Sony Ericsson's Walkman handsets may be something of a household name when it comes to music phones, but as they consistently lack standard headphone sockets or support for common music file formats, it shouldn't be too difficult for another company to leap ahead.
Motorola's Rokr E8 is pitched -- purely and simply -- as a phone for music and a phone for the style-conscious. It's available for free on a monthly contract from O2 and Orange.
When it's switched off, you'd be forgiven for thinking the E8 is simply a large, black slab. With its lights switched off, the handset appears to have no buttons and few controls.
The haptic keypad is pressure-sensitive -- sort of a cross between a physical button and typical touch-sensitivity à la iPhone. It mimics a physical keypad really well, making speed texting reasonably easy.
We were thrilled to see a 3.5mm headphone socket, meaning any decent headphones you have will work fine. There's also no unsightly slots dotted around; the microSD slot sits next to the SIM slot inside the handset -- good for aesthetics, bad if you swap cards a lot.
We initially took issue with the screen, as at 51mm (2 inches) diagonally, it's hardly huge. But it's very crisp, very bright and extremely pleasant to read.
This isn't a 3G handset, so if you plan on browsing the Web, either don't buy this phone or be prepared to browse very slowly. Alternatively, you can install Opera Mini. It works with EDGE and GPRS, plus quad-band compatibility makes this a good phone for use around the world.
A 2-megapixel camera sits on the back of the handset, though it's not backed up with any flash. Inside, you'll find 2GB of onboard memory, which could be better, but it can be expanded with microSD up to 4GB in capacity.
Even better, these two pools of memory are automatically combined, meaning music stored in the phone's memory is combined with music stored on microSD within the main music library, itself accessible with a dedicated music key.
Compatible music formats include MP3, AAC, WMA and WAV, but the E8 doesn't support protected WMA/AAC from the likes of Napster or iTunes. What is supported can be played through headphones or wirelessly via stereo A2DP Bluetooth.
Using the E8 takes some getting used to, particularly if you're joining the Motorola scene after using a Nokia or Sony Ericsson handset. After about a week of adjustment, it becomes pretty simple.
There's a noticeable amount of lag when navigating menus -- split-second delays between item selections and menu scrolling makes lightening-fast browsing somewhat difficult. The touch-sensitive scroll 'wheel' does make long lists easy to browse, happily.
Texting with the pressure-sensitive keypad is actually much more fluid than we initially expected. Predictive typing modes are hit and miss in terms of the accuracy of their predictions, but on the whole, it's a pretty enjoyable experience -- not what you'd assume considering the handset's lack of physical buttons. Motorola has done an excellent job at harnessing the haptic technology it's used.
As a music player, we found the E8 to be superb in terms of audio quality. Through our reference headphones and using uncompressed CD-quality WAV files, the E8 offered a full-bodied, powerful sound when playing Dream Theater's 6:00.
With the Freemasons' remix of Shakira and Beyoncé's pop duet Beautiful Liar, we again heard excellent audio performance -- good bass, a strong mid-range and although a little harsh at higher volumes, an acceptable and bright treble.
Good too was call quality, although it's not the single loudest earpiece we've come across. It wouldn't go down as the most ideal phone to use if you're perpetually working with drills and jet engines.
There's no doubt in our mind that this is a great handset and a smashing music phone. It'll take a while to get used to it and its laggy navigation makes it annoying at times.
But its great sound quality, 3.5mm headphone socket and decent file format support absolutely make it a cut above the rest. As of right now, it's one of our favourite music phones, even though it's not quite a solid replacement for a dedicated MP3 player.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday