With news of Blackberry's new Bold handset still ringing in our ears, it's hard to imagine anyone going up against it in the handheld emailer device stakes. But still rivals based on Windows continue to appear, and as Motorola's Q 9h proved a couple of weeks ago, it's not an entirely lost cause. The key with a Blackberry, slab-style email handset is to get the keyboard right. With that done, the rest should follow. And on this front, Orange's SPV-E610 - licensed from Chinese manufacturer Amoi - makes a highly promising start.
The angled diagonal keys don't look like they're very usable - in fact they look uncannily like the horrible keyboard on Samsung's venerable i620 phone. But they're actually pretty easy to type on, with text messaging and emails simple to tap out, as are calendar entries and tasks. It's not the physical size of the keys that proves most helpful here, but the fact that they're just separated by enough space to mean that you're not constantly hitting neighbouring letters. I also liked the fact that they have a lovely, positive, clicky action. This means you know precisely when you've actually registered a key press.
Elsewhere I wasn't quite so bowled over. Though the SPV-E610 has a decent keyboard, the cluster of control buttons that sit just below the screen aren't nearly as pleasant to use. They exhibit the same positive action, but the two soft keys and the Home and the Back keys that sit to the left and right of the five-way d-pad are just too small, even for my slender thumbs. I found myself having to look to see which button I was pressing. Around the edges of the device, it's a similar story: though it's nice to have a scroll wheel, the back button and power buttons alongside it are small and fiddly, as are the camera and Windows Media Player shortcut keys on the opposite side.
And this certainly isn't a phone for anyone concerned with looks. Its square, blocky and chunky profile doesn't have the wow factor of other handsets, such as the Blackberry 8820 or Motorola Q 9h. And though it's not significantly larger than either of those handsets at 62 x 115 x 13mm, or heavier at 125g, its rubbery finish and angular-profile make it feel much bigger.
Specifications-wise, the disappointments continue. There's no HSDPA here - just GPRS and EDGE - you get no Wi-Fi for use in hotspots, and Bluetooth is just the 1.2 variety. The memory complement is pretty mean, with just 128MB of storage in total and 64MB RAM - this can be expanded with a microSD card, but annoyingly you have to wrench the battery compartment cover off to get at the slot. Slightly more impressive is the fact that the SPV-E610's 2-megapixel camera is equipped with a flash and portrait mirror, but results with this are as iffy as they are with most smartphones - and certainly no match for Sony Ericsson's camera phones, for instance. The battery life is nothing out of the ordinary either. With talk time quoted at 4 hours and standby at 7 days, I found I was able to extract little more than two days use out of the handset with occasional use as a phone, the odd bit of web browsing and checking and sending email a few times a day.