Cingular 3125 Smartphone Review

by Reads (101,163)

The Cingular 3125 is, like most new Windows phones, a product of HTC Taiwan. Unlike most others, however, it sports an ultra-slim clamshell design to rival the ever popular RAZR. Originally called the HTC StrTrk, similar models are also sold as the Dopod S300, Qtek 8500, and i-mate Smartflip.


The 3125, though, has a few important differences from its siblings. While most StrTrk models have 64 MB of flash memory, with approximately 16 MB available to the user, the Cingular variant contains 128 MB of flash, leaving 68 MB free. There are also several different battery capacities in use. The Cingular version trades off a slightly thicker battery, and thus overall thickness, for a higher capacity of 1100 milliamp-hours.

 

Design & Construction

The first thing that struck me when I pulled the 3125 from its box actually wasn’t how thin or light it was, but how sturdy it felt. Compared to most clamshell phones I’ve used, the 3125 feels built like a tank. The casing is a combination of metal and plastic, with rubberized trim and a hinge which travels the full width of the body. HTC normally has pretty good build quality behind their devices, but the 3125 feels like they’ve outdone themselves. Even after several accidental drops during my review period, not only is the 3125 still working, but it doesn’t even have any markings to show, which is not something that I could have said for its predecessor after its review.

Left, Motorola v360. Right, Cingular 3125.

All that said, the 3125 is impressively thin and light. It compares quite favorably to the RAZRs that I’ve seen, and certainly doesn’t feel like you’re paying a size or weight penalty for its much more robust functionality.

Left to right: Motorola v360, Cingular 3125, Dell Axim X51v.

Top to bottom: Motorola v360, Cingular 3125.

It’s not easy to tell in photos, but most of the front and rear surfaces of the device are covered in tiny ridges, giving it a solid non-slip texture that feels good against the hand. This is accented by the rubberized coating on the lower part of the case around the media buttons and logo.

There are two LEDs on the lid, a blue one to indicate Bluetooth status, and a second tri-color: blinking green to indicate a GSM signal lock, blinking red for a critical battery, and solid orange for battery charging. The LEDs are both quite bright, which is a mixed blessing — it makes the phone easy to find even in the dark, but it can also be distracting when they strobe on and off.

There’s a slight bulge on the back of the device right over the battery. This is so that the 3125 can accommodate its fatter battery. Although it adds about 3 mm to the thickness of the case in one area, the difference isn’t very noticeable when you’re actually holding it. The battery cover is molded in a gentle slope, leaving only an impression of beveling in the hand.

Rear of device, showing battery and SIM card. Memory card is parallel to rounded depression on left. RF connector, bottom right.

In a pleasant surprise, I found that the 3125 has an external RF connector, for use with an antenna or cellular amplifier. This is increasingly absent on newer phones.

On the top half of the phone there are several small buttons built into the edges of the case. The single button on the right side activates the camera application; the controls on the left include a rocker switch for volume and the voice-recorder button. The small size and odd location of these buttons make them a bit hard to use, but most of the time you can safely ignore them.

Ironically, the clamshell design fixes one of the major design flaws from previous HTC Smartphones: there was no way to turn them off. With the Cingular 2125, T-Mobile SDA, and others, there was no simple power button to put the device into sleep mode without turning the entire phone off. You had to let the inactivity timer turn it off. With the 3125, though, you can simply close the flip.

The rubber-membrane keypad sports electroluminescent backlighting.

It’s hard not to like the design of the 3125. It combines a sense of rugged durability with a great look and feel. Aside from preferring traditional buttons over the membrane keypad, and annoyance over the side-mounted docking connector, I have little to no reservation in approving of the device’s design.

 

Hardware

Processor: 200 MHz TI OMAP
Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.1 with AKU 2.3.0
Display: 2.2 inch, 240 x 320 pixel transmissive/reflective LCD; external 1.2 inch 128 x 128 color LCD
Memory:

64 MB RAM; 128 MB flash memory (68 MB available)

Size & Weight: 3.88 inches long x 2.02 inches wide x 0.62 inches thick (closed); 3.49 ounces

Expansion:

Single MicroSD slot
Docking: HTC proprietary plug for USB/power/audio
Communication: Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE; Bluetooth 1.2
Audio:

HTC proprietary headphone jack; speakerphone; speaker & mouthpiece for phone

Battery: 1100 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable/replaceable battery
Input:

12-key numeric pad; 5-way navigator; 6 navigation/phone keys; up/down rocker button

Other:

1.3 MP camera; Java/J2ME environment

 

Processor

The 3125 runs on the 200 MHz TI OMAP processor that’s so common in HTC’s designs. While not enormously fast, it’s more than adequate to the tasks that most people will call upon it for.

General system performance was snappy at most points, with slowdowns only noticeable when running a heavy load of applications in the background. Video performance would likely be limited, but if you’re dedicated enough to watch video on a 2.2″ screen, you can adjust.

 

Operating System

Running on the Smartphone version of Windows Mobile 5, there’s not much unusual about the 3125’s OS and bundled software. There is the usual range of pre-loaded Cingular applications, including a gateway to their music store (usable only for ringtones, however), and some other salesware, including a three-day free trial of MobiTV. Apparently, though, somebody has been reading my mind (or perhaps the handwriting on the wall), since one of the included ads is for a yet-to-be-released program for Cingular phones called “MusicID” which claims to be able to identify songs, though it doesn’t mention how. Gee, a mobile device with a connection to a music store and music recognition software — I certainly wish I had thought of that!

The 3125 also comes bundled with some additional applications in ROM: a Westtek ClearVue suite for viewing various document formats including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Acrobat PDF. These programs are view-only, with no functions for editing, printing, or creating such documents, but it’s a distinct step up from the default Windows Smartphone suite, which has nothing.

As with most GSM Windows phones, there’s also a Java suite for running such applications as Opera Mini, Google Mobile, and others. I found Java performance to be excellent, faster even than Java native phones, and the midlets take full advantage of the screen resolution.

 

Display

Like most clamshell phones, the 3125 actually has two displays: the main inner display, and a smaller external screen used to show caller ID and the phone’s status. The phone’s external display, despite being only 128 by 128 pixels, can cram in a surprising amount of information. Normally, it displays the time, date, signal strength, battery, Bluetooth icon (if turned on) and the appropriate icon for GPRS or EDGE.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s not all. If you close the flip while running Windows Media Player, or fire it up with the phone closed using the front media buttons, the time and date are moved to the bottom of the screen, and the display shows the song name, album, volume level, time elapsed, and progress bar. All of this in addition to the normal information. You can even select a background image for the external screen in the phone’s settings, but this greatly reduces the size of the clock in the normal view, and the background doesn’t show up for Media Player or other uses.

In the case of incoming calls, the external screen will display caller ID information — the incoming number, or in the case of phone book entries, the person’s name. If you include photos in your contacts, then it will even display the picture, though arguably at so small a size that it’s virtually useless. The external screen will also alert you to all the other usual information such as missed calls, new voicemail, etcetera. However, being a full color screen with backlighting, the external LCD is only turned on for short periods, rather than continuously as is the case with most monochrome external displays.

The internal display is a 2.2 inch QVGA screen, the highest resolution you can get on a Windows Smartphone. Color, clarity, and brightness are all excellent. The small size may offer difficulty for those with eye problems, or who simply aren’t comfortable reading from so small an area. But for the most part text is quite legible and web browsing is, if not exactly comfortable, at least very much possible, particularly with the help of the various versions of Opera.

One frustration that hasn’t been cured from the 3125’s predecessor is screen brightness. There is literally no way to control how bright the screen is. No settings, no adjustments, nothing, except for how long the system is idle before it dims the screen. But this doesn’t help you when you’re actually using it. So you’re stuck with one brightness for all occasions, whether you’re in a brightly lit room or complete darkness. The device even has an ambient light sensor, but this doesn’t control the screen — it only affects whether or not the keypad is lit up or not. There aren’t many times when I really feel the need to adjust the brightness, but at those times the option is sorely missed. It would be nice if there were simply an “automatic” selection that would dim it when you’re in near-total darkness.

 

Memory

In a minor miracle, the 3125 has a full 128 MB of internal flash, leaving a full 68 MB free, far more comfortable than the older Cingular 2125 model which had barely 16 MB for the user. Windows Smartphones have traditionally been memory-starved, forcing users to buy a memory card if they wanted to do virtually anything with the device. With nearly 70 MB, it’s much more comfortable to install applications to internal memory and reserve the card for multimedia and other large files. Even with upwards of a half a dozen programs, a bunch of photos, and several documents on the device, there was still 45 MB free. That’s a big improvement over last time, when I had to delete files on the fly after only three days of use so that I could take more photos. If you didn’t plan on using the phone as a music or video player, you could even go without a memory card entirely.

 

Size & Weight

By any measurement, the 3125 compares favorably to its competitors. Only a handful of devices like the Motorola Q and T-Mobile Dash are in the same class, and they have a decidedly different target market. Most Windows Smartphones are quite small, of course, but the 3125 adds slimness to the equation, along with a form-factor which has only been used on a handful of smartphones, and none in the current generation.

