Until recently, anyone strolling down the street with their head bobbing and white wires dangling from their ears was almost certainly grooving to music on an Apple (AAPL) iPod. No longer. Now, that person just might be sporting a Motorola (MOT) Rokr E1, the pearl white, "candy bar" shaped phone that's first in a line of new music phones from Motorola.
Despite its color, nothing about this phone screams iPod. Its design is far from Apple's elegant simplicity. In fact, the Rokr isn't even original. It's the very size and shape of another basic Motorola phone, the e398. Its only claim to fame: Touch the button with the green music symbol and up pops iTunes software.
Motorola's Rokr E1 won't blow you away. Frankly, digital music die-hards will scoff at it. Sold for $149.99 with a two-year contract at Cingular Wireless, it's just $50 less than the slick iPod Nano. And that little gadget stores at least five times as many songs.
SOUND PERFORMER. But the Rokr wasn't designed to be a music device first. It's just a phone that lets users store a few songs from their CD collection or load tracks they buy from Apple's iTunes site. That way, between phone calls, as you dash across town for a business meeting or cab it to the airport, you can hear a tune or two -- without having to pull an entirely different device from your satchel.
I'm no iPod enthusiast, so I enjoyed this handset for what it is: a decent phone with an exciting extra flourish. As I hopped on the bus for my 20-minute commute to work, I launched the iTunes software and browsed the 15 songs on my play list. After selecting a bluesy number by new Columbia artist Kyle Riabko I was soon, well, rockin' to his music.
It might not be an iPod, but frankly, the Rokr flat out thumps. The sound quality nearly matches the booming iPod's, and its acoustics are noticeably better than other MP3 cell phones (see BW Online, 10/7/05, "The Nano Strikes the Right Chords").
ECCENTRIC EARPHONES. It has external speakers embedded on each side of the phone so it can pump decent stereo sound without the headphones. With the earphones, obviously, the sound is even better and won't disappoint those with even the most discerning of acoustic sensibilities.
My only complaint about the Rokr's audio features was its long-stemmed earphones. For some reason, they're bigger than the iPod's. And I would prefer not to look like I have Q-tips hanging out of my ears.
iPod owners will have no trouble maneuvering through the Rokr's music application, since it's remarkably similar.
HOLD THAT SONG. Opening the player takes you straight to the music library, where you can organize songs by playlist, artist, album, and song name. Play a tune that you've downloaded from iTunes and the phone displays the album art while the song is playing. There's also a shuffle feature which plays songs or albums randomly.
The cool thing is, this device never ceases to be a phone. To make a call, press "hide," which puts the player in the background and brings you to a mobile desktop with forward and back arrows, a pause symbol to control the music that's playing, and the iTunes icon in case you want to return to the playlist.
While Riabko crooned, I simply started dialing numbers. The Rokr paused the song while I made my call. When I hung up, the phone returned to the mobile desktop. I hit the play icon and the Riabko tune resumed in the precise place where the call interrupted it. Not bad.
PEEVE-WORTHY PAUSES Receiving calls is even more seamless. While driving in my car, using the Rokr to listen to John Coltrane's penetrating saxophone, my sister called. The song stopped, and the phone's ringer sounded. The Rokr allows you to either "answer" the call or "ignore" it.
I took Jennifer's call and chatted for a while. When I hung up, I simply pressed the play icon and Coltrane's horn picked up precisely where it had been paused (see BW Online, 10/14/05, "Motorola Picking Up").
Unfortunately, not everything about the Rokr works so smoothly. Navigating from one song to another or changing screens -- both tasks requiring a simple press of a key -- can take up to two seconds.
MOTHER, MAKE IT STOP. And downloading music from the iTunes Web site can be painfully slow. I downloaded the newly released Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane song "Evidence" from the Web to my computer desktop in a brisk 10 seconds. But transferring the tune to my phone took what seemed like forever (see BW Online, 10/18/05, "Is Rokr Missing that Special Magic?").
You can download songs only through the included USB cable -- there's no way to transfer iTunes music from your PC to your phone wirelessly. It takes the PC several seconds to recognize the USB connection. Once it does, you click on the desired tune on your PC and drag it to the mobile phone icon. Then you wait. All the while, the PC and your phone warn: "Do Not Disconnect." I found that annoying.
One evening, I dragged 15 smooth jazz tracks to my Rokr. As they copied, I had a 15-minute conversation with my mother using my home phone. If not for Mom, I would have been bored out of my flannel pajamas.
EXTRA GOODIES. An even bigger bummer for digital-music enthusiasts is the Rokr's song capacity. There's a strict 100-song storage limit. The iTunes tracks are stored on the 512MB TransFlash card, hidden underneath the battery. I didn't try, but apparently if you attempt to store 101 tracks, you'll get an error message (see BW Online, 11/16/05, "Orchestrating a Revved up Rokr").
Those imperfections aside, the Rokr has some additional features that enhance the phone's functionality. Though its VGA camera isn't state of the art, you can take pictures in various resolutions and seven lighting settings. You also get a 4X zoom, flash, and autotimer. The Rokr has a video recorder that takes clips up to 30 seconds in length. I used it to have a friend shoot images of my golf swing. The photos and video are decent for viewing on a computer but not for making prints.
And of course, the phone includes an address book that holds 1,000 contacts, each of which can take six phone numbers. It has instant messaging, voice dialing, a calculator, an alarm clock, and a Web browser. That said, if you're going to buy this phone, it ought to be for the iTunes compatible music player. Just beware: While the Rokr indeed rocks, it's no iPod.