Review: Casio G'zOne Commando
Phone Scoop puts Casio's rugged Android smartphone through its paces. Can this mil-spec handset take a beating?
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Casio has long made tough-as-nails handsets for those who lead an active life. Historically, they've been feature phones. Aiming for the more advanced user who wants a powerful, but protected, pocket pal, the Commando is a ruggedized, butt-kicking Android smartphone ready to take on any punishment you can deliver.
Casio's line of rugged G'zOne devices have always had their own look. Chunky, tough, and brutish, they manage to combine form and function in a style that's unique to the brand. The Commando, Casio's latest G'zOne device, follows in the stylistic footprints of its predecessors.
The Commando, as the name suggests, makes most other smartphones look downright dainty. It has a commanding, militaristic look that simply says, "I'm tougher'n your weak, girly phone." There's a high bezel surrounding and protecting the screen. It is covered in a rubbery material that provides a lot of grip. The back surface has a similar feel. It's a big phone, wide and thick, and feels enormous in the hand. It is also fairly heavy. With the large size and grippy surface, this phone fights pockets going in and coming out. It is not comfortable to carry around in your jeans.
The front of the Commando has black and red style cues around the display, which itself is recessed several millimeters. Directly below the display, Casio has placed four capacitive buttons for interacting with the Android system. The Home and Back buttons, which are in the middle, are easy to interact with. I found my thumb hitting up against the bezel, however, when using the Menu and Search keys. It's a bit uncomfortable.
The sides of the Commando are bristling with controls. The volume toggle is on the left, close to the top of the Commando. It feels good to use, and has excellent travel and feedback. Directly beneath it, Casio has given the Commando a dedicated button with which to launch its G'zGear application (more on that later). This button is too big and sticks out too much. It is way too easy to depress it when gripping the Commando tightly. Below the G'zGear button, there are contacts for a dock. The metal contacts are recessed pretty deeply. In the very bottom of the left side, you'll find the power/lock key. This is exactly the wrong spot for this button, but at least it works well.
The 3.5mm headset jack is positioned on the top right side. It is hidden under a bulky hatch that protects it from water. The jack is also set fairly deep into the phone. I had trouble using headphones with angled jacks on them; they wouldn't snap in all the way. Below the headphone jack, there is a hatch covering the microUSB port. This hatch is also bulky, and the microUSB port itself is recessed deeply, too. This hatch also protects the Commando from water. Lastly, there's a dedicated camera button near the bottom. It is a two-stage button and both stages were clearly defined.
As with other watertight phones, the battery compartment of the Commando is sealed with a locking plate and rubber gaskets. Slide the lock switch to the side, then you will be able to pry the battery cover off. Sadly, the microSD slot is buried under the battery. Given how much work it is to remove the battery cover and re-install it, I suspect most people won't bother too often.
Let's not forget that the Commando is rugged. It can take a beating. Drops? No problem. Sweaty hands? Pshaw. Accidentally leave it in your freezer? Not to worry.
The Commando's display measures 3.6 inches across the diagonal and has 480 x 800 pixels. In other words, standard Android fare. With so many pixels, everything on the screen looks very good. The brightness concerns me a bit. It was absolutely fine inside, but outdoors, reading the display was problematic. Given that this is an outdoor phone, I was expecting outdoor performance from the display. If you're in a shaded forest along the Appalachian Trial, you'll be alright, but if you're trekking across bright, Arizona terrain, you're out of luck. Poor form, Casio.
The Commando is a 3G phone, and not a very good one. Most of the time I tested it, it registered just one or two bars of signal strength. With its sheer bulk, you'd assume it to possess a monstrous antenna capable of harvesting even the weakest connection. No such luck. The Commando failed the NJ vault test (my local grocery store), where it dropped Verizon's network entirely, leaving me stranded and unable to make calls or send texts. The Commando also lost the network a bunch of times when walking around New York City. All that said, the Commando didn't drop any calls once connected, but data sessions are best described as performing in fits and starts.
Phone calls are not the Commando's forte. Calls I was able to connect were often garbled, forcing me to ask my friends to repeat themselves so I could understand them. Earpiece volume bordered on painful, as did the volume of ringers and alert tones. You're not going to miss calls because you couldn't hear the Commando. The speakerphone showed the same garble that the earpiece did, but at sonic boom volumes. The vibrate alert is strong enough to make the Commando dance across any smooth surface.
