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Music handsets comparison – which one to choose?
It’s widely known, that comparisons based off real handsets’ specifications often attract attention of wide audience – though once we get to comparing music phones, one can justly say that all conclusions depend on subjective impressions, as tastes differ. Frequencies measurement does not give plain data, which can help in practice either – how can you judge whether device A is superior to device B when both of them have default earphones plugged in and output sound is almost of the same quality? It seems under these conditions such issues are pointless and not worth posting.
However there is something that saves the day – so called focus-groups, which arrive at a conclusion by testing music playback quality and overall feeling of every given device subjectively. These experiments allow obtaining information that are likely to prove useful in practice, and predicting attitude towards the product once it is released. Not a single magazine provided test of this kind, thus Mobile-Review.com has managed to hit the status of pioneer once again. I should stress that in most cases focus-groups are organized by manufacturers themselves, nevertheless they don’t completely fulfill their main objective – rating a device fairly, and pretty often those results turn out to be biased. Before putting our hands on the very experimental results, let’s see which models have undergone our tests.
Comparison participants or the modern market of music handsets
The very concept of music handsets has been developed since Sony Ericsson in cooperation with Sony reanimated the Walkman brand. And the truth of the matter is that this was the first great success of a music phone on the entire market. Simultaneous updates of the rest of the lime-up and presence of other high profile music solutions didn’t affect the sale rates much. It was Sony Ericsson to start the trend of positioning music part as essential in the first place. However this manufacturer couldn’t create enough of handicap to ensure its leadership for a long period – Motorola was also grinding in this field, and this resulted in ROKR line-up launch, which’s first representative E1 was a re-designed Motorola E398 with iTunes support. The model proved to be such a big failure in 2005, that we won’t even include it in the range of compared phones, it’s an outmoded device in many ways. A bit later on, Nokia also joined the race for taking over the music phones market – and this attempt was rather successful, as Nokia N91 announcement made all brand loyal people to greatly anticipate this one. Though, since the device has not appeared on the market yet, we won’t review its capacity here. The second reason for doing so, that this model is positioned as a solution residing in the high-price bracket and has a hard drive incorporated. Comparison with Samsung i300, Sony Ericsson W950, Sony Ericsson P990i would make sense for sure – basically this article is more likely to be written in the near future. This issue doesn’t feature very promising model Alcatel S853 simply because we didn’t manage to get one while the focus-group was working, even now we failed to find this device in retail stores.
This article reviews not all the introduced handsets, but also those, which are only closing in to their release dates – this group consists of another model in ROKR product line, Motorola E2; Nokia 3250, even though it’s a youth smartphone, the manufacturer positions it as a music phone. Naturally, the pioneer of this field, Sony Ericsson, has its representatives in this issue as well - Sony Ericsson W800i, Sony Ericsson W810i, Sony Ericsson W900i. All results, acquired for Sony Ericsson W800i are true for Sony Ericsson K750i as well – all you need to do is to update firmware, earphones from the standard kit and plug in a bigger memory card. (not the best way considering minimal difference in prices, though there are still some people who are fond of challenges).
We didn’t include any models, which have a media player onboard though are not aimed at the market we are currently reviewing. The major specifications of all music handsets released in 2006 are as follows (from our point of view):
For example model Nokia 6230i may be used for playing back music, though until the very recent times it had lacked a 3.5 mm jack with Fast Port. Apart from that, the 6230i isn’t positioned as a music solution. Now you have a hint about which devices are excluded from this review – such handsets often appear quite attractive for consumers, who require music capabilities only as an addition, rather than a key function. Therefore here we are going to cover devices, initially aimed at the other part of the audience. Theoretically, that is the reason why Siemens S75 and similar solutions left the field, further more, their users still have problems with playing back MP3 files on early firmware versions. Nonetheless, in order to show what the difference between high profile music phones and solutions of that kind is, we decided to let S75 in. Unfortunately most of Samsung models don’t hold a 3.5 mm jack on their casings, and thus are not featured in this very issue, though taking into consideration their similarity, we felt we needed to include one - Samsung X700.
So, as it follows from the aforesaid material, the final participants list looks like that:
Comparing – what to and how to?
