Most music phones wear their dual personalities on their sleeves with external playback controls that are either too small or unresponsive. Motorola’s ROKR E8 is different. This sleek handset, exclusively available from T-Mobile, literally changes personalities with the touch of a button from phone to music player to camera. Only the controls you need are at your fingertips at any given time. You get excellent sound quality, whether you’re using the included stereo headset or the surprisingly loud speaker. Although it’s relatively expensive at $199—especially for a phone that lacks 3G data or over-the-air downloads—the ROKR E8’s innovative, eye-catching design and robust audio make it worth the splurge.
ROKR E8 Design
The ROKR E8’s smooth glass top and midnight blue body, which features a soft rubbery back cover, will certainly turn heads. The subtle red make for a beautiful package all around. The 4.5 x 2.1 x 0.4-inch ROKR E8 is similar in size to an iPod classic. Its 2-inch display is bright enough to view in light and dark conditions, but while its 320 x 240-pixel resolution was sufficient for displaying text clearly and left enough real estate for album art, we wish the screen was slightly larger.
Below the display is an orange backlit keyboard that glows a pale mint green in darker conditions. A 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top of the phone, volume controls and a camera launch button on the left, and a physical lock button on the right side that doubles as the power button. You can add a microSD Card under the back cover, but Motorola recommends cards no larger than 4GB. One of the unique features is the phone’s semi-circular control dial. You can run your finger along its arc to move through lists or menu options, and the quicker you move through the dial, the faster the lists scroll. It’s perfect for speeding through long lists of songs or artists, although we’d prefer a full circle to an arc.
We really enjoyed using the ROKR E8 as a music player, but if you’re used to using an iPod nano or another small MP3 player, it’s certainly going to be more cumbersome to use while exercising. The phone was just as easy to carry in a pocket as any other MP3 player, and we enjoyed walking a mile with it while listening to music, but it’s not something we would take to the gym, arm band or not.
There are no real buttons on the ROKR E8’s keypad, but this phone’s breakthrough localized haptic technology will make you think there are. Each time you press a “key”—indicated by lights below a touch-sensitive surface—the area responds with a buzz in such a manner that it feels like a physical button actually exists. The ModeShift technology reveals corresponding keys for the phone, camera, and music player. When you’re using the phone, the alphanumeric keyboard is in view. When you switch to the MP3 player, the keypad vanishes and only multimedia controls remain. Likewise in camera mode, Zoom In/Out, Gallery view, and the video camera functions appear. The ModeShift technology attracted a lot of attention around our offices; many were stunned both by the ROKR E8’s ModeShift feature and the responsive haptic surface.
When we turned on the phone, we were welcomed by the familiar T-Mobile home screen that features the five MyFaves icons, which you can designate as shortcuts for contacting friends and family. Inside the main menu are ten icons along the bottom of the screen: your call log, E-mail & IM, Fun & Apps, Messages, Mobile Internet, Multimedia, Phone book, Settings, Song ID, and T-Zones. As you scroll over each of the miniature icons, a larger colored icon representing that application comes into a spotlight above. The interface is a bit sluggish if you try to scroll through quickly, but it was clean and easy to use.
We generally liked entering phone numbers and text messages on the keypad, but the vibrating haptics were a bit distracting at first, and we couldn’t type as fast as we usually do on cell phones with traditional keypads. After a day of use, we were typing at a decent clip, and we appreciated the auto-complete feature.
Support for AIM, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger IM clients is bundled inside the main menu under IM & Email. We logged into our AIM account in 20 seconds, and we could view our buddy list easily. The client even ran in the background on the phone. We tried using our Yahoo mail account, since it’s supported as one of the two choices under E-mail (along with AOL Mail), but we were unable to log in. Motorola says this is because the servers were down during our testing period, so we’ll update this review once they are back up.
The ROKR E8 supports a host of music formats including AAC, AAC+, AMR-NB, Enhanced AAC+, MIDI, MP3, Real Audio v10, WAV, and WMA files. The unit will also ship with its own headset, but we used our own since Motorola didn’t provide one at press time. We appreciated the ease with which we were able to transfer music to the ROKR E8 through Windows Media Player 11: Simply select the files you want from your library, and drag them to the ROKR E8 playlist. Our computer running Windows XP recognized the phone immediately, and we didn’t have to install any additional software to get started.
