There's no doubt about it, 'thin is in'! A craze for super thin phones kicked off by the Motorola RAZR shows no sign of slowing, and with Samsung now blazing the thin-device trail too, the boundaries really are being pushed - at least in the feature phone market.
That's not to say that the Windows Mobile market has been completely left out! Motorola have shipped the Q on CDMA networks in the USA, Samsung have shipped the i320 / i320N in Europe / Asia and there is a 3G variant of the same device waiting in the wings on major European and American networks - the i60x. If you believe the rumour-mill, a show-stopping 3G Q will hit the streets in Q1 2007 too.
While all of the above devices feature QWERTY thumboards, HTC have also got in on the act with their Clamshell StrTrk design, an unsubtle nod to the diminuitive dimensions of the RAZR. Strangely, the StrTrk hasn't been picked up generally by networks in Europe, and it remains something of a rarity. In the US, it has recently launched on Cingular.
What about fans of regular candybar devices?
Up until now, fans (such as myself) of regular candybar devices have missed out on 'the thin thing'. Once again, Motorola released a device in the feature phone space, the SLVR, with an impressive 11.5mm thickness (or is it thinness?), but Windows Mobile fans were left wanting. Until now... enter i-mate!
i-mate have a long history (well, long in the Windows Mobile timeline anyway!) as effectively a 'HTC box shifter'. i-mate would generally take on the latest HTC devices, brand them i-mate, give them a weird name , bundle a suite of i-mate software and services, and ship them out SIM free. And they were doing very well at it too! Too well, some might say... as since the turn of the year, HTC have gradually made clearer their own ambitions to capture a piece of the market that i-mate largely dominated, and so the HTC brand itself has moved from being OEM to consumer. As this happened, so the relationships with current players in those markets began to sour.
To i-mate's credit, they did not just sit around and watch HTC erode their market, they took a new line, by looking to procure Windows Mobile devices from sources other than HTC. No mean feat you might argue, with HTC undoubtedly the leading Windows Mobile device manufacturer.
What you see before you is one of the first devices to emerge from a non HTC i-mate relationship, the i-mate SPL, which has been designed and built for i-mate by Techfaith Wireless.
Motorola Q - 11.5mm thick. Samsung i320/N - 11.5mm thick. Samsung i60x - 11.8mm thick. HTC StrTrk 15.8mm thick. i-mate SPL - 12mm thick - thin is finally in for Windows Mobile!
Buying the i-mate SPL
In line with previous i-mate products, the SPL will be sold SIM free. As i-mate shift their strategy and move away from HTC products to i-mate exclusive devices I imagine this will change, but for now at least, if you want an i-mate device, you're going to have to splash the cash independently from your network operator.
So how much?
Using Expansys as a price guide (prices correct at time of writing)...
i-mate SPL - £249.95
And by comparison...
HTC S310 - £199.95
QTek 8500 - £229.95
i-mate SP5 - £289.95
Samsung i320 - £349.95
As you can see, the i-mate SPL is fairly competitively priced amongst it's peers. However, this doesn't tell the whole story. The market segment that the SPL is aimed at is that of the HTC S310, the low end. Our sources tell us that the i-mate SPL was originally slated to be a HTC Oxygen based device (like the S310), but as the HTC relationship went sour, this was then changed to the Techfaith Wireless Puma you see here. i-mate SPL = i-mate SP 'Lite' = low end Smartphone...
I anticipate that, as with other devices such as the SP5, the price will fall after the initial launch demand, probably closer to the £200 pricepoint, which makes it a very interesting proposition indeed!
Unboxing the i-mate SPL
The SPL comes in the standard issue i-mate blue box. Inside you'll find...
- a leather pouch (nice enough, it's nice to get any case in with a device IMHO)
- an Outlook 2002 / ActiveSync CD (why still Outlook 2002 not 2003?)
- a very good Quick Start guide
- an excellent manual
- a headset (mini USB plug!)
- a miniUSB cable
- a mains charger
Oh and the SPL itself
In a nutshell, the box contains everything you would expect and nothing more - of note is that although extra software is installed on the device (until you hard reset!), it isn't to be found on the companion CD.
Hardware - overview
In a case that's only 12mm thick, it's probably reasonable to expect some compromises around the specifications. However, they're not necessarily where you might expect! Let me give you a rundown of the specs...
