- Lots of functionality
- well designed user interface
- bright, clear screen
- Expansion is via MMC rather than SD card
- SIM-free is expensive
- keys are awkwardly positioned for one-handed use
- only 4MB of on-board memory
Siemens’ SX1 was announced almost a year ago at the 3GSM World Congress in February 2003. At the time we expected to see it in the shops by summer. But summer came and went, as did autumn, and the SX1 failed to materialise. Now, almost a year after it was first mentioned, the SX1 is here, and Siemens at last has a phone with the Symbian operating system in its portfolio. Our first thought on receiving a review unit was that the SX1 -- which costs around £250 (inc. VAT) with a contract and £450 SIM-free -- may have lost ground on the competition during the hiatus between announcement and appearance. So has it?
Certainly the SX1’s hardware design has borne the year between announcement and retail availability remarkably well. ‘Squat’ springs to mind as an appropriate descriptor for the casing, the SX1 being slightly fatter and shorter than is the norm for ‘candy bar’-style phones. It’s not unpleasing to look at, though, and feels pretty comfortable in the hand. The wider than usual casing allows the most obvious visual feature of the SX1 to take centre stage -- the arrangement of the number keys in two vertical lines either side of the screen. This arrangement is, we suppose, intended to make it easier for texters to tap out messages. Certainly holding the phone in both hands and using both thumbs to tap the keys feels pretty ergonomic, and once we got used to the locations of the various number and letter combinations (an on-board ‘tap the numbers’ game can help with this), it was straightforward to use. But when working one-handed -- as it’s often more convenient to do when walking, or supporting yourself while standing on a train, for example -- reaching across the 55mm of width to get to the each column of keys may challenge anyone with smallish hands. Beneath the screen is a range of additional keys: two soft keys, start and end call keys, a key that takes you to a graphical presentation of the applications on the phone, a ‘shift’ key for use when working with lists and text, and a clear key. These are all relatively large, making them easy to find, while the small directional joystick is responsive. The sides of the casing are fairly free of clutter. An MMC card slot sits on the lower left side, and cards are inserted via a spring-loaded tray that has a securely fitted flip-over cover flush to the edge of the casing. This robust arrangement gives the hardware a high-quality feel. On the upper edge of the casing is an infrared port, while the right edge is home to a voice control button and the button that first wakes up and then activates the built-in camera. The camera’s lens sits on the back of the casing. Coloured an inoffensive grey with blue backlights for the buttons, the SX1 is visually quite appealing, and if you can live with the unusual number key arrangement, it’s fairly nice hardware to interact with.
The SX1 is a Symbian Series 60 phone, so there’s no shortage of features. On the telephony front, we have tri-band GSM and GPRS support, plus MMS, SMS and Smart Messaging. There are polyphonic ringtones by the bucketload, while an airplane mode switches off the radio features but allows you to use all the phone’s other features (all mobile phones that offer more than basic telephony should really offer this option). Bluetooth is built in, and you can use this, infrared or the provided USB cable to connect with a PC and synchronise Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes to the SX1. There is a rather handy Today view for the calendar that supplements month and week views. The SXI’s screen is far too small to deliver the kind of detail that handheld users are familiar with, but it does a fairly good job of showing the day’s diary. There is a Notes application, although the screen isn’t touch sensitive, so you’ll need to tap at the keys take notes, which is neither ergonomic nor fast. An added benefit of the Notes application is that it can be used to read text files -- we even saved an e-book to an MMC card as plain text and read it on the SX1. Entertainment is high on the agenda for this phone, and here the MP3 player, FM radio and digital camera come into their own. MP3 tunes are played to a pretty good quality, and output from the built-in speaker is impressively good. The radio won’t function unless the headset is connected, as this doubles as the antenna. You can save six frequencies as number-key-activated shortcuts. The camera captures stills at resolutions up to 640 by 480 and video up to 176 by 144 with sound. The quality is -- as ever with camera phones -- not up to the standard of a dedicated digital camera, but it’s perfectly OK for creating and sending MMS messages. Internet access is also supported, of course. POP3, IMAP4 and SMTP email are supported by the built-in client, and an xHTML browser is on hand too. However, we aren’t convinced about the utility of a phone like the SX1 for either extended Web or serious email use, as its 176-by- 220-pixel screen just can’t display enough information at once. Still, it’s nice to have both capabilities hand, and the 16-bit screen, although small, delivers excellent image quality. If you need software over and above the standard bundle, you can install third-party applications written for the Symbian operating system, or Java (J2ME) programs. The phone itself has 4MB of memory for applications and synchronised data -- ideally we’d prefer three or four times this amount on as well-featured a phone as the SX1. However, as already noted, you can boost the SX1’s storage capacity using MMC cards.
The SX1 has a wide range of on-board features, and as a Series 60 phone it can run a good variety of third-party software. The screen quality is superb, and Siemens has done a good job of providing sensible navigation routes within and between applications. Battery life is quoted at 4 hours’ talk time and 200 hours on standby; we found we could get by for a couple of days between charges, although heavy use of the SX1’s multimedia features will drain the battery quicker. Our overall impression of the SX1 is positive. We’ve waited almost a year to see it, and it has weathered the advances of other devices during that period very well indeed. It’s nice to see a Symbian Series 60 phone from a company other than Nokia, and Siemens has made a very good fist of the implementation. The screen's image quality -- vital for any feature-rich phone -- is superb, while the user interface is well thought-out. The hardware design should appeal to both business users and consumers, although those wanting to make extensive use of PIM, email and other productivity features may find the SX1’s screen too small. The unusual positioning of the number keys may not meet with universal approval either.