Technology

Making the Serene Scene With B&O


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Editor's Rating: star rating

Bang & Olufsen's Serene cell phone is a head-turner, but pared-down has its limits. At this price, you might want more than ear candy

Remember those early days when the cell phone was the ultimate status symbol? It was the size of a brick, and only doctors and high-powered executives carried one. Today more than 50 million people have purchased Motorola's hit Razr phone alone, and dozens of other models vie for your attention every day. So what are all you Joneses going to do when so many people are keeping up with you? Bang & Olufsen believes it has an answer with its first U.S. mobile phone, the $1,200 Serene.

Made by Samsung (SSNGY), the glitzy Serene model is billed as a fashion phone, and thank goodness for that. Despite some nifty features and beautiful styling, it falls short on basic calling features and certainly is not fit for use as your primary communication device.

If you want to turn heads, this is the phone for you. In the month or so I've been testing the Serene, every time I pull the trapezoidal device out of my pocket, a crowd forms to take a gander. Shaped like a woman's compact, the phone measures 2.5 by 2.8 by 0.9 inches and weighs less than 0.4 ounce. Despite its shape, it is meant to appeal to both men and women with its soft matte black finish and silver hinge.

Just opening it is an experience. With a slight tap, a built-in motor unfolds it automatically with a metallic whisper. One of the first things you notice is that keys are shaped like those on a rotary dial phone.

That is quickly followed by the realization that the 2.2-in. screen when the phone is opened doesn't sit up against the ear, but down near your mouth. Bang & Olufsen execs say the unusual design helps eliminate smudges from lipstick and oily skin.

Very Tasteful

The simplicity and design actually end up having the opposite effect one might expect. You end up facing more of a learning curve than some people might want. For example, clear, end, activate, and power buttons are represented essentially by the four compass points on the wheel and have only a green dot on the right and red on the left to mark them.

Indeed, what you see is what you get. There's no way to download personalized ringtones, wallpaper, and screensavers, making the bright color screen fairly useless. The ringtones you do get are quick chimes that wouldn't embarrass you in a crowded room, but are almost so unobtrusive that it's difficult to hear them yourself.

From there, though, matters go downhill. You know things might not be quite as nice as you think the minute you go to install your SIM card. Sold with a carrier contract at Bang & Olufsen stores, this GSM world phone requires a special screwdriver to remove the battery covering and install the SIM. Lose it, and you'll have to make do with other tools that could lead to unsightly scratches.

The circular keypad is one of those love-it-or-hate-it items that takes some getting used to for easy operation. Once the SIM is installed, the phone automatically populates all your contacts, and the nifty scroll wheel is great for zipping through them to make quick, two-button calls.

But the circular design quickly becomes a pain when you're hunting for the right key to try to text back a slew of messages sent from friends over the holidays. The phone does offer predictive text, but each time I tried that, the words I was looking for weren't there.

Did You Hear Something?

The built-in VGA digital camera is a bit of a joke, thanks to its positioning on one side of the device that makes it difficult to align snapshots through the display screen. For its price, you'd expect at least a 1 megapixel camera.

The biggest problem was that in cell-phone-challenged San Francisco, many calls never go through. The first hint I received of some phone calls was when a tiny chime sounded to signal they had gone through to voicemail.

Some might say the carrier—in this case, Cingular Wireless—is to blame, but many other phones I've tried have had no problem at all. And even other Samsung-made phones I've tested have had radios powerful enough to grab calls as they come in.

That's not to say call quality wasn't excellent. Out of the city, and when calls did connect in the city, there was none of the tin-can/tunnel sound that sometime plagues cell phones, and callers reported the same.

So what's the verdict? Some might argue this phone is better than having a puppy, for all the attention you will get owning one. And despite its quirks, when it does work, it delivers decent performance. But with its high sticker price, you'll want to remember you're buying it more for its form than its function.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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