If first impressions are worth anything, it’s safe to say that Motorola’s new SLVR L7 iTunes Phone ($300 without contract, available in the United States through Cingular) is ready to continue the Motorola iTunes curse started by September 2005’s ill-fated ROKR E1 (iLounge rating: C+). Limited by many of the same software factors that turned ROKR E1 into the highest profile iPod-related bomb of 2005, SLVR L7 more or less repackages the same problems in a different package – admittedly one that is somewhat more visually appealing than ROKR, but still not the style rival of either the iPod nano or Motorola’s other, thinner SLVR phones.
SLVR, ROKR, RAZR? Sorting Through Motorola’s Alphabet Soup
Other, thinner SLVRs? That’s right – let’s back up for a minute and look at the relevant history of Motorola’s numerous four-lettered phones. Everyone already knows the world-famous RAZR (pronounced razor, like the shaving tool), so-named years ago for its then-amazing thinness. Today, there are several different RAZR phones, only two of which are currently available in the United States, each in three colors, and differing only by phone carrier. The V3 works with Cingular and T-Mobile’s networks, while the V3c works with Verizon’s. A silver version is shown below, next to the SLVR L7.
The advantages of this RAZR design are numerous. It’s not as long as SLVR, more easily fitting in a small pocket. RAZR uses a flip-closed design that shields its inner screen from scratches, yet includes a second external color screen that provides virtually all of the information you need when not making calls. When opened, it expands into a size that nicely separates its earpiece from its microphone, looking even thinner in the process.
This design enabled Motorola to include both a noticeably larger screen and dialing keypad on the RAZRs than SLVR L7. Otherwise, the hardware is hugely similar: current RAZRs and the SLVR L7 have the same 176×220-pixel screen resolutions, support for Bluetooth 1.2 accessories, and outdated 640×480 (0.3 Megapixel) cameras.
Most iLounge readers are also familiar with ROKR E1 (pronounced rocker, shown above), Motorola’s first iTunes phone. Released last Fall, ROKR E1 was based almost entirely upon the company’s previously released, nothing-special E398, known as a “candybar-style” phone for its candybar-like thickness. The major changes to ROKR E1 were the addition of a dedicated iTunes button, and a piece of music playback software called the iTunes Client. Pressing the button loaded the software, which mostly replicated the interface of a color, fourth-generation iPod, but with fewer features, much slower menu-to-menu transitions, and no equalizers for music. Most surprisingly, E1’s memory card was capped at 100 songs, regardless of whether you had the space for more. Even though the phone was widely panned, it was believed that Motorola would soon release improved ROKR phones with better iTunes features. The company then surprised everyone by debuting ROKR E2 without any support for iTunes, but much better ancillary features, including a 1-Megapixel camera and higher-resolution screen.
That brings us to the SLVR family. RAZR proved that thinness was a selling point, and SLVR (pronounced sliver, not silver) was designed to bring RAZR-style thinness to the classic candybar-style design, a form factor that even Motorola’s CEO suggested last year wasn’t great. Currently, there are three SLVR-series phones: L2, the thinnest version (110 x 49 x 10 mm), L6, a larger (113 x 49 x 10.9mm) and more powerful version, and now L7, the largest (113 x 49 x 11.5) phone, which is covered here. When we met with a Motorola executive at CES in early January and asked whether iTunes would appear on any of these phones, we were told no, and that the company was actively attempting to shoot down rumors to the contrary. Clearly, the company was being dishonest: a full Cingular marketing campaign and boxed SLVR L7 phones with iTunes appeared only weeks later. We weren’t amused, and apologize for the earlier inaccurate information.
Exploring SLVR L7
In sum, SLVR L7 is ROKR E1, only thinner (11.5mm versus 20mm, though E1’s 108mm x 46mm height and width are actually smaller than L7’s), differently colored, and lacking some of the E1’s least impressively executed “bonus” 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, you get a nickel-plated keypad that’s only backlit in blue, like RAZR’s, and a single 22Khz speaker, 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.
Though many readers mightn’t remember this unless they look back at the photos, ROKR E1 looked as if it was going overboard with Cingular color branding, shipping in an orange box that showed off orange foamed earbuds, which actually weren’t in the box. SLVR L7’s branding is comparatively conservative, and better for that choice: its box uses a brushed silver metal pattern to emphasize the phone’s black body and earbuds. All of the items in L7’s box are also black, unlike the mishmash of black, silver, gray, and off-white parts that came with E1.
