In late 2005 UT Starcom introduced the CDM-180, the square cell phone with the weird display. At the time, the CDM-180 didn't receive rave reviews and it soon disappeared into the Verizon graveyard. So we were very much surprised to see Pantech pick up the same design with its PN-218. Available for Alltel, the PN-218 is a near clone of the Verizon phone, which in all honesty is not a good thing. We're still unimpressed with the landscape display and the phone's overall design. On the upside, you can get it for just $9 with service. To find ringtones and accessories for this phone, plus advice and tips on how to use it, check out our Cell phones ringtones, accessories, and help page.
Like its CDM-180 counterpart, the PN-218 lacks traditional cell proportions, so it looks almost square when viewed from the front. It's a strange shape to say the least and it's still a design we're not entirely comfortable with. It's not that it isn't pretty--indeed not every cell phone has to be--rather, it's just that the PN-218's dull silver color scheme and overlapping square shapes make it look like a kid's walkie-talkie. At 3.02 inches high by 2.15 inches wide by 0.96 inch thick and weighing 3.79 ounces, the PN-218 is marginally bigger and heavier than the CDM-180 and it has a surprisingly solid feel. It still slips easily into a pocket, yet the square shape can feel a bit awkward in the hand. But that's a judgment call on your part.
The external display is a bit small (1 inch, 96x94 pixels) for the phone's overall size but it supports 65,000 colors and shows all the necessary information including the date, time, battery life, signal strength and caller ID (where available). Below the display is a small speaker while a covered headset jack, a camera control, and a volume rocker sit on the left spine. Like on the CDM-180, the camera lens and flash sit at the top of the phone's rear face. We'll say again: this isn't the most convenient location, as it is right where we wanted to rest our finger. Also, since the lens faces slightly upward, you have to tilt the phone in a strange position in order to take a photo of something straight in front of you. There's no self-portrait mirror but you can use the external display as a viewfinder for vanity shots.
Inside the PN-218 you'll discover the reason behind the handset's unique dimensions. At 1.8 inches (160x128 pixels), it's about the same size as many other cell phone displays, but the landscape orientation clearly sets it apart from other handsets. We're on the fence, though, as to whether different also equals good. While it's convenient for typing (and reading) long text messages, you also have to do a fair amount of scrolling when navigating a menu with a lot of options. The display does support 262,000 colors but it's not terribly bright or vibrant. Only the backlighting time and the contrast are adjustable, and be warned that some users may find the dialing and message text to be too small.
The keypad buttons were mostly unimpressive. The navigation toggle and central OK button are much too small and too flush with the surface of the phone to use comfortably. The toggle doubles as a shortcut to four functions but it's a bit annoying that in standby mode the OK button opens the camera rather than launching the main menu. Other controls consist of two soft keys, the Talk and End/power buttons and a Clear key. Though they're much bigger than the toggle, they're also flat with the surface of the phone. And the same goes for the keypad buttons--though they're a decent size they didn't lend themselves to dialing by feel. On the other hand, they have bright backlighting for dim situations.
The PN-218 offers a somewhat small 300-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, a Web address, and notes. You can assign contacts a picture and one of 15 polyphonic ringtones, and you can save friends to caller groups. Other features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a voice memo, a scheduler, an alarm clock, a memo pad, a calculator, a world clock, and a stop watch. On the higher end you also get a speakerphone and voice dialing.