When Nextel and Sprint announced their marriage last year, everyone who follows cell phones was a bit surprised. Not only do the two carriers use incompatible technologies (Sprint has Code Division Multiple Access, Nextel has Integrated Digital Enhanced Network), but their handset lineup and service offerings are completely different.
Yet with the new Motorola ic502, the two companies have made their union official. As the first dual-mode CDMA-iDEN cell phone, the ic502 uses Sprint's network for voice calls and Nextel for Direct Connect Push-to-Talk (PTT) conversations. Other features are limited--there's no camera or Bluetooth--but it does come with most of Nextel's PTT offerings. And while the exterior design is soundly Nextel, the interface has some Sprint touches that Nextel stalwarts may not like. If we were a Nextel loyalist we wouldn't convert just yet. It's a bit pricey ($249) if you pay full price, but you can get it for $59 with service.
From the outside, the ic502 is a Nextel phone through and through. The black color is attractive but ultimately there's not much to say about the design. As expected, it's rather large (3.7x2.1x0.9 inches) and heavy (4.4 ounces) and has rubberized sidings that add some extra durability. It feels comfortable in the hand and of course it meets the usual military specifications for dust, shock, vibration, temperature extremes, low pressure and solar radiation. There's also a stubby antenna but you'd be wise to use its extendable portion with care, as it bends easily. The rectangular (96x32 pixels) external display is standard Nextel as well. Though it's monochrome and the text is rather small, it manages to cram in the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID. The backlighting time isn't adjustable but you can still see the screen when it turns off.
Exterior controls are limited to the usual volume rocker and PTT control on the right spine and the speakerphone button and smart key on the top of the handset. The charger port on the ic502's bottom end is different from previous Nextel-only models in that it uses a mini-USB connection. That means you can't use the standard Nextel charger to power the phone, but you can use the newer Motorola chargers. The headset jack between the top-mounted buttons uses a standard 3.5mm plug, however. Astute Nextel watchers also will note another sign that the ic502 is a hybrid phone: above the Motorola icon on the front flap is a logo that says "Nextel from Sprint." And of course, because it uses iDEN, the ic502 has a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card. For a Sprint phone, that in itself is remarkable enough.
On the ic502's inside, the Sprint touches are readily apparent, but that may not please Nextel loyalists. Rather than employing the Nextel standard menu system, the ic502 uses the Motorola's generic interface and icons. The experience is decidedly different, and though we've never been huge fans of either interface, it does require a change on the user's part. On a related note, the 1.75-inch display doesn't have the best resolution (128x160 pixels); images and graphics have a retro feel. And call us spoiled, but we prefer a display with 262,000 colors over the ic502's 65,000-color support. It is possible to change the screensaver and the backlighting time.
The design of the navigation controls below the display may appear typical Nextel, but there are subtle variations. For starters, there's no dedicated menu key. Instead, the menu control button in the middle of the navigation doubles as an OK key. Also, there's a Web browser shortcut. And instead of featuring a dedicated power button below the keypad, the End button turns the phone on and off. Otherwise the array is pretty basic. There are two soft keys, a Talk button, and back key, and the four-way toggle can be set as a shortcut to four user-defined features. The navigation buttons are large, tactile and easy to use.
They keypad buttons are well-designed. Besides being large and clearly separate, they are raised slightly above the surface of the phone for easy dialing. The backlit keys also benefit from large numerals. Similar to the Motorola i880, stereo speakers sit below the keypad. There is no speaker on the back of the ic502.