Phone, MP3 player music to our ears?

The idea of combining the two devices has a nice ring to it, but there are some downsides


October 06, 2005|By DAVID COLKER

In the name of convergence -- the effort to combine as many functions as possible into a single hand-held gadget -- some cell phones that already do e-mail, take pictures and play video clips now sport music players. Palm Inc. put one in its Treo 650 that came out in 2004, and Sony Ericsson put an official Walkman phone on the market this year.

Most notably, Motorola Inc. recently debuted its Rokr E1 phone designed to play music downloaded from Apple Computer Inc.'s hugely popular iTunes organizer. The phone, which is being sold through Cingular Wireless, stores up to 100 songs.

Although it's clearly a good idea to limit the number of devices we carry, convergence often has downsides. Phones loaded up with features get bigger, and the individual components lose much of their ease of use.

Sometimes it works out well -- for many people, an onboard digital camera has become a practically essential part of a mobile phone. But can music players and cell phones play nicely together?

To test this, I tried out the music functions on the Treo 650 and the Rokr. The Treo 650 will run you about $300 if bought with a cell phone calling plan, or $649 direct from Palm. The 650 is loaded with features, but unfortunately its MP3 music player seems to have been an afterthought. After all, this phone is best known for having a full qwerty keyboard for typing e-mails and text messages and making entries into Palm's famed digital address book and calendar programs.

The Treo player, which is PC-compatible only, does have interesting capabilities, including the ability to access Internet radio and selections from music subscription services (both of which require a software upgrade). But that's just about the last good thing I can say about how it handles music. Although the possibilities are alluring, using these functions can be excruciating. I ran into constant problems while using the Treo for music: frequent freezes and other technical maladies.

The Rokr -- about $250 if bought with a cell phone calling plan -- is quite a different experience. It is a gigantic leap forward in ease of use compared with the Treo and requires no extra equipment or software to buy. All you need on your computer is the iTunes software, which is free.

The Rokr comes with internal flash memory that stores about five CDs' worth of music. Transfers from iTunes to the phone are quite simple. You plug the phone into your computer using the provided USB cable, and the phone shows up as an icon on the iTunes screen. You drag your selections or whole playlists of songs onto the icon, and your work is done.

Songs burned from your CDs, as well as those purchased via iTunes for 99 cents a selection, will transfer. But not music purchased via other Internet download or subscription services.

Because Rokr was designed specifically with music in mind, managing it via the phone's screen is a pleasure. You can't select and view songs as intuitively as with the iPod's famed click wheel. Built into the phone are a pair of stereo speakers that don't sound bad considering the size of the phone.

One big drawback to the Rokr is capacity. The Rokr's roughly 400-minute limit is a pittance compared with the lowest-level iPod with a screen -- a Nano model that holds 2,000 minutes.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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