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BenQ-Siemens' new slider, the EL71, isn't going to set anyone's world alight with its amazing features. First impressions are of a neat and tidy slider styled in silver that looks every inch an impressive piece of kit.
But second and third impressions start to reveal that the deeper you delve the more average the handset shows itself to be. That's fine if average is what you need. After all, the EL71 makes calls, plays music, has Web access and sports a built-in camera. Just don't expect state of the art from any of these capabilities.
The EL71 is coming soon on Orange Pay Monthly and its price was not fixed at the time of writing this review.
Did we say this handset is silver? Front on, its brushed aluminium and magnesium screen surround (the remainder of the casing is plastic) looks good, though the screen -- a relatively small 64mm TFT -- seems a little lost in its surroundings. Turn the handset on and that screen shines out. Its 240x320-pixel resolution is bright and clear, and it is actually one of the EL71's best features.
This being a slider there is no immediately visible number pad. Instead a large navigation button is surrounded by six keys. Call and End and two softmenu keys are joined by a couple of music control buttons. One of these starts the built-in music player running, the other is a pause/play button. You can use the navigation key to skip about between tracks and within them too.
The navigation key has shortcut functions assigned to it which come into play when you are not listening to tunes. So, for example, pushing it down opens the built-in contacts software, pushing it left starts the camera running.
The button takes a bit of getting used to. The central 'select' section is fine, but the surround is small and we found a fingernail much more effective than the flat of a finger for pressing it.
Open the slider and the number pad looks presentable with its silver predominance and blue backlight. It is not made up of separate keys, but an area separated by indents which help you feel your way around. The material used for this area is soft and spongy, and we didn't take to it a great deal, but the keys are well spaced and we managed fairly fast texting.
The slider mechanism is spring loaded, and you need only the merest touch to open and close the handset.
Turn the EL71 over and silver fades to black with the camera lens and the tiniest flash and self portrait mirrors we've ever seen sitting in the top left corner.
On the right side of the casing is a rocker button the bottom section of which launches the camera (yes it doubles the navigation key function) and then shoots a picture, while the top section drops you into a speed dialler. On the left side a duplicate rocker takes care of volume. Power is supplied via a connector on the right edge which doubles for headphones and, if you invest in one, a data cable that you can use with the provided desktop software to share diary and contact information with the handset and manage its contents generally.
We've already used the word average to describe the EL71, but there is no getting away from saying it again. The camera, for example, shoots at resolutions up to 1.3 megapixels, and while it also manages video, the output is a little flat and lacks sharpness.
There is 16MB of built-in memory and you can augment this with microSD cards (they are also known as TransFlash). The EL71 will pick up music from anywhere on a card, which in theory makes hotswapping them in and out attractive. In practice, though, cards are housed under the battery cover and you need to remove the battery to get to the slot, so swapping is a bit painful.
The Web browser works surprisingly well, scaling pages to fit the width of the screen and resizing graphics so that they look appropriate and don't leech out into the horizontal ether that requires a lot of scrolling. Of course complex pages are delivered less effectively than simple ones, but browsing is not an unpleasant experience.
We were pleasantly surprised at the quality of music playback through the EL71's own speaker. Our review unit came without a headset, but we borrowed one from a BenQ-Siemens EF81 which uses the same proprietary side-mounted connector. At the highest volume there was a little distortion of sound, but we were impressed with what we heard nonetheless.
It is just such a shame that the headset connector is side mounted -- always an awkward location for those who carry their handset in a pocket -- and that it is proprietary. We're sure we could improve further on output quality with a better headset.
BenQ-Siemens provides the software you need to share contact and diary information with Outlook on your PC, but you will need to either make a Bluetooth connection or invest in a data cable to take advantage. The on-board organiser software runs to a note taker and voice recorder, and you also get unit conversion, alarm clocks, stopwatch and countdown timers. In addition it features a handy date calculator that will tell you how many days it is until a particular date, delivering the result in either years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes or seconds -- useful to irritate your friends by reminding them how long it is until your birthday.
The EL71 had no trouble maintaining a signal, and call quality was good. The camera quality we've already noted as slightly iffy, though if all you want to do is capture a few snaps for a quick look it does the job. Audio quality impressed a lot more but points are lost here because a headset isn't supplied.
Battery life is a let down. We did manage a couple of days between charges with minimal chat but you should plan for a daily power boost and should not consider this handset if you want a music player you can rely on to be ready when you want to use it.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield