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Motorola ZN5: the good, the bad, and the ugly

So I played with the Motorola ZN5 (ZINE) for almost a month, and it’s been a mixed bag. The camera is absolutely fantastic, but data connectivity is severely lacking because the phone was crippled by T-Mobile…

It’s not a smarphone – feature-wise, the Motorola ZN5 (ZINE) is very similar to the Sony Ericsson K850i, which I reviewed last year. The main difference is that 3G on the K850i was replaced with WiFi on the ZN5.

The good:
– It’s small, thin, and well made
– Awesome 5 megapixel Kodak camera with auto-focus, macro, xenon flash and lens cover
– Nice, bright QVGA screen
– WiFi support
– Bluetooth DUN (tethering), ObEx (file transfer/sync), and A2DP (stereo audio)
– Decent music player and FM radio
– Standard 3.5 mm audio connector
– USB 2.0 mass-storage/charge support (with standard connector)
– Great reception/call quality
– Excellent battery life
– USB data cable and 1 GB micro-SD card supplied with device

The bad:
– Slow operation at times
– Poor HTML web browser (requires manually switching between EDGE and WiFi)
– No iSync support (but vCard support)
– No accelerometer, 3G or GPS
– Micro-SD slot behind battery

The ugly:
– WiFi is disabled until after a SIM with a valid data plan is inserted
– WiFi is only available for web browsing and transferring pictures to the Kodak or T-Mobile gallery
– Crippled Java support (no data connectivity for installed applications)
– Poor video recording quality, limited to QCIF (176×144 pixels at 15 fps)
– No configurable POP3/IMAP/IM client
– Email client cannot be used to send pictures
– APN/WAP settings cannot be changed to use the G1/Total Internet data plan
– No multitasking other than music
– Inoperable without SIM inserted

I’ll be reviewing the camera separately, but I’m pretty sure the ZN5 is one of the top camera phones on the market today. Overall picture quality and low-light performance are great, startup time and auto-focus are even faster than other devices. It’s also a decent music phone.

If you’re looking for a solid budget phone with a fantastic camera and a decent music player, and you’re willing to ignore the dismal Java support, perhaps the T-Mobile version of the ZN5 is worth considering (on contract).

Me? I can’t recommend this device until an unlocked/uncrippled bootloader/firmware flashing solution is available!

26 thoughts on “Motorola ZN5: the good, the bad, and the ugly Leave a comment

  1. Shame it doesn’t have GPS, that would be the one killer feature that would make me get this in my never ending pursuit to buy the best camera fone.

  2. I’d like follow-up on some of the “bad” and “ugly” comments. Regarding the poor HTML browser, Opera Mini is reported to work.

    You mentioned “no iSync” support, but it does support the SyncML standard [1], so some kind of syncing is possible.

    You said “WiFi is disabled until after a SIM with a valid data plan is inserted”, but other users report using WiFi with no data plan [2].

    You mentioned the lack of a configurable mail client, but did you try any of the free Java ones? [3]

    Finally, you mentioned the Java networking was crippled, but how did you test that to confirm it?

    Thanks for the review. I’m considering getting this phone myself, but would like to clarify some of the conflicting reports I’m finding online.


  3. @Mark,

    [1] Sure, there is SyncML support, and sure there is Motorola’s crappy PC software, but there is no iSync support at this time (neither Apple nor Motorola offer a plugin). I tried making my own plugin like I have for other devices but was unable to get it working. I was able to sync by transferring vCards over Bluetooth, but that’s less than ideal.

    [2] When I used a pre-paid T-Mobile SIM, I was unable to use WiFi. Once I inserted a post-paid T-Mobile SIM with a data plan, it worked fine. I find this odd. Maybe T-Mobile decided to do this because the phone is meant to be used with post-paid plans?

    [3] Yes, I was able to install several Java applications (including email clients), and yes I was able to confirm that Java networking is crippled. There is no data connectivity for installed Java applications. In the Java settings for each application all networking options are grayed out, with “Do not allow” selected. Basically, only Java applications signed by T-Mobile have data connectivity (like the crappy supplied email and IM clients).

    The bottom line is that T-Mobile crippled a lot of functionality on the phone, As a satisfied, long-time T-Mobile customer, I find this extremely disappointing.

    Hopefully, you read my followup review of the camera.

  4. tnkgirl, Thanks for the follow-up.

    I’ll weigh these points as I consider my quest for an affordable phone that allows wifi access without a data plan. Except for this matter of crippling network access for Java applets, I think the ZN5 could be it.

  5. I researched T-mobiles network crippling some more. This page seems to confirm it. The best summary from the page is this:

    ISSUE 1 – Some T-Mobile phones have a firmware lockout on the phone preventing third party apps from accessing the Internet. This is the problem I saw on the Nokia 5300, Nokia 6133, Samsung T519 and Samsung T809. This has NOTHING to do with which service plan you choose; it is a block that T-Mobile builds into the handset. It applies only to T MOBILE BRANDED models of a growing list of NEW phones.

    ISSUE 2 – INDEPENDENTLY and SEPARATELY, T-Mobile has been doing port blocking on the $5.99 plan in some metro areas to prevent other phones which CAN run unsigned third party Internet apps from accessing the Internet with those third party apps. This blocking seems to be inconsistent, affecting some metro areas and not others, which is why people are having trouble nailing it down. This is done at the NETWORK level not the handset level.

    NON ISSUE – None of this affects smartphones such as the Dash, Blackberry or Sidekick, using the $19.99 or $29.99 Internet plans.

