i-mate SPL Windows mobile phone
It ain't heavy... in fact, it's rather lightweight
Review Research in Motion has proved it's possible to pull off a consumer-pleasing candybar handset that still has business-friendly features. The SPL follows in those footsteps, and for once you won't be embarrassed pulling it out of your pocket.
Perhaps i-mate could have been a little more choosy with the name. Aside from the flashbacks to the chunky, clunky Orange SPV of yesteryear, in the UK SPL translates as Scottish Premier League - hardly the pinnacle of cool. At least you won't need a subscription to the satellite sports channel Setanta to take a look this SPL.
Despite measuring up at 11.4 x 4.9 x 1.2cm and weighing only 102g, the phone hides a fairly chunky battery. It might be taken for granted that this will have to be removed every time you want to swap out a SIM card, but the designers have sadly used the space within to hide another important slot. The need to make the phone as slim as possible means an external slot for the Mini SD memory card has become a casualty. Placing it inside, next to a small pull-out slot for the SIM card, makes changing the memory a bit of a pain and hampers its use as a device to listen to MP3s or watch videos on. The other downside to the size is the cramped space on the keyboard. This suffers the same fate as RIM's Pearl, with keys too close together for quick use and the bottom row particularly hard to press.
Thankfully, the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system still has a few tricks up its sleeve to keep the power users happy. The i-mate lets you sync all the usual items such as contacts, calendar, tasks, email and favourites, with the option to include Windows Media items as well. Because the sync software is designed to work specifically with the Windows OS, PC users benefit from having a smooth transfer of their data.
Information such as Contacts are displayed exactly as they were saved in Outlook. That compares much better than something like the XTNDConnect sync software that comes with Sony Ericsson phones. In that case, even a lot of tweaking often fails to bring the desired results, with addresses being missed off, shortened names being displayed or calendar entries being clipped at one month ahead.
Communications are extended with the use of MSN Messenger, but it's the ability to sync with a Microsoft Exchange Server for better email functionality that makes the true business case. Some corporate functions also benefit the consumer experience. Being able to set up nine standard text messages works really well for everyday use and you may never have to write “Running late, see you in 20 mins” ever again.
The SPL's battery life is also a huge improvement over early smart-phone models. Excessive use of email functions, diary management or note taking would have taken its toll in the past, even before a voice call was made. Some models would only deliver just over a day's battery life before needing a refresh, which would make them unusable by today's standards. However, it took two and a half days of moderate call usage and full on twiddling with the SPL's various functions before the handset started to flash battery warnings. Recharging takes place using the usual mains adaptor or through the USB connection.
While the battery life is enough to keep business travellers happy, it's the missing ingredients that a corporate user might expect these days that stand out. For starters, the phone's connection capabilities are starting to fall behind the times. Naturally, 3G browsing is available, but the only way to share an internet connection on the i-mate is by connecting it to a PC using Bluetooth or physical USB lead. That seems quaint by today's standards, with the current batch of mobiles making use of Wi-Fi connections to cut down on call charges and data-access costs.
However, the biggest omissions here are the mobile versions of Microsoft Office's component apps, which would need to be added for full out-of-office use.
The two-megapixel camera moves the phone into consumer territory once more. It can capture good-looking UXGA images up 1,600 x 1,200 and the 2.2in screen shows them off well. The video function even picked up sound well at a small concert, even if the images themselves were grainy and just slightly too dark even on the Night setting. However, the delay caused by the operating system stops it being a true snappers delight.
The button on the outside of the i-mate should be a quick way into the camera, with just one more button press needed to take a picture. But the spinning wheel of death that appears in the centre of the screen as the SPL struggles to bring up these functions mean truly spur of the moment images won't make it into your photo album. This is especially apparent on the Burst function, which is supposed to take several quick images but works more like time-lapse photography. Blame has to be laid at the door of the 200MHz processor, backed up by 128MB ROM and 64MB RAM.
The problem with the i-mate SPL is that it's not businessy enough to take on something like the Blackberry Pearl and it's not lifestyle enough to compete with the kind of models that come free with today's 12-month contracts. Businesspeople will miss crucial tools such as office software and casual users will miss being able to press the star key and easily lock the handset. Falling between two stools like this means the i-mate is a good choice for those who like a little work with a little play. Sadly, everyone else will find it lacking.