Review of the Motorola i90

The i90 is the second of Motorolaís consumer-oriented iDEN phones. Until recently, all iDEN phones were rather bulky and generally oriented toward the business and industrial user. The i85 took a step in the consumer direction, followed by the i80, but the i90 is perhaps the best consumer iDEN phone to date. It isnít the first clamshell iDEN phone however (since the i1000 takes that trophy), but it is certainly the smallest and most user-friendly Iíve seen to date.

Last Updated: 13-Dec-2001

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

Menu System and General

In terms of functionality however, the i90 is very similar to the i80 and i85, and so Iíll be borrowing some of this review directly from my write-ups on those two phones. Anywhere the phones actually differ, Iíll write brand new material.

Like other very recent iDEN phones, the i90 uses a SIM. This stands for ďSubscriber Identify ModuleĒ, which is a small piece of plastic with contacts on the bottom. Not only does it provide you with your subscription information, it also stores you phonebook entries (up to 250 of them). If you move your SIM to a different iDEN phone, your subscription and phonebook follow you there. This is exactly the same concept used in GSM phones.

Beyond the SIM, the first thing you notice about the i90 is the new menu structure. Although it isnít identical with the menus found on the newest Motorola GSM and CDMA phones, it looks similar enough to be called a very close relation. Gone is the hideous user interface of the earlier iDEN phones, and in its place is a menu structure not unlike that found on Nokia phones. Secondary menus are abundant, but they donít contain quite as many options as youíll typically find on a Nokia phone.

It includes two ďsoft keysĒ (whose function changes, depending upon what you are doing at the time), and a four-way cursor key that allows for easy navigation of the phoneís menus. Like its GSM cousins the P280 and V66, and its CDMA cousins the V120 and V60, the i90 includes tons of customization features.

You can assign virtually any menu or sub-menu item in the phone to a 1- or 2-digit numeric shortcut (though the i90 stops you from using shortcuts higher than 20, which is odd). So while Nokia phones might have fixed numeric shortcuts, they are sometimes 3, 4, or even 5 digits long. In recent Nokia designs such as the 7190, the numeric menus arenít properly implemented, and they only apply to about 50% of the menus in the phone.

You can assign any of the top-level menu items to the two soft keys during idle mode. As for the main menu itself, you can even change the order of the menu items so that the ones you access the most can appear at the top (or the bottom, since thatís easy to get to as well), while the least used ones can be dumped in the middle. All in all, the menus are clean and well designed, and it goes a long way to bringing iDEN a wider market appeal.

Physically, the phone is rather fat for clamshell design. The extra bulk is to accommodate the excellent speaker needed for Direct Connect and for the Speakerphone feature. By todayís standards, it looks a little bulky, but after a while, I really got to like the overall size and appearance of the phone.

The display is almost identical to the one on the i85, but the reflective backing isnít there. The highly reflective emerald green backing on the i85 display was perhaps one of its greatest features. Without it, the i90 presents a relatively poor face to the world, and dim blue backlighting doesnít help matters much either. However, the display is definitely an improvement over the i80.

Like other new clamshell designs, the i90 also includes a one-line display on the outside of the phone. This allows you to see a number of important pieces of information without having to open the phone. This includes the date and time, the signal strength, the battery level, and Caller ID. However, I found the display too small to be practical under most circumstances. A lot depends on how good your eyesight is, and whether you need to wear glasses.

Despite its relatively small size, it still includes a built-in speaker for both Direct Connect use, and as a speakerphone when using the unit in phone mode. Unlike the ridiculous attempt at providing a speakerphone in the Ericsson R520m, the one in the i90 is positively incredible. It produces reasonable levels of clean volume that make the feature usable in most environments. It matches the quality of the sound I got from the i85ís speaker, but not the volume. The speaker on the i90 is definitely softer, but that doesnít seem to hurt it much, except under very noisy conditions.

The keypad is probably far-and-away the best Iíve ever used on an iDEN phone. The keys are easy to press, and they have just enough feedback to assure you that youíve indeed pressed them. Unlike the tiny keys found on Motorolaís V66 (GSM) phone, the keys on the i90 are large and easy to access. The brilliant blue backlighting for the keys was perhaps too bright (especially in relation to the screen), but it gives the phone a charm that seems to be lacking in phones with green or red key lighting.

