For a long time Panasonic has sat behind other phone manufacturers, content to make low-end devices appealing to the fashion end of the market. Since the days of the GD88 (nearly two years ago), Panasonic handsets havenít really taken my fancy. But that all changes here. With the eight new GSM clamshell models announced by Panasonic earlier this year now beginning to appear in the market, Panasonic has turned right around and reasserted itself as a manufacturer of powerful, multimedia-focused handsets. Out of these eight I received the MX6 mid-level endurance model, complete with a 1.3 megapixel camera, 16.7 million colour screen and other delicious morsels. This is the first time in many months that Iíve been excited by a Panasonic handset, but did it live up to that excitement? Read on for the review!
While the MX6 itself is a great handset to use, itís important to understand how it fits within Panasonicís new model range. All eight new handsets are organised into three different model series Ė the flagship VS series (Visual Slim: reasonably thin measurements with good features), the long-lasting MX series (Maximum Endurance: much larger battery at the cost of a thicker body) and the tough SA series (ĎSporty and Activeí: larger, rugged clamshells resistant to dirt, water and shock). Each model series has a mid-range and high-end model Ė there is the VS3 and VS7, MX6 and MX7, and SA6 and SA7. The VS2 and VS6 were announced recently and added to the VS series with much the same functionality as the VS3 and VS7 respectively, except for some slight feature swapping.
So, the MX6 is the mid-end model in the maximum endurance range, and its feature set is quite impressive for that designation. Weíre dealing with a 1.3 megapixel CMOS camera with focus switch, QVGA 2.2 inch screen with 16.7 million colours, 40-tone polyphonics and a WAP 2.0 browser. So far so good.
Panasonic have also added stylish features that you donít see in other manufacturersí handsets. You have the ĎOne Push Auto Opení feature Ė a fancy name for a button in the left side of the clamshell hinge that springs open the flip when you press it. Itís extremely handy and something that I ended up relying on in a matter of hours. It makes opening the clamshell phone that much simpler, although there is a disadvantage to it Ė the spring actually makes it difficult to close the clamshell and requires a bit more effort than other phones.
You also have X-Changeable covers, Panasonicís take on customising your phoneís physical look. In the case of the MX6 you can change the front cover only, but the difference to other manufacturers here is that the covers are actually screwed onto the phoneís frame, rather than clipping onto it. It makes for a more sturdy phone and eliminates any looseness between the cover and phone itself. Unfortunately the screws have a unique hexagonal groove in them that only Panasonicís screwdriver will loosen, and it isnít included in the MX6 package.
Panasonic have built a new user interface for the MX6 and other new phones that puts the old user interface to shame. It looks lovely and is extremely fast, but more on that in the user interface section.
While Panasonicís previous offerings were very European in nature, the MX6 looks a lot like a Japanese phone. Itís no coincidence, because the MX6 (and all the other seven phones in Panasonicís new range) was based on the P900i, a 3G handset made by Panasonic for NTT DoCoMo in Japan. This means the phone is on the larger side of things, and slightly heavy due to its oversized battery. The MX6 has measurements of 96 x 46 x 26 millimetres and weighs 130 grams. The antenna is built into the phone, so thereís no ugly protrusion at the top of the device.
The front of the phone contains the camera lens, self-portrait mirror and an indicator LED that can flash all types of different colours depending on the situation. The four screws securing the X-Changeable cover panel stand out in contrast to the dark blue cover itself, and are very noticeable. There isnít really much to be found on the other sides of the phone however. The left side has the multi-purpose charge connector (used for charging, headsets and USB data cable), while the right has volume keys, infra-red window and camera shutter key. Thereís nothing on the bottom and a small hole for mounting a wrist strap.
The back of the phone houses the small external speaker, used for ringtones and music playback, as well as a phone call loudspeaker. The battery panel is just underneath, and a brief tug is enough to remove it and expose the thick, 1660mAh battery, with the SIM card slot positioned upwards of it.
