My Impressions of the Ericsson R520m

I should warn readers from the outset that this is a fairly negative review. While certain aspects of the R520m were top-notch, and overall itís really not a bad phone, there were just too many annoying aspects to write a positive-sounding review. Given the price and market position of the R520m, I donít believe Iím out of line for being rather demanding. If this were only a $200 phone from Fido, I think I would be more than happy with it.

Last Updated: 27-Jun-2001

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

Word of Warning: Many newer reviews make reference to older reviews, and this sometimes creates apparent inconsistencies in the overall assessments of various models. Reviews are relative by nature, and so what seemed like a great phone a year, may seem only mediocre now because other phones have "raised the bar" so to speak. If you find that I'm being negative about a phone, while saying it's about the same as a phone I once gave positive reviews to, this a perfect example.

The Ericsson R520m is not presently available from any of the GSM providers in Canada, but if you feel just have to have one, they can be purchased over the Internet, or if you happen to be visiting other countries. Youíll need to buy an unlocked version, since anything else would fail to operate with any of the Microcell Connexions providers here in Canada. The one that I borrowed was purchased from a web site in the UK. After shipping costs and conversion from pounds sterling, the price came out to about $600.

Most of the excitement surrounding this phone seems to be due to the fact that it supports GPRS. This is the new packet-switched data format recently introduced into Canada on Microcell Connexions, and will soon be made available on Rogers once they launch their GSM network. GPRS is better than the old-fashioned circuit-switched data because: A) itís faster, B) you are always connected, and C) you only pay for the data your transfer. However, with Fido offering this service at prices starting at $75 per month, only a handful of users are going to actually want it, so weíll deal with the phone based purely on its other merits.

This is also a ďworld phoneĒ, meaning that it supports all three of the present GSM bands: 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 1900 MHz. You should be able to use it anywhere in the world that there is GSM service.

Overall Size and Construction

For such a thin phone (just barely 1.1 cm) the unit is actually quite big. It stands almost 13 cm tall (16 cm if you include the antenna) and is 4.7 cm wide. Judged strictly on its frontal area, the phone is actually bigger than the Nokia 7190. However, due to its thinness, the R520m tips the scales at only 4 ounces, making it somewhat lighter than the Nokia.

The same type of ultra-thin lithium-polymer battery found on the T28w provides power for the R520m. The battery fits flush into a rectangular opening on the metallic back of the phone. Even though the battery only provides 600 mAh of capacity, Ericsson have done wonders at squeezing some truly useful talk and standby times out of it. Nokia should definitely consider sending industrial spies over to Ericsson to find out how they do it.

The front of the phone looks as though it is made of metal, but itís actually just silver paint on a plastic backing. Despite that, it looks great. My only concern would be the durability of that paint after prolonged rubbing against your ear. Only time will tell if the R520m can retain its looks.

However, the phone is decided square and out-dated looking. The flat front doesnít feel particular comfortable against my ear, and the overall dimensions of the phone feel awkward in my hands. I suspect you can get used to that over time, but there are many other phones on the market that feel as comfortable as a well-worn glove from the first time you grip them. Ericsson has never been known for making particularly curvaceous phones, so it certainly doesnít come as a huge surprise.

Display

For the first time in living memory, Ericsson has finally endowed one of their phones with a big screen. The actual display area is 3.0 cm by 2.5 cm, which compares very favorably to the 7190, whose screen is 3.5 cm by 3.0 cm. Screen resolution is marginally better than the 7190 (the R520m is 101 x 67 pixels while the 7190 is 96 x 64 pixels).

Backlighting is of the Indiglo variety, which means smooth, consistent lighting and excellent contrast. The backlight isnít particularly bright, but it does the job quite well. The key lighting, on the other hand, is rather poor. Itís bright enough, but you canít really read the keys. Actually, itís hard enough reading them in broad daylight.

Unlike most phones, the R520m supports 4 levels of ďdarknessĒ on each pixel. They use this grayscale scheme throughout the menus, and they make a half-hearted attempt at applying anti-aliasing to some of the icons. However, I didnít really find that this feature added much value to the phone. Itís certainly a great novelty, and it should impress your friends with phones that can only draw black pixels.

The phone also allows you to select one of three different font sizes. If you want to stuff as much on the screen as possible, but you donít mind squinting a bit to read things, then you can select the smallest font. If you have trouble reading small print, then you can choose the medium or large font. I think this is a great feature, and one that other manufacturers should copy.

Electrical attachments on the bottom of the phone continue to use Ericssonís style of connector. As I have said before, I believe this is one area where Ericsson has the right idea, since flexing or pulling does not readily damage their connectors (as it does with the Nokiaís). It is a shame that they didnít provide the industry-standard 2.5mm jack for the headset. Youíll have to try and find an adapter, assuming that getting one that will fit the R520m is easy.

User Interface

Ericsson has revamped their menu system, and itís markedly better now than itís ever been. I find it vastly more intuitive, and theyíve even provided numeric shortcuts (ala Nokia) for rapid location of a specific menu. They also have a 7th main menu that you can customize with 8 of your most commonly used menu items, thus making it slightly easier to access them.

However, even though their top-levels menus are second-to-none, the R520m fails to provide much in the way of secondary menu support. By this I mean the ability to perform certain peripheral tasks while in the middle of performing a primary task. For example, not all the prompts where a phone number is required allow you to access the phone book. Itís missing details such as that which can annoy users over time.

The keypad itself is a huge improvement over the junk they provided on the T18z. The keys all press easily, but they are a little spongy, and they donít provide very much user feedback. However, I found them reasonably easy to use, and itís certainly a step in the right direction.

Volume control is provide by the same hideous slider that they saddled us with on the T28w. However, this time there is no rise in the middle, so itís even harder to adjust the volume. I donít know what drugs the engineers had to take in order for this scheme to look good to them, but Iím certain possession of it would get you in big trouble with the law.

The call log was typical of Ericssonís previous models. It lumped incoming and outgoing calls into a single 30-entry log. Although I can see this being an advantage over discrete logs sometimes, I personally prefer to have my incoming, outgoing, and missed calls kept separate. When viewing entries, no easy way is provided for extracting call information. You must wait while that information is sequentially displayed on the screen over a period of time.

Phone Book

The Phone Book in the R520m will remember up to 510 entries, which can consist of a first name, a last name, a company name, a job title, and an e-mail address. Apparently Ericsson figures that ONLY business people will use this phone, and that business people DO NOT have personal contacts. If you think you can put someoneís street address in either the Company or Title fields, forget it, since they only allow 15 characters each (okay, 123 Main St. should fit).

The phone book also allows up to 5 telephone numbers per name, but each of those entries MUST be designated as a different type (business, home, mobile, fax, etc). If your contact happens to have multiple home numbers for example, youíll have to store the others under erroneous headings. The 7190 allows each of its 5 numbers to be re-classified as any of the supported types. Ericsson should have allowed this.

And as for the e-mail address, there is apparently a way to actually use it, but it requires you setting the SMS service to ďAsk Before SendĒ. Youíll get the opportunity to search the Phone Book when you transmit the message. This isnít very intuitive, but at least it works.

One thing about the phone book that is useful is the ability to sort the list by first or last name. Again, this seems to be a business-oriented idea, but Iím sure that would be handy for personal contacts. However, Iím not sure what it does with single named people, such as ďMomĒ, ďDadĒ, or ďSisĒ, which are common in personal phone books.

Text Messaging

If you need a phone to do a lot SMS work, the R520m is definitely NOT for you. SMS handling can best be described as stone-aged. It is barely improved over the earlier Ericsson models, with only the larger screen making it any better. Compared to the 7190, the R520m provides SMS merely as after-thought. There is no user-definable mailboxes, messages show up as indecipherable lists of dates and phone numbers (or names if the number matches an entry in your Phone Book), and access to messages is intolerably slow once you get more than about 6 or 7 messages in your inbox.

Deleting messages can be nightmare. No simple command exists to delete all messages, meaning that each must be removed individually. That wouldnít be so bad if the phone removed them quickly, but it doesnít always do this. I tried clearing 15 messages from the phone, and it took me literally 5 minutes. Perhaps I removed them from the wrong end, since Nick tells me that he doesnít have to wait anywhere near that long after each message is deleted.

To its credit, the R520m does include a reasonable implementation of the T9 predictive text input system. However, unlike the 7190, it does not support contractions (words such as ďIímĒ, ďdonítĒ, ďwerenítĒ, etc). Hey, what self-respecting businessman would be caught dead using a contraction? You canít even add them to the dictionary, since there is no key to represent the apostrophe. You could compose messages that didnít include contractions, but thatís hardly the point of T9. This is a weakness that Ericsson should consider fixing.

Another thing thatís difficult to do is enter numbers in your text. At first I thought that the R520m didnít provide a ď123Ē input scheme, but it apparently does. However, you must manually activate it before you can use it, and the user guide isnít very clear on this matter. Once itís activated, getting at it is a royal pain. First, you must press and hold the # key until the menu appears. You must then scroll down to the Language option (4 keystrokes), which you then select with the Yes key. You must then scroll to the ď123Ē option (minimum of 1 keystroke) and then select that. So, including the # key, thatís a minimum of 8 keystrokes. Yuck!

The SMS input system does not include any cut-and-paste operations as you have on the 7190. If you need a name or phone number from your phone book, youíre out of luck. Yes, this is how virtually all other GSM phones are, so compared with them the R520m is no better or worse. However, now that Iíve seen a better way on the 7190, I naturally expect others to follow.

To enter such information youíll have to exit the message entry, read the information you want, memorize it (or write it down), and then return to entering your message. Fortunately, the Ericsson phone remembers all the messages you have entered (partially or completely), so you can always return to an aborted message. Perhaps this is why.

Communicating with Your Devices

On the positive side, the R520m has plenty of options for communicating with the outside world. You can use a data cable, an IR port, or Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a new technology that allows devices to talk with one another wirelessly using a 1-mw transmitter in the 2.4 GHz range. Unlike IR, you donít need to point the phone at the other device; it just has to be within approximate 10 feet of the phone. I didnít have any Bluetooth devices to try, so I canít comment on how well it worked.

