If you’ve picked up any technology journal in the last three years that features the word Convergence splashed across the cover, you know that the hunt is on for the do-it-all gadget – a device that makes and takes calls, surfs the web, manages email, sends and receives text messages, plays music, captures and displays pictures and video, controls your home audio-visual system, and provides three minutes of compressed air for those occasions when your main tank runs out at 15 fathoms. Somehow this responsibility has fallen upon the lowly mobile phone.
Recently the mobile phone has taken the next step toward becoming that be-all-and-end-all convergence device as Apple and Motorola finally released the first iTunes-compatible phone, the Motorola ROKR, which holds up to 100 audio tracks. While I’m pleased that the phone has seen the light of day, my pleasure just about ends there. As a phone, it’s hardly cutting edge, and as a music player, it’s a pretty poor substitute for an iPod.
In and out of the box
The ROKR is a Quad-band global GSM, Class 10 GPRS phone bearing a 176-x-220-pixel colour TFT display, a camera for capturing stills and video, built-in “surround-sound” speakers and Bluetooth. The ROKR offers most of the functions you’d expect from a modern mobile phone, including address book, calendar and alarms, along with such phone and data features as caller ID, call forwarding, email messaging, MMS (Multimedia Message Service), hands-free operation, call timer, Airplane mode (for accessing phone features with transmitter off), customizable ring tones, and Instant Messaging. In other words, your typical mobile phone.
Included in the box are the phone, a 512MB flash memory card for storing music, a set of earbuds (with foam covers) that has a microphone module hanging from the right cable, the battery, an adaptor cable for using a standard set of headphones (the phone’s headphone supports a jack smaller than a standard mini-plug), and a software disc for Windows users.
The one item worthy of comment here is the earbuds. They’re the same size as Apple’s earbuds and therefore may be too large for some ear canals. Also, the microphone module on the right earbud cable is heavy enough that it could cause the right earbud to pop out of your ear if you swing your head around too quickly.
Crooning for iTunes
Interesting as the phone features may be, what mainly concerns me is the feature not found on other mobiles – iTunes support. The ROKR’s flash memory card has the potential to store as much music as the smallest iPod shuffle, yet the ROKR can store only 100 tracks. This 100-track limit is part of a digital rights management (DRM) scheme between iTunes and the phone. Once you’ve loaded those 100 tracks (which can be podcasts as well as music), the phone won’t accept more tracks even if there’s room to store them. And those tracks can be played only by the phone’s iTunes client – wonderful as it might be to use your iTunes tracks as ring tones, it’s not part of the feature set.
The ROKR supports MP3, WAV and AAC audio file formats – like the iPod shuffle the phone can’t handle AIFF or Apple Lossless files. And like the shuffle, iTunes will convert, on the fly, higher bit-rate AAC files to 128kbps to save space on the phone. Unlike the iPod shuffle, the ROKR lets you load multiple playlists.
With the push of a single button on the face of the phone, you’re transported to an iTunes screen similar to the one you find on a colour iPod. On this screen you will see Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Shuffle Songs, and Now Playing entries. To navigate through these commands you use a small, four-position joystick (joy-button is more like it) in the middle of the phone. When a track is playing you adjust volume by pushing the joystick up or down – left and right joystick pushes act like an iPod’s Previous and Next buttons. Push the joystick in while a track is playing to cycle through the Playing, Album Artwork (if it exists), Scrub, and Ratings screens. You can also activate Play, Pause, Exit, and Back commands with the phone’s soft keys.
A rocky beginning
Despite appearing to have most of the right pieces in place, the phone doesn’t perform well with its most conspicuous feature – music. The ROKR syncs with iTunes over a USB connection only (Bluetooth music syncing is not supported), and at USB 1.1 speeds. On my 1.25GHz PowerBook G4 it took the ROKR 44 minutes 37 seconds to load 87 tracks from my iTunes library. In comparison, a 512MB iPod shuffle was updated with this same collection of tracks in just 4 minutes 52 seconds.
The interface is slow as well. When you press a button to move to a different screen, there’s a delay of a second or more (the animation of the phone’s interface on Motorola’s Web site is faster than the real thing). This is particularly irritating when adjusting volume – by the time the phone seems to understand that you want to increase the volume, it’s louder than you wanted. On more than one occasion I found myself mashing a soft key twice because it seemed like the first mash didn’t take.
While the interface is similar to the iPod’s, the ROKR lacks some of its refinements. There’s no On-the-Go playlist feature like those you find on the iPod and while long entries (titles, artists, and albums, for example) will scroll in their respective screens, they don’t scroll in the Now Playing screen. The ROKR does, however, remember podcast bookmarks. And any ratings you’ve entered on the phone will transfer to iTunes when you next sync the two.
Through a good pair of headphones, the ROKR sounds perfectly fine – almost exactly like you’d expect an iPod to sound. The difference is that, unlike any iPod model, the ROKR reverses the stereo channels – left is right and right is left. The built-in speakers are remarkable largely because, for their size, they don’t sound awful. Putting out sound equivalent to a clock radio, you wouldn’t want to listen to music through these speakers on a regular basis, but it’s not a bad way to catch up on podcasts.
Oh, and it’s a phone too
When you’re not listening to music on the ROKR, you can use it as a phone. Although my intention was to look at the ROKR as an iTunes extension rather than to compare it to every phone on the market, it’s worth a brief overview of how it functions as a telecommunications device.
I live in a valley and have terrible reception – it’s impossible to make a call with my Sony Ericsson T616. The ROKR was able to pick up a network signal with my T616 SIM card and make a fairly spotty call. I called my answering machine and although I couldn’t hear its recording, I was able to leave a discernible message. This is hardly a testament to the ROKR, but it does indicate it has better range than my Sony Ericsson.
In comparison to that Sony Ericsson, I found the ROKR’s interface ungainly. While I can get to the T616’s Datebook in a couple of clicks, the ROKR’s Datebook is buried inside a Tools area within the Settings menu (you can assign keyboard shortcuts to get to buried functions more easily, however). And I found the ROKR’s graphics either indistinct or unattractive. For such a supposedly hip phone, its graphics are pretty lumpy.
I also found the keypad keys too close together. Those with large thumbs may find themselves resorting to slimmer digits when dialling the phone.
Though some have reported having difficulties getting the ROKR to sync via Bluetooth, I had no problems. After switching Bluetooth on in the ROKR’s Connection menu and clicking the phone’s Find Me command, Mac OS X 10.4’s Bluetooth Setup Assistant was able to pair with the ROKR with no difficulties. iSync then automatically launched and offered to add the phone. Once added, iSync was able to sync my Address Book and iCal contacts and calendars. Unfortunately, after the phone was synced, individual contacts within Address Book that bore multiple phone numbers were duplicated, with each iteration of the contact bearing a different phone number.
As should be apparent, I’m not wowed by the ROKR. It’s not a terrible phone or music player, but it’s not the kind of impressive first effort you expect from a product associated with Apple. With its slow syncing and response, artificial 100 track limit, audio glitches (reversed stereo channels), and ungainly interface, many who are accustomed to an iPod’s elegance will be disappointed with this phone.