Pharos GPS Phone 600 Review

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  • Pros

    • Strong internal GPS
    • 2 GB microSD card
    • Appealing form factor

  • Cons

    • Marginal hardware controls
    • Expensive
    • microSD slot


The Pharos GPS Phone 600 is equipped much like other Wi-Fi enabled Pocket PC phones, but with GPS capabilities added.

Pharos GPS Phone 600
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It is a rebranded version of the E-TEN Glofiish X500. Being that the latter is almost only available in Asia, I mainly bring this up to note that Pharos’ name, while unimaginative, is still a lot better that “Glofish.”

Besides that, the Pharos also comes in two flavors of its own.

The 600, which we received for review, retails for $700 and includes a 2 GB microSD card containing the company’s Ostia navigation software, along with maps for the entire United States and Canada. Unlike many GPS packages, this even includes Alaska, Hawaii, and the uncivilized parts of Canada. (Sorry, Yukon.)

The 600e does not include the card, the maps, or the software, instead being geared to users who already own navigational software that they would rather use. In exchange, the 600e comes in a hundred dollars cheaper, at $600 suggested retail.

Street prices on both devices should be significantly lower, but they’ll never be cheap in the way that carrier-subsidized phones are.

Qtek 8500 vs.
Pharos GPS Phone 600

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The most striking characteristic of the 600 is that it’s quite thin. Not quite as thin as some other devices, but much more so than most touchscreen smartphones, and in a footprint smaller than most pocket notepads.

This becomes all the more impressive when you consider the fact that this includes a fairly large 1530 mAh battery, well above average even for thicker devices like the HTC Hermes. Of course, the Pharos doesn’t need to try and fit in a keyboard, or any moving parts, but it’s still quite an achievement of engineering.

Pharos GPS Phone 600
Rear View

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While most of the front is ordinary silver plastic, with a brushed aluminum bezel surrounding the screen, the rear is a black plastic material that’s slightly rubberized for traction.

It’s a beautiful material, and I love the feel of it, but it is rather easily scratched. It’s not quite tissue paper, but it’s not as robust as I’d like to see in a GPS navigation device. It’s also mildly smudge-prone.

The hardware features of the device are pretty well spaced around, with the headphone jack, volume controls, and record button on the left side; camera, power, and reset buttons on the right; MicroSD and MiniUSB on the bottom; and the camera, mirror, speaker, and LED light on the back. The SIM card, of course, resides under the battery.

The area where the Pharos’ hardware design falls somewhat flat is control.

Pharos GPS Phone 600
Control Buttons

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The directional pad is a bit hard to get used to, needing practice to avoid hitting any of the buttons clustered around its thin main ring, but it is at least usable.

However, the designers omitted from the device two additional buttons needed for truly usable one-handed control — the Start Menu and OK/Close keys.

Plus, in classic Pocket PC phone fashion, you’re left with no way to dial a phone number other than tapping the screen, which can be difficult to do one-handed. Honestly, I’m inclined to give the Pharos a little bit of a pass on this last issue, since the rest of its form-factor more than compensates for the lack of a keyboard or numeric keypad, but the button controls are more problematic.

Last but not least, as most GPS nav systems are prone to do, the Pharos comes with a selection of mounting and powering hardware, primarily geared around affixing it to a windshield or dashboard.

One thing about the GPS Phone 600 is clear — this isn’t quite a smartphone in the ways we typically think of one, either in terms of voice nor those of data connectivity. It’s usable for both of those things to a limited extent, but not at the level of ease with which most people will be familiar.

Pharos does try to overcome this somewhat with software, as we’ll talk about later, but there’s only so much that can be done. Instead, it’s primary market is GPS navigation with a touch of voice thrown in.

Performance and Operating System

While not quite up to the level of the best XScales, the 400 MHz Samsung processor in this device is a huge improvement over the typical 200 MHz OMAP CPUs found in most Pocket PC phones. Using the Linpack benchmark for Windows Mobile, it tops out at 1.34 megaflops, about the same as the nearly identical processor in the HTC Hermes, and significantly more than 2x the performance (0.59 mflops) of the 200 MHz OMAP.

Unlike most PPC phones, this Pharos model comes with an extensive loadout of fairly useful software.

For starters, there’s Spb Software’s new Mobile Shell application, which is basically a complete user interface overhaul for the Pocket PC. The short version is that it does triple duty as a more finger-friendly application launcher; a truly exhaustive Today Screen plug-in; and a one-stop-shop “Now screen” which gives the user mail, messages, calls, weather forecasts, signal strength, the time, date, upcoming schedule, and battery status while managing to not seem crowded. I doubt that I’ve even seriously scratched the surface of what it can do here, but it’s time to move on.

The other bundled Spb program is the straightforwardly named Full Screen Keyboard, which does exactly what the name implies — it provides a software keyboard covering the whole touchscreen of the device, allowing the user to type with greater ease. I wouldn’t call it a thumb keyboard, but fingertip, yes. It also has typo correction and word completion capabilities.

