Hi-Mobile.net once again kindly stepped up and sent us in the next-generation Motorola Linux-based ROKR-E2 feature phone. In the tradition of the ROKR devices, the E2 is also built around the idea of music on the go, while it’s the first Linux phone to have an initial retail cost smaller than $256. Read inside for our detailed review, video and pictures.
In the box (arrived in just two days from Hong Kong) we found the cellphone, an 850 mAh battery, 128 MB transflash-in-SD card, the manual, software CDs, a USB cable, a 3.5mm handsfree and a travel charger. The battery was almost full when the box arrived, but we fully charged it for an extra hour or so too. This feature phone (not a smartphone) features triband GSM, 1.3 MP camera with flash, 11 MBs internal storage, full SD slot, 2.2″ QVGA screen, stereo sound, FM radio, 3.5mm audio jack, USB 2.0 charging & file transfer and Bluetooth. The phone is just 107 grams and it feels very good in the hand. The keypad is easily reachable and pressable, except the * 0 and # buttons at the bottom of the phone which are a bit more difficult to press because of their reduced size. The background light on the keypad is very well done and it enables usage in the dark.
This is the first Motorola phone shipped that it’s based on the Chameleon UI non-touchscreen engine, instead of their EZX one. Having used both UIs, I noticed that the Chameleon UI is somewhat derived by the EZX one (albeit very modified). Both are based on the Qt Embedded platform (not Qtopia). This phone uses Linux kernel v2.4.20, modified by Montavista.
On the front of the phone you will find a pretty normal-looking keypad, just like in most cellphones. You get the softkeys, a pretty nice 5-way joystick, a “back” key and a special music key that either loads the media player or puts it in the background (the UI allows for some form of multitasking, but this doesn’t work with all applications). On the left side you get the volume up/down keys (when the media player is not loaded it acts as a Profiles loader), the voice record key and the music playback keys (previous, play/pause, forward). On the right hand side you get the voice recognition button (long press loads the Voice Recorder), the lock sliding button (similar to the ones found on iPods, there is no automatic soft-lock mechanism available), the hot-swapped SD slot and the standard mini-usb port. There is no dedicated camera button neither the existing buttons are configurable. There is a lanyard/wrist-wrap hole on the back of the phone, but if you actually attach one there it would cover the camera, so I am not sure this was the best place for a lanyard.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top of the phone. Having a standard 3.5mm jack is a big plus for audiophiles because it means that they can use any kind of headphones they want. My husband for example refuses to listen to music with anything else but his semi-professional Sony headphones. We tested the phone with two different 3.5mm headphones and it worked perfectly. The sound was clear, the bass was there, and the volume levels were high enough. The sound quality of the included handsfree proved good too in both mono (conversation mode) and stereo (music or FM).
Speaking about sound quality I must note that the ROKR-E2 has Bluetooth (without EDR) that supports the A2DP and AVRCP profiles. This means that you can use wireless stereo bluetooth headphones to listen to music/FM and you also have the ability to fast forward or go to the next song without using your handset’s controls. Hopefully A2DP/AVRCP will become the norm for all new handsets soon (currently only Samsung includes these profiles on each and every one of their handsets). Regarding Bluetooth speed, during our file transfer tests it maxed out at about 45 KB/sec which is a good result.
I very much liked the fact that the ROKR-E2 comes with a full SD slot. I tried both the included transflash-in-SD card and a 512 MB Kingston card, both worked wonderfully. Copying big files to it was pretty fast too. According to Motorola the phone has been tested with up to 2 GBs of SD. A swarm of 2 or 4 GBs of hotswapped SDs can create a very nice alternative to the iPods or the (now very popular) Sandisk mp3 players. These days you can find 2 GB SD card for just $35 online. Each one of these cards can hold approximately 500 songs. Another good addition was that the phone now can recognize FAT32, while the previous Motorola Linux phones required the flash cards to be formatted as FAT16. The only problem with the idea of RoKR-E2 as a media player-only is that while the phone has an airplane mode, it won’t work without a SIM. Other music phones in the market load the necessary applications for multimedia or office use even without a SIM in the phone. The previous Motorola Linux phones could do that too, but the ROKR-E2 can’t.
