Virgin Mobile gets another first with the Kyocera Switch Back. Although it initially seems like a normal if oddly shaped candy bar phone, a closer inspection reveals that it opens lengthwise to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard. Perfect for text-crazed teens, the Switch Back (a.k.a. Strobe) offers a set of youth-friendly features, such as a VGA camera, Java support for gaming, instant and multimedia messaging, and a wireless Web browser. Add the prepaid Virgin Mobile service and a selection of exclusive MTV content, and you get a perfect match for kids and hipsters under 25. After all, it's not often you get a keyboard on something other than a smart phone. The speakerphone and the voice dialing may tempt older consumers to take a look as well, but they'll likely be put off by the bulky design, the tiny external display, the minuscule keys, and the lack of higher-end features, such as Bluetooth. At $149, the Kyocera Switch Back is on the higher end of Virgin's price scale, but it's a fair cost for what you get.
In order to accommodate the keyboard, the Kyocera Switch Back measures a bulky 4.25 by 2.05 by 0.95 inches and weighs 4.1 ounces. Although it's thicker than the typical candy bar handset, it's actually thinner than other keyboard-equipped phones, such as the LG F9200 and the LG VX9800.
Whether the Kyocera Switch Back's heft is worth the additional functionality of the keyboard is a personal decision. Mad texters probably won't care, but we felt the design warranted some criticism. Overall, the dimensions give it a cumbersome feel, and it was uncomfortable to hold against our face during long conversations. Plus, the fact that the back half of the phone was thicker than the front half was disconcerting. Alternatively, you can make calls with the keyboard open, but because both the microphone and the inner speaker are on the bottom end of the phone, that felt even more uncomfortable. Things weren't all bad, however. The hourglass shape is unusual but not unappealing, and we liked the looped antenna and the black color scheme with the silver accents. What's more, the robust construction of the Switch Back should serve it well with its target demographic. From the antenna design to the large, sturdy hinge, this phone was built with wear and tear in mind. We would love for Kyocera to add rubberized edges, but we think the Switch Back will stand the test of time.
Although the Kyocera Switch Back's external screen supports 65,000 colors, its low-resolution (128x128 pixels) and small size (1.2 inches diagonally) give it a washed-out and uninspiring effect. It's adequate for scrolling through the minimalist menus, but it's almost useless for playing games, Web browsing, and viewing photos. The display's small size also means it's not a great camera viewfinder; you're better off using the internal display (see below) to take photos. Finally, while the external screen shows the battery life, signal strength, the time, the date, and caller ID (where available), the font size is tiny and cannot be changed. You can, however, tweak the brightness, the contrast, and the backlighting time, but you can't alter the text size.
We also had problems with the Kyocera Switch Back's navigation and keypad buttons, as the large hinge running down the phone's left side and the hourglass shape forced designers to minimize the button size. Clearly, the controls were designed for teen-size fingers, but users with larger paws will have issues using the phone when the flip is closed. The navigation array consists of a five-way toggle with two soft keys, the Talk and End/power buttons, a Back key, and a dedicated speakerphone button. The toggle has preset shortcuts to the Virgin Mobile download store and Web browser, the text-messaging menu, your minute-balance menu, and the Recent Calls lists. The soft keys open the contacts list and the main menu, but none of the shortcuts are programmable. In the center of the toggle is an OK/camera-shutter button, but it has no use when the phone is in standby mode. Although all controls are relatively tactile and are raised above the surface of the phone, they're on the small side, as previously stated.
It's the same story with the keypad buttons. They're raised, which made it easier to dial by feel, but they are slick, small, and poorly spaced. It is nearly impossible to type in a phone number correctly the first time around. All the buttons are backlit blue and easy to read in dark conditions, at least for young eyes that can handle the small font on the keys.
The left spine of the handset has two very small volume-toggle buttons, as well as a dedicated camera button. On the back of the phone, the camera lens is located at the top-left corner, which works well when the handset is shut, but because the phone is held horizontally when open, our fingers naturally rested right where the lens was located. There is also a small flash and an inaccurate mirror for self-portraits next to the lens. The power AC jack is on the bottom of the phone, and the headset jack--with a tight-fitting cover--is on the bottom right of the spine.
When open, the Kyocera Switch Back reveals a full QWERTY keyboard and an internal 65,000-color display. Although this display isn't vibrant either, its larger size (1.75 inches diagonally; 120x160 pixels) made it easier on the eyes. We much preferred to use it for all the phone functions, particularly for taking photos. The external screen automatically shuts off when the internal display is in use, but the phone hangs up a call or shuts off the camera (or any other function) when you open or close it--a great feature. To the left of the screen is a large speaker, and to the right is the Virgin Mobile emblem. The silver border makes a partial oval around the screen and emblem but cuts inside the speaker, adding to the unique design of the phone.
