Review: The E680i Linux Smartphone

As smartphone prices decline, they have become more popular every day. Symbian, PalmOS, Windows Mobile and Linux seem to be the big names in this high-end market of phones, all showcasing PDA-like features, native toolkits and fast processors. Today we are looking at one of the most popular Linux smartphones (especially in Asia), the Motorola E680i, which was released around May 2005 and was graciously provided by for this article.

size comparison This… chubby phone (133 grams) uses Montavista’s Linux kernel 2.4.20 and tools. On top of it is a custom UI (not the traditional Qtopia UI) based on Qt/Embedded 2.3.6 (Some claim that it uses MobileSoft’s toolkit but there is no official information on this). The phone sports a 312 Mhz ARM CPU, a replaceable 760 mAh battery, 64 MB of ROM (50 MB available to the user), 32 MB RAM, a VGA camera, 3D stereo speakers, Bluetooth, a 3D graphics chip, an FM radio, a 1/10″ headphone plug, a hold/lock button, an SD/MMC slot, USB communications and extra hardware buttons for games. The E680i also comes with a 2.5″ QVGA 240×320 TFT touch-screen and a stylus. In the box that came with it you will find a second stylus and a second battery, along with the power supply, USB cable, CDs and manuals. You will also find a pair of headphones/headset that acts as an antenna for the FM radio. The phone works at GSM 900/ GSM 1800/ GSM 1900 bands and supports GPRS class 10. It also supports Java applications using MIDP-2 with .jar sizes up to 700 KBs, which is pretty impressive.

OSNews on Opera This phone is the next generation of the original E680 which was released in
2004. The differences are mostly in software than in hardware (the E680 can
be flashed with E680i’s ROM). The phone features an excellent build quality
and it feels well in the hand despite its extra size. The stylus has an
ideal thickness and size and makes the touchscreen-based usage a nice
experience. The quality of the QVGA LCD is good and the fact that its
settings window allows for… 50 brightness levels is a great tinkering
feature (I use it on just 16%, which is enough when inside buildings).

The main software feature of the phone is the inclusion of Real Player and
FM radio. They are both very easy to use and a useful addition to the rest
of the software stack. Real can play .rm, .mp3, .mp4, .3gp and .amr but it’s
a bit picky about the exact format of the mp4 codec. Playing small video and mp3 music was sweat-free (although there was some sound-chop when changing tasks), however here I must note that while for a phone the video performance is good enough, comparing it to an equally equipped PocketPC 312Mhz it doesn’t stand a chance (my HP PDA can playback QVGA .mp4/divx video without dropping a single frame). The
3D stereo speakers included do an excellent job and I think they are better
than the e398/iTunes phone. The only downside was that Real Player doesn’t
support internet radio streaming, which requires a direct internet file to
be used (e.g. the music feeds don’t work). The phone comes with a
1/10″ headphone jack and quality is very-very good for music-listening (the
Chinese E680i comes with Bluetooth headphones instead).

screenshot I am a huge fan of SD card usage on phones and so I am happy to see SD
support as I know that Motorola prefers transflash (in fact, all new Linux
phones from Motorola now use Transflash that go only up to 512 MBs). I tried
a Kingston 512 MB SD card; the phone supports them up to 2 GBs. The SD works
at acceptable speeds and I encountered no problems with it. The overall
software seems rock solid, I had no OS or application crashes whatsoever.

The user interface is not stellar in terms of responsiveness but it’s very
easy to follow and understand. It is a custom UI on top of Qt/Embedded
(Others say that it’s 100% java from MobileSoft, my contact at Trolltech
could not confirm either way) and the manufacturer has included all
most-needed applications on a PDA-phone: a calendar with recurring
events/alarm support, world time with 3 different timezones support, a file
manager, a syncML-compatbile sync application that can also sync via GPRS, a Task application, a notes application (to be used with the included virtual
keyboard or handwriting recognition applet), a drawing app, a calculator, an
.amr voice recorder and 3 java 3D games.