The quality and brightness of the QVGA screen is amazing. I have it on the lowest brightness and yet the phone is fully usable indoors. When outdoors, you will have to jack it up a little. One funny thing we should mention here is that all levels/meters in the phone don’t go from 1 to 100 or from 1 to 10. They go from 0 to 7, clearly indicating the phone’s somewhat geek nature .
The 1.3 MP camera won’t get any awards, but it takes good-enough pictures if there is enough light. Its included flash is a welcome addition and it even has a mode where the flash will get lit automatically if the room is too dark. You can also record video up to QCIF resolution (3gp format only) and apply zoom to it or some basic filters (e.g. b&w, night mode, add borders etc). The user interface for the camera is pretty simple, although a dedicated button on the side would have been nice (a camera button in the place of the mini-USB, and move the mini-USB on the bottom of the device). One small problem I found was that the actual picture snapped was with 1 second delay from the moment you pressed the button, so make sure you do not move the camera for 2 seconds after you pushed the button (otherwise you will get fuzzy pics).
For all means and purposes the ROKR-E2 feels and behaves like any other modern feature phone. Its UI and icon style resembles the current non-Linux Motorola phones, but the fonts are way better (not as good as in PocketPC or Symbian, but better than in the normal Motorola phones). You get a bunch of profiles to choose from (or edit them), you get editable theme support (although there is no software to create new graphical themes at this time) and a choice of some really nice backgrounds for your home-screen. Mp3 ringtones are supported too. The E2 loads in about 12 seconds, which is faster than the Motorola Linux-based EZX phones.
On the main screen you get the service bar, carrier info, date and time, and an icon representation of the 4 joystick shortcuts. The “Options” softkey menu includes such options as “Take Picture”, “Create Message”, “Change Profile” and “Customize Home” (customizes the front screen). When you have a menu open on the left softkey, the right softkey automatically becomes the “Close” button of that menu. If you press the left softkey it is the same as you pressed the joystick button (it carries out the currently selected menu action). The right softkey in the Home screen gets you to the Main Menu. It is a 3×3 icon grid with the following options in the firmware version R564_G_12.02.32P that the phone came with: Contacts, Recent Calls, Messages, Office Tools, Games, Web Access, Multimedia, File Manager and Settings. Please note that you can rename and add new folders or applications in that Main Menu. All java apps are automatically placed in the root Main Menu, and I didn’t like that. I renamed “Games” to “Applications” and moved Opera Mini and the rest of my Java apps in there, just to keep the main menu UI clean.
The Contacts application is pretty nice, it allows to create message and email lists, filter by categories, allows you to select multiple contacts at the same time to send via Bluetooth or remove, synchronize via SyncML, add Notes and assign pictures to your contacts and more. One small UI pet peeve I have is that the little green arrow on the right next to the contacts could be placed a few pixels below and so leaving space to render the full name of the contact, instead of adding the elipsis character all the time.
The Recent Calls application shows all calls by default but it can specifically filter for dialed, answered or missed calls. You can also save to contacts a specific number that appears in that list. Nothing fancy here, although it would have been nice if the screen is modified to be like Sony Ericsson’s where you don’t have to go through a long menu to view only specific calls (e.g. if you only want to see the calls you missed).
The Messages application has support for SMS, MMS, POP3/IMAP email and Voicemail. There are some nice MMS templates included with the system, but there is no system-wide volume setting so each time you load one of these loud .mid files on an MMS template you have to change its volume… Nevertheless, the email client worked with my POP3 account and Gmail.
The ROKR-E2 comes with 3 Chinese games with it (untranslated), one of them crashed the phone while loading. Other than this one-time incident, I have not experienced any stability issues with the phone. The games are easy to use and play, even if you can’t read Chinese. There were no speed issues running these games.
Opera Mobile 8.50 is included with the E2. First thing I did was to make the font size “small” so it fits more text in the QVGA screen. Opera worked fast, scrolled fast, never ran out of memory (although I did not try to load huge pages like cnn.com or digg.com) and rendered everything as expected. I only have a single beef with the recent versions of Opera Mobile, apparently when “Fit to Screen” is enabled, it doesn’t always resize images to fit and so some horizontal scrollbars might occur occasionally. Other than that, Opera Mobile is da bomb!
