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Review: Casio G'zOne Brigade

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Mar 18, 2010, 10:17 PM   by Philip Berne

The Casio G'zOne Brigade is the toughest phone you can buy with a full QWERTY keyboard. It's waterproof and shockproof, but still packs plenty of Verizon Wireless' 3G multimedia features.

Form

Is It Your Type? 

The Casio G’zOne Brigade is the only phone available from a major U.S. carrier that gives you a full QWERTY keyboard to send text message from the beach . . . while surfing. It’s built like a tank, and almost as large. Because it’s so durable, and practically alone in its class, it’s easy to forgive some shortcomings.

Body 

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

The Casio Brigade meets the military specifications 810F standard for water, shock and dust resistance; immersion; vibration; and low and high temperature storage. It can even withstand salt fog, a problem I hope to never encounter, but if you find yourself in a salty, foggy environment, there are very few phones on the market that can handle these problems, and only one with a full QWERTY keyboard.

The Brigade looks every bit the part. Besides the rubberized seals and larger buttons that you’d expect from a rugged device, the Casio G’zOne family tends toward flourishes like rivets and metal guard posts. I half-expected to open the phone and find steel plate, but Verizon Wireless saved this for the interface theme, not the exterior.

The Casio Brigade won’t fit in your pocket, unless you wear cargo pants and a flak jacket. It’s about twice as thick as your standard, svelte tablet phone, and the hinge protrudes from the top and bottom of the device. But it opens with a solid clack, like popping the hood on a Jeep.

There’s a full numeric keypad on the outside of the phone and a four row QWERTY keyboard inside, plus plenty of extra buttons all around. On the front, in addition to the d-pad, you’ll find shortcuts for text messaging, a favorites speed dial list, the camera and even a button that turns on the LED flash around back so you can use it as a flashlight, a very useful feature for this outdoorsy device.

The front keypad gave me some trouble during calls. Once I was done speaking, pressing the End key only woke the display from sleeping, it didn’t actually end calls. This was embarrassing when I left extra long voicemail messages, thinking I had already hung up.

On the side of the phone, you get a big, red button for push-to-talk (PTT). There’s also a volume rocker that could be a little larger; it’s difficult to press with work gloves on. You’ll also find a dedicated music button, which should give a hint that this phone is about play time as much as it’s about work. On the back of the phone, a lock switch holds the waterproof battery cover in place.

The QWERTY keyboard is surprisingly good for such a rugged phone. The buttons are just large enough to hit with covered thumbs, and the keys are raised nicely with plenty of travel room. Typos were few and far between, though I wish the period key wasn’t up high next to the ‘Q’. I found the ‘clear’ key to be a little close to the down press on the internal d-pad, and I sometimes deleted or quit an app when I wanted to move the cursor down. There are also some shortcuts paired with letter keys, so you can hold down the ‘C’ to activate the camera. There are also shortcuts for the camcorder, speakerphone and voice recording tool, as well as another text messaging key.

Usually I get annoyed to find the memory card slot hidden underneath the battery, but with its tight-fitting seals and stiff battery cover, I could forgive the Casio G'zOne this inconvenience. It's very difficult to remove the back cover, but the fit is nice and tight, keeping water (and salt fog) out. The headphone jack and the charging port are both on the left side of the phone, hidden beneath large covers with their own O-ring seals. You don't have to use the charging port, though, because the Casio Brigade comes with a convenient power dock. Just slip in the phone and it charges without having to pry any covers loose.

The Three S's 

Screen

The Casio G’zOne Brigade has two screens: a tiny, 1.2-inch, monochrome, passive matrix OLED display on the front, and a 2.9-inch, color screen inside the fold. The internal screen displays 400 by 240 pixels, which is good enough for this device. The external screen is nearly useless except for dialing, though Casio tries hard to extend more features to the tiny window. But text messages don’t fit well on the external screen, and though it can be used as a camera viewfinder, this was only helpful for self-portraits, as the passive matrix screen couldn’t display even a black and white image well.

