We're always pleased when a cell phone for which we've waited a long time to see finally goes on sale. When Motorola introduced its Rokr E8 at CES 2008, we only had a few minutes to play with it, but we were so impressed that we gave it CNET's Best of CES Award in the cell phone category. You were impressed as well, as the phone also won the CES People's Voice Award at the same time. Beyond those brief glimpses, we've had to wait five months to confirm our initial impressions, but now that the Rokr E8 is landing at T-Mobile, we can report that it remains a solid choice as a music phone. The ModeShift keypad that caught our attention in Las Vegas remains a draw, while the loaded music player should please multimedia fans. Not all was perfect--the navigation toggle involves a learning curve, and it lacks 3G--but the Rokr E8 certainly makes T-Mobile's phone lineup more interesting. You can get it for $199 with a two-year contract.
The Rokr E8's sleek candy-bar design is reminiscent of earlier Motorola phones such as the Slvr L7. However, unlike the Slvr, the E8 doesn't look like a flattened Razr V3. Instead, it has its own style that is attractive without being ostentatious. Its dark blue color scheme is so dark that it almost looks black, and the "glasslike surface" makes the phone sparkle. This is one handset we wouldn't mind showing off. At 4.52 inches tall by 2.09 inches wide by 0.42 inch thick, the E8 is rather tall, but its slim profile makes up for the extra bulk. It weighs 3.5 ounces, so it's not excessively heavy, but a metal battery cover gives it a solid and study feel in the hand.
The 2-inch screen is top-notch. Though its color support tops out at 262,000 hues, it has a rich 320x240-pixel resolution display that makes everything from text to photos to graphics look fantastic. You can adjust the brightness and the backlighting time. We also approve of the E8's menu design, which gives a badly needed face-lift to Moto's outdated interface. Instead of the standard grid design, the E8 features small gray icons set in a row along the bottom of the display on top of a black background. As you cycle through the choices with the scroll wheel, the selected icon will appear in color in the center of the display. It's both attractive and intuitive, and we like how the icons flash by as you move your finger around the wheel. Our only gripe is that the menus are organized in the traditional Motorola method. That means some options are located in disparate places. For example, the color themes have their own menu, while screensavers and wallpaper are stashed in different places.
We have to say, however, that the scroll wheel tested our patience. It is touch sensitive so there's no tactile definition beyond a very slight silver crescent. Also, we had a hard time getting a feel for just how sensitive it was. As we moved our finger around the wheel, we often went much faster than we were intending and in doing so passed our desired menu selection. Moreover, when we tried to move backward through the menu, we tended to pass our choice yet again. Unfortunately, the wheel's sensitivity level isn't so changeable, so we really had to pay attention to our movement. According to Moto, the wheel was designed to help you scroll quickly through long lists (such as your music files). While it is very good for that, it's not so great for moving just a couple of spaces. Of course, usability opinions will vary by reader, so we recommend you give the E8 a test drive before buying.
It's also worth noting the scrolling toggle doesn't go in a full circle, so you can't move your finger in a full loop. If you tried to trace your digit on the missing portion of the circle at the toggle's bottom, the cursor on the screen would stop and then resume when you got to the other side. Also, if you stop and hold your finger at either end of the wheel, the list will keep scrolling through to its end. The gap didn't make any difference to us, but this is another point with which you might disagree.
The Rokr E8's showpiece is, of course, its new "ModeShift" keypad. The premise is simple, but it is different enough to hold our attention. As you move between different phone functions, the keypad's bright backlighting will change to illuminate only the relevant controls. For example, when you're in phone mode, the backlighting shows the standard alphanumeric keypad for calling and texting. However, when you press the music shortcut, the keypad disappears and is replaced by play/pause, rewind, skip, shuffle, and repeat controls. Likewise, when you're in camera mode, only the appropriate controls for that feature remain illuminated. In either camera or music player mode, the calling controls stay lit so you can answer calls and return to phone mode.
We also weren't crazy about the navigation toggle that sits inside the wheel. Except for a small bump in its center, the circular gray toggle is flush with the surface of the phone. Though the toggle gives off a very slight vibrating feedback, we had a hard time knowing when we actually pressed something. What's more, the slow response time didn't help the situation. Each of the four directions can be programmed as a user-defined shortcut; the center control opens your MyFaves menu in standby mode and changes to an OK control when inside a menu.
Other navigation controls include two soft keys, a music player shortcut, a clear/back control, and the Talk and End controls. Though these controls enjoy a spacious arrangement, they don't offer vibrating feedback. That's a miss on Moto's part.
Though it can take a few seconds to shift the keypad backlighting, the experience was intuitive and easy to use. Since only the appropriate keys were lit, we weren't pecking around to find the control we wanted. In a way, the E8 actually "becomes" a music player and camera. If not for the calling buttons and the obvious cell phone shape, you'd hardly know the E8 makes calls. It's always a challenge for phone manufacturers to successfully integrate multiple functions into one device, but the E8 does just that, particularly on the music front.
On the downside, the touch controls are rather slippery and the phone's glassy surface attracts fingerprints. Be careful if your hands sweat, as the E8 ends up being covered in unsightly streaks. Dialing by feel also is difficult. The numeric controls are covered by tiny bumps and they offer the same vibrating feedback as the toggle, but even with those features we had to pay attention when texting or dialing.
The E8's power control is unique. Instead of a dedicated button, you push down a switch on the phone's right spine. Pushing up the switch will lock the phone's controls--that's a useful feature if you're carrying the E8 in a bag. Above the toggle is a micro USB/charger port, while a volume rocker and a camera shutter sit on the left spine. The Rokr's headset jack sits on the phone's top end covered by a rubber flap. We commend Motorola for installing a 3.5mm jack as that lets us use our own headset. The Rokr E8 also has a microSD card slot, but it's located inconveniently behind the battery and the battery cover. The camera lens sits at the top of the phone's rear face; it's well placed for taking photos but the lens doesn't come with a self-portrait mirror or a flash. The phone's speaker sits at the bottom of the rear face,