Boost Mobile's Motorola i730
I interupt this regularly scheduled Nokia love-fest for a review of a new mobile phone I just bought for work. It's a Motorola i730 for the NEXTEL network here in the U.S. and it's being sold by a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO like Virgin Mobile) called Boost Mobile. It's a pretty amazing bit of tech being sold at an incredible price: $230, no contract needed. There's actually so many things about this phone and the service to write about I don't know where to start.
Actually, let me start with what it doesn't have: It's an iDEN phone, not a GSM phone (though it takes a GSM-like SIM chip) and it doesn't have Bluetooth or a Camera. Normally these would be deal breakers for me (well, I won't actually using this phone, so I guess they still are), but there's a *ton* more to play with you almost don't notice.
Let's look at the feature list of this phone and examine them one by one:
- iDEN (800Mhz)
- Push-To-Talk ($1 a day for unlimited usage)
- Integrated Prepay
- Web Browser (20 cents a day for unlimited usage)
- Text Messaging (10 cents per message)
- J2ME MIDP 2.0 + a million JSRs and other API
- Assisted GPS
- Integrated Downloads App
- USB Support
First, I'm sure you're asking "what the heck is iDEN" as I did. It stands for "Integrated Digital Enhanced Network" and I did a quick Google look up and found out it's a proprietary variation of TDMA technology (like GSM) created by NEXTEL and Motorola. It operates on 800Mhz, so it supposedly has a European-like quality associated with it (lower frequencies travel through walls better, for example). Moto does have some iDEN/GSM world phones, but for the most part the phones are limited to the U.S. market.
The one thing that iDEN is known for is the time it takes to connect to another phone allowing near-instant Push To Talk functionality. Think about the time it takes after you dial in a number and click "call" on a normal GSM or CDMA cell phone. That connect time is usually around 6 seconds or so for me. On NEXTEL networks, it's less than a second. The i730 comes with a walkie-talkie like button on the side which I can press to talk to another NEXTEL/Boost Mobile subscriber instantly. This sort of thing has been around for a while, but mostly for enterprise customers, so you'd see roaming support-techs and mail couriers with NEXTEL phones strapped to their body and that distinctive "chirp-brrdilaBEEP!" as they talked on the hands-free. Actually, I remember the first time I saw one in action years ago, I thought it was a normal walkie-talkie. What Boost Mobile has done is extend that functionality to the consumer market with the hip slogan "Where you at?" They're all about the urban teen wandering around the city communicating with their homies via PTT. I think it actually works well, though if you think normal cellphone users in public places are annoying, you should try sitting in front of some dad talking to his wife and kids on his PTT phone (as I did the other day). It gets old fast.
Boost has an innovative pricing model for PTT - $1 a day to use. That's pretty amazing if you think about how many "calls" you could make using the phone in a day. All of Boost's pricing is actually reasonable and clearly displayed on a card that comes with the phone. Personally, I think that's a revolution in pre-pay itself as I never had a *clue* what I was paying for talk time on my pre-pay on Movistar in Spain or AT&T Wireless here in the U.S. Look at these prices - especially the data plan - pretty amazing:
National Cellular Calls (including long distance and roaming): Flat Rate of just $0.25 a minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Boost Walkie-Talkie: $1.00 a day (unlimited usage within single market), $1.50 a day (unlimited usage nationwide).
Boost Mobile Voice Mail: $0.25 a minute.
Boost Wireless Web: $0.20 a day (unlimited usage) [wow!]
Text Messaging: $0.10 per message sent (free to receive)
Call Credit Validity Period: 90 days
I think the flat-rate data charge is pretty amazing - iDEN must have some sort of GPRS-like packet-data functionality because the i730's built-in UP 1.1 WAP browser is really fast. And though Boost hasn't made it super-easy to enter in your own URL, the "Boost Menu" is really fast and includes a "Web Search" with Google's WML gateway as the first option, which is very well done. If only Phone.com's WAP browser didn't suck so badly when it comes to usability: it never remembers entered information, there's no clear "back" function, etc. If all you want to use is the "menu" functionality (like Vodafone Live) then it works great, otherwise forget it. One very cool thing is that Boost has included an option in the WAP menu to recharge your phone's prepay account. That's particularly cool as I know from experience how frustating it is to run out of cash on your phone's account and not be near a phone store or ATM (in Spain) to recharge it.
