The Bang & Olufsen Serene is all about design. At first glance, it looks a lot like a sculptural work of modern art. When closed, the Serene has a curved trapezoidal clamshell design and appears to be covered in black soft-touch plastic accented with a chrome-finish hinge. A charger jack sits on one side of the top flap while a tiny camera lens is housed on the other. The position of the camera lens is probably one of the worst design decisions we've ever witnessed in a camera phone. Because the lens faces to the phone's side, you can't use it to shoot something directly in front of you. Instead, you have to stand next to your subject and shoot sideways--weird.
You also will notice two screws on either side of the phone, which can be unscrewed using the included plastic screwdriver. You will need to unscrew them to remove the cover and access the battery as well as the SIM card. The screw heads are unique to the phone, so if you lose the screwdriver, you'll have a hard time opening and closing the cover. This is a pretty big misstep on Bang & Olufsen's part--it's already bad enough we have to use a tool to access the battery, but the fact we can only use its own unique screwdriver makes it even worse.
Opening and closing the phone is simply a wonder and is the height of self-indulgence. By nudging the flap slightly, an internal motor takes over and the phone will open and close by itself--Bang & Olufsen claims it is the world's first power-assisted flip phone. This only happens if the phone is already powered on, and it is possible to open and close the phone without the help of an internal motor. While it is undeniably cool to have a phone that can open and close with a slight nudge of your finger, it's more like a gimmick than anything of real use. And we're sure the feature did a lot to bump up the price. It measures 2.5x2.8x0.9 inches and weighs less than 0.4 ounce, resulting in a compact and lightweight feel. Holding the phone in the hand is pretty comfortable thanks to its soft-touch finish, as well as when holding it next to the ear.
When the phone is open, you'll be presented with a rotary-style keypad on the top and the screen on the bottom. This unusual design is supposed to prevent the screen from being smudged by the side of your face, which we didn't think was too dire a problem, but we admit the screen was indeed positioned away from our cheek. If you want, you can reposition the image on the screen so it is upside down for the traditional screen-on-top look, though it's a bit pointless since the microphone and the speaker will remain in the same position.
The 2.2-inch, 262,000-color screen is bright and crisp, but we could not really ascertain its color potential as the only menu color option is a black background with blue highlights and white text. You can adjust the screen's backlight time, the dimming time, the idle display time, and its brightness. The circular keypad is exactly as it sounds--all the numbers are arranged in a circle. Inside that circle is a click wheel reminiscent of the iPod. The clear, end/power, OK, or talk functions can be activated by simply pressing the wheel to the north, east, south, or west respectively. When the phone is in default mode, scrolling the wheel immediately lets you access your contact list in alphabetical order. Navigating the phone via the wheel is fairly easy--you simply rotate it to the appropriate menu option and click OK. The keys are well-textured and yield easily to pressure. That said, because of the circular position of the keys, dialing is certainly not something you can do blindly. Texting also requires a bit of a learning curve due to the position of the keys.
The Serene's features are fairly basic for such an expensive phone. Touting only a VGA-quality camera and bare-bones features, it's clear you would buy the phone more for its design rather than its features. The Serene has an address book, and each entry can hold up to three numbers and an e-mail address. You can add contacts to a group and personalize them with a photo for caller ID and one of twelve polyphonic ring tones. Other features include text and multimedia messaging, e-mail, a vibrate mode, a wireless Web browser, a calendar organizer, a to-do list, a memo pad, an alarm clock, a voice recorder, a calculator, a world clock, a currency converter, PC syncing, and Bluetooth. You can use the latter to hook up to your favorite headset or to use the phone as a modem. The phone does not have a speakerphone, which we found to be a big disadvantage.
The Serene also comes with a basic VGA camera with fairly lackluster settings. Camera settings include three resolutions (640x480, 320x240, 160x120), four quality settings (superfine, fine, normal, economy), a multishot option, a night shot option, and a black-and-white option. The phone's internal memory of about 16MB is small as well, but considering the size of images, it is acceptable. The images taken look pretty good for a VGA-quality camera phone, but we would expect a lot more from a phone of this price.
Personalization options are lackluster for the Serene. You can't download goodies such as wallpaper, screensavers, and custom ring tones ; and downloadable games and applications are not available either. The Serene is all about Zen-like simplicity, so the omission of such options is acceptable.
We tested the Bang & Olufsen Serene (GSM 900/1800/1900; GPRS) in San Francisco using Cingular's service. Sound quality was exceptional--it was as if we were calling from a landline phone. Callers could hear us loud and clear and vice versa. We managed to pair the Serene with the Cardo Scala 700 Bluetooth headset without a problem. The Serene comes with a sleek chrome-finish desktop stand.
The Bang & Olufsen Serene has a rated talk time of 3 hours and a rated standby time of 10 days. Our tests showed a talk time of 3 hours and 4 minutes. According to the FCC, it has a SAR rating of 0.33 watt per kilogram.