Review of the Motorola i580


The i580 is a rare combination in the phone world. Itís a ruggedized (mil-spec) phone that also has consumer-friendly multimedia capabilities such as 1.3 megapixel camera, an MP3 player, and a gorgeous TFT display. Itís a bit bulky by some peopleís standards, but it feels rock-solid and gives you the impression it could withstand being tossed off the CN Tower. There are plenty of multimedia phones out there that offer similar (or even better) features than the i580, but they couldnít hold a candle to it for ruggedness.

 

This phone is available through Telus Mike

Last Updated: 03-Aug-2006

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

Before we begin this review however, I should note that the i580 is essentially the sister phone of the i870. There are minor differences between these two phones, but they really come down to only a handful of items. These things include:

- They both have a 176 x 220 TFT screen, but the one on the i870 is about 10% bigger.
- The i580 has dual front-facing speakers, whereas the i870 has a single rear-facing speaker.
- The i580 has a ruggedized casing, while the i870 as a traditional plastic casing.
- The i870 has MP3 controls on the outside, while the i580 does not.
- The i870 has a large color outside display, while the i580 has a 2-line monochrome display.
- The i580 includes the Motorola off-network Talk Around feature, whereas the i870 does not.
      (well, Talk Around is not mentioned in the literature for the i870, but I believe it can be activated)

Beyond these differences (and any I might have overlooked) the two phones are basically identical in terms of their implementation and feature set. Pretty much anything I have to say about the i580 applies to the i870, except where noted.

The i580 meets MILSPEC 810f, which defines a device's resistance to driven rain, dust, shock, & vibration. While the phone can still be seriously scratched or marred, it's probably very difficult to actually break it. The phone isn't waterproof, but the 810f spec ensures that it can be used in rain driven by winds up to 60 km/h. That means you can probably use the phone quite safely in your shower, or accidentally drop it in the toilet (so long as you don't allow it to remain submerged for too long).

The phone therefore feels as solid as a tank, which is a good thing. The plastic has a rubbery feel that makes it stay in your hands under conditions that might cause other phones to slip right out. The stickiness of that feel diminishes after a week or two, but it still remains grippier than standard smooth-plastic phones.

RF Performance

RF Sensitivity: I had an opportunity to test the RF of the i580 against that of its sister phone (the i870) and the reputedly-great i325. In this test I found a location where Mike service became extremely weak and test calls were placed on all 3 phones to see how well they held up. Even with SQE readings as low as an astounding 1 or 2 (which is an exceptionally poor signal quality) the i580 held its ground well. However, it wasnít detectably better than the i870 or the i325. Essentially it was a 3-way tie.

I also performed tests over at Square One to compare the RF sensitivity of the i580 against my older i730 and i833 models. I had expected to see a noticeable improvement, but to be quite honest I couldnít really see much difference at all. I walked all three phones down the hall that connects the main hall to the underground section that runs between Zellers and Sears. Service becomes very weak at the 90-degree bend closest to the underground section of the mall and in that area all 3 phones suffered from dropouts and problems in the same places and to about the same degree. If there was a difference, it was slight at best.

So my tests indicate that the RF sensitivity of the i580, i870, i325, i833, and i730 are all about the same, which supports what Iíve been saying for quite some time now. That is, all of the current iDEN phones have excellent RF sensitivity and thereís little difference between them. There are probably slight differences in states-of-tune from one example of a particular model to another, which may explain why a few people contend that the i325 has better RF than any other iDEN model.

Over-the-road Performance: I've always felt that the iDEN network provides some of the best over-the-road performance, and virtually all of the iDEN phones Iíve tested have been quite good at it. However, the i580 seems to take it a step further by improving on the already tame handoffs. Those handoffs are now SO TAME that they are barely detectable, even when you are listening for them deliberately.

The phone also also seems to handle low SQE (poor signal quality) slightly better than the previous generation of iDEN models and it is astounding how well it can hold a call together.

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

Audio Performance

Tonal Balance: I hadnít been expecting much from this aspect of the phone, other than ďmore of the sameĒ. Donít get me wrong; the tonal balance on most iDEN phones Iíve tested over the last few years, including my own i730 and i833 models, has been very acceptable, but hardly stellar. The phones were often lacking in low end, which robbed them of a rich sound found in some GSM and CDMA phones.

I was therefore quite surprised to hear that the tonal balance on the i580 is richer than anything Iíve ever experienced on an iDEN model before. Sometimes it sounds a tad bassy, but mostly it's a good mix of highs and lows that make it sound remarkably natural. It's much better than the i870, i730, i833, and i325.

