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Motorola F3

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As I outlined the other day, I am highly sceptical about mobile communication and have come to think that most, if not all, of the mobile phones that exist are crud. Mainly because their user interfaces are confusing and hard to use while also being sluggish and looking bad if possible. With a market of billions trying to hit the most gullible, good design doesn’t seem to be high on the agendas of mobile phone manufacturers.

Of course people will point my inner Apple fan towards the newly released iPhone. And I have to admit that it certainly gives a bunch of new ideas to phone design and that it definitely gets a number of things right which other phone manufacturers chose to ignore so far. However, I am not in the market for an iPhone. I still consider mobile telephony mostly superfluous as the situations in which I actually need to be reached at once and I am not in the vicinity of an actual phone aren’t that frequent. As a consequence I don’t plan or expect to use such a phone a lot. And the money I expect to spend on it in a year will be what people pay for their iPhone in a month - a different order of magnitude, that is.

Add to that that I am a bit weary of putting money into shiny electronics devices, particularly those from Apple, as every single one I got in the past years needed constant care, attention and warranty fixes I had to look after. I really don’t want to throw any more cash in that direction. I rather wanted something cheap and dispensible. Something I won’t care about. Something I wouldn’t be sad about breaking, losing or scratching. And still something that isn’t entirely crap. Obviously that last bit was the tricky one.

And so I decided to give Motorola’s Motofone F3 a try after I read about it. While made by Motorola, the mother of crappy user interfaces, it is one of the very rare devices which dares to do things differently, breaking standard practices and trying out new ideas. The main point about this phone - which is said to be aimed at developing countries - is that it can’t do much. There’s no camera in there, no music player, no radio, no e-mail, no web browser, no coffee-machine, no games, no colour display, no multi-level menus, no computer connection, no nothing. But it can be used for phone calls, you can sort-of use it for text messages and as a bonus there’s even an alarm clock.

Motorola F3

I shall discuss a few points I found interesting about the phone in what follows.

Screen

The most noticeably different thing about the phone is its screen. The numbers don’t just look like 1980s alarm clock numbers, that’s actually the ‘resolution’ the screen gives you. Two lines with six glyphs each (the upper line being text capable 14-segment ones and the bottom line being number only 7-segment ones) and that’s it. In addition to the two lines there are also a number of icons that the screen can display at the bottom and the top of the display. The status indicators for network and battery strength seem to be part of the screen as well.

Technically the screen is this often heard-of electronic paper, meaning that it’s even high-tech in some odd way. Which probably explains the low ‘resolution’ and which also means that the display can be read without problems even in bright sunlight. In fact, the photo above was taken in bright sunlight as the reflections and the hard shadow may have hinted already. Apparently another advantage of the electronic paper is that it only needs very little electrical power. Particularly as it only requires power to switch the display, not to maintain its state (which can be easily checked by removing the battery, btw).

Of course this kind of screen is very limiting. It doesn’t give you a full range of characters. You get one set of A-Z (no distinction between capital and small letters), obviously there’s 0-9 and as a bonus, you also get ,?@+*#. And that’s it. No hope for umlauts or accented characters and so on. It all looks a bit funny. But possibly it doesn’t really make a difference in the mobile world.

All that said, the screen can’t display much but it displays well and in huge readable letters. My mum immediately liked that.

Phone Calls

This may need mentioning these days: You can use this phone for phone calls. And it works quite well. I thought that the sound quality was quite good compared to my parents’ phones for example. I can hear the caller very clearly and loudly. Which probably is a good thing. You can use the built-in phonebook for storing numbers or you can just type them in as you’d do on a real phone. Pressing the green key will magically give you the list of the previous numbers you called which I didn’t find entirely obvious but which is quite handy.

Motorola F3 displaying the digits 1 through 0 on its screen

Ringtones

You can’t add additional ringtones to this phone. Six are built-in. And one or two of those may be tolerable. You have a choice of six volume levels - mute through five - and you can add the vibration alarm to the mute and the five level. Which I thought was a clever way of simplifying things. Not that I had the ringer turned on frequently so far, but my impression is that even the highest level will not be loud enough if you are outside, so this isn’t too impressive. The vibration alarm is quite weak as well. But I suppose that’s true for most vibration alarms of this millennium.

