Technology

BusinessWeek


It's no small feat to build a gadget that lets you make and receive phone calls from anywhere. To this day, I'm still amazed that somehow the exact right frequency shooting through the air manages to find my cellular phone and make it ring. But with this technology now more than 15 years old, would it kill the major handset manufacturers to make a cheap, simple, easy-to-use phone that does a good job at just being a phone, giving us crystal-clear voice quality?

In this review series, I'm looking for just that: an entry-level model that does a great job with the basics. So far I've checked out two Verizon phones made by Nokia and LG, as well as two Cingular phones from Samsung and LG.

SWEET SOUND. This week I'm checking out the Motorola (MOT) V188, using T-Mobile service. A basic entry-level phone, the V188 doesn't have a camera or many advanced features beyond voice and messaging, though it does offer the usual functionality like downloading ringtones, wallpaper, and games, as well as surfing the Web. It's also a quad-band phone, meaning it can work anywhere in the world. It has a full-retail price of $120, but costs only $40 if you sign up for a two-year agreement with T-Mobile.

The Motorola V188 gets the most important thing right: The voice quality is top-notch. With full bars of coverage, voices sounded crisp and clear, and on the other end of the line, friends said it sounded as if I were talking on a landline. While the quality was lower in weaker coverage areas -- voices tended to get a bit choppy -- I would still say it had the best sound of any model I've tested so far.

But beyond its superior voice quality, the V188 doesn't do much else to get ahead of the pack. The phone's exterior is functional but bland. There is a small, unattractive grey-scale display on the outside that shows the time and who's calling, and the buttons are laid out in a straightforward and logical way. Though it doesn't supply a cable for it, there is also a mini-USB port on the top.

HARD TO NAVIGATE. While this phone won't be winning any beauty prizes, it fits well in the hand and is comfortable for calls. Users who just want a no-frills phone won't be bothered too much. That is, until they flip the darn thing open and try to use it. The biggest drawback of the V188 is its interface -- the way it organizes the menu screens and guides the user through different features.

I found a string of dumb little things that make using it a bit of a nuisance. The two soft keys on the main screen -- the phone's choicest real estate -- link to the instant messaging feature and to T-Mobile's "T-zones" online store, rather than the most useful menus such as the contacts list or the text message screen. Meanwhile. the large button in the middle of the phone isn't labeled, so you have to memorize shortcuts to access meat-and-potatoes, high-traffic features.

The poorly organized interface made other basic operations confusing, too. Vague menu names like "Personalize" or "Loud detail" didn't make enough sense for me to know with certainty where I was going. On several occasions I found myself wandering around the phone's menus to figure out how to perform basic functions such as switching the primary ringtone or changing the wallpaper.

KEEP IT SIMPLE. "Personalize," it turns out, sets the phone's wallpaper and visual appearance. "Loud detail" handles ringtones for when the phone is on "loud" setting, even though the volume actually adjusts independently of whether you are set to "loud" or "soft." With a little practice and manual reading, I'm sure I could understand why this is the case. But honestly, menu names on most phones are clear and self-explanatory. Motorola needs to get its act together on this front, too.

In the end, I could never quite get comfortable with using the V188. If it had even an average user interface, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as an excellent simple phone that does a great job with voice calls. But while all users will be very happy with the sound quality, they'll be put off fast if they try anything more advanced than dialing a number and pressing "send."


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