NEC isn't a huge name in cell phones in the United States, but that doesn't mean the company has nothing to show for its efforts. Of the three NEC handsets we've reviewed, the basic , the camera phone 525, and the megapixel , we were satisfied with what we saw. In fact, the 525 even won our Editors' Choice award. But we aren't as impressed with the fourth model, the NEC 232E HDM. Dubbed the "fitness phone" and sold with an AT&T Wireless SIM card, it offers a solid assortment of features, but the design and performance could be improved. The price is fair at $249, but you should be able to find it for less with a discount. Compared to NEC's previous handsets, the silver 232E HDM flip phone is smaller and more portable than its predecessors. Measuring 3.6 by 1.8 by 1.1 inches and weighing a trim 3.3 ounces, the phone boasts a rounded, streamlined shape with no external antenna, and it slips easily into a pocket. But beyond the compact dimensions, we weren't overly impressed with the mobile's form factor. The rectangular external display shows the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID (where available), but it's far too small to be useful. As a result, users with visual impairments should take a particularly close look before buying. On the upside, you can adjust the monochrome display's contrast, backlight time, and color, the last of which can be set to different shades for incoming calls or messages. Even so, its tiny size outweighs these advantages. Furthermore, we find it odd that while the 232E HDM is supposed to be a fitness phone, it doesn't have any rubberized grips or edges.
Open the phone, and things get a little better. The internal display measures a comfortable 1.75 inches diagonally and supports 65,536 colors. Though it's difficult to see in direct light, the screen remains visible when the backlighting is off and was vibrant enough for viewing pictures. Be advised that you can't change the text size or adjust the backlighting. Below the large, sturdy hinge are the main navigation buttons. While the NEC 232E HDM has plenty of navigation buttons, they may be a tad small for users with big digits. The circular navigation toggle gives you access to voice memos and phone settings, as well as the Received Calls and Missed Calls lists. You also get two soft keys, a Clear button, Talk and End keys, and dedicated controls for opening the phone book and the menus. While the menu button is no doubt useful, we would have preferred to see it in the middle of the toggle. Instead, that space is taken up by a camera key when in standby mode and an OK control when in the menus.
Navigating the user-friendly menus is a cinch. We especially like that you can use the right toggle direction to move to a submenu, but we're disappointed you can't use the right direction to back out. The keypad buttons have a bright green backlighting, but they are small and set flush with the surface of the phone. Dialing by feel was difficult, and we misdialed more than a few times.
Controls on the outside of the handset were few. A volume rocker is on the left spine, but unlike most other handsets, the NEC doesn't let you use it to scroll through the menus as well. A covered port for the charger also rests on the left side, while a covered jack for the proprietary headset and a USB cable are on the right spine. A camera lens, a mirror, and a flash (we were happy to see all three) are on the bottom of the front flap and sit well out of the way of fingers.The NEC 232E HDM has a 500-entry phone book that can hold multiple numbers per contact, while the SIM card takes an additional 250 names. Contacts can be organized into groups or, for caller-ID purposes, be paired with pictures and any of the 10 polyphonic (40-chord) ring tones. Other features include a vibrate mode, a calculator, an alarm clock, security locks for the SIM card and the phone book, a scheduler, a to-do list, a notepad, voice memos, a currency converter, text and multimedia messaging, PC syncing for the phone book and the scheduler, support for IMAP4 or POP3 e-mail, and a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Since the 232E is NEC's fitness phone, it also comes with a target heart rate, a body-mass index, a calorie counter, and a calories-burned calculator. You can even get customized meals and fitness plans delivered to your mobile; it's free for the first three months and $9.99 per month thereafter. But while these features may be fun, any proper fitness phone should come with a hands-free option, such as a speakerphone. Also, the lack of an infrared port (useful for a camera phone) prevents the handset's feature set from being truly impressive.