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Ericsson T68: helluva phone

Little stunner

Review Hold onto your hats; make sure you're sitting down; and wait for it. Yep, it's true: the full-colour, triple band Ericsson T68 knocks the much-alked about Nokia 8310 into a cocked hat. The Ericsson is expected to cost considerably more, it's true. Where the Nokia is coming in at about £150 with contract, the expensive colour screen technology of the T68 will probably bump up its price tag to £200-250.

The T68 is probably the most ground-breaking model to come out this year. It looks fantastic, with a dramatic colour screen, and is packed with exciting features, including at least one completely new element: the ability to design your own icons using a primitive picture editing tool on the phone itself.

In contrast, the 8310 looks almost pedestrian. It may sound like a heresy, but although it's undoubtedly a classy model, nothing about it is really that new. It's just a brushed up version of the 8210 with the improvements that the original model should have had in the first place, such as a reliable display and the ability not to overheat (ooh, bitchy). Plus of course GPRS, WAP and various other things that loads of other models already have.

The vital stats of the Ericsson T68 are 100x48x20mm and 84g, with a quoted 13 hours' talktime or 290 hours standby. The list of features is impressive: it's a triple band phone, meaning UK owners can use it in the US. It has HSCSD and GPRS for fast wapping or data transmission on enabled networks; Bluetooth for swapping data wirelessly without a line of sight, or just playing games with another T68 user across the room; an infra red modem; pop3 email; and a host of other impressive bits and pieces connected with the colour graphics capability. Everything is made more exciting by the colour screen. Even a simple game of Tetris has a bit more va-va-voom in full colour. And using the menu is quite like using a fully graphical interface on a PC, for the first time in the mobile phone world.

At the time of writing networks agreements had not really been thrashed out. I would love to see this phone on Orange: I used it with an HSCSD connection and it was a dream for wapping at 14.4Kbps.

The T68 uses a joystick button, a significant change from older Ericsson models and a big plus when it comes to finding your way around. It can be pushed up, down, left and right and clicked in to move around the menu options and select them. Green and red send and end keys, marked Yes and No, are found to the left and right of the joystick button and can also be used to go into menus or back up out of them.

Pressing the green Yes key is often an alternative to clicking in the joystick button. This is good for ergonomic reasons: routing all actions via a single key is a terrible idea for the nation's thumbs.

A side button on the top left of the T68 gives status information, including date, current profile setting, standby time and talktime remaining, and GPRS status. It switches off again automatically and doesn't stay visible very long. The infra red port is in the same place on the opposite side of the phone.

The phonebook is well thought out and fairly easy to use. Pressing in the joystick key brings up the main phonebook, that is, the one built into the phone as opposed to the SIM. If you haven't saved any entries to the phonebook proper, there's a prompt asking if you want to copy all your SIM card memories across.

The redial key is the green send button. It saves missed, received and dialled calls in the same list, distinguished by arrows pointing in different directions. Withheld calls are listed as such, both in the call records and while the call is incoming. If the same number has called several times, it is listed only once, but with a number by it showing how many times the caller has tried to get through.

The Fun and Games menu is probably the most exciting bit to play with. The first option is 'Themes'. This offers a choice of five colour themes for the interface. For instance, 'Classical' gives you black writing on a white background with a turquoise menu bar and a black highlight for menu options. Other choices are Psychedelic (in which the same elements are respectively black, lilac, pink and purple); Jazz (black, cream, purple, green); Pop (black, pale blue, green, fluorescent turquoise); and Black and White.

The other options in the fun menu are Background, Games, My Melodies and Pictures.

Background means the background picture on the display, like 'wallpaper' on a Windows PC. Under this menu item you find sub-menus Select, Activate, Send my pic, and Receive. The first takes you to a list of ten pre-programmed pictures, with another memory slot for one you've downloaded from someone else. The pre-programmed pics are great. One clever one looks like a smashed display with a hole in it showing the phone's printed circuit board. Another is some rather washed out daisies on a pale background; the third looks like the cover of a weirdy sci-fi novel with a sort of mystic worm design in green and red; the fourth, a vivid kiddies' picture-book rainbow; the fifth, a splodge of tomato ketchup on a turquoise background... you get the idea. The last five were a moose, a ghost, a diver, a wave pattern, and a really good picture of Planet Earth seen from space.

