|Review of the Ericsson T68/T68i|
The T68/T68i is a phone that has generated a lot of interest, though mostly due to its use of a color screen. Bare in mind however that this is not the first phone on the market to have such a feature, but it is the first GSM phone to include it.
Although the T68 is not officially available in North America at the time of this writing, gray market models can be purchased through SiMPRO, or you can order one from an overseas online retailer. The cost of an unlocked T68 is in the $700 to $900 range (Canadian funds).
Last Updated: 23-Dec-2001
Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.
The Color Screen
Since the “big thing” with the T68 is its color screen, we’ll begin the review with that. Color displays are still a rarity on cell phones, though I strongly suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more them in the future. The screen on the T68 only supports 256 colors, and it doesn’t produce the kind of brilliant colors we’re used to on laptop computers and flat panel monitors. However, the colors look a lot less washed out than they do any various color PDAs on the market right now.
The clarity of the display is exceptional however, and it provides very legible text, even at the smallest font setting. In fact, the overall contrast provided by black lettering on a white background seems to be markedly better than on many top-quality traditional displays of similar size.
The phone offers 3 font sizes, all of which are generally quite nice. For use in the car, where being able to see information quickly is important, the large font is great. For non-driving situations, the smallest font is very handsome and readable. I can’t think of any use for the medium sized font off the top of my head, but at least you have the option.
The only issue I have with the display is that it can’t really be seen properly without its backlight, unlike traditional monotone displays that can use reflected ambient light to their advantage. In bright sunlight, the display is a little washed out, but certainly not impossible to read. I found the screen readable in most situations.
Ericsson makes good use of this display too, and provides you with plenty of colorful icons and a selectable wallpaper to display in the background at the idle screen. You can choose from a number of pre-created pictures, or you can use computer software to create and upload your own. However, with only 256 colors available, don’t expect it to do a really great job on photographs.
The bottom line is that the display is perhaps the phone’s single best feature. It’s certainly among the best screens I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. I can only hope that we’ll see screens like this on many other phones over the coming years.
The T68 is certainly a small unit that easily rivals the Nokia 8290 and 8890 in both size and weight. In fact, the phone has a decidedly Nokia-like look to it, which is a departure from Ericsson’s boxy trademark appearance. While looks are a very personal thing, I believe it is perhaps the best looking Ericsson phone I’ve seen to date.
It gets away from that odd flat back concept that we see on the T28, T39, and R520. The battery has a more traditional look to it, and the entire back of the phone is made out of this rubbery material. This makes the phone easier to hold on to, and it doesn’t slip off of things as easily as most other phones. It seems to be a very good concept.
For most navigation tasks, the T68 includes a joystick, which along with up, down, left, and right motions, also allows you to select by pressing it down. Howard Chui complained that he had trouble getting the select feature to work reliably, as any slight movement away from dead center would activate a motion request. I had very little trouble with this aspect of the phone, which might have been because my joystick worked better than his, or that I was just more adept at using it. Regardless, I give the joystick a resounding thumbs-up.
I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the keypad. Because this is a tiny phone, it has a tiny keypad. I am personally used to pressing buttons using the “ball” of my thumb, but I have a relatively large thumb that covers too much area. I had an enormous problem with the “2” key, which I later found was the result of a badly designed “frame” around the joystick. If I put pressure on the bottom of the frame immediately below the joystick, the stick would be pulled downward, and it would activate the down key press. This would always take precedence over the “2” key.
I eventually learned to use the keypad by pressing the keys with the side of thumb’s nail. This avoided the problem of pressing other keys or the frame around the joystick, but it took away from overall feeling of being in control of the experience. This may or may not be a problem for you, depending upon how you are used to treating a phone keypad. And I should note that the problem is not unique to the T68, but exists on many of today’s extra-small phones.
I wasn’t too thrilled with the Yes and No buttons either. They were chrome-covered plastic, which has a dubious reputation for wearing out easily. The keys were also oddly shaped, and they didn’t press as well as the other keys on the phone. Fortunately, you can do most of your navigation and calling functions using only the joystick, which as I noted earlier is a joy to use.
The keys include an auto lock feature that locks the keys after a certain period of inactivity. While I don’t personally feel that this is of much value, some people I spoke with thought it was a great idea. You can be the judge of that.
The volume control is perhaps the worst physical feature of the phone. I’ve said this before about the same volume control found on the T28 and the T39. It provides zero feedback, and half the time it doesn’t seem to do what its supposed to, assuming you can even actuate it anyway. Ericsson seriously needs to re-evaluate this volume control design.
The ringer was reasonably loud, but the vibrator alert was extremely weak. Even with the phone sitting in my shirt pocket (and thus pressing against my chest), I could still barely feel it. However, weak vibrators seem to be the norm these days, especially on small phones.
