i-mate SP5m Smartphone

by PocketGoddess on July 11, 2006

I’ve been looking for a new phone for the last several months. I want something that is always connected, with a lot of power and features, but is smaller than the typical “brick” I’ve come to expect when smartphones are mentioned. I’ve been using a loaner i-mate SP5m for several weeks now and really like it, but I’m not sure I’m ready to take the plunge and buy one for myself. It’s a great phone with excellent features, but it also has a few negatives that I’m still weighing.

i-mate SP5m box contents

The SP5m comes with everything that you need to get started, including a Quick Start guide and instruction manual, a CD with ActiveSync and Microsoft Outlook 2002, a horizontal carrying case with a magnetic snap closure and belt clip, an AC adapter, USB sync cable, and a set of stereo earbuds that are silver in color to match the phone.

It’s a candy bar-style phone that measures 1.75 inches wide, 4.25 inches long, and about 0.75 inches thick. It feels very solid in the hand and is just weighty enough to feel durable, but not so weighty that it will drag down your pants pockets. The screen is a good size, measuring just under two inches long and 1.38 inches wide. It’s very clear and bright, and I have no problems reading it either indoors or out. Since this phone doesn’t have a touchscreen, it has plenty of extra buttons to help you navigate your way around.

On the front you’ll find four very small buttons just under the screen; the outer two are the hardware “soft keys” that work with onscreen menus, while the inner two provide a home button and a backspace button to help you correct text entry mistakes. The next row of keys provides dedicated access to Internet Explorer, plus three music playback control keys. Under that you’ll find the standard dial and disconnect buttons on each side, plus a small joystick. The joystick works rather well but is almost too responsive–it’s almost impossible to push the center in to select an application without moving the cursor either up or down. I’ve gotten better with practice, but I’m still having a bit of trouble with it.

The standard twelve key phone pad is at the bottom, and though the keys are relatively small they have very good tactile feedback and I haven’t had any problems with hitting the wrong key. The backlighting is exceptionally good, with glowing numbers. All of the keys light in some fashion or another when you press them, though of course you’ll see it only in a dark environment. The dial and disconnect buttons glow green and red, respectively, and the smaller function keys under the screen are all outlined. You won’t have any problems at all using this phone in a dark club, a dimly lit room, or outside at night. On the sides of the phone you’ll find the camera button, a volume rocker, and a shortcut button that takes you to the Comm Manager application (which controls the phone, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.).

i-mate SP5m, front

Of course you can have the smartest phone in the world, but that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t do what you need it to do, or if you find text entry to be so difficult it isn’t worth it. Thankfully I found the SP5m to be more than capable in just about every respect. When you first turn on the phone, you’re greeted with a Today screen that provides a lot of information. The typical phone status indicators are at the top of the screen, followed by a row of your five most-recently-used applications. Next is information about the service provider and WiFi status, then the the date and time. The first few appointments of the day are next, followed by the profile indicator (normal, silent, etc.) and then information about the number of text messages in your inbox. At the very bottom of the screen is the softkeys area that you use in combination with the two dedicated keys I’ve already mentioned. On the Today screen, you’ll see Start and Contacts at the bottom; when you’re using a particular application those soft keys will change accordingly.

To start an application, you can hit the left soft key to open the Start menu or you can use the joystick to highlight one of your most recently used apps and then press it in to start that app. If you’re in the Start menu, you can also use the phone keys to start an application, which is a wonderful feature. Since you can see nine applications at once on that screen, and there are nine number keys, all you have to do is press the number key that corresponds to the location of the application you want. Calendar is in the second row, on the left, so you hit key 4 for it, or 9 to access Settings. You’ll find that most of the menus and such also have numbers associated with each entry, so navigation is fast and painless.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some problems/drawbacks–while the SP5m comes with an impressive array of applications such as Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, there are also some things missing, like Notes, Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. I also found the Tasks app to be somewhat lacking, in that there is no way to add a due date, category, or reminder to any task you enter on the phone. All of that information transfers over from the desktop on existing tasks, and of course you can edit tasks you enter on the phone in Outlook on the desktop, but it seems very odd that the Tasks application would be so crippled. The Contacts application is fully featured, including all of the fields I would expect as well as some new ones, such as the ability to add a picture and custom ring tone for each contact. You’ll even notice nice touches such as a text entry indicator in the top right corner of the screen that tells you when your key presses will be interpreted as numbers (for phone number fields), T9 (for predictive whole word text input) and ABC (when you need to enter each letter exactly as you want it, such as for names).

