ASUS loves to dabble in all sorts of categories, and this time the mini-notebook maker has released its first smart phone in the states. The P527 features a touchscreen, Windows Mobile 6 Professional, GPS, and a 2-megapixel camera. Its quad-band support means this device can be used on GSM networks in the United States as well as overseas. But while its rich feature set aims to provide an exceptional experience for traveling professionals, this pricey $575 phone had us yearning for more power and reliability.
The P527 is attractive: It has a brushed-aluminum finish and a large, bright, 2.6-inch 240 x 320-pixel resolution display. Unfortunately, ASUSdelivered a cramped alphanumeric touchpad paired with Windows Mobile 6 Professional's poor on-screen keyboard. We would have preferred a full QWERTY keypad. On the plus side, we appreciated the eight quick-launch buttons for commonly used applications such as the GPS suite, e-mail, Bluetooth settings, speakerphone, and FM radio.
Just above the keypad are soft menu buttons and a small joystick for navigation. On the left side of the unit is a welcome three-directional jog wheel (it scrolls up and down, and you can press it in to make a selection). The camera controls, hardware lock button, and microSD slot are on the right side of the unit, and the power button is directly on top. At 4.5 ounces, the P527 is on the heavier side, but it's not too bulky or heavy for pockets. The stylus is stored on the lower right side.
Unique But Sluggish User Interface
At first glance, the phone has the humdrum Windows Mobile 6 Professional interface. However, the left soft button can be used to start ASUS' own suite of applications called ASUS Launcher, which is more pleasing to use. Inside, the improved UI grants access to such applications as the Web browser, the camera, SMS and e-mail messages, preloaded games (the standard WM 6 selection, including Solitaire), your call log, GPS, files, and more. Unfortunately, no matter what UI we were using, the interface felt sluggish. When we panned down in the Programs folder, for example, the icons constantly refreshed on the screen, whereas most Windows Mobile phones display everything fluidly.
The lower right-hand corner of the screen has a small icon that lets you flip the screen between landscape and horizontal mode. It took about 3 seconds for the screen to realign itself. The phone lacks an accelerometer, so it doesn't switch the orientation manually.
E-mail and Messaging Support
The unlocked P527 supports 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and EDGE data networks but not 3G network connections. We tested it using an AT&T SIM card (you can configure the phone to work with T-Mobile as well); the phone automatically detects and applies settings once you select a network in Connection Settings. You get SMS, MMS, and e-mail messaging capabilities with the P527. We were able to set up our Gmail account using POP/IMAP in Windows Mobile 6 Professional. However, we aren't fans of using a stylus to type out long e-mails, and the non-QWERTY keypad was even more annoying to use. ASUS doesn't pack any IM clients on the phone, so you'll need to download your own messaging client. We suggest IM+ ($29.95; www.shapeservices.com).
P527 Web Browsing
When we surfed the Web using AT&T's EDGE network, we loaded ESPN.com in a tortoise-like 16 seconds and CNN.com in 19 seconds. Over Wi-Fi, we loaded the sites in 8 and 5 seconds, respectively. ASUS also includes Newstation, a basic RSS reader. The Technology option offers opinions from Engadget Mobile and CNET Reviews, and travel stories from CNN Travel. When we tried to add Travel.com to the travel section, the software searched the Web for updated stories after recognizing it as a legitimate RSS feed but then returned an error that said "Encountering Unidentified Problem." We attempted again by adding ESPN.com under Sports, and it added the channel but gave us the same error again.
Mixed GPS Performance
We weren't able to maintain a GPS connection while standing outside on a Manhattan street with a clear view of the sky. Once you do acquire a signal and are locked in with the satellites, however, you can find points of interest based on your location. The P527 also features travel log software, which charts your movements using GPS. After launching the program, the software started drawing a line of movement on the screen, which would have been great if we were moving, but we were sitting still. The program never displayed the map overlay, so it was essentially drawing lines on a blank space.
The included microSD Card launched ASUS Go software, which gives you options for Map, Cockpit View, Settings, and Find and Go. When the software finally found our location--which was accurate down to the street--we tried to get directions to our office from a few blocks away, but the phone didn't recognize our address as valid. And then the software crashed, and the phone said it was out of memory. This was a frequent occurrence in Manhattan.
However, when we took the P527 to New Jersey, we saw much better results. It was able to obtain a signal shortly after we exited the Lincoln Tunnel; it lost the signal just once, very briefly, as we went under one of several overpasses. The GPS marker stayed only 2 seconds behind us while we were driving. The P527 rerouted quickly (about 5 seconds) and supplied easy-to-understand turn-by-turn directions. It was set to kilometers and meters by default, so we changed it to miles and yards under Settings, where you can also choose from various languages and voices. We could definitely see ourselves using this smart phone as a GPS unit, but not necessarily in cities with lots of tall buildings.
Pressing the camera button on the P527 doesn't automatically launch the 2-MP camera. You have to take out the stylus and navigate through the ASUS Launcher menu to start it, and then wait 5 seconds for the camera to launch, so don't plan on capturing a spontaneous shot. Chances are you won't want to use it anyway. Pictures taken out on the streets of New York City on a sunny day were washed out and lacked vibrant colors; indoor shots were no better. The phone lacks a built-in flash, so we don't advise taking pictures in low light.
The phone can also shoot 176 x 144 video, but the video camera, too, takes 5 seconds just to start up, and the quality is also very poor. Videos were horribly jagged and blocky with bits of lag thrown in, and audio was a jumbled mess.
Our MP3s sounded loud and clear when played back through Windows Media Player Mobile. WMA videos also played back quite well. When we opened one up at full screen, the phone's software automatically switches the view to widescreen mode just for the video. If you want to listen to FM radio, you can use the included 2.5mm plastic earbuds, which have an antenna built into the cord. We were able to pick up 14 stations in our Manhattan office and were pleasantly surprised with the sound quality pumped through our headphones; they offered crisp sound and a nice bass/treble balance. Too bad the plastic earbuds got uncomfortable after about 5 minutes of use.
Turning on stereo Bluetooth took an interminable 9 seconds, but once activated, we were able to pair it easily with our headphones. Though we were able to walk only 20 feet before it started fading out on us, we were thankful that it streamed both music and video with clear quality.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Call quality on the ASUS P527 was generally good. We never had a dropped call during our tests, and we were always able to hear the other party clearly without interruption or static. Our callers also said we sounded clear. When we used the phone to surf the Web and make a series of phone calls adding up to 2 hours of usage per day, we had to charge it each night.
ASUS P527 Verdict
Unfortunately, the P527 isn't nearly as good as competing models from HTC, Motorola, or Samsung. The P527 is fine for checking e-mail, and it provides good call quality and a good GPS experience on the open road. We also appreciated the FM radio and the ASUS Launcher custom UI. But with its steep price tag of $575, we'd expect much faster performance, a QWERTY keyboard, and a usable camera. All of these shortcomings mean we can't recommend the P527.