The R520m is the first phone to include Bluetooth built-in. Earlier Ericsson models required a bulky add-on that plugging into the bottom of the phone. As Bluetooth devices begin to proliferate, Iím fairly certainly that youíll be glad to have a phone that also supports it.

This is especially true of using GPRS with your laptop. Imagine keeping your R520m in your shirt pocket while you used your laptop on the Internet. Thatís the sort of thing that Bluetooth allows.

Sundry Features

The R520m includes a WAP browser, but I couldnít get it to work on Fidoís home page (WAP.FIDO.CA). It would work fine on other pages, including a sample I set up myself on TAGTAG.COM. It has been suggested that Fido simply doesnít support the necessary pre-sender for this phone. Since Fido doesnít officially support the R520m, this could be why. Otherwise, it worked about as well as any other WAP browsers Iíve seen.

The R520m also includes Speaker Phone capability. It does this by providing high volume through the standard earpiece, but donít expect too much from this. The volume is great enough to hear in a very quiet room, but insufficient anywhere else. Even the user guide suggests that you use the feature only when itís quiet. I didnít find it particularly useful for carrying on real conversations, but for sitting around on hold, it was worth its weight in gold.

The phone also supports calendar and to-do lists. These features worked extremely well, and mirrored most of the features offered by Nokia (going back to their 6190). I personally find the calendar feature useful for recording audible reminders, and I feel lost when I have a phone that doesnít support it.

The R520m also supports voice dialing, though this is nothing new, since most modern phones now support this feature. However, Ericsson goes a step further than most manufacturers by offering a voice code to answer and reject calls, and a "magic word" that can be spoken at any time to get the phone's attention. The "magic word" makes it possible to voice dial the phone without ever having to lift a finger. When used in conjunction with an in-car kit or headset, this could be a very useful feature to safety-conscious drivers.

The phone includes two games. One is called Tennis. Well, Tennis my elbow, itís actually PONG. You know, the video game that started everything back in the mid-70ís. That doesnít mean it isnít fun to play around with, but itís not the sort of game youíll find yourself running back to time and again.

The other game (whose name escapes me at this time) was much more interesting. It consisted of a small cross that bounced around the screen. Your job was to fill in areas of the screen without letting that cross hit an unfinished area.

RF and Audio Performance

Perhaps the single most endearing feature of the R520m is its tonal quality. This phone sounds gorgeous, and it puts everything else to shame. The earpiece provides distortion-free audio all the way up to full volume. Because the over-sized earpiece has to provide extra-high volume for the Speaker Phone feature, it only follows that any lower volumes used for standard phone operation would be a piece of cake.

By contrast, the outgoing audio was a bit disappointing. It was definitely below average, though it wasnít all that bad. It lacked the rich fullness that you got from the earpiece, and it was decidedly tinnier than the 7190, but probably about the same as, say, the G310.

The RF performance on the other hand turned out to be a bit disappointing. I tried the R520m back-to-back with my 7190 in many of the known iffy spots for Microcell Connexions, and the 7190 won hands down each time. For example, one of my favorite spots in Mississauga is Bancroft Drive between Terry Fox Way and Creditview. Along that stretch of road, the R520m suffered from broken audio virtually 100% of the time, and the calls inevitably dropped. The 7190 could provide solid audio well over 50% of the time, and the calls never dropped.

During day-to-day operation, I observed the R520m displaying ďSOS Calls OnlyĒ quite frequently. This meant that it had lost service on Fido and scanned over to Rogers. In the month Iíve owned the 7190, I havenít seen it lose service once (except in areas where I knew full where there was no service).

Oddly however, Howard Chui reports that his R520m performed almost as well as his 7190. I donít know exactly what testing methods he used, so I canít really comment on this discrepancy one way or other. However, assuming that itís true, we can speculate on a number of possibilities: A) I had a lemon, B) Howard had a good R520m, or a bad 7190, or C) This is a normal variation from unit to unit. Iím going to have to let you make up your minds on this one.

Note on RF performance: Keep in mind that I can only test the R520m at 1900 MHz. This is a world phone, supporting 900 MHz and 1800 MHz as well. It is quite possible that the R520m could perform much better (or much worse) at those frequencies. It is therefore strongly recommended that you consult reviews written outside of North America for performance data at 900 MHz and 1800 MHz.

Conclusions

As Iíve stated before, Iím a sucker for great audio. The gorgeous sound quality of the earpiece on the R520 almost had me logging on to that UK web page to buy one. However, all of the other annoyances were just too much for me to cope with, especially the poor SMS handling, and sub-par RF performance. If I didnít do any SMS work, I probably wouldnít have been so harsh on the phone, and I might have bought one for myself anyway.

So even though Iíve been rather negative about the R520m, I still believe that itís intrinsically a good phone, and a worthwhile buy for many people (if they arenít as easy annoyed at its shortcomings as I was). However, $600 is a lot of money, as is the hassle youíll put yourself through if you ever need it serviced. There is no guarantee that Ericsson Canada will honor a warranty on a phone bought outside the country.

Home