The BlackBerry form factor — candybar style, keyboard underneath display — seems to be on the way out, dead in favor of ever-larger touchscreen displays. I’m sad about that, since I both love phones with physical keyboards and think slide-out keyboards are too large for a lot of users.
That’s why the Motorola Admiral piqued my interest — it’s a ruggedized BlackBerry-style handset, but it runs Android 2.3, so it’s already seemingly better than anything RIM has to offer. It’s the successor to the Motorola XPRT, with a faster processor, more memory, a newer version of Android, and support for Sprint’s Direct Connect walkie-talkie feature. I like the idea, but how does this $99.99 (with contract) phone perform in the wild? And does the candybar form factor still make sense in the big-screened world of 2011? Read on to find out.
Hardware / design
The Admiral is basically a slightly longer, skinnier BlackBerry Curve, or an always-opened Palm Pre. It's got a 3.1-inch display above a four-row keyboard, with four capacitive Android buttons sitting between the two. There are volume controls and the Nextel holdover Direct Connect button on the left side along with a Micro USB port; a power button and a vibrate / ringer toggle sit on top, flanking a headphone jack. There's a dedicated camera button on the right side and a camera on the textured back, and that's about it. It's relatively well-made, and feels good in my hand, though I didn't like how exact I had to be to press the capacitive buttons — if I didn't look while I tapped the outside buttons, I missed them relatively often.
The phone is noticeably thinner at the bottom than at the top, and the keys actually slope away from you, row by row — that doesn't change how the Admiral feels, but it looks bizarre. Everything is angled, ridged, and tapered, which makes the phone look really busy and bezel-heavy. The screen size also makes the keyboard look tiny, much like it does on the Palm Pre. It's not a particularly small phone — at 4.7 inches tall it's actually longer than an iPhone, and at 12mm it's thicker, too — but since both the screen and keyboard are small, the phone looks somewhat small as well. It's not heavy either, but at 4.7 ounces feels solid to hold.
The Admiral is designed to be splashproof, dustproof, shockproof, and generally ready for battle. I tossed the phone around a bit, dropped it, kicked it, and generally tried to ding it up to no avail. The back cover seemed to pop off pretty easily, but it snapped back on with no problem, so as long as you're not bounce-passing the phone into the ocean you're probably okay. I actually hope more manufacturers adopt a similarly rugged design — it doesn't need to be ready for the Arctic, but a little protection goes a long way in helping you not worry about your phone and helping you avoid those always bulky cases.
The Admiral's not the first phone to have this particular keyboard — Motorola put essentially the same four rows of slightly pointed keys on the Droid Pro, the Titanium, and several other phones as well. It's a good keyboard and easy to type on despite its smallness, thanks to the raised portions of each key, which help your fingers to discern where one key ends and another begins. I like this form factor much better than the slide-out keyboards on phones like the Samsung Captivate Glide; it's much easier to transition between keyboard and touch screen on a portrait device, and you're not constantly opening and closing the keyboard to get the screen to rotate.
The keyboard is a lot like a BlackBerry's — that's a really good thing
Keys give just the right amount, and feel just like a BlackBerry keyboard, which is high praise. (The similarities have actually gotten Motorola in legal hot water with RIM before, but their lawsuit is your gain.) I got used to this keyboard really quickly, and especially liked that all 26 letter keys are progammable — if you're on the home screen, you can set it so that pressing the search key plus a letter opens an app, which is pretty handy.
It's not as small as it seems, but it's definitely as dull
Next to the rest of the current crop of Android phones, the Admiral's 3.1-inch display feels downright miniature, but it's still bigger than the screens on most candybar handsets, and a lot bigger than most BlackBerry devices. The bigger problem: with a resolution of only 640 x 480, things just don't look that good on the screen. I usually prefer a 4:3 display, but in this case it hurts the experience; a taller screen would be more usable in portrait mode, which is how you'll use a candybar phone 99 percent of the time anyway. The Admiral also uses too-small text for nearly everything, to the point where I was basically shoving the phone up my nose so I could read on the screen.
It's not easy to see individual pixels, and there's not a lot of fringing or discoloration, but it's kind of dull: colors look washed out and muted in general, and get even worse in any kind of daylight or when looked at off-axis. Blacks are more like charcoal, and every color is a softer, lower-contrast version of itself. Side-by-side with the crystal clarity of the LG Nitro HD or even the Captivate Glide (whose screen I don't love except in comparison), the Admiral's decidedly bland.
The Admiral runs Android 2.3.5, plus Motorola's Blur skin. Blur's a pretty wide-ranging skin that changes most screens and apps, though I don't have the same animosity toward its aesthetic as I do toward Samsung's TouchWiz. Everything is done up in gray, which is just as well since every color's boring on the display anyway. The Admiral's customizations are much quieter than on the Droid RAZR, which Nilay described as "screaming at you," but I'd take the screaming UI for the features Motorola added to the RAZR, like Motocasts and Smart Actions, none of which are to be found here.