- Windows Mobile 5 for Smartphone AKU 3
- Triband 850/1800/1900 or 900/1800/1900 (2 versions available) GPRS no EDGE
- TI OMAP 730 @ 200MHz
- 128MB ROM
- 64MB RAM
- 2.2" QVGA 65K colour screen
- miniSD expansion behind battery cover
- 2.0MP camera
- miniUSB connector for sync / charge / headphones
- 1100mAh battery
- 4 hours talktime
- 150 hour standby
- 114.5mm x 49mm x 12mm
The SPL is one of the first devices to ship with AKU3. This means the device ships with the very latest revision of the Windows Mobile 5 operating system, with a number of fixes and enhancements, and the .net Compact Framework 2 in ROM (yay!).
The SPL contains a generous 128MB of ROM and incredibly, manages to cram a miniSD (yes miniSD) slot into it's slim frame! Hats off to i-mate / TFW for that inclusion.
If you've used any of the Samsung thin-devices, you can be forgiven for thinking thin = poor battery life... but the SPL packs a 1100mAh battery (for reference, the C500 had a 1050mAh battery, the C600 a 1150mAh battery).
The expansion is miniUSB, which is welcome, as opposed to the proprietary connectors so often found on thin devices (*cough* StrTrk *cough*)
The not so positives...
The SPL packs tri-band radio rather than the more capable quad band seen in many devices, and offers no EDGE or 3G connection. To ensure that the US market is catered for, the SPL is offered in 2 variants, a 900/1800/1900 model for Europe, and a 850/1800/1900 model for the USA. If you're in the UK and particularly if you're on Vodafone / O2, make sure you get the European version or you'll be in trouble!
You'll notice the processor is a 200MHz OMAP 730 processor, which is the same processor found in the Typhoon (C500) devices! Remember though, speed isn't everything
Finally, like the Hermes Pocket PC, the SPL headset plugs in to the miniUSB port. This is almost certainly a space saving measure, but it does make purchasing replacement headsets more difficult.
There is no IR connectivity.
Hardware - around the device
I've had positive feedback to my 'around the device' approach (and everyone else seems to be doing it now too), so I shall do the same with the SPL
Let's start with the front.
The front of the device at first glance is very 'Motorola SLVR' (motorola product page). The whole front is almost completely flat, and is bordered by very shiny black plastic. The plastic that forms the keypad and screen surround is slightly lighter in colour, but still exceptionally shiny. Fingerprints ahoy!
At the top left of the device you'll see an LED. This is a multi functional blue / green / red LED that serves as bluetooth / power / event notification - i.e. it flashes red when you have unread notifications. On the right hand side at the top is the front facing speaker. Below these sits the subtle 'i-mate SPL' branding. The blue-on-black type looks good.
Underneath the screen are two soft keys, between which sits a dedicated Internet Explorer button. Below this is the 5 way directional pad, surrounded by a home key, a back key and the red / green call keys. As seen on a number of other devices of late, pressing and holding the red key serves as the power button on the device. For this reason, you need to hold the 'Home' key in order to activate the key lock. The directional pad is quite small. It has a 'rippled' metal finish so feels good to touch, but in use the size and positioning will take some getting used to. More on this later The action button itself is flush with the other buttons.
The number keys at the base of the device are well spaced and have a suprisingly good feel. As you'll notice, the RAZR / SLVR'esque keypad dictates that the middle column sit slightly higher than the left / right columns, which isn't a problem in general typing, although it does bring the '2' key dangerously close to the directional pad. Again, more on this later
All in all, the front of the device looks great. It has a blue illumination at night (see picture), and is probably the first Smartphones that genuinely screams 'i'm sexy' rather than 'I can do lots of useful stuff'
Flipping over to the back of the device, you'll find the 2 megapixel camera in the top left, with a tiny mirror below it for self portraits. Below this sits the speaker, which is quite loud. Above the camera is a tiny port for an external antenna.
To the right of the camera you'll see the '2.0 MEGA PIXEL' branding and the 'Designed for Windows Mobile' branding, both of which don't look quite straight to my (admittedly somewhat obsessive) eyes. A small raised part above the logos ensures the device sits flat on a surface (the camera / speaker is slightly raised too).
The left of the device is home to a volume up button, a volume down button and a 'media button' that sits between the two. A long press on the volume up button launches the profiles list. A long press on the volume down button launches the voice notes application. A long press on the media button (bizarrely) set the backlight to full brightness!
