Friday, October 15, 2004

Mobile warrior - Motorola E398

I used to own a Motorola Star Tac. One of the earlier models, it was back then the best mobile phone on the market. About the size of a credit card, it was awesomely tiny. But I hated the phone. Why? Cos I could never figure out how to work it, other than to make and take calls. The operating system was, at best, cryptic. From the day I took it out of its protective shrink-wrap, until the day I sold it off, I could never figure out how to even retrieve my missed calls.

The baffling Motorola StarTac

After that debacle, I swore off the brand and stuck to Nokia, which by then had risen to fame thanks to the immortalization of the 8100-series in the cult film “The Matrix”. The Nokia 8148 replaced my Star Tac and a succession of Finnish phones such as the 3210, 7110 and the 6100 followed. I was in love with these phones. They were stylish, feature packed and most of all, ridiculously easy to use. My 6 year old nephew could work the 6100 with little trouble, homing into its built-in games function like a laser guided missile.

The Nokia 8148 - Neo's mobile phone of choice in "The Matrix"

Alas, my love affair with the Nokia range gave me the label of a “Nokiaphile” and that was something I rarely disputed, as in my mind, only Nokia’s would do. As they say, once you go Finnish, you never go back. But recently, my much-loved Nokia 6100 started to give me a string of problems, which admittedly was a Nokia tradition with my phones. The screen packed up and headed south for the winter and I was left with a highly advanced paper weight.

The Nokia 6100 - Finnish mobile technology at its best

I needed a replacement and needed one quick. My budget was about RM1500 and looking around, it was surprising that Nokia’s range of phones had steadily risen in price, placing most of the models I wanted out of my limited budget. It was also amazing to see so many new models being displayed at the infamous Sungai Wang shopping complex at Bukit Bintang. Samsungs were notable for their increasing popularity and Motorola had a brand new range of phones that looked really good. Sony had merged with Ericsson to produce some awesome looking phones so I was completely lost in a sea of choices.

Stylish new models from SonyEricsson

After a long and protracted debate with my Nokiaphile self, I decided to be brave and get a non-Nokia phone. My logic being that none of the Nokia’s below RM1500 really struck my fancy and there was one particular phone that stood out in the display case in the shop I was in. The Motorola E398. At RM1499, the E398 fitted my budget perfectly and offered the most “bang-for-my-buck” by packing a long features list in a design no bigger than the 6100. I closed my eyes, handed over the plastic card and before you know it, I was home with the Nokia one hand, stripped of its SIM card, and the spanking new Motorola on the other, complete with its optional Bluetooth headset. Over the next month or so, I set out to see if the American phone could match, or perhaps beat Nokia at its own game.

The E398 is powered by a slim lithium-ion battery that takes about 4 hours to fully charge. Fully charged from the dealer, I popped it into the back of the E398, together with the SIM card from the old Nokia, and turned it on. Nothing happened. Not a great sign. Was I wrong with abandoning my beloved Nokia brand? Undeterred, I tried again and it turns out that I had to hold the power button for a few seconds continuously before the phone would power up. Lesson learnt - read the user manual first. With the phone powered up, it promptly logged onto my network and I started to fiddle with the unit.

The Motorola E398 - classy good looks

First impressions are good. The unit itself is actually pretty weighty, which I actually like. Gives the impression of solidity. The surfaces of the E398, with the exception of the silver buttons and a strip of classy chrome around the phone's chassis, are textured, and feels kinda like rubber, but isn’t, of course. In the black and silver unit I got ( it’s also available in silver and red), the phone looks understated and classy. Feature wise, the E398 has far too much features to list in full here, but amongst those that got my attention was its VGA camera, high resolution colour screen, video and audio playback (MP3 and MP4 compatible), Motorola’s own iTap predictive text technology and, most notably, a TransFlash memory card. The E398 is significant for the industry as it is the first phone to incorporate SanDisk’s 64MB transflash memory card and offers the user huge amounts of memory capacity for a device so small.

Exploring the new Motorola user-interface, I found that I could navigate my way through the phone’ features pretty easily. In fact, compared to the Nokia interface on the 6100, I couldn’t say that one had the edge over the other in terms of ease-of-use. Both present the phone’s features in windows on the main menu and navigating through the various features was a breeze. I even figured out how to connect to the E398’s optional Bluetooth headset and the call history lists without resorting to the user manual, and that is an achievement for me of sorts as past experiences with Motorola products had left me dumbfounded at the logic that the programmers used when laying out the menu system.

Screen shot of the new Motorola user interface - simple and very Nokia-like

I also found that the E398’s signal strength and ability to lock onto networks to be heaps better than the 6100. I live in an area where reception isn’t great. One or two bars on the indicator is about the best you’ll get and the 6100 had the tendency to drop calls when I ventured anywhere past my doorway in the apartment. The E398 coped admirably with the weak reception and never dropped a call, even when it was hanging on to the last bar on its indicator. Sound quality on the E398’s earpiece and built-in speakerphone is a little weak though, most callers sounding like they are talking to you through a can. In that aspect, the Nokia was better, with voices coming through naturally. To its credit, the volume on the E398 is louder, enabling you to hear better in crowded and noisy environments.

Another thing the Nokia had the advantage was when it came to messaging. Nokia utilizes the widely-used T9 software that is pretty adept at predicting what you’re typing. The iTap software on the E398 can prove frustrating from someone who is used to T9. Some words that you take for granted that a T9 equipped phone can predict is completely lost on iTap. Whats doubly frustrating is the fact that the iTap software is incredibly slow. The 6100 had no problems keeping up with my rather fast typing speeds. The E398, in comparison, struggles at what feels like half the speed at which I normally type. By the time I’ve completed four to six words on the keypad, the iTap software is still figuring out what I typed as my second or third word on the screen. So it’s a constant type-stop-wait affair with the Motorola. Its learning capabilities are also suspect, as words that I’ve entered into its database (it automatically learns new words it hasn’t seen before and stores it in memory, at least in theory) sometimes appears when it tries to predict what you've typed, and sometimes doesn’t.

The keypad layout closely mimics the Nokia 6100, which is no bad thing, with nice large buttons laid out in a symmetrical array. Instead of a 4-way directional button on the Nokia, the Motorola has a small joystick on the keypad to navigate the phone’s functions. In practice, the joystick can prove to be a little slippery and small for quick navigation, but that’s more likely caused by the fact that its owner’s fingers are of the “XXL” variety. Certainly others who fiddled with my phone had no trouble with the joystick.

The dimunitive little joystick on the E398

The E398 also boasts of “Stereo Surround Sound”, but the effects were lost on me as I detected little difference between the playback of ringtones on the Motorola and the Nokia. What I did appreciate was the quality of the sound played back on the tiny stereo speakers flanking the E398’s screen. Compared to the weedy sound of the Nokia, the Motorola was excellent, playing back Kylie’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” ringtone with convincing bass and clear treble. I even loaded the E398 with some MP3 tunes and it played back well. It gets better if you plug the E398 into proper stereo headphones through the socket at the top of the phone. It quickly became a favourite feature of mine to store a few tunes in the E398 for playback in the car where I have a matching jack to plug the E398 into the car’s audio system.

Its interesting to note that the E398 has flashing coloured lights on the sides of its screen that change colour as the phone rings, creating a disco-light effect. It’s a huge hit with a few of my friends and it certainly makes people look and stare when my phone rings. Certainly not a feature for those who want to remain discreet.

The display screen is crisp and clear, and beats the Nokia hands-down for clarity. Where the Nokia’s display would wash out in sunlight, the Motorola’s would remain highly legible. This is possibly due to the fact that Nokia persists in using passive LCD displays whereas Motorola has moved on to clearer active matrix screens for phones like the E398.

Battery life was pretty good while I was using the E398 for daily use. I’m a self confessed SMS-addict, sending out on average 40-50 messages daily, and taking that in mind, the E398 lasted 3 days before requiring a recharge. The Nokia was about equal in terms of battery life. Using the camera feature often on the E398 saps battery power quickly though, and should be best avoided if you’re trying to squeeze the last ounce of talktime on the Motorola.

The VGA camera on the E398 produces acceptable quality pictures. Nothing great, and I’ve only used it for candid shots of myself so far. Sometimes I wonder why people make a big deal about camera phones.

The VGA camera sits at the back of the E398

Overall, the E398 represents what Motorola has successfully done to counter the brilliance of Nokia’s products. Its stylish, easy to use and has almost too many features for its own good. Short of a full fledged smartphone like the Nokia Communicator, I think the E398 represents all an average joe would ever need in a mobile phone. And for once, you don’t have to justify why it isn’t made in Finland. Motorola’s back in the game, and the E398 is the best example of how far it has come.


At October 16, 2004 at 7:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You make me wanna throw away my Sony Ericsson T610....

Hmmmmm............. So let's see.. I'm gonna fork out around Rm 1k for an ipod/creative player, and another Rm 1k for a new handphone..... Hmmmmmmmm..... And my insurance premiums are going to be due soon.. Hmmmmm....


At October 18, 2004 at 10:03 AM, Blogger rpmnut said...

Ha ha.....gadgets are the bane of any man on a budget, innit? Still thinkin of that Creative Zen Xtra....60GB is an awful lot of memory for the price....;)

At October 18, 2004 at 11:41 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

I want to buy either an I-Pod or a creative mp3 player too. As for the rest, i'm gonna spend my money on Bjork :)

At October 18, 2004 at 12:54 PM, Blogger rpmnut said...

You've been on that Bjork album hunt for the longest period of time. Maybe if you get an iPod and iTunes, you can download the whole shebang into the nifty little thing? hee hee;) Killing two birds with one stone, as they say;)

At October 21, 2004 at 12:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo yo yo!
It's 1am.. And I'm going to have to go to work in like 6 hours.. bah hum bug.. Oh well, just two more weeks. heh

Anyhow, read through the CNET reviews(didn't reliased there was a 'Next Page' at the bottom).. Hahaha!! Apparently the Creative is better in terms of sound quality, and the touchpad. A few boasted bout sound quality vs their old iPods.

So I'm gonna scoot over to KLCC and pop one EXPENSIVE player... Think bread and water...


At October 21, 2004 at 2:33 PM, Blogger rpmnut said...

So Creative ZenTouch it is eh? Told ya! Been working on an iPod Mini review. Tried the thing all night last night. Impressed yet at the same time frustrated. Will write a comprehensive reiew later;) Lemme fiddle with the Zen when you get it ok? ;) It'll appear in the annals of this blog soon;)

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