Panasonic is not a name us Brits instantly associate with phones. Cameras, yes. Microwaves, sure. Air conditioning units, at a push. But the Japanese company has kept its mobile phone flair far from our shores for years.
That wait is over. Meet the Eluga -- a super-stylish Android slab that tempts you to dribble all over its waterproof surfaces before splashing your cash on it.
For now, Panasonic is tight-lipped on pricing. The phone doesn't officially launch in the UK until June. At present, it's being offered on Expansys for £370 SIM-free, which pushes it into the premium end of the Android smart phones -- competing with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Motorola Razr and the Sony Xperia S.
Should I buy the Panasonic Eluga?
Do you live in rain-drenched Manchester? Or do you like to watch iPlayer in the bath? The Eluga won't mind if you splash it or dunk it. It can't survive underwater for more than 30 minutes though -- or at depths of more than a metre -- so it's not a phone for deep sea divers.
Its love of the wet stuff aside, the Eluga's stand-out feature is its stylish, slender form. Sadly though, this very sleek hardware is let down by laggy performance -- and it runs on Gingerbread rather than the latest Ice Cream Sandwich version of the Android operating system. As such, it feels pricey for what it is.
For now, unless you live in a wet room or are truly smitten with its looks, it's not the best phone to splash your cash on. You can pick up a bevy of more powerful Android handsets for around the same SIM-free price.
As mentioned above, the phone hasn't officially launched in the UK so
it's possible the price will come down. There's also no info on monthly
contract deals yet. Fingers crossed the official price will be a smidgen more affordable.
I tested the Eluga's waterproof claims by dunking the phone in a pint glass of water, turning it round halfway through so both ends got a taste of the wet stuff. I also poured a pint of water all over it. I would like to say I was wearing a purple satin evening gown when I did this, but in truth, my sartorial choices were far more work-a-day.
None of this liquid lunacy phased the Eluga so you shouldn't have to fear for this phone when caught in a rain storm, or when taking a call in the bath.
Design and build
The Eluga feels extremely solid yet it's also thin -- just 7.8mm at its thickest point -- and a very light 103g. It's the epitome of sleek minimalism. Viewed from the front, it's a sharp and shiny object. A very thin plastic bezel at the margins of the 4.3-inch screen tricks the eye into thinking it's all screen.
The look is stylish and premium. It definitely stands out from the rounded rectangle crowd. My review unit was black but there is also a silver option.
The thin bezel around the screen has the advantage of keeping the overall handset size down, so despite it packing a larger screen than Apple's iPhone, its footprint isn't that much bigger. You get the advantage of a big screen in a package that easily fits in smaller hands. Neat.
Turn the phone over and all this sharpness and shininess is replaced with sloping sides, soft contours and matte plastic. The contrast between sleek and soft make the Eluga a tactile pleasure to hold.
There are a few odd touches -- tiny lines in the plastic on the top and bottom edge look utilitarian, and four nicks in the bezel, one at each corner, break its otherwise clean lines. These indents appear as if they might be micro drainage channels -- to encourage water droplets to dribble off the phone.
The micro-USB port and micro-SIM slots are both capped with tight-fitting plastic doors that have rubber seals around the edge to keep water out. The headphone jack isn't sealed off though.
Amusingly, there's a big white label stuck on the back of the phone warning about the dangers of broken glass if the display becomes damaged, and instructing you not to remove 'the barcode sticker' on the phone's bottom edge. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to find on a microwave, not a smart phone, so presumably it's an example of Panasonic's home electronics heritage trickling onto its mobiles.
Because the phone doesn't have flat sides, the volume rocker is sited closer to the back of the device than the edge. This is an awkward position since the switch can't be located by eye from the front of the phone. The switch is also positioned on the right-hand side of the handset. This is fine if you hold the phone in your left hand but makes it awkward to reach the key if you're right handed. It's a very poor design decision.
The power key has been placed just above the volume rocker, so the same placement problems apply. And this key is extremely small, so it's even more fiddly to lock onto it by touch alone.
The Eluga ships with a lightly skinned version of Android Gingerbread but will apparently get an Ice Cream Sandwich update this summer. It's a shame it doesn't rock ICS out of the box, especially as its premium brother -- the Eluga Power -- does. But at least Panasonic is on record saying it will get an update. If ICS doesn't arrive by August, you'll know where to direct your righteous anger.
Panasonic's Gingerbread skin is pretty minimal so Android purists shouldn't be too offended by it. However, it's nowhere near as polished, friendly or fully featured as HTC's Sense 4.0 software. I would argue that Android newbies, or anyone who prefers an easy life, would be better served by the HTC One S or One V.
The Eluga's interface is ok but never amazing. It edges towards being tiresome. For example, rearranging apps on the apps screens is a four-step process involving two different button presses and one menu screen. Elegant? Definitely not.
Another awkward element is the SMS interface. In portrait mode, you can easily view the other missives in a thread but the box where you compose your text is always tiny. If your text is long, you won't be able to see what you've written without scrolling back through it. You can switch the phone to landscape mode to view all the text, but you can't then see any of the other messages in the thread.
There are also limited opportunities to customise the experience to your tastes. Don't expect fancy lock screen widgets or the like -- you'll have to make do with a utilitarian time and date display, plus Panasonic's take on slide-to-unlock (swipe in an arc to unlock).
You get five home screens to add apps and widgets to. There's a pretty limited selection of widgets pre-loaded on the phone. Apps can't be dragged together to create folders -- you have to create the folder first, then add the apps.
On the home screen, the launcher bar has three customisable app slots (folders can't be included on this bar). On the app screens, the app view options can't be customised -- you get a 'preinstalled' view option, 'download' to see only apps you've added to the phone, and 'update' for any apps in need of updating.
On the app screens, you can configure how many apps are displayed on each one -- either a grid of 20, 16 or nine. The nine-app screen view greatly enlarges the size of each icon, so it could be helpful for people with a visual impairment.
Elsewhere, the gallery view has been pimped slightly with some 3D effects but I found these annoying. There's a lag before they kick in to pointlessly rearrange your thumbnails.
The camera interface is ok but it's a little fiddly to toggle between the camera and video camera modes because the button is so small.
The software keyboard is very typo-prone if you try pecking out individual letters. At least there's an excellent Swype-style interface turned on by default, which is a much faster and easier way to rattle out texts and emails.
On my SIM-free review sample, which came direct from Panasonic, there is some bloatware. It's not all bad though -- Panasonic has added a handy Task Viewer app that shows you currently running apps and lets you close individual apps, or terminate all of them.
There is also an 'Eco mode' widget. This can be toggled on to improve battery life when you're low on juice, or set to come on automatically when the battery reaches a certain level. You can also customise what it does and doesn't switch off -- such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, screen rotation and so on.
If you have a Panasonic Viera smart TV, you can download the Viera remote app from Google Play, which lets you use the Eluga as a TV remote. This app also apparently supports transferring media playback from the phone to the TV by dragging the photo or video or web page you're viewing off the phone screen and flicking it towards the TV. Obviously, you can only take advantage of this feature if you also own the corresponding Panasonic TV.
Talking of apps, there are, of course, stacks available to download from Google Play -- many of them free, from Angry Birds to iPlayer and Instagram.
The Eluga's 4.3-inch display is bright and colourful without colours appearing oversaturated. Blacks are nice and deep, and the viewing angle is excellent.
It offers a resolution of 540x960 pixels at 256 pixels per inch. While that's much better than the displays offered on budget phones like the HTC Explorer, it's not much competition to the retina-slicing 720x1,280-pixel screen of the Sony Xperia S. It's fair to say there are a middling number of tiny squares squashed onto this shiny slab.
I found the screen clear but not crystal clear -- when fully zoomed in, you can certainly see a fuzziness around the edges of text. And when fully zoomed out, it's not possible to comfortably read all the text on a full web page -- the resolution just isn't high enough -- so expect to do a fair amount of pinching and swiping to get your mobile Internet fix on the Eluga.
The touchscreen itself is unpredictable. Most of the time it's nice and responsive, reacting well to even light finger taps and swipes. Then it suddenly ignores a few swipes -- forcing you to swipe again.
The three capacitive buttons on the front of the phone -- menu, home and back -- were more reliable, responding well to even gentle taps most of the time.
