Basic cellphones, unlike larger BlackBerrys or iPhones, are still favored by plenty of users who would rather carry a small device that feels more comfortable to hold to the ear. But the phones’ size involves a trade-off: cramped keypads and clumsy software that can make these phones a pain to use for anything other than calls.
As technology continues to shrink, more features are being packed into these small mobile devices, making navigation and ease-of-use more important. This week, I tested the Motorola ROKR E8, which costs $199 with a two-year T-Mobile service agreement and makes a real attempt to be more user-friendly. The device, which comes out on July 7, isn’t much bigger than a typical cellphone but its standout feature is its keyboard, which dynamically changes to accommodate whatever you’re doing at the time, revealing only buttons that would be of use to that particular function.
The secret sauce on the ROKR E8 is its keyboard, which changes when it’s used as a phone, music device and camera.
The surface of the ROKR E8 has no physical keys at all. In its off or resting state, in fact, it’s just a black surface with rows of tiny, unlabeled bumps. But this surface is actually divided into two: The top half works like a typical cellphone display while the bottom half projects virtual keys onto its surface and uses the rows of bumps to give these keys a physical presence.
When making a call or sending a text message, the ROKR’s surface displays a regular phone keypad. But as soon as a music shortcut button is pressed, the surface morphs into five buttons for music navigation: play/pause, seek forward, seek backward, shuffle and repeat. Pressing another shortcut button to start the ROKR’s camera mode shows four buttons for zooming in or out, switching to playback mode or changing to video. Motorola (MOT) calls this its ModeShift technology. Though the lower half of the ROKR can be considered a touch device, objects can’t be manipulated with gestures like pinching or dragging as with the Apple (AAPL) iPhone’s multitouch screen.
Overall, I found that the ROKR E8′s dynamic keyboard gave me a real advantage in figuring out how to use the multi-functionality of the phone. Its changing keyboard eliminated a lot of guesswork and time that I may have spent hunting through menus for a command. And true to its name, the ROKR (pronounced “rocker”) is focused on its music phone functionality with an FM radio, a neatly organized music menu and a speaker that has convincingly simulated surround-sound effects.
But this ROKR didn’t always jam out in perfect pitch. A touch-sensitive semicircle in the center is meant to make scrolling through long lists easier — much like Apple Inc.’s iPod wheel. But because this tool on the ROKR isn’t a full circle, scrolling felt unsatisfying. You also can’t buy songs with the ROKR, or even mark songs for purchasing later on a PC.
And while the morphing buttons look futuristic and hip, I experienced a few instances when the phone was slow to react after I touched a button, as when I touched the seek forward button while listening to music or when I chose to open an MMS message I sent to a friend.
Twenty-two tiny bumps dot half of the ROKR’s surface, and the surface below each bump vibrates when it’s touched to provide sensory feedback. Nothing is ever physically pressed down, though the vibration response leads you to think otherwise.
A smart switch on the side can be held down to turn it on or off, or switched into the upward position to lock the device, preventing accidental calls or battery drain.
The ROKR E8 runs on T-Mobile’s (DT) GPRS/EDGE connection, which felt sluggish at times. And not even the dynamic keyboard on this device could help make email or instant messaging easier.
It has a two-megapixel still camera with an 8x digital zoom that can change into video-camera mode in one step. Two gigabytes of memory are built into the ROKR, and more memory can be added via a microSD card slot, which is hidden beneath a back panel. A one-gigabyte microSD card comes with the ROKR. Without this card, the internal memory will hold about 1,500 songs.
With help from a USB cord and Windows (MSFT) Media Player 11, I transferred over 200 MP3s onto my ROKR. Album art that transferred with my songs appeared on-screen as songs played, and the speaker gave off a powerful sound. Built-in stereo Bluetooth can send tunes to Bluetooth-enabled stereo speakers, and it took me just a few seconds to pair my ROKR with Motorola’s EQ5 speakers.
A preloaded program by Shazam lets users hold the ROKR up to any speaker playing a song, and in 30 seconds, identifies the track title, artist, and album art. I held the ROKR up to my alarm clock radio and it worked perfectly. But once these songs are recognized, the track data can’t be used to buy the song or even to transfer a request to buy that song to a PC for buying online at another time.
The ROKR’s FM radio will work only if its included stereo headset is plugged in because the headset has the radio antenna. But once the headset is plugged in, the radio will play via the ROKR’s speaker.
The ROKR E8 has an audio technology called Crystal Talk, which Motorola says allows your phone to perform better in loud environments. Even if the person on the other end of your phone is in a noisy place, the company says Crystal Talk will raise the volume to improve the call. I tested this by speaking to someone on the ROKR while turning a hairdryer on beside the phone. I then used a regular Razr cellphone. The person on the other end said that the ROKR sounded slightly, but noticeably, better.
Motorola’s ROKR E8 is a head-turning phone with many built-in advances that give it a smarter interface. One might wonder what other ModeShift functions the company will integrate into its devices in the future, such as a full QWERTY keyboard. The overall idea of a dynamic keyboard is a step ahead for small devices. It forces the phone to work more intuitively and improves navigation while looking stylishly sleek at the same time.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.
Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com