O2 has become the first UK operator to launch i-mode, the service that is, as they say, big in Japan. i-mode is based around Internet sites designed specifically for small-format screens on handsets and phones designed with i-mode features and support at their core.
Four handsets were announced at launch, two of them from NEC. We've had a look at the less well specified but far more attractive 343i, with its sleek looks capturing our immediate attention. For all its charms, the NEC 343i isn't the best featured handset in the world, but then again, it isn't the most expensive either.
The NEC 343i is available from O2 for £49.99 on Pay as you Go.
Your first glance will tell you the NEC 343i is white, but look closer and you'll see that the front fascia is actually silver. It spangles as if a 100,000 little glitterspots have been scattered over it. If that sounds tacky, rest assured, it most certainly is not. We like.
Turn the handset over and you'll see lovely silvery shiny metal that helps add a feel of quality to proceedings. Easily missed is the tiny lens for the built-in camera, and the grille for the handset's speaker.
As you roll the NEC 343i in your hand you'll notice something else -- there is a single solitary connector on one edge, but the rest of the sides are smooth and connector-free. The connector does for both mains power and earbuds.
The keypad buttons are fabulously well designed. They're large, very responsive, and clearly marked. Press any one and the whole of the area beneath them lights up a cool blue.
Above the numbers are call and end keys and a navigation key. Above the call and end keys, where you'd expect to find soft-menu keys are two that you'll see on all i-mode handsets. They do map to soft menus, but they also have i-mode functions, the left one taking you to i-mode email, the right one displaying a yellow letter 'i' and taking you to the i-mode portal. We'll get to all this in more detail later.
Overall, the NEC 343i is small. Its 109 by 43 by 13mm size feels very comfortable in the hand, while its mere 95g is barely noticed in the pocket. With this in mind you might expect the screen to be small too, and if so you'd be right. It measures just 46mm (1.8 inches), and doesn't stretch out to the full width available. We are tempted to say it nestles, as there is plenty of handset casing to frame it.
It's not the best screen we've ever seen. It only delivers 65K colours. The CSTN technology lacks real shine or brightness. Additionally, the viewing angle is poor. You need to look at the screen head-on for best effect and it can be difficult to see what's going on with the NEC 343i sitting flat in front of you on a desk or coffee table.
The NEC 343i comes with a rather nice leather-look case that encloses the good looks in black, but protects the handset nicely. You also get a wrist lanyard and a mono earbud.