Missing from the phone is a 2.5mm headset jack. Ericsson seems to have ignored this concept, and instead forces you use either proprietary headset designs, or to purchase an adapter. The problem with the adapter approach is that it is unnecessarily bulky, especially on such a tiny phone.
The phone was reasonably comfortable against my ear, but I found that prolonged usage became a bit tedious. It hurt my ear, and there were no really comfortable ways to hold the phone. However, this a flaw with all micro-sized phones, so buyers of this class of phone are probably used to this.
Menus and Navigation
The menu system on the T68 is generally the same as the one found in the T39 and R520, except for the main menu. Instead of presenting that menu as a list of options, it displays a series of 9 icons. All other menus are just the “old fashioned” list-of-words.
Menu response speed has been an issue on many Ericsson phones, and while the T68 still isn’t lightning fast, it does appear to be more responsive than earlier models. I would still have preferred the response speed to be a bit faster, as that would make the joystick/navigation experience much more fun. If you keep your speed down a little, the phone seems to work exactly as you expect.
The menus are generally well thought out, and secondary menus are reasonably abundant, though more could have been included in more places. For quick navigation to your most often used functions, the T68 includes a “My Shortcuts” menu where you can store oft-used functions. The first 10 you assign can be accessed using numeric shortcuts, but from the 11th onward, you are forced to manually select them from the menu (which seems to defeat the entire point of having a shortcut in the first place).
Setting up these shortcuts is not particularly well designed. Unlike the recent Motorola menu system, where shortcuts are defined by first going to the menu item you want to assign, and then pressing the menu key for a second, the Ericsson approach requires that you pick your shortcuts for a long list of function descriptions. If you don’t know what Ericsson calls the function you want, you’ll waste a lot of time searching through the list for it. Once assigned though, the feature works just as well as other designs (though only for the first 10 assignments, as noted above).
You can also make extensive use of the phone’s voice command feature, in which your shortcuts can be accessed without touching the keypad at all. This is accomplished by speaking a “magic word” that gets the phone’s attention, and they by making your request.
Data Handling and SMS
When it comes to connectivity, the T68 is among the best there is. Like its T39 and R520 stable mates, the T68 includes infrared, Bluetooth, and wired options. For those who aren’t familiar with Bluetooth, this is a relatively new wireless technology for connecting devices together in a local network. It allows the T68 to connect with a whole host of devices, including your laptop or PDA without the need of wires, or for having the phone pointing at the device (as would be necessary with infrared).
It provides multiple data options, including GPRS, and the standard circuit switched data. You can create Data Accounts, which are essentially like connectoids in Windows. They specify the type of data connection, as well as various logon requirements. You can choose any of your Data Accounts for various data functions.
Besides using the T68 as a wireless modem, the phone also includes the ability to work directly with POP3 and SMTP servers. This feature is also available on the T39. I wasn’t able to test it however, since I don’t have the necessary account options on my Fido number.
SMS handling is okay, but it suffers from the same limitations as other Ericsson models. The most obvious is a lack of message summary information. Only their reception date and sender appear in the list of SMS messages. If all of your messages tend to come from the same place (such as Me43), then there really isn’t an easy way of telling one message from another without reading them first. Other phones offer the ability to see first 10 to 16 characters of the SMS, which is usually all you need to identify what’s in it.
However, the high readability of the smaller font on the color display makes this one of the best phones for actually reading text messages on. Despite that, I wouldn’t buy this phone specifically for SMS, as there are many more phones on the market that deal with SMS much better than this.
To its credit however, the T68 does support EMS (Enhanced Message Service), which allows you to embed small graphic images and melodies into a message. When other people with EMS receive these messages, they see the graphics and they hear the melodies (along with the text). The T68 includes a crude graphics editor so that you can create your own imagines without the aid of a computer. It’s great fun, but I doubt most people will use it much after the novelty wears off.
As with almost all other Ericsson phones, the T68 included a wide assortment of ringers and built-in melodies. You can compose up to 10 user-define melodies using the built-in melody editor, though it is pretty much to be expected on an Ericsson phone.
Battery life is, as always with Ericsson, simply exceptional. More than any other GSM manufacturer, Ericsson seems to have discovered the secret of eternal battery power. Like the Energizer Bunny, the T68 just keeps going and going. I would have thought that the backlight necessary for the color display would be a killer, but apparently it isn’t.
Ericsson has now jumped onto the Profiles bandwagon, and they’ve done a terrific job of it. Each profile in the phone selects not only the ringtones and volumes of various features, it also selects the font size, backlighting option, who’s allowed to call you, and call forwarding. The latter means that you can set up a profile to automatically forward or unforward the phone.
