Editors' note: We updated this review on April 26, 2011, to reflect additional testing.
Last year at Mobile World Congress, one of the most-talked-about cell phones at the show occupied a small red pavilion plastered with Puma's logo. Yes, you heard us correctly; a company otherwise known for shoes and sportswear competed with the likes of HTC and Sony Ericsson to offer a device that everyone wanted to see.
Corporate-themed phones are nothing new, so it wasn't the Puma name that gave the handset such novelty. Instead, the Puma phone's appeal stemmed from its solar panel, a fun design, and a quirky selection of sports-themed apps. Though it remains unlikely that the handset will ever make it to a U.S. carrier, we tracked down an unlocked model to see if the finished product lived up to the hype. Now, after a few days of testing, we can report that it does. The Puma Phone isn't a powerful, feature-laden smartphone by any means, but it offers a unique and enjoyable user experience not many handsets can match. We have a couple of complaints about the small display, but call quality is satisfying, and the solar panel lets you top off the handset's battery.
From the start, you'll notice that the Puma phone is a bit different. A silver Puma logo sits just above the screen, and red stripes and an angled line below the calling controls give it a bit of style. The handset measures 4.01 inches long by 2.25 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep and weighs 4.1 ounces. Its construction feels solid, even if the polished skin is a tad slippery.
The 2.8-inch display TFT display supports 262,000 colors and 240x320 pixels. Though it's not as vibrant as most current touch-screen phones, it's bright enough and it fits the Puma Phone's sporty and functional image. You can switch between red and black backgrounds, adjust the brightness, and change the screen lock time.
The handset offers three home screens. At the far left is a menu for the sports apps, and the far right contains the remaining productivity and media features. Both home screens use an intuitive grid design with icons. The Settings menu is a little harder to find, but you'll soon notice a tab at the bottom-right corner that takes you there.
Between the two menus is a Favorites home screen that you can populate with your top apps. To place them there, just press and hold the icon until it floats over. You'll also find a pull-down bar at the top that offers instant access to your message and voice mail notifications, the phone's available memory, and the battery level. You also can activate the flight and silent modes, the Bluetooth and GPS features, and the alarm clock. It all feels very Android-like, even though Google's OS does not power the Puma Phone.
Below the display are the Talk and End buttons; the latter also functions as the Back key and the power control. Though they're flush with the surface of the handset, these controls give an audible click when pressed. Between them is a Home button that will take you back to the favorites menu when pressed once. Press it twice, however, and you'll call up the "Dylan," the animated puma that serves as the phone's mascot. His only role is to keep you entertained, and he succeeds at that. If you keep tapping the display, for example, he will change positions and move around. But if you leave him alone, he will disappear. Yes, it is a bit gimmicky, but we think it's cheeky and cool.
The display is responsive even if you can't change the sensitivity. It wasn't always accurate, however, particularly when we were tapping at smaller onscreen controls. Swiping through long menus was a bit better, though the phone had a slight lag.
The phone dialer has a standard design with large numbers, though it's odd that the keys aren't alphanumeric. As a result, you may need to glance at another phone when dialing 800 numbers that use letters. For typing the Puma Phone has two virtual keyboards. In portrait mode it's alphanumeric, but when you tip the handset to the left it will switch to full alphabetic. Both keyboards are pretty small, though, so we wouldn't recommend long diatribes. The Puma Phone does not have a proximity sensor.
On the Puma Phone's left side you'll find the Micro-USB port for the syncing cable and the standard wall charger. Unfortunately, it also accommodates the wired headset that comes in the eco-friendly cardboard box. On the left side are the volume rocker and camera shutter. Both are large and user-friendly. The rear side is dominated by the solar panel, but there's room up top for the camera lens and flash (a second camera lens is around front for video calling). You have to remove the battery cover to access the microSD card slot.
The Echo's phone book size is limited by the available memory (64MB), which is shared with other applications. Each entry holds just two phone numbers, but you can add fields for an e-mail, a birthday, a nickname, and notes. For caller ID you can pair contacts with a photo and one of seven ringtones. The selection is pretty unusual; there's just one melody, with the rest being animal sounds like a cat's meow, an eagle's screech, a puma's roar, and a tiger's growl.
Essential features include a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, Bluetooth, GPS, PC syncing, and USB mass storage. When using the latter two features, our PC instantly recognized the Puma Phone when we connected the two using a USB cable. You'll also be able to access an electronic user guide and quick start manual and transfer files aback and forth. For security purposes, you can lock the Puma Phone with a PIN lock or an onscreen pattern.
For written communication, the handset supports text and multimedia messaging and most POP3 IMPA4 e-mail accounts (like Yahoo and Gmail) through a Web-based interface. You also get video calling, though we weren't able to try it, and three games. Bubble Tap, for example, lets you pop virtual bubble wrap, and Spin the Bottle shows an onscreen bottle that you can spin with your finger.
As mentioned, the Puma Phone offers several apps that focus on sports and recreation. Onboard are a stopwatch, a countdown timer, a compass, an RSS feed for sites like BBC Sports, and a run and bike tracker that uses the handset's GPS capabilities. An "egg timer" is one of the most unusual features we've seen on a phone, but we like the hourglass interface. The camera flash also doubles as a bright flashlight if you hold down the shutter key.
The camera takes pictures in four resolutions, from 3.1 megapixels down to QVGA. Other features include a self-timer, three quality settings, four exposure modes, and four color effects. The flash will help brighten dim places, and you can switch to the front camera for self-portraits. The camcorder records clips with sound. Editing options are limited to just the four color effects, but you can record for as long as the available memory permits.
Photo quality is pretty decent for a 3-megapixel shooter. There was a bit of image noise and the edges of photos looked a little blurry, but colors were bright, and we had enough light even when indoors. All your shots are stored in a media gallery in which you can view them as a slideshow.
The music player comes with mostly standard features like shuffle, loop, and 3D sound. It was easy to load music on the phone via a USB cable or memory card, and you can also send media via Bluetooth, e-mail, or a multimedia message. Aspiring DJs can use the "record" scratch feature that let you play songs while swiping a virtual record. It's fun for about 5 minutes. The Puma Phone also has an FM radio, though you'll need to use the wired headset as an antenna.
The WAP 2.0 browser is nothing special, so we wouldn't recommend the Puma Phone for the always-online set. You will have to use mobile sites, and the experience just felt a little clunky. You can access the Puma World portal for more Web content.
We tested the tri-band (GSM 900/1800/1900; EDGE) Puma Phone using AT&T service. Keep in mind that since the Puma Phone lacks one of the GSM bands used in North America (850), you'll have to depend solely on the 1900 frequency when calling in the United States and Canada. As a result, your reception will vary according to you location and the carrier that you're using (the handset will work on T-Mobile as well). As a general rule, the 850 band is used only as a backup in urban areas (where 1900 is more prevalent), but it is the primary band in rural areas, especially for AT&T. If you stick mainly to the city you shouldn't have a problem, but coverage will vary as you travel outside populated areas.
That's why call quality was decent when we used the Puma Phone in San Francisco. Voices sounded slightly metallic at times, but on the whole our friends sounded natural. Volume could have been louder, though it was sufficient for most places. Only when we were calling from a crowded room was it difficult to hear. The signal also remained strong with only a slight hint of static.
Puma Phone call quality sample Listen now:
Reports from the other end were mostly positive. Our friends could tell that we were using a cell phone, but the audio was clear and natural. They also mentioned a trace of static and said the volume was low. In fact, it does appear that the Puma Phone's microphone is a tad sensitive. Our callers could hear us when we held the phone close, but our friends said the volume level dropped significantly if we moved the phone even slightly away. It was the same story with automated calling systems: no serious issues as long as we called from a quiet room. The speakerphone is adequately clear, but it could be louder as well.
Data coverage also is subject to restrictions. Since it supports only the 3G bands used in Europe (HSDPA 900/2100), you will be stuck on EDGE at home. Five years ago, EDGE would have been fine, but it's pretty unbearable these days.
Unfortunately, it was cloudy and occasionally rainy during the two days we used to review the phone so we never made it outside to give it a natural charge. Unlike the Samsung Blue Earth, the Puma Phone's solar panels don't kick in under a desk lamp or interior lighting. Also, it barely registered a charge when we placed it in a sunny window.
To really test the solar panel, we took the Puma Phone on a weekend trip to Las Vegas. Naturally, abundant sun greeted us in the desert, including during an afternoon at the pool. When we started the test, the Puma Phone's battery level was at 48 percent. After about an hour and a couple phone calls, it climbed to about 57 percent. Granted, that's not a lot, but the solar panel does deliver a steady power source while the phone is in standby mode.
On that note, keep in mind that the solar panel is really meant for topping off the phone rather than delivering a full charge. As we said in our Blue Earth review, the panels don't work when the phone is completely dead, so you can't abandon the wall charger completely. Instead, use an electrical outlet for delivering your daily juice and use the sun for an extra zap when you're on the go. Lastly, remember that leaving a gadget in the hot sun is never a good idea.
In other battery quirks, the Puma Phone replaces the normal battery meter with words like "Full" (completely charged), "Happy (mostly charged), "Hungry" (no charge), and "Feeding" (charging) to describe the power level. You also can click through to a separate screen to see the number of messages sent, calling minutes used, and music played as powered by the sun.
The Puma Phone has a rated battery life of up to 5 hours talk time on 3G and 3.5 hours on EDGE. The promised standby time is 16.6 days, and music time should take you to 25 hours. Our tests showed a talk time of only 3 hours and 47 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Puma Phone has a digital SAR of 1.24 watts per kilogram.
You may call the phone gimmicky, but we think it succeeds since it pretends to be nothing else than what it really is. From the start, the Puma has sold the phone as a fun device that offers a unique and sporty user experience. And when you evaluate the handset on those claims alone, there is a lot to like.
It's true, however, that the Puma Phone is a study in contrasts. It's not long on features, but it offers enough quirky apps beyond the basics to keep you occupied. The small display can be frustrating at times, but a simple interface and an eye-catching design give it appeal. And finally, though the volume could be louder, audio clarity was good, and the solar panel should deliver extra juice. The unlocked Puma Phone isn't available with a carrier in the United States, but you can get from third-party retailers like Expansys.com for an affordable $129.