I’ve had it said to me on more than one occasion that Windows Mobile phones are all the same. Sure they look different; some have hardware keyboards and some plain numeric, but there’s nothing radical under the hood. It’s still dour old Microsoft powering the show, with even the latest version of its mobile operating system beginning to show its age now that Apple has shown its hand and Google has begun to muscle in.
There’s no denying that Microsoft desperately needs to revamp its mobile operating system, but the effect of this isn’t all bad. Its inertia has forced handset manufacturers to take the lead and as a result we’ve seen a constant stream of hardware innovations over the past two years or so: GPS, HSDPA, touch-sensitive and high-resolution screens are commonplace now, and bundled software extras are also an area where manufacturers seek to stand out.
With i-mate’s latest business email companion – the Ultimate 8150 – the innovation is somewhat more unusual. On the outside it looks pretty standard stuff – but on the right side is an unusual socket that hints at something slightly different. This smartphone can be hooked up to an external monitor. The ability comes courtesy of nVidia’s GoForce 5500 graphics chip, which allows output of resolutions up to 1024 x 768 and it works rather splendidly. Using a special cable supplied in the box, which also carries audio, you simply hook the 8150 up to a spare D-SUB socket on your monitor and then switch between external and built in screens as you would on a full blown notebook. Cunningly, once you switch to the external output the touch screen on the 8150 turns into a touchpad and you use it to control a cursor on screen in much the same way as you would on a notebook.
The target audience of such a feature is, of course, the mobile presenter – it offers the opportunity to travel light and yet still be able to display basic slideshows. But contractors could also find a use for it. While you’re out on-site, with the addition of a Bluetooth fold away keyboard, it turns any spare monitor into a mini workstation. In fact, just to prove a point, I wrote the entirety of this review on the 8150 hooked up in just this way.
XGA output is certainly an interesting, potentially useful feature, and there aren’t any other smartphones I can think of that can offer such functionality. But unfortunately the 8150 can’t back this innovation up elsewhere. To start with, it’s a pretty chunky phone, even by Windows Mobile standards. The screen isn’t that big at 2.6in, but with a half centimetre surround, the phone is larger than it needs to be. It’s equipped with a standard, mechanical numeric keypad below it, but it’s absolutely huge – again, bigger than necessary – with super-wide number keys stretching across the full width of the phone’s chassis.
The styling won’t be to everyone’s tastes – it looks more like a military accessory than a modern consumer techno fashion accessory, with its matt-black plastic stealth finish, blue LEDs and bombproof build quality – and a real ugly duckling when compared with the Glofiish phones I reviewed recently.
And the usability doesn’t impress that much either. I’d like to say that those massive buttons on the numeric keypad made the phone easier to use than those on a standard-sized handset, but I can’t. They’re stiff, not particularly responsive to press and trying to use them to tap out short text messages and email is a nightmare because you can’t seem to hit two in quick succession and get the 8150 to reliably recognise both key presses. The way the numbers are printed on the keys doesn’t help here – the left column of buttons has the numerals printed right next to the boundary with the central column and in dark conditions this makes it all too easy to press the wrong key.
That said, there are some saving graces, and you can’t deny that the Ultimate 8150 lives up to its name. It packs in plenty of power, for instance, with an XScale PXA 270 520MHz processor inside and a good helping of RAM (128MB) and ROM (256MB). Data connections are fast too, with HSDPA, 3G and GPRS with EDGE to ensure lightning quick downloads and browsing. Plus you get an FM tuner, Wi-Fi, a two megapixel camera with light and portrait mirror, plus a front-facing VGA camera. The only thing missing is a GPS receiver.
And, apart from that horrid keypad, some of the other controls are quite nicely thought out. The mini joystick embedded in the numeric keypad, for instance, works well for navigating around the Windows Mobile 6 interface, as does the jog wheel on the left edge. The addition of a button on the side dedicated to launching the Wireless Manager is a nice touch too.
I also like the fact that the 8150 can be charged up very quickly. Put it in ‘fast charge’ mode and it’s replenished in a couple of hours or so. Unfortunately, the battery life itself brings it all back down to earth with a resounding bump. The seemingly capacious 1,530mAh was rarely good enough for a day or so of occasional use. In the three weeks I used the phone I never managed to extract more than two days from it, and this was without Bluetooth or the Wi-Fi adaptor switched on.
The i-mate Ultimate 8150 certainly crams in plenty of features – it’s fast all round and jammed full of the latest smartphone goodies. Plus there’s that rather unusual extra of being able to output to an external monitor or projector.
But features aren’t everything when it comes to phones, and the size, design, and battery life of this one are not up to scratch. If you desperately want the display output it’s pretty much unique. If you don’t, the TyTN II still rivals it for features but in a smaller, much more usable package, whereas those from Glofiish are vastly more stylish.
Score in detail
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