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Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Motorola Razr V3i: A Good, Open PHONE-Phone

Motorola Razr V3i I recently coughed up the cash to get myself one of those sexy Razr phone things. I must say that so far, I am rather pleased with it. It is a solid device that fulfills the function of "telephone", without trying to shakily add a mess of unnecessary (and crippling) features on top. The Razr V3i is a phone with a relatively solid foundation, and some extra functionality that is actually meaningful and useful rather than flashy and worthless.

But, before I go into why exactly this slim little piece of metal and silicon makes me so happy, let me give you a little background of my dealings with cell phones. What was it that made me decide to drop a substantial amount of money into this particular phone?

The Journey

My first phone (obtained right before I left for college) was a tiny Siemens brick phone. It didn't look like much, and its screen was fantastically tiny and low-quality, but it was a decent phone. I could usually carry on a conversation with it. And it had a bunch of mostly worthless extras that nobody should care about. The best feature though, was Bluetooth and infrared connectivity. My laptop at the time didn't have Bluetooth, but I could still push a few .mp3 files (for ringtones) and image files (to color that tiny screen) across to it via the IR Wizard that's built into Windows XP. I started using the Bluetooth with a hands-free Jabra earpiece for long conversations home. It was nice. Then, one fitful day, the tiny brick-phone and its scratched-to-hell screen met accidental death via water damage from a sprinkler.

Next came a very hefty Motorola V551. The only reason I got this phone was because it was the one handset available at a stomachable price at the local Cingular outlet that supported Bluetooth. I didn't want to lose the use of my Jabra. It wasn't cheap. And hey, ugly as the phone was, it had a camera in it! Things were looking okay.

Phone death, forced downgrading, media orphaned!

Then the Jabra died. Then the phone's earpiece died. That one reason to own that particular phone was now uselessly collecting dust, and I could no longer hear anyone who called unless I put them on speakerphone. And the best part: there was no way to get any non-SIM data off without buying an expensive, proprietary cable AND installing Motorola's "special" software. My lovely, low-quality pictures were orphaned.

While I saved some cash to buy a replacement phone, I inherited my brother's bashed-up Samsung x427m. It seemed like a good, minimalistic phone. It got far better reception than the radio-wave-challenged Motorola ever did. Best of all, I could actually make and receive calls again! It was a much better phone, even with the smaller (and quasi-damaged) screen, lack of extra superfluous features, and next to no customizability. And then my cat chewed the charger cable.

No workable phone (my house doesn't have a land-line). Crunch time.

tricorderI did a bit of research, ponied up the cash, and got myself an unlocked Motorola Razr V3i. I've wanted one of these phones since the first generation Razr units shipped. Besides solidly fitting the definition of "sexy new technology", the phone is literally a Tricorder (TNG-era and later) flipped 180-degrees.

But more importantly, this particular phone (the V3i model) is open.

What is this "open" that you speak of?

First, there is the critical "telephone" functionality. The reception and voice quality is definitely on the high end of phones I've used. It is easy and fast to search or scroll through the phonebook and make a call. Battery life and call time is average, but far better than the other phones I've owned. As I mentioned above, the phone is "unlocked". This means that it is completely independent of any cellular service provider. Subscribe to a new company, swap in their SIM card, and the phone will just work. In my humble opinion, a service provider should be chosen on the merits of their service, not the phones they sell. Cellular devices and cellular service should be modular items, not rigidly integrated. Hate the service but love the phone? You should have the freedom to ditch the service provider but not be forced to ditch an expensive piece of equipment at the same time.

So the phone works well as a phone and isn't tethered to a specific telecom. What else is "open" about it?

You undoubtedly know that this phone has a camera built into it. But, unlike a lot of the camera-phones that have been built so far, this particular camera doesn't suck. Great, so now I'll have a bunch of non-crappy pictures orphaned on my new camera, compared to the bunch of crappy images orphaned on my old handset, right? Wrong.

The V3i has an internal microSD card slot (and the unit I bought came with a 256MB card, plus standard SD adapter card). Also, the phone has a standard mini-USB slot. No more messing with quirky Bluetooth connections or one-way IR communication. Every computer I've plugged this phone into has mounted the internal card as a standard removable storage device. 100% read/write happiness, with no special software or hardware, or obscure settings. This is something that none of those other Razr's could do (I tried with my brother's new V3c), and was previously written about regarding Mac OS X
. The picture on the right shows me browsing my pictures on a Linux box, no voodoo hackery needed.

Is it completely "open"? Sadly, no. It still comes with a (Windows-only) software CD, that I imagine would allow me to sync my outlook contacts to the phone's internal phonebook or something. And of course, the on-board iTunes application is just as closed and uncool as the full-blown version of the program. But it is still a strong step in the right direction, and I don't mind continuing to manually sync my phone's limited phonebook listing with my computer's master address books. All in all, it is a solid phone, with a not-terrible camera. It allows me to freely move media files back and forth between internal storage and the microSD card. It talks standard US-lingo over a standard USB cable. I am free to chose my supporting operating system, and I am not tethered to a specific cellular service provider.

Manufacturers should design some solid base functionality into a product before trying to add new stuff on top of it. This goes for all software and hardware, not just cell phones. We shouldn't even think about those extra crazy features (like calendaring, emailing, web-surfing, or video capturing) until the core "telephone" implementation is taken care of. Multimedia applications shouldn't even be on your radar until basic storage and retrieval functions have matured.

The V3i is finally a good example of a PHONE-phone (I'm ignoring the big, bulky, PDA-phone genre) that is starting to get some of the basics right. And it looks dead sexy while doing it.


  • Form factor aside Motorola phones have the worst user interface/operating system from any of the big maufacturers. Do you self a favour and check Sony Ericsson, Samsung or, better yet, Nokia devices. In terms of "openness" Nokia S60 phones put Motorola to shame.

    By Anonymous bukster, at 8:48 AM  

  • If you actually read the top half of the post, you'd see that I'm not someone who's used only Motorola and hasn't experienced other technologies. The Siemens interface wasn't bad, but it wasn't all that great either. The OS and interface on the V551 was pretty much crap. It extremely slow, and had a number of odd quirks. But, the overall design of the UI itself wasn't that bad. The samsung interface's main advantage over my Motorola experience was the speed. It was no less or more intuitive than the Moto, it was just a little different, and a lot faster. The V3i's OS and UI is about the same. Better hardware and a few UI tweaks negated the "advantage" that the Samsungs had before.

    I haven't spent much time with any Nokia or Sony Ericsson units, but my initial impressions of their UIs is the same. They're okay, but they're not great. Everybody's doing things a little differently, and we still haven't found a solid solution to the problem of UI design on such tiny devices. Same can be said for phone-pc connectivity, both on the software and hardware ends. At this point, it's still more a matter of personal opinion and specific phones rather than "this company is better than that company."

    That said, I'll give the Nokia S60 a look-see if I have the chance.

    By Blogger theMatt, at 12:56 PM  

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