'Receive' in the Background menu lets you choose to receive another piccy by infra-red or Bluetooth. In either case you'd need the sender to have a compatible phone, of course, so this is probably a good time to persuade all your friends to join you in getting T68 phones. 'Activate' lets you switch off the background pic if you prefer.

The Pictures option in the Fun menu is probably the most way-cool thing on the phone. It actually lets you create your own black and white graphic icons with a mini editing tool. There are a load of different categories of pics inside the menu, such as Emotions, Sport, Entertainment and Weather. You can choose one of these and edit it, or else create an image of your own from scratch. The editable pictures as such are not that exciting; they're little line-drawn grimacing cartoon faces, or a knife and fork, or a stormcloud, the primitive type of pics you see on a multitude of web pages already. It would be nice to be able to create full-on colour images like the background rainbow icon, but it's not to be.

The size of each pic is only about a centimetre across. But the fun thing is that you can select one and zoom in on it right down to pixel level and add your own little pixels of black or white to edit the images. A tiny pencil appears at the bottom of the display to show that you are in editing mode. To move your cursor around, you press the 2,4,6,8 keys, and to colour in a pixel, you press on the 5 key. It's slow going, naturally, but still amazing. It's great to be working on a real white background, not the run of the mill green screen.

I couldn't figure out how to save the picture properly in the limited time I had with this early model. I seemed to keep getting into a pointless loop where it would say 'Save?' and I'd hit OK, then it would go back to the pic and say 'Save?' again. A bit more time with the manual would probably have sorted this out, although I think it could do with a bit of tweaking to make it more intuitive.

While we're on the subject of downsides, the one major complaint I would have if I actually owned this phone was the joystick. It was much too small and fiddly and I seemed to end up choosing the wrong option as often as not. On the other hand, it's a good thing to have, especially for playing games and for the icon-editing software.

The games, as you would expect of Ericsson, are excellent. Tetris has suffered slightly in translation; when you accelerate pieces downwards, you used to be able to put the brakes on and off by taking your thumb off the key again. Now, once you've pressed the speed-up key, the piece just shoots to the floor straight away, making it much harder.

It also has Defender (called just Game), plus Solitaire

In standby mode, the display shows the time and battery and signal meters, plus the network name. The time takes up a lot of room and looks rather messy because they've put on a thumping great white shadow to make it stand out from the coloured background. But in idle mode, the display switches over to a black screensaver that shows the time in huge white letters. This is great; it can be annoying to have a screen saver that obscures the time and other vital info such as missed calls or messages. Either of these latter also interrupts the screen saver and comes up in big letters on the screen.

To put on the keylock, you hold down the C key as with previous Ericssons. This offers you two choices, the other being 'switch to silent'.

Ericsson's ring tone composer is one of the best and most usable around if you want to try and transcribe tunes by ear and don't have a music sheet to work from. The elite band that can do this will be glad to hear that the T68 not only has a generous 8 spaces for personal ring tones, but has allowed for much longer tunes than before. On a previous Ericsson phone, I had to split up 'Que Sera Sera' into two halves and save it in separate ring tone slots, which was admittedly a bit pointless. Now I know why I did it, and have transcribed both halves into a single long melody on the T68.

There are 14 ordinary rings, which are not polyphonic and are mostly the same standard tones you've heard on the bus a hundred times. The sound is not that special, nor does the phone include a recordable ringer. But you can't have everything. And in my experience all recordable and polyphonic ringers are difficult to hear. Higher pitched sounds penetrate a noisy environment much more effectively.

In all, this is a heck of a phone. It remains to be seen how it will function in the real world - will people be driven mad by the fiddly joystick? Will the battery underperform woefully when hardcore gamers get their hands on the phone? Will bits fall off it? Will it get network approval for the GPRS and HSCSD capabilities? But at the time of writing a lot of people are very excited about this stunning little product.

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