Hi-Mobile.net was very kind to send us in the Linux-based Motorola A780 cellphone for this review. This is the most affordable PDA-like phone in the market today, selling for less than $280 at Hi-Mobile’s store. Although this phone was released over a year ago, it came pre-installed with the latest available English firmware released around November 2005 (R52_G_0D.74.A2R) which also contains a newer build of the Opera 7.50 browser. Check inside for our review and lots of screenshots.
The A780 comes in a lot of different flavors depending on which region of the world it is sold, but we got the version that has quadband GSM/EDGE and a VPN client (supporting Nortel, Cisco, Cisco Unity, Check Point, Intel and Netscreen). Another version comes with GPS and/or VoIP SIP support (through EDGE), while another version only supports normal GPRS without EDGE and has no extras.
There is a rocker scroller and a “voice recognition” button on the left of the device and a camera button at the right side. The phone comes with a 760 mAh battery, which is the exact same battery as the one used in the E680i model (reviewed here). The stylus is longer than in the E680i and results to a better grip. I came to love this stylus in a very short time of using it.
The phone supports Transflash cards which currently max out at 1 GB of space. According to the community, the phone easily supports these new 1 GB cards (we tested ours with a 256 MB Sandisk one — FAT32 is not supported, only FAT16 is). There is also a 1.3 MP camera, 50 MBs of free internal storage and 32 MBs of RAM. The phone runs at a 312 Mhz ARM CPU.
The phone supports normal 2.5mm mini-audio jacks for music and handsfree operations and supports USB charging (the operating system must not be in sleep-mode for this to work). There is Bluetooth support for the handsfree/headset, obex and serial profiles, but there is no A2DP/AVRCP support even though that would have been as simple as a recompile for Motorola (the E680i which supports Stereo Bluetooth is pretty much the same phone in a different casing). There is also Java MIDP-2 support and the phone features a 3D processor for 3D java games (usually this results to just about 10-12 fps for all the EZX-supported 3D games we tried).
In the version of the phone we received we found in its box a USB cable, an Asian plug, an Asian-to-American plug convertor, handsfree stereo headphones, a spare plastic protector for the phone’s connectors and of course, the manuals and CDs.
Battery life on the A780 is not the best compared to other cellphones, but it should be good enough for most users, with more than 3 hours talk time. Only problem with the battery is that its indicator has only 3 modes: 100%, 60% and 20%. Reception was excellent most of the time too.
The Candybar Phone Mode
The A780 is a unique cellphone in that it is both a candybar and a flip-phone. It has an external numeric keypad and when flipped a gorgeous 2.5″ QVGA TFT touchscreen is unveiled. When used like a candybar it uses a portion of the main screen (a resolution of about 200×150) which is seen-through the protective glass. In that mode, the screen is capable of showing 3 lines of text and 1 service line (displaying the signaling, BT on/off, IM on/off, Edge/Gprs, and battery life). The joystick is located at the bottom of the device instead just under the screen as most phones do, because this way it can be used in the touchscreen mode too. The rocker scroller can scroll between menu items while it unveils the menu of the current loaded application when pressed inwards.
In the candybar mode you can use the phone as a “real” phone and nothing else. Only Contacts (shortcut dialing is available by pressing the number that corresponds to their name), Calling, SMS (with support for Motorola’s iTap predictive text input), Play Music, Camera and Video Capture are available. So purists who want to use their cellphone as a cellphone and their PDA as a PDA should feel very happy about the dual nature of this phone, because they will only have to carry one device instead of two, and yet feel that these are separate devices, not interfering with each other. The only feature I miss in the candybar mode is a menu item to enable the Night mode in the camera. Other than that, it does everything one would need to do with “just a cellphone”.
The PDA Mode
When you flip the phone open, you are presented with the PDA functionality. The A780 is built upon the 2.4.20 Linux kernel and then from the ground up using the Qt toolkit. Its closed-source graphical framework is called EZX. In the main display you get 4 big icons (application list, contact list, SMS/MMS client and a virtual numeric pad to make a call), a service line similar to the one described above, business meetings list and 4 shortcuts to apps (ring profiles, Opera, Real Player, Picsel Viewer and Bluetooth).
There are a number of PDA-like applications included in the phone by default, some of these include a file manager (which I like very much), tasks, notes (can read .txt files too), alarms, clock application monitoring up to 3 timezones, calendar that supports events, pop3/imap email (no support for Gmail though), a calculator, the Opera browser, Real Player (supports mp4, 3gp and rm videos), camera and video capture, a drawing application, a voice recorder (in AMR format), Wireless Village IM, SyncML, Call history, VPN client, an STK and modem utility, 3 java games, a Chinese-to-english dictionary and of course, the system’s settings. In these settings you will find preference panels for customizing your ringtomes (you can set different ringtones for IM, phone calls, SMS etc), your wallpaper, the color theme, text size, language, voice command (no training required, but the feature didn’t prove very reliable), screen backlighting, GPRS settings, power management, keylock settings, and input setup (choose between two Asian languages or English virtual keyboards, a numeric keypad, or handwriting). Both the handwriting and virtual keyboard has predictive text support which we found sufficient. There is no way that even a world champion in T9/iTap will be able to type faster than you could with the A780’s virtual keyboard.
In the Contacts screen you can copy-from/copy-to contacts from a SIM card and enrich that information by adding pictures of your contacts, email addresses, mobile/home/work/fax information, birthday information (the phone alarms you one day before), business title and much more. I had fun adding pictures to my contacts although the phone’s manual does not specify which is the right size to use and so the 48×48 pictures I used came out a bit distorted (the phone seems to prefer something like 55×48 or something). There is a “Find” window that allows you to quickly search between contacts using yet another input method, called “Finger Pad”. This input method uses large virtual buttons so you can use your fingers to type and find a name.
In the SMS/EMS window you are presented with an email-style application to organize, send and read your messages. This application is not integrated with the IM or email application but it works well on its own. Configuring it was easy, even though it has many settings and it allows for a lot of customization. On the same application you can also configure your Voicemail number, which the phone does not always pick up automatically from the network (the voicemail number is different for each region).
In the “Call” window the user is presented with a virtual keypad to make calls. The buttons are big enough to be used well with just fingers or the stylus. During a call you can enable the external speakerphone or use it as a normal flip-phone where the speaker is situated on the inside of the flip-part. The sound coming out of the headset is crispy and clear. The only wish I have during a call is to not completely turn off the screen but reduce the backlight to just 10%, because when you want to end a call you might click the wrong button by mistake because the screen is all black by that time (there is no hardware hung-up button when in a PDA mode and the screen turns off after 30 seconds to save battery).
Opera, Real Player, Picsel Viewer
The three major applications on the phone that were developed by third parties are Opera, Real Player and Picsel Viewer (if anyone is interested in the VPN client email me with some guest-login information on your server and I will gladly test it for you).
Opera rendered all of the pages we threw at it with extreme ease and we were happy with its speed and capabilities. It has a fullscreen mode and support for the rocker scroller button that makes page-up/down very easy. The only small problem is that it renders the “Arial Size=2” as bold while when going at 90% zoom it renders it as was supposed to. The italics at the same size/font doesn’t have this problem. We also tried Opera Mini on the phone; it works wonderfully!
Real Player supports streaming through the internet but not for .pls playlists (e.g. it can’t playback the radio stations from www.di.fm). It is also extremely slow when playing video (e.g. on this video), even if they are .rm files, which is in its native format. I have to give the blame to the Real engineers who ported the application to mobile phones and not to Motorola though, because in Nokia’s 9500i Symbian phones Real Player is even slower! For those who want to view video on the A780 I suggest they encode their videos to very low resolution (e.g. 128×96) and at low kbps so the application manages them without hiccups. Music playback works really nice as it supports playlists.
As for the Picsel Viewer, it can display Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat PDF files, which could prove very handy to many businesspeople. You can’t edit these files and you can’t view very complex/macro-enabled Word documents, but it makes for a good-enough solution. Picsel is using its own font-engine in the application which allows for smaller fonts (and so they fit more information per screen).
Snapshot Camera and Video Capturing
The camera is a 1.3MP and it’s pretty capable. It has a full-screen mode (so widgets are not shown around the live image and you can snap a picture using the dedicated button), it supports 8x Zoom and it has brightness and Light-Condition control. There is also a delay timer (10 seconds) and a night mode. You can snap 1024×1280, VGA or QVGA pictures and apply filters to them (e.g. black and white, sepia, negative etc). The video capturing system supports 176×144 (sample) and 128×96 video capturing without time limit. Only wish I have here is for a camera protection cap and a flash.
The A780 has its own share of small problems. I mentioned some of them above, but here are a few more:
– its IM client does not work with Yamigo (which is the only Wireless Village server that supports Y!, MSN, ICQ and AOL all at once). The client logs you in to these services correctly, but you are unable to view any of your contacts or receive messages.
– There are no softkeys on the PDA mode and so you can’t play fullscreen java games that require anything more than the joystick. Also, many Java apps/games don’t support touchscreens so that makes the problem even more severe if they are fullscreen apps (windowed java apps show buttons).
– The service bar is buggy. Some times it allows you to turn the Antenna Off, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it lets you turn on/off the Bluetooth from there, sometimes it doesn’t. This problem does not exist on my E680i which runs an older firmware.
– You can’t have the phone vibrate and ring at the same time. This was a long-standing Motorola decision which is now changing on their newer phones.
– The UI is slow sometimes. It depends on the application and/or action taken.
– There is no settings panel to change the Volume in the system. The manual refers to a Settings panel called “Sound”, which does not exist in my firmware.
– The phone is not 100% compatible with Macs and Cingular when used as a modem. I have written a guide how to go around the problem here.
– The biggest problem is the rocker button. It is so sensitive that on the smallest touch it turns on the screen immediately. And then takes about 10 seconds for the screen to turn off, but if you do that 10-15 times a day, it already has taken away from you quite a bit of battery life! Here is a mockup of mine on how the button layout should have been without the need of a rocker button and still accomplish the same functionality.
The Motorola EZX-based phones already have a large community of users and developers. Just head here for the latest tips and tricks, hacked firmware upgrades, new keymaps and more. It is a shame that Motorola doesn’t take the steps necessary to enrich that community and create a real platform around its Linux products by simply, giving the SDK to third party developers freely. So much has been said about this issue already. Personally, I will not consider the EZX phones to be true smartphones until this step has been taken by Motorola. Native applications are a must in a smartphone environment in order to ensure “platform build-up”.
I very much like the A780. As an owner of the E680i, I must say that it is quite an upgrade in terms of usability and application functionality. If you are either a business user who can’t afford expensive smartphones, or don’t want to carry both a phone and a PDA at all times, or you simply love Linux, this is the phone for you! This phone comes at almost half the price of the Motorola Ming A1200, and yet it retains most of the functionality the A1200 has. A true bargain.
Product Rating: 8/10