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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 2

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 3

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 4

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 5

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 6


Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 7

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 8

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 9

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 10

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.

Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 11

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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Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 13

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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Super First Look: Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes Phone 17

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.

  1. I think we are all forgetting that this is not apple’s phone, this is apple’s client application. nothing more. Anything beyond the itunes app is Motorola’s pros/cons. The important thing no one seems to be noticing is that this is the first time apple has let another manufacturer license “fairplay” the DRM that lets you play iTMS purchases. That in it’s self is HUGE! This might open the door to other manufacturers or at least give them the pressident to start bidding for “Fairplay”.

  2. The fact that this phone only holds 100 songs is ridiculous.

    Although understandably this is probably to protect Apple’s dedicated players, Sony Ericsson’s walkman phone allows the use of all of its 512 megs for music. With Nokia’s upcoming N92 with it’s 4 gig harddrive, this (rather mediocre in my opinion) phone will be quickly reduced to the lame duck of the market.

  3. what was apple thinking with this phone
    100 songs its ridiculus like you said
    the w800 its the best
    the fight will be between nokia and sony
    motorola its out of this round

  4. Personally, I find the whole idea of a music player/phone ridiculous from a goal and usage point of view, and I barely care how well it is executed – when I am on the phone, music is excluded and vica versa. Listening to music is a pleasure and talking on the phone is a chore that I minimize.

    No, really. I have thought about this a lot, and aside from the “one gadget less to carry” argument, I see nothing here at all. With very small, light and portable iPod options (Shuffle, Nano) even that argument loses steam.

    As a product designer, I tend to favor dedicated devices that do a few things very well over “Swiss army knife” tools that do a lot in a crowded and mediocre fashion. For that reason, I love the iPod – heck, I don’t even want it to do video, photos or phone at all! The less I have to look at it, the better.

    My curmudgeonly $0.02.

  5. Two things: 1. Is there a way I can put in a 1 GB SD memory card in this baby myself without too much of a hassle? Yeah, I know I’m not going to get more music, but it’d be for the 100 songs that I can have and so that I can store more contacts, graphics and ringtones. 2. Is there a way to just see that someone is calling you on the screen without having your song interrupted or paused so that you can decide whether or not you want to interrupt your music or pause it yourself in order to talk to the person? I hate the idea of it automatically pausing. I like to screen my calls.

  6. Blah. My Nokia 6230 has as much functionality, more features, looks better, and has great battery life. I don’t see any innovation here.

  7. this is terrible! 0.3 megapixel camera? 100 song cap? slow OS? short battery life? big, ugly phone? super-slow transfers?

    this is the most un-apple product apple has taken pride in showing off to the public and the most embarassing thing that they have ever put their name on!

    ok, good point about the Fairplay websnap, but comeon, Apple has more pride than to have this phone be the first one! They have been so reluctant to lisense fairplay to third-parties, so why the sudden change to choose possibly the worst phone newly released? they should at least wait for the RAZR, if not ditch Motorola and make a proper product themselves. Steve must have felt so silly up on stage with this thing, especially after he announced something as amazing as the nanoPod.

    lets just hope they update this phone-itunes deal sharpish, otherwise too much ground will be lost to Sony and Nokia and Apple will lose out on a potentially huge market.

  8. If you combined songs into one file then you could get beyond the
    100-song limit sort of. It probably wouldn’t matter much with 512 MB of
    memory, but if you ever upgraded the chip, it might make a difference.
    The 100-song limit seems pointless and arbitrary though. It won’t be
    long before phones will hold a lot more than that.

  9. its wierd. apple did SOOO well with the ipod, made themselves a great reputation. the ipod was (almost) perfect! then they go and ruin a great oportunity and screw just about everything that they possibly could up! i mean, wtf? the itunes phone is such a great idea (although the swiss army knife analogy made me think twice about that), then they just go and blow it.

    but hey… its their screw up. i say we should all just wait for nokia and sony to catch up and buy their music phones.

    but i digress…

  10. JackDawson838, no you can’t put in a 1GB SD card. This phone uses microSD (aka Transflash) which is about half the size of a regular SD card.
    Secondly, this phone is nothing more than a Moto E398 with a firmware upgrade and an extra “iTunes” button. The E398 (and ROKR too, I assume) have their own Motorola preinstalled MP3 playing software that does not have the 100 song limit. There’s no album art or shuffle mode or fancy iPod style menus, but so what?
    As for the comments on the slow iTunes program, yes it’s true, but it’s not iTunes’ fault, it’s the whole OS on this phone. I’ve had the E398 for almost a year now and at times it can be ridiculously laggy, especially when typing out SMS, which seems to only be a problem with the E398/ROKR. (Friends and family own other Moto’s on near identical OSes (V600, RAZR etc) that run just fine.) But since I’m on a 2-year contract, I don’t see the point in going out and paying another few hundred dollars to get a new phone. Apart from that, it’s not the world’s worst phone, but it’s not the best either. All these shortcomings are in Motorola’s hands, not Apple’s.
    The main thing people need to understand, and a lot of people don’t seem to have come to grips with yet, is that this IS NOT AN APPLE PHONE. It is a Motorola with one single solitary piece of licensed Apple software built into it. Save yourself the time and money and wait a few months for the next model in the line and see if they improve, or at least try before you buy.

  11. I think the important thing to remember is that this is a motorola phone with a mobile version of itunes installed, *not* the ipod phone that we’ve all been waiting for.

  12. this phone does nothing that my WindowsMobile phone does not already do. As petro stated, this is not the ipod phone and the only thing about it is that it works with iTunes… no bid deal.

    Hate to say it but my windows mobile phone with my 1GB mSD card can hold about 300 songs without my having to “cut the quality” of the music. I guess I too will wiat for my next phone.

  13. Destined to become an eBay washout special. There is absolutely NOTHING that speaks of Apple design is this phone and I buy Apple partially for its design. I guess one could hollow out an older model iPod and place the phone inside.

  14. Damn, Moto dropped the ball on this one. How do you go from the RAZR to this blocky abomination? This is definately not the “iPhone” that a lot of people have been waiting for. I don’t even know why people got so psyched up about it, especially considering all the leaked photos. This phone is like a bad meal, and you need something sweet like the Nano to balance it out.

  15. While it is easy to say “This is not an ipod phone, or an Apple product” and somehow excuse Motorola from blame.

    The problem is that Motorola has hyped up this phone so much, and launched it at an Apple event (unfortunately for them, together with the ipod nano), so there is a certain amount of public expectation as to a product that associates itself with ipods so flagrantly.

    Looked at from a different perspective, what is it that Motorola is hinging on to differentiate this phone from others in the market? It’s not the fact that it plays music (so many others do that); it is the fact that it’s compatible with itunes, and hence in the minds of consumers a link with ipods is created.

    That is why the fact that they’ve not put in the slightest amount of effort into the design of this phone (again, look at the nano) is even more disappointing.

  16. As an existing Motorola E398 user the ROKR will be a time saver. The USB connect for the E398 is unreliable as is the software supplied by Motorola. I bypass this by taking the phone apart and putting the TransFlash card into its adapter and then putting the card into my digital camera and just dragging and dropping my music onto it. Yes the ROKR is limited to 100 songs, but its not designed to be an iPod, just iTunes supportive. It is still just a phone. At the moment I think I will be better off to wait till SanDisk release their larger mircoSD cards in 1GB (this year!!) then 2GB in 2006. The music may not be as organised if it had iTunes but there will be more of it having no limits like the ROKR has.

  17. I would like to introduce the worst Apple product of all time. For outstanding performence in being the most unintuitive phone with the worst aesthetics. It is a previous Moto phone with an iTunes button and some new software. This is total crap by Apple’s standards. No aesthetics either.

  18. i hate the fact that this is the only phone that has itunes pre-installed.. there should be an app for blackberry so we can install itunes and sync all our music onto the fone.. because motorolla rok was AWESOME at that !!

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