For some time now, wireless carriers in the United States have been bragging about the third-generation (3G) cell phones in their lineups. Despite their promises, the reality has yet to meet expectations. While the handsets have been capable of 3G data speeds, the service providers have not. AT&T Wireless is changing that, however, with its new Motorola A845. Running on the carrier's new third-generation UMTS network, this mobile promises data speeds far beyond the current norm (see Performance). What does this mean for you? Faster downloads and higher-quality streaming video and videoconferencing than Sprint's streaming-video phone, the Samsung MM-A700, provides. Throw in Bluetooth, e-mail support, and a speakerphone, and you get a handset that's sure to wow on-the-go execs and cell phone addicts alike. At $369, all of these features come at a premium, but discounts will surely be available. One additional caveat: At press time, the UMTS network is available in only six U.S. markets (see Features).
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. First and foremost, let's get one thing straight. At 5.3 by 2.1 by 1.0 inches, the Motorola A845 is not just big; it's a behemoth. In fact, the 5.6-ounce handset reminded us of the hefty mobile clunkers of the late 1990s--or a television remote control. That size means that the A845 will fit in few pockets and will definitely add some weight to a purse or a bag. You'll also want to avoid lengthy conversations, as holding the phone to your face for long periods can be tiring. On the plus side, we liked the rounded edges and the spacious and vivid color screen. Measuring 2.25 inches diagonally and supporting 64,000 colors, it was great for viewing photos and animated menus. Though you can adjust the contrast and the brightness, the screen is difficult to see in direct light and goes almost completely dark when the backlighting is off. The backlighting time-out can be changed, but the maximum length is just 20 seconds.
Motorola went to the trouble of providing two camera lenses: one in the handset's left corner and the other on the reverse side. While they make self-portraits a cinch, we weren't sure that dual lenses added any functionality. They are, however, well out of the way of your fingers when you're taking photos. Immediately below the rear lens is the speakerphone. While it is generously sized, its placement on the handset's rear face muffles the sound if the phone is flat on a surface. On top of the mobile is the infrared port; a 2.5mm headset jack and a dedicated camera button sit on the right spine. We usually like dedicated camera keys, but this one was tiny for the phone's size. Likewise, the volume rocker on the left spine is way too small and difficult to press.
We were also divided by the navigation controls and the keypad. The large, five-way joystick provides easy navigation through the user-friendly menus. It also acts as a shortcut to four user-defined functions. You get two soft keys and a dedicated button to the AT&T Wireless mMode service. In a helpful move, the left soft key also opens a Fast Menu of oft-used functions. We were puzzled, though, by a dedicated Recent Calls key. Since the same list is accessed through the Talk button, we would have preferred a camera shortcut key. The dimly backlit keypad buttons could be improved as well. Though well spaced, they were set flush with the surface of the phone and were not very tactile. As a result, we had to pay attention when we were dialing.Though its design didn't quite hit the mark, the Motorola A845 is all about features. On the basic end, you get a 500-name phone book with room in each entry for six phone numbers and an e-mail address. Ringers can be assigned to caller groups or paired with a picture or any of the 25 polyphonic or 10 monophonic ring tones. You also get a vibrate mode, a date book, text and multimedia messaging, a calculator, a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, an infrared port, and full Bluetooth support for sending data or connecting to a headset. There's a speakerphone as well, but it can be activated only after you make a call.
On the upside, we were pleased with the extensive e-mail services--perfect for those with business on the brain. Through AT&T's mMode, you get access to a variety of POP3 e-mail, including AOL, MSN Hotmail, Yahoo, EarthLink, and Prodigy. Alternately, you can get mail from SMTP or IMAP4 accounts or access Yahoo, AOL, or MSN Instant Messenger. And if that's not enough, the SyncML program can sync not only your e-mail but also your contacts to your office or home PC. General mMode plans range from $2.99 to $24.99 per month, with data services offered at an additional $4.99 or $9.99 per month.
Multimedia offerings were also plentiful, though we were puzzled as to why the camera was only VGA, providing unremarkable picture quality. For such a full-featured phone, a megapixel camera would have been a nice touch. That said, you can take photos at five resolutions: 640x480, 320x240, 176x144, 160x120, and 80x60. You also can alter the lighting-condition setting or use the 3X zoom. There is no flash, self-timer, or brightness setting, but we like that you can adjust the exposure setting or take mirror images of a scene. Likewise, flipping between the front and rear lenses is easy. The video camera has a similar set of options, and you can shoot MPEG-4 clips from 10 seconds to three minutes in length (with sound). When finished, you can save shots and clips to the phone, set them as wallpaper or screensavers, and send them via multimedia messages. You get 64MB of flash memory for saving your work, and a convenient meter keeps track of how much space is left. Though 64MB will be plenty for most people, an expandable memory slot would have been useful.
Of course, you aren't going to buy the A845 for the camera. The real draw is the high-quality streaming video over AT&T's UMTS network; however, the network is currently available in only Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, Detroit, and Seattle. Future markets will be available in the future, but at press time, no announcements had been made. Entertainment services are provided by RealTV and include channels such as ABC News, CBS MarketWatch, NPR News, Fox Sports, and the Weather Channel. You can also view movie previews, TV-show recaps, and music videos, as well as listen to such content as horoscopes, book reviews, and celebrity gossip. Unlimited data plans, which include mMode access, are $24.99 per month for individuals and $79.99 per month for businesses. For getting down to business, you can also use the phone for videoconferencing, but the other caller must have a UMTS-capable phone and be in one of the markets served. We were unable to test this option.
The A845 also has an MP3 player. You can download and play files in MP3, WAV, AAC, or WMA formats and save them as ring tones. The A845 can be personalized with a variety of wallpaper, screensavers, color styles, and sounds. More options and ring tones can be downloaded through mMode. The handset also comes with a single Java (J2ME)-enabled game, Bejeweled, but you can always get more titles through AT&T.We tested the triband (GSM 850/1800/1900; GPRS; UMTS 1900) Motorola A845 in the San Francisco area using AT&T Wireless. Call quality was good, providing adequate audio and clear conversations. We experienced some mild patchiness at times, however, and callers said they could tell we were using a cell phone. Calls made with the included earbud headset were also satisfactory. Using the Bluetooth adapter, we had no problem connecting to a Jabra FreeSpeak BT250 headset or a Logitech Mobile Bluetooth headset and enjoyed solid call quality on each. The speakerphone had plenty of volume, though voices had a slightly echoey sound.
Video quality was good and represented an improvement over Sprint's Samsung MM-A700. AT&T promises speeds of between 220Kbps and 320Kbps, with bursts of up to 384Kbps (speeds on the MM-A700 top out at 70Kbps). Though theoretical 3G speeds are much higher, these numbers are still impressive, considering that the fastest 2.5G networks are still in the dial-up range of 56Kbps. We tried watching news clips, an R. Kelly music video, and a movie preview. The feed was smooth, and we were impressed by the clear picture and the good audio quality, even over the included stereo headphones. And though we rarely experienced a hiccup or a frozen image, some frames on the movie preview seemed to melt into one another. One particularly nice touch is that videos will automatically pause when a call comes through.
Similarly, the download time of a new ring tone was very quick. But not all was perfect. Our main issue was with the UMTS coverage. Though San Francisco is a UMTS market, we were able to find coverage in only the downtown and South of Market areas. In the Castro and Mission neighborhoods, we could get only 2.5G speeds. If you're outside the UMTS network, you're unable to access video at all, and the download speeds are reduced to EDGE quality (100Kbps to 130Kbps).
It should also be noted that battery life when using the UMTS network is significantly shorter than with the slower GSM network. With UMTS coverage, we beat the rated talk time of 2 hours by an extra hour. But for UMTS standby time, we fell 3 days short of the promised 8 days. On the GSM network, we got 3 hours less than the rated talk time of 7.6 hours and met the promised standby time of 12.5 days. According to the FCC, the A845 has a digital SAR rating of 1.51W per kilogram.