O2 has become the first UK operator to launch i-mode, the service that is, as they say, big in Japan. i-mode is based around Internet sites designed specifically for small-format screens on handsets and phones designed with i-mode features and support at their core.
Four handsets were announced at launch, two of them from NEC. We've had a look at the less well specified but far more attractive 343i, with its sleek looks capturing our immediate attention. For all its charms, the NEC 343i isn't the best featured handset in the world, but then again, it isn't the most expensive either.
The NEC 343i is available from O2 for £49.99 on Pay as you Go.
Your first glance will tell you the NEC 343i is white, but look closer and you'll see that the front fascia is actually silver. It spangles as if a 100,000 little glitterspots have been scattered over it. If that sounds tacky, rest assured, it most certainly is not. We like.
Turn the handset over and you'll see lovely silvery shiny metal that helps add a feel of quality to proceedings. Easily missed is the tiny lens for the built-in camera, and the grille for the handset's speaker.
As you roll the NEC 343i in your hand you'll notice something else -- there is a single solitary connector on one edge, but the rest of the sides are smooth and connector-free. The connector does for both mains power and earbuds.
The keypad buttons are fabulously well designed. They're large, very responsive, and clearly marked. Press any one and the whole of the area beneath them lights up a cool blue.
Above the numbers are call and end keys and a navigation key. Above the call and end keys, where you'd expect to find soft-menu keys are two that you'll see on all i-mode handsets. They do map to soft menus, but they also have i-mode functions, the left one taking you to i-mode email, the right one displaying a yellow letter 'i' and taking you to the i-mode portal. We'll get to all this in more detail later.
Overall, the NEC 343i is small. Its 109 by 43 by 13mm size feels very comfortable in the hand, while its mere 95g is barely noticed in the pocket. With this in mind you might expect the screen to be small too, and if so you'd be right. It measures just 46mm (1.8 inches), and doesn't stretch out to the full width available. We are tempted to say it nestles, as there is plenty of handset casing to frame it.
It's not the best screen we've ever seen. It only delivers 65K colours. The CSTN technology lacks real shine or brightness. Additionally, the viewing angle is poor. You need to look at the screen head-on for best effect and it can be difficult to see what's going on with the NEC 343i sitting flat in front of you on a desk or coffee table.
The NEC 343i comes with a rather nice leather-look case that encloses the good looks in black, but protects the handset nicely. You also get a wrist lanyard and a mono earbud.
i-mode is where it's at with this handset, so what's it all about?
A combination of handset features and Internet site design mean that i-mode services are specially produced to work at their best with specific handsets. O2 is the only UK operator with an i-mode service.
There are 100 i-mode sites offering services at launch, and they include banking, travel, shopping, news, games and suchlike. Some high-profile names are there. Check out the full list here.
You need to subscribe to the services you want separately -- O2 decrees that none can cost more than £3 a month. In addition, browsing and downloading costs £3 per megabyte, though bolt-on data bundles can reduce that significantly. There are introductory rates available at the time of publication.
There is also an email service -- accessed with that key containing the email marker. This is free to use till April 2006, then you start paying.
The NEC 343i itself might look good, and handle well but it is feature-light. Take the camera, for example. It is limited to what we consider a pretty poor maximum resolution of 640x480 pixels, with two other, lower, resolutions on offer (320x240 and 150x120). There is a zoom feature, and you can tweak brightness and apply a few filters (sepia, monochrome and blue). But there is no flash, and no video mode. Think of this as a handset for taking images purely to send to others via MMS rather than anything more fancy.
There's not much going on in the memory department, either. You get just 1.3MB and no expansion slots for you to add more. One of the knock-on effects of this is that while there is a voice memo function, what you can do with it is limited: you can only record memos up to 50 seconds in length.
There is no music playback facility, and you only get a mono earbud which has a proprietary connector to the headset. Oh, and for some odd reason there is no Bluetooth either. You don't get facilities to share information with a PC.
The NEC 343i itself is a joy to use for voice calls thanks to a very well designed keypad. Calls were loud enough, though the speakerphone could do with more volume.
i-mode worked well. It is certainly fast and sites generally look good. Subscription costs for each site are clearly displayed. We had the odd connection problem at first, but these were generally quickly resolved. The i-mode button takes you straight to the portal, there's some page caching so you don't have to keep downloading as you browse, and bookmarks are also a help.
We were able to go outside the i-mode area, but had varied success. We did okay with specially formatted sites like bbc.co.uk/mobile, but full-blown Web sites were all but unusable, which rather cramps this handset's style.
Battery life too was acceptable. We administered daily power charges to be on the safe side, but with no music player on board we didn't often make much more than 20 minutes of usage daily combining phone calls and i-mode use.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide