- Review Price: £40.00
Toshiba certainly isn’t the first name that springs to mind when it comes to mobile phones. But as one of those Japanese companies that seems to make almost everything it’s no surprise to find that it has turned its hand to 3G with the release of the TS 921, available exclusively on Vodafone.
Following its shaky launch on 3, 3G has had to shake off the image of bulky, battery draining handsets and since Vodafone launched its own 3G offering, with phones such as the Sony Ericsson V800, it has very much achieved that. Indeed, even the V800 phone is now looking on the large side now that petite 3G phones such as Samsung’s Z500 have appeared.
So opening the box and taking out the TS 921 was something of a blast from the past. You see, it’s big. Very big. The dimensions are 111 x 50 x 25 mm and it weighs 148g. That’s enough to put a lot of people off the phone right away, and in many respects you can’t blame them. The Motorola Razor V3 still sets the benchmark when it comes to size and that’s what most people want in their pockets, despite the fact that in terms of ease of use the V3 one of the poorest phones on the market.
It’s just that most consumers are desperately shallow when it comes to mobiles – they want them to look thin and pretty and don’t care so much about how smart they are as long as they can engage in basic conversation. And like most people’s brains, people rarely use more than ten per cent of the power of their mobiles.
Similarly with the TS 921. It’s easy to dismiss on grounds of bulk but delve a little deeper and you’ll find its size actually does give it some advantages.
It’s a clamshell style phone and while it feels large in the hand, it feels solidly made too, an improvement over some of the rather flimsy phones such as the Sanyo S750. The rounded edges are pleasing and the phone is embossed in various places with the Vodafone logo. There’s an external screen, which can be set to display a picture. When you do this there’s a tool that cuts out a section of the picture so that you can get the most suitable part to fit the small screen.
The buttons on the keypad make good use of the large area by being well spaced and have a good feel to them. The screen is large at 2.5in and has an impressive resolution of 240 x 320. The phones party trick though is that the whole screen can be swivelled round and laid flat against the keyboard. The main beneficiary of this is that it’s possible to hold the phone as you would a camera to take snaps and video with the 1.92Megapixel CCD.
With the screen flipped round and the camera held horizontally, the buttons along the side fall easily under the fingers. The one on the right is used to activate the camera and to take pictures. Rocker buttons on the left are used to operate the zoom, though as it’s just a digital zoom there’s not much point using it. Pictures can be taken at a maximum QVGA resolution at 15fps. Holding the phone like this and viewing on the large screen is great – it feels more like a camcorder than a phone. When playing back the files on the PC the results look fine but it’s something of an illusion and when viewing on a PC, the relatively low resolution is really shown up. It’s fine for capturing something on the spur of the moment but not for posterity. The camera is certainly good enough for video calls though.
A useful feature is that the phone can output images to a TV via a supplied composite cable, though the LCD TV we used to test wasn’t kind to the quality of the video.
Vodaphone Live! works very well on the display and the buttons down the side can be use to navigate with the screen flipped round so you don’t even need to use the keyboard. The larger screen means that videos streamed over Vodafone Live! have an bigger impact than they do on other handsets, but they actually look slightly worse in terms of quality. This is because they content has to be scaled up to fit the larger screen, which actually makes it easier to spot the low bit-rate quality of the downloads.
One glitch I encountered during use was that the image from all downloaded videos from Vodafone Live would freeze about half way though, while the sound would continue to the end. This forced me to stream video rather than download it. I hope this is due to early firmware on the review sample otherwise Vodafone could be facing many returns.
The menu system on the phone conforms to Vodafone’s standard interface, which means that it’s rather simplistic. Sony Ericsson’s V800 has a much better looking icon interface and the one on the Toshiba certainly didn’t feel special in any way. Despite its basic looks I found it difficult to find things I wanted, such as removing the annoying keypad beeping. At the same time there were numerous frivolous choices for things such as the type of clock. It also took me a while to find content stored on the supplied 32MB memory card. Confusingly, when you go into Pictures, Videos and Sounds, content stored on the card isn’t automatically shown. You first have to manually go into the memory card. Unfortunately this option isn’t clearly listed – you have to press the options key to find the choice, adding unnecessary time to what should be a simple task. The memory card type is full size SD, which runs counter to the current trend for Mini-SD or Memory Stick Duo.
Battery life is not that great. Considering the size I was hoping for a decent staying power but I found myself disappointed. After a full charge the phone remained with full bars for a long time up until the point that I started actually using it. After a few video downloads and calls the bars would plummet quickly. This means I didn’t feel I could rely on the phone to even get me though the day. Ominously the phone would also get quite hot to the touch, something that early 3G phones were susceptible to. Several times it was on full charge in the evening but when I came back to it the next morning, it was completely drained. It seems that if it received an unanswered call or text, and it wasn’t checked, the screen would activate and soon drain the battery.
It’s this sort of thing that gives the camera the feel of a first time attempt as far as Toshiba is concerned. 3G phones are complex compared to standard GSM phones, and it’s as if for the first time round Toshiba concentrated on getting a working product out, rather than on reducing its size.
The spec list claims that the phone can play back AAC and MP3 files. In my tests the phone couldn’t see a DRM free AAC file and it could only play fixed bit-rate MP3 – it wouldn’t play a VBR track. This is rather limiting, aside from the fact that it would be impractical to use the player for music unless you can charge your phone on the bus. A set of headphones is supplied, with a button to accept incoming calls. The headphones lack bass but quality is fine though a decent pair, which can be plugged into the same cable so you can retain the call answering function.
Vodafone’s usual DRM shenanigans prevented me from using my favourite ’24’ CTU MP3 as a ring tone, though a few minutes Googling got me round that. This time I had to convert to MMF file format using rather than applying DRM but I managed to circumvent the issue all the same.
One thing that surprised me greatly is that while Toshiba has been generous enough to include cables for AV and for audio in the phone it hasn’t supplied a USB cable even though that’s necessary for synchronising your contacts with Outlook. The required software is included on the CD but if it is possible over Bluetooth I couldn’t get it working. At least the Bluetooth worked well with both my Motorola HS850 headset and a Jabra handsfree.
The Toshiba TS 921 is a good phone in many respects but overall it feels like a first effort by 3G newcomer Toshiba. While competitors are shrinking down their 3G phones, Toshiba has gone large. It compensates by making good use of its size with a large screen that’s great to use, but fundamentals such as confusing menu navigation and poor battery life mean that I was more than happy to go back to the comfort of my Sony Ericsson V800. I’d recommend waiting for the follow up from Toshiba.
Score in detail
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