However, the phone has one more “bomb”. Its File Manager. I absolutely love the power you get from this seemingly simple file manager. It allows you to easily select multiple files and send them to email or bluetooth, or delete them, or apply a specific format to specific actions (e.g. an image as a background image), sort your files and folders, create new folders and view your contents with 4 different ways. It also has special folders inside the My Documents folder for saved web pages (a great place to move your personal homepage portal so Opera can “see” it and load it), for Voice Recording and more.
In the Settings you will find the Profiles and Themes editor, data connections for GPRS (needs some simplification still), Bluetooth management, call settings for speed dial, call barring, fixed dialing, phone lock settings, Language, screen brightness, time & date (you will have to set it manually, it won’t get it from the network) and more.
Of course, what is a modern phone without its PIM tools, right? In the E2 you will find a calculator (very easy to use), Calendar, a SyncML option, a recurring Alarm, World Clock application with up to 3 cities, a task list and a notepad. Unfortunately, the notepad won’t read simple .txt files fron My Documents folder. The Voice Recorder records in the AMR format, and its recordings are viewable from the file manager (and so they can be applied as ringtones via the file manager). Finally, we had no problem typing text using the iTap prediction system.
In the Media section you can either select the kind of application you want loaded (e.g. camera, video, voice recording or music), or you can easily search for a song via a simple interface. The search action will search through its pre-indexed archive to find a matching song (indexing must be manually done each time you add/remove songs on your SD card). At the “Music and sounds” section you can sort your media via Playlists, Recently Played, Albums, Artists, Composers and Genres or “All” (sorted alphabetically but you can also sort via size, type and date). Selecting a song will start playing back that song. You can either then use the dedicated music hardware buttons on the side of the phone, or you can use the joystick to pause, fast forward, next/previous etc. When on that screen, pressing the music button below the left softkey will place the music player in the Home screen (similar to Nokia’s Active Standby feature). The phone supports DRM, but if your songs are not DRM’ed, the phone will let you MMS, email or Bluetooth them away! There is equalizer support (choose from 6 presets, no manual equalizer), effect support (e.g. bass boost) and shuffle/repeat support. If you have an incoming call the music will automatically stop and after the end of the call it will auto-start again. Here we must note that the music player can play mp3, mid, RA, AAC, AAC+ and even WMA files, but no OGG.
The video playback application is similar to the music playback one, with the exception that when you click the joystick in, it goes fullscreen. Some videos play ok, others drop frames way too much (even in my video of the phone in the previous page you can see the drop out of frames of QVGA video playback). Motorola and Real Player must do some work to optimize their app. 3GP, MP4 and RM videos are supported. The Picture viewing app allows you to create picture albums, and select via “recently viewed” and “year and month”. You can do a slideshow, send it to the printer via bluetooth or apply it as a screensaver or background image.
The Normal Profile supports both ringtone and vibration (at last), while there is an airplane mode, Vibrate, Silent, Meeting, Sleeping, Active and Car. While on a call you can enable the speakerphone, change to the second line (if your SIM supports that), or put the person on the other side on hold. The voice quality during a call is pretty good.
Finally, the FM Radio. It looks very similar to the music player and it can also be pushed to the background (so you can do other stuff at the same time). The FM Radio requires a headset to be hooked in, as that works as its FM antenna. FM reception is better than in some other radio-capable phones. You can mute/unmute the sound (we got very clear sound), transfer the sound to the main speaker and back to your headset, and have 9 presets througout 6 FM bands. This means that you can have up to 54 FM presets. You can scan within the whole FM spectrum or withim just your presets. You will have to enter the Radio names manually in the presets though, as only the FM Hz are recognized by the phone.