As a bonus, try closely looking at the photo above. What do you think the icon at the top of the screen signifies? To me it always looks like a bell and some vibration, thus that the phone will ring noisily and vibratingly. But behold! There’s actually a little cross inside the bell which is supposed to mean that the sound has been turned off. Bad icons in my opinion. It’d be more intuitive if the bell weren’t displayed or if the cross were larger than the bell.

Text Messages

Text messages and me don’t go together very well. I don’t like the space limitation and I’m not particularly good at entering text through a numeric keypad. When having borrowed my mum’s phone previously I had friends offering to type stuff for me. So pathetic is the impression I give when entering them.

Which definitely makes this phone one for me. With its screen it’s not made for text messages. When you receive them you can see a full six characters of the message at a time and have to scroll through them horizontally. A bit of a pain but working much better than I expected. I think the phone is able to store ten old messages and then it’ll start dumping the oldest one when a new message arrives (at least that’s what I have read, I kind of suspect it doesn’t do the auto-delete thing but I’m not sure about that). Very basic and simple. Which I appreciate as the phone doesn’t even pretend to be an archive (which other phones do pretend but factually aren’t). Of course you could end up being a bit screwed if people send you messages with fancy characters, but just as the internet survived on ASCII, text messaging in the languages I can converse it does as well.

Writing a text message is straight from the stone age as well. While pretty much any phone has that clever T9 system built in and will probably also try to complete your words for you, this phone doesn’t. You have to tap in each character with the correct number of keypresses. As this makes interaction with the device more predictable that isn’t necessarily bad (and also evades the problem of needing UI for turning T9 on and off and for setting the language to be used, quite complex stuff). However, my impression is that the keyboard, despite having quite a good feel to it that nicely communicates when the key has been (supposedly) pressed, isn’t up to the job.

Pressing the same button three times in a row quickly sometimes only registers two keypresses. Which of course ruins the whole text entry process as you will have focused on the next character by the time you realise there’s a problem and then you get out of the flow and need to correct the mistake first (as - another strike of simplicity - you cannot move the cursor backwards in the text without deleting). Slowing down a little bit resolved this problem. But I hardly consider that a real solution.

Thin Motorola F3 seen from the side

Clock

As seen in the first screenshot the phone includes a large, easily readable clock. As I don’t wear a watch I really like that. The clock isn’t very precise, though, and seems to easily go off by a minute or two within just a few weeks. Ironically, the only ‘setting’ the whole phone has is to set the clock. The clock is complimented by an alarm clock. Which I quite appreciate. Particularly as the alarm it gives is so hideously loud and annoying that even I can’t see me sleeping through it. Of course I would have appreciated a countdown timer with seconds precision as well (for boiling eggs) but I guess that would have made things too complex.

Battery Life

The phone’s battery lasts a bit over a week for me. With me hardly using the phone, but possibly taking it on long train journeys, that is. So this probably isn’t too impressive, but it’s not too shabby either. When running out of power the phone seems to properly shut itself down rather than just losing power. At least I found it with the screen turned to all-black when the battery had run out, rather than still displaying the time it ran out of power. It’s battery indicator isn’t the best, though. While it will need days to take the first bar off the battery status, the phone can be dead within a day when it’s down to a single bar of battery power.

Reception

I have no good way to compare these things. But I didn’t find reception to be a problem so far. The phone always seems to find a network and didn’t have problems connecting and displaying some network bars. But I have no real experience with this and don’t know the situations which are actually problematic. An oddity is that both the battery and signal strength displays consist of five bars. But the display/phone is set up to switch the ‘upper’ two of them on and off at the same time. Needlessly irritating, I say. If they only wanted four bars why didn’t they just use four?

Phonebook

As the phone cannot be connected to a computer the only way I could fill the phone book was by typing numbers in. Obviously it’s annoying and keeping things reasonably up-to-date won’t be fun either. Navigating to phonebook entries isn’t a big problem although they managed to put some strangeness in there: Say you want to navigate to some name starting with H and thus press the 4 (GHI) key. Then the phone will only jump there if you actually have entries starting with G in your phone book. You’ll have to press the key twice to make it jump to H. But I’d expect it to jump to the next best match when pressing the key once as well, rather than doing nothing.

