Meet the ROKR E1
Hands-on report from the New York City launch of the long-awaited Motorola music phone with Apple's iTunes.
The wait is over.
One year and six weeks ago, Apple and Motorola made the landmark announcement that they would join forces and create a phone with Apple's iTunes music technology. As you might expect from anything with a link to Apple, the past year has been filled with rampant rumor-mongering and leaks of varying authenticity.
Normally, Apple likes to keep info about its new products as top-secret as possible until they are actually ready to ship, and the iTunes phone was no exception. But being new to the world of mobile phones, Apple was in for a rude awakening. Phones simply can't be kept secret that long, because so many people, at so many companies and so many levels, are involved in the launch of any given phone. Info about this phone was bound to leak out, and boy did it ever.
While some rumors were way off - from an Apple-branded iPhone to a downloadable iTunes client for existing phones - most were dead-on accurate.
Because Apple insisted on timing the announcement of the ROKR E1 to coincide with the phone arriving in stores - normally a very fluid date for any phone - Motorola had only three weeks' notice to plan global launch events for the ROKR E1.
Despite the short notice, Motorola managed to pull off a fairly impressive launch party in the East Village of New York City last night, including a performance by hip-hop artist Common.
Before we delve into the nitty-gritty, let's begin with an appropriate video clip: the spiffy start-up animation:
File size: 1.7 MB
As expected, the ROKR E1 is essentially a Motorola E398 in a new color (white), with iTunes software on board. The E398 was released over a year ago, so the E1 is a little anticlimactic after all the hype, but then again the E398 was fairly advanced for its time, and has received rave reviews.
The hardware of the ROKR E1 is truly identical to the E398. While it is white and does have an extra button compared to the standard black E398, there was a white E398 with an extra button made for T-Mobile Europe. The only difference between T-Mobile's E398 and the ROKR E1 is that the extra button links to iTunes instead of T-Zones, and of course the E1 is blessed with iTunes software.
In terms of features, the E1 (like the E398) has stereo speakers, a VGA camera with LED flash and video capture, Bluetooth, and haptics with synchronized vibration and multi-color light effects.
It also has a microSD (TransFlash) memory card slot. Most carriers around the world - including Cingular - will ship the E1 with a 512 MB memory card included. Unfortunately, the card is located under the battery and therefore isn't hot-swappable, but that's mitigated by the fact that the included 512 MB card is the largest size the phone can support.
For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the iTunes software in the ROKR is specifically restricted to holding no more than 100 songs. That's not a major limitation in this case, because 512 MB is only enough memory for roughly 100 songs anyway. It is nonetheless a little unsettling; hopefully the same restriction won't be imposed on future ROKRs with larger memory capacity and/or hard drives.
It would have been nice to see stereo Bluetooth on the E1, or at least a 3.5 mm audio jack for normal stereo headphones. Unfortunately they left the E398 hardware completely unmodified, so the rubber cover on the top of the phone just hides a standard 2.5 mm phone-headset jack. It is stereo, though, and a 3.5 mm adapter is included in the box.
There's no doubt about the convenience of combining a phone with a music player. Even the diminutive iPod Shuffle can make the average pocket crowded if it has to share the space with a phone. Carrying only one device, with one battery, make just one less thing to worry about.
Speaking of which, the battery is an important benefit of the whole music-phone concept. Since most phones have much larger batteries than most standalone music players, you can look forward to a decent amount of tune time. You can expect about 14-15 hours of continuous music playback time from the ROKR E1, which is in the same general range as most first-generation music phones we've seen.
On to the main attraction... iTunes! So how does it work? From what I could tell in my hour or so with it, the answer is pretty well. The wonderfully easy-to-use iPod interface is replicated faithfully. If you've used an iPod before, you'll feel right at home navigating the iTunes interface on the ROKR.
