NEC N411i i-mode phone
Review I remember getting my first WAP phone. The hype surrounding the technology was massive and I was expecting an amazing experience. Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed, and WAP proved to be slow, poorly implemented and often expensive. One of the things that annoyed me most about WAP, was that I was well aware that the Japanese were enjoying the benefits of i-mode, writes Riyad Emeran.
Japanese network operator NTT DoCoMo had launched i-mode in 1999. It was a simple packet-based data service that allowed users to perform all kinds of tasks and access all kinds of services via their mobile phones. Not only was i-mode content rich, it was also much faster and far more intuitive than WAP. With this in mind I gave up on WAP and waited for i-mode to appear in the UK - I waited and waited and waited.
Now, six years on, we Brits are finally getting a taste of what our friends in Japan have been raving about. Yes, a UK network operator, O2, has finally stepped up to the plate and launched an i-mode service.
Launching i-mode was always going to be a tricky proposition in the UK - WAP was hardly welcomed with open arms. But O2 seems to have done everything right with this launch: handsets were available from day one, there was loads of content on offer, and the pricing structure has been made clear and simple.
NEC is one of the handset launch partners for i-mode along with Samsung, although NEC managed to get two phones to market for launch. The N411i is the high-end handset in the NEC line up, despite the fact that the cheaper and less well-featured N343i will probably outsell it, due to its iPod looks.
i-mode is great - it works brilliantly, has plenty of useful content already and is totally affordable. One of the best things that O2 has done with i-mode is put a fixed pricing structure into place - whether you're a pre-pay customer or on a contract, you'll be paying exactly the same amount for your i-mode services.
There are two costs to take into account: the data cost and the subscription cost. As is the case with all mobile Internet services, you need to pay for the amount of data you use - of course you can purchase packages that suit your usage model, so if you think you'll be using a lot of data you can pay a monthly fee that reduces the cost per megabyte significantly. But there are also subscription costs and this is where things can start to add up.
First off let me congratulate O2 for insisting that every 'official' content provider must offer a certain amount of free content. This means that you can get an idea of what subscribing will provide you before having to put any money down. Another good move is capping the subscription cost at a maximum of £3 per month, although a great many services have a far lower subscription cost. If you're worried about subscribing to services by mistake and ending up with a huge bill, don't. In order to subscribe to a service you have to confirm three times before the subscription is activated.
The breadth of content available is quite staggering. Check out the lifestyle section and you'll find familiar magazine names like Heat, Glamour and Evo. While for those desperate enough to need to look at pictures of naked women on a tiny mobile phone screen, there's also Zoo, Nuts and FHM.
But it's not all puerile content for teenagers, there are some truly excellent services as well. For me it's worth having i-mode just to have streetmap.co.uk in my pocket wherever I go. For a bargain price of only 25p per month, you can look up any street or postcode and have the map sent directly to your phone. Another very useful feature is the BAA live flight information, something that I made real use of when I had to collect my wife from the airport last week. O2 has assured me that there will be a similar service for train times, but it hasn't gone live yet. There are also news services, sports channels, TV gossip services and music and video download services available. Put simply, there really is something there for everyone.
One of the most impressive aspects of i-mode is the navigation system - not only is the i-mode button and standard four-way navigator intuitive and easy to use, but every i-mode handset has to employ the same navigation method. This means that if you change your handset, you don't have to learn how to navigate i-mode all over again.
Another great i-mode feature is page caching. This means that when you jump back pages, the transition is instantaneous, since that page will have been stored locally, so there's no need to download it again. This is particularly useful when you're moving around a map in streetmap.co.uk, since the various areas will be cached. However, I'd like to see more pages cached, since the caching is very limited - to be honest I'd like to be able to reserve an amount of phone memory for caching, and have all pages cached until that area was full.
An i-mode phone is also equipped with push email, just like a Blackberry. So, if you absolutely have to get your email wherever you are, you can just have it all forwarded to your i-mode phone, although you're obviously going to have to pay for all the data that you receive. The beauty of the push email is that you just forward your email to the phone when you need it, that way you're not constantly bombarded with email all day. My advice would be to never give out the actual email address of your phone, that way you can avoid spam while maintaining a useful mobile email option when necessary.
