Audiovox SMT 5600   -   June 12, 2005

Every visit to Redmond is a journey to a funny land where in the future everything is better because everything is Microsoft. On a recent trip in June, I was introduced to the promise of Windows Mobile, and how it would standardize and revolutionize mobile phones. I've seen bloated pda phones before, and have largly been unimpressed, because I can't ignore how inconvinently big they are. However, this time was different, the phone is slim, nearly the size of a small color Nokia 6610. However, it has a giant screen, and the promise of a general purpose operating system with lots of third party applications. A few months later, I have a cool toy and this blog post, but I'm still using my LG 4500, read why.

The phone comes under a number of brand names, in this case it is the Audiovox SMT 5600 from Cingular. It operates on GSM 850, 1800, and 1900. You can read all the gory details at mobiledia. I'm writing to talk about the overall usability of the phone. It is improtant to note that this is one of the few Windows Mobile phones without a touch screen, all navigation occuring through a thumbstick and the keypad.

UI Issues

As expected, the thumbstick is hard to use. My rule is to never buy a multi-use pointing device where you have to press the joystick to select. It's simply too hard to be subtle enough to get keypad motions or click actions without triggering the other. Most clamshell phones have a simple 4-way pad surrounding a center select button, a setup which is far superior to the SMT5600's joystick.

Key lock/unlock operations are annoying. The phone is hard to one-handed unlock with the right hand because it requires pressing buttons on two opposite corners of the phone. My old Nokia 8290 had no such flaw, and I didn't find the keylock any less effective. Locking the phone requires holding down the hangup key for a few seconds, an operation which I find annoying. I would rather press a 4-key sequence than have to wait for a timer to expire. Unfortunatly, as the phone has no autolock, sitting and waiting for the keylock is your only option.

It is hard to use the phone as a clock. When the backlight is off, the display contrast is too low to see the display. The design of the homepage hurts this, and should switch when the backlight is off to pure black/white to make it easier to read (this would only be useful if the display was more visible in natural light). The time is too small on the display. The display is off, clicking the "unlock" soft-key switches to an empty info screen which explains how to unlock the phone. There is no date/time or homepage information. You have to click the soft-key again to get back to the home screen. When you are using the phone, a similar problem exists as the clock often disappears. The time should always be visible on the phone. When browsing the web, huge amounts of space are dedicated to the softkey titles and page title. It should show the time somewhere. My flip phone solves this because the outside display always shows the time and you can always quickly flip the phone over to see it.

I find it hard to switch profiles. Using the menu, at a minimum: unlock, down, select, number key, hold hangup to re-lock. This requires using the annoying thumbstick. After unlock, pressing the power button is another option, but the button is too small to press easily. This is an operation I perform frequently, and I need it to be easy.

Hangup does not return you to a stateless startpoint. Phone UI is so constrained that I find it critical to be able to learn the UI and whip through menus quickly. This is the reason I returned a Nokia 6610 to return to my 8290, the old black and white UI was much faster. While the UI on the Audiovox is relatively speedy, it is inconsistant and annoyingly stateful. For example, if you move the cursor on the homepage and hit hangup.. the cursor stays where it was. This means that navigating to a particular area of the phone always requires looking at and interpreting the screen, a situation which you can never shortcut by being an expert. Worse, while using some installed applications, hangup doesn't do anything. You need to use an application-defined key to quit the app so you can return to the top screen.

One handed texting is straining. This is primarily because the keys are so low on the phone's center of gravity, especially the bottom row of keys. It is simply difficult to hold extra weight of the phone's big screen while using your thumb to hit keys. Flip phones have an advantage here, because when texting the screen is oriented more vertically, keeping the center of gravity closer to the keys.

Now we're on to some more minor gripes. Choosing sounds from the detail menu is annoying because it does not play the sound as you move through the menu. Enabling mute or speakerphone during a call is annoying. The left softkey is unused and should at least be mapped to mute like on many other phones. It is not easy to change the start menu order. (there is so much crap in there, much of it unused by any particular user)

Usability Issues

GSM/GPRS simply has too much latency for real web browsing. Connecting to the web takes too long, and moving to the next page is a constant test of patience. This is more the fault of cellular providers being stuck in 2/2.5G land, but when you have a phone with a screen and browser this nice, it deserves a low latency network connection.

The phone crashes from time to time. Not something I expect from a consumer device like this.


This phone has the best web browser bar none. It's not quite like IE on your desktop, but it is as close as you can get on a device that doubles as your everyday cellphone.

Calendar and Email synchronization with Exchange is pretty slick. It shows upcoming calendar events right on the UI. You can sync either over-the-air, over bluetooth, or for the wireless challenged, with USB. However, if you are not using Exchange server or Outlook, good luck. While in theory it is possible to sync with other systems, in practice it is not.

The mini-USB connector is a godsend. Whether synchronizing with your PC or charging, this phone uses the same standard mini-USB connector which is on your digital camera and your mp3-player. You can charge the phone from your laptop, and don't have to carry around lots of annoying cords.


In the end, think the phone is a bold attempt. For users with the right corporate support for Exchange synchronization, showing your upcoming events on the phone through over the air (OTA) synchronization is probably reason enough to own the phone. For other users, wait for something more modern which supports a high-speed data service like EV-DO or UMTS, as the phones capabilities are crippled without it. With mobile IE and a fast network, it might be worth overlooking the droves of UI problems to get a great mobile web experience. Then again, maybe not.

Posted by jeske at June 12, 2005 11:15 PM