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Review: Motorola i870

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Dec 21, 2005, 1:54 PM   by Eric Lin

In-depth review of the i870, Motorola's most feature-packed iDEN phone to date.

Form

Is it Your Type 

Many iDen handsets, because they are ruggedized and meant to be abused, are very large. However unlike other phones, the extra size usually does not pack in extra features. The i870 finally packs in many of the features of today's high end handsets in the typical iDen bulk. Nextel and Motorola would like to sell these to executives who have to carry iDen phones but will pay for high-end features. It's more likely that executives will stick to iDen's slim i83x series or the Blackberries. Instead, workers and supervisors who are tired of forgoing the show-off features their friends brag about will be the ones likely to purchase an i870.

Body 

Body

The i870 doesn't feature rubber grips or a huge plastic case like many other iDen handsets. It is not designed to withstand the rigors of the hardest users, but is still awfully well protected. There is a large bezel around the main and outer screen, both of which are also sunken in from the surface and have extra protection. All the ports, including the sync / charge port, are tightly sealed as well.

The lack of additional rubber or plastic protection helps to reduce the size to of the i870 to something reasonable, but not exactly pocketable. The weight of the phone, its residual bulk - especially thickness - and a large, hard antenna that protrudes a full inch up from the body make this an uncomfortable phone for any but the largest front pocket.

The weight and thickness of the phone, as well as the smooth plastic finish, make the phone difficult to hold when closed. If you don't have large hands, it will be hard to get a good grip on it. When the phone is held in the right hand, a quick press from the thumb can activate the i870's show-off feature - a button that flips the lid of the clamshell open for you. This auto-flip is convenient for answering calls with only one hand free but often caused others around us to groan with disdain at how lazy one has to be, or how poorly designed the phone must be to necessitate the feature. Those with small hands won't be able to use this feature if the phone is held in the left hand.

When open, the phone is easy to hold for dialing. It sits well in the palm and the keypad is well positioned under the thumb. However holding the phone to talk is an uncomfortable experience, which may explain why iDen users often stick to using the speakerphone for both PTT and standard conversations. Holding the phone to your ear with the right hand, the large antenna gets in the way, and prevents you from wrapping any fingers around the upper part of the phone to support it against your ear. Holding the phone with the left would be no problem, if you could put your finger between the upper half of the phone and the antenna to steady the unit. However the phone ships with a warning on the screen suggesting you don't hold the phone in that manner, making it difficult to find a comfortable position.

 

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Keypad
Despite how strange it sounds, the numeric keypad may actually be too big on this phone. Clearly it is designed to be used by people with large hands, or with gloves on, who will appreciate the large size of the keys as well as the generous space between the three columns of keys. However these large keys and long travel space would make texting and other keypad-heavy tasks difficult for pencil pushers or those with average-sized hands.

The action on each key is well thought out. Keys offer resistance, to resist accidental presses, but despite the resistance, the key does not have much travel, and has an nice click at the bottom of the press. Navigation keys are fairly standard, with a four way D-pad and a separate select button in the center. The Send / End keys and softkeys are all large and well placed.

Despite the variety of keys placed around the edge of the phone, each is well marked, easy to use, and difficult to press accidentally. The only exception would be the recent calls key, not because it is inferior to other side keys in any way, but because it is marked with what looks to be a stop playback button (a plain square). This is especially confusing considering the music playback controls on the lid.

The one key we have a legitimate complaint about is the menu key - it is often used, but has been relegated to a tiny key on the left of the D-Pad. While the size of the key is only a keypad design flaw, its location is also flawed in the interface. This will be explained further in the Menus section.

 

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Three S's 

Screen

The external screen has excellent contrast for a color screen and is easily viewable in all lighting conditions, especially with its backlight activated. However it has a low resolution and low color bit depth that is reminiscent of the Palm IIIc or an 8-bit game system. Despite its "chunky" graphics, the external display is admirable compared to many that are impossible to use in direct sunlight.

The main display is bright, has nice color and excellent resolution. It has a bright backlight and anti-glare coating that makes it one of the best displays we've reviewed for use in bright sunlight and other outdoor conditions. In addition it is very responsive, yielding a smooth transition when panning with the camera or other animated tasks.

Signal

Not only does the i870 have a large external fin-style antenna, but that fin hides an extendable whip antenna as well. Despite the size of the fin antenna, the i870 has less than superior reception. There are ways to improve reception - pulling out the extendable antenna helps a bit. In addition, obeying the warning sticker previously mentioned and holding your hand away from the antenna also improve reception, but not significantly. Calls and even network signal are dropped farther from common dead zones than most other phones. Even in good conditions, call quality is not as clear as one would expect. The phone was able to hold a call in our bank-vault torture test, but not clearly.

While call quality was disappointing, it was still usable most the time. The signal strength indicator was a fairly accurate predictor of reception and call quality.

Sound

Whether held to the ear or used as a speakerphone, the i870 proved clear and loud. The ear-piece is large and therefore easy to place over the ear for clear sound without any fiddling. There are no protrusions near the speaker and the top lid of the clamshell is well designed, allowing the phone to be held against the ear comfortably.

The speakerphone has a separate volume adjustment, and its default is rather soft. Boosting the volume to just half the maximum was loud enough for most situations, although it added a bit of "clipping" common to almost all speakerphones. Clipping is when a playback starts cutting out higher and lower frequencies at louder volume, this makes the audio sound choppy. This effect became worse as the speakerphone volume was set closer to maximum.

Battery

The i870 lasts at least 3 days on single charge, when used normal to heavy amounts for common functions such as calling, texting and taking pictures. Playing back mp3s or using a Bluetooth headset impacts battery life pretty seriously; expect less than 3 days if you use those two features often.

Function - Basics

Menus 

The i870 - like all iDEN phones - uses an interface completely different from any other Motorola handset, although it certainly bears some similarities. Unfortunately it does not appear quite as refined as the common Motorola OS. Navigation is difficult and many icons and graphics feel out of date.

The default home screen exhibits how the i870 interface is both similar and different from other Motorolas. Like most new Motorola phones, application shortcuts can be assigned to the four D-pad directions and the two softbuttons. A shortcut can also be assigned to the D-pad select on the i870. On most phones, including most Motorola phones, hitting the D-Pad normally takes users to the main menu. However the default setting for the select button on the i870 is direct connect. The only way to access the main menu is using the menu button to the left of the D-pad. Unfortunately the icon for the menu button is in the center, between the two softbutton labels. Because of this we kept on mistaking the select key for the menu function for quite sometime.

The select key can be customized to take you to the main menu, however on every subsequent screen, the menu key label remains in the center, while the actual key remains on the left. It was not unusual to find ourselves or others pressing the select key when trying to launch the option menu. It is rare for the select key to actually bring up the options menu. In most cases it works simply as select or "ok."

The main menu is more similar to Microsoft Smartphone than to Motorola's typical offering. The screen displays nine options, however instead of having sub-menus for options with more than one application, the i870 has additional applications on additional main menu screens. When in icon view, you must continue pressing the more softkey until you reach the screen with the desired application. When in list view, selecting more brings up a scrolling list of all remaining applications. In either mode, items are not accessible by pressing a corresponding number on the keypad.

 

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Calls / Contacts 

Each contact entry can hold five phone numbers, plus a direct connect address, fax and pager numbers and an email address. Each contact can be assigned a Photo caller ID and custom ringtone. Photos can only be assigned from the gallery. The photo picker does not offer an option to take a new picture and assign it to the contact.

Each number can be assigned a voice dialing option, which the phone must be trained to recognize. The phone requires two matching voice tags to be trained for any number. We were never able to get the two attempts to match, even when using a monotone voice in a quiet room.

The contacts application is also used for one of the i870's newest features - on the fly PTT groups. Users can easily create PTT groups by selecting contacts with a PTT address stored in their address card. Previously users had to contact Nextel in order to define a calling group.