On the right side of the device you'll find the camera button. Further down sits the miniUSB port (yes, it's on the side of the device rather than the bottom). The port is covered by a small rubber cover, that is somewhat fiddly to open. It does however maintain the sleek look of the device when in place. At the bottom of the right hand side is the ever-present lanyard loop
The bottom of the device contains just the microphone hole, and the top of the device is unspoilt
As mentioned previously, the i-mate SPL includes Windows Mobile 5 for Smartphone AKU3. When you put the battery in the device and fire it up for the first time, the first change you notice is the smart green Windows Mobile screen. You are then greeted with a wizard - something that is familiar to Pocket PC users, but new to Smartphone. The wizard prompts you to set the device time, setup your email accounts and set a device password if you wish.
Next you find yourself at the i-mate branded home screen. I'll give you a quick run through of what's installed on the device as standard (in the order it's placed on the Start Menu)...
- Internet Explorer
- Windows Media
- Call History
- Games -> Bubble Breaker
- Games -> Solitaire
- Voice Notes
- Pictures & Videos
- Accessories -> Calculator
- Accessories -> Download Agent
- Internet Sharing
- File Explorer
- Interactive (SIM Toolkit)
- Java (by esmertec)
- Pocket MSN
- SIM Manager
- Speed Dial
Rather than go through each application in detail when you have probably used most of them, i'll talk about ones that are of note on this device.
Something worth mentioning is that when my SPL first arrived, it contained a host of extra games, such as i-mate 3D Bowling, an i-mate branded Sudoku client and more. It also had i-mate Backup and an i-mate Suite trial. Unfortunately, after doing a hard reset to prepare the device for this review, those applications disappeared... and I can't find them on the included CD. DOH! I only hope that i-mate make them available in the (yet to be launched) SPL owners area on club i-mate.
So, the applications...
The first application of note is a new addition to AKU3, and it's called 'Internet Sharing'. Internet Sharing, as the name suggests, allows you to simply configure a USB or Bluetooth connection to your PC, and to allow that PC to access the internet via a GPRS connection of your choice.
Upon using the SPL's camera application for the first time (much as when you use the Treo 750v camera for the first time), you realise how spoilt you have been with HTC's version! The SPL uses the standard Windows camera application, which is somewhat basic in appearance. In it's defence, it does provide a number of modes (Photo, Video, Portrait, Self Shutter, Burst, Photoframe) and a number of exposure settings, so you shouldn't be left wanting from a feature perspective... it's just not very pretty!
Esmertec's Java client is a new one to me, with Smartphone devices from the HTC stable usually favouring Tao Group's 'intent' client. I have to confess i'm not a Java user, so haven't tested the esmertec client on the SPL.
That's about it on the SPL software wise... everything you would expect, and not much more. It's good to see Pocket MSN is included (as you would expect), and if I could only get the (very nice) additional games / applications back that were on the device originally, I could tell you about those
But as it is, let's get on to the most important part of the review... what the device is like in use!
So you know the device specs, you've had a tour of the hardware, and i've told you what software is on board... now i'm going to talk to you about my experience of using the device.
First and foremost, the device feels great. In the hand it feels thin (of course) and high quality / well made. At a touch over 100g, I suspect the weight combined with the slim form factor contributes to this, but I think the main reason it feels so high quality is the finish, as mentioned before it's almost 'enamel like' in it's depth and shine.If you're in the market for the ultimate Smartphone for just slipping into your pocket on a night out, then the SPL is as good as you're going to get this side of a clamshell. The device exudes style, and is finally a Smartphone that you can show off to your mates without having to tell them about all the cool stuff it does
The screen is great. As I mentioned previously, it has 3 levels of brightness, and is very clear. I have no complaints in this area whatsoever.
So we come to the keypad.
As regular readers will know, i'm something of a stickler for a well thought out and easy to use keypad on my devices. Be it a Smartphone or a Pocket PC, I don't want to have a poor keypad compromising my use.
The keypad on the SPL isn't the worst I have ever used, but it isn't the best either - let me explain why.
Firstly, the SLVR-esque layout of the numbers means that there is a small amount of familiarisation required to adjust to the fact the centre column of keys is slightly higher on the device than the others. It's not a huge problem though, and I've found myself quickly getting used to it. What is more of a nuisance though is that, for the same reason as mentioned above, the '2' key is a little bit too close to the directional pad. This, combined with the fact that the directional pad itself is both quite small and flush with the device case, means that you will find yourself frequently hitting the '2' key when you mean to be pressing 'down'. It's somewhat frustrating. The same occurs, albeit to a lesser extent in my experience, with the 'Internet' key and the 'up' key.
The directional pad itself feels a little strange to use initially. You'll find yourself fumbling around a little to ensure your thumb is in the centre - on the action button, but over time I have got more used to this, and i'm no longer finding it a problem.
There is one other complaint I have with the keypad, which will be of interest to those of you that are multi-tappers more than T9'ers! I've found that when I hit a key three times in quick succession, e.g. '6' to get an 'o', only 2 of the presses are registered. I will say that this only happens when I press them in REALLY quick succession, but if - like me - you're a bit of a demon texter, then it is a problem.
In general use, I've had no problems at all with the OS build on the device itself. AKU3 is great, .net CF 2 in ROM is a godsend, and Techfaith Wireless and i-mate seem to have done a good job in putting it all together and getting it working well. I did initially have a problem with the 'AutoConfig' application causing an error on startup, but since this too disappeared after the hard reset, that's no longer an issue
You'll recall when I spoke about the hardware specifications above, I mentioned that the processor is a 200MHz OMAP 730, the same as was used in the now aging SPV C500. A number of members have expressed concern at this, and have asked whether it is a problem on the SPL. The honest answer is yes and no. Or, no and yes...
In my experience, the SPL feels broadly snappy in use. There are no real moments when you are left waiting for the device to do things, other than when you would on other devices too - such as loading the Messaging app for the first time after a reboot (although admittedly, I do have a huge mailbox on the device). With the generous amount of RAM on the device, I suspect helps disguise the slow processor speed.
Where the processor speed will become more of a problem is when you are doing processor intensive tasks on the device, such as playing video. I've yet to try TCPMP on the device (although I will), but in some of my own applications I am noticing tasks taking longer than they do on other devices. Once again though, I will reiterate that I haven't found speed to be a problem in my usage.
This leads us on nicely to battery life
Battery life is always difficult to 'review' as it were, because everyone's usage case is so difficult. Some people make calls all day, some people text all day, some people listen to music etc. etc. - let me tell you about my first couple of days with the SPL.
On the first day of getting it, I put it all together, played with it (of course), and then when I went to bed, I plugged it into the mains charger. I took it off charge the following morning. I then proceeded to do non-stop push mail (including off peak and overnight), about 30 minutes of CamerAware (Bluetooth ON, connected to GPS, Backlight On), a couple of calls, a couple of SMS, and a bit of web browsing. Much to my surprise, the battery lasted straight through until around 11pm on the second day, when it was complaining about low battery. To me, that felt impressive. My Hermes for example would not run with that kind of punishment for that period of time.
I attribute the good battery performance to the processor, and the impressive 1100mAh battery that i-mate / TFW have managed to cram in the case. The battery life completely blows away my other skinny-smartphone, the Samsung i320, which would probably last half the duration of the SPL. (Incidentally, note the width of the SPL compared to the i320 in this picture).
And so, on to the conclusion.
I have to confess, I didn't have high hopes for the SPL. Being the first i-mate device not from HTC, so thin in size, with what appeared to be an old processor, I was ready to be disappointed. After recently reviewing the Virgin Mobile Lobster 700TV, I knew what it was like to have high hopes and then have my heart broken
In fact, my experience with the SPL was completely opposite to that of the Lobster - it far exceeded my expectations.
I hadn't realised it included miniSD, which meant I could just pop in my (now unused) 2GB miniSD - fantastic. It includes AKU3, brilliant, as Compact Framework 2 applications become more numerous (including my own). Everyone who's seen the device has been impressed by it's styling, and the more than acceptable battery life (in my usage scenario) is the icing on the cake.
As I mentioned above, I have reservations about the keypad, but as the days have passed, I have become more familiar with the layout, and I'm finding that i'm missing the key I was aiming for much-much less, to the point that I am now feeling happy to be using the SPL as my everyday device. Of course, if I was a multi-tapper rather than a T9'er, I might not be so happy.
I'm interested to see, when the device appears on club i-mate, whether I will be able to download the great additional applications (such as the bowling and Sudoku games), that disappeared after the hard reset. If so (and it seems reasonable that I should), then it's an added bonus.
When you factor all of the above into an already appealing £249.95 price point, you have a device that is a very impressive effort from i-mate. In the current climate where candybar Smartphones are very few in numbers, i'm very pleased to see the arrival of the SPL, and would happily recommend it, so long as you don't require 3G / EDGE high speed data.
I take my hat off to both i-mate and Techfaith Wireless... and look forward to the post-HTC era at i-mate with some excitement!
PS I know everyone always loves to see sample pics from phone cameras, so here's a few random ones taken with the SPL. Click for full size versions!
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Update: i-mate's Norwegian support team have been in contact and have furnished me with the install files for the additional software... screenshots below!