Review: Motorola SLVR L7 iTunes Mobile Phone
Pros: An aesthetically sleek and thin combination of wireless phone and 512MB iTunes music player that boasts better-than-average battery life, and in-call performance. Like its predecessor ROKR E1, plays back MP3 or AAC tracks without complaint, offers partial Bluetooth compatibility, an integrated camera and limited data features. Played music for more than 20 continuous hours in our testing.
Cons: Other than phone’s much-improved body, there’s nothing new here: its software looks and feels almost identical to what came with Motorola’s phones two years ago. iTunes experience continues to suffer by comparison with all screened iPods (including $149 models) on many levels, including slow/poor features, interface, file transfer speeds and equalization. Storage is artificially capped at 100 songs regardless of their actual size - fewer than any iPod, including shuffle - though the phone costs as much as a 30GB iPod unless you simultaneously commit to a phone contract.
Once in a while, we test a new iPod-related product that is just well-executed enough to be good for some small percentage of the population, but isn’t good enough to recommend to all or most of iLounge’s readers. As Motorola’s second “iTunes phone” to see release, the new SLVR L7 ($300 without contract, available in the United States through Cingular Wireless) is a prime example of this passable approach - the typical recipient of our B- “limited recommendation” rating. It suffers from unfortunate timing, appearing long enough after September 2005’s poorly-received ROKR E1 (iLounge rating: C+) that it could have improved markedly on the first iTunes phone’s formula, which it doesn’t, and only just before Motorola’s newer RAZR V3i, another iTunes phone that has already started to appear in stores overseas. As such, we’d only recommend SLVR L7 to those few people who want a ROKR E1-quality experience in a smaller package, rather than waiting for something that promises to be better than ROKR inside and out.
Our review below is based heavily on the text of our earlier First Look at SLVR L7, though we’re omitting the historical details of Motorola SLVR/ROKR/RAZR products detailed in our earlier article. Additionally, because of the strong similarity of features between SLVR L7 and its predecessor, we do not rehash all of the ROKR E1’s features here; please check that review out if you need more information on L7’s interface and limitations.
Like its predecessor ROKR E1, SLVR L7 is a GSM mobile telephone, compatible with the majority (but not all) of the world’s wireless phone networks. Unlike ROKR E1 but like Motorola’s first popular RAZR, L7 is a “quad-band” phone that supports 850/900/1800/1900 MHz frequencies, the most highly network-compatible GSM technology generally available. Rather than using a “flip phone” design that folds closed, it uses a stick-like “candybar” design, which allows its single screen to be exposed at all times. For that reason, it uses scratch-resistant glass to cover its single LCD display.
Its name is a point of confusion for several reasons. Although the ROKR (“rocker”) family was to be marketed as the company’s “music phone” solution, the SLVR (“sliver,” not silver) family was to be sold on thinness. But rather than releasing the thinnest SLVR (L2, shown below) in the United States, or keeping iTunes in its upcoming ROKR E2, Motorola decided to add iTunes music functionality to the thickest of the SLVR phones (113 x 49 x 11.5mm), and promote it here as a “super slim” iTunes phone. By U.S. standards, it’s thin, but not stunningly so in an iPod nano sort of way.
SLVR L7 is available exclusively from Cingular Wireless for United States customers, sold either off-contract ($300) or with one-year ($250) or two-year ($200) telephone service contracts. The U.S. version comes packaged with a wall charger, a pair of microphone-equipped stereo headphones and six ear foams, an adapter to allow standard stereo headphones to connect to the phone, a USB cable, an iTunes CD, and instruction manuals. More importantly, Motorola includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a Sandisk-branded 512 Megabyte MicroSD/TransFlash memory card.
New Cingular customers will also receive a 64k “SmartChip” SIM card, which has twice the memory capacity of its predecessor, and apparently is capable of doing a better job of finding the company’s network towers wherever you roam in the United States. The SIM card does not store music.
But the 512MB MicroSD/TransFlash memory card, which is inserted into a rubber-capped slot on the L7’s right side, does, and also can hold data, just as with the iPod shuffle. Apple’s iTunes software can be used to manage the card’s ratio of data to music.
Potential buyers should be cautioned that different versions of the phone are being sold outside and inside of the United States through importers; non-U.S. versions of the L7 (also called Motorola V8) are physically almost identical, but do not include iTunes software, and therefore cannot play protected AAC music files downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. They also may not be packaged with MicroSD memory or other accessories, and even if so, may not include as much as is packaged with the U.S. version of the product.
So if it’s not the company’s thinnest phone, what is SLVR L7’s appeal? The simple answer is that it’s a compromise. For better or worse, the U.S. version offers almost all of ROKR E1’s features, most notably support for the playback of Apple iTunes Music Store downloads, in a better-looking package that’s almost as impressively small as the L2. For instance, ROKR’s pasty, plasticy body (top) has been replaced by a black metal enclosure with copper-toned face keys, a design that emulates the look of RAZR’s keypad, only with noticeably smaller buttons.