Left to right: Nokia E62, Dell Axim X51v, Cingular 3125.

 

Expansion

I have bad news, good news, and bad news. The bad news is that unlike the MiniSD cards used on most previous WM Smartphones, with the 3125 HTC opted to use the even smaller MicroSD.

The good news is that they’re no longer putting the memory card under the battery. The other bad news is that they are putting it under the SIM card. That, along with the fact that a small switch located beneath the battery cover turns off the phone if you open the battery compartment, means that you still can’t even think about warm-swapping memory cards.

Of course, with the minuscule size of the MicroSD cards, you really shouldn’t think about swapping out the card too often anyway, lest you inadvertently inhale it, or lose it in deep pile carpeting. For loading files, you’re going to be pretty dependent on the USB cable, unless you want to wait for Bluetooth. Of course the 3125’s USB is only 1.1, and could therefore take some time to fill a large memory card, but you can’t have everything. Or apparently anything, in this case.

Under most circumstances I’d hand HTC their own buttocks for a design decision like this, but in the case of the 3125, I’m going to let them off the hook just a little bit. I don’t know if the size difference between the two cards would really have made that much of a difference, but the overall niceness of the design helps me to forget that a 2 GB MicroSD card is about three times more expensive than the same MiniSD card.

 

Docking

For reasons known only to them, with the 3125 HTC decided to drop the mini-USB port that’s been standard on their Smartphones and Pocket PC phones going back for years, in favor of a new proprietary connector. Located on the bottom right of the device, the 22 pin connector replaces both the USB and headphone/headset jack. Since the one connector handles both functions, you need a special Y-cable to use both the charger and the included headphones simultaneously. Cingular’s version includes this cable by default, though other branded models don’t.

The way I see it, if you’re not going to have some specialty feature which requires it like video out, I’d prefer that they stick with the more standardized cables. I’ve got eight thousand mini-USB cables lying around, and now you want me to use another new format? Failing that, you could at least put the connector on the bottom of the device, enabling third-party cradles and desktop chargers.

The other reason that this irks me is because of the placement of the MicroSD card. If I could easily remove the card, I wouldn’t be as annoyed by the fact that I need the specialty sync cable to connect to my laptop. If I had a standard cable, I wouldn’t care as much about removing the card. Lacking both of those options, my only recourse most of the time is to move files over Bluetooth, which gets pretty slow when you’re talking about 60+ megs. This is, after all, supposed to be a music-oriented device.

I don’t mean to make it sound like the 3125’s docking setup is untenable. Far from it. I just find it irksome for a few reasons that HTC chose to go this way, and further that they didn’t put a little more thought into it. If you really want to have a specialty audio-out connector, why not either create on your own, or enable others to design, a desktop cradle with built-in speakers, making a plug-and-play mini-stereo?

All that said, unless you’re a perfectionist, you probably won’t find it that annoying.

 

Communication

My main point of comparison for the 3125 in the signal strength category is the Motorola v360, another GSM phone known for its outstanding reception. The 3125 maintained a slightly lower signal strength than the v360, usually about one bar less, and dropped service a few times when the v360 did not. This was about on par with what I’ve experienced from other HTC devices such as the Cingular 2125, 8125, and T-Mobile MDA. While not perfect, the 3125 is quite good in the RF department, maintaining a workable signal even in what could be quite generously called marginal areas. Unless you frequently need ideal signals out in the boondocks, I would call the 3125’s RF performance quite satisfactory.

Bluetooth performance was more than satisfactory, pairing up with my other devices without too much trouble and maintaining good connections even at longer ranges in less than ideal conditions. The only Bluetooth-related problems I encountered were the result of the not-always-intuitive Microsoft Bluetooth stack, which doesn’t seem to like assigning both headset and wireless stereo functions to the same device,.

I’m a strong proponent of Wi-Fi, and would normally lament its absence in a device. But with the 3125, I find that I don’t really miss it that much. Perhaps it’s the fact that on the last Wi-Fi enabled Windows Smartphone I had, the T-Mobile SDA, the software implementation was so poor as to be nearly useless, due to its inability to connect to non-DHCP networks. It depends on your usage, of course, but I’ve found that most Internet access needs on the phone can be handled over EDGE, and in a pinch, Bluetooth can substitute for local file transfers if you’re not too demanding.