I still don't understand American carriers and why they make pre-pay phones so hard to set up. You can't just buy a pre-pay and walk out and start talking on the damn phone (like you can in Europe). When I bought my T-Mobile pre-pay phone months ago, I had to jump through hoops in the store before it was enabled and Boost Mobile - because I bought it at Best Buy - made me go to boostmobile.com/activate and enter in, I kid you not, at least 50+ different numbers. The Activation PIN (510011005555555), the SIM card number (00080555555555), the IMEI number (000101555555550) and the phone's serial number (55555C55DY). And they *still* didn't activate the phone! I had to wait until the next day (today) between 7a.m. and 9p.m. Urgh! It's up and running now, but hey - I'm impatient guy.
The text messaging on the phone is a bit weird - you need to use the WAP menu in order to send and receive the messages! You do get the alerts of the message instantly and there is interop between AT&T Wireless and NEXTEL's networks (so it seems to be SMS of some sort) but it definitely seemed odd at first not having a dedicated app for the job. But after some thought, it seems a pretty great idea! First, it's just text, so a WAP interface is fine and, honestly, is very organized and just as quick to use as a dedicated app. If you're a new user of a phone, why should you go to one section of your phone's menu to send/receive messages and another for Web access? It should all be in the same place. I bet you that integrating this functionality into the WAP browser like this spurs data-services usage as well because it forces you to use the Menu system. This is where Nokia has really fallen down in their UI - separating out the "Services" menu from the text messaging, etc. is a real flaw in the famous Nokia UI on both the Series 40 and Series 60 platforms. "Services?" what the hell is that? Nokia just finally labeled their browser icon "Web" in my pre-release 7610... years after it should've been marked as such and promoted up higher. How many clicks in the S40 device do you need to make to find the Services menu? You get my point.
Speaking of S40 phones, the color screen on the i730 is very nice: 130x130 64k colors - just about the size of a Series 40 screen but with more colors, though somehow Moto seems to have been able to fit more on the screen. The Moto menus are relatively straight-forward to use (a massive leap ahead for Moto menu design) but still aren't particularly intuitive. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I still feel like I'm missing some options. You figure after all this time, Moto would be able to get their UI in line, but I guess not.
Here, I took a video of the phone in action:
So all this is pretty good - and the phone supports polyphonic ringtones and other goodies like flight-mode as well - but the main reason I bought the phone is for the integrated Assisted GPS and Java MIDP 2.0 + vast API support. Both are pretty amazing to have in a phone, but even more so in one so cheap and easy to get your hands on. Check out the Java specs on this phone (from Motorola's iDEN developer page):
MIDP 2.0 (JSR 118),
Mobile Media (JSR 135),
WMA (JSR 120),
Motorola LWT, Look And Feel,
Call Receive and Initiation,
Java Menu MIDlet icon,
Secure file connection,
Heap Size: 1.15 MB
Midlet Storage: >2MB (installed MIDlet space), >2MB (file storage)
Recommended Midlet Max Size: 500K
That's the most amazing access to the hardware I've ever seen for a MIDP device and the most storage for a non-smart phone that I've seen. I can't want to grab the SDK and start playing with all that functionality. I hope it's not a mistake (notice the "Digital camera" option in the list above). Seriously, this has to be the most advanced Java phone on the market right now... and it's available as a $250 pre-pay phone?!?! Incredible. If all that functionality works, and other manufacturers take note and include this type of access to their hardware, I will officially stop bitching about MIDP forever. Promise.
The last thing is the integrated GPS app. I couldn't get it to work in my first floor apartment, nor hanging out the window. I finally went to the roof of my building (believe it or not) and did the search and it finally worked. It took about 30 seconds to find my position, here's what the screen says:
7:45pm GMT 4/4
N 37Â° 48.143'
W 122Â° 26.480'
Est Accur: 52ft
Sats Used: 6
Wow! For someone who works at a Location Based Services company, I actually have never played with a GPS device before. I have to say how incredibly cool it is to think that the phone in my hand is talking to orbiting satellites and finding my exact position (within a few yards/meters) on the Earth. Cool beans. What's even *cooler* is that I can get to this info from within Java. Now that is going to fun to play with.
So my final thoughts is that I'm really impressed with Motorola's efforts lately. You can look at the variety of phones they've been producing lately as a desperate "throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks" strategy, or as an attempt to regain some of the stature they once held as a technology company. They've got 3G phones, the most advanced Java phones, Symbian phones, Linux phones and Windows Mobile phones. All very interesting technologies. My heart is definitely solidly in the Series 60 camp - I can't imagine making a limited Motorola V600 my main phone after experiencing the power of a smart phone, but still, if you're thinking about services to offer consumers, all those Moto phones are really going to provide a great platform for development.
Cool stuff. Great to see neat tech from Moto and an innovative company like Boost produce a really neat product and service like this. It bodes well for the industry as a whole.