Battery life was a huge disappointment. Even though the i90 used the same battery as the i85, the life expectancy was nowhere near that phone. With only 60 minutes of talk time, I managed to run the battery flat in less than 15 hours. I spoke with other i90 owners, and they confirmed that battery life was a problem for them also. It was possible that the bright blue backlight on the keypad had something to do with this, but I never tested the phone with the backlighting turned off.


Ringtones are a slight improvement over previous iDEN models, but only because the i90 includes a selection of polyphonic ringtones. These tones sound more like stuff you hear when you play MIDI files on your PC, but there is no way to upload new ones, or compose your own. Beyond that, you get the expected selection of traditional iDEN ringtones.

The polyphonic tones are really cool conversation starters, but I found them less practical than the standard rings. The biggest problem appeared to be my brainís refusal to initially believe that I was hearing a ringing phone. Iím sure that is something you will adjust to over time, if you choose to use these ringtones. In polite company however, they may be the best thing since vibrator alerts.

While it might not be so great in the ringtone department, it one-ups other Motorola phones in the Profiles department. The i90 calls them Styles, and unlike the other non-iDEN Motorola phones, you can actually create new ones, and name them whatever you want. The Style sets the backlighting duration, ringtones and volume settings.

The phone supports voice dialing, and voice commands. The voice-dialing feature is pretty much what youíd expect, so I canít really say much about that. However, the voice-commands feature was of dubious value, especially in light of the user-define numeric shortcuts. To use the voice-command feature you have to press and hold a button on the front of the phone, and then speak the command. Since you can assign two-keystroke numeric shortcuts, whatís the point of pressing a button for a period of time and the saying a word. Why not just press two buttons and be done with it? I supposed in the case of a clamshell phone, this might be of some value.

The phone can record voice notes (just like the P280), but doing so is markedly more difficult. Whereas the P280 has a button on the side for activating the voice recorder, the i90 does not. You must scroll to an appropriate menu item and select the correct soft key. This can be very difficult if you want to record a bit of an incoming call. To its credit though, the i90 stores about 5 minutes of voice vs only 1 minute on the P280.

The Phonebook was very similar to the one in P280, but with a few minor differences. The P280 stores multiple phone numbers as completely separate entries with the same name. This can be annoying, since it clutters up your Phonebook list. The i90 combines each entry into a single name in the Phonebook summary list, making it less cluttered. It therefore simulates a hierarchical phonebook better than the P280. However, like the P280, it does not support any text fields, such as an e-mail address or a street address.

The phone supports T9 predictive Text Input, which is surprising, since other Motorola phones go with their own proprietary technology called iTAP. The Mike network doesnít support outgoing SMS, but T9 is available in the browser, and it virtually every other text input prompt. It supports a user dictionary, so you can add new words and names to it.

The i90 provides that same Datebook feature as the P280. You can set up a calendar of events, complete with audible reminders. Like the P280 however, the graphical display in the ďweek viewĒ showed usage bars that cover only a 12-hour period in the day. I found it perplexing that Motorola didnít provide a 24-hour version of the display, even optionally. This applies to all new Motorola models using this menu structure.

Like the i80 and i85, itís probably one of the first phones on the market to include JAVA. This means that Java applets can be uploaded to phone to give it almost limitless functionality. Within the limits of the memory in the phone, you can upload multiple Java applets that provide various features.

SMS support is limited to incoming messages only. While the iDEN standard does appear to support outgoing SMS, the feature is not supported on Telus. For those interested merely in receiving messages, the phone handles that task fairly well, but not much differently from the P280. This is not really one of the phoneís stronger points.

While much of the interest in data seems to surround the recent release of GPRS on GSM networks, iDEN has supported its own Packet Data technology for some time now. Telus has it on their network, but they donít officially say so. Despite that, it works here in Canada, and you can use it for the microbrowser and for PC data connections.