On the flip side, though, without Wi-Fi, you also have no LAN access, meaning that if you can’t get an acceptable signal in your home or office, you can’t supplement your connectivity with a wireless network or VoIP. Further, the absence of any fast wireless connectivity, either Wi-Fi and 3G, translates to severe restrictions on streaming media and over-the-air file transfers.

 

Audio

As mentioned earlier, HTC chose to use a nonstandard connector for the 3125 that combines USB and audio. Lacking a standard 2.5mm or 3.5mm plug, the device comes with a pair of stereo earbuds specific to the 3125. Fortunately, the basic earbuds aren’t that bad. They’re actually a stereo headset, combining the standard handsfree functions into the mix, and just for good measure adding an inline volume control, which is quite convenient when you don’t want to mess with the hard-to-find side buttons. I expect that as the 3125 grows in popularity, somebody will make an adapter that lets you plug standard headphones into it, but until then, you have to take what they give you for wired headphones and like it.

Wireless headphones, however, are a completely different story. The 3125 supports the Bluetooth Advanced Audio Distribution profile, also known as A2DP. This means that if you have a set of Bluetooth stereo headphones, you can pair them to the phone and enjoy your music that way. To test this out, I pulled out my pair of dirt-cheap iTech Bluetooth earbuds, and set them up. After one minor false start, resulting from the Bluetooth software, I was up and running. The link performed excellently, starting to hitch and break up only when it was transmitting from 20 feet away through two walls. From any lesser range, it performed great, with no noticeable effects that I could detect given the quality of the headphones.

When using the external media buttons to control Windows Media Player, I noticed a distinct tendency to lag between the button press and the response from the device, a lag not present when using the music player with the phone open. This can cause you to press a button multiple times thinking that the first press hadn’t registered, and thus causing a bit of frustration when both button presses register a second later. I hope that this is ironed out in a future ROM update.

 

Battery

Battery life is key for any mobile device, and despite the slimness of its design — traditionally a risk factor for poor battery life — the 3125 does fairly well. In testing to simulate primarily voice usage, the standard battery achieved 8 hours and 23 minutes of “talk” time. This result wasn’t quite as good as the 10 hours I achieved with the Cingular 2125, but is still superb for a converged device. The Treos are rated for only around 4 and a half hours of talk time, the Motorola Q the same. Of course, the 8:23 figure is for voice use, with the screen off. When used for web browsing, or other Internet activity with the screen on, the 3125 should last about 5 hours — for offline use such as games, documents, etcetera, six to eight hours. These figures will vary, of course, according to individual use, and local signal strength, among other factors.

 

Input

The 3125 uses a membrane-style keypad, similar to some Motorola models like the RAZR. I wasn’t sure about this in the beginning, as I’ve always preferred a more normal style of individual buttons. But after growing accustomed to it for a week or two, I found that it’s quite comfortable. It’s admittedly not as easy to find particular buttons by touch as with a regular keypad, but you can navigate it well enough at least to turn on the keypad backlighting, at which point things get easier.

Input options for text include T9 predictive text input, and the older multi-tap letter selection method. I wouldn’t advise that you think of entering more than a sentence or two this way, but it suffices for the purpose of basic web navigation and short messaging.

 

Camera

There’s not much to be said on this score. The 1.3 megapixel camera found in the 3125 doesn’t really preset a significant improvement over previous HTC cameras. It tends to yield images which are fuzzy in good light, lacking color in medium light, and more or less black smudges in low light. For what it’s worth, the camera application is not bad, with a relatively straightforward interface and a minimum of clicking required to take multiple pictures. On a related note, with a color external display, you can close the lid on the phone and the camera application remains open, displaying the would-be picture on the outer screen, and snapping photos by means of the side button.

 

Conclusion

One of my criteria for judging devices is whether or not I regret having to ship it back to the company when the review period is over. By that mark, the 3125 does exceedingly well. It’s solid, efficient, and has a very nice design. It doesn’t have the flashiest specs, and wouldn’t place it in the same category of data devices such as the Motorola Q, the T-Mobile Dash, or any of the other keyboard-style devices, but it succeeds at being a much better phone than most keyboard devices I’ve used, and still keeps a solid core of connectivity and real applications. It would do well as an extension to a laptop, a companion to a handheld or tablet PC, or a standalone device for someone who needs only moderate data use. It’s fast, it has good battery life, and a great design.

 

Pros:

  • Quad-band GSM/EDGE
  • Sleek design
  • Durable construction
  • Extra memory

Cons:

  • Proprietary USB/audio connector
  • No high-speed networking
  • MicroSD card

Bottom Line:

A solid voice-centric smartphone that mixes good computing with a great design.


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