NEC continue to churn out many different i-mode handsets, and the upcoming N411i is yet another one of their creations bound for Telstra towards the end of this year. It is the successor to the N410i, and rather than improving on its technological credentials, itís received a makeover in the fashion department. Itís much smaller, lighter and easier to handle and use than its predecessor. But donít think the technology has been ignored Ė itís even been improved in some areas. Read on for the review.
The phone I received is a prototype device and may not reflect the quality of the final phone that is released to the market later this year. Having said that, the phone feels very polished and complete, so what you read here will likely hold true when the phone is sold.
We have been informed by NEC that Telstra is still reviewing the N411i for launch approval, and that the phone wonít be available until they complete this process.
NEC have had more than nine months to improve on the large, bulky phone that was the N410i, and it shows here. NEC have managed to shrink the phoneís components into a much smaller space, resulting in a design that just looks and feels good. The phone resembles a compact Motorola clamshell more than a Japanese phone. It sits comfortably in your hand and the flip opens firmly, springing into lock position.
Despite the size reduction, NEC have found room to add Bluetooth support, although only for wireless headsets, and a rather rudimentary MP3 player has also been added. Unfortunately the makeover took its toll on the main LCD screen, which has been downgraded to a 1.9 inch 176x220 pixel unit from the 2.2 inch 240x320 screen seen in the N410i. Those of you upgrading from most phones in the market wonít notice much of a difference here, but if youíre changing from a Sharp GX25 or N410i to this phone, youíll realise just what a difference more pixels make.
An MP3 player application has been added, but is too impractical to use due to file size restrictions and lack of internal memory. You can find the details on this problem in the Problems/Issues section.
Other than that, much of what made the N410i shine has been carried over to the N411i. The 1.3 megapixel camera, 64-tone polyphonics, cHTML browser and DoJa Java features are all here.
The N411i is a medium sized clamshell, or flip phone. Itís lighter than it looks and will easily fit into pockets or handbags of most sizes and designs. The measurements are 93 x 46 x 24 millimetres and weight comes in at 95 grams. As more and more clamshells are doing these days, the antenna is internal, so the design of the phone isnít marred by a stub coming from the top.
Letís start with the front of the phone. Aside from reminders of the phoneís 1.3 megapixel camera and i-mode capability, the actual camera itself, LED flash lamp and ringtone speaker are located on the front of the flip. Thereís also a passive matrix LCD screen on the front for checking on the phoneís status. It will display caller ID, as well as signal, battery and other icons.
On the left-hand side youíll find the volume adjustment keys, while on the right is the infra-red port and proprietary headset connector, which has an attached rubber cover. On the bottom is the charger socket, also protected by a rubber cover attached to the phone. Both covers are a pain to remove as there isnít anywhere for your fingers to grip onto to pull it out, despite the holes that are there just to allow that. You need to stick your nail in very deep to be able to pull either cover off. On the back of the phone is the battery cover. Removing that will get you to the battery, and underneath there is the SIM card slot.
When opened the flip will swing back and want to lock into place, although without any audible click like some phones. Occupying all of the top section is the main screen, and underneath youíll find the keypad, in typical NEC fashion. The arrow-pad will link to certain functions in standby mode. Pressing left or right will access missed or received calls respectively, pressing up displays the phoneís sound profile, and pressing down takes you to the data gallery screen. Finally, pressing the confirm button in the middle of the arrow-pad starts the camera. The centre joypad is five directional, meaning it has left, right, up, down and OK keys. On either side are four buttons Ė the top left and right function as soft keys (and mail and i-mode shortcut keys respectively), while the bottom two go to the menu and address book. Beneath them is a row of three keys Ė dial, delete and hang-up, and further below is the set of 12 number keys.
User Interface & display
The main screen is similar to many other phones, and is unremarkable. It is a TFT LCD capable of displaying 65,536 colours, at a resolution of 176x220 pixels. The screen is bright and contrast good, but like many other LCD screens, it fades in bright sunlight. Text size is quite large and should be legible for most people, although it will shrink when functions such as i-mode mail or the web browser is used. Font size for mail viewing can be adjusted to three different settings Ė big, medium or small.
The external screen has changed to a 128x128 pixel 4096 colour STN screen. You could say itís been downgraded, but then again its function is really only to display the phoneís status, and this it does effectively. It can also act as the viewfinder for the camera, which is useful for self portraits. One thing I have noticed about the N411i is that both LCD screens share the one backlight to light them up. I suspect this was done to save space and weight, but it probably means unnecessary battery consumption as well.
The main menu in the phone displays a 3x3 grid of icons, resembling most other phones and very Japanese in style. The icons run as follows (from the top-left): Settings, Message, i-mode, Phonebook, Camera, My data, Java. Accessory, and SIM Toolkit. Selecting an icon with the centre key will take you further through the menu system, with the rest of the menus using text lines. Each menu option is accessible by number key shortcuts, and the number needed for each option is clearly displayed next to it. For example, to access call settings, you press the Menu button, then 1, 6. Most i-mode websites also use this navigation system for selecting links. If there is a number next to a link, pressing that numberís button will activate it.
