Technology

Motorola's Smooth Talker


The C290 feels good and sounds good, but you don't get much else with this basic entry from the world's No. 2 maker of mobile phones

Not all phones are created equal. Some come jam-packed with all the features --Bluetooth, TV, MP3, FM radio, e-mail access, trash compactor -- and others are, well, just phones. You use them to call people.

The Motorola C290, on the Sprint PCS (S) plan, is the latter. It's the final phone reviewed for my series on entry-level phones, for people who just want the basics (see BW Online, 3/16/06, "LG's Unlucky C2000").

There's no built-in camera, instant messaging, or Bluetooth for wireless connections to other devices -- and it's not a dream to use. But the C290 does have sharp looks, decent battery life, good voice quality, and a few extras like Web surfing and downloadable games and ringtones. It's available for $30 after a rebate and a two-year agreement, with a full retail price of $180.

CLEARLY SUPERIOR.

The first thing I noticed about this clamshell model was its look and feel. The phone's exterior is sleek, black, and has a tactile, rubbery feel like a Moleskine -- the fabled Italian notebook. It seems solidly built, fits well in the hand, and is comfortable while you're talking.

Voice quality on calls was very good on my end, and friends said my voice sounded very clear on the other end of the line. It stacked up with some of the best-sounding entry-level models I've tried so far, including the Nokia 2128i (see BW Online, 1/24/06, "Nokia's Bare Essentials 2128i"), and the Samsung X497(see BW Online, 3/1/06, "Samsung's X497: Smart, Snazzy, and Sensible").

The phone does have a few design shortcomings, however. While the C290 looks sleek, it lacks an external display, which would be useful for seeing incoming calls or simply checking the time. Motorola (MOT) also went a bit too far with the keypad. The numbers are in grouped by twos. It's distinct, all right, but it leaves the numbers looking jumbled and disorganized.

TONE DEAF.

Using the phone for more than voice calls is also a less-than-slick experience. Menu icons are unattractive and cryptic, and menu layout is far from intuitive. There are two different menus where you can set a ringtone or wallpaper -- one for content you've bought, and the other for what's preloaded. There's also no quick and easy way to set the phone to silent or vibrate, other than toggling down the volume several clicks. To its credit, the C290 makes other simple tasks, like finding a phone number or sending a text message, easy enough.

Don't download ringtones on this phone. The external speaker sounds excruciatingly tinny and distorted, as if the songs were piped through the McDonald's (MCD) drive-thru window. I was surprised that this bothered me so much. After all, I'm not expecting high-fidelity sound with a cell phone. But listening to these was actually painful. If you're ready to drop $2.50 -- that's how much Sprint charges for a ringtone -- you will be sorely disappointed. The synthesized tones that came preloaded on the phone sound fine, however.

In short, this isn't a good phone for those who want even basic multimedia features like games and ringtones. But for those who want just a basic, everyday phone for voice calls, the problems I mentioned will just be small nuisances, and the phone's ergonomic feel and good voice quality will more than make up for it.


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