Most call functions work just as they do from any other phone. However pressing the send button from the home screen does not take you to a redial or recent calls menu, it simply does nothing. Instead you must use the stop button on the phone's top to quickly bring up the recent calls list or assign it to one of the many shortcut keys. The other deviation from standard phone functions is that holding the 1 key does not dial voicemail. That can only be done from a new message dialog box or from the Messaging application. In-call menus and other call features work as expected.

PTT or recent phone calls can be made with the speakerphone while the phone is closed using a combination of the external controls. The speakerphone can also be activated while in a call from the right soft key.

 

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Messaging 

Starting a new message only takes two clicks on the i870, however composing it is far more complicated. Addressing the message is fairly simple, however once the addresses have been selected or entered you have to press back and then click to enter the message (or vice versa if you choose to scroll down and enter message text first). Instead of entering the message text on the full screen, it is composed in a tiny alert box at the bottom of the window, which feels especially cramped with a large amount of screen real estate wasted above it.

The mobile email application only supports accounts created through Nextel, limiting its usefulness. The i870 can send pictures either through Direct Connect to other new iDen handsets or standard MMS. Unfortunately the MMS client cannot resize pictures, so if images were taken at maximum resolution, they cannot be sent.

Receiving messages works as expected. An alert appears on both the internal and secondary display, and once the phone is open, new messages can be viewed easily. The phone connects automatically to download MMS.

 

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Function - Extras

Camera 

Launching the camera application, either from the menu or the assigned button to the right of the D-pad, takes about 2.5 seconds. This startup time is fairly consistent with other phones we've tested.

The i870 defaults to a medium (640 x 480) image size - probably to assure that images are small enough to send, as we noted full megapixel images cannot be sent via MMS. There are a number of convenient methods to change the image size, including using the D-pad from the viewfinder screen, however the camera will default to medium every time it is launched unless the default itself is changed in the camera setup options.

Like most clamshell phones, the i870's camera is near the hinge on the lid. The bulk of the lower half of the phone provides a nice perch to keep fingers out of the way of the lens, as well as steadying the phone in the hand. Unfortunately no matter how still the phone is held, shots still come out blurry. They lack any detail one might expect from a 1.3 megapixel camera. They look good on the phone's bright 176 x 220 screen, but when transferred to a PC their deficiencies are clear.

Taking a picture is quick, and relatively pleasant process. About 2/3 of the screen is dedicated to the viewfinder, while the other third is used to display status and shortcuts. The screen is very responsive as a viewfinder and the select button or left softbutton both quickly snap the picture. Almost immediately, you are presented with Motorola's typical "send or discard" screen. As is typical with Motorola phones, if you exit this menu without explicitly saving your photo, it will be instantly deleted. The i870 adds a pleasant shortcut, allowing you to instantly save the photo and return to the viewfinder by hitting the select key. This more closely mimics the way most cameraphones work. Unfortunately this feature is not marked by any label or menu.

 

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Saving an image to the Transflash card only takes about 2 seconds at maximum resolution, and is slightly faster for smaller sizes. Other than adjusting the image size and quality, there are no special effects or adjustments for the camera.

The only way to access the video recorder is through the camera options menu. Once in video mode, the options menu has a number of video-specific preferences. Two sizes can be chosen, QCIF and 128x96 as well as two recording lengths. The short length limits the video to Nextel's maximum message size, yielding about 4 seconds of QCIF or 9 seconds of the sub QCIF size. The maximum length will let you record as long as there is available memory. The video quality is impressively smooth and sound is loud and clear.

 

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Pictures and Videos 

Despite having a 1.3 Megapixel camera, the i870 only has 20/100 vision at its highest resolution. Plenty of VGA cameraphones we've tested have performed better than this. The camera captured detail from inches away in the macro test, but lost it from as near as 3 feet, such as in the still life. Colors are accurate, but are washed out in most indoor or outdoor lighting conditions.

 

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(stella)
3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 84 KB

Browse / Customize 

Browser

Our phone was not activated for web use, which caused some confusion. Originally we thought Nextel only allowed online access through the Java applications which could be downloaded to the device. Despite our limited access, we were able to browse text-only pages that Nextel has set up to buy ringtones, applications and more. Text browsing was quick, as expected for a modern phone and network. Text is rendered in a large, bold, highly legible font but is not adjustable.

Customization

The standard ringtones on the i870 are primitive monophonic ringers for the most part. Three polyphonc ringtones are included on the phone, which all have a vaguely pop / dance quality about them. You can download new polyphonic and mp3 ringtones for the i870 through Nextel's web site, however you cannot move mp3s from your PC and use them as a ringtone. Instead of using the profiles to assign vibrate and ring, it must be done using the options menu in the ringtone picker, which took us quite some time to find.

Like all modern Motorola phones, the looks of the i870 can be customized with both wallpapers, which just affect the home screen, and themes, which change all visual aspects of the interface. The i870 comes with 3 themes, all of which are more legible than the themes typically included on Motos. Nextel does not offer additional themes for download. You can use any picture on the phone, including ones you take with the camera or download from Nextel as the wallpaper.

As stated before, navigation is highly customizable. Seven different home screen shortcuts can be assigned to the D-pad and soft keys. In addition you can change the order of all the applications on the main menu. If ordered correctly, applications could appear together on subsequent screens of the main menu.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Other 

Watch

Although the display on the front is color, it is high enough contrast that in bright or even moderate light, the time can be checked without activating the backlight. For times when the backlight is necessary, a quick press of the large PTT call button or music controls will turn on the backlight immediately. On the main screen, the time is displayed on the home screen but not in the status bar when using any applications.

File Management

Managing content, applications and the data card all take place in separate applications. Content stored on the phone, namely pictures, is managed in the application used to manipulate that content. Applications and other downloads are managed through a download application that sits in the Java menu. Finally content on the storage card must be managed on the PC, however the storage card itself, including the initial formatting, as well as ejecting of the card from the file system is handled from the settings advanced functions menu item.

 

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Bluetooth

Pairing the phone with a PC or headset was a straightforward affair. Motorola has simplified the process so that the i870 does as much as possible with as little input possible. Pictures could be shared over Bluetooth, however certain file types such as mp3s were locked out, preventing us from installing our own mp3 ringtones.

Extras

The i870 does not come with an alarm clock nor a calculator. There is a datebook, which you can use to set alarms, however they will only sound if the phone is on. The i870 also includes voice and text memo applications.

The phone is designed to be music-centric with playback buttons on the front of the phone and a well designed music player. It can read ID3 tags and sort songs by artist, album or song name. Playback is remarkably clear through the speakerphone, but strangely Motorola does not include a stereo headset with the i870. The external screen display artist, track name, and elapsed time when the phone is closed with the music player activated. The face buttons work exactly as expected once this happens.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Wrap-up 

While the i870 suffers from some interface quirks, it is tough to hold them against this phone since they are common to all iDen handsets. And in fact, the i870 does improve upon the experience offered by previous models in some ways. New features such as Bluetooth and mp3 playback have been implemented well, and are easy to use. While this certainly will make for a pleasant - even fun - iDen experience, it does not make for a pleasant experience when compared to phones with similar features on other carriers. It is unlikely even a feature-rich model like the i870 will attract new iDen customers, but it will probably make some current Nextel subscribers very happy.

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Comments

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Subject Author Date
Max Memory FatFrosty Jan 5, 2006, 1:38 AM
bluetooth = terrible revlis240 Dec 23, 2005, 2:59 PM
This phone blows! yodezire Dec 27, 2005, 6:21 PM
Bluetooth Compatability With Apple Computers SeNO Mar 16, 2006, 1:36 AM
i870 NEXTELREP Jan 25, 2006, 10:56 AM
The Vault? muchdrama Dec 21, 2005, 5:36 PM
 
 
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