Pros: Above-average on signal strength, this combination of cell phone and iTunes music player doesn’t drop calls easily, and plays back MP3 or AAC tracks without complaint. Includes 512MB memory card. Offers partial Bluetooth compatibility, an integrated camera and limited data features.
Cons: Signal strength aside, audio quality of calls is only okay, and not good on caller’s end when using included stereo headset. Phone and iTunes interfaces, including music synchronization, are frequently slow and non-intuitive by comparison with Apple-designed products. Stereo channels sometimes reverse during headset or speaker playback. Artificially limited to 100 songs regardless of their actual size – fewer than any iPod, including shuffle – but costs more than a 20GB iPod unless you simultaneously commit to a phone contract. Can’t use for music unless SIM is installed. Uninspired industrial design. Poor battery life indicator.
Pundits claim that standalone digital music players are destined to be replaced by music-ready mobile phones. If they’re correct – and we’re not convinced that they are – Motorola’s ROKR E1 Mobile Phone ($349.99) will not be the vanguard of the revolution. Combining an unimpressive industrial design with a clunky interface, ROKR E1 is the sort of product Apple never would have released under its own name: an okay retrofit of an already-released cell phone with an okay, iPod-esque music player as its only semi-distinctive feature. Its saving graces are phone signal strength, reasonable battery life, and an included 512MB memory card, which can be used to store no more than 100 songs.
To be clear at the onset, we are neither damning the concept of a music-playing phone nor saying that ROKR E1 is a bad product. We have no doubt that Apple and its partners will eventually release a good or great iTunes-ready phone that’s as much of a breakthrough as various iPods have been. But as the first product of a planned series, E1 is only “okay,” the mark of our C rating, and thereby not recommendable. It’s also the first iPod-related device that we’re glad to see covered by a thirty-day return policy.
In order to make our comprehensive review more manageable, we’ve collapsed its text into easy to skim section headers. Open as many or as few as you wish.
Where Can I See or Purchase a ROKR E1? (Click here for details.)
In the United States, ROKR E1 is available exclusively for the Cingular Wireless network, and is available from the company at discounted prices with a one-year ($299.99) or two-year ($249.99) contract. Demonstration models with pre-installed music are now on display at Cingular-owned “Company Stores” in the United States. As of the date of this review, the phone can be purchased from Amazon.com for as low as $100 after rebate with a two-year contract.
The phone will be offered internationally by GSM carriers listed in this article starting in mid-September. It is not compatible with Verizon, Sprint or Nextel phone networks, or mobile networks available in Japan.
Why Is It Called ROKR E1? (Click here for details.)
For the past year, Motorola has successfully marketed a series of flip phones as “RAZRs” because of their thin, razor-like profiles, and the company subsequently announced rounded phones called PEBLs (“pebbles”), thin bar-like phones called SLVRs (“slivers”), and music phones called ROKRs (“rockers”). Previously released as the E398 phone without support for iTunes, the first ROKR phone was initially redubbed the E790, and then the E1. Motorola now claims that E1 is the first in a series of ROKR phones that will be introduced every three months.
What Are ROKR E1’s Major Features? (Click here for details.)
ROKR E1 is a tri-band GSM mobile phone in a “candybar”-shaped package. The U.S. version of ROKR E1 can broadcast and receive on 850/1800/1900MHz frequencies, while the European version supports 900/1800/1900MHz instead. Since no single E1 phone supports both 850 and 900MHz, it does not qualify as a “quad-band” or “world phone,” making Motorola’s older quad-band RAZR a potentially better pick for people who travel overseas. Because of its stick-like candybar design, it does not fold closed, and its single screen is exposed at all times.
E1 includes two integrated speakers and a headphone jack for music playback, a 176×220 pixel color screen, a 640×480 (0.3 Megapixel) camera, and support for both Bluetooth 1.2 wireless accessories and J2ME downloadable applications and games. With the exception of the second speaker, these features are in no way cutting-edge; in fact, they are the same features found on most of Motorola’s GSM phones released over the last couple of years. E1 also includes rhythm lights, ring lights, and event lights, which pulse through the unit’s sides and keypad under certain circumstances.
Its most significant deviation from the phone norm is video functionality. ROKR E1 can record still pictures or low frame rate, 28-second movies in MPEG-4 format with its camera, as well as play back highly compressed MPEG-4 videos on its screen. (An increasing number of Motorola phones support either or both of these features natively, or with firmware upgrades.) E1 also features a miniature web browser, as well as limited e-mail and instant messaging support with both GPRS and EDGE protocols for downloading, the latter a faster data transmission standard supported in some locations, and not found in all Motorola phones.
You can send your video clips and digital pictures to other people using the phone’s integrated data features, a feature that will become increasingly popular for phone users over time. However, Cingular’s unlimited data packages are more than twice as expensive ($44.99) as rival T-Mobile’s ($19.99), making these features far less attractive for average consumers than they are on T-Mobile-exclusive hybrid devices such as Danger’s SideKick II. We continue to believe that high data charges are the single biggest limiting factor on wider consumer adoption of next-generation phone technologies, and though we would (and do) use these features at T-Mobile’s prices, we would not take advantage of these services on Cingular’s network. Consequently, ROKR’s video and photo features would mainly be useful to create files that would later be transferred to our own computers.
What Else Is In The Box? (Click here for details.)
Each ROKR E1 phone includes a battery, a pre-installed memory card, and a pretty solid collection of packed-in accessories. Instead of Apple’s classic white earbuds, you’ll find a silver and clear pair of earbuds with an integrated microphone and call disconnect button, two gray foam earbud covers, a light gray 3.5mm to 2.5mm headphone adapter so that you can use your preferred non-microphone earphones, a black wall charger, and a USB cable.
None of these parts cosmetically match each other, or an iPod.
In addition to a collection of manuals and advertisements, the box also includes an iTunes 4.9 CD-ROM, which did not boot on either of two Macintosh computers we tested it with, but did boot on a PC. We would have minded the iTunes 4.9 issue more if iTunes 5.0 hadn’t been released on the same day as ROKR, requiring a software download anyway. Some Mac iTunes 4.9 users have also reported that they’ve needed to download an updated iTunes Mobile Driver from Apple; we think that we avoided this by downloading iTunes 5.0.
How Do You Transfer iTunes Music to ROKR E1? (Click here for details.)
To transfer music to ROKR E1, you connect the USB cable to your computer and the bottom of the phone, which unlike an iPod works only to move data from computer to ROKR, and not to recharge ROKR’s battery. Once ROKR is connected to your computer, iTunes opens with the welcome screen below to summarize its mobile phone features.
iTunes’ source list then shows a mobile phone as a device capable of receiving music files. As with any iPod, dragging and dropping files from your Library to the phone icon will work to achieve transfers. However, you cannot send Apple Lossless or AIFF files to the phone, amongst others; it takes MP3 and AAC tracks without complaint.
If you don’t want to think about which files to send, the iPod shuffle’s Autofill feature is available at the screen’s bottom to load the phone automatically, or based upon specific criteria. People who plan to frequently reload their phones with new music should unquestionably set up a playlist of “good” tracks, and Autofill from it.
Why? The E1 synchronization process is slow. Painfully slow. Music transferred at a rate of 0.13 Megabytes per second, contrasting with the 7.6 Megabyte per second transfer speed of the iPod nano. In other words, in the same 72 seconds it took to transfer 2 songs to ROKR E1, iPod nano had transferred more than 100 songs. Motorola’s site confirms this speed as normal by noting that it will take 30 seconds to transfer each 4 Megabyte song. That’s why Autofill is so useful for the E1. If you’re planning to manually transfer handfuls of songs in bunches, expect to spend time waiting.
As with the iPod shuffle, iTunes’ new Phone Tab provides you with an “Enable Disk Use” mode, plus a sliding bar to allocate phone space for songs versus data. It remains to be seen whether anyone will want to use this feature with ROKR E1, as it requires you to carry a large USB cable – bigger than the ones that come with iPods, and less convenient than the USB plug integrated into the iPod shuffle.
You can also have iTunes scale large songs down to 128Kbps AAC files, an iPod shuffle feature that enables you to carry Apple Lossless and other unplayable files such as enhanced podcasts over to ROKR, minus their enhanced (visual and bookmarking) content. Despite the fact that iTunes needs to convert the files, this process does not take substantially longer than a standard song transfer.
However, if you’ve turned the feature on and converted files, then turn it off, a bug in iTunes leads to a warning message that already converted and transferred tracks are not playable. iTunes will then re-convert and transfer them if you check the box again, a process that takes even more time.
How Does ROKR E1 Store Music? (Click here for details.)
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 in capacity. However, iTunes cripples each card to holding no more than 100 songs regardless of their actual storage requirements – an empty card actually has 482.5MB of free space, or around 80MB more than Apple estimates the typical 100-song library will require. You can use the residual Megabytes to store other data (such as separate ringtones and graphics files), but not iTunes music. ROKR E1 makes this possible, but not effortless, through a buried storage selection sub-sub-menu option.
Can you change cards? Sort of. While the card is easily removable, its small size, location (behind the phone’s battery) and a sync-to-iTunes verification process 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.
How Does ROKR E1 Play Music? (Click here for details.)
When you first begin to use it, ROKR E1’s menus look like almost any other Motorola phone released over the last year and a half: they are icon-based, full of choices, and accessed with an incredible number of different buttons. To partially cut through all of the confusion, E1 includes a dedicated music button that looks like a musical note. You press the button and an Apple music application called the iTunes Client loads. This program looks a lot like the interface of a color-screened iPod, only with fewer options – no Photos, Extras, or Settings sub-menus are apparent, for instance – and a slower interface. You use a joystick on E1’s face to navigate the menus.
Less responsive than any iPod, and especially slow by contrast with the iPod nano, E1 moves from screen to screen a step behind your button presses. But it gives you the opportunity to select from one or more playlists, or your artists, albums, or songs, or a random playback of the entire library with Shuffle Songs. An oddball icon with a collection of four lines lets you access an otherwise hidden settings menu with several limited options, including the ability to see how much of the phone’s memory card is being used at a given time.
The music library options look almost identical to what you’d see on an iPod, only in Motorola’s less attractive, phone-wide font. A Now Playing option appears on the main menu whenever a song is playing. Clicking it (or any song on the list) brings up this approximation of the iPod and iPod nano’s Now Playing screen, complete with album art if you have it.
As with a full-sized iPod, repeated clicks of the joystick will bring you through volume control to album art (below), in-track fast forward and rewinding, and song rating.
You can back out of the iTunes Client at any time and go all the way back to the phone’s main screen, where a limited amount of track information and album art appears near the screen’s top, along with four icons. One switches play/pause status of the song, two go backwards or forwards through tracks, while the last re-opens iTunes.
During iTunes playback, you can use almost all of the phone’s other features. Notably, video recording does not work while music is playing. Telephone calls, still photography, games, and video playback will at least briefly interrupt music playback.
How Does iTunes Music Sound? (Click here for details.)
With the exception of a few major issues, E1’s renditions of iTunes music are good. With a standard set of iPod headphones connected, MP3 and AAC files sound essentially the same as what you’d hear coming from an iPod shuffle, and relatively few people will complain that E1 lacks in fidelity or volume.
On the other hand, you have no control over equalization – unlike an iPod or iPod nano, you mightn’t expect any from a telephone.
And though volume can be quite soft or quite loud, adjustment isn’t smooth: unlike the iPod, which shifts volume in steps so fine as to be represented by one or two pixels on a screen, ROKR E1 shifts in 8 big steps. And switching between them is not fast. Sometimes there’s a one-second lag between steps.
When you unplug the headphones, music plays back through ROKR E1’s integrated speakers. The audio quality there is roughly equivalent to connecting Macally’s PodWave to an iPod shuffle – very good pocket sound, audible at a distance, but nothing spectacular by larger speaker system standards. Motorola touts the speakers’ vibrations as a feature.
There’s one big problem with E1’s sound. Despite possessing “stereo” speakers and “stereo” headphones, ROKR E1 frequently – but not always – reversed the left and right channels of our music through both audio sources, particularly when we were switching between them. We always test for stereo problems in speakers, and have heard them in a couple (notably, DLO’s iBoom and Mythix’s iChant), but have never heard them in an iPod before. This surprised us enough that we contacted another publication so that we could confirm our findings on a second E1 located on the other side of the country. It’s an embarrassing glitch, and one not befitting a music product affiliated with the iPod or iTunes names.
There are three other music-related issues worth noting. First, ROKR E1’s wireless music functionality is only partial: surprisingly, and disappointingly, you cannot listen to music through a Bluetooth headset, nor can you wirelessly synchronize iTunes music with your computer or purchase iTunes songs. Second, there is no obvious way (if any at all) to select an iTunes song as a ringtone for the phone, and third, though the phone has other “music” functionality described in its manuals, such as the ability to flash internal lights during “music” playback, these features only work with ringtones, and not with iTunes songs. Despite its presence as an application on the phone, it’s clear that iTunes was not entirely integrated into E1’s DNA.
How Does ROKR E1 Perform As a Phone? (Click here for details.)
Putting interface issues aside, there are at least two key dimensions of a mobile phone’s performance: signal strength and sound quality. It’s not necessarily the case that any phone will both maintain strong connections to cell towers and sound good to callers on the other end.
ROKR is better in the former than the latter. We compared it most extensively against Motorola’s RAZR, the slim and popular mobile phone released last year, and found that it was roughly comparable in signal strength, which is to say at least above average, perhaps better. But in audio quality, callers decisively preferred RAZR’s sound with and without Bluetooth headsets. Every one of them described a “compressed” sound in audio that was increasingly evident as ROKR went from headset to wired headphones to a Bluetooth wireless device, distorting the sound of our voice, and clipping off the first syllables of words starting with the headphones. While acceptable without anything attached, ROKR is far less than ideal as a hands-free mobile phone.
Bluetooth with Motorola’s HS820, generally described by callers as sounding at least “good” with RAZR, was deemed poor with ROKR, with a volume level and microphone gain that were deemed too low by both sides. However, ROKR did substantially better when connected to Oakley’s (more expensive) RAZRwire Bluetooth Eyewear, which callers said was a major step up in audio quality, with less audible compression than even ROKR’s included wired headphones. Regardless, callers urged us not to give up our other phones, including Danger’s SideKick II, for ROKR. On an audio quality scale of 10, they rated RAZR a 8-9, the SideKick II a 6, ROKR without headphones or with RAZRwire a 5-6, and ROKR with the included headset or the HS820 headset a 3.
These comments were counterbalanced by two factors. First, ROKR was able to make calls that our SideKick II on T-Mobile could not, despite the fact that they share some cellular towers in Southern California, where we tested. Despite problems we’ve had with Cingular’s AT&T network in the past, and despite the fact that calls did not sound as good to callers with ROKR, the phone was able to initiate and partially hold calls in places where a T-Mobile signal wasn’t available. Some users may like that.
Additionally, ROKR’s dropped call behavior was more graceful than with other non-RAZR Motorola phones we’ve tried, such as the older V600 and V635 handsets. ROKR was less likely to drop calls in the first place, and when it did, dropping was quick and did not lock up the phone.
Overall, ROKR’s mobile phone capabilities are arguably its strongest suit, at least when not paired with the included headphones or certain Bluetooth devices. Like its other features, limits on its phone functionality will bother discerning users, but ROKR E1 does have certain assets that will be appealing to people who are willing to make compromises.
What About Battery Life? (Click here for details.)
Testing ROKR’s battery life proved to be a major challenge. Even under highly controlled testing conditions, we found the phone’s two separate battery indicators to be imprecise and unreliable, but tried our best to produce accurate results.
For example, in order to verify Motorola’s claim that ROKR could play music continuously for 15 hours through the included headphones, or six hours through its speakers, we tried three times to run our standard iPod battery test, setting iTunes to shuffled playback and letting it go for hours at a time to see how much we could wear the battery down. Each time we’d come back and discover that the phone had turned iTunes off part of the way through its playlist.
Like most Motorola phones, ROKR’s on-screen battery indicator is intentionally vague, featuring a total of three bars to indicate energy level. A sub-menu under settings (Phone Status/Battery Meter) indicated that the battery was at level 6, and apparently full, even after two hours of telephone calls. However, the battery meter dropped to 4 when connected to a wall charger, and on a separate test, fell from 6 one minute to 4 the next, and then registered as 2 when connected to a wall charger. We have not seen 5, 3, or 1 appear, and believe that this extended battery meter merely doubles the number of bars present on the main screen, a complete waste of time.
This contrasts sharply with the iPod’s battery indicator, which features around 20 different icons to indicate gradual depletion over time. Though iPods can be confusing because they use relative battery icons, telling you how much power is left under current operating conditions (such as screen on, photos and music playing), Apple has continued to improve their accuracy over time, and any modern model will give you a much better sense of current levels than ROKR E1.
But how did ROKR perform in real-life tests? That depends on your expectations, and how you intend to use the phone. Some phones are rated for up to ten hours of talk time before a recharge, and others for under three. Because it’s designed to be multi-functional, any one of ROKR’s numbers is more theoretical than practical.