- Has Wi-Fi
- Some good widgets and live wallpapers
- Cute looks
- Awkward menu system
- Poor virtual keyboard
- Bad browsing experience
- Review Price: £39.99
- 3in 240x400 pixel screen
- 3.2-megapixel camera
- FM radio
- MicroSD slot
The cheaper smartphones get, the harder feature phones have to try to keep up, by packing in features until the lines between the two blur. The Virgin Media VM720, made by Huawei, will connect you to Facebook, let you surf the web and harvest your emails. And yet it only costs £40 on a pre-pay deal. Let’s see if this purple wonder is too good to be true.
The Virgin Media VM720 might just be the only phone to come in purple and no other colour. Like Barney the dinosaur, it’s purple all over apart from its “tummy”, where the 3in touchscreen lives. This, of course, tells us that the VM720 is doing it for the kids. If you’re reading this as a mid-40s businessman looking for a phone to tide you over while your BlackBerry Torch gets its screen repaired, you’re probably backing the wrong share options.
Not averse to a bit of metallic purple? The VM720’s body impresses at this rock-bottom price. It feels slim at 11.2mm thick and while it’s an all-plastic design, the phone is well put-together. The VM 720 is smooth, sleek and costs less than two adult tickets to London Zoo. What’s not to like?
Connectivity-wise, things are predictably minimal. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack up top, alongside the microUSB charging socket. Given these are the only on-body interface bits apart from the volume controls on the right edge, it seems a shame manufacturer Huawei felt the need to jam two glossy black cutaways into the phone’s top and bottom ends. Purple is fun and friendly, glossy black is not. Underneath the full-length battery cover is the microSD slot, which supports cards up to 16GB.
The Virgin Media VM720 has plenty of feature phone rivals, but it also battles against slightly more expensive low-end Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy Europa and Vodafone Smart. In looks, the VM720 has an immediate upper hand because its screen is longer, giving it that more slender look. Bottom-rung Androids invariably have more squat 240×320 pixel screens, which can make them look a little pudgy.
Its claim to battle smartphones isn’t only based on looks and a touchscreen though. Internet connectivity is key – the VM720 has Wi-Fi built-in, and while it doesn’t offer high-speed 3G too it’ll be able to pick up emails and the like when out-and-about (albeit slowly) over GPRS. However, it’s the software, rather than hardware, that tries extra-hard to convince you of its smartphone cred.
The Virgin Media VM720 runs Huawei’s own user interface rather than something like Android or Symbian S40 – both common at this £50-ish price point. It takes the “kitchen sink” approach to interface design. You’d better sit down and grab a cuppa and a biscuit, because there’s a fair bit to cover.
First of all, there are the eight different home screens. You don’t get to choose exactly what’s in each – instead the phone decides for you. There’s a page for 12 app shortcuts, one that controls settings for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, a call log, a messages page, a media player, a photo gallery, a favourite contacts page and – drum roll, please – an actual home screen. Yes, one you can customise and drop widgets on.
Check out the dino-themed live wallpaper – it’s a winner
This approach really misses the point of what home screens are about – giving you the ability to make your mobile’s interface as simple or as feature-packed as you like. We’ll hand it to Huawei, though, it has employed more snazzy little visual tricks than we’re used to seeing in sub-£100 phones. The contacts home screen uses a cover flow-like system, where entries smoothly fly by in 3D under your finger, for example.
Oh, and while there’s the normal view where you flick between home screens in 2D, there’s also an alternate one where they appear as 3D panes that swirl in and out of view with a flick . The same is true of the main apps menu. There’s the normal 2D menu and a slightly ridiculous 3D view where the app icons fly around as if part of a DNA helix, or trapped in a tornado. It’s all completely unnecessary, of course, but works remarkably well given that there’s no particularly powerful CPU under the hood. And we’re sure a few purple fans will also appreciate a bit of visual flashiness.
For all the effort that’s been put into making the basic navigation look and feel like a million dollars (okay, $150 tops), app support is poor. There’s a simple, entirely non-flashy, music player, the email client, an FM radio and a ropey Facebook app. The rest is fare you’d find on any cheap phone – calculator, calendar, alarm dock and task list.