When I used the earbud with the phone I found exactly the same thing. The tonal balance has always been good through earbuds on the previous models, but it was exceptional on the i580. In fact, it was so good through my Samsung earbud that it was hard to think of any other phone that sounded that good on a headset, period.

The good news extends to the speakerphone. Tonal balance there was better than on any iDEN phone Iíve tested since the i90 many years ago (and that includes the i870 and i325). Obviously the phone's somewhat large size pays off here, allowing Motorola to put in a good speaker (2 of them actually, but Iíll get to that later).

Sound Reproduction: Like tonal balance, sound reproduction on this phone was improved over older iDEN models, which is really quite surprising, because Motorola was already ringing some great sound quality out of their 8 kilobit CODEC. Sound quality isnít really much better than the i870, but the richer tonal balance makes one believe that it is.

When used through an earbud the sound quality is exceptional. Listening to callers on my Samsung earbud was an almost heavenly experience, as the overall quality and balance of the sound was astonishing. I never thought Iíd find a non-GSM phone that could match some of the better GSM models in this respect, but the i580 seems to pull it off. So yes, you heard that right. The i580 stands among best-sounding phones regardless of underlying technology.

One sound-related issue that does diminish my opinion of this phone a little is a rather noticeable amount of hiss when the volume is cranked to level 6 or 7 (which is sometimes necessary to hear faint callers). This hiss isn't really detectable when the source is loud or medium-loud, but it becomes rather bothersome when you need to listen more carefully to hear a faint caller. Oddly, this hiss isn't as noticeable through the earbud or the speaker. You also can't detect the hiss when the phone is used around even moderate background noise, and so it isn't really a big issue. Just the same, it's a black spot on an otherwise stellar audio section.

Outgoing sound quality is quite good, especially on the earbud surprisingly. The i580 doesnít seem to have the same stellar ability to cancel out background noise as the i730 and the i833, but it still does a great job. Nonetheless, I donít want to gush too much here, and so I must say that I would appreciate slightly improved outgoing quality. That said, your callers will have to be extremely picky to find fault with the way you sound when you talk with them on the i580.

Earpiece Volume: Earpiece loudness is important not only so you can hear your callers in a noisy environment, but also to compensate for a faint source. The i580 is at least a notch louder than the i833 and i730. The volume is about the same as that of the i870 and the i325. The earpiece copes exceptionally well with high volumes, and is detectably better than the i870 and i325. Volume through the earbud is amazing. It's at least 2 or 3 notches louder than on the i730 or the i833. Overall the i580 is among the loudest-and-cleanest phones you can buy.

Speakerphone: This is perhaps the BEST speakerphone on the market today. While it is no louder than the i870, and actually a little less loud than the i325, it makes up for it by providing excellent tonal balance and virtually no sympathetic vibrations that make other iDEN phones sound a bit distorted at high volumes. This includes the i325 and i870.

One bothersome issue that Motorola has finally fixed concerns the way in which they setup the speakerphone. All cellular speakerphone implementations, by nature, must be half-duplex because of the delay introduced by the CODEC. They must therefore blank out the microphone when your caller is speaking. The issue is how to best balance this so that you don't have problems with your caller being blanked out when you don't want them to be.

Previous iDEN models were biased toward the phone user, rather than the caller. This meant that the caller's audio was blanked easily by voices and noises that made it sound like the phone was cutting out for no apparent reason. The i580 has changed this bias toward your caller so that his or her voice is not blanked out unless you try really hard to talk over them. I personally find this approach (which is used on virtually all other phone models) to be far more natural.

The speakerphone just works so well that youíll have no problem using it in just about any circumstances (except exceptionally noisy areas of course). Outgoing audio in speakerphone mode is very good, but to be honest I feel it is a bit better on the i833. Just the same, the quality is good enough that you callers wonít know you arenít using a standard desk speakerphone on a landline.

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, and how to interpret it.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: Like all iDEN phones, the i580 has incredibly loud ringtones that can be heard over just about any amount of background noise. Even the MIDI and MP3 ringtones are louder than Iíd expected, but absolutely nothing can hold a candle to Ringer 3, which on all recent iDEN phones is a killer ringer thatís obviously designed to be heard over the noise at a construction site. However, as loud as they can be, the ringers on his phone can be tame and unimposing if needed.

