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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 07:01 GMT 08:01 UK
Multimedia mobiles face the music
By Alfred Hermida
Technology editor, BBC News website

The Rokr iTunes mobile from Motorola and Apple enters a crowded market. Here are some of the mobiles vying to take the place of the digital music player.

Nokia N91O2 XMOrange SPV C550Sony Ericsson W800i

Nokia is not a company that does things by halves and its forthcoming N91 is the heavyweight of the music mobiles in more ways than one.

N91 SPECS
Operating system: Symbian Series 60
Triband: 900, 1800, 1900
Camera: 2 megapixels
Talktime: Up to 3-4 hours
Size: 113.1 x 55.2 x 23.5mm
Weight: 156g
Display: 262k colour screen
Memory: 4GB hard drive
Audio formats: MP3, AAC, aacPlus, Real, Wav, WMA, AWB, AMR, True Tones, SP-Midi
The smartphone is the flagship of Nokia's new N series of multimedia handsets. Sporting a meaty 4GB hard drive, the handset can hold up to 3,000 tracks in aacPlus format, more than enough for the daily commute to work.

The stainless steel exterior of the device has a solid feel to it. But the N91 pays the price of being a chunky piece of gadgetry and is too heavy to slip into a shirt or trouser pocket.

At first glance, the handset looks more like an MP3 player than a phone. The numeric keypad is tucked away beneath a set of multimedia buttons for music. This slides down to reveal a dinky set of keys.

Transferring music to the phone is child's play using a standard USB cable. The N91 pops up on the computer screen as hard drive and tracks can be dragged and dropped.

Sound quality is top notch and can be tweaked with the eight-band equaliser. Even the handset's speaker fares relatively well, though music lovers might want to stick to the headphones.

Nokia seem to have thrown everything into the N91. It comes with all the internet, messaging and organiser functions typically found in Series 60 smartphones, as well as Bluetooth and wi-fi.

The two megapixel camera is the icing on the cake.

The N91 may well set the standard in music mobiles. But it will not become widely available until early 2006 and is likely to come with a hefty price tag attached.

The XM clamshell from O2 feels like the poor relation of the bunch of music mobiles. The silver handset feels cheap and the sleek lines on the front are let down by a squarish back when the battery slots in.

O2 XM SPECS
Operating system: Intel Mobile Media
Triband: 900, 1800, 1900
Camera: 1.3 mega-pixels
Talktime: Up to 4 hours
Size: 47 x 89 x 23.5mm
Weight: 90g
Display: 262k colour screen/64k external colour screen
Memory: 64MB card and support for up to 1GB
Audio formats: MP3, aacPlus
The compact handset packs a 1.3 megapixel camera and a small screen on the front, but lacks Bluetooth or e-mail.

Its saving grace is that it is a cinch to use, making the 193-page manual redundant. The handset is the first to be powered by Intel's mobile media technology and it makes for a zippy performance.

The music player can be brought to life at the touch of a button. Handy play, rewind/fast-forward and stop buttons along the side of the handset make it easy to control.

The headphones are crisp and clear, but annoyingly the phone needs an adaptor to work with a standard 3.5mm jack. The onboard speakers manage to squeeze out some healthy beats, though they are light on the bass.

The XM comes with a 64MB SD memory card but this is merely enough for a paltry 15 MP3 tunes, so a bigger capacity card is a necessary extra expense.

The music player is linked in to O2's music download service. The catalogue of 185,000 tracks is easy to browse and search, but is somewhat pricey at 1.50 a tune when compared with other online music stores.

The tracks come in aacPlus format which take up less room than standard MP3 files. But they are digitally locked to the handset so can only be played back on the XM.

O2's XM packs a lot of multimedia functions into a handy-sized clamshell, but it is let down by the lightweight feel of the handset.

The C550 is the latest in the range of Windows smartphones from Orange designed to double up as a handheld computer.

C550 SPECS
Operating system: Smartphone 2004
Triband: 900, 1800, 1900
Camera: 1.3 mega-pixels
Talktime: Up to 4 hours
Size: 113.1 x 55.2 x 22mm
Weight:
Display: 65k colour screen
Memory: Internal 64MB, external miniSD card
Audio formats: SP-MIDI/SMF, Wav, MP3, AMR, AAC, WMA
Running on Microsoft Smartphone 2004, it takes a while to boot up. Once up and running, the C550 synchronises easily with a Windows PC to transfer contacts, calendar dates and e-mails from one to the other.

What sets the C550 apart from earlier Orange smartphones are four multimedia buttons at the centre of the brushed aluminium handset, beneath a large, bright screen.

The downside of packing so much into the top half of the phone is that the keypad is tightly packed. Fortunately a little joystick in the middle of the handset provides a easy way of getting around.

The main focus of this phone is clearly tunes, with Orange touting it as "great for music".

However the way the music set-up works is baffling. By default, the multimedia buttons launch the Orange Music Player. These can be changed to open the Windows Media Player.

The Orange player links to an online store of some 300,000 tracks, at a cost of 1.50.

However it will only play tracks bought and downloaded from Orange to the handset, ignoring songs transferred to the phone from a computer.

These have to be played using Windows Media Player. The catch is that the Windows player will not see the Orange tracks as they are in a proprietary format.

The result is two playlists which are incompatible with each other, leading to a frustrating experience on a mobile specifically designed for music.

The onboard speakers are good enough. But the phone does not use a standard 3.5mm jack and the earphones provided leave much to be desired.

In the end, the C550 works best as a smartphone for the young professional who might want to listen to some music on the way to a meeting, rather than as a replacement for a MP3 player.

Sony is counting on the appeal of its Walkman brand to make its line-up of music mobiles stand out in the crowd.

W800i SPECS
Triband: 900, 1800, 1900
Camera: 2 mega-pixels
Talktime: Up to 9 hours
Size: 100 x 46 x 20.5mm
Weight: 99g
Display: 262k colour screen
Memory: Internal 34MB, external 512MB Memory Stick
Audio formats: Midi, AMR, MP3, AAC, XMF, Wav
Leading the charge is the W800i, the first in a new family of Walkman phones from Sony Ericsson.

The colour combination of vanilla white and orange is obviously designed to appeal to those who like a bit of funkiness in their handsets.

The phone is similar to other recent Sony Ericsson handsets, with the shutter button, play/pause button, zoom/volume keys and even the Memory Stick bay in identical positions.

The key difference is the button just below the screen, providing a one-click link to the music player software. The program will look familiar to a generation who has grown up with MP3 music players and it is child's play to listen to music with just the press of one button.

The mobile comes with a generous 512MB external Memory Stick, with can store around 125 music tracks, the equivalent of 12 CDs.

Bundled with the handset comes Sony's own PC software to rip CDs and transfer tracks to the phone. But this can also be done by just dragging and dropping files to the phone as the computer recognises the memory card as an external hard drive.

Sony should be applauded for including a pair of decent earphones with the mobile, but an adapter cable is needed to connect them to the phone. Music playback is on the flat side, but a fuller sound can be created by tinkering with the EQ settings.

The W800i comes with a two megapixel digital camera which can take some remarkably good quality photos, given the size of the lens. It also features Bluetooth, and triband connectivity.

The Walkman mobile is clearly aimed at the style-conscious clubber who wants to combine digital music and pictures in one easy-to-use phone.




SEE ALSO:
Musicians go mobile to reach fans
06 Jul 05 |  Technology
Sony Ericsson launches Walkmans
14 Feb 05 |  Business
The future in your pocket
03 Jan 05 |  Technology


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