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.