It's quite appropriate that Virgin Mobile would carry a cell phone with an alphabetic keyboard. As the carrier's customer bases trends toward younger users, such a handset is a natural fit for the texting set. Its first try at a messaging phone was the Kyocera Switch Back, which the carrier introduced in 2006. While we liked the Switch Back's features and keyboard, we weren't crazy about much of its design. Fortunately, the new Kyocera Wild Card M1000 fixes most of these issues. Though it's a tad boxy and the external controls could use some polish, the Wild Card is a useful and easy-to-use phone for the text-obsessed. It costs $99.99.
Design-wise, the Wild Card is the antithesis of the Switch Back. While the earlier handset is curvaceous with few angles, the Wild Card is all about straight lines and angles. In fact, it looks a lot like the Motorola A630. The result is a rather boxy look; it's not very stylish, but it's not unattractive, either. Virgin only offers the M1000 in a black color scheme--Cricket offers a gold version--but that's not an issue for us. At 3.94 inches by 1.97 inches by 0.79 inch, the Wild Card is all about the same size as the Switch Back, but at 4.12 ounces it's more than half an ounce lighter. With those dimensions, the Wild Card is a tad bulky, but that's unavoidable. And in any case, it's smaller than the LG enV.
When we reviewed the Switch Back, we griped about its tiny external display, so we were glad to see that the Wild Card offers a larger screen. It measures 1.5 inches (128x128 pixels) and supports 262,000 colors. While it shows the date, the time, the battery life, the signal strength, and photo caller IDs, it's disappointing that it doesn't work as a viewfinder for the external display. And since the camera is located on the rear of the device, without a self-portrait mirror, vanity shots are difficult. But back to the display: You can change the brightness and set a screen saver. And we like that you can use it to navigate through most of the menus.
The navigation controls are located just below the display, but their design is one of the worst things about the Wild Card. Though the buttons are large, the keys are flush with the surface of the phone and rather slippery. The array consists of a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, the Talk and End/power control, a Back button, and a dedicated speakerphone key, the latter of which is always a plus. Also, the toggle acts as a shortcut to your account balance, the recent calls list, the messaging folder, and Virgin's XL Web service.
The keypad buttons don't have the best design, either. They're also flush and rather slippery, and they had a cheap plastic feel. Dialing by feel was difficult, and the backlighting could be brighter. Fortunately, the volume rocker on the left spine is tactile and easy to find when you're on a call. Also on the left spine is a camera shutter, while the headset jack rests on the right spine.
Like the A630, the enV, and the Switch Back, the Wild Card opens like a book along its left spine. Though it doesn't open a full 180 degrees, the hinge has a solid construction and we like that it doesn't sit too close to any of the keypad buttons. We were also glad to see that the Wild Card rests evenly on a table when in its open position and that opening or closing the phone does not interrupt whichever function you're using.
At just 1.75 inches diagonal (160x128 pixels), the M1000's internal display is rather small when compared with the size of the flap it sits on. Though it couldn't be much taller, it could be wider as there's a considerable amount of blank space on either side. On the upside, it supports 262,000 colors so it has a decent resolution. Colors were relatively bright, though graphics weren't terribly sharp. The menus are easy to understand and the graphical icons make more sense than they did on previous Virgin Mobile phones like the Kyocera Marbl. Just make sure you don't miss the Tools menu as you have to scroll down to see it. You can change the brightness and the backlighting time, though the font size, which is a bit small, is not adjustable
The Wild Card also offers an interior navigation toggle with shortcuts, though, unfortunately, it has the same clunky design as the exterior toggle. They keyboard, however, is well made and user friendly; the layout is relatively spacious and the individual buttons are tactile. Also, though the keys have the same plastic feel as the external keypad buttons, somehow they don't feel as bad here. We had few issues with rapid texting.
Each of the alphabetic keys doubles as a number or symbol key, so most of the characters you'll need for messaging are right at your fingertips. We also approve of the large and well-placed space bar just below the navigation toggle. At each corner are special buttons for entering text and navigating the menus. Starting clockwise at the top-right corner, there's a back button, an enter key, a shift control, and a symbol key. The first three are light blue while the fourth is white. The top row also holds shortcuts for the speakerphone, the camera, and the messaging menu, plus two soft keys for the interior display.
The M1000 also has Talk and End/Power buttons just above the keyboard. Though you can make calls with the phone open, it's rather uncomfortable to do so since the sole speaker on the inside of Wild Card only works with the speakerphone. But otherwise, the handset feels comfortable in the hand, and, despite its bulk, it fits easily in a pocket.
Our last complaint with the Wild Card's design concerns its rear cover. To remove and access the battery, you have to turn a screw 45 degrees. Using a fingernail was difficult, so we usually used a small coin (no designated tool comes in the box). That's annoying and unnecessary.
The Wild Card's 500-contact phone book has room in each entry for six separate phone numbers, as well as two e-mail addresses, two Web site addresses, two street addresses, and notes. There are two preset caller groups, and we were able to create our own, as well. Though you can set separate "personal" and "business" ringtones, the Wild Card only comes with nine polyphonic tones. What's more, photo and ringtone caller ID is available only for groups. And like with other Virgin Mobile phones, we don't understand why the vibrate feature works only at the highest volume level or in silent mode.
The M1000's organizer features include a voice memo; an event scheduler with day and month views; an alarm clock; a tip calculator; a timer; a stopwatch; and a calculator. Messaging features are plentiful; besides text and multimedia messaging, the Wild Card offers instant messaging and e-mail. Yet, it's too bad that then when starting a new text message you can't use the alphabetic keyboard to enter the name of one of your contacts. Instead, you must enter the number or pluck your contact from your phonebook.
Luckily, Bluetooth and voice dialing are also onboard, and you can use the speakerphone and voice-answering feature for hands-free calling. You can even set the camera to glow steadily like a flashlight. There's a programmable minute alert that beeps 10 seconds before each call minute passes, which is a good feature to help teens keep track of their minutes.
The Wild Card's 1.3-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions (1,280x1,024, 640x480, 320x240, and 160x120) and three quality settings. Other editing features include three color tones, a multishot mode, a self-timer, a night mode, eight fun frames, brightness and white balance controls, and 10 shutter sounds. There's also a flash and a digital zoom, but the latter is unusable at the highest resolution. Photo quality was pretty good on the whole and slightly improved over Virgin's previous 1.3-meagpixel camera phone, the Kyocera Cyclops. Though colors were slightly faded, the resolution was sharp. For saving your work, the Wild Card offers 36MB of user-accessible memory.
You can personalize the Wild Card Alert with a variety of wallpaper, screensavers, a greeting banner, and a variety of alert and function sounds. You can download more options and more ringtones from Virgin Mobile via the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. The M1000 comes with two demo games--Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man--but you can download the full versions or buy additional titles. For music buffs, the Wild Card supports Virgin Mobile's Headliner service.
We tested the Wild Card in San Francisco. As an MVNO, Virgin mobile doesn't operate its own network; instead it leases space on Sprint's network. Call quality was mostly fair, but we noticed a few issues worth reporting. Though voices sounded natural and we enjoyed enough volume, the audio was just a bit patchy. It didn't disrupt our conversations, but it was still noticeable. The Wild Card does have Virgin's Mobile's "smart volume" feature, which is supposed to adjust the volume based on your surroundings. We couldn't really tell if it worked or not. Also, we noticed that the ringer volume was somewhat low.
On their end, callers said they could hear us, though they could tell we were using a cell phone. They didn't report the same problems that we encountered, but they said the phone picked up a lot of background noise. Speakerphone calls weren't great. The sound was bass-heavy, and we had to be near the phone if we wanted our friends to hear us. As we mentioned earlier, the speaker is next to the internal display, so you should use the speakerphone when the phone is open.
The Kyocera Wild Card M1000 has a rated battery life of 3.25 hours and a digital SAR rating of 6.25 days. Our tests revealed a talk time of 3 hours, 45 minutes. According to FCC radiation charts, the Wild Card has a digital SAR rating of 1.46 watts per kilogram.