Manufacturers have a habit of releasing unusual-looking phones in a bid to attract our attention. The problem is that most of these handsets turn out to be nothing more than ill-conceived and impractical gimmicks that are about as useful as a milk umbrella. The Vodafone 541, with its super-sized chin and capsular design, is a particularly bizarre-looking phone. Is it just the latest in a long line of novelty handsets, or an exception to the rule?
The 541 is available for around £30 on a pay as you go deal.
The phone's smooth, rounded design harks back to the aptly named Motorola Pebl. Our review model came in dark pink with a solid black frame housing the volume rocker and power/unlock button. The 541 comes in several different colours, all of which suit the device well. The handset feels quite thick, although it's by no means a behemoth, and pretty robust -- we reckon it could take the odd knock without sustaining any noticeable damage.
Take it on the chin
There are plenty of famously big chins in the world -- Jay Leno, Jimmy Hill, Popeye, and the HTC Hero are all proud owners of one. Having a monumental mandible is by no means a necessity for fame, but it certainly helps. The 541 is the latest addition to the jumbo-jawboned hall of fame, with a gargantuan growth below its 61mm (2.4-inch) touchscreen working as a dynamic gesture-input area. At least, Vodafone calls it a 'gesture area'. But it's more like a touchpad with LED buttons that change to suit the application in use.
While this is a fun feature, and an excuse for some quaint light shows at start-up, it's not really necessary, since the same options can be controlled via the touchscreen. Like Leno's chin, though, it does have its uses. It can, for example, serve as a shutter button for the otherwise unremarkable 1.3-megapixel camera, which means you don't obscure the viewfinder with your finger while you snap away. Though we love the quirkiness of this feature, we still feel Vodafone would've been better off using this space for a larger screen.
Small, but effective
The touchscreen is satisfyingly responsive for a phone in this price range. It's quite small but the on-screen buttons are large enough to be pressed with few mistakes. Vodafone has clearly put a good deal of thought into the phone's menu system. The main menu, for example, is spread across three different screens, rather than being crammed into one display. This means the menu buttons themselves can be larger and easier to select.
The 541 uses an alphanumeric, rather than full Qwerty, keyboard. It's slightly cramped but perfectly usable. The proximity of the 'OK' and 'space' buttons, however, caused us to frequently make mistakes when composing text messages. The handset gives good tactile feedback, vibrating each time the screen or gesture area registers a touch. But do beware: if the phone rests on a hard surface, the resulting vibrations can sound like someone trying to fart discreetly.
Going out of stylus
This phone packs a stylus, hidden away under the casing. Styluses are becoming increasingly rare in the phone market. It's not an altogether unwelcome addition, although we seriously doubt you'll ever need to use it. The icons and buttons on the touchscreen are large enough for you to comfortably use your finger, and the stylus can become irksome to hold after a while.
Get to the widgets!
The operating system's idle screen houses vertical and horizontal widget menus. The former can be fully customised, while the latter is immutable. Both menus can be hidden from view using the gesture pad below the screen, and widgets -- such as the music player -- can be moved from the menu to the main screen for easy access.
The phone comes with an MP3 player, FM radio, Java games and applications. There's even an ebook reader function, although it doesn't provide the same crisp, readable display we've come to expect from other ebook-reading devices, like the iPad. Given the feature is buried under several menus, has no pre-loaded books and isn't particularly prominent, we wonder if the ebook-reader feature was simply tacked on as an afterthought.
The phone lacks Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, so surfing the Web is a painfully slow experience. If mobile Web browsing is your bag, don't bother with this phone. Even if you do have the patience to load an entire Web page, the touchscreen, while responsive when navigating menus, probably won't be anywhere near as easy to use as that of a far more expensive smart phone.
All things considered, the Vodafone 541 is a great phone. It's good-looking, robustly built, and well considered in terms of its menu system and OS. Although we can't identify any real need for it, the gesture area is a neat touch and testament to the kookiness of this phone. The 541 manages to balance weirdness with practicality quite beautifully, which can't be said for many of its peculiar peers. Its idiosyncratic appearance and functionality won't be to everybody's taste, but it might strike a chord with an eccentric few.
Edited by Emma Bayly