Besides the Spb gear, there’s also a variety of little micro-apps designed to make users lives a bit easier. A slightly modified SMS/MMS client, dialing program, etcetera. Nothing earth-shattering, but potentially useful for some people.

There’s also an application called EZ Vibe, which at first I thought only caused the vibration motor to trigger briefly. While I was fiddling with it, wondering what the hell use anybody could have for something like that, I figured out that this actually switches the device back and forth from vibrate to ring modes. Nice, and much more logical.

Communication

Between Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and quad-band GSM, the only expense that’s been spared on the GPS phone is for 3G. At least, that’s what it seems from the specs.

I admit that I was a little bit disappointed with the audio performance on the device. When making and recieving calls, it seemed tinnier than the other smartphones I’ve used, and more prone to distortion. It’s definitely not the network or location, since I’ve used other devices there before.

FM Tuner
107.7 FM, “The Lake.”

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The integrated FM radio tuner is, while interesting for some things, rather hampered by the need to use a wired headset for listening. I suspect that most people are either going to opt for a more conventional radio receiver, Internet streaming, or their own stored music.

GPS and Navigation

The SiRFstar III chipset in the device lives up to its reputation, quickly and easily getting a lock on the satellite constellation, even from indoors. It holds with remarkable strength, too, in places where ordinary GPS systems wouldn’t. I can easily see why the SiRFstar III chipset is so highly sought after, and the GPS Phone 600 uses it to full effect.

The navigation software that comes with the device is Pharos’ own Ostia package. At this point, Adama’s House of Useless Knowledge would like to point out that that Ostia was the harbor-city of ancient Rome, where they docked ships that were too large and heavy to proceed the 15 miles up the Tiber river to Rome itself. Though I’m not sure what relevance that might have to GPS road navigation.

In any event, as was mentioned earlier, the version of the 600 that comes bundled with full maps includes basically all of North America this side of the Mexican border, plus Hawaii. Unlike other map packs, it doesn’t exclude Alaska or the northern portions of Canada, at least the ones which actually have roads.

Admittedly, Ostia isn’t my favorite of all the available GPS software packages for Windows Mobile. The interface seems a little frustrating, since almost all of the options are buried several layers deep in menus which aren’t that easy to get to in the first place. I know that they say you’re not supposed to use the thing while you’re personally driving the car, but do you have to make it completely impossible?

Beyond interface, though, there’s not much to complain about. The maps are extensive, well detailed, and about as accurate as any of the other sets that you’ll find. Navigation along planned routes is handled in a typically competant manner, and all of the standard features like turn-by-turn guidance are well executed.

Still, I’m not entirely sure I personally would bother with spending the extra $100 on the map-equipped version of the device — certainly not without investigating alternative software packages. Though if all you really need is basic navigation, and you’re not picky about interface, the default package works well.

Of course, the integration of both GPS and cellular connectivity offers more than a few other interesting options, as well. Using SMS to deliver GPS coordinates; real-time tracking of field units; communicating with online map servers like Google Earth or Terraserver; the list goes on. The Pharos doesn’t come pre-loaded for these options, but with a little third-party manuvering you could make it do some pretty interesting tricks.

Battery

Despite having a large battery, the Pharos manages to suck down the wattage when you’re using all its features.

A full charge will last you for about 4 hours of GPS navigation, or 4.5 hours of talk time. Not what I’d call impressive from a 1530 mAh battery, though adequate for 2 or 3 days average use.

Specifications

Processor: 400 MHz Samsung S3C2440
Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.1 (Pocket PC) with AKU 3.2
Display: 2.8 inch, 320 x 240 transmissive/reflective LCD
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 128 MB flash (70 MB available); 2 GB MicroSD card (optional)
Size & Weight: 4.44 inches long x 2.34 inches wide x 0.61 inches thick; 5.14 ounces
Expansion: Single MicroSD slot
Docking: Single Mini-USB plug
Communication: Quad-band GSM/EDGE; 802.11b/g WiFi; Bluetooth 2.0
Audio: 2.5mm headphone/headset jack; speakerphone; earpiece; microphone
Battery: 1530 milliamp-hour Lithium Ion replacable
Input: 5-way directional pad; softkeys; touchscreen
Other: Built-in SiRFstar III GPS receiver with internal antenna; FM radio receiver; 2.0 MP camera

 


Conclusion

I might not buy it as a first-line phone, but for combining ultra-reliable GPS location and navigation with a certain amount of voice and data connectivity, I can certainly see the appeal in the Pharos.

Between the great GPS receiver and pleasing design, its biggest drawback is its pricetag.

Pros:

  • Strong internal GPS
  • 2 GB microSD card
  • Appealing form factor

Cons:

  • Marginal hardware controls
  • Expensive
  • microSD slot

Bottom Line:

Not an ideal phone, but it does quite well for use primarily as a light Internet and heavy GPS machine.

 


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