Handset Happiness (Cell Phone Test)

Published Date
01 - May - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2007
Handset  Happiness (Cell Phone Test)
Thirteen years after the GSM mobile revolution started in India, the scenario is such that landlines have been outnumbered by mobile phones. The youth drives India's mobile phone industry: around colleges are where you find the widest varieties of mobile phones. In addition, young people are the most likely to buy new phones on a regular basis; they're also more likely to want features like music capabilities and cameras on their mobiles.

Taking into account the various usage patterns, mobile manufacturers are increasingly tending to divide their line-up of models into appropriate categories. We have the monochrome, plain ones (the last of their kind), which are meant to be just a means of communication. Then there are camera phones and phones with music playing capabilities, FM radio, and more. "Multimedia" phones emphasise the camera and media capabilities, so much so that certain vendors have started using the brand names of their media players and camera line-ups for their phones. Then there are PDA (Personal Digital Assistants) phones which are actually mini-computers, meant for business executives. What are called "smartphones" are packed to the brim with features. The last two categories are the most expensive.

Our last cell phone test was about a year ago. In this month's test, we tested GSM mobile phones priced up to Rs 17,000. The business and lifestyle phone segments were therefore left out-we intend to review these soon. Twenty-one phones from six brands were sent to us for this test, and we divided these into three categories based on price:

1. The Upper Crest (Rs 10,000-17,000)
2. Talk And Click (Rs 6,000-10,000)
3. Just A Phone (below Rs 6,000)

It irks us that we didn't receive any phones at all from some leading brands, and we hope they're listening. After all, we want to give you, our readers, the biggest picture possible.

The Upper Crest
These are multimedia phones-much more than "just a phone." They are typically priced above Rs 10,000. Phones in this category were the Sony Ericsson (SE) CyberShot K550i, SE's hot new entrant in the market, as well as the SE Walkman W710i, which has been around for a few months. The Nokia 3250 XpressMusic, Nokia 5300, as well as the Nokia 6131 were some of Nokia's offerings that figured. The Motorola MotoKRZR K1, which flaunts looks similar to the hugely-successful MotoRAZR, also comes in this category.

Design and ergonomics
When you use a cell phone for long durations, ergonomics do matter. We reviewed three clamshells, two candybars, and one slider.
The candybars are generally the most easy to slip into a pocket. The W710i is designed to be strapped to your body, and has applications that monitor parameters such as speed and distance covered while jogging. The lone slider phone, the Nokia 5300, can neither be held comfortably nor can it be easily carried in the pocket.

At first glance, the heaviest phone in this category at 130 grams, the jet-black Nokia 3250, appears to be the most ruggedly-built, but once it's turned around, the flimsy plastic flap is revealed. The MotoKRZR K1 and the colourful Nokia 5300 are extremely rugged. The W710i is built well with a pearly white plastic body, but the hinges seem weak.

The Nokia 6131 has a spring-action, button-activated lid; it is rugged as long as it is closed, but once opened, it reveals its internal LCD without any glass protection, and you need to take special care of it.

Ease of use was a difficult parameter to gauge: each phone has its own interface, and ease of use just means getting used to it. We tried to gauge this from the point of view of a person handling the phone for the first time. The Nokias have the familiar Symbian-based interface, which is as easy as using Explorer in Windows. SE has its slick interface, which is also pretty easy to handle. Motorola's interface is not as intuitive as those of SE and Nokia.

The SE K550i is, concept-wise, similar to the hugely-successful K750i, but the keypad has been revamped, and not for the better. The K550i's keys are narrow bars which makes them not only uncomfortable, but also painful, as we experienced after typing in a few SMSes. The MotoKRZR has the flat keypad of MotoRAZR fame, a delight to use.

Basic Features
In India, GSM mobile signals are broadcast on two frequency bands, 900 MHz and 1800 MHz. Therefore, a dual-band phone is good enough to be used here. But if you travel abroad, you need a tri-band or even a quad-band. The Nokia 3250 and 5300 only support tri-band, while the rest support all four bands.

The SEs and Motorolas have a display resolution of 176 x 220; the Nokia 5300 and 6131 have higher resolutions of 240 x 320. Even with a large display, the Nokia 3250 still has an (odd) lower resolution of 176 x 208, which makes images look a bit pixelated. The Nokia 6131 is the only handset with 24-bit colour.

GPRS with EDGE are standard on all the phones, and allow you to connect to high-speed Internet (you can expect somewhere between 100 and 200 Kbps) while on the move. Nokia's 6131 and 5300 as well as the SE K550i boast of HSCSD (High-Speed Circuit-Switched Data), which allows up to 50 per cent higher throughput. This may not be important now with current speeds, but it could become significant as the offered speeds improve.

Expandable memory is the norm in mobile phones these days, and all the phones support some kind of memory expansion. microSD was the popular format with most phones, while SE prefers to go with Memory Stick M2. Only the Nokias featured hot-swappable memories, which lets you replace the memory card without the need to switch off the phone. Of these, the 6131 needs to be opened to access the memory slot, which takes away the convenience of hot-swappability. As has been the case with its predecessors, SE phones require a driver to be recognised as removable USB drives when connected to a PC.

The Camera
2-megapixel cameras were common-not so during our previous mobile phone shootout in this price category. Only the Nokia 5300 and 6131 came with 1.3-MP cameras and 8x zoom. The Nokia 3250 has a 270-degree rotating camera. Zoom is an attractive feature for many, but more is not always better. The Nokia 3250 comes with an impressive-sounding 20x zoom, but the fact is it requires a pair of very steady hands to shoot at anything above 4x without motion compensation. Further, this is digital rather than optical zoom, which means image quality rapidly degrades as the zoom increases.

The SE K550i is branded "CyberShot", which is the brand name of Sony's camera line-up. As you might expect, it has the best camera, and the auto-focus feature only serves to enhance the already good photo quality. The lens is protected by a sliding cover (it's the only phone with such lens protection). The W710i also gives good photo quality, followed by the Nokia 3250 and the MotoKRZR. The SE K550i is also the only camera in this range that comes with a flash.

The most notable of multimedia features is the media control buttons that let you easily access music without having to navigate slowly through the menus to the media player. The SE Walkman phone W710i and the Nokia 5300 have rubber-coated, large media buttons-very comfortable.

MP3 was not the only music format supported; AAC, too, is supported by all the phones. The Nokia 3250 even supports other formats such as WMA. FM radio is common on all the phones.

We didn't actually test battery life, and we'll state them as the manufacturer did. The Nokia 3250 has the lowest talk time of three hours, and the 6131 has the lowest standby time of 200 hours. The SE W710i has the highest talk time of 10 hours and a standby time of 350 hours. The Nokia phones probably drain the batteries faster because of their larger display sizes.

The MotoKRZR, Nokia 6131, and SE W710i have external LCD displays that let you keep track of things such as time, missed calls, etc. Other features such as Organizer, Calendar, Alarm, etc. were standard fare with all the phones.

Premium phones come with premium accessories. The Nokia 3250 XpressMusic comes with a hands-free, which has media player controls in addition to the basic hands-free buttons. It also has in-ear type earphones, which effectively cut off surrounding sound (by passive noise reduction), and gives a more immersive music experience. To store music, photos, and videos, these mobiles (except for the Nokia 6131) come with memory cards. The MotoKRZR, Nokia 3250, and the SEs come with 512 MB cards, though you'll probably soon require a larger card. The SE K550i comes with a paltry 64 MB card, as good as nothing these days. The Nokia 3250's hands-free has a 3.5-mm stereo jack through which you can connect regular (better) earphones, while the Nokia 5300 is provided with a 3.5-mm stereo adapter.

Signal Reception
As we'd anticipated, the Nokia mobiles boasted of the best signal reception. While the Motorola and SE phones lost signal when we entered the basement of our building, the Nokias held on.
Voice Clarity
Through the earpiece, voice clarity was not much of an issue with any of the phones, though in noisier environments, the MotoKRZR, Nokia 3250, and SE W710i will prove to be a better choice. The speaker-phones of the Nokia 3250 and SE W710i have the best audibility. The SE has a problem: its hands-free microphone picks up too much ambient sound, and it seems it doesn't filter noise.

The Nokia 3250 takes very long to boot-23 seconds to be precise, though this is not, of course, a major irritant. The SEs boot the fastest, in as little as 5 seconds. The user interface of the Nokia 5300 is amazingly fast; that of the Nokia 3250 is slow, probably because of its ageing processor. The SEs have their tried and tested interface, which is pretty fast, too.

Imaging Quality
No prizes for guessing this one: the SE CyberShot K550i has the best photo quality. This can be attributed to its auto-focus and protected lens (meaning fewer scratches) in addition to better optics. In video mode, the Nokia 3250 exhibited better quality, though it slowed down significantly every time the zoom level was changed.

Talk And Click
The phones in this category are not too expensive, and at the same time, they come with many of the features of their more expensive brethren, such as a camera and multimedia capabilities. These present the best of both worlds.
For this test, we decided to test some new entrants into the mobile market. We left out some of the more popular brands-those generally perceived as the best-and we'd like to see if these newer players can beat what we've seen earlier on the more popular brands!
The phones we reviewed that fell in this group were the E61 and CL71 from BenQ-Siemens, the bleu 550X, 551X, 651X and 651Z, and the Intex AURA i1224 Black.

Design And Ergonomics
The BenQ-Siemens CL71 and the bleu 651Z are the only slider phones and are the most stylish. The slider makes them look smaller because the keypad gets pulled in, but these are, in general, thicker and not easy to carry in a pocket. The rest of the phones were candybars; of these, the Intex AURA i1224 Black was the sleekest and thinnest. The bleu 551X was the lightest phone at 71.4 grams.
The BenQ-Siemens held the edge with better build quality, while the user interfaces of all the phones were equally easy to use. The keypad of the BenQ-Siemens CL71 was a little difficult to use because, they are caved in to accommodate the slider mechanism. All the bleu phones have a plastic body with a glossy piano-black finish.

Basic Features
Barring the BenQ-Siemens E61, bleu 550X and 551X, which had a 128 x 160 display with 65 K colours, all the rest had a display resolution of 176 x 220 with 256 K colours. The BenQ-Siemens CL71 can store up to 1,000 numbers in its phone book, while the E61, bleu 651Z and the Intex, which were next-best, can each store 500.

Frequent SMS-ers will love the predictive text feature which is featured on all these phones. This feature allows you type in your SMS in a fewer number of key-presses by predicting the word as you type, using an inbuilt dictionary.

The BenQ-Siemens and Intex phones support Themes that let you alter the looks of the display interface. All these phones have MP3 ringtone support.

Java applications are supported on all the phones, and you can either connect to the mobile Internet to download and install these (all the phones support this too), or use Bluetooth, IR, or USB, as applicable. The BenQ-Siemens CL71, bleu 551X, and the Intex AURA support Bluetooth, which is already a connectivity norm with most phones these days. Bluetooth allows you to exchange data at a rate faster than infrared.

In addition to having internal memories, all the phones supported memory expandability. The BenQ-Siemens E61 and bleu 651X support miniSD, while the rest support microSD. Except for the BenQ-Siemens E61 and bleu 550X, all supported the convenient hot-swappability of memory. All the phones connected to a PC and showed up as removable USB drives without the need to install any drivers.
The Camera
The 651X and 651Z from bleu are the only two in this category with 2-MP cameras. The rest have 1.3 MP, while the BenQ-Siemens E61 comes with a VGA camera. The bleu 550X, 651X, and 651Z also have a flash. This is interesting: in the feature-rich category, there is only a single phone with a flash. In this category, the BenQ-Siemens E61 is the lone phone without support for video capture.

The BenQ-Siemens phones support the most audio formats, with the CL71 even supporting WMA. The BenQ-Siemens E61 sport media player buttons on the top; good because they won't get accidentally pressed when in a pocket. The bleu 651X and 651Z also had media player buttons, along with a good-looking media player. The BenQ-Siemens E61 and bleu 550X do not have an FM receiver, which is an important component-while being just too inexpensive to be left out!

There is voice dialling on the BenQ-Siemens CL71 and Intex AURA. Voice dialling lets you record a voice command and associate it with a number in the address book, so you can just speak the command to dial that number.

We didn't test the battery life of the phones; in what follows, we're mentioning what's been specified by the manufacturer. The talk time of the Intex AURA i1224 Black is the lowest, at two and a half hours. Strangely, its standby time is the highest (along with that of the BenQ-Siemens E61) at 200 hours. All the bleu phones have a low standby time of 2 hours, while the talk time is comparatively higher at 4 hours.

The bleu 551X, 651X, and 651Z, along with the Intex AURA, had a special feature which we hadn't anticipated on any phone in the test: when these were connected to a PC, the phone gave us a choice of whether to use them as mass storage devices or as webcams. When Webcam Mode was selected, they began working as regular webcams. The best thing is, these don't need any drivers, and the video quality is better than that of most of dedicated webcams!

All the mobiles in this category come with the required data cables, hands-frees and chargers, so you won't need to spend extra on these-as used to be the case earlier (especially for non-premium mobile phones). The Intex AURA comes with a 1 GB microSD card, something we'd have liked to see in the Premium category.

Signal reception
This was decent in most cases, though not as good as we had seen with the Nokias in the Premium segment. The BenQ-Siemens CL71 and Intex were weaker in this test, though only marginally.

Voice clarity
The BenQ-Siemens CL71 and Intex AURA seemed to us to have better earpiece clarity than the rest. The speakerphones on the BenQ-Siemens CL71, bleu 651Z, and Intex produce clear and sufficiently-audible sound. All the hands-free microphones seemed to have some sort of noise reduction that cut off ambient sound.

The BenQ-Siemens phones had a faster response time in regards the user interface. Once again, this is only marginally better than that of the other phones.

Image quality
The BenQ-Siemens E61, even with its VGA camera, did a commendable job as far as still image quality was concerned. The photos were sharp, and colours, vibrant. The bleu 651X and 651Z were also good with their 2-MP cameras. The BenQ-Siemens CL71 and the bleu 651X and 651Z were the only ones with acceptable video recording quality: all the rest brought up choppy videos.

Just A Phone
Mobile phones meant just to provide the basic function of communication feature in this category. Value-added features are not expected, though they certainly earn brownie points. The mobiles in this category cost below Rs 6,000. The bleu 250X and 450X, Intex infi and King, Motorola MotoFONE F3 and W220, and the Nokia 2310 and 2626 comprised this segment of our test.

Design And Ergonomics
The Motorola W220-a clamshell-is undoubtedly the most stylish. This is the phone that has been heavily advertised on TV as the low-cost RAZR. The other Motorola phone is the MotoFONE F3: it is the thinnest at just 9 mm, but is also the longest (11.4 cm)-it's therefore a little uncomfortable to carry it in the pocket of your jeans. The Intex phones were the lightest at 68 grams each. The Motorolas and Nokias seem extremely rugged, good enough to survive some falls.

The plastic lid of the bleu 250X is one of the most difficult to open, so much so that we once felt we might end up breaking it!
The Motorola W220, the Nokias, and the bleu 450X have easy-to-use interfaces. The MotoFONE F3 has a monochrome alphanumeric display, and navigating the phone is quite difficult because there's no graphical interface. Thankfully, there is voice help that narrates to you what button to press to achieve a certain task (and believe us, this is critically essential with this phone).

The Intex phones have tacky keypads, and this could be tiring if you SMS a lot. The Motorolas have their trademark feather-touch keypads, which are a joy to use. The keys also happen to be placed well apart. The 4-way rocker on the Nokia 2310 seemed flimsy; that on the 2626 seemed a little better.

Download this Mobile Test PDF
Basic features
All the mobiles with colour displays have a resolution of 128 x 128 with 65K colours. Both the bleu phones and the Intex infi have better-looking displays. The Intex King has a monochrome display. The most interesting was the MotoFONE F3 with its alphanumeric monochrome display, which is based on a new technology known as "electric ink" or EPD. The display offers high contrast and is easily visible even in bright sunlight.

The Intex infi has the largest phonebook, specified as 1,000 entries, while unofficially, the bleu 450X has the largest phonebook, only limited by the phone memory. In contrast, the bleu 250X can store only 100 numbers. Predictive text is supported by all the bleu mobiles, Intex infi, Motorola W220, and also the Nokias.
MP3 ringtones are supported by the bleu 450X, Intex infi, and both the Nokias. The rest of the phones can only use inbuilt ringtones. Vibrations are supported by all the phones excluding the Intex King.

GPRS connectivity has been provided with the bleu 450X, Intex infi, Motorola W220, and the Nokia 2626. Java applications are supported by the bleu 450X, Motorola W220, and Nokia 2626. The bleu 450X is the only phone here that has expandable memory (by means of a microSD slot).

Camera and multimedia
There were only two camera phones in this category: the bleu 450X and the Intex infi. Naturally, these are more expensive, but we included them in this category because the price difference isn't too much.
 The bleu 450X has a VGA camera, while the Intex infi is a step ahead with a 1.3-MP camera. These were also the only two phones that support MP3 music playback. FM radio is present on both the Intex phones, both the Nokias, and the Motorola W220.