The T68 also includes a really terrific Organizer feature, which seems to be well ahead of most of the competition. In its Calendar feature, it allows for all sorts of reminders to be stored, and each type is assigned its own colorful icon. The various monthly, weekly, and daily “views” are among the best I’ve seen, especially in color. Other organizer features include alarms, a timer, a stopwatch (accurate to 1/10th of a second), and a calculator. The alarm clock feature even works while the phone is turned off (just like Nokia).
Games are also abundant. There are 6 major game categories, and under Solitaire, there are 4 different games to choose from (though oddly not the traditional solitaire game we know so well from Windows). Color is a real boon to the appeal of the games, and most are reasonably well devised. They all make good use of the joystick.
RF Performance and Audio Quality
Audio quality on the T68 is quite good, but far from excellent. Tonal balance is a little on the tinny side, especially at higher volumes, but overall it sounds much better than many of the phones on the market today. It lacks any low-end that gives other phones their natural sound. Earpiece volume is excellent though, with plenty of overhead for softer-spoken callers, or noisy environments.
The worst aspect of the audio is an abundance of background noise. It’s hard to describe it, though Howard Chui chooses to refer to it as hiss. That’s a bit simplistic, but perhaps as close as we’re going to get. While this hiss is not particularly noticeable in noisy environments such as the local mall or in your car, it is very annoying in quiet environments. It conspires to ruin what is otherwise above-average audio.
Outgoing audio is reasonably nice too, with a leaning once again to the tinny side of things. The phone retains Ericsson’s legendary ability to blot out background noise while leaving very clear voice quality. This is especially useful when you are talking to people from very noisy environments.
RF performance is not bad considering that the phone doesn’t have a protruding antenna, but it isn’t quite the match for phones such as the Motorola P280. Having said that, it’s better than the performance of T39 or R520. Indoor testing revealed that the T68 could hold on to calls quite well in weak signal conditions, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the P280 at keeping those calls clean. Bit errors began to mar the audio much sooner than the P280 did. The phone also lost the signal earlier than the P280, but overall it held its own against most of the GSM phones I’ve tested.
Tests of the phone’s ability to retain the network and complete calls while sitting in my shirt pocket revealed that the phone was virtually impervious to interference by close proximity to a body. So long as you put the phone in your pocket with its front facing inward that is. If you put it the other way, you would interfere with the internal antenna. This is excellent news for a phone that begs to be placed in a shirt pocket due to its small size.
However, like the Nokia 3390 (and other phones with internal antennas) you have to very careful where you put your fingers during a call. You naturally want to put your index finger immediately opposite the earpiece to apply pressure to the phone (thus giving you a good “seal” against your ear). Unfortunately, this is the worst place you can put your finger on the T68. In low signal conditions, your finger can mean the difference between a perfectly good connection and no connection at all.
Network recovery after loosing service is relatively slow on this phone. Even after only a minute of so without a signal, or when displaying “SOS Calls Only”, the phone can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes to finally recover service. This can seem like an eternity, especially compared to Motorola phones that can recover service within seconds if set to “continuous network scan” mode.
Here is how I rate the T68 for various classes of users:
Heavy Duty Phone Users
Because of its only “average” RF performance and audio quality, and possible discomfort over prolonged usage, users who intend to use the phone mostly for making phone calls would be well advised to consider other offerings, particularly the Motorola P280. That isn’t to say that the T68 is a bad choice for this group, only that they can do so much better elsewhere for the things that matter to them the most. If other factors also apply, then the T68 has the potential of being at top of many lists.
For this group, the T68 is a dream-come-true. It supports all of the data connection standards presently available in GSM, it has all the cool ways to connect the phone to your devices (including Bluetooth), and it’s tiny to boot. While some may argue that the T39 offers all the same data functionality for less, the T68 is a clearly superior phone to the T39 in many ways. Since data users probably spend an inordinately high amount for service, they won’t mind the price of this model.
For the color display alone, the T68 should be high on any Gadget Nut’s list. Add to that all of the other features of the phone, including plenty of games, and you have a device that will keep this group amused for ages (at least until the next big thing comes along).
Tiny candy bar phones are all the rage, as Nokia has amply proven. Ericsson jumps into this ring with a reasonably good offering. I don’t honestly know what drives people to buy phones as a fashion statement, but the T68 seems to fit the bill.
Heavy SMS Users
Despite its other great features, the SMS capabilities of the T68 are still quite primitive compared to phones such as the Nokia 7190. For people who put a strong stake in SMS, they can do so much better elsewhere. Although EMS is a cool feature at first, I believe that it is primarily a novelty feature that won’t really go very far in day-to-day usage.
The price alone will probably scare most people away from this phone. Few general users will have the riches necessary to justify almost $900 for a T68. A color display may be nice, but it just isn’t worth it to people who consider their phone to be nothing more than an appliance. However, I rather doubt that anyone in this group actually reads reviews for expensive phones anyway.