    So it seems a possible workaround is buying an unlocked and unbranded ZN5 on E-bay. You’ll pay $200 or more, but will open up the phone to many more applications, and be free of a two year contract. Unfortunately, I can’t see how to checkout on the T-mobile site without buying a phone. Perhaps bringing your own phone to a physical T-mobile location would work.

  6. I called T-mobile to ask about the option to bring your handset. The rep confirmed they allow that, and said the way to do it is simply bring the self-acquired phones to a physical T-mobile location, and they can activate them.

  7. @Mark,

    None of this is news to me, but I’m sure it’s helpful to my readers… Thanks!

    Regarding ISSUE 1, I never implied that T-Mobile is doing anything else than crippling Java connectivity on certain phones (most non-smartphone like the Motorola ZN5).

    What’s unusual here, is that I was unable to use WiFi upon first boot after inserting a pre-paid SIM. WiFi should just work, regarding of the plan. After inserting a post-paid SIM with a data plan, WiFi worked fine, and continued to be available even when I switched the SIM back to pre-paid.

    BTW, I was able to reproduce this by reflashing the phone firmware (effectively restoring factory settings). Again, this is device-specific crippling.

    About ISSUE 2, I’ve been using and reviewing phones for years on both T-Mobile and AT&T (formerly Cingular) – both regular devices and smartphones, some branded/locked but most unlocked. I’m well aware of port blocking with the T-Mobile’s $5.99 basic data plan.

    FYI, I have a G1 data plan which works with any device after setting the APN to epc.tmobile,com. On some devices (like the Motorola ZN5) T-Mobile disables access the WAP/APN settings, locking the APN to, ie. the $5.99 basic data plan.

    Clearly, the unlocked version of the Motorola ZN5 is exempt of these limitations.

  8. Thanks for the review–it’s worth noting as an update that there are now several replacement firmwares available for the ZN5 that open up WIFI on the T-Mobile branded version of the phone.

  9. Hello there

    Really well written review and good comments as well. Just a few comments most of which are comparisons to my older Nokia 6682 from Q1 2003.
    1. Yes Wifi is crippled and rectifies with reflashing factory ROM. Now gmail, gmaps and opera work fine.
    2. For a 500mHz processor it is way too slow, for a linux m/c there is very little user freedom.
    3. Hate the list form of menu system, why cant they make the 3×3 or 3×4 icon matrix they have in the main menu in all sub levels too.
    4. Does not support Company name phones (will end up as No Name, the company name is in one of the obscure fields)
    5. Searching in phone book will search either first name or last name (depending on your sort setting, but never other fields like company name) my 6682 searched every where.
    6. After reflashing I see a new office menu, which has SyncML. and it clearly says if u use a mac go to isync and synchronize. But no plug-in for isync.
    7. Does not sync with isync. Like tnkgrl I tried to write my own plug in but in vain. I called tech support to find out that those fields mean so I can put in the right values, well they have no clue and Level 2 Tech Support have not even heard of isync.
    8. Java was crippled and multi-application handling & switching is abysmal, why cant they learn form a 4 year old nokia which had a task manager.
    9. BTW if u copy a multi-VCF file to the memory card and try to import it to address book (since it cant sync). it will duplicate the entry (phone mem + Sim) and fail complaining that it cant copy more than 150 addresses to the sim (which i did not ask it to do).

    Well I do have a lot more to rant about, but here is the gist the day device manufacturers stop brown nosing service providers and take user experience as the primary goal then they will be as successful as apple and every product will be a “jesus phone”.
    as soon as an android ROM becomes available I’m reflashing this stupid phone.

  10. WiFi works if you change your browser profile to WiFi as your default (t-zones is the default setting that causes browsing problems without a data plan). I bought this phone so I wouldn’t have to pay for a data plan and I get web access just fine (go to: fun & apps>web access>browser setup>browser profiles and change it from there).

    I was able to download the google maps app (cancel when it asks if you want an unsigned app, and keep re-downloading it, you’ll eventually get a signed version), but that trick didn’t work for gmail.

    • Hi Ginger!

      Thank you SO much for pointing this out. And here I was blaming T-Mobile for trying to force a data plan on me…

      Can I install a flash player?

  11. Oh, I forgot to add, to get the google maps app to work, change the app settings (go directly to that app, click options>manage>app settings) and change it to WiFi. It doesn’t seem to want to work in java.

  12. Hi,
    I have a Motorola ZN5 Model Phone
    I have a issue with it, plz help me.
    When i go to the Multimedia-Media finder – Music Library – All Songs, the songs from the Memory card is not showing there.
    Its the same with the pictures as well,
    Even if a take picture now and press the Photo shortcut button, there are no pictires at all.
    I did a software update today & checked – I still have the same problem.
    But when i checked in the Filemanager – All the songs & the picture are still there.
    Please help me out.

  13. Hey All… Thanks for the info – I’m looking to downgrade from iPhone-land and have a phone that makes and takes calls, primarily. My only other must-have function is the ability to post to a wordpress photoblog.

    two questions: does this phone work with AT&T?
    can I upload images (via WiFi is fine) to wordpress?

    Thanks in advance,

  14. So i purchased this phone years ago loved it so muah that instead of am upgrade i choose to buy it again but now that fb is all the rage i come across a prob i tried to upload i pic and it states that my browser does not support please help the whole reason for the phone is for the great photos but what is the use if i cant share them

  15. Hi tnkgrl –

    Looks like this thread is pretty dead, but I just got unlocked versions of this phone as I needed a cure for the common smartphone, and the *only* issue so far is that syncing contacts is ridiculously hard. You seem to know your way around sync issues; would you have any time to walk a poor tech soul through some workarounds?



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