Power and performance
The Eluga has a dual-core 1GHz chip, which is a little below average for this price range. The Sony Xperia S has a 1.5GHz dual-core chip, while the Samsung Galaxy Nexus sports a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, as does the Motorola Razr.
The Eluga's performance wasn't knock-it-out-the-park amazing. In general, the phone feels slightly sluggish when browsing around menus and especially the web, where pinch-to-zoom can be laggy and scrolling slow and stuttery. Google Play works the Eluga's engines especially hard, while an app can take a minute or more to download.
I don't think the Eluga's cause is helped by lots of fade-in-and-out transition animations, which are switched on by default. After I turned off all animations in the settings, it felt nippier.
I benchmarked the Eluga and results were middling. It managed 29 frames per second on GL Benchmark's standard Egypt test. For some context, the HTC One S, which has a dual-core 1.5GHz chip, scored 60fps on this test.
The Eluga's Vellamo web browsing performance test score was 696, which was bang in the middle of the comparison graph. On Antutu's benchmark, the Eluga managed 5,372, while on the Quadrant test it scored 1,652.
The phone has 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal space. Storage can't be expanded because there's no microSD card slot.
The Eluga has a 1,150mAh battery, which can't be removed, presumably because it's sealed behind plastic to keep it safe from your bath water. Panasonic reckons it'll give you 4 hours' talk time and 300 hours on standby.
I found battery stamina to be reasonably good. After around 8 hours of periodically poking and prodding the device, with Wi-Fi on and the screen set to half brightness, the Eluga was still running -- albeit on fumes. So it should see you through a day of moderately heavy use.
Like most smart phones though, you'll probably need to charge it every night.
With Panasonic's camera pedigree I was hoping to be wowed by the Eluga's 8-megapixel lens, but sadly it's disappointing. First off, there's no flash. Forget trying to snap anything at night or when lighting conditions are less than stellar. The shutter isn't the fastest either. It takes about a second to snap a photo. And there's also no front-facing camera for video calling (so no Face Unlock if the Eluga does get an ICS upgrade in future).
Testing the camera in a well-lit office during the daytime, the Eluga's lens struggled to clearly capture what it was seeing -- with poor detail, graininess, lens flare and colours ghosting and bleeding out.
Outdoors, in fairly bright daytime conditions, the Eluga still wasn't amazing, taking photos that looked distinctly soft and hazy, with colours generally looking slightly washed out.
On the video front, the Eluga captures 1080p HD video. Again, quality isn't amazing due to the disappointing lens. Colours are lacklustre, and if you're shooting indoors in slightly dingy conditions, any movement in the frame results in a serious loss of detail. Lens flare is also a problem.
If all you need is to make the odd YouTube clip, the Eluga will serve you, but don't expect it to produce anything special.
The Eluga doesn't have a rear speaker, so if you're after a phone to blast tunes out on the bus, you'll want to look elsewhere.
In general, audio levels were rather quiet -- even when listening via headphones. I found I had to set media volume to maximum in the settings to pump up the sound to a listenable level. If you're hoping to hear your tunes in noisy environments, the Eluga is probably going to struggle to make itself heard.
Call quality audio was ok, without being especially crisp. I didn't experience any dropped calls or other connectivity issues during testing.
The Eluga has a near field communication (NFC) chip embedded in it, which can be used in conjunction with customisable NFC tags. Hold one of these tags up to the Eluga's rear and the action associated with it will be triggered -- such as opening a particular web page or app. It is gimmicky but it might be handy if you find yourself constantly doing the same tasks on your phone.
In future, NFC is likely to be used to make payments by swiping your handset over a contactless point-of-sale terminal. At present in the UK, the infrastructure to support mobile contactless purchases hasn't been established yet.
The Eluga looks super-stylish but under the surface it's not such a pretty picture. There are much faster and more capable Android phones at this price so you'll need to be utterly smitten with the glamorous looks -- or its waterproof credential -- to splash your cash. What's more, the older Gingerbread operating system rather than the latest ICS version of Android, poor button placement and a disappointing camera really let this sleek slab down.
Updated 1 May 2012: This article previously stated that the Eluga is waterproof for up to 30 seconds. This should have read 30 minutes, and we have amended the copy to reflect this.