free price.
It's all a Motoblur
The Dext is a slider phone with a Qwerty keyboard tucked underneath a 79mm (3.1-inch) capacitive touchscreen. It's the first Qwerty-keyboard-toting Android phone to emerge since the T-Mobile G1, made by HTC, and it aims to tempt the social-networking massive. To that end, Motorola's tweaked version of Android, Motoblur, provides some extra features to help bring your contacts together.
For example, sign into your Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm and MySpace accounts, and the Dext will grab all your contacts, including their profile photos, and merge them with your Google account to fill up the phone's address book. We found that it did a great job of linking contacts across accounts, and it was ace to be able to sort our contacts by name or recent updates. We missed, however, a few of the simpler tweaks that make an address book easy to use. For example, when we had a contact with a company name and no personal name, the Dext listed it by phone number. That could be a real pain for business users.
Once you've given the Dext all of your account information, you can update your status in Facebook and tweet at the same time, as well as send messages to your contacts in any one of umpteen ways. Motorola has also created some widgets that display your social whirl on the home screen: you can see your status, your messages -- including direct tweets, Facebook messages, emails and texts -- and 'happenings' (a stream of all your contacts' recent posts).
It's all a big bundle of fun, if you're into that kind of thing, and it's helpful if you don't like to have to check your various networks separately. The widgets are fine but we'd have liked more room for the text, and we found the happenings sometimes strayed out of the correct chronological order.
As well as the social-networking gubbins, Motoblur also includes an online service. It's similar to Apple's MobileMe and Nokia's Ovi, not to mention a host of other offerings, providing a Web-based service that backs up your accounts and messages over the air. You can also track your phone by its GPS signal, and, if it's not somewhere you think you can find it, like your house or your local boozer, you can wipe it remotely too.
Other than the messaging and address-book tweaks, Motorola has left most of the Android user interface alone. That means there's no multi-touch support, so you can't zoom into photos or Web pages with a pinch of your fingers. We really missed this great feature, since it's so intuitive and accurate, especially for zooming in on Web pages full of tiny links. If you've never used multi-touch before, you may not miss it, though.
The Dext has access to the wonderful Android Market, which makes zillions of apps easy to find and install. That means the Dext has huge potential for growth, whether you're exploiting the infinite jukebox of Spotify or turning it into a Skype phone. Many of the apps are free, and, although they don't tend to be quite as slick as the apps available for the iPhone, the Android Market wins points for giving its developers more scope for creativity.
As well as its Android goodness, the Dext has solid specs, with a 5-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi and HSDPA for fast downloads over 3G. It comes with a 2GB memory card (it supports cards of up to 32GB) and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack so you can listen to your tunes on your own cans.
Real or virtual
The Dext's physical keyboard is a mixed bag. The keys are large and raised, but there's no space between them. Still, it's impressive that Motorola has packed them into a small space without sacrificing too much usability, and we had no trouble typing our emails and texts accurately. There's also a fairly good on-screen keyboard. It's very responsive, although it doesn't offer the useful shortcuts to numbers and symbols that the HTC Hero does.
In general, we preferred to type on the physical keyboard, even though it can be a pain, because you're forced to flip from portrait orientation to landscape when you pop it open. In some cases, that meant we stuck to the on-screen keyboard when typing a quick missive on a screen that looked better in portrait orientation, such as a Web page.
With the power of Android, a peppy touchscreen and some fun social-networking features, there's only one big drawback that kept us from loving the Dext like a long-lost friend: its frumpy appearance. It's a surprise that Motorola, which is known for producing sexy phones like the Razr, took a major design cue for the Dext from the lumpen Nokia N97. It's rather chunky, with a dull chrome trim over boring black plastic, and the white labels for the buttons on the side look like temporary stickers that should peel off but don't.
It also feels rather flimsy, and the slider wobbled slightly on our sample. This poor build quality had a brutal knock-on effect on the call quality of our test phone, with a loose speaker leading to a terrible buzzing noise during our calls. We think other Dext handsets might not suffer the same problem, but be ready to test it right out of the box to ensure you haven't got a dud.
Although the Dext is the N97's cousin in terms of looks, it's definitely the smarter, more talented of the two. The Dext is
actually everything we hoped the N97 would be, thanks to its zippy, attractive,
capacitive touchscreen and a user interface that's a pleasure to use.
If you're drowning in a social-networking deluge of updates and messages, the Motorola Dext may be the answer for keeping everything under control. Throw in a full Qwerty keyboard, you've got an excellent phone that's built for staying in touch, as long as you don't actually want to make calls.
A good-looking, responsive touchscreen and the powerful, expandable Android operating system help to make up for the Dext's uninspiring looks and slightly questionable build quality, making for a well-rounded smart phone that we'd be happy to be caught typing on.
Edited by Charles Kloet