The internal screen is bright and colorful and it looked good showing off pictures or reading text. Web pages gave us some trouble, but that was more because of the lousy browser. The Web browser's font was also thick and chunky, sometimes too bold and sometimes too jagged. Most importantly, though, both screens were easy to read outdoors and even underwater.

Signal

I didn’t get good reception from the Casio G’zOne Brigade on Verizon Wireless EV-DO Rev. A network, though the slower 1xRTT network always held onto a of bar or two of service. Voice calls were affected slightly, and I heard some static and dropping out during calls. Data could be quite sluggish and regularly stalled out during long load times. For a Rev. A network phone, I was disappointed with the data speed I saw, whether loading a Web page or downloading a track from the V Cast Music Store. I also tried the PTT functions on the Brigade and occasionally had trouble connecting to my contacts. Plus, PTT chats had more of a delay than I’d like to see. Sprint Nextel still has the best walkie-talkie service among U.S. carriers.

Sound

For a waterproof, PTT phone, the Casio Brigade delivers with an extra loud speakerphone that was also nice and clear. Even for music playback, I was impressed with the volume I could achieve with this phone, though the sound could exhibit a bit of static from time to time. The earpiece on the phone is pretty good. I heard plenty of feedback on my end so I could manage my own volume, and callers came through clearly. On the other end, my callers reported a muffled, distant sound that was listenable, but not too pleasant. On voicemails I heard, my voice sounded worse than with most other phones. Such is the price for waterproof durability, I suppose. Bluetooth headsets actually sound a bit better than the built-in mic, especially if you’re using a high quality headset like the Plantronics Voyager Pro I use for testing.

Battery

There’s a large battery stuffed into the Casio Brigade, but I wasn’t impressed with the battery life. In a flat out talking test, the battery lasted more than 6 hours, which is respectable. But in general use tests, with a mix of Web browsing, some photography, calling and a few miles of navigation, the battery didn’t hold on for more than a day and a half. That’s what I might expect from a smartphone, but for a rugged, outdoor phone like the Casio Brigade, I’d hope for much more. If you’re taking the Brigade on a long hike, I’d advise using it just for calls, not for campfire song downloads.

Basics

Menus 

Verizon Wireless’ feature phone menus haven’t changed much in the last few years, and they’re still redundant and confusing. At the top level, you’ll find Mobile IM and Email, but also a general Messaging category, under which you’ll also find Mobile IM and Email, among other features, like Visual Voice Mail. VZ Navigator is a top level menu item, which is nice, but the Web browser is hidden completely. You have to go to Media Center, then Mobile Web. Too many menu items led nowhere, like the top level My Verizon button that took me to an empty Web page; and too many choices seem to lead to simple, intrusive WAP pages that try to sell you more ringtones and wallpapers. There are a few different menu designs to choose from, either icon grid or tabbed menus, but none of them are well organized or intuitive.

Without opening the phone, you can still perform some basic tasks using the small external display. You can send a text message, look through your contacts list to make phone calls, play music or even pair the phone with a Bluetooth device. The camera and camcorder can use the external screen as a viewfinder, but the monochrome display looks horrible and the passive matrix screen refreshes so slowly that its only useful for lining up your own face in a self portrait.

 

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Calls / Contacts 

Calls

Dialing on the Casio Brigade was more difficult than it should have been. The columns of number keys on the exterior keypad are staggered, so the 2, 5, 8 and 0 keys aren't in line with the numbers next to them. This makes it tough to dial by touch without looking. For calling features, the Brigade covers all the bases. You can make 3-way calls by simply dialing a second number and pressing send. Then, conference your callers by pressing send again. This is intuitive once you’ve done it, but a menu or onscreen guidance is always nice. The Brigade has a dedicated speakerphone button, which is especially useful considering the excellent, loud speaker. If a call comes in at an inconvenient time, you can respond with a quick text message chosen from a preprogrammed list.

