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Jaimon Joseph
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 16 : 49

Smartphone test: who's the best?


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I am not an expert on cell phones. So do take everything here with a pinch of salt. What I can offer you here, is an average user's take after using these phones for a few days. First impressions if you will.

These impressions often vary from person to person. What I instinctually like, you might quite possibly hate - these things are subjective. But I'm hoping this page will arm you with at least one version of the truth. A starting point, to form your own opinion.

If you have your heart set on buying one of these models, I strongly suggest you read more about them on sites like www.tech2.com, www.thinkdigit.com and the like. They'll give you technical details that I'm still learning to pronounce. Those details could help you pick the right handset.

What we have here, is a bunch of phones, with keypads that look like the one on your computer. Every letter of the English alphabet, gets a separate key all to itself. That helps, if you're trying to punch out an SMS message or a Facebook or Twitter update quickly.

Until very recently, only phones like the Blackberry used to come with keypads like that. And they used to cost a bomb. Now, companies with names you've never heard of are churning them out. The cheapest I found costs just Rs 2000. And if you ask me, these new machines are fairly competent.

I use a Nokia E 63 - It has a keypad like the one I just mentioned above. I've been using it for about six months, so I can type fairly quickly now. But if you're new to this sort of a layout, give yourself at least a month or two, before your fingers start reaching the alphabet you want, automatically. And now, for the phones:

Olive Messenger (V-G8000

Marked proudly on it's innards are the words "Made in China". It's the only phone in this line up that declares this upfront, without any qualms. With good reason. There's a quiet dignity about the way this phone is put together, something that suggests attention was paid to engineering.

And that quality wasn't sacrificed for price. Perhaps that's why Olive's promises to replace (not repair) your handset, if you have any problems, in the first hundred days. And offers a one year repair warranty. It's advertised rather boldly on the box.

Actually, the brand name Olive should ring a bell. They've been taking out huge front page ads in the newspapers. They make a whole range of consumer electronics, including sleek netbooks. And they claim to distribute them around the globe. So the impression one gets is, this isn't a fly by night operator.

Back to the phone. At just Rs 2000, it beats cheap Nokia phone's hollow. For one, it's shiny enough to be mistaken for a Blackberry. Now that's got to count for something! Here's the rest:

A big color screen, (which lights up with a satisfying Olive animation), really loud speakers (loud enough to hold a jam session in the college canteen), interesting ring tones (there's one message tone that sounds like a riff from a Nirvana song!), FM radio.

And raised keys that look like bubbles on bubble wrap foam. They're a sort of rubberized plastic that's both rigid and supple at the same time. I found tying comfortable.

The most startling thing was the phone's battery. It's the same size as my Nokia E63's. Considering the Messenger has none of the power hungry features my Nokia has, I'd guess it should survive a week on a single charge. For someone as forgetful as me, that's a big plus point.

Negatives: There's a calendar, but it doesn't let you schedule appointments or reminders. There's no net connection, this phone only sends SMS messages. And there's no camera. (A lot of people almost EXPECT a camera on their phones now.)

So yes - it's a very basic phone. But I'd say it does a better job than other basic phones for the same price.

I personally felt, when they had the luxury of such a large keypad, Olive could have included an option to type messages in Indian languages. A lot of companies now offer software. And emotionally, it could mean a lot to rural Indians.

Zen Z 77

It costs about Rs 1500 more than the Olive Msgr. And in comparision, it's got an entire suitcase full of extra features. But somehow, QUALITY isn't something you'd associate with the Z 77.

Don't get me wrong. Reports on the net claim the company sells 2.25 lakh handsets (all models put together) every month in India. All those people must have found something they like about the machines they bought.

But, holding the Z77 isn't fun. It looks like a cheap Blackberry clone - that it is of course. But the keypad creaks, there are gaps around the big centre button, the battery doesn't slip in as snugly as it should, the back cover feels flimsy (though the plastic tries to imitate leather in touch and feel - it fails). It's not something I'd feel proud of.