The lack of decent social networking integration disappoints the most, given the inclusion of Wi-Fi connectivity. There’s no proper notifications system for the Facebook app, and when you try and quit it, you’re warned that it’s using “system critical” resources and so won’t be able to save its current state. Smo-ooth. And any self-respecting social networking phone knows to include Twitter integration (and Myspace, if you must.) There’s no app store for the Virgin Media VM720, and while it should be able to take on java apps, finding ones compatible with the phone is sure to prove a challenge.
A more significant issue than limited app potential is the clumsiness of the interface’s navigation once you dig below the topmost glitzy layer. The menu system too often requires one more tap than is strictly necessary, and the resistive screen blows this small irritation into a big one. Resistive touchscreens sense pressure, unlike the iPhone’s capacitive screen, which senses conduction. As such, it demands a proper prod from your finger – a light flick won’t do.
Navigation quickly ends up feeling laboured and clumsy, especially as there hasn’t been enough optimisation to allow for the limitations of this touchscreen. Buttons are frequently too small, leading to wrongly-placed taps – adding inaccuracy to further slow the already-languorous pace of progress.
This effect is most catastrophic in the virtual keyboard. In portrait mode, you have either a T9-style keypad or a full Qwerty keyboard to choose from. The latter is ridiculously cramped, and there’s no landscape alternative to fall back on. Turn your phone on its side and it’ll… do precisely nothing. We don’t expect a £40 phone to have thought of everything, but it has its priorities out of order if it neglects basics like this in favour of superficial pizzazz.
The keyboard naturally has serious knock-on effects on browsing. Typing-in web addresses on the Virgin Media VM720 is a slog, and using the miniature Qwerty we found we typed-in the wrong character more often than not.
As the browser software is java-based, it’s basic and relies heavily on sites having cut-down mobile versions available. Rendering of pages was slow and we soon became well-acquainted with the “insufficient memory” pop-up that appears whenever everything gets that little bit too taxing for the VM720.
The final kick to the web browsing experience comes from the resistive screen, which slows surfing further and rules-out the multi-touch zooming that owners of pricier phones enjoy. The browser software doesn’t allow for zooming anyway, relying on cut-down WAP sites.
Although the VM720 has Wi-Fi, it’s not a good web-browsing device. In this price band, you’d be better off with the Samsung Galaxy Europa. However, there are no web-browsing superstars available this cheap. Manage your expectations accordingly.
Here’s a close-up of the 240×400 pixel display – perfectly respectable at the price
There’s a basic 3.2-megapixel camera onboard, which can also captures 3GP video up to a surprisingly-high 720×480 pixel resolution. Video at this quality is jerky though. The VM720 isn’t up to capturing any special moments for posterity.
Stills quality is similarly limited. Photos are fairly noisy and lack detail, and with a fixed focus (instead of autofocus) you can’t pap anything close up. But you’ll still be able to snap a few Facebook-worthy shots in good light. The camera and gallery app don’t let you pipe them over to your profile directly though – only share over Bluetooth or as an email attachment.
The lack of flash means the camera’s all-but useless during the night and evening, but the camera app does give you a few control options and modes to play with. There’s a digital zoom, exposure compensation and a “night” scene mode, as well as a few effects (Greyscale, Sepia, green/blue colourisation and colour inversion, adding a frame.) On top of these, there are Panorama, burst shot and continuous shot modes.
Getting down to day-to-day practicalities, call quality is pretty average, but the lack of always-on 3G connectivity mean the VM720 will last several days off a charge. As we were put off coming back to browse the web as we might with a more expensive smartphone, the need for every day charging we’re used to dissipated. Yes, it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment.
The Virgin Media VM720 boasts a lot of features for hardly any money – Wi-Fi stealing top billing. It doesn’t have the software to make using many of them worthwhile though. On the surface, everything looks great. It’s a cute-looking device with an unsually slick interface veneer. Scrape this away and there are too many clumsy and awkward navigation elements to make using the phone enjoyable as anything but a calling device.
The Virgin Media VM720 makes a great entrance. The purple body is something different, the interface looks decent and is packed with slick animations that wouldn’t look out of place in a device several times the price. Get to know the phone a little more and you’ll start to see its ugly side though. Navigation is awkward, social networking integration is poor and typing anything longer than a phone number on the dodgy virtual keyboard is no fun.
Even in bright sunlight, the level of detail rendered is pretty mediocre
Score in detail
|Screen Size (inches) (Inch)||3in|
|3.5mm Headphone Jack||Yes|
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