First things first – we are going to rank music capabilities of the devices, ergonomics, sizes etc. Outlook and design are not rated here for being a very subjective thing and, besides, all the information found in the review is a guide to action on no account. In the second place we will see how good the rest of functions are materialized in the phones – from phonebooks to pre-installed games. The conclusion sums up all the specifications plus the music functions, so those who agree giving up some music capacity in order to get the other one in a better condition – skip all the parts until you see the conclusion. Each function is rated from 1 to 5 points, though it’s comparative rather than absolute – in fact, we are not attempting to rank this or that parameter as compared to the other models, but state, that, say, the handsets with the better quality of equalizers get 5 points, those with slightly worse ones – 4 etc. The next thing we do is summarizing all the results, and the final sum appears on your display. No doubt, the total is compared to model’s price, and thus we get price/quality ratio, which strongly affects final standings, where favorites may end up as outsiders.
The focus group was involved in comparing music capabilities, so each test, carried out with the help of our focus group is market with FG abbreviation. The users were offered the following information (exactly in the way it’s written here):
The music part includes these specifications:
All other characteristics are not considered in this issue, even though they are not of the less importance, like display quality, phonebook quality and so on – here we are reviewing exactly music capabilities of the phones.
Comparison - Part I - music
1.1 Measurements, design and weight
So happens, that Walkman line-up by Sony Ericsson doesn’t provide any handsets with youth design, that’s why they can’t claim only youth audience. The first phone in this range, W800i possess white-orange trim, which made some to refuse purchasing the handset, and on the other hand appealed to a certain share of consumers. Why talking about that? Because only this model may be hardly considered as a solution for youth, at the same time both Nokia 3250 and Motorola ROKR E2 have been presented as handsets targeted at younger audience in the first place. All other participants of this survey relate to a class of phones aimed to appeal a wider audience.
As you see, all models may be divided into two camps – those with weight over 100 grams and less than this value. Sony Ericsson W900i stands out against this background, as it features maximum weight, and consequently, measurements. Even though the W800i could have been moved to the first group, we decided not to do it for the sake of justice. From this it follows that we have the following groups of devices:
1.2 Memory cards extension slot, type, maximum capacity, price per 1 Mb
The manufacturers are making efforts to keep the applied memory cards type the same throughout the entire product line, though there are several outstanding models as well. For example in most of its products Motorola uses MicroSD cards, while ROKR E2 is equipped with a standard SD extension slot. Sony Ericsson has recently stepped in the period of global technologies upgrade, that’s the reason why we see it switching from MS Duo Pro to more compact M2. The former type is not so widespread on the market, but the company ensures that by the time the first handset, supporting this standard, arrives in the markets, these memory cards will have already hit the shelves of retail stores. At that they stress that the price for M2 will be equal to MS Duo Pro cards with the capacity.
In the column featuring maximum capacity we stated not overall technical possibilities for various standards, but the capacity which will be available in 2006. As of M2 memory cards, their shipment start is scheduled for end of summer – beginning of fall.
Price for various memory cards is different and directly depends on the given region – in Asia, for example, they cost much less than in Europe. We calculate prices starting from the available products in retail stores at present or forecasts. Cards with the biggest capacity serve as a basis for the calculation, so you should keep in mind that for less capable memory cards price per 1 Mb will be higher.
In terms of price/quality ratio the obvious leader is SD format – the maximum size of 2 Gb can be purchased by the majority of consumers. Both Memory Stick Duo Pro and microSD reside in pretty much the same price bracket; even though until recently the price for Sony cards was considerably higher. As you can see, RS-MMC and MS M2 are not going to hit the top of consumers’ interests; by the way, the former format hasn’t been introduced into the market yet. The difference is huge only when opposing SD against all other formats, as for the other specifications, all those cards are rather equal.
1.3 Synchronization with PC, music upload, additional software
For a music phone, well-realized synchronization with PC may come in handy and earn a handset several points in consumers’ opinion. All the reviewed handsets provide possibility of sending data directly to memory card by putting it in a desktop (if you have a corresponding slot of course), apart from this one can use USB-cable in order to upload some music.
Following a good tradition, Nokia packs Nokia PC Suite in the standard kit – this software kit includes an application for transferring music to a handset with the possibility of conversion of MP3 files into ACC format. Cable’s type – original DKE-2, which is included in the package of Nokia 3250.
Motorola as always offers Mobile Phone Tools – on the whole capabilities of this application are common with no distinguishable differences.
Sony Ericsson provides PC Suite along with its phones – using the program you can explore handset’s memory, memory card’s folders once USB-cable is plugged in. Another utility is Disc2Phone, allowing copying music CDs to a handset, which are converted on air – the application sets up ID3 tags by connecting to CDDB database without any efforts from your side. At present no alternatives of Disc2Phone are available from other manufacturers.
As to Siemens, it arms its users with Mobile Phone Tools tool kit, though it has more disadvantages rather then positive sides: first of all, it’s unstable, hard to install on systems with non-standard hardware configuration. So in case you actually made it work, you will discover functions for transferring files and all other core possibilities. This application reminds of Nokia’s one in many respects.
Samsung prefers applying Easy Studio, a software kit, guaranteeing medium-scaled possibilities and nothing more, as it doesn’t offer any specialized music functions.
Among all these handsets only Samsung X700 is shipped without a USB cable, while the other have it packed into the box. For Motorola ROKR E2 USB-cable is a default miniUSB (B) one.
One can say without any doubts, that the handsets by Sony Ericsson are adapted for operating with music files more than the other ones – potentially comparable capabilities are embedded in Nokia 3250, which will only evolve wit the release of Windows Media Player 11. In April’s shipments no extra capabilities regarding synchronization will be provided.
Capacities of Siemens S75, Samsung X700 look quite unattractive against such background, as they are not supposed to work primarily with music and what is more, Samsung doesn’t have a cable in the standard kit.
1.4 General media player’s concept and special effects
In all of the reviewed cases, media players support creation of playlists and displaying tracks’ info, taken from files’ tags. While working in background mode, all handsets, saving for Samsung’s models and Siemens S75, show information on the current playing song and its position in playlist. Also on incoming call, playback is paused and continued from the moment it was paused at when conversation is ended. As for major drawbacks of Siemens’s device is impossibility of adding to a playlist tracks, located in different folders, also the handset’s media player lacks random playback, sorting by artist, album, etc. – in other words all functions, the other reviewed phones, with the exception of Samsung, are equipped with.
Where all the significant differences lie in, is section of special effects, namely equalizers, since not all models can provide stability of their operation. The technology of Spatial Audio is worth of a special note, as it allows getting unexpectedly good and clean sound in ROKR E2, when using earphones; as a matter of fact it is one of those rare cases, when MP3-players are inferior to a handset in some ways. In terms of media player, majority of Sony Ericsson’s devices are twins – function Bass in practice stands for one of the equalizers. Essential parameters for all phones are option for switching media player to background mode and also life time with the network part turned off.
FG. Quality of special effects is pretty easy to reveal when handsets are in hands of our focus-group – let’s see the results of the tests.
The evident leader here is Motorola’s device, which is followed by a tight group of Sony Ericsson’s phones. The 3250 ended up as an outsider in this trial, while Siemens’s products were not rated at all since they lack the corresponding functions.
FG. The next characteristic to be evaluated is Bass – in fact this setting is know to many users and therefore exactly while testing this function we encountered intriguing results – despite all the rest models, ROKR E2 supports fine adjustment, using 7 scales, while the other phones doesn’t have this one (one might consider changing equalizers’ setting, though it is not always handy).
The survey results are almost identical to the previous tables – and there is no wonder in this, except for the absence of Samsung.
1.5 3.5 mm jack, headset quality
It’s not a secret that a headset, shipped with a phone plays not the last part in concluding an impression of a device. This parameters seems much less significant in fact handset holds a 3.5 mm jack, though let us say a few more words about it. All headsets’ standard kits are replenished with earphones of closed type – it has become something like a tradition, or how can on explain that they just won’t pack a different type of headset into the boxes. But let’s get back to describing the earphones themselves – all devices by Sony Ericsson are shipped along with HPM-70 (saving for W900i, which features a headset with incorporated FM-radio and remote control). Judging by overall specifications, the earphones provided by Sony Ericsson claim the first place, as they have rubber framings are do better at sound isolation. The package of Nokia 3250 has the same earphones, if you miss the fact they look not as good.
