The BenQ-Siemens EF81 is undoubtedly similar specs-wise and even in looks to the Motorola Razr V3x. However, while the EF81 has some negatives -- specifically the camera's positioning an image quality -- it's a good alternative to the V3x, especially as it comes in a slimmer and smaller package.
The front of the EF81 looks and feels like it was made by toaster supremos Dualit. The silver shiny casing is made of steel and the external TFT LCD colour screen is made of hardened sapphire glass. It not only looks attractive but also feels strong, and after accidentally dropping it a few times there weren't too many signs of wear and tear, although there were a few small scratches around the edges.
The most impressive design feature of this phone is how thin it is, considering it has the same features as the Motorola V3x -- which is much bigger. The EF81 measures 51 by 94 by 16mm thin whereas the V3x is 55 by 99 by 20mm, making the EF81 4mm less wide, 5mm shorter and 4mm thinner.
Another improvement over the V3x is the external screen, which measures 20 by 27mm, compared to the V3x's, which is only 19 by 20mm large. Underneath the EF81's external display are four steel buttons that let you access the camera, video recorder and MP3 player. Right at the bottom of the front section of the phone is a grill that hides the loudspeaker. Unlike the rest of the front of the phone, this section is made out of plastic.
The sides of the phone are silver and don't have any buttons, which is a far cry from the variety of buttons you get on the right and left side of the Motorola V3x. The lack of dedicated buttons is one thing that had us scratching our head, since they would have been very useful -- particularly a dedicated shutter button. However, too many buttons on the side of a phone can also be annoying and the V3x's side buttons can quickly become irritating when you inadvertently press one of them when making a call.
The back of the EF81 is completely black, apart from a silver BenQ-Siemens logo, and is made of anodised aluminium. Interestingly, the 2-megapixel camera is visible from the back but is actually attached to the front section of the phone. As you open the phone, the camera is tucked inside on the hinge so that it faces you when you're using the phone, for 3G video calls. This seems like a good idea until you realise that if you want to take pictures of anything other than your face, you either have to hold the phone backwards and hope that you're pointing it in the right direction or you have to take photos with the clamshell shut. This presents the problem of using the external screen, which although it displays 262k colours and is bright enough to see, is much smaller than the internal display.
Another issue that comes with having to open and shut the phone to take a photo or simply answer a call is that the hinge is rather stiff. Opening the EF81 isn't a simple task and we needed to use two hands in order to do it properly. Unlike the Motorola V3x, the hinge isn't spring-loaded, but it does lock at 45 degrees so you can place it on a table. It's a useful feature when you want to make a video call without needing to touch the phone, but when you want to make a normal call opening the phone feels awkward. There also isn't much space to put your fingers in between the top and bottom section, which makes it harder than opening the Motorola V3x, which has a rounded edge on each section making it easier to pry open with your thumb.
Putting all that effort into opening the phone eventually pays off. The inside of the EF81 is well designed, featuring a bright 240x320 pixel screen that measures 35 by 45mm and a spacious keypad. The EF81's keypad is metallic and features a blue backlight similar to the V3x's metallic keypad and backlight. The navigation key is rectangular and is large enough to press easily, as are the two soft keys at the top of the keypad and the send and end, video call, Internet, task handler (that lets you navigate through menu sub-sections) and the cancel button. The alphanumeric part of the keypad uses useful C-shaped dividing lines to separate one from the other and each key is also large and easy to press.
The EF81 is a fully featured multimedia phone. The most flash feature is a Bluetooth application that lets you control your PC from your phone -- as proved by a BenQ-Siemens representative at its UK launch, who used it to control his PowerPoint presentation. Of course, when we tried it we found it much harder to do and didn't manage to set it up properly, but it is theoretically possible.
One feature that does work well is the PC software, which lets you synchronise your Outlook contacts, tasks and memos with your phone at the click of a button. It's easy to install and after five minutes we had synchronised our computer and phone without any drama.
Have a look at the Motorola V3x's spec sheet and you'll notice this phone is almost identical. There's 3G connectivity and a video-calling feature that works very well with the swivelling camera. We found it very similar to making a video call on the V3x, with the added bonus of being able to place the EF81 on a table and set the angle of the camera and screen so you can do hands-free video calls.
Unfortunately, the 2-megapixel camera is extremely disappointing when used to take photographs. For starters, there's no flash, but since most mobile phone flashes don't really work this can be forgiven. More importantly, there's the issue of having to use the camera when the EF81 is shut (unless you hold it backwards) and the lack of a dedicated shutter button, so you have to do a bit of button pushing before you can actually take a photo.
Once you've taken a picture or a video, you can view it in the 'my stuff' section or use the media player. The media player supports a variety of formats including MP3, AAC, AAC+, AAC++, MPEG-4, 3GPP, H.263 and Real video. You can also play music through the loudspeaker, which is a little tinny but louder than most phone speakers we've heard. We liked the 64MB of internal memory and expandable microSD slot that can support up to 1GB, which means plenty of storage space for music and photos -- although a 2GB capacity would have been nice. One niggle we have with the media player is the lack of adjustable settings. Unlike other media players, there's no way to adjust the equaliser or play mode.
Another thing that annoyed us, but might have been a problem specific to our handset, was that it deleted text messages when we received more than one at a time. For example, when coming out of a Tube station, if there were three text messages waiting to be sent to the EF81, it deleted one of them. Aside from that, the phone worked well and there weren't any outstanding problems that had us pulling our hair out.
Other features include Bluetooth, MMS, SMS, a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, a unit converter, a stopwatch, voice recording, voice dialling, Java games, polyphonic and MP3 ringtones, themes and time zones.Performance
The 2-megapixel camera is particularly disappointing and unlike the V3x's camera, which also has a 2-megapixel sensor, the photos we took came out blurry and looked faded. When we took photos in normal light they came out looking like it was a foggy day and in dark conditions you could barely make out what the subject of the photo was.
The audio on calls was not great and there was a great deal of feedback from the microphone. When we called someone we could hear our own voices over the voices of the people we called, which made it hard to talk comfortably.
On the upside, the EF81's battery life was good -- it's quoted at 300 hours standby and 240 minutes talk time.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide