Walt Mossberg

Music-Playing Cellphones Hit a Flat Note

After months of anticipation, Apple Computer last week finally unveiled the first cellphone that combines elements of its hot-selling iPod music players. The $250 phone, called the ROKR, was designed and made by Motorola; is being sold by Cingular; and contains special iPod-like music-playback software created by Apple.

But Apple is strangely unenthusiastic about it. Apple’s heavily trafficked Web home page relegated the new phone to a small box underneath a giant photo touting its newest music player, the iPod nano. By contrast, the Motorola and Cingular home pages were dominated by the new music phone.

The Motorola ROKR E1, $249.99 with two-year Cingular contract, www.motorola.com
The Motorola ROKR E1, $249.99 with two-year Cingular contract, www.motorola.com

After a week or so of testing the ROKR, along with a couple of competing music phones, my assistant Katie Boehret and I share Apple’s indifference. As a music player, the Motorola ROKR is OK, as are the two other music phones we tested. But none of them approaches either the style or the functionality of the iPod, and none lives up to the full potential of what a combined cellphone and music player could be.

These phones are based on the premise that music lovers would rather carry one combined device — the cellphone that’s with them all the time anyway — than a separate phone and music player. But, after testing the ROKR and its competitors, Katie isn’t giving up her pink iPod mini for them, and I’m still carrying my new, black iPod nano.

Many cellphones can play music. But the ROKR belongs to a new class of phone that claims to be especially good at it and to be able to easily copy songs from a personal computer.

Besides the $250 ROKR (officially the ROKR E1), the other two music phones we tested were the $499 Sony Ericsson W800 Walkman cellphone and the $150 (before $50 rebate) LG VX8100 from Verizon Wireless. All three play music via earbuds or built-in speakers. None of the three allows you to buy full songs (as opposed to ringtones) from an online downloading service like Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

You can tell that the ROKR is no iPod just by looking at it. It’s a thick, stubby candy-bar phone, far more conventional than Motorola’s super-slender RAZR phone. The ROKR also lacks an iPod-like scroll wheel for navigating music, instead relying on a tiny joystick that isn’t nearly as effective.

The ROKR’s main advantage is that it can synchronize music with Apple’s well-regarded iTunes software running on either a Windows or Macintosh computer. In fact, this phone is the first device other than an iPod that is recognized by iTunes when it is plugged into a computer via a USB cable. That’s a huge deal, because millions of people use iTunes all the time and are familiar with how to use it to transfer music to an iPod. By contrast, linking most other phones with computers is hard.

Sony Ericsson W800 Walkman, $499, www.sonyericsson.com
Sony Ericsson W800 Walkman, $499, www.sonyericsson.com

The ROKR’s second big advantage is that its music-playback software mimics the user interface and screen display of the iPod, which is already well known to millions of devoted users. You just push a “music” button on the phone, decorated with the green iTunes music-note logo, and up pops software that resembles an iPod.

But the ROKR has one huge disadvantage: It can hold only 100 songs, no matter how much memory you add to it. This is a contrived limit that applies regardless of how little storage space the songs occupy. While the companies won’t officially explain the limit, it was almost certainly imposed by Apple to keep the phone from cutting too deeply into iPod sales.

Getting those songs onto the ROKR was simple. iTunes asked us to name our phone, just like you can name your iPod, and we check-marked a box to allow iTunes to automatically choose the songs to be transferred. If you’d rather manually select your songs, you can do that instead.

But once the song transfer started, Katie and I were both stunned by how long it took — Katie’s 100-song transfer finished in just less than one hour, and mine took 64 minutes. Transferring that many songs on an iPod takes only about three minutes, so this was really annoying. Motorola explained that one reason for the slow transfer speed is that the phone uses the older, slower version of USB called 1.1 instead of the newer, faster USB 2.0.

Once our songs were finally transferred onto the ROKR, accessing and listening to them was a familiar process. But the hardware controls on the ROKR were considerably less well designed. The phone lacks standard “transport controls” — play, pause, forward and reverse buttons. Every move must be controlled by that teeny joystick.