The Brigade does a nice job keeping track of your calls. There are multiple call logs for missed, received or dialed calls, and one that groups them together. The call logs don’t include the call duration, but there is a handy tool that tells you the duration of your last call, and gives you other statistics to help keep track of your calling minutes and data usage.

 

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Contacts

The contact list on the Casio G’zOne Brigade is very basic. You can add multiple phone numbers and a couple of e-mail addresses, but you can’t send an e-mail directly from the address book, which seems silly. At least you can browse your contact list from the Mobile Email app on the device. The address book also has fields for a street address, but you can’t start a navigation session from the contact list, and the older version of VZ Navigator that comes with the Brigade can’t access your address book, so the stored addresses are almost useless. I also found it strange that there are no fields for PTT contacts. There is a completely separate address book for the PTT function, which seems redundant.

There is a backup assistant to store your contacts on Verizon Wireless’ own servers should you lose your phone, but the contact list doesn’t come with a proper sync function. You can’t sync with any online address books. There is a Corporate Mail app on board that gives you access to a Microsoft Exchange account if you use Exchange, and then you’ll have access to your corporate address book from within the app, but you can’t automatically sync with the phone’s built-in contact list.

 

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Messaging 

The messaging features on the Casio G’zOne Brigade are useful, but not at all impressive. You get text messaging with MMS capabilities for sending pics and videos. Unfortunately, text messaging is not threaded, so you can’t follow an entire SMS discussion as a long conversation, you have to read texts message by message. That seems outdated, especially as competitor AT&T is making a push to improve these basic messaging features on its non-smartphones.

The Brigade gets the same old Instant Messaging client Verizon Wireless has been using for years. If you use Yahoo, AIM or MSN, it certainly gets the job done, but don’t expect any advanced features or a stylish interface. It’s basic, but our messages went through with little delay on either end of the chat.

For e-mail, the options are a little better. There is the Mobile Email app that let me access my Gmail account with ease. The Brigade is actually better than most feature phones at keeping you updated on incoming messages. Even when the app wasn’t running in the foreground, I was notified about new e-mails right away, sometimes even before my Android phone picked up on them.

The text in e-mail messages is a bit thin and wiry looking, and it could be easier to read, but otherwise the interface is clean. The Brigade can’t handle HTML e-mails, and I couldn’t open attachments sent to my e-mail account. Like I said, there is also a Corporate Email app for Exchange users, but this is not a proper Exchange sync like I’d want in a business phone.

The phone doesn't come with any special support for popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. You'll have to use the e-mail and SMS options those services provide to update your status or send pictures to your pages.

 

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Extras

Music 

Like all Verizon Wireless 3G feature phones, the Casio G’zOne Brigade uses the problematic V Cast Music Store for music and videos. You can buy music from the store, but it’s a fairly dismal experience. Tracks cost $2 on average, twice what you’ll pay on better devices like the Motorola Droid or on other carriers’ music stores, like Sprint’s Music Store. The V Cast Store interface is slow and unpleasant, and downloads were even worse. A 2MB song, at a reduced bitrate quality, mind you, took minutes to download, including plenty of stalls and stops in the download process. If you want an album, you’ll have to go song by song and download one at a time.

For music playback, the situation is just as bad. The phone can’t search all the files on a microSD card, you have to place them in the proper folder to be found. Once loaded, playback was pretty good, at least through the built in speaker. That was the only way I could listen out of the box, since the phone doesn’t come with wired headphones and the audio port is a substandard 2.5mm jack, not the standard 3.5mm that most music phones use. At least the phone paired easily with my Bluetooth stereo speakers, but playing music through stereo Bluetooth headphones was a hodge podge of stops and starts.

This is a real disappointment with this device. There is a dedicated button for music playback, so music should be a much more developed feature. Plus, with its waterproof shell, it would be cool to have a waterproof music player on hand, perhaps with waterproof earbuds to go with it.

 

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Camera 

Camera

The camera on the Casio G’zOne Brigade was surprisingly robust, especially compared to the shooters on previous Casio G’zOne phones. The 3-megapixel camera doesn’t try to overload the pixels on the sensor, and that might work to its benefit. You get auto focus, controlled automatically by the camera, though I prefer a two-stage button for focus control. You also get a powerful flash and even a macro mode (for close-ups). There are keyboard shortcuts for almost all of the camera options, and though they weren’t intuitive, once I had them memorized controlling my shots was fast and easy. There are even Best Shot scene modes to help tweak the settings for various shots, like a personal portrait or a scenery shot. Not too many options, but those present are useful and easy.

 

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I wish the camera was quicker on the draw. I like being able to press the camera button from any menu or screen and jump into the action immediately so I don’t miss a shot, but on the Casio Brigade you need to be in standby mode to open the camera. Even then, the camera opened slowly, and a few times the phone crashed completely when I held down the camera button, requiring a battery removal to fix. The center button is mapped to sending images on the image preview screen, you have to use a soft key to actually save the picture, and I wish I could swap these assignments to keep the shots flowing quicker.

Once you’ve taken a picture, you can send it via MMS message or upload it to Verizon Wireless’ own picture storage service. You can also send the file via Bluetooth, though this failed when I tried it with my Macbook Air. I wish there were more sending options from the camera, like the ability to send it via e-mail or perhaps upload to a social networking site.

Photo Gallery

The picture gallery on the Casio G’zOne Brigade is as simple as can be, with few features. There are some basic editing tools, like crop, rotate and resize. There’s even a strange Perspective Adjustment setting that I couldn’t quite maneuver. It's supposed to skew the picture to fit a trapezoidal box, so that a shot of a painting or building taken at an angle can be straightened to look like a head-on shot. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to control, and my results were lousy. You get the same sending options in the gallery that you’ll find in the image preview in the camera app: Bluetooth, MMS and Verizon Wireless’ online photo storage. You can even print pictures via Bluetooth, if you have a printer that can handle the task. There are no tools to change the quality of your pics, which doesn’t bug me as much as a lack of good sending and transfer options.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Pictures / Video 

Photos

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the photos and videos I shot with the Casio Brigade. The last few G’zOne phones have left me wanting a better camera, but the 3-megapixel shooter on the Brigade did a fine job. It wasn’t perfect, especially at full crop, where you’ll see plenty of noise and pixelation in the details. But these pics would make a fine addition to a social networking site or even a wallpaper on a small computer screen. Colors were accurate, except for reds which tend to bleed a bit in small sensors. I even found the flash to be adequate. It provided a nice, even light without washing my images in a blue haze. Indoors, things started to fall apart, with more noise and washed out colors, but this is really an outdoor phone, so that didn’t bother me much. Some of my macro shots looked quite good, and even the underwater pics I took were clean and clear.

 

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Videos

The Casio Brigade also shoots video at 320 by 240, QVGA resolution. Videos were also better than I expected (though my expectations were low), especially on the bright, sunny day I tested the camcorder feature. The video camera easily survived a dip in the pool, and my underwater movies were bright and blue, as they should be. This would be a fun phone to take to the pool or on a beach vacation for some impromptu shots.


3GPP2 / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 1.3 MB

Browse / Customize 

Browser

The Web browser on the Casio Brigade, a version of the Access Netfront browser, is completely unusable. In the browser's non-optimized, desktop browser-style mode, it failed to load any of the pages I tried. Though Casio brags about its Adobe Flash Lite capabilities, the browser completely choked on Flash content, and often the pages I loaded, including our own PhoneScoop homepage, would display only the Flash-based banner ads running up top. CNN, the New York Times and, regrettably, even PhoneScoop would not load properly. In the optimized mode, pages would load in their mobile versions, but still looked terrible. Fonts were chunky and difficult to read, and page layout was mangled.

The interface for the browser was also horrible. When you press the Navigate button, you get a menu to enter a URL. But you’re then taken to a separate WAP page where you enter your address into a mobile Web field. This page was difficult to navigate, and the buggy browser often did not load it properly, leaving me confused and annoyed. I gave up on the mobile browser quickly. Better to forget it completely than deal with the frustration.

 

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Customize

There are a few themes available for the Casio Brigade, perhaps fittingly based around a workshop concept. These change the main menu design and the look of the standby screen, but don’t affect much else. You can also change wallpapers and ringtones, but you don’t get much control over specific alert settings. There is a shortcuts menu that you can customize with your own choices, but you can’t change or rearrange the main menu. The phone comes with two different menu layouts, enigmatically labeled Communicator and Messaging, though these only changed a few of the top level menu items, and did nothing to improve the basic organization or design.

Extras 

Bluetooth

I had no trouble pairing the phone with a variety of Bluetooth devices, including an earpiece, stereo headphones and a portable stereo speaker. The earpiece sounded pretty good, even better than the phone’s built in microphone, according to my callers. Reception was a problem with all the headsets, and sound would drop out often if I shifted the device around or got too far from it. Stereo speakers also sounded good playing music from this phone. I had trouble with the object push protocol. Even though I paired the phone successfully with my Macbook Air, I was never able to complete a file transfer from the image gallery to my laptop.

Clock

To check the time quickly, the Casio Brigade offers a large clock that takes up most of the external OLED display. You can choose either a digital or analog, but the analog was tough to read, thanks to a busy design. One complaint I have is that e-mail notifications are too persistent; the new e-mail message takes up the whole screen and you have to dismiss it before you can check the time, which is a step too many.

 

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GPS

The Casio G’zOne Brigade uses VZ Navigator for turn-by-turn directions. It’s a nice edition of the software, though it’s not as developed and friendly as the newest version I saw on the Motorola Devour. Still, VZ Navigator supports spoken input, so you can speak your destination or search terms and the phone will use an online server to interpret your instructions. This may be handy while driving, but the menus still require enough attention that I would always pull over before using this app. VZ Navigator did a fine job finding my favorite points of interest and guiding me on my trip. The maps could have been easier to manipulate; there seemed to be too many screens to scan through. But it still tracked me accurately and suggested alternate routes when I got lost. VZ Navigator even offers local movie times and event listings based on venues in your area, which is a nice bonus feature. There are no other GPS options for this phone, so if you want navigation you’ll have to cough up the $10 monthly fee.

 

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One thing the Casio Brigade lacks is a compass, a feature I enjoyed on the Casio G’zOne Boulder. It seems appropriate for this outdoors phone. I wish there were other appropriate GPS services, too. A trail map would be very cool, or even a sort of breadcrumb tracking service would be useful for hiking.

Video 

Wrap-Up 

If you want a phone with a full QWERTY keyboard that’s rugged and waterproof, there’s really only one option, so the Casio Brigade benefits from a lack of competition. Even so, the phone gets some essential features right. It has a loud speakerphone for walkie-talkie features on Verizon Wireless’ PTT service. Battery life was also solid, at least for straight chatting, even if it drained a little too fast in mixed use situations.

The keyboard on the Casio Brigade is very easy to use. The rugged build and waterproofing make for large, raised keys and a pleasant typing experience.

Audio quality suffers, but I imagine waterproofing diminishes the microphone’s quality. I had no trouble holding a conversation, but this isn’t a great phone for long, casual chats.

Multimedia features were all sub-par. The music experience was lacking, relying too heavily on the poor V Cast Music Store and music player. Web browsing was about as bad as it gets on a 3G phone these days, a shame considering the Adobe Flash Lite support. But the camera was surprisingly good, especially for a rugged, waterproof device, and I had a great time taking pictures and videos from the chilly depths of my pool.

It’s big, expensive (at launch), and in some ways disappointing, but the Casio Brigade gets it right where it counts, at least for a military spec device. It’s the best Casio G’zOne phone I’ve used, and a solid choice if there’s any chance you’ll want to send a text message on water skis. In fact, it’s probably the only choice.

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Subject Author Date
makes me sad. newman12 Mar 19, 2010, 7:21 AM
threaded messaging jassa Mar 19, 2010, 9:04 AM
 
 
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