Packet data differs from Circuit Switched data in that you are always connected, and you pay only for the bytes you send and receive. You can even receive phone calls while you are online. However, the speed is limited to about 19,200 baud on iDEN, but itís at least twice the speed of Circuit Switched data, and only about half the speed of current GPRS implementations. Apparently 19.2K is the not the upper speed limit on iDEN data. This speed only applies is 2 of the 6 slots are used. When all 6 slots are used, you can expect speeds up to 56K.

Sound Quality and RF Performance

But what about the audio performance of this phone? One of my biggest complaints about any other iDEN phones that Iíve tested is that the audio always sounded raspy and crude. I never liked it very much, and I always rated the sound of iDEN below that of the Rogers IS-136 network. Not so with the i90.

I honestly believe this is the best sounding iDEN phone that I have tested to date. It wasnít perfect, but it seemed to avoid some of the problems that eventually get to you when using the i85 or i80. The tonal balance is a little on the muddy side, but I found that infinitely preferable to the tinny sound of the i80 and i85. In addition to that, the phone seemed to be completely free of any raspiness in the audio, and it clearly sounded better than any other iDEN phone, bar none.

Donít get me wrong here, it doesnít quite match the gorgeous audio that emits from the earpiece of the P280, but I could see myself being happy with the sound of the i90 even after experiencing the P280 for a long period of time. That should give you some idea of how highly I thought of the sound provided by this phone.

RF performance seemed to be on par with the i85 as far as pulling in weak signals was concerned. However, I found that I was suffering from far more audio degradation than I ever had with the i85. The i90 behaved more like iDEN phones of yore when it came to handling frame errors. I was frequently disappointed in the way the audio degraded whenever signals were not the best. I was certain I never had that problem during the two weeks I was playing with the i85. It was approximately the same as the i80 in this regard.

Handoffs on iDEN are extremely short, and so they produce only the tiniest of breaks in the audio. Even when you are hit with multiple handoffs in a row (referred to as Thrashing) the audio isnít markedly affected. I carried on very long conversations covering large expanses of area without really noticing handoffs at all. That made it much better than my typical experience on Fido, where handoffs are often noticeable during long mobile conversations.

Indoor coverage was a bit of a mixed bag, but thatís always a matter of precisely where one needs it. In my specific instance, it failed more often than Fido did. For others, that might be the reverse. Besides, that wasnít really the phoneís fault anyway. It was a matter of site placement. A recent flurry of site construction in the GTA should ensure than Mike has coverage there that rivals anything from its competitors.


Here is how I rate the i90 for various classes of users:

Heavy Duty Phone Users

This group should find the i90 an excellent choice, especially if they also need the Direct Connect feature, and if they can live with a clamshell design. The phone has surprisingly good audio quality, a solid network, excellent speakerphone feature, and logical menu structure. This should appeal to a wide range of discriminating phone users. However, the issue of lowered RF performance compared to the i85 might be of some concern.

Data Users

Even though iDEN doesnít always support data rates as high as GPRS, it does support Packet Data. Mike has actually had packet data longer than most networks (even if they donít officially support it), so their system should be relatively stable and bug-free.

Gadget Nuts

This phone doesnít really boast a high number of gadgets, and doesnít really qualify as a gadget loverís phone of choice. However, the blue keypad, clamshell design, speakerphone, Direct Connect, and Java support might be enough to attract some from this group. This is especially true if the number of available Java applets increases over the coming months.

Fashion Conscious

Clamshell phones seem to appeal strongly to this group, and the i90 is no exception. Itís blue keypad is a definitely plus here, but the thickness of phone does tend to make it a bit bulky compared to other svelte clamshell designs such as the V60 or V66.

Heavy SMS Users

Incoming text messages are handled reasonably well, but Mike doesnít support outgoing text messages. This is likely to be a major stumbling block for this group.

General Public

Although the price is a little steep ($450 without a contract), I do believe that the average user might find plenty to love in this phone. Itís packed with plenty of extras; it provides good overall service, and itís small enough to suit most peopleís demands. If you are willing to sign a 3-year contract though, you can cut the price of the phone by at least $100 or more.