Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 1

A wireless phone that plays music? The idea’s not especially new, but there are some differences in the specifics of Motorola’s new ROKR E1 phone. Sold starting today for $349.99 without contract by Cingular Wireless in the United States, $299.99 with a one-year contract, or $249.99 with a two-year contract, ROKR (pronounced like “rocker”) E1 has been extensively teased through informational and photo leaks, and therefore most of its look, feel, and features come as a surprise to virtually no one.

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Planned as part of a ROKR series, E1 turns out to be little more than a retrofitted Motorola E398 ‘candybar-style’ GSM phone, only now featuring an application that can play back songs transferred from Apple’s iTunes software. ROKR ships with the ability to hold up to 100 songs – no more – thanks to a packed-in 512 Megabyte memory card. Because of its song storage and feature limitations, Apple has described E1 as a phone with an iPod shuffle rather than a phone with an iPod – a partially fitting explanation, as we’ll explain below.

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Good points? As we’ll describe more fully in our review, E1 appears to be a strong performer as a telephone – one of our biggest gripes with many recent multipurpose mobile phones. Though we still have some more tests to do, we’ve had no issues with dropped calls, and a stronger ability to remain connected in trouble spots than other phones we’ve tested. Until we test it against our unlocked RAZR, we won’t know for sure whether this is attributable to the phone or external factors.

Problems? Other than the interface issues we’ll note below, we’ve discovered a conspicuous issue that’s confirmed to be in units from both California (ours, store-bought) and New York (Engadget’s): ROKR E1’s left and right audio channels are flipped – at least, sometimes. When this happens, left channel audio playing both through the headphones and the unit’s integrated speakers plays through the right channel, and vice-versa. We think that it’s a firmware-addressable software glitch, but we’re not entirely sure.

What is a GSM Phone?

A GSM phone is a portable digital communication device compatible with the majority of the world’s wireless telephone networks, generally broadcasting and receiving signals at 1800 and 1900MHz. The ROKR has alternately been touted as a “tri-band” or “quad-band” phone – the latter of which means that it can also broadcast on both 850 or 900MHz frequencies, but the former appears to be the case. It now seems that the US version supports 850/1800/1900MHz, while the European version supports 900/1800/1900MHz. This relegates ROKR to less than “world phone” status, meaning that Motorola’s quad-band RAZR is a potentially better pick for people who travel overseas.

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There are also reasons domestic users may prefer quad-band phones. In the United States, and particularly because of Cingular Wireless’s acquisition of AT&T Wireless some time ago, GSM phone towers may use any of these frequencies – a fact which creates problems. Consequently, phones with more bands provide users with a greater chance of making good connections to nearby towers, and thereby having better signal strength.

GSM phones are incompatible with the wireless networks developed by Verizon, Sprint, and Nextel in the United States. They can generally also work on non-Cingular GSM networks, such as T-Mobile’s, though most phone companies sell their phones “locked” to their own networks, and only “unlock” the phones for an additional fee, or after a period of use on their networks.

Music On a Phone?

Until recently, mobile phones were not designed to be great music playback devices. They slowly evolved from simple beeping ringers to primitive beeping “ring tones,” then to more sophisticated “polyphonic” (synthesizer-like) ring tones and eventually low-quality sampled audio playback. Most played back audio only in small snippets, and then only as ringing sounds for incoming phone calls. However, as musicians and phone companies realized the financial potential of ringtones, they began to offer low-quality, abbreviated renditions of songs at inflated prices – often $2 per track. Worse yet, once downloaded, these songs were not playable on other devices.

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Like a number of other phones that have been developed, ROKR is capable of playing back full-quality, MP3-format audio tracks without downloading them from a phone company’s store. It can play them either through two integrated stereo speakers, or through a 2.5mm headphone jack on its top. This jack is not compatible with existing headphones without the use of an included adapter cable. There is no need to install the songs as ringtones in order to hear them; they can be played back at will from an application installed on the phone.

How Does ROKR Store Music?

ROKR E1 includes a 512MB microSD card (previously known as TransFlash), a thumbnail-sized storage medium that makes the device roughly equivalent to Apple’s current bottom-of-line iPod shuffle. However, Apple cripples each card to holding no more than 100 iTunes songs regardless of their actual storage requirements. You can use the residual space to store other data (such as separate ringtones and graphics files), but not iTunes music.

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And while the card is easily removable, its small size, location (behind the phone’s battery) and some other oddities in ROKR E1’s design combine to make this much less practical than you’d imagine. If you buy E1, buy it to listen to 100 songs at once, not more.

