Review of the Motorola i85 / i55sr

The i85 is one of a new breed of iDEN phones from Motorola. It finally moves the iDEN equipment out of the Stone Age, and endows it with menus and features that are right at home on most modern PCS phones. Yet it retains all the features that iDEN users have come to love. In other words, itís the best of both worlds, and itís a top-notch performer to boot.

Last Updated: 24-Oct-2001

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

For those who arenít really sure what iDEN is, itís the technology used in Canada by Telus Mike, and in the US by Nextel (and by two other regional carriers, one in Georgia, and the other in California). It combines PCS phone features, with the walkie-talkie-like ďDirect ConnectĒ feature of a dispatch radio. Motorola has always had an exclusive on the iDEN market, and so there are no other makes of iDEN phones in North America. That meant (until now) that you either liked Motorolaís frumpy user interface, or you went elsewhere.

Note also that the i55sr is electronically identical to the i85, but it is the ruggedized version of the phone. Some may find it a little too bulky (or ugly), but at least you can buy it for the same price. Although this review refers strictly to the i85 by name, anything to do with reception, audio quality, features, or battery life apply equally to the i55sr.

Like other very recent iDEN phones, the i85 uses a SIM. This stands for ďSubscriber Identify ModuleĒ, which is a small piece of plastic with contacts on the bottom. Not only does it provide your with your subscription information, it also stores your phonebook entries (up to 250 of them). If you move your SIM to a different iDEN phone, your subscription and phonebook follow you there. This is exactly the same concept used in GSM phones.

Menu System and General

The first thing you notice about the i85 is the new menu structure. Although it isnít identical to the menus found on the newest Motorola GSM and CDMA phones, it looks similar enough to be called a very close relative. Gone is the hideous user interface of the earlier iDEN phones, and in its place is a menu structure not unlike that found on Nokia phones. Secondary menus are abundant, but they donít contain quite as many options as youíll typically find on a Nokia phone.

It includes two ďsoft keysĒ (whose function changes, depending upon what you are doing at the time), and a four-way cursor key that allows for easy navigation of the phoneís menus. Like its GSM cousins the P280 and V66, and its CDMA cousins the V120 and V60, the i85 includes tons of customization features.

You can assign virtually any menu or sub-menu item in the phone to a 1- or 2-digit numeric shortcut (though the i85 stops you from using shortcuts higher than 20, which is odd). 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 arenít properly implemented, and they only apply to about 50% of the menus in the phone.

You can assign any of the top-level menu items to the two soft keys during idle mode. 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 thatís easy to get to as well), while the least used ones can be dumped in the middle. All in all, the menus are clean and well designed, and it goes a long way to bringing iDEN a wider market appeal.

Features

Physically, the phone is about the same size as a Nokia 6190/5190, but itís a bit bulkier. It has a large LCD display with a reflective backing, and a choice of three font sizes. In fact, the font size feature is better implemented than on the P280, which provides only 2 sizes. The large size is huge, and it makes the phone easy to read in a mobile environment, and yet it still provides 4 lines of text. The small font gives you an astonishing 7 lines of text, which makes surfing the net with the built-in phone.com microbrowser a joy. The standard font gives 5 lines of text, and it fairly handsome.

The display supports multiple gray levels per pixel, but the phoneís standard menus donít make use of this. However, the feature is available to Java applications that can be loaded into the phone (more on that later).

Despite its relatively small size, it still includes a built-in speaker for both Direct Connect, and as a speakerphone when using the unit in phone mode. Unlike the ridiculous attempt at providing a speakerphone in the Ericsson R520m, the one in the i85 is positively incredible. It produces globs of clean volume that make the feature usable in noisy environments.

I carried on a very comfortable speakerphone call while walking down the side of a busy street! At my house, I could hear the speaker clearly from upstairs when I left the phone sitting on the dining room table. When I demonstrated the speakerphone to someone (in a noisy Tim Hortons) by calling the Environment Canada weather recording (416-661-0123) they commented, ďitís like listening to a radioĒ.

Whatís even more amazing is that you canít even see the speaker. Itís hidden away behind the keypad, and it requires no speaker grill or extra opening. If you didnít know this phone had the feature, youíd never guess it by looking. It may be one of the phoneís single greatest assets.

The keypad itself is reasonably easy to use, but I found the keys a little stiff, and the four-way cursor key was much harder to use than the joystick concept found on the P280. Having said that, the keypad provided good user feedback, and I rarely had any trouble with it. I just wish it had a softer feel.

Life from the provided lithium ion battery is quite reasonable. Even when using the speakerphone feature (which no doubt uses much more power than just using it with the standard earpiece) allowed me to make 2 to 3 hours worth of tests, and I never actually ran the battery completely down in a single day. Standby times should easily be in the 3 to 5 day range. Oddly, other people who've tested the phone have been disappointed with the performance of the battery, and I don't have an explanation for that.