One quick click of the One Push Auto Open button (for simplicityís sake Iím going to call it the flip button) swings the flip open to reveal the large main screen and keypad. From the moment you look at the keypad itís obvious that more space could have been used to allow for bigger keys Ė the keypad seems to be more cramped than it should be. Panasonic hasnít changed its keypad layout, preferring to stick with the tried-and-tested layout of four directional pad with centre button, two soft keys, dial and end call keys and 12 button numerical pad. The four arrow keys, centre key and two soft keys act as shortcuts on the standby screen in the following manner:
Iím not quite sure why the right arrow key and right soft key are both set to boot the browser by default, but Panasonic allows you to customise the functions of the four arrow keys, so you can fix that up easily.
The buttons, despite being smaller than Iíd like, are fairly easy to press and donít require too much effort to do so. The only problem I had was using the arrow pad, where a few times I would accidentally press the centre button instead of an arrow direction when I was in a hurry. If the arrow pad itself was raised slightly higher than the centre button it would have helped to correct this problem.
User Interface & display
The main screen measures 2.2 inches (5.5cm) diagonally and is a state-of-the-art, 240x320 pixel TFT LCD supporting 16.7 million colours. The specification states a brightness of 300 candelas, and it wasnít joking Ė the MX6ís screen at the highest setting is extremely bright. Even in direct sunlight itís still quite easy to make out the details of the screen to read messages and view pictures. And itís viewing pictures where the screen excels. The quality of the screen is that good that I noticed a lot of graphic artefacts in picture files that I have that I didnít notice on my computer screen. The main screen normally displays up to eight lines of text on screen for menus and when viewing/composing messages, although for messages the font size can be adjusted between small (nine lines), medium (seven lines) and large (six lines)
The main menu is accessible through the centre key and displays in a 3x3 grid of nine icons, much the same as many other phones available today. The number buttons can be used to shortcut to any menu displayed, and in some of the menus each option will have the number needed to access it displayed to its left. The main menu icons are, from the top left: Games, My Media, Calendar, Camera, Messages, Browser, Tools, Contacts, Settings. There are two different user interface themes that can be selected from the settings menu, and the main menu icons can be customised with separate pictures, some of which can be downloaded from the Panasonic Box website. Clicking through the menu is quick and painless Ė one of the fastest user interfaces I have ever dealt with. All the menus are consistent with each other, with the left soft key and centre key usually acting as a confirm or OK key, while the right soft key deletes or lets you go back through the menus. Finally, the signal, battery and clock indicators are always viewable on the top indicator line.
The only thing that bugged me with the user interface was the display of a confirmation alert telling me just what had been done whenever I did it, like deleted a file or changed a setting. I donít mind these, but the alerts will stay on the screen for three seconds and wonít vanish even if you push the centre button.
Making and receiving calls
The MX6 is a triband GSM phone supporting the typical 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz bands. Testing in Australia on the 900 band, the MX6 with its internal antenna scored average in the reception test. Call quality was patchy at times and it could be difficult to hear my caller speaking to me. Even in areas of good reception, where I could get a stable conversation going using other phones, sometimes the MX6 would drop little bits of the conversation or muffle the sound quality of the call, even if used in the same area. This happened whether I was using the regular speaker and microphone, or using the handsfree loudspeaker (sometimes the problem was more pronounced with the loudspeaker however). Hopefully Panasonic will improve its call quality and antenna technology in the future.
The MX6 comes bundled with stereo handsfree earphones that can be used for phone calls. The lack of call quality when using the regular speaker or loudspeaker was offset by the better quality of the earphones, although the reception issues I mentioned earlier were still there. Thereís also a button on the microphone that allows you to answer and terminate phone calls.
