As cell phone use has grown, the market for teenage and younger users has increased too. Manufacturers and carriers alike have gone to great lengths to catch this expanding niche, but aside from a few tweaks, their handset designs have largely resembled those of adult phones. Curitel, however, has broken the mobile mold with its new Identity phone for Dobson Wireless (Cellular One) service. Shaped like a silver boomerang, the handset comes packed with some novel features and extensive personalization options. Though its design sometimes works against it, it offers solid call quality and long battery life. But at $250 with a service plan, its price could put it out of the reach of younger hands. With the candy bar-style Identity, Curitel turned cell phone design on its end--and we mean that literally. The keypad is at the top, the display is at the bottom, and the handset has a slightly curved shape. You'll either love it or hate it--with a design like this, there's no middle ground. Teens and individualists may be interested, but anyone seeking to make a first impression in the boardroom should stay away.
The Identity measures 5.0 by 1.9 by 0.8 inches and weighs 4.4 ounces. We did find the hefty size and the external antenna distracting. Though it enjoys a solid construction, the Identity is hard to fit in smaller pockets, and the curved shape makes it somewhat awkward to hold against your left ear. Yet the innovative form factor does have some advantages, and the ergonomics were a nice departure from those of traditional handsets. While holding the Identity in either hand, it's remarkably easy and comfortable to manipulate the controls, the keypad, and the side buttons without covering the screen with your fingers or hand. Moreover, the camera lens is conveniently located on the back of the mobile, well out of the way of fingers.
The 1.8-inch display supports 65,000 colors and is visible under many lighting conditions. You can't, however, change the text size, which is rather small. We also found the main navigation controls, located right above the screen, to be cramped and confusing. Instead of the traditional Talk and End buttons, calls are made using the OK and Back buttons. The Back button also doubles as the power switch. Instead of an OK button, the space in the middle of the four-way toggle holds a soft key. The four-way toggle provides shortcuts to messaging, the call log, the contact list, and (somewhat curiously) the radio, but none of the controls were very tactile. You'll also find a Clear key, but it's somewhat small for larger fingers.
The controls on the side of the unit were also rather odd. What appears to be a volume rocker on the right spine actually opens the main menu--and is the only control on the phone to do so. Also be aware that inside the main menu, only the four-way toggle will scroll through the different options. While the menus' basic design was easy to understand, navigating through them with the phone's peculiar controls took some practice. We liked the dedicated Internet browser and the camera buttons on the left side, but they are the only keys that control the volume during a call. Dedicated volume keys would have been more intuitive.
The slightly raised keypad buttons were tactile and well spaced, but the arrangement of the letters was baffling. Instead of going in alphabetical order, the 2 key, for example, doubles as ACB, while the 3 key doubles as EDF. While the arrangement wasn't terribly inconvenient, the reason for the design was not apparent to us. The keys do flash colorful patterns when calls come in or when you're using the FM radio. You can choose one of three backlighting colors or set the keys to remain backlit when the phone is idle.
Another hallmark of the Identity is the replaceable SmartSkin covers, which are easy to slip on and off. Available in more than 20 colorful designs, SmartSkins are intended to appeal to a wide variety of users, male and female alike. But beyond just changing the look of the mobile, each of the SmartSkins has a small chip with themed wallpaper, menu designs, ring tones and alert sounds, animation, pictures, and online activities. When you snap on a cover, the extras automatically load onto your phone. The phone comes with a generic black SmartSkin, but more are available for from $25 to $60.The Curitel Identity has a good set of features, which, like the design, are meant to appeal to younger users. You get a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for four numbers, an e-mail address, and a mailing address (an additional 250 names can be stored on the SIM card). You can also save the contact's birthday and attach notes (here called Dirty Little Secrets). We were disappointed that callers can't be assigned into groups, but you can pair them with a picture, an icon, or any of the 10 polyphonic or 4 monophonic ring tones. In addition to the normal phone book, 10 contacts can also be saved in your Top 10 Friends list. Each contact on the list is assigned a keypad button, which not only acts as that contact's speed-dial key, but also blinks a different color depending on whether you have a voicemail, a text message, or a call from that person.
Organizer features on the Identity are sparse, but that's to be expected for such a teen-themed phone. You get only a notepad, an alarm clock, and a calendar. There's also a Vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, and an FM radio with 10 presets. To listen to the radio, you must use the included headset, which acts as the antenna. The radio automatically goes silent when a call comes in.
The Identity's CMOS camera takes pictures in three resolutions: 640x480, 320x240, and 176x144. You also can choose from three quality settings, but there's no flash or mirror for self-portraits. Photo quality was good but not great. Most images had a washed-out effect. When finished with your shots, you can save them to the phone's 2MB of memory, send them to your friends via multimedia message, or upload them to the phone's online photo blog. There's no infrared port, and while there is a USB port, you can't use it. Hopefully it will be activated on future versions of the phone.
Beyond the SmartSkins, you can personalize the Identity with a variety of wallpapers and sounds. As a teen phone, it wouldn't be complete without games. With the generic SmartSkin, you get three Java (J2ME)-enabled titles: Fortune, Glowworm, and UForce. More titles are available with other SmartSkins. One of the more interesting features is Airtext, which utilizes a series of flashing red LEDs arranged in a row. By waving the phone from side to side, you can spell out a short message to a person across the room. The idea is better than the execution, but it can be fun nonetheless. You can also use the LED strip as a somewhat dim (and decidedly red) flashlight.We tested the dual-band (GSM 850/1900) Curitel Identity in San Francisco. Call quality was good with admirable clarity and reception. Volume was a bit low, however, and the phone has a sensitive sweet spot; moving the handset only slightly caused a noticeable drop in volume. Calls using the headset were mostly good as well.
We were quite disappointed by the sluggish operating system. We often had to wait a few seconds when selecting items, whether starting the browser or opening the phone book. Battery life was mostly better. On a single charge, we surpassed the rated talk time of two hours by an extra hour. Standby time fell a day short of the promised time of seven days, but that's still a respectable time. According to the FCC, the Identity has a digital SAR rating of 1.32 watts per kilogram.