Motorola Z9 on AT&T SlashGear Review

Sep 25, 2008
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It would be easy to dismiss Motorola's Z9 on first sight, as just another RAZR-inspired basic cellphone.  The Z9 has the usual zero-profile keypad (here with individual silver rivets to guide your finger) and Motorola's still less-than-intuitive Synergy OS - no full QWERTY, no super-high-resolution camera.  Yet under the skin there's plenty to like about the Z9; check out why we have a soft-spot for the Motorola slider in the full SlashGear review.

The Z9, currently available on AT&T, is a 3G handset with up to 3.6Mbps HSDPA (network depending), quadband GSM/GPRS/EDGE and Bluetooth with A2DP wireless stereo support.  It measures 114 x 53.6 x 13.99mm and weighs a surprisingly hefty 140g; build quality is high, with the spring-loaded slider opening and closing with a reassuring clunk.  The keys will likely be a love or hate situation, depending on your affection for Motorola.  Those on the front face and the numeric slide are actually pretty tactile, if a little firm, but the side keys - for volume, the music player and the camera - are an odd combination of hardware buttons and basic haptic feedback.  Over-firm and with minimal travel, the phone vibrates when you press them.  We'd rather have dropped the haptics and just had regular buttons.

Billed as a music phone, you'd be excused for expecting the circular control on the front of the Z9 to be an iPod-style scroll wheel.  It's actually just the D-pad with a center-select key, which seems like a missed opportunity.  Round the back lurks the 2-megapixel camera with flash and 8x digital zoom, while a micro-USB port is on the right side for charging the removable 950 mAh Lithium Ion battery and, with an adapter that was missing from our review unit, plugging in a 3.5mm headset.  Motorola don't supply a wired headset or headphones, in fact the package as a whole is quite spartan: Z9, charger, micro-USB adapter and printed manual.

Internal memory is 50MB, and there's a microSD slot (compatible with up to 8GB SDHC cards) under the rear panel but still accessible without pulling out the battery.  The Z9's media player is happy with MP3, WMA, AAC, EAAC+, Real and WAV files, as long as there's no DRM.  With no data cable included we used Bluetooth to transfer music over to the Z9; you could also download tracks directly to the handset via eMusic.com, copy them onto a microSD card or use your own cable. 

During playback, music controls light up under the D-pad and, if you move out to the homescreen, shortcuts appear on-screen that are again controlled by the D-pad.  Sound quality is very high, with the large rear speaker doing a good job but wired or wireless headphones being even more impressive.  The Z9 is also set up to use AT&T's CV video streaming service, part of the $15 a month unlimited Media Net package, with content from CNN, ESPN, Sci-fi channel, The Weather Channel and, for an extra fee, HBO.  Full episodes are available, but they're split into 5 to 10 minute chunks.  Video quality is good, though obviously you'll need a 3G signal to enjoy it without stuttering.

In fact the Z9's display is a surprising pleasure to use in general, with vibrant colors and sharp edges belying its QVGA resolution.  Videos - either local, streaming or via Video Share - are blur-free and smooth, and the Z9 makes for a decent PMP.

The Z9's camera might not score too highly in the megapixel chart, but the results are among the best we've seen for its class.  Usually low-light indoor pictures are the first to suffer, but we were consistently surprised by how well the Z9 handled them, with or without the flash.  Maximum image size is 1600 x 1200, and though there are few settings to be tweaked, the standard exposure and color balance are good enough to rely on.

Motorola have preloaded the Opera 8 web browser, and it's obvious that the Z9 is no smartphone.  Pages load quickly, assuming you've got 3G coverage, but don't expect Flash compatibility or anything too graphically rich.  It's good enough to check headlines and similar, but trying anything beyond that is frustrating.

GPS is courtesy of AT&T Navigator, a barely disguised rebadge of TeleNav's Java app, and is a $9.99 a month option.  It's worth subscribing, as functionally it's practically identical to a standalone GPS and, in some ways, an improvement: maps and Points of Interest are downloaded over the 3G network, so you know you'll be using the latest data available.  Both 2D and 3D maps can be viewed, with voice guidance (in English and Spanish), traffic alerts and the option to switch between car, pedestrian or traffic-optimized routing.  Addresses can be entered either via the keypad or by calling a toll-free number and verbally describing the location.  First satellite fix took a little over a minute, and after that Navigator found itself in under 30 seconds.

Of course, make heavy use of the media and GPS features and the battery will take a pounding.  Talktime is rated at 3hrs or standby 12 days; we found with mixed regular use of the main functions we needed to charge the Z9 every night, though leaving it for the occasional call and SMS stretched that out to every few days.

The Z9's charms grow on you, outshining the design and putting to rest the idea of Motorola's range as being merely RAZR leftovers.  As a GPS device it's useful and usable; as a PMP the sound quality and the clever controls make it a good alternative to a standalone MP3 player.  Streaming video and a web browser that, while not especially capable, is nonetheless usable add up to a more than respectable feature phone.  We might blanch a little at the price - $199.99 with a 2yr contract at time of writing, courtesy of a mail-in rebate - but if you could haggle it down in-store then we'd happily recommend the Z9.


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