In this section I remember mentioning the clock display in the status bar for the N410i, but unfortunately this feature has been cut following the main LCD change. There used to be a two line long status display at the top of the screen, but the N411i has seen it cut to one lineís length, meaning the clock has had to say goodbye and stay on the standby screen.
Making and receiving calls
I was quite impressed with the call quality of the N411i. It passed all the tests in my black-spot test zone without dropping audio once. Very few phones have managed to achieve this. The audio quality itself is also good, and the volume of the call loud enough to hear your caller in a noisy area, although it could be better still. Unfortunately, there is still no speakerphone, and again my test unit didnít come with a handsfree, so I couldnít test its performance. Having said that, the fact that the handsfree connector is proprietary likely means one will be included in the sales package when the phone is released by Telstra later this year.
The phone has Bluetooth for connection with wireless headsets, but NEC still have a little work to do here. The quality of a phone call using a Motorola HS801 headset was poor, with a large amount of echo noticeable by both my caller and me. This echo isnít present with the same headset using a different phone.
There are 19 different preset ringtones that ship with the phone, and they all sound great. Itís a shame the James Bond ringtone from the N410i didnít make it, but other ringtones can be downloaded from various i-mode websites, including NECís own DJ Remix n Hits i-mode site. The synthesiser can play 64 tones at once and does justice to the tones themselves, even if they are low quality ones. All of the tones can be set for when the phone rings, when you receive an SMS, and when you receive an MMS or i-mode mail.
The address book can store up to 500 contacts in the phoneís memory. Each contact can store up to seven phone numbers, two email addresses, two personal notes, a picture and a voice dial tag. You can also set what colour the small LED on the outside of the phone displays in when a certain person calls, and you can define their group and specific ringtone.
As the phone supports i-mode, in addition to SMS/EMS and MMS, thereís also i-mode mail included. T9 predictive text is available for all message composition, and it works smoothly. Different word suggestions can be scrolled through using the # key, and a small counter will tell you how many suggestions there are in total. Custom words can be stored Ė this is done by simply typing the word in multi-tap mode and pressing space (0 key). The phone then stores the word automatically and itís available to use when T9 mode is turned back on.
SMS of up to 612 characters can be composed on the N411i. That means a total of four linked up messages if you choose to write an SMS that big. Thanks to EMS support, you can add simple pictures and sound files, and even small animation emoticons. The phone also recognises standard emoticons such as :-) and will convert them into proper looking emoticons. If the phone youíre sending to supports them, they will appear there as well.
If you prefer to send real multimedia files, then MMS support is here as well. You can create multiple slides, and each slide can take a picture, sound, video, or text up to a limit of 100 kilobytes. Of course, there is i-mode mail in the package too, which allows you to send an email to any other email device. The limit here is also 100 kilobytes, although only picture files can be attached in this case. If you are sent an email to your personal address, it will be pushed to your handset, so you donít need to continuously check an email server to see if youíve received anything.
Network-based connectivity has not changed. The phone is still at triband GSM device, and will work on 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz GSM networks. This translates into connectivity in Europe, Asia, and sections of the USA. The phone has GPRS support, and can access the mobile internet at speeds of up to 48 kilobits per second. The browser supports cHTML, xHTML and WML webpages, meaning itís compliant with i-mode and WAP 2.0.
It is in the local connectivity department that we see a new feature. Much to the delight of many, NEC have added Bluetooth to the list of options available. This is in addition to the USB cable and infra-red connection methods inherited from the N410i. Much to the dismay of many more however, is the fact that Bluetooth will only work with wireless headsets and allow the phone to work as a GPRS modem (that is, it supports headset, handsfree and dialup networking profiles). File transfer profiles were not included, and I can only hope that NEC will include them in future phones they release.
Using infra-red, the phone is able to transfer pictures, phonebook entries, schedule entries or ToDo list entries to another phone, or a PC without the use of any special software as long as you have an infra-red dongle. However, if you intend to transfer your album of photos off the phone, be prepared to transfer every one of them one at a time, because the N411i doesnít have an option to send them all at once, and infra-red is painfully slow at about 8 kilobytes per second.
Synchronisation software for the N411i will likely be made available when it is released, and possibly only for use with the USB cable. As I didnít have either with me, I couldnít test that feature.
The build quality is much improved from the N410i. Whereas that phone was creaky and was able to bend if stressed, the N411i is sturdy, tough and feels solid. The flip is rigid and springs into either open or closed position when operated (although the familiar click sound has been removed), and yes, the phone now sits properly when laid open on a desk. The back cover is locked firmly, and the phone didnít show any indication of having loose parts at all.
As this phone hasnít been released yet there are no official figures on battery performance, but from my usage of the phone I was able to get two days out of it on average before needing a recharge. This was through a mix of phone calls, messaging, internet browsing and camera usage that in total saw me using the phone for about an hour each day. Recharging takes just under two hours.