The Commando has a 1430mAh battery inside. For an Android device, it has average battery life. It can make it through a single day, but it'll be about ready to die at breakfast time if you forget to charge during the night. I was worried that some of the G'zGear apps (adventure-based stuff) might suck down battery life in mere hours, but I didn't notice additional battery drain when using them.
The Commando runs Android 2.2.2 with some modifications made by Casio and Verizon Wireless. The lock screen has its own custom look, but the basics and operation are the same. The Commando has five home screens which are pretty well stuffed with Verizon and Casio applications, but those can all be customized. The main menu is stock Android, as are the settings menus.
The Commando offers two unique things that other Android phones don't: G'zGear and a customizable swipe menu.
The G'zGear applications are meant for the outdoor enthusiast. They can be accessed by pressing the dedicated button on the left side of the Commando or by selecting them from the home screen. There are 8 special applications in the G'zGear menu: Compass, pedometer, adventure training, trip memory, thermometer, tides, sun/moon rise and set times, and a star gazing application. They each offer pretty much exactly what you'd expect given their names.
Quite frankly, these apps are awesome. You won't find any lame skins or warmed-over versions of wimpy apps here, they are hardcore and feature rich. For example, the thermometer captures the real temperature where you're standing in addition to readings reported by official weather stations in the surrounding areas. The pedometer doesn't just rely on your stride length to make calculations, it also takes into consideration your height and weight to offer useful information. I found the compass to be highly accurate, and it tracked direction much, much faster than other phone-based compasses I've used. In addition to being solid applications, most of them have extremely well-designed widgets that let you access the best features without having to open the full apps constantly. This is great, for example, if you're in the middle of a training run and need to make an adjustment to the application.
The other piece of the Commando's menu is a customizable menu shortcut. There's a little ball in the lower left corner of the home screen. Swipe it up, and there are shortcuts to five applications. Out of the box, this shortcut menu lists the calendar, voice control, messaging, email, and contacts. These can be deleted, rearranged, etc. Honestly, I don't know why Casio/Verizon bothered, as it doesn't necessarily get you to those applications any faster than a normal home screen shortcut would.
The one real bummer with the Commando is performance. Its 800Mhz processor felt sluggish compared to devices with faster processors under the hood. Swiping from screen to screen, for instance, was jittery and sometimes lagged.
The Commando uses the stock Android phone software. The software dialer is large and it's easy to sort through call logs, contacts, favorites and in-call features.
The Commando will import all your Google and Exchange contacts if you have them. Adding Facebook friends is optional. If you choose to do that, the contacts application is smart enough to add the Facebook profile photos to your existing contacts and merge them into one contact.
Android continues to offer a well-integrated set of tools for managing calls and contacts.
The Commando doesn't stray too far from the basic set of messaging services offered on most Android devices. It has the same stock email, Gmail, SMS, IM, and Google Talk applications, and these apps all behave as they do on other Android devices.
The Commando does offer at least one neat messaging feature: a dedicated application that reads text messages out loud. Simply open the application, and it will read any unread text messages that are in your inbox. It reads them via the speakerphone, so don't expect to discretely hide in a corner somewhere and listen to your messages. It works really well if you absolutely *must* go through your text messages while driving (though I don't recommend doing that).
The Commando skips Google Voice, but does have Skype Mobile pre-installed. Skype Mobile can be used for calling and sending instant messages for free to other Skype users. Skype also offers low calling rates to call/landlines in other countries.
Lastly, the Commando forgoes native social networking applications and has Social Beat installed instead. Social Beat is a catch-all application that lets users sync their Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and RSS feeds into one dashboard. This little piece of software has come a long way in the last half year or so. It supports a much more diverse range of features now than it used to, such as adding images to Twitter and Facebook posts. It still doesn't capture all that the individual Facebook and Twitter applications do. Since they aren't installed, you'll have to snag them from the Android Market on your own.
The Commando uses the stock music player. This is a bit if a disappointment, but not really all that unexpected. The stock music player is easy to navigate and use, though its feature set is lacking. You can sort through artists, albums, genres, as well as playlists.
Verizon, of course, couldn't resist from incorporating its Rhapsody/V CAST music service into the music player. From the music player's settings, it all too easy to stumble into Verizon's music streaming/download services.
The Amazon MP3 Store application is nowhere to be found, but it can be downloaded from the Market. Slacker is present and accounted for.
The Commando doesn't have a stand-alone video player. There are free video players available from the Android Market. Video that you've captured with the Commando's camcorder can be played back from the gallery application.
Verizon's V CAST Video application is on board, though, as is the Android YouTube application. Both let you stream video content via the Commando's 3G data connection.
The Commando has a 5 megapixel camera. Camera features include autofocus, and an LED flash.
The camera controls and user interface are more or less stock Android. The left side of the display has five large icons hidden in a pull-out drawer to quickly adjust certain settings. Simply press the icon, and then swipe left or right to cycle through the options. Nice and easy.
The Commando focuses in about one second, and then takes about another second to capture and process images. Once captured, images can be sent, shared, deleted and fired off in pretty much every way imaginable.
The gallery is the stock Android option, with its neat 3D look and feel. Thankfully, the gallery application performed fluidly. I was worried it might be sluggish, but it was speedy and didn't let a sizable photo album slow it down.
Sadly, editing options are severely limited. Crop and rotate are all you get. Pitiful. At least the sharing options are solid.
The Commando's 5 megapixel shooter does an exceptional job. Focus and clarity were outstanding, even in low-light conditions. Images were razor sharp, and offered plenty of detail. The exposure was right 90% of the time, too, failing in only the most difficult shooting environments. In the darkest settings, the Commando's flash, nee, beacon of the Gods, casts an astonishing amount of light onto subjects. The results end up producing images with over-exposed faces and under-exposed backgrounds, but hey, at least you got to blind your friends for free.
I noticed very little grain throughout the images.
The Commando can shoot 720p HD video. In the sample videos I shot, color, white balance, and exposure were all nearly perfect. The only real complaint I'd voice is that the video could be wavy at times when the Commando is panned to and fro. If you keep the Commando still during recording, it is capable of grabbing some pretty good video.
The Commando uses the stock Android browser. The features of the browser haven't changed in what feels like an eternity, but it's a solid browser.
Browsing speeds on Verizon's 3G network range from average to poor. As mentioned above, the Commando had trouble with Verizon's network. Its signal issues likely played a role here in the sub-standard browsing performance.
This made the mobile hotspot feature all but unusable. In tests, I was never able to get more than one Wi-Fi device to find and use the Commando's data connection, and it was tenuous at best.
The Commando is as customizable as any other Android device. Casio and Verizon have, however, gone to obvious pains to customize the Commando for you with its specialized software and features.
Microsoft's Bing is the default search engine on the Commando. Google Search isn't loaded at all. You'll have to download it from the Market if you want Google Search. Bing performs well enough, but I just don't dig it all that much.
The Commando supports the standard set of Bluetooth profiles, including mono and stereo headsets, phone book access, etc. I was able to pair the Commando to other devices with no problem. Phone calls sounded horrendous via mono Bluetooth headset, but music didn't sound too bad when streamed to a pair of stereo Bluetooth speakers I have.
The Commando's clock is a digital display that shows up when the phone is woken from sleep. It is a little on the small and thin side of things, making it harder to read at arm's length than it should be. I was unable to find a way to adjust the font or appearance of the clock. Of course, you can download clocks from the Android Market if you wish, though they don't replace the lock screen clock.
The Commando uses Bing Maps. Google Maps aren't installed. Bing Maps works OK at mapping out directions and plotting routes. I suppose most people won't miss Google Maps, but it can still be downloaded from the Android Market. The Commando also has VZ Navigator, which is Verizon's $10-per-month navigation service. It works great, but costs you money.
Here is a video tour of the Casio G'zOne Commando
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The Casio G'zOne Commando is an interesting beast. It's way too large, heavy, and bulky for me, but if you're looking for a ruggedized Android smartphone, that's the price of admission.
The G'zGear applications are truly cool, and offer the outdoor adventurer a ton of ways to keep track of what they're doing, where they are, and what's going on in the environment around them. Their usefulness is questionable, however, with the sub-par signal and data performance I saw when testing the Commando.
If solid basics are what concern you, the signal troubles and voice quality are worth weighing before you buy. At least battery life is good.
The Commando's camera and video camera produced great results, which more than offset the ho-hum music and video options.
Add all these to the Android 2.2 system on a practically-indestructible phone, and you have McGuyver's dream device. Bottom line, if you're a self-respecting outdoorsman who needs a tough phone that can do (nearly) everything, the Commando is a solid soldier you can rely on.
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This phone makes absolutely no sense to me.
"I have a phone that doesn't get signal very well on Verizon's network, so I can barely go online with it unless there's wifi in the wilderness ... but, I can take pictures and then go to starbucks after the hike and upload them onto my facebook."
Get a droid, or a fascinate ... and an OTTER BOX! seriously.
This is what we call a "non-phone".