- Review Price: £85.00
When Hutchinson launched as 3 in the UK a couple of years ago, it was heralded as a huge step forward for what could be done over a mobile network. However, when it came to the handsets, it seemed that mobile phones had taken a step back. The phones were large and bulky, unattractive to look at, difficult to use and tended to have battery life that was shorter than the attention span of a MTV junkie.
As you might have expected though, things have got better since then for 3G phones. We got all the proof we needed of this with our recent look at the Sony Ericsson V800, available exclusively on Vodafone. However, while this is an all-singing all-dancing showcase for the latest technology it’s also a £200 device. With the 338, NEC has taken a different approach. It’s a truly unremarkable phone to look at, but that in essence, is the point. True it’s no stunner, but by taking a no-frills approach, NEC has created a 3G phone for the masses. At first glance, you’d have a hard time guessing that it was a 3G phone, which is itself an achievement. The only clue is the rotateable camera built into the hinge. And at only 93.8 x 47.1 x 23.3mm, the 338 is the smallest 3G phone currently available and weighs only 114g. NEC has been a bit cheeky however, as the height doesn’t include the aerial, which adds another couple of centimetres.
The main body is split into two with a silver fascia with black plastic towards the top. The sections are separated by a small horizontal light set in a strip that flashes when there’s an incoming call, and glows when charging. There’s no external display, a feature that’s clearly a casualty of the cost cutting approach. This means that you have to flip the phone open if you want to see who’s calling.
To create a smaller phone, NEC has had to be fairly ruthless on features. Top of the missing-in-action list is Bluetooth, which means that you can’t enjoy the freedom and for that matter the legality, of using your phone in the car, via a wireless headset. There is a wired headset included in the box however, which is rather retro. The lack of Bluetooth also rules out wireless synching to your PC. Furthermore there’s no memory card expansion slots. Luckily, there a decent 17MB of memory built-in so you can get a fair amount of content on there. There’s also a USB cable available so you can synch with Outlook and transfer the clips that you’ve downloaded and paid for off the phone to keep. However, it’s only available as a £10 extra accessory, and not included in the box, so I wasn’t able to test this feature.
The 338 is currently available in the UK exclusively on 3 on both prepaid and contract. As well as UMTS it supports GSM 900, 1800 and 1900, so can be used across Europe and in the US. When it finds itself out of a 3G area the phone will automatically switch to GSM, and supports GPRS where available. Battery life if obviously dependant on signal strength in the area you’re in and the use to which you put the phone.
Now I have to admit that this is the first 3G phone I’ve used for any length of time and by all reports the battery life on the 338 is an improvement over earlier models. Nevertheless I quickly became aware that the phone needed feeding considerably more often than my own Sony Ericsson T630. The figures speak for themselves. On my T630 it’s 540 minutes talk-time and 116 for standby – on the NEC 338 it’s only 200 minutes talk-time and 300 minutes standby. This is also a full third less than the Sony Ericsson V800, which claims a talk-time of 10 hours/600 minutes. If you’re going to put the phone to any serious use during the day, with a heavy mixture of voice and video calls, and some video downloads, you’re going to have to charge it every evening.
While the exterior isn’t exciting, opening up the phone reveals a decent looking layout. What I wasn’t that keen on however, was the navigation system. Above the keypad is a four-way circular pad with a button at its centre. This is surrounded by two soft keys, an option key above, a menu button on one side and a button for direct access to 3’s services on the other. The menu button brings up options with the usual animated icons. However, I expected the menu button to be in the middle rather than on the left. In fact pressing the the middle button causes the cursor to jump to one of the icons on the display. These are shortcuts to the frequently used folders, which you move between using the rocker switch. This is essentially a Windows desktop metaphor, but it never feels natural to me on a phone. After a while I got used to it but it just doesn’t possess the intuitiveness of a Sony Ericsson or Nokia interface.
So what can you do with this phone? Having never really seen what 3G content was like, I was eager to get a taster, and generally speaking I was impressed. There was a good range of content, such as news, football, and music videos and everything downloaded rapidly giving you the option to stream the content or download to the phone so you can watch it again without paying. Most items are 50p, though full length pop videos are £1.50. I felt that the content was fairly expensive but everything was clearly priced, so you know what you are spending.
The display has a diameter of 2in and a resolution of 220 x 176 pixels. The quality is reasonable, with a TFT screen capable of displaying 65k colours. This isn’t the best available on a 3G phone but I was nevertheless impressed by the quality of video playback. I would have liked to have clips play full-screen, but unfortunately it isn’t possible. To test image quality we compared it with the Sony Ericsson V800. The display on the latter offers more colours and is slightly bigger and you could tell this clearly with a side-by-side comparison. However, judged on its own, the playback on the 338 was still very respectable. There was also plenty of volume from the speaker.
There was more of a difference with video calls however. When I called the V800 my image on that phone was quite grainy, indicating that the integrated camera in the 338 isn’t that great. Looking at the specs this was true – the camera on the V800 offers 1.3 million pixels, while the 338 has only 100,000 – with a maximum still image resolution of 352 x 288. The same camera is used for both still and video images and it can be rotated round with the thumb so you can point the camera at something while still viewing the image of the person you’re speaking with. There’s also a 2x digital zoom. Still picture quality is adequate on the phone itself but they’re not really good enough to keep. Also scrolling between images isn’t that speedy.
There are a decent number of options to play with, such as three different types of vibration alerts and a selection of polyphonic ringtones of the usual distinctly naff variety. Particularly unimpressive was the animated dancing man that the screen displays as it plays music. The less said about that the better.
Overall though, while the 338 is not the most attractive phone in terms of looks or features what it can do, it does well. For regular voice calls, audio quality was fine and the keypad has a good feel to it. And after a long time using a candy-bar style phone, the clamshell felt good to hold.
The handset is available on ThreePay Pay-As-You-Go for £85 but you have to spend £35 on a contract to get it for nothing. However, after a quick hunt around we found it for free at half-price line rental of only £12.50 for 12 months, at Dial-a-Phone, which isn’t bad going.
When all’s said and done, the NEC 338 only has one real stand-out feature – its size. It offers all the major 3G functions, such as video calling and downloads in a package that isn’t too bulky and with reasonable, if unspectacular, battery life. Assuming the lack of Bluetooth and the presence of an aerial aren’t deal breakers, those looking for a 3G phone that’s inexpensive to run but still does the business, may well be tempted.
Score in detail