Nokia’s audio-centric XpressMusic 5610 serves as a niche device for those who want a portable jukebox packaged in along with their phone, but without all the bulk of a full-on convergence device like the iPhone. We liked the highly practical form-factor, feel and emphasis on an easy-to-access media player, but also felt it needed some more tweaking on the software side.
Features and Design
As part of its full-on pitch to music fans, Nokia has equipped the XpressMusic a personal media player, FM radio, and even a capable built-in speaker. The interface also gets a special addition to its interface for switching to the music player in a snap via a smooth slider switch just below the screen. Its youth-centered feature-set has also been rounded out with communication tools that are fast becoming standard on mobile handsets, including IM, 3G Web access, instant messaging, e-mail.
Nokia’s well-documented love of the candybar shape shines through clearly in the XpressMusic, which takes on a rather bland but practical rectangular profile with rounded corners. What it lacks in exciting shapes, it seems to make up for in dimensions. At just 3.88 inches tall, it matches the popular Motorola Razr in height but with less width and just a bit more beef front to back – 0.67 inches. We found the shape highly easy to pocket, and the weight of 111 grams perfectly acceptable for a phone its size.
Although the face of the phone has been drenched head-to-toe in gloss black, Nokia’s choice of materials on the rest of the phone gravitated more toward the more pragmatic. Matte plastics with a dry, papery feel don’t quite produce the dramatic, sultry look of glossier phones, but we liked the how secure they made the phone feel in our hands, and the practicality of not having to wipe away fingerprints all the time. The slim line of red aluminum that accented our review model looked quite vibrant and added some much-needed spice to the design.
Ports & Connectors
Rather nonsensically for a phone that makes music its number one priority, Nokia chose to skip the universally standard 3.5mm stereo jack in favor of a smaller 2.5mm jack. While the package does include a rather short extension that converts to 3.5mm, we found the extra accessory to carry (and the possibility of losing it) irritating for a phone that should have native compatibility with standard headsets. Adopting similarly esoteric standards, the phone uses a rare type of ultra-small power connector for charging, and the hardly used Micro-B USB standard for data connections. While none of these connectors can be called proprietary, and all function flawlessly, we would have preferred to see more commonly used jacks, especially on the USB front, to make the XpressMusic more compatible with common cables.
Under the Nokia’s rear battery panel, it includes a discrete slot for a microSD card. Though the included card only offers 128MB of storage, current cards in this format are available up to 4GB, usually for well under $50. Of course, even maxed out, the phone’s capacity won’t approach even half of the low-capacity 8GB iPod, making it a player for short trips at best, not a true option for storing an entire collection (for most people).
Can a phone serve as a workable PMP?
Part of the issue we run into with most typical phone-PMP mashups is that most of them feel like, well… mashups. By cramming the controls from two devices into one, often you end up with a cluttered mass of overlapping menus and a confusing interface.
Nokia has attempted to solve that problem with software that more or less treats the PMP and phone as different devices, with a slick little spring-loaded slider beneath the screen to switch between them. Flick once and you go from phone menu to radio. Flick again and you’re on the media player.
Not only does the slider feel great to play with, it makes it much easier to navigate between the different systems. No longer do you need to memorize which menus you need to go rooting through to pause the phone’s music player or load up a new playlist. The flick works no matter how deep into other menus and options you happen to be. However, it also makes it impossible to go back to what you were doing afterwards – you’ll have to return to the phone’s main menu and find your way back. Browsing the Web and want to switch to the next song on your playlist? It will only take a second to bounce to the media player and handle it, but on the way back you’ll have to totally reload the page you were on and scroll back to where you were, making it hardly worth the hassle. To draw a computer analogy, it’s like Windows quitting every other application you’re using when you open up iTunes. We loved the idea of a dedicated button for switching between phone, radio and PMP functionality, but Nokia’s implementation of it could use some work.
The interface for the music player is nothing spectacular, but it does the job. It offers familiar navigation by artist, album and genre, along with the ability to create and use playlists. IPod aficionados may scoff at its lack of an analog input like a scroll wheel for whipping through enormous lists, but given the relatively limited storage capacity, we found the standard interface just fine, and the four-way directional key made navigating it simple.
Nokia’s built-in radio function worked acceptably, but it requires a headset plugged in to pick up channels since it uses the cable as an antenna, and we still had reception issues indoors. The lack of AM radio also confounded us, since every FM radio we’ve used in the last decade has had this feature built in. Though Nokia did add RDS, which can digitally broadcast station names, artist names, genres, song titles, and other information, the player only showed extremely abbreviated pieces of data like “Valen-“ and “SPORTS,” making it far less useful.
The included ear-bud-style headphones were par for the course with phones and personal media players: cheap, but functional. Audiophiles will want to upgrade to something nicer, but for those without overly picky tastes, they’ll sound just fine, and even felt fairly comfortable thanks to plush foam covers.
The player produces crisp, clean sound, with no hiss in quiet parts of songs and plenty of volume to drive a pair of less efficient headphones, if need be. Even better, it includes a five-band equalizer for tweaking sound to taste, with five different presets plus two customizable extras.
Though we’re wary of built-in speakers, and set the bar unusually low for them, the speaker that came with the Nokia actually produced listenable sound. No, it doesn’t pump out any bass, and you can’t throw a party in the conference room by throwing your phone down on the table, but it worked well for taking in a quick song when no one else was around, which is all we imagine must people would want to begin with.
Despite the bevy of other features Nokia has packed into the 5610 and its decidedly musical aspirations, we found it also performed reasonably well as a phone. The keypad, while small, doesn’t interfere with dialing at all, and we could easily perform the sliding motion needed to reveal it one-handed. Call quality was a mix: we were able to communicate with callers without any difficulty and volume was outstanding, but we also experienced an omnipresent hiss in the background regardless of who we called, an annoyance that seemed to be unique to this phone. It didn’t intrude enough to ruin conversations, and callers couldn’t hear it, but picky phone users should be forewarned that it will have to be overlooked.
Nokia claims you can watch videos in “near DVD quality” on a screen with resolution of only 240 x 320 pixels (an absurdly optimistic claim when DVDs have more than four times the resolution) but we found the 5610 to be less amenable to video. Though the display is relatively bright and vibrant, you can only get so much mileage out of staring at a 2.2-inch box, and we certainly wouldn’t want to sit down and watch anything of length on it. The phone will also only handle the highly compressed and obscure 3GP video standard, meaning all of your favorite digital movie files will have to be converted down to low resolution and a choppy frame rate before the phone will handle them. It’s a cute novelty for music videos, but you’re not buying a mini cinema.
While the XpressMusic 5610 does have 3G Internet capabilities, the lack of a QWERTY keyboard and shoddy Web browser crippled most of our browsing. Almost all of the pages we tried to visit outside of T-Mobile’s mobile-formatted “T-Zones” ended up garbled into an unusable mess, so the true power of its connection will mostly go untapped.
Besides converting a 2.5mm jack to 3.5mm, the included extension cable also terminates in a button for stopping and starting music without touching the player itself. While convenient in theory, the design of the button, which encompasses the entire clip, makes it far too easy to accidentally press as you connect or disconnect headphones, attempt to clip it onto clothing, or even just it brush it. In use, it turned out to be more of a liability than a convenience. The phone also includes a short Micro-B USB cable for data, and of course, an instruction manual.
A full 3.2-megapixel camera sensor, 8x digital zoom and flash make the XpressMusic look, on paper, a lot like a low-end point-and-shoot camera. However, the resolution serves as a poor substitute for what all cell phone cameras really need, which is a physically larger image sensor to capture more light.
Test images from the camera had plenty of resolution, but suffered all the same pitfalls of lower-res cell phone cams, including heavy speckles of digital noise, lack of color, and poor low-light performance. It especially seemed to have difficulty handling bright scenarios – in many scenarios, white and grey objects not only ended up completely washed out, but produced a halo effect that spilled a white glow onto their surroundings.
Despite these criticisms, Nokia did manage to edge the camera ahead of the competition with the focus, flash and form-factor. Like a point-and-shoot camera, taking photos with the XpressMusic requires to users hold down the shutter button halfway for focus, then press it all the way to take the shot. This extra level of control seemed to produce better focus in our shots than we’re used to with camera phones, though it was still far from perfect. The flash also zapped out quite a burst of light for such a tiny camera, and did a respectable job lighting up close-in shots in darker settings, like the shots you might take of a group of friends at night. Finally, the phone’s rectangular profile and side-mounted shutter button made it comfortable to hold for extended shooting, and easy to use.
While we would never trade a real digital camera, even a cheap one, for the XpressMusic, it held up reasonably well for a camera built into a phone, and we wouldn’t mind using it for impromptu shots.
In our relatively modest use of the 5610, we ended up needing to charge it just about every other day – not an especially impressive stat for a brand new phone. While all the music-playing, and certainly the exterior speaker, must have contributed to the problem, we would still be wary of relying on the XpressMusic when on the road or in other extended periods without outlets. At the very least, cutting back on music-playing might be necessary.
Nokia’s XpressMusic 5610 won’t surf the Web competently, allow you to tap out texts in seconds with a QWERTY keyboard or let you pass your flight watching Mad Max without some serious eye strain, but as a phone and a music player, it does the job. As a trade-off for all that other missing functionality that could be found in a real smartphone, you get a slim, durable and easily pocketed little guy that puts those other bricks to shame on portability and style. Despite some slight software hiccups, Nokia has otherwise done a very neat job tucking a functional PMP into the phone.
• Slider button makes accessing music easy
• Sleek, well-built case
• Respectable sound quality and EQ
• Software needs a little refinement
• Not suitable for movies, only music
• Sketchy battery life when used with music
• Non-standard headphone jack