Motorola on Friday lifted the wraps from four carrier-specific models of the successor to its hugely popular Razr flip phone. Here's the scoop, along with my first impressions of some sample Razr 2s we received.

All-tel, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon versions of the Razr 2 should all be available shortly (with UK mobile phone company versions to follow), and aside from their network support, they'll be differentiated primarily by the three applications you'll be able to run -- without even opening the phone -- by touching your fingertip to on-screen buttons on an exceptionally large (two-inches) and sharp (QVGA) external colour screen. The cool factor here: Those two-dimensional buttons provide tactile feedback thanks to haptics technology that makes them vibrate briefly when you touch them.

The Razr 2 actually will come in three hardware flavours. The V9 will support AT&T's super-fact HSDPA network (where available); the V9m (shown above) will support the Alltel/Sprint/Verizon counterpart wireless broadband technology, EVDO. The V8, which has no announced carrier here yet, supports the slower EDGE technology that proceeds HSDPA on the GSM road map.

However all of these phones will boast the same super-skinny Razr profile, handsome steel case (I got one in black from Verizon, a dark slate blue Sprint phone and a rust-coloured AT&T handset), a big (2.2-inch) QVGA internal screen, integrated two-megapixel camera, stereo Bluetooth, voice recognition, and support for up to 2GB of on-board flash memory with an optional microSD card.

Verizon became the first carrier to announce its Razr 2 plans this morning, saying it will begin selling the V9m in September for US$350 with a two-year contract (a $50 mail-in rebate will be available).

Verizon's implementation of the design makes a music player, camera, and a voice recognition application (for initiating calls, sending messages, activating music playlists and so forth) accessible via the external screen's touch-activated buttons, which appear when you press the speakerphone key beneath the volume controls on the left side of the phone.

I found the touch-sensitive buttons worked pretty well, although you had to press them fairly hard to activate a feature. (Actually, I felt that way about the hardware buttons too.)

My biggest problem was figuring out how to end an application launched from the external screen. For example, I couldn't see how to get out of camera mode once I had taken a couple of photos--opening the phone merely moved the image from the exterior screen to the interior one (where I was able to get back to the main menu by pressing the end-call/power button). But it seems to me that if you launch a camera with the phone flipped shut, you should be able to shut it down that way too--and if there's a way to do this, it wasn't immediately apparent to me.

Also, you really can't use the camera in this mode for anything but capturing images of yourself since there's no way to see what's in the frame when you turn the screen (and lens) away.

Sprint's version of the V9m uses the external touch-activated buttons to give its customers quick access to Sprint TV, the carrier's music store, and the camera. All-tell's customers will be able to use the buttons to bring up information on recent calls and initiate calls, to play music, and to view SMS messages. AT&T keeps things simple with standard music player keys.

I love the way these phones look--especially their relatively roomy, high-resolution crisp colour screens. The movie trailers and South Park cartoons I watched looked great. However they are grease magnets; everyone who came to look immediately wanted to wipe them off.

Audio over the speakerphone was fine, but not knockout-quality. Internet downloads were pretty good but not amazing -- the Stardust trailer I watched on the AT&T phone stopped to rebuffer at one point. This is probably a network issue rather than a phone issue, but I'm just trying to set expectations here.

Would I buy one? I'm not a skinny flip phone addict, but if I had a Razr I would at least take a look. You can find a lot of skinny flip phones, true -- but the 3G connectivity and big screens are still special in this form factor.