We listened to John Mayer’s “Vultures (Live)” on both the Nokia 5130 XpressMusic and the Motorola ROKR E8, and while both sounded clear enough with pronounced bass and treble, we preferred the ROKR E8 as a music device, primarily because it’s more efficient for scrolling through long lists and because it displayed album art. The ROKR E8’s unique controls made quickly navigating back to our tunes easy as well.
When listening to music, you can view album art as well as the artist and song name, or you can back out of the player while the music continues and do other tasks such as send text messages or surf the Web. The interface isn’t great, and certainly isn’t as fluid or as good-looking as an iPod, but it does the job well enough.
The ROKR E8 comes with 2GB of built-in storage and a 1GB microSD Card. But you can equip it with a 4GB card to bring the total storage to a maximum of 6GB. By comparison, the $49.99 Nokia 5310 XpressMusic supports only 4GB of music, though it’s more compact.
You can use the unit’s built-in FM radio while you’re listening via wired headphones (which act as the antenna) and we were pleased with the quality of the radio, which sounded just as clear as our MP3s. The ROKR E8’s speaker is loud enough for playing your tunes in the kitchen or for kicking back on the couch, and at moderate volume the playback was pleasant. As expected, the audio got uncomfortably trebly and tinny at maximum volume. We recommend pairing the handset with a Bluetooth speaker if you want serious volume.
Overall, surfing the Web on the ROKR E8 felt like time-traveling back ten years. For example, CNN Mobile loaded in a respectable 12 seconds when going through T-Mobile’s portal, but the page didn’t have any images. Indoors with 3 bars of signal, we attempted to surf the Web but were told the service was unavailable. Loading ESPN’s mobile site took 26 seconds, but even then, we were presented with a pathetic WAP Web page due to redirections—even though Motorola claims this device has a full HTML browser. The ROKR E8 loaded a full-HTML page from ABCNews.com in a minute and 30 seconds, though. For $199, we expect a much more mature browsing experience.
The 2-MP pictures we took indoors came out crisp, and we were pleased with the quality. They’re good enough to send to Facebook under the mobile uploads section. Outdoor pictures under a cloudy sky were acceptable, but details were hard to see. For example, we couldn’t make out the text of a One Way sign directly across the street. Videos record in an underwhelming 176 x 144-pixel resolution and are stored as 3GP files. The video was viewable on another cell phone, but it was too pixelated to enjoy on our blog.
We sent MMS messages including video and pictures to another phone, and then posted our media directly to the Web. During this process, with a full signal outdoors, three out of the four MMS texts we composed failed to send at all. Motorola told us this could be because networks prioritize phone calls and text messages ahead of multimedia ones. You can also choose to send images directly from the ROKR E8 to your “blog” but you can’t define any blog you’d like; you’re limited to your T-Mobile My Journal or My Album account.
The Motorola ROKR E8 has exceptional call quality. Our callers sounded crisp, and conversations had a landline-like quality with a full signal outdoors. Our callers had no complaints with sound on their end, and the phone’s volume let us hear sufficiently while trucks whizzed by and taxis honked in the background. This was due to Motorola’s CrystalTalk technology, which helps keep voice quality clear in noisy environments, such as the streets of New York City where we tested the phone. We easily paired the ROKR E8 with a Samsung SBH500 stereo Bluetooth headset and were able to walk 31 feet away from the handset before the music started to skip due to a lack of signal, which is quite impressive.
Motorola claims that the ROKR E8 has up to 7.5 hours of talk time, and up to 12.5 days of standby time. After a four-hour period of using the phone heavily by listening to music and making calls, we lost only one bar of battery life. At the moment, we expect it will last two days under normal usage conditions.
We love the unique morphing design of the ROKR E8, and its great call quality adds to the appeal. It’s designed to be—and performs well—as a music phone. But the ROKR E8 isn’t without its faults. For example, the Web browser isn’t up to a par even compared with basic phones like the $49.99 Nokia 5130 XpressMusic. Overall, though, Motorola has done a very good job of making touch-sensitive controls on a music phone more usable, practical, and fun.