Technology

Nokia Finally Slims Down


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The new XpressMusic feels great in the hand, and once you get used to its features it's a pleasantly stylish music phone to tote around

For several years now, Nokia (NOK) has been criticized for not coming out with slimmer, sleeker phones. To change that perception, the world's leading phonemaker has been busy introducing a series of stylish devices, including one of the Finnish company's thinnest, most elegant designs ever: the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic.

I loved the look and feel of this candy-bar-size device, which is quite different from that of the 5310's predecessor, the 5300 XpressMusic, a slider model. First and foremost, this phone is small, measuring just 0.39 inches thick and weighing only 2.5 ounces. It's also quite comfortable to hold, fitting perfectly in the palm of your hand. And for such a small phone, it features a fairly large screen, 1.24 in. by 1.63 in.

Lots of Versatility

The 5310 is slated to arrive on overseas markets by yearend, and then in the U.S. during the first half of 2008. Nokia has yet to announce pricing but says the gadget will cost about as much as the 5300, which currently sells for $50 from T-Mobile USA with a two-year contract, or $200 without commitments. Nokia is yet to announce which service provider will offer the phone.

The phone's controls feature some neat design elements: The dedicated music buttons are located on aluminum side panels, where they can be conveniently operated with your thumb. The forward, rewind, and pause/play buttons are slightly convex, so you can find the right one without looking. The phone is gray-black, and the side panels will come in red or blue.

To continue with the accolades before we turn to some grumbles, this phone is quite capable for its price range. There's a 2-megapixel camera that can also shoot video. And, since this is a music phone, there's a slot for microSD cards with up to 4 gigabytes of memory, enough to hold up to 3,000 songs. In addition to playing music, it can tune in to traditional FM radio. Nokia says the battery can provide up to 22 hours of playing time, whereas the prior model offered just 12 hours (similarly, the 5310 is billed as offering more than five hours of talk time, vs. three hours on the 5300).

Some Lackluster Music Features

But now let's talk about the phone's musical shortcomings. Firstly, the location of that microSD slot is rather surprising: It's hidden underneath the 5310's back cover, next to the battery. The idea, the company says, is to protect against losing one of these tiny but valuable cards. For me, this setup was not a problem, as I never store so much content on my phone that I need to swap one card for another. But it might prove annoying for power users.

Another disappointment is that the 5310 doesn't allow for over-the-air music downloads, a capability that's been available on many music phones for at least a year. Instead, you have to sideload songs from your computer through a mini USB cable. But this may not be Nokia's fault: My bet is that the 5310 is destined to be offered by T-Mobile USA, which doesn't yet offer high-speed wireless data connections needed to handle over-the-air music downloads.

One big plus was the radio application. While many phones can access Internet radio streams over the carrier's cellular network, this one scans the airwaves for actual FM radio broadcasts. I loved that. Keep in mind, though, that the radio antenna is hidden within the headset—a common design on phones with FM capabilities —so you can't tune into stations without attaching the antenna.

However, the controls for the radio were a bit frustrating. When I wanted to turn it off, my first instinct was to press the red button for ending calls, but that didn't do anything. It turns out that you can only stop the radio by hitting the play/pause button on the music player or by pressing the navigation button right above the phone's keypad. To me, this was not intuitive. Also, I found that the navigation button didn't always work for this purpose.

The phone does allow other applications, such as text messaging and Web browsing, to run while the radio or music are playing. Strangely, though, the radio and music would stop when I used the camera, even if I was taking a still picture. Another positive: Without headphones plugged in, music is pumped out through speakers on both the front and back. That means that if you happen to be carrying the phone in your hand, a belt holster, or a purse pocket, you can get more powerful, boom-box-like sound.

Quirky, But Worth the Price

The phone's screen menus didn't impress me. Sure, unlike older Nokia models, the 5310 sports some nice, 3D graphics. But I still found them a bit of a maze. Even after several days of use, I kept forgetting where to find the radio application and how to launch a Web browser. That said, Nokia is hardly the only handset maker whose menus seem to have been designed by an evil genie.

One last gripe: The dial-pad buttons are made of shiny plastic that feels slippery. Girls, if you have long nails, you might want to start biting them. But overall, once you learn its quirks, the Nokia 5310 is a solid, sleek music phone.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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