Nokia's 5100 series phones have long been popular starter phones for cell phone newbies, and the 5185i follows in this tradition. Whereas this candy-bar-shaped mobile's ample figure and bland cosmetics will draw a big yawn from design aficionados, its low price, user-friendliness, and customizable faceplates will appeal to first-time buyers or those on a budget. At first glance, it seems as if the 5185i is a carbon copy of its predecessor, the 5180. But dig into the specs and you'll discover a few changes. It's been upgraded from a dual- to a tri-mode (1900 CDMA/800 CDMA/AMPS) system and has short-text messaging (SMS) capabilities. Also, instead of a fixed-mount antenna, you get a retractable one. Otherwise, these cellular siblings are practically identical in both form and function.
About that form (or lack thereof): If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we weren't aroused. True, for a few extra bucks, you can change the 5185i's faceplate to match your mood with one of Nokia's many Xpress-on covers. But, you'll still be carrying around a 5.2-by-1.75-by-1-inch phone that weighs a hefty 5.2 ounces and is a tad too bulky to fit comfortably in the pocket of your shirt or pants.
The four-line, backlit, alphanumeric display is easy to read under any lighting condition, and the rubberized dial-pad keys are responsive and backlit. Navigating the 5185i's menus is a walk in the park, and programming the phone also is a breeze. Most of the standard features are on hand, including a 99-number phone book, caller ID, call history, and voicemail. As noted, Nokia has added SMS functionality for sending short text messages to other SMS-enabled phones, which indicates that the 5185i is targeted at young adults. But the capability must be activated with your service provider and may cost extra to use.
One important feature that both younger and more mature users will miss is a vibrate alert. If you want your phone to vibrate when you get an incoming call, you'll have to shell out an additional $45 for Nokia's extended nickel-metal-hydride Vibra battery. Sonic performance was acceptable but not great. The phone's earpiece is highly directional. If its sweet spot isn't properly lined up with your ear, the phone sounds a bit hollow or distant. On the other hand, signal strength was exceptional. Testing the phone on Verizon's service in New York City, we were able to get a clear signal from inside an elevator.
We were a little disappointed by the battery life. Nokia rates the digital talk time between 120 and 175 minutes, which is fairly average. In our tests, we ended up getting a little more than two hours from the supplied lithium-ion battery. As far as standby time goes, we also ended up closer to the bottom of Nokia's range (between 70 and 180 hours). The biggest gripe we had, though, was with recharge time. Getting this thing fully juiced up requires four hours.