The Z 77 was also the only phone that's given me a strange sort of fright. The first time I slipped in my Vodaphone SIM in, the phone lit up. But then quickly went into sleep mode, even if I was working on it. I charged the battery. When that didn't work, I got the handset changed.

The new handset went one better. It would blink off and light up a few seconds later. The message on the screen said it was searching for network. It was fun sitting in the loo, watching the screen light up and switch off repeatedly. My next door neighbors must have thought I was signaling their daughter in Morse code.

I solved the problem accidentally, by slipping in one of my Dad's Dolphin SIM cards. As if by magic, the phone found network and behaved itself. But when I tried my brother's Dolphin SIM, the old monster reared up again. I haven't solved that mystery yet, the phone's still running on my Dad's SIM. But it gave me a fright, put me off a bit.

The other thing I hated was the camera - it's 1.3 MP, but my photos came out grainy and the digital zoom was jerky. My sister's old Nokia has a much lower resolution camera, but it's images are much better.

Another grouch - the display doesn't feel nice somehow. I'm not sure if that's because of the screen resolution or because the engineer who designed it did a hurried job.

But here's the honest truth - reviews I've read on the web, actually praise the phone. Because at such a cheap price, it offers you a boatload of features.

A full sized keypad, really loud speakers, FM Radio (it's the only phone I've seen that doesn't ask you to plug in earphones before tuning the channel), video playback (it's a bit grainy and jerky actually but hey, don't expect the sky for three odd grand?), Bluetooth, internet connectivity, built in Facebook and Twitter.

The list is long, other reviews will fill you in on the details. What I found intriguing was the lack of wi-fi internet. Basically, to access the web, this phone will force you to go though your operator's air waves (Airtel/MTNL/Vodaphone etc). And pay money in the process.

If your office, or the airport or the coffee shop you are in, or even your next door neighbor has FREE, wireless internet, you won't be able to use it. Because the phone doesn't have the circuits inside to do it. But then again, don't expect the sky, from humble pie. (That rhymes!)

Alcatel Ice 3

Remember when Radio Jockey's used to scream "Be there, or be Square!" They basically wanted to say "Square is boring". "Square is dull." But in a cell phone market where everything I've ever seen is a rectangle - trust me, "Square" is a delightful breath of fresh air.

I'm wrong actually - this baby isn't Square, it's a Cube. Hence the name Ice Cube. And though that name brings to mind the very macho American rap star and actor, the Ice Cube, is very much a ladies phone.

It's shaped like a small powder puff box, the sort women use to freshen their makeup. And it opens like a clam shell. It's only the second clam I've ever used, so it definitely caught my attention.

Before I go on, Alcatel is, to the best of my knowledge, a French firm. They're more known for sleek landline phones in India (your office extension might very well be an Alcatel) but abroad, they're quite well known for cell phones.

Since this is a ladies phone, I asked my wife to use it for a few days. So what follows, is colored with both our opinions. Do let me know if that makes the info any more useful to you.

The Ice Cube comes in three hot colors, (including Pink), has its own black velvet case. The top is reflective, can double up as a mirror to check your lipstick. And there's a pretty, small LED display, that tells you the time and the battery charge.

For the last five years, I've refused to buy a new sound system at home. Perhaps that's why, my wife loved the FM on the Ice Cube. She plays it in the van on the way home, in the kitchen, even in our room after I get home from work, just to drive the point home.

The thing's loud enough all right. And there's an option to record songs into the phone's memory, as they play on air. I used to record songs on audio cassettes in school, so this was a minor flash back for me. My wife says the battery lasts two days, sometimes more. But she doesn't make more than ten calls a day, so adjust that to your own usage habits.

There's a 2 Megapixel camera, Blue Tooth, built in support for Facebook and Twitter, an option to read your emails as soon as they land in your inbox, an Opera web browser and a couple of cute games. Again, there's no wireless internet - makes me wonder if it's that expensive to include on a handset.

The ring tones didn't strike me as particularly bad or good - just OK. The keypad's soft enough but slightly oily to touch. The paint job's fine, though I wonder if it'll start wearing thin after a year. The display, though far better than both the phones above, feels a bit - childish.

But for about Rs 6,600, it's a great start for Alcatel. It's definitely going to get admiring glances for every pretty lady who uses it.

MicroMax Q 55

I know MicroMax sounds a bit like an underwear brand. But the Q 55, also called the Bling, came beautifully packed in a luscious gift box.

With its own hot PINK velvet cover, it is easy to carry the phone around in. I mean if it was Valentine's, there was no way in hell you'd walk out of a store without buying it.

It's a cube, just like the Alcatel above. This shape might actually get popular this season; I've seen a few other companies mimic it. By unlike the Ice Cube, the Bling swivels open. There's an invisible hinge on one corner of the phone and the screen sort of slides out 180 degrees, to reveal the keypad. Fascinating!

The model I got was pearl white, with the sort of luminous metallic paint you get on expensive cars. The body's plastic of course but it's beautifully soft, almost waxy to touch.

There's a proper mirror on the back of the screen, very handy to check if the lipstick and mascara is in place. Personally, I'd try holding it up in the theatre, to catch a glimpse of couples canoodling in the back seat. But that's just me.

I saw my wife's face light up with a grin when I handed her the phone.

And my mom casually asked me how much it costs. I wouldn't blame them.

The beauty on the outside carries over into the phone's innards as well.

The menu display is the loveliest I've ever seen. The background's a relaxing light pink, with a sort of lotus flower pattern etched into it. The icons are very feminine and when you bring the cursor over them, they sort of spring up with this beautiful 3D effect.

Whoever engineered this machine, really took the trouble to think over such minute details. For example, unlike every other phone here, which use new-fangled USB connectors, the Q 55 lets you listen to music with an old style 3.5 mm audio jack.

These jacks are a lot more common; you could borrow a pair of old headphones from a friend at work and plug it in. With the others, if you haven't got the specific connector, say bye bye to music!

Besides a 2 MP camera, which I felt does it job quite satisfactorily, the Q 55's got pretty much every feature I've blathered about in the earlier paras.

It also accepts two SIM cards (How romantic! First go broke buying her the gift, then persuade her to operate your SIM as well. Sharing and caring never hurt anyone folks!). I personally found typing on the keypad a wee bit difficult. But with a girl's manicured nails, I'm betting that won't be an issue.

And how much does all this cost? About Rs 6,500. At that price, ladies, I'd say it's worth it. Prod your darlings to get one.

A few last thoughts. Except the Olive Msgr, all these phones boast about Facebook & Twitter connectivity. I couldn't completely understand why that's a selling point. I mean, I could just fire up the Opera web browser on the phone and go to the site manually.

Chat applications like Yahoo Messenger and Google Talk (also included on most phones), sounded like better things to crow about, though even these can be downloaded from the net. But perhaps the buzz around social networking sites, means it's Facebook and Twitter that get splashed on all the advertisements.

One last thing. Chatting, messaging and status updates are all very fine. But I use my phone's big keypad the most, when I'm typing long documents. I've punched more than a few story scripts, even a couple of blogs on my phone, on the way home from work.

None of the phones above had a mini version of Microsoft Word. Or any other way to type, save and email long documents. No Microsoft Excel or Acrobat - which means if an office colleague mails you an attachment, you won't be able to open and read it while traveling. It made me wonder.

What would it have taken to include that extra bit of software on these phones? If Microsoft was acting too pricey, surely there were other open source options? Programs that you could download and use for free? Stuff like that would sure have made these machines even more useful.

I know I'm nitpicking. These machines are quite capable as they are.

But in a market that's so competitive, maybe little tweaks like that could go a long way with us customers.


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More about Jaimon Joseph

I've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
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