The bleu 450X, Intex infi, and Nokia 2626 have voice recorders, which can serve as makeshift memo devices and also record phone conversations.
Again, we didn't test battery life: we'll only state what's been mentioned by the manufacturers. The Motorola W220 has the longest talk time of 6 hours; the MotoFONE F3, just 4.5 hours. The Nokia 2310 has the longest standby time of 6 hours.

The Motorola W220 even has an external indicator display that alerts you about missed calls and SMSes. The Intex and Nokia phones have support for sending as well as receiving SMSes in Hindi. The MotoFONE F3 has a speaking tutor that can not only guide you through the phone setup, it can also help you achieve basic phone tasks. And this localised version of the phone has these voice instructions in Hindi and Punjabi too!

Signal reception
Unlike in the other categories, we found that here, there were quite a few mobiles that were able to catch the signal as good as the Nokias. The Intex infi and the bleu 250X were the only exceptions.

Voice clarity
All the models had decent audibility from the earpiece except for the bleu 250X, which was sub-par. With the hands-free plugged in, the Intex King was the only phone which posed audibility problems for the listener at the other end. The speaker-phone clarity of the Nokia mobiles was exceptionally good.

The Nokias were the only ones with a sophisticated OS (Symbian Series 40). But these have a slower processor, and the OS seemed to overwhelm them-resulting in sluggish response to key-presses. The Intex infi was much faster; marginally behind it was the Motorola W220.

Image quality
Of the two contenders here, we found the still image quality similar, while the video capture quality of the Intex infi was better than that of the bleu 450X.

The Winners!
The SE CyberShot K550i is the only phone that specialises in the camera department, with features such as a 2 MP camera with flash and auto-focus. This was reflected in its imaging scores. It supports high-speed Internet standards such as HSCSD and EDGE. This sleek phone with its equally sleek interface, in addition to good  performance and at a decent price of Rs 11,995 has been adjudged the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold award in the The Upper Crest category.

Close behind was the colourful slider, the Nokia 5300, which has one of the fastest interfaces. It has media control buttons to enhance accessibility to your music, and also comes bundled with a good pair of in-ear earphones which sound really good. Voice clarity is good, and signal reception, excellent. We award it the Digit Best Buy Silver in the The Upper Crest category.

The candybar bleu 651X has almost everything you'd expect from a multimedia phone. It has a 2-megapixel camera with flash, and a good-looking media player that can be controlled via the media control buttons. It even doubles up as a webcam when plugged into a PC. And good signal reception, good looks, and a not-too-heavy price tag of Rs 8,299 means the bleu 651X takes the Digit Best Buy Gold in the Talk And Click category.

The beautiful BenQ-Siemens CL71, a slider, is the only one with a large address book capacity (1,000). Good keypad layout, speed, and superior audio clarity mean the BenQ-Siemens CL71 wins the Digit Best Buy Silver in the Talk And Click category.

In the Just A Phone category, the two camera phones scored the highest. The stylish bleu 450X, which is a multimedia phone with support for MP3, good voice clarity, and a decent interface, while being the only one with expandable memory in this category wins the Digit Best Buy Gold.
The Intex infi, the other camera phone, has a better camera with 1.3-MP resolution. Though priced the highest in this category, this mobile has good voice clarity, and supports Hindi SMSes. The media player is decent, and is the only one that has graphics equalisers. It wins the Digit Best Buy Silver in the Just A Phone category.
If a camera is not very important, you can definitely go with either of the two Nokia phones: they offer almost everything else. They look decent and have better user interfaces than the rest of the phones. Built ruggedly, supporting Hindi SMS and with FM radio, these are definitely worth a look.

A Closing Note
We have left out the crème-de-la-crème of mobile phones, which will be reviewed in a separate shootout later. But as has been the trend, it is only a matter of months before this category trickles down to mass-affordable levels.

As more players enter the mobile arena, competition is forcing cuts in subscription costs. CDMA coming in has served as catalyst to the already speedy process of plummeting call rates, which are already rivalling those of landlines.

Landlines are still more affordable than mobiles, but they aren't, well, mobile! But they have started offering services such as ADSL. The landline will never die, we think, and these technologies will continue to co-exist for a long time to come.
We hope we've cleared, in this article, some of the fog for you when it comes to choosing a phone. Even if you upgrade your phone often, worry not-we'll most likely carry a shootout at about the same time next year!


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