What Makes ROKR’s Music Playback Special?

An Apple-developed piece of software called the iTunes Client generally emulates the look and feel of a color-screened iPod, but with certain feature and performance omissions. On the positive side, the iTunes Client presents you with most of the on-screen interface of an iPod, beginning with its main menu.

Most obviously, you can select from a complete Playlist of songs, search by Artists, Albums, or Songs, and Shuffle Songs.  You can enter a second menu by pressing a key marked with bars, letting you turn Shuffle on or off, Repeat on or off, and view About and Legal screens. About tells you how many of your maximum 100 songs you have installed, while Capacity and Available let you know how much memory you have, and have used. Current E1 phones show a software Version number of 1.0.

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You use a small built-in joystick below the screen to navigate. Pressing it in at the center, pressing right, or choosing Play with a play button starts a song going. At the top of the screen, you’ll see the song number from the complete playlist – say, 4 of 93, with album art below it on the left. Text (artist, album, and song title) are at the center and right, and a changing set of controls for volume, in-track place skipping, and song rating are near the screen’s bottom.

As with the iPod, pressing a central button skips between these controls, as well as a larger display of the album art. But they go in a different order on E1 – the first press takes you from Volume to Album Art, the third to track position, fourth to rating, and then back. Playing and pausing, however, takes place on a “soft key” off to the bottom right of the screen, meaning that text appears on the screen to tell you what to do with an otherwise undistinguished button (a black dot).

How Much Like an iPod Is It?

Not surprisingly, the client enables you to play back virtually any MP3 or AAC song or audio file (say, a podcast) you could play on an iPod – including downloads from the iTunes Music Store. But it can’t play back Apple Lossless tracks or AIFF files, amongst others. (Something we’ve seen claims the device plays back WAVs, but we haven’t yet been able to get that to work.)

We have not performed detailed sound quality tests on our E1, but over an hour and a half of listening through its included earphones, it sounds acceptable, perhaps better. Unfortunately, you’ll have no control over the sound other than volume, and even that’s been scaled back. There are eight volume levels, rather than the iPod’s considerably larger, graduated scale, and no equalizers.

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Songs are transferred using iTunes and an included USB-to-ROKR cable that is Motorola-styled, not Apple Dock Connector-styled. Combined with its lack of an extended headphone port, this means that this ROKR is not compatible with any of the myriad iPod-specific accessories released over the last 2 years. But other than that, its interface with iTunes is very iPod-like: dragging and dropping files from library to ROKR is just as easy.

Except slower. A lot slower. Filling the low-capacity E1 with music can easily take more than an hour. Transferring 2 songs at 9.6 megs total took 2 minutes and 12 seconds in a quick test – picture that with 98 more songs and you’ll get the picture. Even by comparison with the iPod shuffle, the process can be nearly excruciating. 483.7 total megs of storage space are available for your music, and you’ll watch every one of them get filled individually.

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To give you the option to press one button and walk away from the transfer as it’s taking place, Apple has extended to ROKR the benefits of Autofill, its one-click iPod shuffle-filling tool that either randomly or with simple criteria dumps songs onto the device. Autofill can either replace all of E1’s songs when Autofilling, a potentially long-winded process, or just whatever portion of your 100-song allotment is empty.

We’ll also note briefly that we could not find a way to make a Bluetooth connection between iTunes and the ROKR E1, which is to say that our test machines could transfer files back and forth from the device – so long as they weren’t iTunes music. For that, you need to use the cable.

Other Issues

Besides the unit’s stereo channel issues, we haven’t been able to find a way – if any – to make our iTunes songs play as ringtones. We’ve also found the iTunes interface to be sluggish, responding nowhere near as quickly as the one on any recent iPod, and sometimes falling a button press or two behind. Most of the complications in using iTunes come from the unit’s huge number of buttons – four on the sides, 19 on the front, not including the four directions on the joystick. Even when things are labeled properly, finding your way in and out of the phone’s myriad menus is not intuitive.

The unit’s battery life is also a bit questionable: we’ve heard vague numbers from Motorola and Cingular, but have managed to run the battery down very quickly in a short testing period that consisted of an hour and a half of phone calls, an hour and a half of music playback, and about as much time transferring files to the phone. This doesn’t jibe with Motorola’s claim of a 15-hour music playback time, which we tend to think is both optimistic and based on less than real-life usage of a mobile phone. On a related note, it doesn’t appear that connecting the included USB cable to your computer recharges the phone while transferring.

