Katherine Boehret

In Mobile Gymnastics, the Motorola Backflip Scores a 6

Touch screens are now prevalent enough on mobile devices that I find myself touching the screens of every new gadget I see. My trusty index finger of a stylus is ready at all times to swipe, pinch, double tap and scroll since these are natural gestures.

Yet touch screens have some downsides. Finger gestures leave smudge marks on the glass screens and monopolize screen real estate, making it hard to show the screen to someone while navigating. Also, touch screens often require two hands.

This week, I tested a smart phone with a solution for two of the three touch-screen problems. The Motorola Backflip (http://3.ly/Ku9), which became available March 7, lets people navigate its screen by touching a panel behind it, thus keeping fingers off of the screen. This trackpad-like panel is appropriately named the Backtrack and works like magic: On-screen objects are selected, text scrolls and screens open, but you can’t see the fingers manipulating the screen because they’re hidden behind it.

The Backflip, which runs on AT&T’s (T) 3G network, costs $100 after a $100 mail-in rebate and a two-year agreement. Its name comes from its design: The Backflip’s screen seems to flip backward when the QWERTY keyboard flips down for use. In the device’s “closed” position, the keyboard flips back up and is automatically turned off.

I’ve been using the Motorola Backflip for emailing, Web browsing, social networking, taking photos and making phone calls. While I applaud its creative design and the idea of the Backtrack, I think it sacrifices functionality for form. Take, for example, its QWERTY keyboard, which has a subtly handsome design when the Backflip is closed. But when used for typing, its shallow keys don’t give much tactile feedback and are tough to use. Likewise, the Backtrack is clever, but only works when the phone is the flat, opened position, forcing people to reach around both the keyboard and the screen to use it. I often found myself giving up and just touching the screen directly, which also works.

Other companies’ mobile devices have found ways around actually touching their touch screens, silly as it may sound. Palm’s (PALM) Pre and Pixi models use a gesture area beneath the screen to navigate—with just one hand holding and swiping.

mossberg2

The Backflip in opened position.

I easily set up two email accounts and Twitter and Facebook accounts on my Backflip. There are also shortcuts for setting up accounts for Picasa, Photobucket, Bebo, LastFM and MySpace.

The Motorola Backflip runs Motoblur, the company’s social-network and message-consolidating software, which I found to be an attractive interface with intelligent capabilities. For instance, if it senses you’re checking it a lot, it will update the displayed messages more frequently. Motoblur also uses images from contacts, like their Facebook or Twitter photo, and displays these as small background icons behind Motoblur messages from that person. This is a small detail, but it brings an extra spark of life to everyday messages.

But Motoblur lacks one of the most popular Twitter functions: the ability to re-tweet, or re-message someone else’s tweet (Twitter status). A Motorola (MOT) representative said re-tweet is under evaluation, but won’t disclose details about timing. Motoblur has been available for six months, first seen in the Motorola CLIQ.

Oddly, the Backflip runs the Android 1.5 operating system, not the newest Android 2.1. A Motorola representative said the company plans to update this but wouldn’t say when. It seems strange for a brand-new device not to run the newest operating system.

Phone calls were clear and loud, and photos captured on the five-megapixel, flash, digital zoom camera looked great. I enjoyed using the Backflip’s bright, 3.1-inch screen with 320×480 pixel resolution. Though I wasn’t crazy about typing on its keyboard, I did like the keyboard shortcut keys for the Web browser, home, email and search. With the Backflip in its opened position, I used the Backtrack—the trackpad behind the screen—to skip around from one thing to the next. Double tapping on anything selected it, and I swiped my fingers down on the Backtrack to scroll a long news story on the browser.

The Backflip is designed so that whenever it’s plugged into its wall charger or set at a 90-degree angle, it goes into Tabletop mode, showing a large digital clock with the local weather, date and options for setting an alarm. This mode also offers a button for watching the device’s photos in a slow-panning, Ken Burns-like slideshow, which is useful for sharing with friends.

Monthly AT&T plans that work with the Backflip include a combination of the carrier’s required $30 unlimited data plan and a $40, $60 or $70 voice plan. It comes with a 2-gigabyte memory card, though it will work with one that holds up to 32 gigabytes. Its internal memory is 512 megabytes, and the memory available for apps is 220 megabytes, though certain apps can offload some data they use onto the roomier card.

Motorola deserves credit for trying an innovative design and for offering a unique way of moving fingers off of the touch screen. But the Backflip device seems unfinished because of several features that don’t work as well as they should.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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