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Music cell phones have become a hot commodity in 2006, with almost every manufacturer getting into the game. Sony Ericsson's Walkman handsets in particular have emerged as favorites of mobile music fans, but Nokia has countered with its quality N-series smart phones that come packed with multimedia features. But let's face it, not everyone needs a fancy smart phone such as the Nokia N91 so we're glad to welcome the new Nokia 5300 Xpress Music. Packed into a unique but user-friendly design is an exceptional music player and a broad range of features including a 1.3-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, and an expandable memory slot. And yes, it delivers on performance as well. The 5300 is available with T-Mobile in black and lilac for $99. You can also get an unlocked version in red for $300, but even at that price we reckon it's worth it.
At first glance you might think there's nothing cutting edge about the Nokia 5300's design. Yes, it's a bit boxy and a little bulky (3.6 by 1.9 by 0.8 inches), but it's lighter than it looks (3.6 ounces), and ultimately it's a form factor that deserves closer inspection. First off, the 5300 Xpress Music is a slider phone. Though Nokia is just starting to ease into the slider craze, it hasn't stopped the company from succeeding here. The slider mechanism slides up and down with one hand, yet it is sturdy enough to feel comfortable in the hand. Our only quibble--and this is a small one--is that the 5300 feels somewhat top-heavy when the slider is up. As with most slider phones, the 5300 won't cradle against the curve of your head, but we've never considered that quirk to be a big deal. Durability is a key theme with this phone; its midsection is wrapped in a rubberized covering that extends down to the navigation controls (see below). We also like the offbeat red-and-white color scheme--call it the Austrian phone--but there's a black-and-white version for more traditional tastes.
The picture-perfect QVGA display measures 2 inches (320x240 pixels) and supports 262,144 colors. Equal to the gorgeous screen on the Nokia 6126, it offers an eye-popping array of colors, and displayed everything from graphics to texts to games beautifully. The simple but attractive menus are also a treat to view, and we love that Nokia provides a description of unfamiliar applications if you hold the cursor over the corresponding icon. You can change the font size and the backlight time, and even though you can't alter the brightness, the display is plenty bright as it is.
Below the display are the spacious and user-friendly navigation controls. As previously mentioned, they are covered in a rubberized skin, which makes them quite tactile and easy to find by feel. A five-way toggle also acts as a shortcut to four-user defined functions, and there's a selection of additional shortcuts on the standby screen as well. There are also two soft keys, which are programmable for one-touch access, and the Talk and End buttons. Our only complaint was that the backlighting on these keys is a bit dim. To reveal the keypad buttons, just slide up the front face. Spacious and brightly backlit, the individual buttons are raised above the surface of the phone. Such texture is unique for a slider phone, but it's a welcome change as the keys are easy to use even if they are a tad slippery.
Lining the immediate left side of the display are dedicated music controls that give easy access to the music player. Once inside, you can play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind your tracks. Fortunately these buttons are also covered in the rubber skin, so they're every tactile and easy to find when you're not looking at the phone. The left-facing keys may be unintuitive to some users, but we didn't mind. On the right spine of the bottom half of the slider is a volume rocker and a dedicated camera shutter. The rubber texture extends here as well, and raised ridges make the volume rocker easily accessible when holding the phone to your ear. As with many other camera phones, the Nokia 5300's ergonomics give it a camera-like feel when you hold the phone horizontally with the shutter control facing up. The camera lens sits on the back of the phone, with a self-portrait mirror, but we're disappointed there's no flash. The infrared port sits on the right spine, while the power control and ports for the mini-USB cable and the charger rest on the phone's top end. Finally, the headset jack is in the top-left corner.
Our only real design complaint concerns the placement of the Micro SD card slot. You must remove the battery cover to access it, so make sure you sharpen your nails. Though you don't have to remove the battery as well, it's still a bit annoying.
There's a lot to talk about when it comes to the 5300's features, but we'll get the basics out of the way first. There's a large 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers plus a PTT number, e-mail and Web addresses, a job title and a company name, work and home street addresses, a birth date, a nickname, a formal name, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can organize callers into groups or pair them with a photo for caller ID purposes. For a music phone, the choice of polyphonic ring tones was small--you get just 10, 64-chord tones--but they're assignable to contacts as well. Other standard offerings include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a voice recorder, e-mail and instant messaging, an alarm clock, a calendar, a to-do list, a notepad, a calculator, a countdown timer, and a stopwatch.
Despite the music focus, the 5300 comes with a raft of business features including full Bluetooth with a stereo profile, an infrared port, a speakerphone, PC syncing, a mini-USB port and a unit/currency converter for international travelers. Support for push-to-talk networks is also onboard, but since the phone is unlocked, you may not be able you use it with your carrier's PTT services. For example, Cingular typically doesn't allow unlocked phones access to its PTT network. Though the 5300 comes with a Micro SD card slot that supports cards up to 2GB in size, the internal memory is a skimpy 5MB of shared space. True, you're more likely to use a memory card for storing multimedia files, but we still think 5MB is much too small for this caliber of phone.
Now, it's on to the 5300's star attraction: its superior music player. Though a lot of cell phones have experimented with mobile music, few of them get it right, beyond the Sony Walkman phones. But the Nokia 5300 has everything we look for a in such a phone--there's stereo Bluetooth and a large selection of features, it's easy to transfer files to the phone, it's user-friendly with a simple interface and well-designed controls, it has few restrictions, it offers plenty of memory, and last, but certainly not least, it offers exceptional sound quality over stereo speakers. The player supports, MP3, AAC, AAC+, and WMA files.
As previously mentioned, the 5300 has large and tactile controls that give easy access to the media player. With a press of the exterior Play button, you can play your tunes; another press stops the player. While that method will open the player in a minimized form, you can access the full interface by going through the main menu. On that note, the player's design is minimalist, but it's still attractive and easy to use. It displays the track name and length, artist, and album name, while an icon mimicking the navigation toggle indicates how you can use it to control the player. Features include shuffle and repeat modes, stereo widening, an equalizer with five settings (two are customizable), an airplane mode, and the option of saving tracks as ring tones. And we're especially happy to report there's stereo Bluetooth as well. Please see below for an explanation of the player's performance.
The 5300 has an first-rate 1.3-megapixel camera that takes JPEG pictures in six resolutions: 1,280x1,024; 1,290x960; 800x600; 640x480; 320x240; and 160x120. You get a variety of camera settings including three quality modes, five color effects, a note mode, a 10-second self-timer, a sequence mode for shooting three photos in rapid succession, adjustable white balance, and an 8X zoom. The only thing missing is a brightness setting, but we're willing to overlook that omission. And as for camera sounds, you can turn them off but you can't choose a particular shutter tone. The aforementioned camera ergonomics and the slick camera interface make for a great user experience.
The camcorder shoots 3GPP videos in two resolutions (176x144 and 129x96) with sound. Other options are similar to the still camera, and you can mute the sound if you wish. The default mode lasts just 6 seconds, but you can also shoot longer clips, depending on the available memory. Image quality was pretty good for a 1.3-megapixel camera phone. Object outlines were distinct, but colors were somewhat faded. Video clips were fine--a bit grainy, as expected, but suitable for short clips. Besides saving photos to the phone, you can also send them via Bluetooth or a multimedia message or use the USB cable to transfer them to a computer for printing.
You can personalize the 5300 with a large variety of screensavers, wallpapers, themes, color styles, animations, and sounds. Gamers get Java (J2ME) support, but your choice of included titles will vary. We found Snake III, Pro Snowboard, and Music Guess on our test phone. The latter title asks you to match the tunes with the song on your playlist.
We tested the unlocked Nokia 5300 in San Francisco using T-Mobile's service. While that model is a quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) world phone, unfortunately the T-Mobile versions are only triband (GSM 850/1800/1900). We can't imagine why T-Mobile made the change but it's disappointing nonetheless. Call quality was quite admirable on the quadband, with excellent clarity and little distortion or interference from other devices. We felt the volume could be a bit higher; it was a little harder to understand conversations in noisier environments. Callers didn't report any significant problems, but voice-response systems had trouble understanding us unless we held the phone very close to our mouth. Speakerphone calls were fine, but voices were slightly more distorted on our end. We didn't have any issues with calls over a Bluetooth headset. Lastly, we had no problem getting a signal, and we were glad to see support for EDGE data networks.
Music quality was excellent and a step above most music phones. The stereo speakers put out sharp, clear sound with much more volume than voice calls. Sound quality diminished at the highest volume level, but we hardly consider that a sticking point. Music also sounded great over the included wired headphones, but the headset connection was a little loose. We liked, however, that Nokia chose a standard 2.5mm connection.
Getting music on the phone was a breeze with the included Nokia PC suite. We transferred 46MB of music in 3 minutes, 45 seconds, which is pretty fast when compared with the Motorola Razr V3i. The software, which you can use to sync your phone or to transfer a variety of file types, was easy to install and use, but with one tiny caveat: after transferring tracks, you'll have to update your music library in order to access the new tunes directly from the player.
The Nokia 5300 has a rated talk time of 3.2 hours and a promised standby time of 9.3 days. Our tests revealed a talk time of 3 hours and an MP3 playback time of 9 hours and 15 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests the Nokia 5300 has a digital SAR rating of 0.8 watts per kilogram.