There are 20 different tones preinstalled in the MX6 Ė some of them simple beeps while others polyphonic tunes that play for up to a minute at a time. Each tone can be set as a call ringtone or message alert. As the MX6 comes preinstalled with the Sonic the Hedgehog game, there are three polyphonic tones containing music from the game that you can set as ringtones as well. Fans of Sonic will surely appreciate these extra inclusions. Of course, more ringtones and other sound files can be downloaded over WAP or sent to the phone via USB or infra-red from other devices.
The internal address book can store up to 500 different contacts, and you can attach three phone numbers and three email addresses to each contact. You can set a contactís picture, birthday, postal address and a note, as well as a custom ringtone, message alert and even the colour that the status LED on the front of the phone flashes when receiving a call or SMS. Contacts can be sent as vCard data to other devices via Infra-red, or backed up on a PC using the handset manager.
There are only two messaging types in the MX6 Ė SMS and MMS. You can send SMS messages of up to 1530 characters (about 10 linked messages) to phones that can handle that many linked messages. Predictive text is supported in the way of Tegicís T9, and Panasonic use a small window to display potential word candidates as you type words. The idea of a word candidate window is a good one as it allows you to see what words you can select before actually switching to them, but the inclusion of this window shrinks the message composition window to just two lines when you type a word. I would have liked an option to toggle the word candidate window on or off, as itís not overly necessary for predictive text and many people can get by without one.
In any case, texting is very quick and only slows down marginally when you start typing lots of text. Custom words can be added to the dictionary through the sub-menu, but canít be edited or removed once done. Text templates can be stored for later use, and there is a preset list of emoticons to choose from and add to messages. The phone is capable of storing a whopping 500 SMS messages in a dedicated space of internal memory (you can check the status of SMS memory storage too), and will save incomplete and sent messages to an archive folder.
MMS messages of up to 100 kilobytes can be composed, and there is full support for slides with text, pictures, sound and videos able to be attached. If you attach a video you canít attach pictures and sound as well Ė theyíll need to go in a new slide. There is nothing else special here.
As mentioned earlier the MX6 is a triband GSM device, and connects on the 900, 1800 and 1900 bands, so it will work in most countries around the world. It has Class 10 GPRS, so it will connect to the internet at up to 48kbps. The WAP 2.0 browser can access xHTML and WML pages, although it sometimes has a bit of trouble connecting to certain third party pages on the mobile internet.
The phone has USB and infra-red support for local connectivity. USB support is solely for connecting to a PC to transfer data between it and the phone using the Handset Manager software (made by Mobile Action), which is included in the package on a CD. There is no support for using the phone as a GPRS modem for a PC. The infra-red can be used with the Handset Manager, although it can also transmit contacts data (vCard), calendar data (vCalendar) and media files directly to a PC and other devices, and it can receive that data too.
This is where the MX6 let me down the most. In most places of the phone the build quality is quite good: the battery cover is firmly fastened and thereís no loose parts around, but the build quality of the flipís hinge is questionable Ė if bent slightly it will creak very loudly, and the flip is able to slide along the barrel left and right very slightly if pushed firmly. If the phone is held upside down and the flip button pressed, the flip will rocket open very fast and slam into position, which probably will make the problem worse over time.
Apart from the flipís problem, the rest of the phone is sturdy and will probably last a good few years.
The MX6ís shining point is the battery Ė with a 1660mAh battery, twice the capacity of most other phones in the market, the MX6 has a claimed talk time of 4 Ė 12 hours and standby time of 300 Ė 740 hours (12.5 Ė 31 days). Sounds crazy doesnít it? While I donít quite have one month with the MX6 to test the claim of standby time, I can say that in real world usage of the phone, from making phone calls and messaging to internet usage and Java games (about 90 minutes total a day), I was able to get three full days usage of the phone. Considering that you have the battery-sucking screen on in nearly all of those situations, with a full backlight as well, thatís excellent performance from the MX6. But with a large battery comes a long recharge time Ė to recharge the battery it will take 210 minutes. Yes, three and a half hours to recharge, so itís best left to recharge overnight.