Instead of Motorola's cool apps, the Admiral comes preloaded with the standard set of carrier and manufacturer bloatware. After about five minutes, my eyes were trained to just ignore the yellow icons of Sprint Zone, Sprint Radio, Sprint Music Plus, Sprint Mobile Wallet, and all the rest. Beyond those, though, it's not too bad — there's a NASCAR app, a Phone Portal app, TeleNav GPS, and not much else. Some of the apps can be uninstalled, but you're stuck with most of them.
Blur's crowning achievement is a half-decent Music app
One app that Motorola changed for the better is the Music app, which is decidedly more powerful on the Admiral than on most Android phones. You can listen to music, podcasts, and internet radio through the app, and there's some handy DLNA functionality as well. I'm a serial tester of new music apps because none ever seems to do everything I need it to, and this one is much closer than most to an iPod-challenger music app.
The 5-megapixel camera on the back of the Admiral takes decent pictures, as long as the light is good or you use the flash. Its problem, like many smartphones, is that it's so insanely slow that framing a shot of a moving object is completely futile — by the time you account for the second or more of autofocus and shutter lag, you're shooting a totally different picture than you thought. If you can capture it just right, though, photos don't look bad; they're soft and noisy even in good lighting, but they're still only what I like to call "Facebook Usable." Ditto for video: the Admiral shoots soft and noisy 720p video, but if you're content to look at it in a YouTube window rather than on your HDTV, it gets the job done fine. There's no front-facing camera, which is just as well since video chatting on Android isn't a good experience at all.
The camera app is a bright spot, though it doesn't do much to make the camera itself better. It's super simplified, with only the shutter and zoom showing until you hit Menu, at which point a bunch of settings pop out and can be easily changed. I hope Motorola sticks with this app, and speeds up the camera in a huge way — that would be a sweet combination.
Your best bet is just to stay outside
Performance, call quality, and battery life
It'd be a more impressive phone if it came out a year ago
If all you need to do on a phone is make phone calls, send texts and emails, and browse on occasion, the Admiral will suit you well. It does all the basics quickly and easily, without any problems. Where it stumbles is on more intensive apps, or if you're trying to move between apps a lot; the 1.2GHz single-core processor doesn't keep up quite like the dual-core phones released in the last year. The Admiral performs like a good phone from a year ago, capably but without the blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed of today's best phones.
I'm not sure which part of the phone to blame for my biggest problem with using the Admiral: the phone doesn't seem to know the difference between tapping and scrolling. I constantly launched apps when I wanted to scroll through the drawer, and opened links when I wanted to move down the page. It's as if the phone takes too long to register that you've touched the screen, and then it snaps into action and launches the nearest thing to your finger. It's incredibly annoying, and almost singlehandedly made me hate using the phone.
Call quality was a mixed bag. The Admiral's earpiece and microphone put out slightly muffled sound — callers told me I sounded like I was talking through a blanket, and they sounded the same to me. The earpiece was really loud, though, which helped the problem a bit; I rarely had trouble telling what people were saying, even though they didn't sound very good. The speakerphone was just out-and-out bad: it sounded okay as long as I was right up next to the mic, but as soon as I moved further away I got really quiet and really distorted, and after about four feet was totally inaudible. I wasn't able to test Sprint's Direct Connect feature other than to say the app works well, but with the phone held close to your face it should sound fine too.
Sprint's 3G network in New York City is anemic at best, and since the Admiral can't connect to Sprint's 4G WiMAX network it's all you'll get. During my tests in the Verge office and on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, I mostly saw numbers like 52Kbps down — anything over 1Mbps was really rare. I almost always got faster upload speeds (typically somewhere in the 300-500Kbps range), which is bizarre. Don't try to stream video on Sprint 3G — you'll be haunted by the spinning wheel and "buffering..." images forever.
Your connection might be slow, but you'll have plenty of time to wait because the Admiral's battery life is quite good. It consistently lasted me a day and a half of normal use (lots of email and texts, some browsing, a few phone calls), which is rare these days. Of course, given that the longevity is likely due to a poor screen and bad connectivity, it might not be worth it, but hey, it's something.
It's better than a BlackBerry, but that's not saying much
I’d recommend the Admiral over any BlackBerry handset on the market, simply because it runs Android. But there’s nothing admirable about the Admiral; it’s just a good messaging phone with a good keyboard, though not necessarily a good phone phone. I wish it were more like the Dell Venue Pro, which may be gigantic, but it makes no sacrifices and has both a good screen and a good keyboard. Overall, the Admiral is nowhere near the top-end of Android phones, or even of Sprint smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S II or the Nexus S 4G, which have much better displays and much better performance. Sprint also seems to have a fetish for keyboarded smartphones, so the Admiral’s competition is steep there, too — the Samsung Replenish, Sprint Express, and even Motorola’s own XPRT and Titanium all look and operate just like the Admiral. The Admiral is a fine phone, but nothing about it stands out and makes it worth your money.