Other Features

We won’t go into the ROKR’s other features in depth at this point, but suffice to say that you’re almost entirely familiar with them if you bought a Motorola phone last year. Not “in the last year,” but “last year.” There’s a still camera with VGA (640×480, 0.3 Megapixel) resolution, a big step down from the 1.2-Megapixel cameras Motorola has been putting into phones for a few months, and a bigger step down from the 2.0-Megapixel ones found in superior competing products. It can record 28-second video and audio clips that run at low frame rates. We’d call the camera “okay” by today’s standards, only we’d have to state that we really wouldn’t buy a phone with a camera this low-res for ourselves at this point in time.

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ROKR E1 also plays back MPEG-4 videos, regular MIDI-style and non-iTunes MP3 ringtones, and includes support for games, limited web browsing, e-mail, and instant messaging features. Most significant from a technology standpoint is its support for EDGE, a superior data protocol that permits higher-speed web and e-mail access than older-generation phones. You can send your video clips and digital pictures to other people using the phone’s integrated data features, though Cingular’s unlimited data packages are three times as expensive as T-Mobile’s, making these feature far less attractive for consumers than they are on T-Mobile-exclusive devices such as Danger’s SideKick II.

Finally, E1 includes rhythm lights, ring lights, and event lights, which pulse through the unit’s sides and keypad under certain circumstances. Despite the manual’s suggestion that you can make the lights pulse to music, those circumstances do not appear to include iTunes song playback.

Accessories: Pack-Ins and Others

You already know about the phone, its battery, and 512MB microSD card. If you’re in the USA, you’ll most likely also get a Cingular SIM card with the phone, as well. The microSD card comes preinstalled; you pop the SIM card in (or ask Cingular to do it) easily by sliding out a metal cover, then dropping the SIM on empty pins, and closing the cover.

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The E1 also comes equipped with a pretty solid collection of packed-in accessories, including a silver and clear pair of earbuds with an integrated microphone, two gray foam earbud covers, a light gray/off-white 3.5mm to 2.5mm headphone adapter so that you can use your preferred non-microphone earphoes, a black wall charger, and a USB cable. The box also includes an iTunes 4.9 CD-ROM, which would not boot on either of two Macintosh computers we tested it with, and a collection of manuals and advertisements. One booklet includes the tagline “accessorize your Motorola ROKR E1,” and shows off a set of compatible Bluetooth headsets – the HS815, HS820, HS850, and car kit HF820.

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Based on point-of-purchase stands we saw delivered today at a Cingular store, it’s clear that Motorola and Cingular are hoping that something like the iPod’s massive accessory ecosystem develops for ROKR. They’ve created a separate standalone accessory rack just for music-related phone accessories, and are already populating it with two options: first is a Leather Case Duo Pack ($34.99), a two-pack of cases that resemble Incase’s and Apple’s generic leather and fabric iPod sleeves, but with throwaway colors and designs. Second is a 3.5mm to 2.5mm headphone adapter cable ($9.99), which is available in black just in case you’re a metropolitan resident who needs to stave off iPod-esque muggings.

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Because ROKR supports only Bluetooth 1.2 accessories and because it doesn’t use an Apple-style connector, our gut feeling is that worthwhile music phone accessories are at least a generation (read: next phone) away. On a related note, we were surprised not to see Motorola touting its wireless stereo Bluetooth headset with ROKR, a fact that may be attributable to ROKR’s inability to play music through Bluetooth headsets, mediocre audio quality, or software incompatibility issues.

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If you need to use something wireless in the meanwhile, we continue to recommend the HS820 or Oakley’s RAZRwire Bluetooth Eyewear (above, reviewed recently on iLounge Backstage), each of which provides great hands-free and wire-free audio quality at distances at or under 30 feet.

More to Come

We’ll have more to say on ROKR E1 as we continue to expand this extended First Look into a full-fledged review. In the meanwhile, check out these iLounge sections for more information and great iTunes phone discussions.

Our new ROKR E1 Unpack Photo Gallery is now available with over 20 higher-resolution images for your perusal, including comparison shots with Motorola’s RAZR V3.

Our recent iTunes Phone Discussion Forum already includes over 300 posts from iLounge members, while our ROKR phone news story continues to generate discussions, as well.

Our iTunes Phone Central Information Hub contains historical information on the ROKR E1, beginning with the first announcements and leaks of information from Motorola and Apple.

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