From the intermittent red glow at the top to the matching red-and-black wrist strap at the bottom, the Nokia 7280 is a strange but stylish beast. Only the Nokia label on the side and the relentless advertising make it recognisable as a mobile phone. Without those clues, you might well believe you were looking at an Art Deco cigarette case, or perhaps a grooming kit.
Nevertheless, it is a phone, and a surprisingly well-featured one. Although it's barely bigger than a Mars bar, it gives you voice dialling and a speakerphone, infrared and Bluetooth, MMS and GPRS, a VGA camera and an FM radio. The matching case, strap and stereo headset add to the feeling of frivolity, but when it rings, it's all phone -- apart from the missing keypad. Instead of pressing buttons, you have to spin the multipurpose control wheel, which takes both practise and patience. It won't suit everyone, but if you're looking for a covetable, pocketable, fashion phone to complement your practical but big-as-a-brick smartphone, the 7280 might capture your heart. We've seen prices ranging from free with a £35/month contract to £330 SIM-free.
The 7280 is smaller than it looks in Nokia's adverts, measuring just 115 by 32 by 19mm. The cross section is a parallelogram rather than a rectangle, adding another dose of weirdness to a phone that isn't short of bizarre features.
It's made of glossy black plastic, with white and silver accents and two patches of a black, suede-like fabric. One patch covers the earpiece and the other provides a thumbgrip on the right-hand side. There's also a fabric tag with the Nokia logo. We aren't sure how the suede will hold up over time and you'll want to avoid touching it with greasy fingers. Otherwise the 7280 feels fairly solid.
The top of the phone slides upwards about 10mm to reveal a band of red plastic and the camera lens on the back. The good thing about this arrangement is that the lens is covered when you aren't using the phone, so there's much less risk of scratching it. You can also answer and end calls by opening and closing the slide.
Pulling the slide open activates the screen, which shines through the mirrored area. It's designed to be read with the phone held horizontally and is quite small, measuring just 30 by 15mm. Although it's bright and clear, the size sometimes feels restrictive. When you're scrolling through your list of contacts, there's only room for four names on the screen.
Hiding round the edges you'll find a hole that's actually a loudspeaker, a plastic rectangle that turns out to be the infrared port, a drawer for the SIM card, an accessory connector that's used for the supplied headset, a socket for the mains adaptor, and a loop for the wrist strap. The SIM drawer springs out when you poke the special SIM-removing tool into a small hole (if you lose your tool, a paperclip will do). The battery is not accessible, so if it needs replacing, you'll have to take it to a Nokia service centre. When the phone is turned on, the top end glows red for a couple of seconds every 20 seconds. This effect can be quite hard to detect during the day.
Supplied accessories include a black leather wrist strap with a red suede lining and a matching case. The case wraps around the phone like a corset, concealing everything except the earpiece. In theory you can still use the phone, because you can answer calls by yanking on the wrist strap to pull open the slide. However, we found this awkward and managed to break the wrist strap by pulling too hard. The other problem with the case is that it covers the speaker and muffles the vibration, making it easy to miss calls.
The power adaptor has a built-in spool for the cable. A mushroom-shaped rubber flange folds down over the coils of cable, keeping everything together. It's convenient when you're travelling. You also get a Quick Start guide and a CD containing a moody multimedia presentation that invites you to uncover the "intriguing secrets" of this "wondrous new mobile phone". If you want a proper manual, you have to download it from Nokia's Web site. This is taking the mystery too far.
The first thing everyone wants to know is how you enter numbers. Since the 7280 has only five keys -- Send, End, Select and two soft keys -- this presents something of a challenge. You must make friends with the black-and-silver wheel on the front, which Nokia calls the Navi spinner. Unlike the iPod's Click Wheel, it actually rotates, although it doesn't spin -- it turns through about 18 notched stops per revolution.