The phone even includes a useful little feature that helps conserve battery life while you are surfing the net with the microbrowser (or playing games). A photo sensor (located on the keypad just above the TALK button) determines when there is enough ambient light to disable the displayís backlighting. You can prove it works by holding a flashlight up to the sensor in a dark room, and then pressing keys.

Unfortunately, the iDEN group didnít believe that ringtones are an important feature. Unlike the P280, it provides only a handful of standard ringtones, and there are no options for creating your own. The tone for receiving text messages is fixed, and it cannot be changed. Itís unfortunately that this area of the i85 didnít get the same modernization treatment as the other new Motorola models. However, the phone does have a very capable vibrator.

While it might not be so great in the ringtone department, it one-ups other Motorola phones in the Profiles department. The i85 calls them Styles, and unlike the other Motorola phones, you can actually create new ones, and name them whatever you want. The Style sets the font size, the backlighting duration, ringtones, volume settings, and auto-answer state.

Styles also allow you to define call filters that determine who can ring your phone and who can't, which is similar to the filtering offered on some Nokia phones. However, it doesn't just silence the ringer when a call is filtered-out, it forwards it immediately to the forward-on-busy number (which could be your voicemail, or another phone number). The caller can't really tell the difference between this and unconditional forwarding, but you get the added benefit of a list of all your callers. Filtering also extents to what other types of alerts are (and are not) allowed to bother you. This is a very well-executed feature that seems to cover most of the features you'd every want from it.

The phone supports voice dialing, and voice commands. The voice-dialing feature is pretty much what youíd expect, so I canít really say much about that. However, the voice-commands feature was of dubious value, especially in light of the user-defined numeric shortcuts. To use the voice-command feature you have to press and hold a button on the side of the phone, and then speak the command. Since you can assign two-keystroke numeric shortcuts, whatís the point of pressing a button for a period of time and the saying a word? Why not just press two buttons and be done with it?

The phone can record voice notes (just like the P280), but doing so is markedly more difficult. Whereas the P280 has a button on the side for activating the voice recorder, the i85 does not. You must scroll to an appropriate menu item and select the correct soft key. This can be very difficult if you want to record a bit of an incoming call. To its credit though, the i85 stores about 5 minutes of voice vs only 1 minute on the P280.

The Phonebook was very similar to the one in P280, but with a few minor differences. The P280 stores multiple phone numbers as completely separate entries with the same name. This can be annoying, since it clutters up your Phonebook list. The i85 combines each entry into a single name in the Phonebook summary list, making it less cluttered. It therefore simulates a hierarchical phonebook better than the P280. However, like the P280, it does not support any text fields, such as an e-mail address or a street address.

The phone supports T9 Predictive Text Input, which is surprising, since other Motorola phones go with their own proprietary technology called iTAP. The phone doesnít support outgoing SMS, but T9 is available in the browser, and at virtually every other text input prompt. It supports a user dictionary, so you can add new words and names to it.

The i85 provides that same Datebook feature as the P280. You can set up a calendar of events, complete with audible reminders. Like the P280 however, the graphical display in the ďweek viewĒ shows usage bars that cover only a 12-hour period in the day. I found it perplexing that Motorola didnít provide a 24-hour version of the display, even optionally. At least you can specify when in the day that 12-hour period begins.

However, the i85 offers one additional Datebook feature not found in the P280. You can choose to have one of your Styles automatically take effect for the duration of the event, thus ensuring that you don't accidentally leave the phone in a "loud" mode during a meeting.

The i85 is among the first phones on the market to include JAVA. This means that Java applets can be uploaded to the phone to give it almost limitless functionality. Within the limits of the memory in the phone, you can upload multiple Java applets that provide various features. The phone comes with an excellent calculator applet, a memo applet, and a Sega game called borkovBASIC. I couldnít find any new applets on the Telus web page, but there are supposed to be some coming soon, so there may be no limit to what you can do with this feature.

SMS support is limited to incoming messages only. While the iDEN standard does appear to support outgoing SMS, the feature is not supported on Telus Mike. For those interested merely in receiving messages, the phone handles that task fairly well, but not much differently from the P280. This is not really one of the phoneís stronger points.

While much of the interest in data seems to surround the recent release of GPRS on GSM networks, iDEN has supported its own Packet Data technology for some time now. Telus has it on their network, but they donít officially say so. Despite that, it works here in Canada, and you can use it for the microbrowser and for PC data connections. Packet Data differs from Circuit Switched Data in that you are always connected, and you pay only for the bytes you send and receive.

My tests of Packet Data revealed a sustainable throughput rate of 14 kilobits (vs approximately 35 to 45 kilobits for GPRS on Fido using a P280). However, the speed limit is apparently imposed by Telus and not by the technology. Out in Durham Region (east of Toronto) all of the available channel bandwidth is allowed for a single Packet Data connection, and speeds there rival those I've observed on GPRS. This is apparently done to accommodate the Durham Regional Police, who use Mike exclusively for their communications. However, it proves that high speeds are attainable network-wide once Telus begins official support of Packet Data.

