It may come with prominent Vodafone branding, but the 540 is unmistakably a Sagem product at its core. Mobile phone veterans will tell you this usually means uninspiring performance and cheap technology, and in this case they'd be right. The 540 is a car crash of a handset, and feels every inch a phone from the dark ages. Only a handful of above-average external design aspects help salvage any respect for this beleaguered blower.
Should you be foolish enough to take no heed of our warnings, the Vodafone 540 can be purchased for around £30 on pay as you go.
Last time we saw French manufacturer Sagem, the company was gleefully promoting its much-hyped but ultimately disappointing Puma handset. That phone was a curious mixture of eye-catching design and half-baked functionality. While we're not going to go as far as to callously suggest that all Sagem phones follow this ethos, the Vodafone 540 is certainly cut from the same cloth.
Initial impressions are incredibly positive, especially when you consider the modest price of the phone. At just 90g, it's incredibly lightweight, and with just 11.3 mm of thickness, it slides effortlessly into your pocket without causing the faintest of bulges.
The 540's design is also undeniably appealing. The chromed plastic around the edges of the device make it look far more expensive than it actually is, and the metal battery cover lends a touch of sophistication. When placed alongside other budget phones, the 540 unquestionably stands out from the crowd -- so much so that it was awarded the prestigious iF Product Design Award this year.
And now the bad news
This goodwill doesn't last long, however. Sagem has crafted a fine-looking piece of telecommunications equipment, but in terms of raw functionality, the 540 is distinctly underwhelming.
Before we expand on its myriad shortcomings, it's worth pointing out the astonishing unreliability of the 540. Daily crashes are commonplace, and often the operating system lags appallingly, seemingly incapable of keeping up with your button presses. Basic tasks -- such as launching the music player or activating the 2-megapixel camera -- also cause the 540 to break into a sweat.
With trial editions of Namco's Pac-Man and Popcap's Peggle, the 540 certainly seems well-stocked when it comes to tantalising games. However, the 540's lack of muscle ruins this element of the phone. Peggle is laughably sluggish and jerky, with the action seemingly taking place in slow motion.
The truly galling thing about this anaemic technological performance is that the 540 doesn't do anything a phone from five years ago couldn't do. It lacks 3G, the Web browser is painfully basic and its TFT screen is lumbered with a blocky 176x220-pixel resolution. We can only presume the 540's dire performance is down to the fact that its CPU was taken from a digital wrist watch.
With just 8MB of on-board memory, you'll almost certainly require a microSD card if you wish to listen to music or take photos. To be brutally honest, both of these pastimes are so laboriously difficult on the 540 that it's hardly worth the effort. The installed music player is laggy and lacks options, while the camera produces disappointing snaps and requires the patience of a saint to use effectively. Don't even expect to grab a quick photo of an impromptu event because the 540 simply takes too long to boot up its snapper.
To add further insult to injury, the 540 suffers from truly lamentable stamina. When you consider the tiny amounts of strain being placed on the battery (there's no 3G data connection or Wi-Fi) it would be perfectly reasonable to expect the 540 to last for at least a few days on a full charge. Sadly, our test unit struggled to make it past 24 hours, albeit with moderate use.
We've always thought Sagem's reputation as a purveyor of cheap phones is unfair, but going on the evidence of the Vodafone 540, it's hard to argue with this viewpoint. While plenty of effort has been put into making the handset look appealing, the underlying technology is severely outdated. Nothing illustrates this point better than the fact that Sagem is still using system sounds -- for activities such as key presses -- that were present in its phones over half a decade ago. This is clearly a company that badly needs to update its image and design ethos.
Although the 540 may look tempting when you see it on the shelf next to other sub-£50 handsets, we wouldn't recommend you pick it over devices such as the Nokia 2220 Slide or Sony Ericsson Spiro. The phone's spec sheet may look impressive, but it's such a pain in the posterior to use that you'll probably end up hurling it through a window before you get anywhere near exploring its full functionality.
Edited by Emma Bayly