Up until the announcement of Motorola's ROKR in September, iPod music players were the only devices able to sync songs from Apple's iTunes music software. In theory, we like the idea of iPods and mobile phones converging, but Motorola's implementation of iTunes on the E1 leaves a lot to be desired.
Rather than designing the E1 from the ground up with music and iTunes in mind, Motorola has simply tacked the software onto an existing model, the E398, which we reviewed in November 2004. The only differences in design we can spot is the addition of a shortcut key crammed in under the screen to launch iTunes, and the case is pearly white instead of black.
iPod users will find a familiar user interface on the ROKR, but menus are traversed using a fiddly joystick rather than a touch-sensitive scrollwheel. Depressing the joystick selects a menu option, playlist or song, and users can skip or fast-forward through songs by pressing right. Individual songs can be given a rating (out of five stars) and, like all colour-screened iPods, the ROKR E1 can display album art.
We love the concept of an iPod-like phone but Motorola's implementation seems to miss the mark in a few regards. The biggest letdown is the firmware-based restriction on the number of songs users are able to transfer from iTunes to the ROKR: only 50 MP3/AAC tracks in Australia -- in other countries such as the US, a 100-song limit applies.
Although the Rokr E1 has Bluetooth onboard, users are stuck with a painfully slow USB 1.1 connection for synching music with iTunes. Over-the-air downloading of songs via a mobile network provider is not possible, so songs must first be ripped from CDs or purchased using the Australian iTunes Music Store.
Other E1 features include a VGA camera, tri-band connectivity, video player, stereo speakers, lights that flash in time with ringtones and support for microSD (TransFlash) memory -- a 256MB card came bundled with our review handset but this might vary with different operators. Airplane mode switches off radio transmissions so you can use the ROKR purely as a music device during flights.
The ROKR took a painful 30 minutes to synchronise 50 songs with iTunes on our test PC -- Motorola seriously needs to address this by adding support for high-speed USB 2.0 in future devices. Using the joystick to go through the iTunes interface is not nearly as easy as the iPod scrollwheel. Selecting items in the iTunes menu tends to be a little sluggish as well.
The E1's camera is a bit outdated in terms of resolution and pales in comparison to 2-megapixel models such as the Nokia N90 and the Sony Ericsson K750i. Still, it is adequate for displaying photos on the phone's screen and for sending pictures messages.
As a phone, however, the ROKR E1 performed admirably. Motorola includes personalisation options including wallpaper, a range of polyphonic ringtones, screensavers and themes. Battery life is rated by the manufacturer at 540 minutes for talk and 210 hours for standby. We generally got between four to five days of average use out of the phone, but this was using the music function rarely.
Sadly, the first iTunes phone falls well below our expectations. While Sony is making inroads with phones badged with the well-known Walkman brand, we doubt iTunes will do the same for this ROKR. Give the handset more memory, a higher number of songs allowed to synchronise, easier navigation, consistent menus and a cleaner design and we might be able to recommend it. But for the time being, we'll wait for the next round of convergence, and keep our iPods and phones separate.