The phone supports a "Recent Calls" list that shows you all of the dialed, received, and missed calls, up to a total of 20. Unlike some of the other recent Motorola phones however, it does not use up a new position in the list each time you phone the same number, or receive a call from the same number. A single phone number takes up only one place in the list. However, this means that you'll only be able to look at the history of the very last call from/to that number. It also fails to store entries for numbers that are received from callers with blocked CID.

Sound Quality and RF Performance

But what about the audio performance of this phone? One of my biggest complaints about any other iDEN phones that Iíve tested is that the audio always sounded raspy and crude. I never liked it very much, and I always rated the sound of iDEN below that of the Rogers IS-136 network. Not so with the i85. The sound quality is absolutely incredible compared to what Iíd heard before. Gone was the raspy sound, and in most instances, it sounded damned good.

Donít get me wrong here, it doesnít quite match the gorgeous audio that emits from the earpiece of the P280, but itís such a great improvement over iDEN phones of yore that it should please all but the most discerning listeners. Outgoing audio is equally improved, and the phone handles background noise exceedingly well (even in speakerphone mode). The earpiece produces plenty of volume, as does the speakerphone.

However, I didnít find that the tonal balance on the earpiece was as good as it could get, since I found the sound a bit peaky on some voices. However, most voices sounded very smooth and well-balanced. Overall, I would give the audio at least a 7 or 8 out of 10.

I had no other iDEN phones to compare RF performance against. However, the phone seems to squeeze every possible bit of goodness out of the available signals, and I rarely had a problem with it anywhere I travelled around the GTA. Throughout my hours of testing, I never once dropped a call, except when I deliberately dragged it into an area where the signals faded from existence. From messages Iíve been reading from other i85 owners, it seems that the phone is a marked improvement over older iDEN models (RF- and audio-wise). According to some comments, the improvements are vast. Sorry I cannot verify this.

Handoffs on iDEN are extremely short, and so they produce only the tiniest of breaks in the audio. Even when you are hit with multiple handoffs in a row (referred to as Thrashing) the audio isnít markedly affected. I carried on very long conversations covering long stretches of highway without really noticing handoffs at all. That made it much better than my typical experience on Fido, where handoffs are often noticeable during long mobile conversations.

Indoor coverage was a bit of a mixed bag, but thatís always a matter of precisely where one needs it. In my specific instance, it failed more often than Fido did. For others, that might be the reverse. Besides, that wasnít really the phoneís fault anyway. It was a matter of site placement. A recent flurry of site construction in the GTA should ensure than Mike has coverage there that rivals anything from its competitors.

I did find that putting the phone in a shirt pocket was never a good idea in weak areas. Pocketing the phone caused it to lose a substantial amount of the signal, and this is especially bad when the antenna is down. I would recommend keeping the phone on a belt carrier when going into marginal signal areas. Other than that, the phone held onto signals under marginal conditions very well.

I tried the Direct Connect feature on a couple of occasions, and it works shockingly well. The sound quality is excellent through the speaker, and the microphone picks up the callers voice cleanly, even in noisy environments. A friend used Direct Connect to chat with me from the 401, and I couldn't really hear much car noise in the background.

I was actually so impressed with the performance of the i85 (and the Mike network) that I decided to buy my own i85 for prolonged testing. Iíll update this review over a period of time to reflect my long-term experiences with the i85.

Recommendations

Here is how I rate the i85 for various classes of users:

Heavy Duty Phone Users

This group should find the i85 an excellent choice, especially if they also need the Direct Connect feature. The phone has very good audio quality, excellent RF characteristics, an excellent speakerphone feature, and a logical menu structure. This should appeal to a wide range of discriminating phone users.

Data Users

Even though iDEN doesnít support data rates as high as GPRS, it does support Packet Data. Mike has actually had packet data longer than most networks (even if they donít officially support it), so their system should be relatively stable and bug-free. However, if you are looking for speeds higher than 19,200 baud, you might want to look at Fido or (soon) Rogers.

Gadget Nuts

This phone doesnít really boast a high number of gadgets, and doesnít really qualify as a gadget loverís phone-of-choice. However, the speakerphone, Direct Connect, and Java support might be enough to attract some from this group. This is especially true if the number of available Java applets increases over the coming months.

Fashion Conscious

This phone may be small and well designed, but it doesnít really have the kind of sex appeal necessary for this group. Itís a bit bulky-looking, and itís certainly larger than many of the fashionable phones such as the Nokia 8290 and 8260.

Heavy SMS Users

Incoming text messages are handled reasonably well, but Mike doesnít support outgoing text messages. This is likely to be a major stumbling block for this group.

General Public

Although the price is a little steep ($350 without a contract), I do believe that the average user might find plenty to love in this phone. Itís packed with lots of extras; it provides excellent overall service, and itís small enough to suit most peopleís demands. If you are willing to sign a 3-year contract though, you can get the phone for only $50 (under a current promotion, though normal 3-year contracts would reduce the price to $200).

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