In addition to the phone, which was photographed with its battery pack and a 512MB MicroSD (TransFlash) memory card inside, Motorola includes a pair of stereo earbuds with an in-line microphone, as well as three sets of black foam covers for the earbuds. Alternately, you can use an included adapter to attach L7 to your favorite pair of regular headphones, though you’ll lose the ability to talk without using the phone’s integrated mic. The box also contains a wall charger and a USB cable, both of which connect to the same mini USB port used by the earbuds and adapter, a simplifying design that’s also found on many other Motorola phones. As a result, many recent Motorola accessories work with L7. It’s worth a note that USB transfers are still painfully slow – it took 40 minutes to transfer 100 songs to the phone – but the new USB cable also charges the phone, which ROKR E1’s cable did not.
The above shot shows L7’s rear compartment opened, with battery and enhanced SIM card removed. Cingular includes 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 card does not store music.
This one (above) does. Removed from the L7 in this shot is the 512MB MicroSD/TransFlash card, which is inserted into a rubber-capped slot on the L7’s right side. You can store both music and data on this card, just as you can with the iPod shuffle; iTunes can be used to manage the card’s ratio of data to music. It works just like ROKR E1.
Existing Motorola phone owners will also find L7’s interface 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. The only major difference you’ll notice from ROKR E1, for example, is on the lower right corner of the screen: rather than dedicate a whole button to iTunes, Apple’s 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 identical to the one found on ROKR E1 – except for a tiny difference in the screen backlight colors of the two units. We spent a bit of time comparing ROKR E1 and SLVR L7’s iTunes menu transition and playback times, and 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. Similarly, connecting SLVR L7 to a Macintosh computer brought up the old introduction screen we saw last September – still referencing iTunes 4.9. Who would have guessed that we’d already be at iTunes 6.0.2 by now? Apparently neither Apple nor Motorola; the L7’s box includes a disc for iTunes 6.0.1, which like its ROKR E1 predecessor we could not get to boot on our Macintosh, despite the disc’s PC and Mac labelling.
Versus iPod nano and 5G
Though it almost goes without saying at this point, Apple so significantly stunned the world with iPod nano that even its own partners were unprepared to match its cutting-edge design and miniaturization efforts. SLVR L7 looks almost gargantuan by comparison with nano, larger in every dimension, yet nowhere near as capably equipped as a music player. While we’ll mostly let the pictures below speak for themselves, it’s worth pointing out that neither Motorola nor Cingular has provided an estimate of SLVR’s battery life for music playback, but the unit’s estimated talk time (“up to 240 minutes”) is lower than ROKR E1’s “up to 260-560 minutes,” and ROKR’s promised music playback time was about the same as nano’s. Though we’d expect it to be lower, we’ll have to see how L7 fares by comparison.
It’s also worth pointing out that iTunes-ready phones aren’t your only option, especially since Motorola continues to release products that considerably under-perform competitive options we like. Sony Ericsson’s K750i phone (shown below) is ROKR-sized – in other words, physically comparable to the SLVR L7 in all ways save thickness – but is better equipped in virtually every way. Also sold as the W800/W800i Walkman Phone (bundled with additional memory), the K750i plays MP3-format music, transferring files 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.
Besides the facts that it plays legitimately impressive 3D games, has a nice interface, and includes a built-in FM radio tuner with RDS text support, 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.
Finally, we felt obliged to show you this comparison shot of the SLVR L7 and the 30GB fifth-generation iPod, for reasons we’ll explain below.
The obvious point of direct comparison between these two otherwise dissimilar devices is pricing: they both sell for $300, and yes, we know that your first instinct is to say, “but the iPod doesn’t have a phone! It doesn’t have a camera!” Of course, that’s correct. But as one of iLounge’s editors noted today when considering whether or not to buy a SLVR for his wife instead of the RAZR he was planning on getting, RAZRs are now literally being given away for free 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. In other words, $275 can get you a RAZR and a 30GB iPod, or just a 100-song SLVR L7, which sells with one-year contract for $250. Those concerned with bulk or price can opt for a RAZR and a 2GB iPod nano for only $175.
We’ll have more to say on this phone in the days to come, but for now, our gut reaction is, like ROKR E1, “pass.” As we’ve pointed out before, Motorola itself has claimed that Apple is working on a smartphone, and even if that doesn’t happen, there are smarter ways to spend your cash than this.