The Good: Great looks, with its slender, shiny design; Motorola's best music player to date
The Bad: While innovative, the navigation controls are too sensitive; the operating software still needs work
The Bottom Line: Not quite enough features and functionality for the price to make this phone a must-buy
Full disclosure: I tested Motorola's (MOT) new Rokr E8 at the same time I was kicking the tires of the Apple (AAPL) iPhone 3G. I know that's not really fair. But in my defense, I wasn't trying to compare the two phones. They're very different devices targeted at contrasting sets of users. The iPhone, as everybody knows, is a smartphone—a mini PC, ready to handle e-mail and high-speed Web use (and, frankly, the smartest I've seen on the market).
The Rokr, by contrast, is mainly a music phone. Unlike the first Rokr, it doesn't sync with Apple's iTunes; nor are its music features as easy to use as the iPhone's. It costs $199 with a two-year contract at Deutsche Telekom's (DT) T-Mobile USA. Need I point out that's the same price as another new phone on the market—that has tons more features?
Those drawbacks aside, the E8 is the best music phone the embattled Motorola has produced. Its biggest draw is its sleek, stylish shape. The phone, which is less than half an inch thick, is a deep midnight-blue with what Motorola calls a "glasslike surface" that gives it a nice, high-tech sheen. And it features a slick keypad that automatically toggles from phone to music to camera controls. The keypad lights up when touched, and backlighting changes to illuminate only controls needed for a given set of features—alphanumeric keys for calling and texting; play/pause, rewind, and forward keys for music; and zoom and video controls for picture taking. The nail technician at the salon where I get my hair cut found the lighting "really cute," adding, "I like the hidden keys." Me, too.
Haptics on the Keypad
Another likable feature is the keypad's use of so-called haptics, which sends a little vibration to your fingertips when you press a button. Less likable is the Rokr's new scroll wheel, which is more nuisance than navigation aid. It's touch-sensitive, allowing you simply to run your finger over a silver line in the shape of a semicircle. But the E8 is so sensitive it's difficult to control. And unfortunately, the sensitivity level isn't adjustable. I asked for input from my colleague, Damian Joseph, a twentysomething ex-musician. "This wheel is just awful," he belted. "It's hard to get it to stop on the item that you want it to."
An improvement over older Motorola phones is the new operating system based on Sun Microsystems' (JAVA) Java programming language. The E8 features small gray icons set in a row along the bottom of the display. As you scroll across the choices with the wheel—passing over the phone book, e-mail, and Internet icons—the selected icon will appear in color in the center of the display. It's both attractive and intuitive, attributes not commonly associated with Motorola software.
The Rokr really shines in its performance as a music player. It has several useful features, including shuffle and repeat modes, playlists, an equalizer with 11 settings, and 3D stereo. Users have several ways to load music; you can send files in a multimedia message, transfer songs by Bluetooth wireless connection, a memory card, or a USB cable from a computer. I loaded my music via computer using Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Media Player and was able to transfer files with ease. The phone comes with two gigabytes of internal memory and a 1GB microSD card. That's enough for me, but serious music buffs like my colleague may grumble at having to invest in more memory.
The Rokr's headset jack sits near the top of the phone. Thankfully, it's a 3.5mm jack that lets you use a variety of other headphones. It also accommodates Bluetooth headsets. No fan of dangling wires, I chose to use Motorola's E9 Bluetooth stereo headset. Sound quality was decent, but I was annoyed by ambient noise that over-40 users like me will find reminiscent of the crackling noise on dusty LPs. I was relieved to know that when a standard set of wired headphones were put in play, the noise disappeared.
Hard to Scoot Around
My biggest peeve with the E8 relates to the navigation software. Motorola still hasn't nailed this. Especially after using the iPhone's elegant system, I was frustrated by Motorola's overly intricate and nonintuitive interface. For example, if you need to navigate to the phone's home screen while playing a song, you'll need to take several steps to get back to the screen of the song you were playing. You're sent instead to a menu page of artists and then forced to select a menu option to get back to the particular song—a task that may prove arduous to someone with 1,000 songs stored on the phone.
Another problem has to do with volume. When I called my colleague on the Rokr while he was listening to music on the phone via headphones, he was jarred out of his chair. The volume on the ringer was louder than a jackhammer on city streets. "If you're listening to Chopin, the thunderous onslaught of the ringer could blow out your ears," Joseph quipped.
Fortunately, making calls is much less distracting. The E8 features Motorola's CrystalTalk technology, which automatically adjusts the phone's audio level to ambient conditions. As you walk down a busy street, you can actually hear the phone adjusting the volume. I could hear the people I called quite well, and they could easily hear me, too.
However, in this era of the Internet, it's disappointing that the Rokr E8 isn't a true 3G device, even though carrier T-Mobile is expanding its 3G network. This means the E8 Web browser loads sites at a snail's pace.
Add at all up, and you've got an eye-catching device that plays music quite well. But Motorola needs more than that to move handsets in the age of the iPhone.