One of iLounge’s editors objected to their small size, and the screen’s also smaller than RAZR’s, which despite its identical resolution is bigger, bolder, and easier to read. But the size differences are not going to be a dealbreaker for most people, who will find the L7 an aesthetically slick, if not quite RAZR-level improvement on traditional candybar-style phones, which are saddled with similarly small screens and keypads.
Once you get past L7’s cosmetic improvements, however, it feels like the same phone with the same ho-hum technology as before. On the phone side, you get the same-as-ROKR E1 176x220-pixel screen, support for Bluetooth 1.2 accessories, and an outdated 640x480 (0.3-Megapixel) camera. Its software interface is also even more familiar: with few exceptions, it’s the same one we’ve been seeing on most of the company’s U.S. models for the past couple of years, discussed in greater detail in our earlier coverage of Motorola phones. For a monthly fee, you get web browsing, instant messaging, and e-mail access, limited mostly by the unit’s lack of a full-fledged keyboard.
iTunes-wise, you’re still artificially capped at storing no more than 100 songs on the device’s included 512MB MicroSD memory card, and have no access to iPod-like sound equalization, say nothing of its other features or electronic accessories. Apple previously described ROKR as like getting an iPod shuffle in your phone, a characterization most noteworthy for what it didn’t tell you to expect: an iPod mini or nano-quality experience.
Why not SLVR?
Some people would be okay with the L7’s feature limitations if the device was otherwise iPod-like, but in short, it’s not. Just like ROKR E1, though SLVR L7 half-emulates the interface of the now-discontinued color fourth-generation iPod, its menus and response times feel limited and sluggish. The low resolution of L7’s screen doesn’t provide a great visual environment for text or album artwork, and transitions from screen to screen look and feel labored.
Additionally, the appeal of a device with little capacity hinges in part on how easy it is to change its contents, but transfers to and from the device are still painfully slow, maxxing out at USB 1.0 speeds. It took us 40 minutes to load SLVR L7 with 100 tracks, literally 30-40 times longer than the same transfer would take with an iPod nano. We’ll also note that we could not get Motorola’s iTunes CD to work on our Macintosh computers, a problem we also had with ROKR’s CD, and only forgivable in that the software is available as a free download online. The only bright side in all this is that SLVR L7’s battery can be recharged during its lengthy connection period with your computer, which ROKR’s couldn’t.
While L7 improves upon ROKR E1’s looks and preserves most of its so-so hardware, it has also quietly dropped some of the E1’s least impressively executed “bonus” hardware music features. For example, L7 leaves out E1’s vibrating stereo speakers, which we discovered through testing sometimes actually played backwards (right as left, left as right). It also omits the multi-colored internal lights that were supposed to pulse along with ROKR’s music, but didn’t work with anything played back through iTunes. Instead, the keypad is backlit solely in blue, like RAZR’s, and you get a single 22kHz speaker, which as with RAZR is mounted on the phone’s bottom rear. Our feeling is that most prospective buyers won’t mind these “downgrades” at all, given that the ROKR E1 didn’t do much to convince people they were important.
The iTunes Client
As suggested above, the iTunes music experience hasn’t changed much from ROKR to SLVR; our screenshots tell most of the story. A deeper breakdown of the device’s musical features can be found in our earlier ROKR review.
The only major difference you’ll notice from ROKR E1 is on the lower right corner of the L7’s main menu screen. Rather than dedicate a whole button to iTunes, as ROKR E1 did, Apple’s iTunes Client software is now just the default choice of the phone’s “right soft key,” an undedicated button that changes in purpose from screen to screen, and can be reprogrammed by user preference.
Pressing the right soft key from the main menu takes you to the iTunes Client, which looks almost 100% identical to the one found on ROKR E1. The only tiny difference is in the screen backlight colors of the two units, which won’t matter to almost anyone. Speed, however, was a concern. We spent a bit of time comparing ROKR E1 and SLVR L7’s iTunes menu transition and playback times, and unfortunately found that they were basically identical - any difference between the two is so small as to be insignificant.
Apple’s legal screen for the iTunes Client still shows a 2005 copyright date, and the software’s About menu lists version 1.0 - just like ROKR E1’s. In other words, this is the same software as before, without any changes. Similarly, connecting SLVR L7 to a Macintosh computer with iTunes installed brought up the old introduction screen we saw last September - still referencing iTunes 4.9. We don’t get the sense that Apple’s quite as involved with or interested in these phone launches as it is with its own products.
