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Motorola Accompli 008 communicator

Part 1: A smartphone for the rest of us?

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The Reg Smartphone Roundup

We've been playing with three new gizmos here that are touted as the future of the mobile Internet, and we'll be taking a long and sceptical look at these smartphones from Motorola, Nokia and Mitsubishi this week. Particularly to see whether they measure up to two respects: if they're so smart, will they replace the PDAs we already use, and more prosaically, are they any good as plain old phones?

Beam me up, Spotty

When it's closed, you wouldn't think it was any different to an ordinary Motorola phone. Moto's taken the shell of its existing M50 or silver StarTac flip-phone for its Accompli 008 communicator. It's tiny compared to the Nokia 9210 and Mitsubishi's Trium, and priced accordingly. Motorola says it should retail for around £250 with contract. But looks are deceptive, as the lid flips open to reveal a graphical monochrome screen with only four buttons at the bottom, much like a Palm. The phone uses natural handwriting recognition which unlike Palm's Graffiti, doesn't require mastering a new alphabet.

This is a powerful GPRS-capable triband phone that can be used in the United States on the 1900Mhz GSM band. The email client recognises IMAP as well as POP accounts, it includes a WAP browser and runs MIDP Java applets.

The Accompli 008 has been out for a while in the Far East, where its proprietary OS was developed and it shows its heritage. Although nominally the resolution of a Palm, once you're past the tabbed icons of the home app, you're confronted with an enormous blocky monospaced font that resembles Chinese Courier, reminiscent of the health warnings on Taiwanese noodle packets. It's plain ugly, being in large part a character-based 'graphical' UI, and has a single severe practical limitation: the PDA squanders its screen advantage by using such a large font. For example, in the Notepad app, it's possible to see only six notes at a time. And then, only the first twelve characters of each note. Sure there's a usability advantage: the large font means it's easy to navigate using your thumb, rather than extracting the telescopic stylus. But even where the large font isn't used , some poor UI design hinders its functionality. For example the mail app shows two columns: not the sender and subject field as you might expect, but the date and time the message was sent. Er... that's right - there's no indication of who it came from or what it's about.

The Accompli has other PDA drawbacks too. It's bundled with a calendar app 'Date Book', a crude scribble app 'Ink Pad', voice recorder and alarm. Oh, and a ring tone composer. But there's no clipboard for pasting information between applets, so if you're mailed a URL or a phone number, you'll need pen and paper to paste it into the browser or contacts book.

And that's pretty infuriating.

Carry On At Your Convenience

What the Accompli does though, it does pretty well, not withstanding battles against the user interface. As a single-box texter and email device, it's really excellent. The sheer convenience of not having to make a line of sight connection with a PDA is enormous. And the Accompli has convinced us that if two-box (PDA plus phone) solutions continue then they really have to offer something special, like a really big data portable store, or an outstanding web browser, even once Bluetooth has superseded infra red.

We had no problems collecting mail from multiple accounts or over multiple connections. You can receive from one account and send from another. A complex IMAP folder hierarchy didn't confuse the Accompli either. There's a simple, but pretty effective filtering system too, that works with received SMS messages as well as emails. But by default, the phone leaves incoming SMS messages on the SIM card rather than diverting them into phone memory.

The Accompli is very strong on interoperability with other devices, sending vCard and vCal flawlessly to a Psion PDA, but not a Stinger phone. Almost every piece of information can be beamed to another device, or patched into an email, which goes someway to alleviating the lack of a clipboard.

As a phone it worked pretty well. There's a pull down graphical keypad available at all times, with buttons big enough to tap with your thumb. Unfortunately the rocker wheel makes it exceptionally difficult to find stored phone book entries, and it remains far easier to navigate a traditional phone by tapping out the first two letters of an address book entry.

A selection of MIDP Java applets are available from a couple of downloads sites - mostly screensavers at present - but the number is growing.

Sync to the desktop is excellent, and TrueSync is probably the most sophisticated out-of-the-box synchroniser of the bunch, and certainly more reliable than PsiWin. In fact only by uninstalling PsiWin could we get our Compaq notebook to realise it had a working serial port. Although like the Microsoft and Symbian phones, you're stranded if you have a Linux box or Mac. Given the small capacity of the device, the omission of a USB port isn't an issue, as it certainly is with the Nokia 9210, we've found.

Motorola promises that this and future devices will be flash upgradeable within 20 minutes or so at Motorola services centres.

In practice, and to our astonishment, the text input worked well. Not only does it recognise characters generously (providing a list of near misses that never failed to pick up the character in questions), but it provides a pair of input boxes to speed up input. So while it's recognizing one, you're scribbling in the next character. That in itself is a huge boon over Graffiti. It actually recognises a couple of Graffiti characters (underscore for a space, for example) too.

Conclusion

If Motorola can price this well, it should be a winner. It's no Palm killer, for sure, as the PIM functionality being pretty rudimentary - but it's a smarter phone than a 2G handset and a terrific texting device that doesn't compromise on weight or low profile. And the sheer utility of a lightweight one piece communications device is marvellous.

Motorola has suggested that the price with contract will be in the £200-250 range, but if Moto could slip it out for $99, it should be a runaway success. ®

The Fine Print

GPRS (1 up (0.05kbps), 3 down (27.3 kbps), and GSM triband (900/1800/1900Mhz)
150 hours of standby time and 300 minutes of talk time on a charge. 1 up/3 down GPRS.
weight 155g
dimensions 93mm x 60mm x 28mm

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