Review: Motorola Rokr E8

Our first take on the Motorola Rokr E8: the irritating backlit touchpad interface is a gimmicky - style over substance.

We still don't like the interface, but the E8, a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE unit, does deliver excellent music playback from a sleek, multi-purpose phone, which is what it claims to do.

In fact, it's the best music playback from a phone we've heard since the iPhone 3G - and miles ahead of other recent Motorola and BlackBerry products.

Clearly targeted at music lovers, it includes another rare if not unique audio feature, an FM radio tuner that uses the headphone cable as antenna.

T-Mobile, which carries the Rokr E8 in the U.S., gives the list price as $350. With an "instant discount" and $50 mail-in rebate, your price: $150. Wow.

But that's with a two-year plan at a minimum monthly fee of $30 - something T-Mobile doesn't actually tell you at its Web site until you're right ready to buy.

Rogers Wireless, which sells it in Canada, gives the list price as $100 (and that's in devalued Canuck bucks - hmm) and sells it for as little as $50 with an instant rebate.

Again, the Web site doesn't make immediately clear that this is your price only if you take a three-year plan at a minimum monthly cost of $25. (Don't get me started on deceptive cell phone company e-selling tactics.)

The Rokr E8 could be classed as a smartphone. It certainly has a Web browser and an e-mail capability, plus some basic personal information management tools. But they're weak, and it uses a proprietary operating system, not Windows Mobile.

The phone has Bluetooth, naturally, and a 2.0 megapixel video-capable camera - but no optical zoom or flash on the camera, and no Wi-Fi. The display, of middling quality to our eyes, is 320 x 240 and tiny: 1.6 x 1.2 inches. An iPhone this ain't.

It comes with "up to" 2MB of internal memory and a microSD slot. The phone I had from Rogers had 2MB of internal memory but no card. T-Mobile doesn't say how much internal memory, but ships with a 1MB card.

Rated battery life is good: up to 7.5 hours talk time, up to 12.5 days standby. This information is from T-Mobile, though. Motorola says: continuous usage up to 360 minutes (six hours). Is that when playing music or talking on the phone, or some kind of average?

The E8 is nothing if not sleek and stylish looking. This is partly thanks to the less-than-satisfactory touchpad interface, which we'll come to in a second. Hardly anything protrudes, and the unit measures a svelte 4.5 x 2.1 x 0.4 inches and weighs 3.5 ounces.

Motorola thinks the interface is one of the E8's biggest selling points, if not the biggest. We don't think so.

When the phone is off, it appears almost completely blank, with a grid of tiny plastic nubs standing out from the otherwise smooth black plastic front. When you turn it on, characters and icons light up and show through the outer skin.

The trick is that the lit icons and characters change according to what mode you're in. When you play music, you mostly only see audio-related buttons - Play, Pause, Skip Ahead, Skip Back, Repeat.

However, you can move instantly back into phone mode by clicking the Hang-up button twice or the Answer button to turn off music and take the call. (Motorola call this its ModeShift technology.)

While we understand what the designers were aiming for, and we're sure the interface will appeal to some just because of its novelty, we mainly found it annoying.

The iPod-style touch-sensitive scroll wheel is jumpy - we kept scrolling past the item we wanted. And the touch pad buttons don't have a very positive feel.

Still, we're willing to forgive the interface given the E8's superior music-playing ability. To our ears, in side-by-side tests with the iPod Nano, using Grado audiophile headphones - the E8 has a standard 3.5mm jack - the Rokr sounded as good. The earbuds that ship with the unit are surprisingly decent too.

The Rogers phone I tested has two media players, one branded by Rogers, which can be launched with a Music softkey from the opening screen. The other is Windows Media Player 11 compatible.

But the Rogers player couldn't see or couldn't recognize WMA (Windows Media Audio) files we synched to the device from a PC using Windows Media Player. This was confusing. Where did the files go?

To play those files, it turns out, we had to select Media at the home page, then Media Finder and Music Library. Selecting a track in the Music Library launched the other, Windows Media Player-compatible player.

The FM radio also sounds pretty good and even includes a seek function and presets.

As a phone, the E8 worked as well as any we've tested on the Rogers network lately, or possibly slightly better because of superior audio quality.

Web browsing is constrained by both the tiny screen and slower EDGE connectivity. The camera works - but only if you don't mind grainy, soft-focus shots.

Still, the price is reasonable for what you get. And it's possible you can get used to the interface. Heck, you might even like it.


Motorola, music, ROKR