In this very category we can’t outline an all-round leader – all handsets provide almost the same functionality, nonetheless obvious outsiders are known beforehand – devices by Samsung, Siemens. ROKR E2 gets into the first group owing to presence of a 3.5 mm jack on the phone’s body, what is quite uncommon in this market segment.
FG. One of the main parts of our research was finding out how the sound is percept by consumers. Within 10 minutes each member of focus group was listening to various songs (4 different music styles, each had the same set). In the end people were asked to put a mark on 10 grade scale.
We decided to complicate the task, and not just rate the phone with standard headphones, but also offer one and the same headphones for all models, in order to grade possible difference in sounding of standard headphones. We used Sony MDR-Q66LW as custom headphones, they are laid on ones, average price. In order to avoid subjective factor, we pasted the manufacturer’s name. For our third test (basically it was the first one if speaking of actual order) we offered listening songs when the person cannot see the phone, he just had white box in front of him. The volume level was at 60% of maximal available, but user had the ability to change it the way he preferred more. (in the first test assistant was doing it instead).
The first results were already interesting, since ROKR E2 became almost indisputable leader in terms of sound quality in all three tests. At the same time Nokia’s product received minimal mark for sound quality, when users did not see it. During the moment when they were listeingn to it and were able to see the phone itself, the marks were significantly higher. The reason for that is because Nokia’s brand is very popular and users are loyal to that. Their expectations of music phone are high and when they hear the actual quality, they believe that it’s just their faulty hearing, not faulty phone. Mismatch of sound and expectations leads to conclusion that user has something with his ears; he tries to hide that and give higher mark to the product. This is a clearly demonstrative experiment, which clearly demonstrates how percept of brand name grades flaws in realization of this or that function.
For Sony Ericsson products brand perception and expectations of quality are approximately even, this is proven by marks and minimal difference in all three tests.
The phones can be divided into following groups:
In order to make this experiment even more complete we compared the sound quality of handsets to the most popular mp3 player on today’s market – iPOD Nano. This test has also been conducted in “blind” mode, the users could not see neither the phone, nor the player. Headphones were the same for all cases. We also asked users to guess the brand of the phone, which was used in every case. Once again Nokia’s presence was noticed in the higher results section, as for Sony Ericsson, guessing process was more peaceful.
It should be noted that everyone pointed out good sound quality of ordinary flash player, which allows us concluding the idea that current models of middle class have not reached the sound quality and features of top mp3 players just yet. We decided not to go into in-depth comparing of sound effects and this kind of things, this theme is too vast, and the result sis quite predictable. Motorola ROKR E2 was the only phone that could match flash player’s sound quality.
The results in groups look the following way:
1.6 External control keys, remote controls
In order to manipulate music player there have to be at least external keys, or perhaps a remote control. Among the models that we were reviewing, only Nokia 3250 and Sony Ericsson W900i.had remote controls. This feature strongly singles out these models from overall mass. All Sony Ericsson phones can be used in dual mode, their keys to be precise (soft keys), at the same time ROKR E2 and Nokia 3250 have special keys for music player. So if we divide the models into groups and conduct rating, it would look the following way (remote control has parity over external keys on the case):
1.7 Bluetooth stereo-headsets, presence of A2DP profile
Saying that feature of wireless sound transfer to other devices is in demand by mass consumers is quite wrong, for now this is a toy for technology geeks. But mostly it’s exactly them who buy “music” phones, that’s why we decided to stop on that feature for a little longer. In order to have this feature, the phone must support A2DP Bluetooth profile. The following handsets have it on board: ROKR E2, Siemens S75, Samsung X700. Others however seem to be missing it, Nokia 3250 surprises us the most in this way.
