Now to the launch of a completely different 3: the first UK 3G phone network, previously known as Hutchinson 3G, which is launching later today. The shops selling the launch phones have just opened. I’ve already had a play on one of them: the NEC e606.
Once I got over the initial disorientation you get when the remote lust object of the past couple of years finally steps out of the Japanese tech-show photos and into your hand, the impressions and facts I gathered were:
- The focus of the launch is video, video, video: Videophone calls and downloadable video snippets. Internet access isn’t there for launch at all, but will be coming in the next few months – both as phone browsers and Bluetooth/USB modems so you can plug the phone into your laptop easily.
- There are two handsets for launch – an NEC and a Motorola, with another NEC (with a QWERTY keyboard) following soon. There’s a second, more powerful Motorola coming in a few months. (I hope we’ll see some handsets from the likes of Nokia and Sony Ericsson after that.)
- The NEC’s not terribly powerful, but still manages to make a decent fist of video. (The Motorola is, apparently, much better.) It’s a clamshell, large-ish compared to the other clams around at the moment but still nicely compact. It has two cameras – one facing outward (for taking pictures) the other facing inward (for videophone calls)
- Video calls are simple and nice. Not sure how much they’ll cost, but they do work, and the quality’s pretty good. There’s a picture-in-picture mode so you can see how the other end is seeing you. You can also hotswap between the two cameras on the phone during a call.
- The compression used for video is good, though obviously goes a bit wonky with lots of movement. This works well with video calls as long as you’re not waving the handset around.
- Given the way the phone is held during video calls, you really need to be wearing a headset in order to talk and listen properly, and this can be a bit fiddly. The headsets are stereo (two earpieces) and so rather fiddly to manage in a busy area.
- Video download/upload is pretty fast. The codec is MPEG4, and transmission happens at a play-time:deliver-time ratio of about 1:1, which is not bad for a 1-minute news roundup. I watched some news and some football. The quality’s pretty good, though obviously some stuff is better for encoding than others. The biggest draw, and the main thing being shouted about in the ads, is the Premiership licence, with goals and match-highlights being sent as video messages. Apparently they’ve realised that there are good and bad ways of encoding goals, which are high-action: High-zoomed-out = bad, slowmo close-ups = good.
- Those clips were stored on the phone – the NEC has 32MB of space (the Motorola has 64). Also store MP3s, Java games, etc.
- We recorded a video clip and stored it on the phone, then sent it as a message – worked fine. (Here it is – it’s an MPEG4 file. Quicktime seems happy with it, WMP doesn’t.) Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky with the online video browser – that bit of the network was continually unreachable.
- 2G roaming is enabled – it switches to O2 when there’s no 3 coverage. At the moment coverage is apparently great inside the M25, less so outside.
- The NEC’s UI is deeply sucky in many stupidly obvious areas. Example 1: The phone has several of the 3×3 icon menus that you see on newer phones, but is completely inconsistent in the simple matter of how you move the cursor around these icons. Example 2: After recording some video, you have to back all the way out of the video recorder and dive into the file library in order to watch the video you’ve just recorded. Plus, the font used all over the phone is that ugly, wiry, UNIX-y one that you always see used for English on Japanese gear.
Put it like this: Out of the two phones, the Motorola has the better UI. (Yes, it’s that bad.)
- One of the big 3G selling points is location-aware apps. For launch, these are just things like quickmaps (where am I?), A->B routefinding and “Find My Nearest…” UpMyStreet-style stuff, but I think that’s pretty good. The launch phones find location by triangulation – later models will use GPS.
- There are three different pricing plans: see here for the full details. The handsets are scarily expensive, even with a monthly contract. The “Kit” pricing plan is going to be quite attractive for heavy phone users once they factor in the 1000 free minutes per month.
I won’t be grabbing one for the moment; I’ve never been that much of an early-adopter (especially when it comes to mobiles – I’m using a Nokia 3330) plus I’m horrifically strapped for cash right now. Once the Nokia and Sony Ericsson handsets come out and the prices come down a bit, I think I’ll be very tempted.