Battery and Phone Performance
Other than its cosmetics, the best news we can report on SLVR L7 relates to its battery performance. We need to begin with three caveats, namely that the combination of the phone’s multiple features, vague battery meter, and Motorola’s equally vague performance estimates make testing of L7 a serious challenge, and one that we weren’t as interested in repeating in depth as we did with ROKR E1 last September. So we restricted our tests to two key areas - phone battery life and music battery life - from which you can draw trade-off conclusions as to how the phone will perform under your own normal usage conditions.
On a continuous test of its iTunes music playback functionality, we were shocked to see that SLVR L7 played our 100 test tracks through its headphones on roughly 50% volume for nearly 21 hours - 20:44, to be exact - which represented a marked improvement over the frequently interrupted, 15- or so hours of playback we got from ROKR E1. Users should not expect this number to be accurate, however, with the L7’s external speaker turned on - like ROKR, the number will vary based on the volume, but not exceed 8 hours, and probably fall closer to 6 or 7. We found that the speaker sounded acceptable for the size, but not amazing, capable of letting one or two people hear reasonably clear renditions of stored songs. On a separate test, we were similarly impressed that the phone ran for more than 4 hours and 50 minutes of continuous talk time and still showed 4 of its 6 battery bars remaining. This was quite good, a fact offset only by the unreliability of that meter - like ROKR’s, it moves in 2-bar increments from 6 to 4 to 2, each step indicating that roughly 33% of the battery’s power is left.
Phone audio quality and performance were otherwise like ROKR’s, which is to say mixed but generally good. It does a better job of picking up phone tower signals indoors than the best of T-Mobile’s 850MHz-less phones, and a comparable job outside. See our prior review for more details on ROKR’s performance, and what to expect from L7 as a phone.
Value and Conclusions
As we mentioned in our First Looks piece, there are two things that preclude us from viewing SLVR L7 as a widely recommendable product given its pricing: its lack of breakthrough features, and competition from other, better products. Putting aside Motorola’s own RAZR V3i, one of which we already have (sans iTunes), the L7 is far from the only music phone available to consumers around the world, as numerous companies now offer quality MP3 player functionality as a feature in their phones.
As just one example, Sony Ericsson’s K750i phone (above) is ROKR-sized - in other words, physically comparable to the SLVR L7 in all ways save thickness - but is better equipped from a hardware standpoint in virtually every way. Also sold as the W800/W800i Walkman Phone (bundled with additional memory), the K750i plays MP3-format music, transferring files very quickly via an included USB 2.0 cable to any Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo card of your choice. We’ve knocked this format in the past, but it’s come down an incredible amount in price, and Sony doesn’t cap the K750i to only 100 songs. Certain applications, including the free iTunemyWalkman for Mac users, even let you use iTunes with Sony’s phones.
But then there’s more. Besides the fact that it also plays legitimately impressive 3D games, the K750i includes a 2-Megapixel camera that’s been widely acknowledged as amongst the best of its class, even compared against Nokia’s significantly more expensive, 2-Megapixel N90 phone. Like ROKR E1’s camera, SLVR L7’s has less than 1/5 the detail of the K750i’s, which also includes a nice flash and a protective lens cover, both missing from the L7. Even Sony Ericsson’s cheaper W600i, currently available through Cingular, includes a better-than-L7 1.3 Megapixel camera, plus K750i/W800i’s audio equalizers, built-in FM radio, and superior on-screen user interface. Even taking SLVR’s thinness and support for protected AAC files into account, there is no question that we’d pick one of Sony’s Walkman phones instead.
Sony phones aside, the L7’s $300 off-contract price immediately inspires another question - the issue raised by one of iLounge’s editors last week when he considered whether to buy a SLVR for his wife instead of the current-generation RAZR he was planning on getting her. Is it smarter to buy a SLVR for $300, or an iPod and a cheaper phone for the same (or less) money? Between the dates of our First Look and this review, our editor made his choice, buying the classic RAZR, and the logic was this: RAZRs are now literally being given away for free by mobile carriers with a one-year phone contract, and Amazon.com will actually give you both the phone and $25 if you sign up with T-Mobile. SLVRs? You’ll pay $250 with a one-year contract, or $200 with a two-year contract - the same prices you’d pay to get a 4GB or 2GB iPod nano and a RAZR. Apple’s release today of the 1GB, $149 iPod nano only makes the choice between SLVR and RAZR - or many other, similarly less expensive alternatives - easier.
From where we stand, the SLVR L7 is surely a better than okay (C-rated) phone on looks and performance, but from an overall experience standpoint, it’s not as good as what you’d get from two separate purchases of an iPod and a phone, or for that matter the purchase of a better-designed combination of a phone and MP3 player. Of course, we acknowledge that even the widely panned ROKR E1 had its fans, and know that some readers will be impressed enough by L7’s cosmetic improvements to give it a whirl. Thankfully, they’ll have a 30-day return policy to fall back on. For everyone else, our advice is to be patient, even if you’re really excited about the concept of a hybrid music phone. Better options are coming, and if you can wait for them, we think your dollars would be better spent by doing so.