Like any new product, it comes with its own share of problems. Here is a quick run down of the ones we found during the past week:
– Managing Bluetooth to turn it ON or OFF requires 14 clicks with default behavior. I had to change the joystick’s shortcut defaults and removed the FM radio shortcut in order to add Bluetooth in its place. And even then, that costs 6 clicks anyway. I don’t understand why Motorola has not added a simple Bluetooth ON/OFF on their “Options” menu on the front screen. All other phones have it there and it’s really convenient.
– The / symbol is not available on Java apps and this has a major Opera Mini impact. It means that you can’t type anything like this on Opera Mini: osnews.com/pda. I don’t understand why no one tested Opera Mini with their Java implementation, as it is the most successful MIDP Java app today (sans games).
– It would have been nice if the phone was quad-band GSM, for USA’s sake. The ROKR-E2 also comes with a slower EDGE implementation, maxing out at about 16 KB/sec instead of the normal 22 KB/sec. In my download tests though, I never achieved anything faster than 10 KB/sec (my Cingular tower has both EDGE and UMTS in my area).
– Speaking of Cingular, the phone would not autodetect its voicemail number (like the Sony Ericsson phones do) and every time I made a call it was thinking that I was… roaming (I wasn’t). Regarding signal reception, I found the phone to be below par. Where all my other phones would get 2-5 bars, the ROKR-E2 will get either 1 or 2, and in some areas inside my house it would drop connection completely. I never had a phone lose Cingular connection completely at my house before.
– No Instant Messaging. Actually, some versions of the firmware have this application included, but the non-branded ones don’t. It would be beneficial if Motorola includes it on all firmwares and makes sure it works with YamiGo.com, the only free IM server that supports all WirelessVillage, ICQ, AIM, MSN and Y!.
– Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the battery life with great precision. You see, like in the EZX-based Linux phones, the battery driver sucks. You only get a 0%, 20%, 50% and 100% battery reading, which is actually a fat estimation of how much battery life is left. You might be (seemingly) having 100% battery left, insert the USB cable and sudenly see your battery meter go down to 20%. I wonder why Motorola has not fixed their battery driver for the 2.5 years that I am using their Linux phones. Regardless, the ROKR-E2 started beeping to notify me of low battery life only 28 hours after a full charge (have used EDGE occasionally in that time and no phone calls at all) and it would continue to beep even… while charging until it reached the supposed 20%! But honestly, this does not mean that the phone only had so little battery left in it. It is more of an issue of the kernel driver trying to figure out how much battery it truly had left.
– I was as dissapointed with ROKR’s video Mpeg4 support, just like I was at the EZX-based phones. Motorola uses an unoptimized Real Player port for their Linux phones that only support a very specific Mpeg4 version and it will refuse to playback the rest (sometimes mpeg4 videos recorded and sent from other phones won’t play either). Moreover, QuickTime-created industry-standard 3GP videos are slow to playback. To add to this, any QVGA video playback is not smooth (Mp4, 3GP or even RM), with some dropped frames here and there (same problem as in their EZX phones).
– Lastly, there is no SDK to write native applications for this phone. Motorola hopes to eventually release such an SDK for their future Linux phones, but not for the existing ones.
The ROKR-E2 makes for a great music phone. It is not the best all-around phone, but if you need a phone built around music, FM radio and convergence, it is a good product. In my opinion, it is a much better device than the ROKR-E1, a step in the right direction. And it comes for real cheap too (much cheaper than any other music-oriented phone in the market today). But as with all products, it could have been better with only a tiny bit extra attention to the detail. Hopefully, the remaining software problems mentioned in this article will be fixed on later [firmware] versions of the Chameleon platform.
* Cheap GBs of storage via its hot-swappable SD slot
* Standard mini-USB 2.0 for data & charging
* Standard 3.5mm audio jack
* Good Opera 8.50 browser
* A2DP/AVRCP support
* Powerful file manager
* Bright QVGA screen
* Great sound quality
* Hardware keylock
* FM Radio
* Managing Bluetooth requires 14 clicks with default behavior
* Symbol / not available on Java apps (Opera Mini impact)
* Not quad-band GSM, slower EDGE version
* No native SDK or theme creator app
* No IM (firmware-specific)
* Innacurate battery reading
* Mediocre GSM reception
* Mediocre MP4 support
Overall Rating: 7.5/10