To enter a phone number, you press and hold the Select key (in the centre of the spinner). This brings up a character bar across the bottom of the screen. You can then use the spinner to scroll across to the first digit, press Select to enter it, use the spinner to scroll to the second digit, press Select to enter it... and so on. When you have (finally) picked out all the digits, you can press Send to place the call. It took us 20-30 seconds to enter 11-digit London numbers, compared to 5-7 seconds with a regular keypad.
Of course there are quicker ways to make calls. You can use your Contacts list, although even this is somewhat longwinded. Nokia has added an extra step to the process, forcing you to select a letter of the alphabet before you can jump into the list and scroll through the names.
Another option is to use voice dialling. To do this, you must first record a voice tag for the number you want to call. Longish tags work best, so you might say something like, "Call Michael at home." You can then make a call by pressing and holding one of the soft keys and repeating your tag. We had very consistent results with our voice tags and found them by far the best way to make calls. The only disappointment is that you can only have ten.
Adding contacts is best done using a second device. You can use Nokia's PC Suite software to transfer them from your PC, via infrared or Bluetooth, or beam them across from your Palm or Pocket PC handheld. You can also add them directly, but that involves using the spinner to spell out the person's name. Picking out letters is even slower than choosing numbers.
Speaking of letters, texting is painful. In place of the predictive text used on keypad phones, Nokia has created a system that brings the five most likely next letters to the beginning of the alphabet. It works well for common words, but there are still times when you have to spin through the whole alphabet. It took us 26 seconds to write, 'Where are you' and 95 seconds to spell out 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.' Impatience often caused us to overshoot and the complexity of the task left us with no spare brain power to handle spelling or grammar. If you send a lot of text messages, you won't like this phone.
Another problem with the 'five buttons and a spinner' approach is that it's hard to do anything mid call. When you're hit with the dreaded 'Press 1 to continue' voice prompt, for example, you have to press one of the soft keys, spin down the menu and select Send DTMF, pick out the correct number, press the soft key again and then press Select. By this time you've been passed on to an operator because you were too slow to respond.
Likewise, changing the earpiece volume involves a press and a spin and a press and a spin, with the phone away from your ear so you can see what you're doing. You can make these operations easier by switching to speakerphone mode, which only involves pressing two buttons. At top volume the speakerphone is loud enough to be embarrassing in a quiet office.
The VGA camera is fine for MMS and Nokia makes it easy to capture and send images. You can take normal 640 x 480-pixel images or switch to Portrait mode to capture tiny 80 x 96-pixel images to add to your Contacts. There's a 4x digital zoom, a self timer and night mode for capturing images in low light. That's your lot, though -- and considering the size of the screen, it's enough. The camera is a handy extra rather than a core feature of the phone.
Using the default settings, images have good colours, but are soft and show a lot of JPEG artefacts. Switching to the High Quality setting reduces the compression and makes a marked improvement in the sharpness and smoothness of the images, at the expense of increasing the file size. At a pinch, and with good light, you could capture a printable image.
The 7280 supports GPRS and even has a built-in browser. Viewing Web pages on the tiny screen is like reading the paper through your letterbox, but it does work. More usefully, you can use the phone as a wireless modem for another device, such as a laptop or PDA.
Other features include a voice recorder that enables you to record a call or voice memo for up to three minutes. Organiser features include an alarm clock, calendar, to-do list and notes. It supports Bluetooth as well as infrared and we had no problems pairing it with a Sony Ericsson headset. It doesn't have games or support for Java -- this is a phone for your party lifestyle, not for sitting in a corner playing Snake. There isn't a music player, but you can listen to FM radio using the supplied stereo headset. You can scan for the next occupied frequency and save the locations of your favourite stations. Assuming you have a good signal, the music is very clear.
Call audio was clear and adequately loud, once we'd adjusted the earpiece volume (that ought to be a no-brainer, but because the volume setting is tucked away in a menu, it's easy to miss). The people we called had no problems hearing us. GPRS connections dropped out occasionally, but no more so than with other phones.
Battery life appeared to be in the middle of the range. It typically lasted a few days between charges, rather than the week or more we've seen with some phones. However, it certainly isn't as power hungry as the big-screen smartphones.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Nick Hide