Keypad Design: Itís easily one of the better designs Iíve seen on an iDEN phone in quite some time. Unlike the recessed designs of previous models, the keys on the i580 actually stick up (on their bottom edge at any rate). That makes it possible to feel them, and subsequently the keypad can be used without looking at it. The keys all have good tactile feel, but that feel is a bit stiff compared to say a Nokia phone. My only complaint was the 4-way cursor key, as I tended to press the camera button from time to time rather than the right cursor key. Aside from that, I have no complaints about the keypad, as it worked exceptionally well every time I used it.

Display: While many Motorola phones (iDEN and non-iDEN) use a 176 x 220 pixel TFT screen, the one on the i580 is physically a little smaller than on some other Motorola phones. However, despite being a bit smaller, it is of exceptional quality. The backlight is incredibly bright and the overall color clarity approaches that of a desktop LCD monitor. That bright backlight pays dividends when the phone is used outdoors, even in direct sunlight. I still feel that Motorolaís current menu system fails to make the best use of all that lovely screen real estate, but theyíve at least done a few things to spruce up the appearance of many of their standard display items.

The outer display is only a 2-line monochrome affair, but Motorola has wisely dumped the deep-blue backlight theyíd used on the i730 and the i833 in favor of a white-blue light thatís much easier to see. It also uses a bold font, rather than a difficult-to-see skinny font I had to put up with on the i730 and i833. All around, as monochrome outer displays go, the one on the i580 is excellent.

Voice Recorder: This is nothing new on iDEN phones (or on many other phones for that mater), but Motorola has improved the quality of the recorder, no doubt by increasing the bitrate due to the much larger available memory. You can even download voice notes from the phone so long as they werenít made in-call. I guess this is a concession made to the privacy advocates, but at least you can record BOTH SIDES of a conversation WITHOUT the nagging beeps that many other phones force upon you (or even worse, they donít allow in-call recordings at all, or they restrict them to only one side). You can even attach voice memos (not those made in-call) to email messages that can be sent directly from the phone via MMS.

As good as the quality of the voice recorder is for making voice notes, it's exceptional when making recordings in-call. You literally can't tell the difference between the recording and the original source. Your own voice sounds loud and of excellent quality during in-call recordings.

Icing on the Cake

These are features that I normally donít pay much attention to in my reviews, because they donít really make or break a phone in terms of its usefulness AS A PHONE. However, because Iím keeping the i580 I took a closer look at these features and I present to you here my opinions of them.

Camera: The i580 includes a 1.3 megapixel (1280 x 1024) camera that provides picture quality that is markedly better than a typical VGA camera (0.3 megapixel, which is 640 x 480), but don't expect anything close to the quality of a dedicated digital camera. The problem is most likely the quality of the tiny lens, which is a problem for most camera phones.

The camera on the i580 seems to be designed primarily for indoor use and it produces the best results when things are closer than approximate 10 to 20 meters. This doesn't meant that reasonable outdoor shots aren't possible, but you have to ensure that the lighting is relatively consistent and that there is a goodly amount of white in the shot. The camera offers no manual control over exposure, white balance, or focus.

The phone does include an LED "flash" that, when turned on, also increases the sensitivity of the image sensor. However, the sensitivity is already quite good, especially compared to Nokia's recent camera phones.

I have included a few sample photographs for you here so that you can see how good the picture quality CAN BE under the right conditions:

The food court at Square One (a little lacking in raw detail, but overall quite good)
The food court at Rockwood Mall (shows that lighting effects can sometimes work)
My parents at Mandarin Restaurant (it takes good pictures of people)
Square One outside of the Telus store (my first picture with the i580)
Nighttime shot outside of a Lick's (note the impressively low noise)
Stained glass window on a church (outdoor shots look good if the lighting is even)
Underground parking garage at Square One (makes it look light daylight down there)

MP3 Player: The MP3 player in the i580 is identical to the one provided in the i870. It's implemented as a Java applet that uses the ID3 tags in the MP3 files to sort and categorize your music by title, artist, album, and genre. You can also create customizable playlists, or select music from the database by any of the 4 categories I mentioned. The applet remains running when the phone is closed and the outer display shows the name of the song playing and a progress bar to show you how much of the song you've heard so far.

The i580 doesn't have external controls to pause, play, or skip songs (like the i870 does). However, you can still suspend the player using the stop key at the top of the phone, and then restart it using a combination of the two keys at the top. When a phone call comes in the player will automatically be suspended until the call ends, and then the music will pick up where it left off.

One interesting aspect of the MP3 player is how it sounds on the astoundingly good speakers in the i580, which makes it possible to listen to your music through those speakers at volume levels that will surprise you. Okay, so thereís no bass response to speak of, but you hardly expect that from tiny little speakers. However, overall the sound reproduction is much better than built-in speakers have any right to sound.