i-mate SP5m, back

The camera is located on the back of the unit and is capable of taking both still pictures and video. I’m pleasantly surprised by how good the photos come out, and especially at the quality of zoomed photos. This is only a 1.3 megapixel camera, so it certainly won’t replace your regular camera–but it is great for capturing those shots/moments you otherwise would have missed. There’s also a small mirror on the back of the phone next to the camera lens, so that you can take self portraits if you desire. You can synchronize your photos and videos back to your computer, but you must have Windows Media Player 10 on the desktop in order to be able to do this. It’s a free download from the Microsoft web site, and once you get everything set up you can freely transfer media to and from your phone. While I wish that I could do things manually, or use another media player if I desire, I still like the fact that I can sync my photos. Other phones (like the RAZR) require you to purchase a special cable and software from either the phone’s manufacturer or from a third party in order to access the content that you created in the first place.

One of the best features of this phone is the seamless synchronization with Microsoft Outlook on the desktop. While I’ve already mentioned the strange absence of the Notes application, you can still transfer all of your appointments, contacts, and tasks to the phone. Everything is handed by Microsoft ActiveSync, which comes with the phone. I didn’t have any trouble synchronizing multiple devices to the same Outlook PST file, which means that you can use both a regular Windows Mobile device (Axim, iPaq, etc.) and this phone without any worry of conflicts. As mentioned before, I really don’t like the stripped down Tasks application on the phone, though it is possible to enter new tasks when you’re on the go and then add the details such as due date and category after you sync the item to the desktop.

The last thing to talk about is how the SP5m works as a phone. I’m very pleased with every aspect, from signal strength to call volume and clarity. System sounds and the ringer are quite loud by default, so I’d strongly suggest turning them down if you don’t want to jump every time the phone rings. You can also use one of many profiles such as silent, meeting, outdoor, car, etc. in order to quickly change modes based on your location. The SP5m is also a music phone, and the combination of Windows Media Player, your tunes on the miniSD expansion card, and the included stereo earbuds mean that you can rock out wherever you are. I’m disappointed that the miniSD card slot is under the battery, which means that it will be difficult to change out if you have a couple of smaller cards instead of one giant card. Of course that also means that you don’t have to worry about losing that tiny little card if it pops out of an external expansion slot.

Conclusion

I really like the i-mate SP5m and am *this close* to purchasing one for myself (the virtually identical T-Mobile SDA). While there are some trade-offs here due to the fact that this is very strongly a phone first, and a smartphone/PDA second, it basically fulfills all of my requirements. I can keep connected with email and the web while on the go, and the Calendar/Contacts/Tasks support with Outlook synchronization means that I can have all of my personal information instantly at hand, even if new entries are a bit underpowered, as is the case with Tasks. I can’t suggest this phone as a true laptop replacement, as could be the case with the T-Mobile MDA, but it does add a lot of extra features desired by the average consumer. It could also be a good addition to a handheld for a more advanced power user, or a “weekend device” for someone who normally carries a Windows Mobile device for business purposes and wants something smaller/connected for other times.

You may wonder why this phone is getting a relatively low score, considering my mostly positive comments. There are two reasons: 1) the crippled Tasks application and the lack of any sort of Notes/memo functionality; and 2) the somewhat sub-par battery life and the very slow charging process. If you’re a heavy user, you will likely need to charge this phone every day, likely overnight. While it will charge via USB when you plug it into your computer to sync, you’ll need to carry the rather bulky “travel” AC adapter with you when you travel. The SP5m I tested came with a European plug and a plug adapter for US outlets, though I must assume that if you buy the SDA directly from T-Mobile you’ll get a much smaller US-only charging cord. In all other respects the SP5m is an exceptional device, and I’m eagerly awaiting future models of this phone.

4 out of 5

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