Pawnshop Review: Motorola ES400

Windows Mobile Smartphone That Never Reached the Masses

Many devices, despite not being particularly different from other, are not built with the mass consumer in mind. They are not marketed towards your average Joe, either — he wouldn’t find them appealing anyway — and are virtually unknown outside the niche they aim to cover. In fact, many companies which focus on selling their products to specific enterprises outright refuse to do the business with individuals… which makes them way too interesting for a layman when they do find the way in their hands.

Especially if the said layman is a nutjob that likes obsolete mobile tech and the device in question is an enterprise PDA.

Every few days or so, I casually search for local deals for old and used smart devices, be it Windows Mobile phones or electronic organizers by Palm or Casio. For several months, the search was fruitless, as the results were mostly consisting of banged-up Samsung WiTus and egregiously expensive Palm Tungstens. Imagine my surprise when, one day, I’ve stumbled on a phone that was in a good condition and reasonably priced, and, on top of that, was made by a respectable company — and I had no idea it was making Windows Mobile devices.

The hero of this story, in its black-and-orange glory. Is is a phone or a Caterpillar truck?

Well, it’s not like Motorola have gradually went from making RAZRs and ROKRs to producing rugged handhelds for industrial applications. That part of its business was inherited from Symbol Technologies, which Motorola Inc. acquired in 2007. In 2011, when Motorola spun off its consumer division as Motorola Mobility (which was acquired by Google shortly after, then sold to Lenovo), the core company, renamed Motorola Solutions, continued creating and maintaining Symbol devices using both brands simultaneously. Three years later, Zebra Technologies bought the enterprise division of Motorola Solutions, including Symbol Technologies, and continues to provide their customers with new Zebra-branded devices and the updates for Motorola/Symbol ones.

I haven’t really knew all of that back when I was gazing at the display window of the pawnshop. All I knew is, this thing looks unique enough to tinker with, and that was enough to shell out some symbolic sum of money.

As a mobile phone, Motorola ES400 does not look as ridiculous as other enterprise mobile computers — you can actually use it as a phone in public and don’t look like a doofus. (Try to do that with a warehouse data terminal, I dare you.) In fact, apart from the vertically-oriented screen, it looks pretty much like a rugged version of other QWERTY smartphones from 2010, Nokia E72 and BlackBerry Torch 9800 — it even has the same optical navi button. It would probably even be as thin, if it wasn’t for the 3080 mAh extended battery installed by the previous user.

The “barcode” button to the left of the navi button is the only thing that shows ES400’s main purpose — to assist with capturing of goods. Once you press the button, the camera turns on, and the LED on the back projects the red line of light to the object, making it easier to scan barcodes without looking at the phone’s screen. The 3.2 Mpix camera does not produce good shots, but the bright “flash”-like LED and autofocus make it serviceable for the task which it was probably designed for — shooting documents, writings and business cards. (Unfortunately, the built-in camera app does not support focusing by touching the optical button — I loved that feature on Nokia E72 and HTC Touch Diamond.)

The camera’s LED is way too bright to be used when making photos of people.

Speaking of touching — Motorola ES400 has a fingerprint scanner. It’s placed on the back of the device near the camera; this location is much loved by Android phone manufacturers today, but the mobile devices of yore tended to have it on the front. It obviously doesn’t work as well as modern ones, but it gets the job done. Sure, false negatives occur way too often, and registering all your ten fingers is essential if you don’t want to be locked out, but the unauthorized person has absolutely no chance to unlock the phone with their finger.

The hardware QWERTY keyboard isn’t the best I’ve used, but it gets the job done. The Fn key works only like a switch, which makes entering phone numbers in two-handed mode not as natural as it could be. I also tend to press the email button most of the time I want to press Shift, but that’s not really a problem since most keys can be remapped. By the way, holding the email button switches the navi button from 4-way mode to the trackpad mode, which makes the mouse cursor to appear on screen. While the idea of using a virtual mouse instead of a touchscreen sounds goofy, it comes in handy quite often, considering that the borderless resistive panel is notably worse than the concealed or capacitive one. (It was the time when everyone tried to mimic the touch hardware of the iPhone while being on a budget.) The stylus isn’t great, too — sure, it’s long and rather comfortable, but it seems to be made of very bendable plastic, and there are too many reports on the Web about the stylus snapping in two.

I haven’t got around to testing the cellular capabilities of the device, but I suppose it can be quite usable as a mobile phone even today — heck, it even supports 3.5G, which isn’t shabby for such morally obsolete hardware. There’s more: being built for worldwide deployment, Motorola ES400 supports both GSM and CDMA standards, on both worldwide and American frequency bands! Overall, the device was considered quite feature-packed for its time, and it actually has everything the user from 2016 can expect from a modern phone — from Bluetooth and GPS to gyroscope and ambient light sensors.

In a somewhat peculiar fashion, the back of the device has several open electrical contacts. Since the microUSB port is behind the rubber cover — it’s a certified waterproof device, after all, — these are what official car holders and dock stations use. Apparently Motorola also had a holster with contacts in it — the phone selected a specific sound profile and put itself to sleep once the user put in the holster. Neat-o.

Motorola ES400 came with Windows Mobile 6.5.3 out of box and was later updated to Windows Embedded Handheld — which is essentially the same exact thing, only strapped of consumer branding and equipped with more under-the-hood updates. The 6.5 version (and 6.5.3 revision in particular) definitely do not represent what was Windows Mobile platform in the days of its glory; it was a stopgap Windows Mobile release designed to make the wait for brand-new Windows Phone 7 a little less painful, and all visible “enhancements” consisted of half-baked finger-friendly UI elements carried over from the abandoned “Windows Mobile 7”/Photon project. Nevertheless, it is a peak of the platform’s technical capabilities, and the Motorola hardware, while not being the strongest in the Windows Mobile camp, certainly lets the system shine.

The UI mishmash and the variety of vendor-specific shells were typical for Microsoft’s entire lineup of pre-Windows Phone mobile systems.

Motorola has done quite a great job improving the Windows Mobile UI with its own set of tools and gadgets. (Virtually no-one produced Windows Mobile devices without their own UI enhancements or alternative launchers — the vanilla system just wasn’t going to cut it as is.) While it’s nothing to write home about the Motorola home screen, — although I’m honestly surprised the weather widget still works, — the new notification area is genuinely useful, and I like the grey-and-orange “industrial” theme which suits the device’s robust appearance.

Obviously, the device also has plenty of software enhancements made specifically for the needs of the industry. Namely, the Wi-Fi is managed by proprietary Fusion software suite, which, while being way more functional and future-proof than the default solution, is way too complicated if all you need to do is to connect to your home hotspot. (You can pass over the Wi-Fi management back to Windows Mobile, although you got to find that option in labyrinthine settings menu first.) There are also a number of bundled enterprise apps which are no use for anyone without an appropriate infrastructure being set up, as well as a bunch of debug tools of similar usefulness.

The system recognized the USB On-the-Go drive the moment it was plugged in. The instruction manual says Motorola’s USB-host can be used to connect printers, too.

Aside from all that fluff, it’s still Windows Mobile — a system which even back then was considered slow and clunky, yet which had excessive amount of applications written for it. That’s the reason all those Windows Mobile 6.5 devices popped up when the platform was on its way out — enterprises just had too much task-specific software written for it. There were plenty of general-purpose software too — from YouTube and Facebook to eBook readers, productivity tools and games. Some of the latter actually still hold up well (I love playing Warlords II and Ultima Underworld on the go!), but that’s the topic for another time. The integrated Microsoft Office suite is a neat addition too, and it was one of the most compelling reasons to buy a Windows Mobile device back when the idea of Office Mobile going multiplatform was unheard of.

After all the praises, I have to say that I am somewhat annoyed by the way Zebra Technologies handles the distribution of the software updates. First of all, I have to note that I was extremely happy to see Motorola ES400 still getting regular software updates (the last one was published mere months ago!). However, most hotfixes require you being the Zebra customer and having the contract for the exact phone, down to the specific serial number. Some of them are, strictly speaking, quite vital — the latest one, for example, adds the support of SHA-2 certificates, which would let one update the system’s root certificates, thus making it possible to connect to modern Exchange servers and notably improving the overall web browsing experience. I understand why the company keeps them behind the contract, but not sure if it’s ultimately worth it, and hope the company will publish all the updates once the support will be ceased. I don’t hold my hopes, though… at least I’ve got the Embedded Handheld upgrade.

Update (Dec 08, 2017): On November 2017, right upon the ending of long-term device support, Zebra have published the last system software update without any restrictions. After the updating, Motorola ES400 runs Windows Enterprise Handheld 6.5 with Adaptation Kit Upgrade 30, which means I can now install the SHA-2 certificates on it (the support was added in AKU 25). I’ve yet to try that, though — all I can say is, the device still cannot connect to modern Exchange servers out of the box.

Motorola ES400 isn’t the best Windows Mobile device, and it does not really looks and controls like one. But, being made for specifically for the pickiest crowd and during the last days of the platform, it does represent the peak of its technical capabilities. Pity it wasn’t released to the retail market, as it could have been a solid contestant to the title of the best QWERTY/business phone of 2010 and a worthy rival of Nokia’s offerings. However, by fading into obscurity, it became somewhat a collector’s item — not to mention that it was truly built to last and thus can serve as a robust secondary phone even today.

Photos: Yuri Litvinenko, Flickr, CC-BY 2.0

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