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NEC N600i review: NEC N600i

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The Good High-speed i-Mode access with video content. Detailed menu options. Large screen. Nifty external display.

The Bad Too many navigational buttons (13). User interface is complex. Waiting period for some functions and network access. Inexplicable i-Mode errors. Slightly bulky build.

The Bottom Line Serviceable 3G i-Mode clamshell phone with larger than usual screen and all the usual bells and whistles, but the user interface will probably drive you crazy.

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Is it a phone, or is it a PDA? Well, it's definitely a phone, but the overly-complex user interface of the NEC N600i makes you think the designers had something else in mind.

Design
No doubt you'll see this phone around a lot because it's one of the first models Telstra has started selling with its new third-generation (3G) mobile service, which offers the ability to make video calls and watch video content on your handset. It's also billed as the first 3G phone in Australia to integrate with Telstra's i-Mode platform (which delivers customised Internet content), so no doubt it'll prove popular.

However, the N600i's bulky build is also noticeable. Part of this is due to a larger screen, which at approximately 4.5cm (height) and 3.5cm (width) is a bit bigger than normal, but at a full 2cm the total thickness also has something to do with it.

The outside of this clamshell phone is a grey colour with a slight sheen, and a 1.7cm antenna juts out of the top. Overall, the phone is a bit more than a pocketful and can be unsightly unless you're used to carrying a hefty smart phone or PDA.

An exterior rectangular display that changes depending on what you're doing with the phone is kind of nifty, for example it typically displays the time, but will light up and display the NEC logo when you open the handset, display 'still camera' when you're taking a photo or 'video camera' when filming.

The phone opens with a satisfying 'snick' noise to reveal an overly complex array of thirteen navigational buttons and the standard numerical touchpad. Not only is there a dedicated Telstra i-Mode button but there is a 'menu' button, two buttons for accepting and hanging up from calls, and three buttons marked simply with dots. To top it off, what looks like a scroll wheel in the middle is actually a thumbpad with five multi-functional buttons.

Two external buttons provide volume control.

Features
The N600i has just about everything you could want from a modern phone -- a 1.3-megapixel camera that can also record video, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, 20MB of internal memory (and the ability to expand with a TransFlash memory card), and a speakerphone.

The ability to play polyphonic ring tones is fairly standard for new phones, but the N600i can also play media files encoded in MP3, AAC or MPEG4 formats. It goes beyond basic text message capability to add MMS (audio, image and video), and also offers e-mail.

However perhaps the flagship feature of this phone is its ability to access the i-Mode service utilising the higher speed of the 3G network connection.

We were able to use i-Mode to quickly and easily access a range of textual and multimedia content such as news, weather, e-mail, shopping, classified advertisements and games. Few i-Mode channels offered video content, but a few delivered acceptable quality streams, such as the ABC News.

Performance
The big negative of the N600i is clearly its user interface, which is not intuitive and takes a bit of getting used to. There are simply too many (13) navigational buttons, and they are not standardised. In most phones, the buttons perform a similar task (eg 'cancel') no matter which function of the phone you're using. In the N600i they don't.

In addition, the N600i treats each phone function as an 'application', similar to the way a PC does. This means if you want to use another function it will sometimes ask you if you want to -quit" whatever you're doing. A non-technical user could be confused by such a question.

Ultimately, if you dig down into the menu system of the N600i, it's clear the phone offers more options than most basic phones do... but you probably won't ever work out how use them - and you'll want to keep the 70-page manual on-hand.

One problem area in particular is in sending or receiving text messages. This function - one of the most-used on modern phones - is quite difficult to master compared with the simplistic functions of other phones on the market.

The performance of the phone itself is OK, but you will sometimes experience a waiting period of several seconds while the phone loads a function.

The big plus of the N600i is i-Mode. The service works, and it works quite speedily, displaying nicely on the larger than average screen. However, you will sometimes experience a lag of several seconds while content loads - similar to browsing the Web on a 56k modem. This problem is probably not specific to the N600i and is likely more related to the speed of the 3G network, which Telstra claims is capable of up to 300kbps.

Other i-Mode anomalies include inexplicable errors with certain sites, and if you read a lot of text your thumb will quickly get tired of hitting the scroll button.

In brief, if you want a 3G clamshell phone that does i-Mode, the N600i is a serviceable option, although time will probably deliver better ones. Make sure to read the manual first and look elsewhere (probably at a smart phone) if you're a business user with more demanding needs than the average consumer.

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