In the age of the smartphone the race to find the perfect device largely centers on blisteringly fast data speeds, big beautiful screens, and more apps than you can shake a reasonably large stick at.
The T-Mobile 768 offers none of those things. It's an incredibly basic $72 (sans contract) flip phone that makes calls and sends text messages. That isn't necessarily a bad thing: clear call quality and a compact size set this humble device up to be a fine option for anyone on a budget and who doesn't mind using an old-school keypad. Beyond communication, there are more features packed into the 768's humble frame, but they're trapped behind a kludgy interface.
At first blush, there isn't very much going on here. A simple dark-blue band separates the 2-megapixel camera from the rest of the black body. The phone's textured underside is appreciably grippy, staying put on most surfaces and comfortable to hold. The phone is light enough at 3.45 ounces, just over 2 inches wide, 4 inches tall (when shut) and just 0.69 inch thick -- it'll disappear into your pocket or bag. The hinge is pretty sturdy, and the phone feels nice and rigid in the hand. It also slaps shut suddenly and authoritatively with a satisfying clack, though I'd recommend being a bit gentler -- your fingers will thank you.
Volume controls and a dedicated camera button run along either side of the phone. Press any of those buttons on the side and the external display lights up, offering up the current time and icons for things like missed text messages and calls, the phone's battery level, or your network connectivity status. It also serves as a caller ID.
Crack the 768 open, and there still isn't much to write home about. The 2.4-inch, 320x240-pixel-resolution screen is dismal in the era of the Retina Display, but perfectly functional here. Glare becomes problematic in direct light and color accuracy is a bit poor, but there's very little chance you'll be using this screen for anything other than reading or writing text, which remains crisp and clear.
The phone's four-way directional pad is smooth and a bit slippery to the touch, but plenty accurate for navigating the phone's menus. These consist of a 3x3 grid of icons that give you access to things like messaging, tools, and phone settings. This sort of menu system was commonplace five to 10 years ago, but it feels positively labyrinthine nowadays.
The alphanumeric keypad is backlit, and serviceable. The buttons have infinitesimally small bumps so you can technically dial by feel, but it's ultimately just a flat, featureless pad. I'll admit I've been spoiled by spacious keyboards and predictive-text apps like SwiftKey, but the typing experience on the phone's narrow keyboard feels a bit miserable, especially in my admittedly large hands. But if you're still accustomed to early-2000s-style T9 texting, you'll be right at home here. Of note: the predictive text function is a bit hidden. While you're composing a message you'll need to hold down the pound key to activate a "Smart" typing mode -- pretty easy to miss if you don't check the manual.
The keypad is actually kind of pretty, though. The black panel and silver accents catch the light just so, evoking a whiff of the same sort of gadget lust I remember feeling for the Motorola Razr and its successors, circa 2007. And those were good times, weren't they?
That the T-Mobile 768 kind of, sort of manages to hold its own against Motorola's venerable flip phone is...admirable, if we're going to hold ourselves to 2007 standards. The 768's address book offers room for up to 1,000 contacts, each with multiple contact numbers and email addresses, a photo, and their own ringtone, including audio files you've saved to the phone. The phone packs a meager 30MB of onboard storage, but offers support for up to 32GB of expandable storage via a microSD slot under the phone's backplate. That's pretty awesome, actually, with plenty of room for music and the like. The built-in FM radio tuner also works rather well, and while I rarely listen to terrestrial radio it's certainly a satisfying addition here.
The phone offers 3G connectivity, and the Opera Mini browser makes surfing the watered-down WAP Web decidedly less painful. You're restricted to mobile sites and much of the "real" Internet remains off-limits, though I did spend some time on text-heavy sites like Wikipedia. You can send and receive emails, with support for POP3 and IMAP -- if you have a Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, or Gmail account, you can simply enter your login information and be ready to go. The phone doesn't support instant messaging, but after composing text and email messages on the phone, the thought of having a real-time conversation on its alphanumeric keypad just sent a shiver up my spine.
There are a few game demos to try (including Tetris), and a weather and news app, but this is a decidedly bare-bones experience -- perfect if you aren't at all interested in the Web, but certainly a sore point for the rest of us. And there's more besides: you can create and prioritize tasks in the built-in to-do list manager, convert measurements with the unit converter, time yourself with a stopwatch or just take some notes. True, there's nothing really earth-shattering there, but these are genuinely useful tools that are buried in menus that are laborious to navigate. The phone also offers Bluetooth connectivity, which paired effortless with Bluetooth headsets. I mostly used it to transmit photos and videos I took with the 2-megapixel camera to my PC.
I needn't have bothered, as the 2-megapixel camera's quality is largely a miss. Given ample natural light the phone will have a slightly better chance of producing something recognizable, and perhaps even usable. But colors in my images consistently appear washed out, and the camera struggled to focus on static objects.
That said, there are exposure and white balance controls, and the camera is ready for duty within a second and a half of pressing the dedicated shutter button. There is no flash.
The camera can technically record video, but tops out at a 640x368-pixel resolution, and the image quality is just as poor as the still-camera experience. It struggles with movement, serving up a blurred, pixelated approximation of my subjects. If you're looking to pay comparatively little for a mobile phone, this mediocre level of quality is about what you can expect.
Fortunately, the T-Mobile 768 does an admirable job at the only thing it really needs to: making and receiving phone calls. I tested the GSM quadband (850/900/1800/1900) device in San Francisco and Oakland as was generally pleased with the results -- I could hear and was heard clearly, with only minor static momentarily interrupting one of my test conversations. It could stand to be a touch louder, but the overall experience was a good one. The FCC's radiation measurements list the phone's SAR rating at 0.747W/kg.
The speakerphone is decidedly less satisfying. It doesn't really get very loud, and sounds decidedly scratchier than the relatively clear earpiece calls. That much is to be expected from a basic flip phone -- particularly given the small size of the speaker on the rear.
The T-Mobile 768's 850 mAh battery is removable, and rated at 5.5 hours of talk time. In my own anecdotal tests that number holds up, as the phone powered through an idle weekend and a testing-heavy work day or two before needing to be topped up. And it charges via Micro-USB, which is great if you've got lots of modern devices and thus plenty of compatible charging cables lying about.
There are plenty of budget phones under the sun, but most device manufacturers manage to slap a fanciful moniker onto their wares, no matter how basic. Consider the Huawei Pal , the Pantech Vybe , or the Kyocera Verve . The T-Mobile 768's nondescript name doesn't exactly exude confidence -- the phone is made by Alcatel OneTouch. And truth be told it isn't a very impressive device, marred by a poor camera, labyrinthine menus, and an unimpressive display.
But here's the thing: this is a pretty good option if you aren't averse to T9 texting, and want to spend very little on a phone that makes calls well and can get you on the Internet in a pinch. And while it feels odd to be checking out a 3G clamshell phone in the era of the LTE smartphone, you'd be hard-pressed to beat the T-Mobile 768 on price: just $72 outright, or $3 a month over the course of two years. With T-Mobile's Starter plan ($40/month) you can expect to pay about $43 a month for unlimited talk and text, no data caps if you spend some time on T-Mobile's 3G network, and no contract to sign. If you just want to chat and don't need much else, that's not a bad deal.