It's here. Motorola's Rokr E1, the long-awaited iTunes handset that was finally announced at the same time as Apple's iPod nano, is now available to buy. The most notable thing is not the oddly spelt name (that's 'rocker' for phonetics fans), but the fact that it's the first handset to incorporate Apple's iTunes software, thereby making it a phone-cum-iPod.
That's the theory anyway, and whatever else this handset offers, the Rokr E1 will stand and fall by its ability to communicate with the desktop version of iTunes, the usability of the iTunes software on the phone, and the quality of the music it delivers.
The Rokr E1 is available exclusively through The Carphone Warehouse with an O2 pay-as-you-go connection for £210. Other operators are set to follow very soon.
As a handset, the Rokr E1 is reasonably well put together. It's fairly small and light, measuring 46 by 108 by 21mm and weighing 107g. It's not going to make a hole in your pocket, but it isn't a featherweight.
Silver and pearlescent grey in colour, the Rokr E1 lacks the visual panache that characterises the iPod. In terms of its styling, it's much more like a mid-range than a high-end handset. That's a good early pointer to the phone's limitations. The Rokr E1 is a mobile phone with iTunes built in, not an Apple-designed music player with phone capabilities added on.
The handset's ergonomics are good. The number pad's keys are ever so slightly curved for ease of use, and well clear of these sits a row containing nicely separated Call and End keys, with a small but usable joypad between them. Above this again is a row of four fairly large keys -- two softkeys, a key for accessing the handset's main menu, and a fourth marked with musical notes that you press to get to the iTunes software.
Walking around the edges of the handset doesn't deliver any great surprises. On the right edge is a button that activates the built-in camera. Its lens sits on the back with a self-portrait mirror and a very tiny flash. The left edge provides a volume rocker and key that acts as an additional softkey -- Motorola calls it the Smart Key. You can use it to select menu options or set it to launch an application.
The headphones connector is on the top of the Rokr E1, making it easy to put the handset in a pocket the right way up and not put any pressure on the 2.5mm connector. Grilles sit to the left and right of the screen. They look like smart design at first, but when a call comes in they give up one of their secrets -- they can be set to flash lights in a range of patterns. Their other secret is that they are stereo speakers. We'll come back to that part later.
The screen is small, but it offers 262K colours and is clear and bright. Overall, though, the general design of the Rokr E1 is on the uninspiring side. It's somewhat clunky in appearance and far short of the classy feel you might expect from a device that allies itself with Apple.
Getting tunes onto the Rokr E1 is easy enough, but you have to follow the rules. You can't buy music online for direct download to the handset; it has to come from your computer via the iTunes software. You have to use a wired connection -- the handset's Bluetooth can't be used for song transfer. You need to install songs to memory cards and not the built-in memory, which is just as well, because there is only about 6MB of that. And, importantly, the Rokr E1 can only cope with 100 tracks at a time.
The Rokr E1 ships with a 512MB MicroSD card (the type that used to be known as TransFlash). If you get a second card and want to swap, you'll be annoyed to learn that you need to remove the battery to get to the slot easily. Also, the small size of the card makes swapping a fiddle. Our review unit came to us without a card, so we used a 256MB card of our own to test it.
First, we copied 10 standard-length music tracks across. It took a length 5:30 minutes, showing that USB 1.1 -- the format the Rokr E1 supports -- is not ideal for music transfer.
Then, to test the device's ability to hold more than 100 tunes, we selected 121 short tracks in our PC-based iTunes. These were mostly snippets of classical music rather than standard 3- or 4-minute music tracks because we had a relatively small memory card to work with. Even before the transfer process began, we were told 'some of the songs were not copied... because this mobile phone is limited to 100 songs'. No tunes had actually started copying at this point.
When we okayed this information, we weren't given the option to decide which songs to leave off the transfer list. Instead the transfer process started, eliminating songs automatically. We understand you can get over the 100-track limitation by joining separate tracks together, but that rather undermines the idea of creating playlists.
The good news is that when the Rokr E1 is replete with music, both on-device controls and output quality are impressive. The iTunes software that resides on the Rokr E1 is superbly easy to use. When a call comes in, playback stops. Once your call is complete, you can press the iTunes button to restart the music from where you left off. Unlike some of the other music phones, the music doesn't resume automatically when you hang up.
Of course, there's more to the Rokr E1 than music. With a calendar, alarm clock and messaging, including email, Web access and Java support, there is scope for this handset to be more than just your mobile music player and voice-call machine. However none of these features shine. The camera, for example, feels last-generation because it is stuck with VGA-resolution (0.3-megapixel) stills.
As a music handset, the Rokr E1 has its ups and downs. We like the iTunes software a great deal and output quality is fine both through the headset and the on-device speakers, whose stereo playback was impressive. Music transfer is painfully slow though, and while we weren't irritated by the 100-song limit during testing, we can't help thinking that long-term it's a real turn-off.
Battery life was pretty good. We played music continually through the speakers and got 5:45 hours of life -- a shade less than the 6 hours Motorola suggests, but respectable. You should be able to double that with the wired headset, and we certainly managed a few days of gentle usage without the need to recharge.
Call quality was fine, and while a little large for the pocket, the Rokr E1 performed nicely as an everyday handset.
But generally fair handset performance isn't enough for the Rokr E1, and overall we are nonplussed. At the very least we expected more song storage, faster data transfer speeds and better all-round handset specifications.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide