Review: Motorola Charm - not free enough

August 30, 2010: 1:07 PM ET

The Motorola Charm carried by T-Mobile is a low end Android phone. That would be fine if it wasn't priced the same as T-Mobile's high end line.

I've been playing with the Motorola Charm carried by T-Mobile for a few days now.  I was originally excited by this device because I thought it would be a good replacement for Blackberry users who wanted to move over to Android. The form factor, illustrated on the right, is the first Android that is reminiscent of they typical BlackBerry (RIMM) and it runs a fairly modern version of Android OS 2.1, which guarantees some exciting features.

The phone itself is short and stout -- as fat as an EVO 4G -- but two-thirds the height, with a full, but cramped hardware Qwerty keyboard. That means the screen is especially small for an Android device.

It has squared off plastic on the sides, colored and shaped a bit like an iPhone 4 knockoff.  The hardware keyboard has usable plastic keys but nothing that's going to make Droid 2 or Epic 4G users sweat. On the back is a 3-megapixel camera and a useless scroll pad, which it shares with the Motorola Backflip.

Booting up the phone, you'll notice two things right away.  One, you have to sign into Motorola's Blur like it is a service or special OS.  You won't likely have a Blur ID and password, so this is an especially long process for something you'll only find annoying later. Also, the screen resolution, even for a screen as small as the one on the Charm, isn't great. It is 320x240 QVGA, something that was acceptable a few years ago. Fonts are pixelated and the color overall doesn't match up with high end Android devices, including others from Motorola (MOT) and T-Mobile.  The Blur overlay on this device is as thick as it gets.

It doesn't get much better from there...

The first home screen you'll come to (And one most novice users won't initially know how to change) has a Facebook and Twitter feed widget covering the whole screen. I call this the "Kin approach." Social overkill.

While it is nice to have some social features, it isn't what I search for first with my smartphone. More important things, including phone, email, web browsing, even maps, should be front page options. This shows that the phone isn't aimed at Blackberry users but more at that huge "Kin" market segment.

But this is all forgivable because this is a low-end phone. It does run Android 2.1 passably enough for a Blackberry user to be impressed. It browses with a fast Webkit browser and you can download the latest version of Google's Maps application and use it as a GPS.  The GPS works reasonably well and even allows voice navigation. Phone calls work as expected too. The short stature makes talking a bit strange but not a deal-breaker.

The three-megapixel camera takes decent pictures but doesn't have a flash. Again, this is low end. I found the mic wasn't as accurate as other Android phones when doing Google searches but there is no way to measure this.

Who is this phone for?

Initially, I thought this would be a good phone for Blackberry converts and wanted an easy transition to Android. After having used it for a few days, it feels like the Charm is aimed at the Kin audience, the Social Media addict tweens out there.

My two year old enjoyed the Charm's keyboard.

Here's why I think it will, if packaged like it is currently, be a hard sell:

T-Mobile's charging $77 w/2 year plan for the Charm. That's the carrier's cheapest listed Android phone. But, if you take a holistic view of your cell phone bill, the initial charge is microscopic compared to the cost over two years. And, the Charm costs the same monthly as a T-Mobile Vibrant, its flagship Android device. And you can get the Vibrant for $49 if you order online (the Charm's is free with plan if ordered online).

Many considered this the Kin's fatal flaw. Even though the phone was offered at a significant discount, Verizon still charged the same per month as a high end phone, making it silly not to invest in something with more features.

The same holds true with the Charm. If you want a good Android phone on T-Mobile, get the Vibrant. If you need a keyboard, wait for the G2 on T-Mobile in a month (or pick up an old G1 on eBay). If you like the short stature, check out the HTC Aria on AT&T's (T) network, which doesn't have a hardware keyboard but is much smaller with a much better screen.

The point here is that T-Mobile can't make these phones cheap enough. When you have your flagship phone coming in at just $50 more over two years out of around a ~$2000 total (or 2% more expensive), there is very little reason not to just go with the high end.  If T-Mobile wants to sell any Charms, they have to move the needle a little bit. They have three choices as I see it:

  • Sell the Charm for less than free. That is, offer rebates that make the effective cost of buying one of these less than the plan alone. Perhaps $20 off the first 6 months of fees?
  • Offer a lower-priced data/voice plan. Perhaps one that runs only on EDGE networks or is capped, so that people don't abuse the system. If T-Mobile doesn't want the Charm to fall victim to the same fate as the Kin, they need to charge less overall.
  • Only lock Charm users in for one year. Offer the Charm for free with a one-year commitment. These things will be woefully slow at that point anyway.

If, for some reason, you need the BlackBerry form factor and don't mind the many lower-end features of this device, snap yourself up one free with a two year plan. But don't say I didn't warn you.

The Charm flanked by Blackberry Torch left, T-Mobile Vibrant right, and Samsung EVO bottom.

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About This Author
Seth Weintraub
Seth Weintraub

Google went from searching the Web to worming its way into nearly every facet of business and government. Seth Weintraub unveils where the company is going, who it's competing with, who it's about to compete with and how market forces push the company to veer or adhere to its Don't Be Evil motto. For 15 years, Weintraub was a global IT director for a number of companies before becoming a blogger.

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