1.8 FM-radio availability, its quality
Presence of FM tuner in a headset is a must have addition to media player for many users. That’s why we decided to review this parameter as well. The realization of radio is equal in terms of quality in most cases; however ROKR E2 has a better designed FM tuner, and here’s why: the station memory is bigger, the step between frequencies is smaller, this provides finer tuning. In Sony Ericsson W900i radio block is external, it is located on the remote control, this is why the quality is affected, it is lower than in other products from this company. The result for all models will look the following way:
1.9 Handset’s life time with network part tuned off under conditions of constant music playback
A phone with feature of music playback is related to hybrid type of devices, as a result you have to make phone calls, write and read messages, listen to music itself. In each of the modes energy consumption is different and comparing battery’s capacities will not be the proper way to find out which phone is the best. We tested the stand by time in a very simple way: the phone had to playback 7 different songs in looped cycle, until the battery could last. We were not using profiles with disabled network block, the default headphones that ship in the package together with the phone were used (this is logical for most consumers). The volume was set to maximum, in case you adjust lower volume, the results can be slightly better.
The record breaker is Sony Ericsson’s latest product W300i, it is one of the latest generation Walkman phones and is showing some impressive performance. At the same time ROKR E2 is performing surprisingly well as well. Other Sony Ericsson phones have minor differences in stand by time, as for Nokia – well, it’s slightly lagging behind. Siemens and Samsung handsets are showing quite poor results. The final list looks the following way:
Conclusion and results of comparison
Let’s move on to the most interesting part of our review – the results. But before we start, I’d like to highlight several conclusions that can be made already. First of all, Samsung handsets (all ordinary phones, except for i300, this is a different story) are not “music” ones, this is not the place where we are discovering America. Lack of many typical features for these kind of of phones prevents us from even announcing the deciding mark, same goes for Siemens, however the manufacturer announced quite a big number of “music” phones that are scheduled to hit the shelves this year, but so far there aren’t even prototypes. Considering the amount of bugs in software firmware for today and lack of default features, like shuffle playback mode, it’s hard to except much from the upcoming models so far. I am speaking only about the aspect of “music” phones.
Secondly, the dominating brand on today's market is Sony Ericsson's Walkman. The company has maximal amount of models, we did not even include W550i in our review, otherwise the material would have gone way out of hand big. It’s up to Walkman phones to set trends for “music” phones. This was proven by our “focus groups”, the expectations always meet the specifications. At the same time, expectations from Nokia’s product were a lot higher than its actual specifications. Let’s count the overall points for phones and see what we get in the end:
Abstracting of price for every handset, its availability on the market, we can say that the winner of this review in terms of quality is Motorola ROKR E2, followed closely by dense group of Walkman branded phones from Sony Ericsson, and only then we see Nokia and its 3250. But perhaps the price of the product will change everything? Since it’s up to price/quality ratio to give the final verdict in favor of one or other product, sometimes not so interesting product can be better than others due to its price. Let’s add the price of these phones to our current matrix. This parameter was counted in the following way: ratio of overall points to price multiplied by 100. The more the number is – the more attractive the phone will be.
The fact that ROKR E2 is the leader is not so suprirising, the phone turned out very successful in all directions (other functions are great as well). But manufacturer is not in a rush to release this model as quickly as possible, it will hit the shelves only in Autumn. At that moment the positions can change, but I still think that the model will remain impressive, it’s jus the competition between already available music phones that will grow, and it is very interesting to say the least (remember that the design will not suit everyone, it’s a mobile phone for young people). Sony Ericsson’s products W800i and W810i are rather interesting as well.As for W900i, this model does not look so appealing when compared to the competitiros, it has low price/quality ratio. The situation is same for Nokia 3250, there is almost 2x gap between the leader and this model. We can always say “hey, it’s a smartphone, it means…” and what just this means exactly? We were comparing only “musical” part of the handset, and this part has been inferior when compared to others. This is why it takes last place in our rankings, this position is well-deserved.
We did not include phones that are coming from higher price segment, but we are already working on another material that will concentrate on those models. It’s just because smartphones have so many issues. Once again I’d like to point out that you can select only those functions, that you actually need, after that try calculating the score again, we clearly described the method. Perhaps some model will become more attractive than others just for you.
For those who are interested in other functions as well, I can advice looking into corresponding reviews, we had a lot of photos of displays, references to realizations of one or other functions. To cut the long story short, you have the stuff what you can read, go on!
Links to the corresponding materials:
Published 07 April 2006
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