The Motorola Flipout has us freaking out. It's the first Android smart phone to throw caution to the wind and bust out a crazy, square, swivelling design. We like its playful form and full Qwerty keyboard, but its small, low-resolution screen and some flaky software mean it's not always hip to be square.
The Flipout isn't in many high-street shops yet, but you can buy it online for free on a £25-a-month, 18-month contract. You can also pick it up for around £250 SIM-free.
Small and smart
Inside the Flipout's cube-like case, you get all of the power of Google's Android 2.1 operating system. That means you can install heaps of apps from the Android Market, including everything from games to photo-editing applications.
Unfortunately, in our tests, the shopping experience wasn't the best. For example, the Market crashed the first few times we tried to load it. That may be the app's fault rather than the phone, but we haven't seen this problem on other Android handsets.
Also, when we installed the official Twitter app, it couldn't handle the Flipout's landscape screen. It displayed the wrong way around compared to the rest of the user interface, and it wouldn't adjust when we rotated the phone. Again, we can blame the app rather than the phone, but bear in mind that you may not get the smoothest app experience out there if you buy the Flipout.
On top of all that, Motorola has included its custom user interface for Android, Motoblur, which we first saw on the Dext handset. Motoblur includes a bundle of services, such as a Web site where you can track down your phone by its GPS signal and wipe its brain if you don't like what you see. But the emphasis is on social networking and messaging, with live widgets for the home screen serving up Facebook and Twitter updates, without you having to open a Web page or separate app.
We like the idea behind the Motoblur widgets, but the system hasn't improved enough since its appearance on the Dext. There have been a few worthwhile tweaks, however, like the inclusion of the ability to set up several versions of the widgets, showing only updates from your favourite contacts or services.
We found the design of the widgets doesn't work well on the Flipout's small screen, though. There's too much space wasted on rounded corners and icons. As a matter of fact, parts of the Android operating system itself, such as the menu, are too spaced-out to suit the small screen.
Another flaw is the fact that the widgets emphasise profile pics, but resizing the photos to fit such a low-resolution screen makes your friends' faces look jaggy and distorted. No-one wants friends who look like that.
But Motoblur does have its strengths. For example, it grabs all your contacts from your Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, Bebo, Picasa and MySpace accounts, including their profile photos, and merges them with your Google account to fill up the phone's address book. Since all of that information is then stored in the cloud, you'll never lose your phone book if you misplace your handset.
The Flipout also includes battery- and data-monitor widgets, so you can see how much of your data bundle you've used. That should come in handy for pay as you go users.
The Flipout's small size makes it easy to hold. It's also a piece of cake to flip out the Qwerty keyboard. The keys themselves are surprisingly large and bouncy, and we had no trouble typing with perfect accuracy right off the bat.
There's even a row of number keys packed in there, and a little four-way navigation pad. But we don't think the navigation pad is very useful, especially since Motorola has added an easy way to zoom into text by holding your finger on the screen. But we do like the number keys, and we're impressed at everything that's been wedged in without making the keyboard unusable.
The Flipout's keyboard and social-networking features -- whether you use the Motoblur ones or other options from the Android Market -- mean it's a good choice for people who prefer typing over chatting. But, if you do want to hold an actual conversation on your phone, you'll appreciate the Flipout's noise-cancelling feature, which filters out sounds in the background. It uses a second microphone to sample the hubbub and remove it from the signal, making you sound like you're in the library instead of down the pub.
The Flipout's connected media player offers built-in features from TuneWiki. That means it's got social-networking gubbins for finding out what people in your town are listening to, which sounds horrific. But we did like the way that the Flipout automatically grabbed the album art from the Web for all of the songs in our library. It finds the lyrics too, which display as the song plays, for some seriously tiny karaoke action.
The Flipout promises to be a good Web-browsing phone, thanks to Android's excellent browser, with Flash Lite support, and speedy Wi-Fi and HSDPA connectivity. But, although we enjoyed the Flipout's fun, small shape, the 71mm (2.8-inch) screen is cramped for surfing the Net. The low-resolution screen also means that small text is unclear and hard to read, so we had to do plenty of zooming. At least the touchscreen supports multi-touch, so it's easy to zoom in with a pinch of your fingers.
Swivel on it
The Flipout's innovative, swivelling hinge is fun to play with -- to the point of being addictive -- and feels solidly built. The case itself, however, feels light and plasticky. On the plus side, the Flipout comes with swappable, coloured back covers, so you can customise its appearance to suit your whim.
With all the power of Android inside, the Motorola Flipout delivers plenty of smart-phone oomph. But the user interface hasn't been shrunken sufficiently to fit the small screen, and the display's low resolution doesn't help. Unfortunately, the phone isn't as cheap as we'd hoped it would be either. But the Flipout's got plenty of positive points to compensate for its flaws.
If you're interested in the Flipout, you should also check out the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro, a similarly small Android phone that also sports a full Qwerty keyboard.
Edited by Charles Kloet