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Mke wy fr ROKR, the iTunes phone

Review: Combine Apple's digital music service with Motorola's mobile know-how and the result is the terrific new iTunes phone, the Rokr E1.
New ROKR cell phone which plays iTunes
A close-up of the Rokr, the world's first mobile phone with iTunes.Lou Dematteis / Reuters

This device has to be the most eagerly awaited piece of consumer electronics in memory. How could you go wrong?

Apple, the company that brought you the ultra cool iPod music player and Motorola, the company that brought you the ultra cool Razr cell phone have joined forces to bring you what some are calling the first iPod phone. Those involved don't call it that, and they have a point. What Apple, Motorola and Cingular (who will sell it exclusively in the U.S.) have announced is the first iTunes-enabled cell phone: the Rokr (as in rocker) E1.

The new handset isn’t all that new. The phone is really a Motorola E398 with a new button or two — plus, of course, Apple’s easy-to-use iTunes digital music software. 

The choice of the E398 is a good one. The quad-band (for U.S. and overseas use) phone is a great handset with all sorts of neat features, including an integrated VGA camera with flash for stills and video. The GSM/GPRS device measures 4.3 by 1.8 by 0.8 inches and weighs 3.17 ounces.

The Rokr has a nice-sized active color display (176 by 220 pixels) screen and something called 3D stereo sound via dual 22 KHz enhanced polyphonic speakers — whatever that means. Vibration and multi-colored flashing light modes let you create your very own disco experience, assuming you want to. There are also vibrating games, a WAP 2.0 browser, MMS and EMS messaging capabilities, Bluetooth wireless, PIM functionality with picture caller-ID and AOL instant message capability via Wireless Village Instant Messenger software.

But you don’t really want to know how great a phone this is — you want to know how it handles music. In a word or two: almost perfectly.

The iTunes screen on the phone looks just like the one on your iPod or mini. Only difference here is that when you're playing a tune, the main phone screen changes into an iTunes navigation device. You can control everything with the phone's four-way joystick device and your thumb.

Apple's software is easy to figure out and to use. For the millions of people already using iTunes for their iPods all they’ll have to do is plug in their Rokr phone (you must be using the latest version of iTunes, however) and transfer their tunes. Flawless.

It will be a little more painful for someone without a ready-made playlist. The Rokr gets its music from a Macintosh or PC computer via a connector cord, not from connecting to the iTunes online store or via Bluetooth. A Motorola spokesman reminded me that this is a first-generation device. I hope their second-generation handset includes wireless access.

As for the transfer itself, the Rokr comes with a white cord to attach the phone to your computer. It has an old-fashioned Motorola connector on the phone end and a USB connector on the computer end. I believe USB plugs on both ends should be standard on all cell phones and phone battery chargers.

iTunes allows the Rokr to hold a maximum of 100 songs.  My 100 songs take up 383 MB on a memory card.  The memory system is handled by a teeny, tiny TransFlash memory card.  I told you about these pinky nail-sized memory chips when I reviewed Motorola’s A780 smart phone. Apple says most of the phones will come with 512MB cards, enough to hold your 100 songs.  My friends at SanDisk, the company that makes these cards, plan a 1GB card at the end of the year.  I'm not sure iTunes will allow you to store more songs on a larger memory card.

The rechargeable battery is said to be good for up to 560 minutes of talk time, 230 hours of standby time and 100 hours of music listening through headphones. Figure on less battery reserves when listening to music through the internal speakers.

A combination stereo/Bluetooth headset comes with the phone, although the stereo earphones themselves won't work unless they're plugged directly into the Rokr. (That's so the music you put on the phone stays on the phone, and isn't broadcast to other Bluetooth devices.) Motorola also provides a headphone adapter which allows you to use better sounding headphones or speakers if you prefer, but you don't really need to.

Music sounds wonderful on the Rokr. Whether listening to the built-in stereo speakers or through the headset, the quality was great. You're going to want to ditch the headset when making a call, however. While a mobile call made the old-fashioned way (holding phone to ear) sounded fine, when my editor called me while I had on the headset, the sound quality was so bad we couldn't understand each other.

The only other fault I could find was the download time. I’m guessing that the connector cord they give you transfers music at USB 1 speeds. That means don’t expect USB 2 or FireWire speed. Transferring my 100 songs took me more than an hour to complete.

Cingular is the only cellular company selling the Rokr E1. They’re asking $249.99 with a two-year commitment. I think this is an amazing price for what is essentially a modern world phone with a built-in iPod Shuffle.

All in all, the Rokr is well-designed (what would you expect with Apple involved), a terrific cell phone and a wonderful music device. It’s highly recommended. I’d just like to know why they named it after my friend, weatherman AL ROKR.