Review of the Motorola P280

The Motorola P280 is the first GPRS phone to be released by Fido. It also happens to be a tri-band model that would be excellent for world travelers.

Last Updated: 29-Sep-2001

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

I wasn’t initially going to get one right away, but I heard such great things about it from an acquaintance that had one. I was going try his, but I decided to get my own copy, just in case it was a great phone. However, I had my doubts based on experiences with previous Motorola GSM phones, which you can find the reviews for here on my web page:


All of these phones had horrible menu systems, low earpiece volume, and a weird tendency to amplify the background noise on outgoing audio. After years of building GSM phones with these same flaws, I didn’t really expect anything different from Motorola. Boy was I in for a surprise.

Menu System and General

While much is familiar, such as the battery-behind-a-cover, and the overall signature appearance of the phone, a lot has changed. For starters, Motorola must have sent their programmers on a crash course, because the menu system in the P280 is light years more advanced than anything they’ve done before. Now before we get carried away though, I should note that they still have to improve their design before it can rival the menus of a Nokia phone.

That said however, the P280 has one unique feature that makes it almost a joy to use. You can assign virtually any menu or sub-menu item in the phone to a 1- or 2-digit numeric shortcut. So while Nokia phones might have fixed numeric shortcuts, they are sometimes 3, 4, or even 5 digits long. In recent Nokia designs such as the 7190, the numeric menus aren’t properly implemented, and they only apply to about 50% of the menus in the phone.

Secondary menus are abundant, but they don’t contain quite as many options as you’ll typically find on a Nokia phone. It’s somewhat better than the Ericsson R520 and T39 in this regard, but not incredibly so. Nokia still wins in this department.

And customization doesn’t stop there. You can assign any of the top-level menu items to the two soft keys during idle mode. I have my left key assigned to the Datebook, and the right key assigned to the Phonebook. If that’s not your cup of tea, then you can change it. As for the main menu itself, you can even change the order of the menu items so that the ones you access the most can appear at the top (or the bottom, since that’s easy to get to as well), while the least used ones can be dumped in the middle.

A four-way “joystick” allows for easy menu navigation, though I felt that the engineers underutilized the left and right movements. Those left and right movements are used mostly for stepping through options, but you can also see a “dropdown” list of option to select from them in a more traditional manner.

The phone supports two font sizes, which can be easily changed with only two keystrokes. The larger font provides 4 lines of text, while the small font provides 6 lines of text. I personally found the small font a bit too small, but it was very legible, and reasonably handsome. It was handy for use in the microbrowser.

Continuing on the customization front, Motorola has also implemented something very similar to Nokia’s Profiles. There are 5 profiles you can choose from, and each one allows you to set ringer volume and type, as well as keypad volume. One very nice feature is the ability to independently assign the incoming call ringer, the incoming SMS ringer, the Datebook alarm, and the message waiting alarm to any of the ringtones provided by the phone. With Nokia, you can only assign the incoming call ringer to a ring tone, while everything else gets a severely limited selection of beeps.

The phone provides a wide array of musical and traditional ring tones, and it provides 32 slots for user-defined ring tones, which are entered from the keypad in a manner very similar to Ericsson. I used the tone editor to create my own high-volume beep alerts for incoming SMS and for my Datebook alarms. With only a small amount of mental conversion, you could easily enter a ringtone designed for an Ericsson phone. There are plenty of them out there.

Changing from one profile to another does take a few more keystrokes than with a typical Nokia phone, but if you assign an appropriate numeric shortcut, it isn’t really that bad. Once you get used to it, it’s actually quite easy. If all you need to do is change the ringer volume though, you can easily do that by merely pressing the volume up or down keys while the phone is idling. However, the phone insists upon playing you a "sample" of the ringer as you select each level.

Keypad feel is excellent, though I wouldn’t have minded having the keys a little softer. Still, they provide good feedback, and they rarely misbehaved on me. Unlike other recent Motorola designs, you can actually set the keypad volume separate of the earpiece volume. I don’t know what came over the engineer who designed that chestnut in the L series and V2282. Thank god they’ve fixed it. The only caveat is the 5 key, which unlike the rest, it recessed. I would have preferred that the 5 be like the other keys.

I didn’t try running the battery down to see how long it would last, but my overall impression of battery life was very positive. It took a solid day of messing around with the phone and making phone calls to finally get the battery meter to drop from 4-bars to 3-bars. Assuming a reasonably linear battery meter, that should translate to well in excess of 4 days of pure standby.

Speaking of battery life, you can choose to turn the backlight off all the time, or you can choose to turn it on all the time. There is also a selection of on times that you can pick from. It is a common complaint that Nokia phones don’t allow that backlight to be turned off to save battery power.

In terms of size, the P280 isn’t much smaller than the Nokia 6190 with a 900 mAh Lithium-Ion battery attached. However, it tips the scales at only 3.6 ounces, compared to 4.7 ounces for the 6190. It also feels much smaller when you hold it to your face. The casing is made of silver-painted plastic, which is common for most Motorola phones carrying the Timeport designation. It’s impossible to tell how well that material will hold up over time.

Another refreshing change over the Motorola GSM phones I’ve tested previously is a flat earpiece area. It’s way more comfortable against my ear than any of those other Motorola phones (which usually had an annoying ridge along the top), and it has a fairly generous “sweet spot”. That means you’ll have little trouble finding a spot that provides maximum volume. One of the big problems with the Nokia 7190 is its incredibly small sweet spot.

Sound Quality and RF Performance

When it comes to sound quality, the P280 is just incredible. Its tonal balance is near perfect, and it reproduces every nuance of your caller’s voice with a clarity I’ve not heard in any other phone I’ve tested. It also has virtually no background noise, and the usual background rustle you get from the network is also tamed extremely well. I could only detect the slightest of transmitter buzz, and that occurred only in a quiet room with a softly spoken caller.

Earpiece volume is also very good, and greatly improved over previous Motorola GSM models. It rivals, and slightly betters, the volume you get from a Nokia 5190/6190/7190 under anything but noisy conditions. When the volume-boost feature of the Nokia phones kicks in, they are louder, but no so much so that it really makes much of a difference.

But sound quality alone wouldn’t be such a strong selling point if it weren’t also mated to great RF performance. The problem with the Mitsubishi G310, which also has really good audio quality, is that it has questionable RF performance and handoff handling. I’m pleased to report that P280 has excellent RF characteristics. It holds on to the Fido signal until there’s nothing left, and it holds it own under weak signal conditions. Even when the signals are approaching rock bottom, the audio remains remarkably solid.

RF sensitivity is virtually the same as the Nokia 7190. When I tested the P280 against the 7190 along Bancroft Drive in Mississauga, the 7190 held up a bit better, and the P280 dropped the call once. However, the differences are very slight, and I rather doubt it will matter much in the real world.

Handoffs are handled very graciously by blanking the audio. But what makes the Motorola approach better than the Siemens S40 (which I griped about in my review)? Unlike the S40, the P280 blanks for very short periods of time, and quite often those blanks are hardly detected by your brain. The blanks on the S40 are excruciatingly long, and as such they are annoying.

Network recovery has always been a strong point of all Motorola GSM phones. Like its predecessors, the P280 has a menu option for selecting the way the phone scans for the network once it loses the signal. You can choose, slow, medium, fast, or continuous. In continuous mode, you can regain the Fido network within SECONDS of coming out of a no-signal area. This even applies if the phone has locked onto the Rogers network in the meantime. It beats the pants off of any other make of GSM phone I’ve tested under those circumstances.


The phone supports voice dialing, and voice commands. The voice-dialing feature is pretty much what you’d expect, so I can’t really say much about that. However, the voice-commands feature was of dubious value, especially in light of the user-define numeric shortcuts. To use the voice-command feature you have to first press the menu button on the front of the phone, and then the voice dial button on the side of the phone. Since you can assign two-keystroke numeric shortcuts, what’s the point of pressing two keys just to say the name of the command you want? I guess they weren’t thinking when they designed that one.

They were thinking when they designed the voice recorder though. It can be used to record your own dictations outside of a phone call, or it can be used to record a phone conversation. Unlike other phones I’ve tried with voice recorders, it actually records both sides of the conversation. You can also erase voice recordings independently of one another; whereas on other phones I’ve tried (notably the Ericsson R520 and T39m), you must delete all of them at once.

The P280 supports an FM radio, but unlike the V2282 it is not built into the phone. You must buy a headset that has the radio functionality built into it. The phone interfaces with this radio through the connector at the bottom, and so it appears as though the radio is in the phone itself. This is rather deceiving, and I didn't know about it myself at first.

For data access, the phone supports GPRS. You can use GPRS for connecting your laptop or palm device to the Internet, or you can use the micro browser on the phone in GPRS mode. In fact, Fido plans to support this type of browsing with the introduction of a pay-per-use GPRS package. The P280 supports IR, serial, and USB connections to your computer. However, it does not support Bluetooth, as does the Ericsson R520 and T39.

The phone also has a WAP browser, which happens to be written by Many people consider their WAP browser to be better than any of the others on the market. I couldn't honestly say that it made much difference when I compared the WAP experience on the P280 against the WAP experience on the 7190. The P280 allows you to use WAP over a GPRS connection, and it would seem that Fido has already anticipated this by offering a pay-per-use GPRS package.

I have also heard rumors that there are bugs in the GPRS firmware and software (for the computer end of the connection). I could not verify this, so take it with a grain of salt.

What's Not So Good

By now, you’ve probably got the impression that I think the P280 is the best thing since sliced bread, but it does have a host of weaknesses and software bugs. We’ll begin with the Phonebook, which isn’t really all that great compared to other phones coming on the market now. Although the phone will store up 500 names and numbers, the utility of this Phonebook is rather limited.

It is not a hierarchical structure as we find on the 7190 or even the CDMA Timeport. It looks as though it supports multiple numbers per name, but all it really does is create a duplicate entry with a different icon. Given that, I’d rather uniquely name those entries myself, such as “Steve (Fido)”, “Steve (Home)”, “Steve (Work)”, etc. You can still apply an icon, even to independent entries.