For the most part, the simple four-way navigation is the same as an iPod. There's no scroll wheel, but on a device that can't store more than 100 songs, that's not a deal-breaker. The interface does make use of Motorola's standard "menu" key, (the one with three short horizontal bars,) which brings up an options menu for controlling shuffle and repeat, as well as access to the About and Legal screens.
Accessing iTunes is as simple as pressing the dedicated iTunes key on the front. Getting out of iTunes can be trickier. It's not always clear how to exit, and it can take more key presses than it should.
When you do find your way out, if a song is playing it will ask whether to continue playing. If you choose Yes, you are taken to the home screen, which conveniently includes Now Playing information, and the joystick can be used to control the music right from the home screen. It will even display album artwork when available.
Oddly, the play/pause shortcut is "up", while the menu shortcut is "down", which is upside-down compared to the clickwheel on an iPod.
While Cingular didn't skimp on the included memory card, they are cheaping out on the music: zero songs are included. Not even a quick demo mix... (Some other carriers around the world have struck deals locally to include pre-loaded music.)
For its part, Motorola isn't leaving customers high, dry, and music-less, though. In about two weeks, the company will start offering regular podcasts that users can subscribe to via iTunes and listen to on their ROKRs. Moto is partnering with several companies for content, including MTV.
Just like an iPod, the ROKR E1 is completely dependent on the desktop iTunes software to fill 'er up with music. The E1 connects to iTunes on a PC or Mac via a USB 1.0 cable, which is included. Although the E1 includes a full set of Bluetooth profiles, iTunes doesn't support syncing over Bluetooth.
In many ways, the ROKR E1 falls somewhere in-between an iPod Shuffle and an iPod mini. Pretty much like an iPod Shuffle, it can only hold 100 songs, and you can tell iTunes to "Autofill" the ROKR with a random assortment of songs from your collection.
But you also have the option of choosing specific songs to load, and it can handle playlists just like a full-blown iPod.
Like an iPod, the 512 MB memory card can be used for things other than iTunes music. But also like an iPod, the iTunes music is kept completely separate from other files. So an MP3 music file loaded manually onto the memory card can be used as a ringtone, but isn't available within iTunes. Similarly, an MP3 loaded via iTunes isn't available for use as a ringtone.
So what's next for iTunes on phones? We may see one more iTunes phone from Motorola before the year is out, or perhaps early next year, but don't expect anything radically different from the E1. The next iTunes phone will also be an existing model you're probably familiar with, just with iTunes software loaded. You won't have to remove the battery to swap memory cards, but otherwise the features will be nearly identical to the E1.
2006, however, will bring much more interesting ROKR phones from Motorola, some with iTunes and some without. We snagged a brief glimpse of one such phone just a few weeks ago.
So what's the bottom line? Although it's not anything unexpected or ground-breaking, the ROKR E1 still seems like a very capable phone, and a decent music player. If you're a fan of the iPod interface or the iPod Shuffle, but don't want to carry two devices, the ROKR E1 might be for you. It's also a solid choice for someone who wants a music phone and has a large collection of music purchased via the iTunes Music Store. Actually it's the only such choice at the moment, but it's nonetheless a good one.
Since we kicked off with the start-up animation, we'll leave you with a video clip of the slick shut-down animation:
File size: 1.6 MB
mp3 as ringtone
This could have been a cool phone....
I have no idea what their marketing guys were thinking. The W800, while just a repackaged K750i, is far and away a better phone in every respect. Even the case design, which reminds me of a 50/50 bar (orange/vanilla...) is better than the junk design Moto came up with.
I expect an iPod phone to look like something from Apple, not the other way around.
100 Song limit
This, to me, is all hype and an introduction-to-mar...
Synch capabilities and mitigation on memory upgrades.
In many ways, the ROKR E1 falls somewhere in-between an iPod Shuffle and an iPod mini. Pretty much like an iPod Shuffle, it can only hold 100 songs, and you can tell iTunes to "Autofill" the ROKR with a random assor...