All the i-mode content services are free until the end of the year - well that's not entirely true, you're allowed to subscribe to up to ten content providers for free until the end of the year. i-mode email is also free until the end of March 2006.
But good as it is, i-mode isn't perfect. Take streetmap.co.uk, for example. To use it you need to navigate to the StreetMap site listed under the Travel section, then you have to download a Java application in order to use the service. Once the Java application has been downloaded, you don't go to the StreetMap site under the i-menu to use StreetMap. No, you have to go to your Java menu and launch StreetMap from there. I don't see why you can't go to the StreetMap site under the Travel section and have the Java application automatically launched from there if you have it installed - surely that would be the most simple and obvious route for users?
Now that I've got i-mode out of the way, what's the N411i actually like?
It's pretty slim and light. I'm not the biggest fan of clamshell phones, but I did warm to the N411i slightly. With dimensions of 9.3 x 4.6 x 2.4cm and a weight of 95g, this phone can slip pretty unobtrusively into your pocket. The tri-band support will mean that you can use it pretty much anywhere in the world.
The main 1.9in TFT screen has a resolution of 176 x 220 pixels. There's a second display on the outside of the phone - by default this displays battery and signal strength indicators along with a large analogue clock. When someone calls you the external screen will display the number or name of the person calling. Above the external screen is a light that flashes blue when the phone has a signal - a strange feature and one that I found somewhat distracting when the handset was sitting on my desk. Above the light is the lens for the 1.3 megapixel camera, which takes pretty good still images but rather disappointing video. When you start to use the camera you find that the annoying blue signal light also shines bright white when in camera mode.
The N411i comes equipped with both Bluetooth and infrared, and there's a USB cable in the box for synchronisation with your PC. There's also a handsfree kit, and NEC has been smarter than most phone manufacturers here - instead of supplying an all-in-one solution, it has supplied the handsfree in two parts, allowing you to plug any headphones into the microphone section. This way you can get the best possible sound quality when listening to music by using your own headphones. That said, with only 25MB of internal memory and - bizarrely - no memory card slot, you're not going to be carrying masses of music around with you anyway.
When not in i-mode mode, the four-way navigator on the keypad defaults to Phone Modes when you press up, My Data when you press down, Missed Calls when you press right and Received Calls when you press left. Pressing the centre of the navigator will jump to the shortcut icons on the screen - although these can be configured, the phone will also add shortcut icons depending on the circumstances. For instance, if you receive a message a shortcut icon for that message will appear on your main screen, then pressing the centre of the navigator will take you straight to that message.
The N411i is available free from O2 depending on your contract, while pre-pay customers will need to shell out £99. The latter is pretty good considering that this is one of the first i-mode handsets on the market.
On the whole, the NEC N411i is a reasonable enough phone, although it feels a little underpowered and dated by today's standards. The keypad isn't tactile enough and the buttons are actually set below the surface rather than being raised, making dialling a lot more difficult than it should be. Put simply, this doesn't feel like the sort of handset that should be launching a service as good as i-mode.
And i-mode is excellent. It really is Internet at the touch of a button. There are downsides, though. First, O2 has a ten-year exclusive on i-mode services in the UK. But for true mass adoption of i-mode it needs to be available on all the networks.
The second issue is that of hardware. With only three i-mode handsets currently available, and a fourth due any day, there isn't a huge amount of choice. Most mobile phone users love having the latest, coolest, slimmest, smallest, lightest, sexiest phone on the market, and unfortunately none of the current i-mode handsets fulfil those criteria. I have an O2 contract and was due for an upgrade, but despite loving i-mode, I went for the Samsung D600 instead because it's a far nicer phone than any of the i-mode models.
There's no denying that i-mode is great. I love the way it works, the selection of content, the pricing structure, the speed of access and the bundled push email. Unfortunately, the NEC N411i just feels a little behind the times in today's world of super stylish and fully featured mobiles. NEC should be congratulated for getting i-mode handsets out so quickly, but something tells me that we'll be seeing far better examples in the near future.
|Price||£99 on pre-pay; free on contract|
|More info||The O2 i-mode site|