You can’t tell the phone to hide the entries in the SIM, so if you copy a SIM entry into the phone to take advantage of the slightly longer name field, the type icon, or voice dialing, then you end up with two entries in your Phonebook. There also appears to be a bug concerning SIM entries with phone numbers longer than 20 digits. Even though the SIM has stored those longer numbers, they don’t “load” into the P280 correctly. You can fix them once they've been copied to the phone's memory, but you should be aware of this bug.

The phone also has a tendency to reset when transmitting DTMF tones. This occurs when you are hand-entering them, and especially when the phone is sending them automatically. I found that putting two pause characters ahead of the DTMF digits helped immensely, but it didn't cure the problem completely. Motorola definitely needs to fix this.

The phone book does not support any text data other than the name. That means no street addresses, and no e-mail addresses. I didn’t find this a great hardship myself, but others might rely on such information in their Phonebooks. As for sending e-mail, I prefer to do so through a good quality gateway such as eXcell or Me43, where I can create shortcuts for my most commonly used e-mail addresses anyway.

The phone supports Predictive Text Input, but not T9. It instead supports Motorola’s own iTAP technology. This wouldn’t be so bad if the P280 also supported a user dictionary, but it doesn’t. If the word you want isn’t in the dictionary, you have to enter it manually (each and every time). Having said that though, iTAP is certainly better than no predictive text input at all, and it’s available at virtually all the text input prompts on the phone (unlike the T9 implementations in Nokia phones for example).

SMS handling was so-so, but it manages to avoid my usual “primitive” label (just barely) due to a number of innovative features. Message entry is handled through a two-field “New Message” screen. While this seems odd at first, it really does seem to make a lot of sense once you use it a bit.

The inbox shows the first 10 or 12 characters of each message, rather than a pointless list of dates and times, or recipient phone numbers. The 7190 does this so long as the person sending the message isn’t in your phone book. Once you start reading messages, you can use the joystick to jump through each message without returning to the inbox menu first. Those two facets alone avoid the “primitive” designation.

It doesn’t support user-defined mailboxes like the 7190, but no other phone does that anyway. However, unfinished messages can be stored in a “Drafts” folder, where they can be edited and/or sent at a later date. The folder even remembers the phone number you were going to send it to. Messages that are sent are automatically copied into the outbox, where they can be re-sent with just a couple of keystrokes. However, you can’t edit the text of a message once its in the outbox, which was a huge disappointment.

For adding your own pre-written text to a message, the P280 supports a feature they call Quick Notes. The manual says that to send a Quick Note, you select it from the list of available Quick Notes, and then you select Send from the popup menu for the folder. However, that does not work, and at first I thought the entire concept was broken. Fortunately, there appears to be another way to insert Quick Notes into a message, and you may do so repeatedly in the same message.

Finally, the P280 includes three relatively lackluster games. One of them is nothing more than a poor excuse for Pong, though the Blackjack and a Mastermind variant (called MindBlaster) are okay. For pure gaming fun though, I don’t personally believe you can beat Nokia’s Snake or Othello variant called Opposite (available on the 7190). The 7190 even supports two-player Snake using the IR port. No such feature could be found on the P280.


Here is how I rate the P280 for various classes of users:

Heavy Duty Phone Users

This group should find the P280 a must-have phone. It’s delightful audio qualities and excellent RF characteristics make it a joy to use as a phone, even for prolonged periods of time. It’s comfortable against the face, and it provides great battery life. While $550 is a little steep, anyone who values these attributes of a phone should have no trouble shelling out that kind of money. The P280 demonstrates that not all cell phone manufacturers ignore the core functionality of their designs.

Data Users

Given the general lack of GPRS phones on the market right now, and the fact that Fido supported no other official GPRS phones at the time of this writing, I’d have to say that P280 is a good fit for this group. This is especially true if they are also heavy-duty phone users too.

Gadget Nuts

While this phone has some nice features, I don’t believe it is stuffed with enough gadgets to really please this crowd. While it does have custom ring tones, it has no graphics features, no multi-part SMS, and minimal game support. There are plenty of other phones on the market that offer way more gadget fun for the buck.

Fashion Conscious

Although some Motorola designs are often sought-after for their fashion appeal, I don’t believe the P280 will count among them. I’ve heard some people refer to the phone as ugly, and while I can’t agree with that sentiment, I have to admit that I’ve seen a lot prettier phones out there. I don’t believe the P280 will rate very highly for those who value style over substance.

Heavy SMS Users

This is a bit of a toss up, but I’d have to give the P280 a thumbs-down for this group. The lackluster performance of the phone’s iTAP input method, and the inability to create folders and move messages around seamlessly make it far less desirable than models such as the Nokia 7190. However, compared to phones such as the R520 or T39, its actually not too bad.

General Public

The price alone will probably scare most people away from this phone. However, even if a general user could afford the price, they’re not really getting much bang for their buck (unless they place a high value on audio and RF quality). The average Joe-user would probably be much better off with one of Fido’s less expensive offerings such as the G310.