While at first glance, the QWERTY keyboard appears impossibly small, we got used to the feel of the keyboard over time. Plus, the raised buttons are adequately spaced, which helped us type quickly and with minimal mistakes. With the keyboard, you'll also find a second set of navigation and shortcut controls. On the top row of the keyboard from left to right, the Kyocera Switch Back has a dedicated camera button, a Talk key, two soft keys, an End/power button, and a dedicated speakerphone key. The five-way navigational toggle (with the same shortcuts) is centered between the letters, and there's a space bar underneath. The QWERTY keyboard is flanked on the left side, with a dedicated shortcut key to the messaging menu, a shift control, and a symbol button, while on the right are Back and enter keys. All controls are backlit blue. The phone opens not quite 180 degrees, but it was comfortable to hold in the hand while typing.
Each of the 500 contacts on the Kyocera Switch Back stores up to six separate phone numbers, as well as two e-mail addresses, two Web site addresses, a physical address, and notes. You can assign contacts a picture and a ringer ID, and you can program numbers for speed and voice dialing. There are two preset caller groups, and we were able to create our own as well. The handset supports 32-chord polyphonic ring tones, but the Switch Back comes with only five overall--a skimpy number for a youth phone. The preloaded content on this handset is definitely demographic specific (including a tone that screams "Hey baby, pick up your phone"), and extra tones can run a hefty $2.50 each. Even worse, you can't preview tones before buying. The vibrate feature works only at the highest volume level or in silent mode. Strange, we know, but it's true. The Switch Back also provides several alert settings for messages, pages, new voicemails, and missed calls. There's a smart sound setting, which sets the call volume automatically based on surrounding noise, and 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 Kyocera Switch Back's organizer features include a voice memo of up to 2 minutes; an event scheduler with day and month views; an alarm clock with three settings, plus a quick alarm; a tip calculator; a calculator; a timer; a single-setting stopwatch; and a flashlight. Although the speakerphone is a great addition, the actual one is located next to the internal display--an odd decision all around. As a result, it's best to keep the phone open when making speakerphone calls.
Text messaging includes options to send a message to up to 10 contacts at a time. We also had fun playing with the different emoticons and sending out the preloaded auto texts, such as "Bite me," "Kick-ass," and "Busted." Also, we liked the fact that we were able to save our own autotexts for future use. Options for multimedia messaging were similar. We could send a picture message to 10 people at a time, create contact groups, preview the message after adding sounds and pictures, and label the message urgent. You get instant messaging as well, but Virgin Mobile must have struck a deal with AOL here, as you can access AIM only. Another odd note was that when we were using AIM, incoming calls went directly to voicemail.
The Kyocera Switch Back has a VGA camera with flash; a 5X digital zoom; 640x480-, 320x240-, and 160x120-pixel resolution settings; a low-light mode; a 3-, 5-, or 10-second self-timer; a multishot setting; 10 shutter sounds but no silent option; four white-balance choices; four color-tone options; three quality settings; a brightness adjustment; and five (not so) fun frames. One frame has a butcher's knife and lots of blood--gross.
The Kyocera Switch Back has an impressive 256MB of shared memory. In our tests, we were able to store up to 90 pictures. Once you snap a photo, you can send it in a multimedia message, assign it to a contact for caller ID, use it as wallpaper or a screensaver, erase it, lock it, rename it, or upload it to your Virgin Mobile My Pix account. It would be more intuitive and save several steps if all options were available immediately after taking the picture, however. The picture quality is mediocre at best, and the images don't look any better when viewed on the aforementioned dull display. There's no video capability, FM radio, or music composer on the Switch Back, though these options would be perfect for the teen demographic.
The WAP 2.0 Web browser was poky, but the Virgin XL service offers a range of content that should appeal to the younger set. You can purchase additional ring tones, games, wallpaper, and screensavers, and you get exclusive content from MTV and Comedy Central. Be careful when buying, though, as prices can range up to $6 a game. It's all too easy to imagine a scenario in which a download shopping spree gets out of hand--see Virgin Mobile's Web site for a full explanation of charges. It sounds like options are plenty, but we thought the content was sparse overall. Moreover, some applications were problematic. Gaming applications crashed several times, forcing us to power down the phone. The Kyocera Switch Back comes with two Java (J2ME) demo games: Lemonade Tycoon and Tetris.
We tested the triband, dual-mode (CDMA 800/1900; AMPS 800) Kyocera Switch Back in San Francisco on the Virgin Mobile network. The audio quality on calls was decent, with good clarity and volume. The speakerphone was especially nice; no one could tell when we used it in place of the normal calling mode. We did not note any interference with other electrical equipment, and the handset did not heat up when used for an extended period of time.
The battery life of the Kyocera Switch Back is mediocre. Kyocera claims 3 hours of talk time, and we got 3.5 hours in our tests. The standby time was close to 5 days, compared with the promised time of 6.25 days. Using the Internet browser for games drained the battery quickly. According to FCC radiation tests, the Kyocera Switch Back has a digital SAR rating of 1.1 watts per kilogram.