Just like on an iPod, various data show on the phone’s screen while a song is playing, including the album art, artist, album name, track title and duration.

The ROKR has built-in speakers on the left and right sides of its screen, and its sound quality was pretty good, but nothing spectacular. A set of included stereo earbuds with a microphone on the cord let us listen to music and receive incoming calls without a problem. When we answered calls, songs were automatically paused and a prompt to resume the song appeared on-screen after the call ended. The ROKR comes with a 512-megabyte TransFlash memory card, but this large amount of memory doesn’t change the number of iTunes songs — it’s still 100.

LG VX8100, $99.99 with $50 rebate and two-year Verizon contract, www.verizonwireless.com
LG VX8100, $99.99 with $50 rebate and two-year Verizon contract, www.verizonwireless.com

Sony Ericsson’s $499 W800 Walkman cellphone is very attractive. Its edges are colored orange, and each side is white. Lying face-down, the phone looks like a fairly thin digital camera. The W800, like the ROKR, comes with a 512-megabyte memory card. And, unlike with the ROKR, you can fill it with as many songs as possible. A two-gigabyte MemoryStick card would expand the phone’s song library to 500.

The Walkman uses the speedy 2.0 version of USB to transfer songs from a Mac or Windows PC, and the difference is shocking. Each song took about 10 seconds to transfer to the phone; the ROKR took around a full minute per song.

We used Sony’s included software called Disc2Phone to move music onto the phone from our computer. It was rather basic, but nowhere near as intuitive as iTunes. The software was divided into three panes — one showed the music on our computer, a middle pane was used for dragging and dropping songs that we wanted to transfer to the phone, and the far-right pane showed us the music that we had already loaded onto the phone.

Back on the W800 itself, a center button opens the Walkman (music) functions. It was pretty easy to skip through songs on the W800, and the phone uses a menu similar to that of iTunes to organize its music. This home menu listed Now Playing, Artists, Tracks, Playlists and Videos. Katie easily made a playlist on the phone itself by checking boxes next to songs and naming the list. The W800 also uses a tiny joystick for skipping ahead and back through songs (moving the stick right or left).

The Walkman phone’s speakers didn’t sound as loud as the ROKR’s, though they sounded like slightly better quality. A play/pause button is on the left of the phone, and volume can be adjusted on the right side. A good-quality stereo headset with a microphone comes with the W800.

The LG VX8100 from Verizon Wireless is more of a regular cellphone — at least compared with the Motorola ROKR and Sony Ericsson W800. It doesn’t come with a memory card or special stereo headset, but then again, it costs only about $100 after rebate with a two-year contract.

No special software is included for transferring songs to the VX8100 from your computer; instead, you’ll have to use a SecureDigital card reader and buy a MiniSD card to fit into the phone. There is no limit to the number of songs the phone will hold, other than its storage capacity.

To get music onto this phone, you have to remove the memory card, put it into an adapter, and then plug that into the memory-card slot of a Windows PC or a Mac. You then have to find your music folder and drag the files into a folder on the card. It took us several tries to get this seemingly simple process to work. First, a new Dell PC refused to read the memory card in the adapter. Then, an HP appeared to do so, and then failed. Finally, it worked.

This LG phone was the only one of the three to include a full set of hardware transport controls — play/pause and seek buttons. And its speakers were the best of the bunch, producing loud but clean and undistorted sound.

But its user interface was simply abysmal, by far the worst in this bunch. There’s no obvious button on the phone’s keypad to start the music player — you must close the phone and press the Play/Pause button to summon the music player. Finding the player on the phone’s menus was a chore. There’s no menu item for “music player” or anything similar. You have to select “My MP3″ from a menu otherwise devoted to Verizon’s “Get It Now” service for buying online downloads. And the music player’s screen used more space to show a pulsating graphic than for song information — only the song’s file name appeared on the screen.

Overall, the Motorola ROKR is nothing to write home about, and neither are its rivals. If you’re desperate to have some songs on your cellphone, be our guest. But a smarter plan would be to wait for a better combo device. These aren’t the phones that will replace your iPod.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret


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