In addition to Opera 7.50 (which
renders beautifully) there is the Picsel Viewer which can display
.ppt, .doc and .xls among other popular office formats (but can’t edit). The
messaging client is one of the most critically-acclaimed parts of the
software. It supports MMS & SMS with support for sub-folders but for pop3
and IMAP support you must use another client included on the phone (they are
not integrated). A minor problem with the user interface is that there is no
way to switch tasks with a press of a button (currently it requires 4 clicks
to go to the Task Manager while the “hang” button only switches between the
last two open applications). Also, scrolling and menu navigation is a bit
clunky at times; double-buffering seems to be missing.

screenshot Java works with quite a few QVGA-compatible games in the market, but the 3D
performance of the included 3D games is really bad. It feels a lot like
trying to run “Return to Castle Wolfenstein” on a Voodoo-2 with 8 MBs of
VRAM while its minimum specs require a 16 MB Voodoo3. There is another very
disturbing thing about java games on this phone. The phone comes with 4
extra gaming buttons (2 above the screen, 2 on the side) and you are
supposed to use most full-screen games in landscape mode. Only 4 third party
games support this layout and work in landscape mode though. All the rest of
the ‘compatible’ java games will require you to use the phone in vertical
mode but keep your fingers on the joystick below the screen and the other
hand on the keys above the screen! In other words, the phone expects the
java games to run on landscape, while 99% of them out there don’t support
that mode!

As for native applications compatible with this phone, there are none to
speak of really, except 4-5 (insignificant) apps to be found on Obviously, this platform does not compare to Symbian’s,
Palms’ or Windows Mobile’s, each with thousands of native apps.

screenshot The system setup screen allows you to change a number of settings on the
phone (ring style, wallpaper, color scheme, text size, language, backlight,
screen calibration, data connectivity via GPRS or CSD etc), but it misses
out quite a few others: no way to change the volume globally (volume buttons
only change volume for Real Player, java games are always 100% loud – there
is only a setting for java sound to be on or off and nothing in between), no
way to remap the 5 extra hardware keys, no way to set both ring and
vibration *at the same time* without picking special Motorola sounds that
support vibration.

On the good side though, GPRS worked without a hitch here and its Bluetooth
paired with my Mac without problems. Although iSync is not supported and the user must use a special
modem script
on the Mac to transform the phone to a usb/bluetooth modem, with a bit of effort it eventually works together just fine. However, to use the phone as a modem under Linux via USB, you need to patch the usbnet
kernel driver with the device’s usb hex info. Also, there is no WiFi or IrDA

To dial you must first press the dial softbutton in the touchscreen and then
start typing the number. Because the device lacks a numeric keypad,
two-stage clicks are required to establish a call. It would have been better
if the manufacturer were binding the “call” hardware button with the dialing
screen directly instead of the “dialed calls” screen. While this is a bit of
a hassle, the signal reception is admirable and the Contacts menu is well

camera samples The E680i comes with a VGA camera (no flash) which is a bit peculiar and it was apparently the No1 gripe for most E680i customers. Because the phone is pretty high-end, a 1.3MP camera would have been more appropriate. Regardless, the camera takes the kind of pictures one would expect from a low-end VGA phone camera and it has a night mode that helps in low-light conditions. The user interface on snapping .3gp video (video sample, use “save as”) and .jpg pictures is really great and exceptionally easy to use. However, when recording video for more than 6-7 seconds, the I/O of the phone gets clogged and while it stops recording video when you told it to, it continues to record audio (on top of a blank video) and it stops doing so only after the UI gets unclogged.

There are two major problems with the E680i: First and foremost, battery
life. If you use the phone to do more than 5-6 calls per day and use its
messaging client sparingly, you will have to recharge the phone in 2 days
time. If you also add a bit of mp3 or gaming in the mix, you will need to
recharge the phone by the time you come back from work/school at night.
However, this is not the first phone with below-than-average battery life
and Linux is known to be power-hungry so I am not that surprised. Where I am
negatively surprised is with the battery indicator. It only has 3 levels:
20, 60 and 100%. Nothing in between (reminds me of the first Linux
Zauruses)! And not only that, but you might have your battery saying that
it’s got 100%, then plug in the power supply and voila, for some reason it
now says 20%. Conclusion: the battery indication meter is very, very buggy
and apparently newer ROMs haven’t fixed the problem.

camera samples The second problem is the fact that by touching the touchscreen the screen
comes back to life. There is no way to disable this, except by using the
Hold/Lock button at the top of the phone. I am spoiled on the way PocketPCs
work: the PPC will come back to life after hitting a hardware button (if not
on “hold”), but it won’t come on if you touch the screen by mistake (which
is much easier to happen as the screen is big and more sensitive).

Having said all that, this remains a good Linux phone. It has a pretty fast
boot time (for a Linux) and it comes with 2 styluses and 2 batteries.
Performance is good, overall; it is expandable and extensible (there is even
an Opie port with Qt 2.3.10), it’s super-stable and works well as a phone.
Could it have been done better if Motorola had been more careful on the
details and fix some eye-popping obvious bugs/problems? Definitely! But it’s almost as good as it goes today with Linux phones and I am pretty sure that future Linux phones will be even better and
will compete with Symbian and Windows Mobile more vigorously.

Overall: 7/10


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