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I've always been a fan of Blackberry-style handsets with their 'always-on' keyboards. Being able to tap out emails fast without having to slide out an awkward hardware keyboard, or pull out a fiddly stylus and tap out text, one painful letter at a time, on a tiny touchscreen keyboard is a very big bonus.
The trouble is very few manufacturers - specifically those producing the Windows Mobile variants - have been able to pull off this style of handset with any degree of success. The keys on such handsets tend to be small and fiddly, as with Samsung's i600 handset; or the handsets themselves simply too large and unwieldy as a result of accommodating the full width QWERTY layout. Dialling numbers isn't easy either with the number keys typically embedded in the alphabetic layout and difficult to make out.
The superbly slim and light i-Mate Jama 201 made a good stab at the format when I reviewed it at the turn of the year, as did Samsung's recent i780, but each had usability flaws. The Motorola Q 9h, on the other hand, has none, effortlessly sweeping aside all the above concerns. In fact it's the very first Windows Mobile smartphone to take on Blackberry's best handsets at their own game and beat them in the areas where it matters most.
The main reason for this is the Q 9h's superb keyboard. The Blackberry 8800 series of phones has had the monopoly on good QWERTY keyboard design up until this point, but this Motorola's is even better. The rounded, rubbery keys are simply superb: they offer positive feedback, are just curved enough to offer a decent amount of key-to-key separation so you don't constantly wind up hitting the wrong key when typing, and the lettering and size of the keys is such that you don't have to squint to see if you're pressing the right one or not.
It's so good that I wrote the first 200 words of this very review on it while sitting on the sofa watching TV without cursing or swearing once - and it only took a few minutes of my time. In fact, next to the slide-out keyboard on the Samsung F700, I'd say this is the best hardware keyboard I've used on any phone.
Unfortunately, a phone with such a superb QWERTY thumb-board is never going to be as compact as, for instance, the Asus P320 PDA phone I reviewed recently - you simply can't make a usable keyboard much smaller than this - but Motorola has done its level best with the design to ensure it's no more bulky or ugly than it needs to be.
It's thinner than the Blackberry 8820, for instance, at 11.8mm to the Blackberry's 14.5mm, and at 134g it matches it in weight. It looks a lot nicer too, to my mind, with its rhomboid side-on profile and cool blue strip-lights surrounding the button cluster atop of the keyboard. The main five-way navigation key isn't as slick as the Blackberry devices' scrolling pearl, however, but at least it doesn't have the usability issues of the Samsung i780's innovative but problematic trackpad control.