Since it changed its OEM source manufacturer two years ago, O2 has fielded a somewhat more unique range of products in the smartphone / PDA market. Rather than just have HTC clones that are also sold by other rebranders, O2 has been focusing on miniature PDAs of late with offerings such as the Atom and Zinc.
The company hasnít ignored the smartphone market however, with its latest handset, the Graphite, arriving on our desks recently. The Graphite is very unassuming Ė itís a medium-sized candybar handset with a plain gunmetal and silver colour scheme. Still, itís packed with all the standard features expected of advanced phones these days Ė 3G connectivity, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microSD card slot and a 400 MHz processor make for a well-specified, middle range phone. Add to this a two megapixel camera, 2.2 inch QVGA screen and document viewer applications running on Windows Mobile 5.0 with the messaging and security feature pack, and we have a compact little device capable of so much.
Oddly enough, this is the Graphiteís weakest part. The handset doesnít excel in anything in particular, nor does it introduce some fantastic new feature to the phone market. Itís good because it combines several pre-existing features and services into one easy-to-use smartphone. The only thing it has unique to it is O2ís customised standby and main menu screens, which help people coming from normal phones and are new to the complexity of a Windows Mobile smartphone. Read the User Interface section for more information.
The Graphite is a smartphone in a candybar shell, so everything is out on the front of the handset and thereís no moving parts, nor an external antenna. The colour scheme is a combination of gunmetal grey and silver Ė not the most stylish combination but still respectable Ė while the shell itself is made of plastic. Measurements are at 109.5 x 46.9 x 18 millimetres and the Graphite weighs just 105 grams. While itís a slightly big phone itís very light for the hardware it carries.
On the front the screen dominates half of the phone, but thereís still room for an internal video calling camera, the phone speaker and a power button that doubles as a three colour status light. Beneath the screen is the keypad. There are two soft keys, home and back keys as well as a central, five-way joystick flanked by answer and hang-up buttons. Further below is the 12 button number pad. The keys feel tactile and have good response to being pressed, although depending on what angle theyíre pressed at they can respond a little stiffly. I was also impressed with the joystick because itís resistant to be pushed the wrong way Ė an annoying trait that most joysticks seem to carry.
Itís kept rather simple throughout the rest of the phone. Thereís absolutely nothing on its right hand side, while on the left thereís a camera shutter key and two volume control buttons. Thereís nothing on the top, so turning to the bottom one can see the miniUSB port (handling data and charge cables) and a 2.5 millimetre jack for the stereo headset. Thereís also a tiny hole for the microphone.
On the back the small two megapixel camera stands out with its flash and self-portrait mirror. Thereís also a tiny antenna extension port sitting near the top of the phone behind a rubber cover. The battery cover, taking up all of the bottom half of the phone, is concealed quite well and firmly clipped in. Sliding it down will release it and reveal the battery, while beneath it is the SIM and memory card slots.
User interface & display
The Graphiteís screen is a high resolution 2.2 inch LCD module, capable of displaying only 65,536 colours due to operating system limitations. This isnít actually a severe problem because the lower colour depth is only noticeable with a good eye when viewing pictures on-screen. Still, 262,144 colour support would be welcome with the next version of Windows. The screen is bright indoors but fades to near invisibility in bright sunlight. I couldnít find a setting anywhere to adjust screen brightness, although I did find some to adjust backlight and display timeouts.
The smartphone type of Windows Mobile 5.0 is essentially a simplified form of the PDA version. The Today screen looks similar, displaying battery, reception and network name statistics along with unread messages, selected profile and upcoming calendar events for the day. While this is the usual standby screen created by Microsoft, O2 has made its own default standby screen, which is nothing more than a background with large clock and date displays at the bottom. While this seems like a dumbing down of the Today screen, itís sure to help people coming from regular phones adjust to the complexity of a Windows smartphone.
The main menu is accessible from the Start button, which is mapped to the left softkey. Pressing it opens the main menu: 3 x 4 grid of 12 icons remarkably similar to regular phones. Again, O2 has designed its own main menu with shortcuts to functions it believes most people will use. However this time, you canít restore the original Windows Mobile smartphone Start menu. Clicking on an item will take you to a sub-menu in text list format or directly to the function. Up to nine items are listed in text list mode.
While thereís a 416 MHz Intel XScale PXA 270 processor at work, the Graphite usually takes one to three seconds to start a new function from the menu (such as opening the phone book or messaging suite). Once these functions are running in RAM they open a lot faster (between half to one second).
The Graphite only supports US English, although different locales can be set to change preferences such as currency signs and date display.
Making and receiving calls
For the sake of phone calls, the Graphite can connect to 3G UMTS networks and GSM networks. It supports the widely used 2100 band for 3G (used throughout the world except for America) as well as tri-band GSM 900, 1800 and 1900 for use in all countries. Tested on the Vodafone 3G network it has good reception, scoring on the same level as my Sharp 903 (my personal benchmark) in areas of bad reception. If it encounters low 3G reception the Graphite will shift to a GSM network, and during a call it will do this seamlessly without disconnecting it.
Calls can be held the regular way (with built in speaker and microphone), using the built-in loudspeaker, with the stereo earphones or with a Bluetooth headset. The Graphite performed well using all call methods. Tested on the 3G network, audio quality is very clear and audible, with volume adequate. Using the loudspeaker my caller could clearly hear me and vice versa, but call volume could be louder for noisy situations.
Using the wired stereo headset, sound quality is very clear and volume is adequate. My test Motorola HS801 Bluetooth headset also worked fine with the Graphite. It relayed audio from the phone with a slight bit of crackle, but otherwise my caller could hear me clearly.
Owing to the nature of the Windows operating system, contact list capacity is as large as available memory, meaning thousands of contacts can be stored. Each contact allows several data fields to be attached, matching those available in Outlook and Outlook Express. They include address, work address, multiple phone numbers and email addresses, birthday and job title.
Windows Mobile usually ships with few ringtones and the Graphite is largely no exception. Only 14 tones are pre-installed, although there is a bit of variety between them. Thankfully, you can add your own ringtones to the phone simply by saving them somewhere on the handset or the memory card. Windows will pick the files up automatically and list them as options in the sound settings menu. Thereís also a profile system with eight different profiles, including four that are automatically activated by the phone on certain conditions. For example, the speakerphone profile is activated when the phoneís speakerphone is turned on.
The Graphite supports the majority of messaging formats Ė SMS, MMS, POP3/IMAP4 email as well as Microsoftís online mail service, Hotmail (or Windows Live Mail). Thanks to the Messaging and Security Feature Pack, direct push for IMAP4 is also supported.
Support for SMS messages is basic but adequate. You can compose messages of any size (concatenated SMS), but attachments arenít available, meaning EMS isnít supported. A third party extension allows you to backup SMS messages to the internal memory. The Graphite has MMS support through another third party application. It features support for multiple slides, each of which can contain one picture or video, text window and audio file. Maximum size support is 300 kilobytes, but it can be limited to 30 or 100 kilobytes depending on your operator.
Email-wise Outlook Mobile comes into play again, supporting POP3 and IMAP4 email servers including direct push email from an IMAP4 Exchange mail server. Attachments are supported with no file size limit.
For fast text entry the Graphite supports Tegicís T9 predictive text suite. A drop down box appears beneath the word youíre typing, showing potential candidates for the final word typed thus far.
The Graphite has several options for connecting to the outside world. It uses 3G UMTS 2100 and GSM 900/1800/1900 for long range connectivity. UMTS allows download speeds of up to 384 Kbps, while slower GPRS on GSM networks only allows for 48 Kbps. The Graphite doesnít support EDGE or HSDPA.
For local connectivity USB, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless are available. Wi-Fi wireless allows access to the internet at speeds of up to 54 Mbps in a wireless hotspot. This is handy if you have a wireless broadband router at home or if your local cafť has a hotspot set up. USB cables allow you to connect the Graphite to a PC to synchronise data and recharge the battery, while Bluetooth supports connections between PCs and other handheld devices. The Graphite is well equipped with Bluetooth profiles, including A2DP for music streaming, headset/handsfree for wireless voice calls and object push for data transfer.
The Graphite is packed with a Microsoft ActiveSync CD for data synchronisation between the Graphite and a PC. Itís a simple affair to get the software installed Ė insert the CD, follow the on-screen instructions to install the software, wait for it to install, connect the Graphite via USB cable to PC and viola, all done. The whole process went smoothly without a hiccup. The CD also includes Outlook 2002 in case you donít have MS Office installed on your PC.
JBenchmark 1.0 performance was off the charts, while JBenchmark 2.0 results are also well above the competition. Remember JB 1.0 represents MIDP 1.0 applications, while JB 2.0 represents MIDP 2.0. Sadly, no Java applications are preinstalled, so youíll need to find a source to install your own games.
The Graphite comes with Microsoftís Windows Media 10 Player Mobile. Media Player supports a number of music formats including MP3, AAC and WMA files. Thereís also support for MIDI files with 64 tone polyphonics. You can search for music when the program is first run and create your own playlists. Functions such as repeat and random play are supported. Video files can also be played as long they have the 3GP or WMV extensions.
The Graphite can handle fresh applications coded in Java or for Windows Mobile directly. In the case of Java it can only handle 2D applications because the 3D extension isnít supported by the Java virtual machine software. Nonetheless, benchmark results are amazing:
However, the two standard Windows Mobile games, Solitaire and Bubble Breaker are included. Iím sure that you can find 3D games designed for Windows Mobile rather than Java that will run fine on this handset as well, considering the performance itís capable of.
While it might be the smartphone and not the PDA version of Windows Mobile, thereís still plenty of useful PIM applications installed in the Graphite. The calendar allows you to set appointments on different days and includes a reminder function to alert you in case you forget about one. The tasks list is a simplified version of this, letting you set a list of tasks to perform and reminders for each one. Thereís also a simple calculator for basic arithmetic, while the SIM toolkit allows access to certain operator services.
The viewing of office data files is supported by the ClearVue software suite, allowing the handling of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe PDF Files. Thereís also a voice recognition program to load up programs and perform other operations using only your voice, and itís quite accurate without needing any training.
I couldnít fault the build quality of the Graphite. The fact that itís a candybar is a good start as it means thereís no moving parts. The battery cover is also well clipped in, and even though the plastic sounds a bit hollow to the tap, it has no flex and is sturdy. I have no complaints in this section.
The Graphite is supported by a 1100 mAh battery, which officially enables talk time of up to four hours and 200 hours of standby time. O2 doesnít say if these numbers are relevant to 3G or GSM networks. In any case we connected the phone to the Vodafone 3G network (and to a short extent the GSM network where there was weak 3G coverage) and ran our battery test. We fully charged it and then left it on continuously until it ran out of power, leaving it on throughout the night. During this time I used the phone like I would my own, running exactly 30 minutes of calls through the phone each day to simulate moderate call usage. I used a combination of regular and speakerphone call methods to do this. I also sent a moderate amount of SMS messages and used Solitaire and internet access to kill time whenever I needed to. In practice I did this for approximately 10 minutes each day.
The Graphite lasted for a little over two days under this regime. Despite the extra energy capacity the battery holds, the fast CPU processor seems to consume it under day to day operation. However, two days is still an acceptable result.
Recharging the battery should take about 2.5 Ė 3 hours.