“Despite PEBL's must-have good looks, you can find better equipped phones for much less money from T-Mobile...”
- Unique good looks; bright interior LCD screen; landline-like call quality
- Low iPod Shuffle-like capacity; poor quality ear buds; exposed and vulnerable surface and screen
“How the heck do you open this thing?” My girlfriend tried to imitate my by-now well-practiced thumb-slide-pop maneuver to open the sleek clamshell Motorola PEBL from T-Mobile ($199.99 after rebates), but couldn’t quite get the hang of it. In an exasperated voice, she gave me back the phone after a few fumbled and unsuccessful attempts and exclaimed rhetorically, “What’s the point if you can’t open it?” Precisely! Industrial designers sometimes get a bit full of themselves, incorporating unusual features not because they should but because they can.
For a product as utilitarian as a cell phone, care should always be taken when inserting a gimmick that could limit functionality. To be sure, the smooth rubberized PEBL feels like no other handset — the TV commercial in which the phone is meta-morphed from meteorite to river-worn rock, captures the feel of the phone. And once mastered the PEBL’s geek-cool sliding cover that pops up when slid down and disengaged from its magnetic hold is kind of addictive. But all this cell style belies the bland cell phone underneath — plain old GPRS, not EDGE, network compatibility; VGA instead of mega pixel digital camera with no flash; a narrow monochrome instead of square color exterior display. The PEBL performed well, but so do many other far less expensive, admittedly less attractive T-Mobile models.
*Correction 3/17/06: We have received some e-mails from people claiming the PEBL does support EDGE functionality according to the Motorola website. However if you have T-mobile as a service provider, the PEBL provided by them does not support EDGE but GPRS instead. As of this writing the PEBL cannot be purchased from either Verizon or Cingular, solely T-Mobile.
Features and Design
The PEBl is equipped with a basic laundry list of cell phone attributes — Bluetooth, SMS and MMS messaging along with POP3, SMTP and IMAP4 email, speakerphone, voice dialing, and a Web browser. Included are 35 ring tones, including both MP3 and electronic choices.
At 1.93 x 3.41 x 0.79 inches and 3.7 ounces, the PEBL is smaller and lighter than it looks on TV. Motorola is promoting PEBL’s rock-smooth surface, which feels almost like suede, but nothing is mentioned about the flip top. A magnet holds the two halves together; you have to slide the top down around a quarter of an inch with your thumb then let go and the top pops up. It doesn’t sound complicated and once mastered its fun to do. But no matter how often we played with it, when the phone rang, our first instinct was to pull or push the top open. And it didn’t.
Many other form-over-function compromises have been made, both inside and out. On the front is an oblong semi-reflective LCD screen that displays the time, signal strength and battery life — the essentials. Almost every other phone that T-Mobile sells for less than the price of the PEBL has a color external screen. This is not just a matter of aesthetics; without a color external screen, it’s impossible to snap self-portraits.
Speaking of the camera, it’s only VGA with no zoom and, as noted, no self-portrait mode. Its lack of mega pixels isn’t criminal at this price — in fact, the RAZR doesn’t have a mega pixel camera either. But mega pixel cameras are becoming more the norm than the exception in the two years since RAZR’s introduction and the PEBL’s design and price expectations.
PEBL’s spine keys are nearly flush with its surface to complete its smooth presentation. But the flush volume toggle on the left becomes a bit more difficult to find and operate as a result. The other two spine keys are unmarked. You’ll have to remember the single button beneath the volume is for the camera, which is redundant. The camera doesn’t operate unless the top is up, and the right soft key provides direct camera access as well. The right spine button does…nothing. We thought this button activated Motorola’s Screen3 feature, which supposedly gets direct Web access, but the manual doesn’t include any reference to it.
Once opened, you’ll find a crystal clear and luminous 1.9-inch LCD. But that’s about the end of the pros. The etched dial pad is really pretty, but the sea wave-like lines that meander above and below the numbers cause a nano-second pause while you make sure you push the right key. In addition, the menu directional toggle is one of the smallest we’ve run across on a flip phone.
Image Courtesy of Motorola
Thankfully, the PEBL performs where it counts — as a cell phone. The quad-band 850/900/1800/1900 MHz world phone enabled calls that were loud and clear, nearly wire-like at both ends of the line, with plenty of volume left over in case you need more to compensate for noisy environments. That volume also produces loud ringers in case your PEBL is stored in a purse or pocket.
Instead of definitive numbers, Motorola lists battery life ranges — 204 to 400 minutes of talk and 156 to 250 hours of standby — curious since the only other battery burner is web access. But even the low end of the range will prove adequate for most users.
Speaking of Web access, T-Mobile’s GPRS network delivered Web pages at near-EDGE speeds, less than 10 seconds. GPRS network flaws showed up when sending or downloading content. Picture messages took around a minute to upload and videos around two minutes. Downloading hi-fi ring tones took a little less than a minute on average to stream from T-Mobile’s online store.
VGA pictures are — shocking — worthless unless snapped in direct sunlight, and videos look more like hand-cranked silent movies, albeit in color, at least on the PEBL’s LCD screen. Oddly, emailed videos wouldn’t play back on PCs or Macs.
The PEBL is a great example of not judging a book by its cover, or beauty being “world phone” skin deep. Despite PEBL’s must-have good looks, you can find better equipped phones for much less money from T-Mobile, such as Motorola’s own V360, a $99 phone that’s EDGE capable, includes a TransFlash memory card slot, has a full external screen and can play back MP3s, all missing on the twice-the-price PEBL.
- Small and light
- Bright LCD screen
- Expensive/low value
- VGA camera
- GPRS network compatible only
- No color external screen
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