There are indeed 2 speakers in the i580, which you can prove to yourself by playing an MP3 that has some very distinct stereo effects in it. Lot of older songs from the late 60s and early 70s have effects that by todayís standards weíd think of as quaint and typical of a kid-with-a-new-toy. However, the type of song where the engineers bounce the sound from one channel to the other more than adequately demonstrates that the sound comes out of the two speakers IN STEREO and not in mono as would be the case with a single-speaker phone.

You can even listen to the songs played on the phoneís earpiece by just pressing the speaker button on the top of the phone. The sound quality of the earpiece in the phone is surprisingly good, and while youíd likely not listen to music played that way very often, itís a still not a bad way to let someone else listen to a song in a pinch.

Yes, playing music drains the battery, but not as quickly as being in a call. You can probably expect to use the MP3 player for about 3 or 4 hours straight and still have plenty of battery power to use the phone throughout the day, but overall the battery life on the i580 isnít particularly stellar.

Bluetooth: I never got a chance to try out the Bluetooth headset capabilities, but I must sadly report that the i580 does not support the high-fidelity (A2DP) stereo profile and it can only deliver a rather unimpressive 8 kilobit audio stream to the Bluetooth headset while you are listening to MP3 files. The phone does support file data transfers, but this is only an OBEX Push profile. You can send and receive files over Bluetooth, but the files types that are supported, and the maximum sizes allowed, limit this feature greatly. Other phones with full OBEX cannot explore your phone.

Memory Expansion: To support the memory-hungry MP3s and photographs, the i580 includes memory expansion via a MicroSD card (man, are those things SMALL). Iíve been told that it will support up to 2 GB, but for the time being I opted to be cheap and I bought a 256 MB card from Canada Computers for just $9.99. Because Motorola doesnít offer an easy way to access data in the phone via the USB or serial cables, the MicroSD provides a convenient way to put data into and out of the phone.

Talk-Around: The i580 supports Motorolaís off-network digital walkie-talkie system called Talk-Around. Apparently, despite being an extra that you have to pay $5 per month to activate on some Telus models, it comes activated on the i580. I had a chance to test it, courtesy of the i325 (which also supports the feature) and it worked exceptionally well. It provides generous speaker volume and excellent sound quality in the process. Oddly, Talk Around cannot be used on the earpiece, only on the speaker.

Voice Playback: This particular feature is a god-send for blind users, or for those whose eyesight is poor. This feature is even useful for those with perfectly good eyesight you need to do stuff with the phone while keeping their eyes on something else (like the road). When activated the phone uses a synthesized voice (you can choose a male or female voice) to announce each move you make through the menus and it can even speak the name of your caller. It synthesizes the name from your phonebook entry, or failing that it announces the phone number of the incoming call. When dialing numbers it speaks each digit as you enter it. If you press and hold the OK button (or the stop button on the top of the phone) it will tell you the time, date, number of new voicemails, battery condition, and signal level.

Conclusions

Iím impressed as hell with the i580, even completely ignoring the multimedia features. This is definitely the best iDEN phone to come out of Motorola in ages. Its ruggedized design means it will take a lot punishment without getting damaged, and its excellent audio volume and clarity make it one of the best-sounding phones around, period. The multimedia features are just icing on the cake of course, but they only enhance what is already a stellar phone.

Leading up to my purchase of the i580 Iíd been reading what other people had said and there seemed to be one common thread in virtually all of the messages. People were ecstatic about their i580s and they too felt that it was best iDEN phone theyíd ever owned. I have heard from the occasional person who ran into a lemon, but this is not unusual for ANY phone model.

One of the surprising aspects of the phone is its price. It sells for $350 without a contract on Telus Mike, which is hardly cheap, but it's $150 LESS than the i870, which is virtually identical in terms of features. Unless you canít stand the slightly bulkier look-and-feel of the phone due to its rugged housing, or you absolutely must have a color outer display or MP3 buttons on the front, you can save tons of money by opting for the i580 instead of the i870. As an added bonus, you also get superior sound quality on both the earpiece and the speakerphone.

The only performance-oriented fault I really found with the i580 was the rather high level of earpiece hiss. If it weren't for that, this would be a flat-out super phone. Maybe Motorola can fix that (while retaining all the other great aspects) in models to come. So, the hiss aside, I have found my i580 to be one of the best cellular phones I've ever owned. The other features it sports (multimedia capabilities) just make owning it all that more fun.

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