Obviously I would have loved having a phone that synchronises with my computer’s address book. Wirelessly. And correctly. But that is not to be had with this phone. Syncing seems to be difficult. (Not even Apple can sync my addresses to their own iPod properly…)

Design

The phone is simple. And luckily that aspect made it to its design as well. Just the necessary keys on the front and a rather simple back, most of which can be taken off to reveal the battery and the magic chip. It does have a little hook so you can pretend to be a Japanese girl and attach some little Pokemon or whatever and it has a single other socket to plug in the charger (and possible even a headset). I’d call this design no-nonsense. Which proabably is quite good for these days.

On the back there are four shiny silver Torx screws holding the black plastic case together. That looks quite clean. The phone is quite thin (less than a centimetre) and seems even thinner because its back narrower than the from. It feels surprisingly solid for that. The plastic case seems to be a bit flexible and I wonder what it’d take to break it. So far I haven’t even gotten a scratch on it despite just stuffing it into pockets and rucksacks without extra protection. So it’s more scratch resistant than an iPod. I was also surprised that the keypad and the navigation button have a rather good feel to them.

Price

The phone itself is not excessively expensive. You can buy it for €30 at amazon [Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de], get it for €5 with some fixed prepaid plan tied to an operator or at various levels of price and limitation in between depending on the crookiness of whom you do business with.

&c

As the phone can’t do that much I actually have discussed many points about it already. But other things can be remarked. The user manual is a single sheet of paper with step-by-step instructions. And that’s really all you get. Apparently it’s also aimed at people who can’t read. The phone supports three languages and has voice prompts for the things it does. You get to select those when first setting the phone up and I turned them off immediately, but I found that quite interesting.

European charger for Motorola F3 There are a few additional, more advanced, settings. The lack of an actual menu means that you have to get the manual, look things up and type stuff like ***250* to change the settings. Not convenient, but not a real problem either - particularly when keeping in mind that most people will stick with the defaults anyway.

One thing that keeps reminding me I’m using a Motorola product is the way the phone operates its (weak but not really needed backlight): As soon as you press a button the light will come on. And if you keep buttons pressed for more than two seconds without fully releasing them, the light will go out again. I suppose that’s just a clever way to deal with buttons being accidentally pressed when the phone is in your pocket or bag. However, where this starts looking rather dumb, is when you unlock the phone. You do that by holding the * key for about three seconds. Which means that you press the button, the light goes on, you hold the button, the light goes off, and finally the phone unlocks itself. I think the light should remain on all the way or be turned on at the same moment the phone is unlocked. But it isn’t. Instead the light will just come on when you release the * button again. Odd!

Finally, the charger. While it’s annoying that the phone doesn’t charge via USB - I mean most things could charge via USB, so why don’t they? Having some sort of standardised low-voltage plug to charge things with would certainly be great. But this phone has pretty much the smallest charger I have seen so far.

Conclusion

This phone certainly isn’t perfect. But if you don’t need (nor imagine that you need) all those fancypants features which modern phones have, it actually is a viable option. And of course it’s just refreshing to have a piece of technology with less features these days. In a way it seems daring.

Clean-ish back of Motorola F3


Read how I destroyed the phone and see photos of it disassembled.


[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

October 12, 2007, 0:53

Tagged as hardware, mobile, motofone f3, phone.

Comments

Comment by marius: User icon

actually, if you need to lock/unlock keybord you can do so — press function button (arrow above “answer” key), then press “lock” key.

October 25, 2007, 14:50

Comment by ssp: User icon

Thanks marius, that’s a great hint.

October 25, 2007, 14:56

Comment by Zaq: User icon

I have the Motorola f3, and now I’d really like to get a simple wired headset/mic for it.

I’m having a lot of trouble finding one in north america. Any ideas? It doesn’t seem like it takes the standard 2.5mm jack (because of the needle thing that makes it the charging port as well).

any ideas?

October 30, 2007, 18:16

Comment by Peter: User icon

Another way to get the phonebook filled: put the SIM into another mobile and copy from ‘phonebook’ to SIM. You may also use a SIM card reader/writer to copy/edit phonebook entries from/to your PC. HTH

March 21, 2008, 14:49

Comment by Bruce: User icon

Peter, I have a F3 and I don’t think it has any way to copy phone numbers from SIM. ..B..

April 6, 2008, 0:44

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Bruce: I think the F3 stores all phone numbers on the SIM card only. I have different phone books depending on the card that is in the phone. Thus, copying them to the card as Peter suggests should do the trick.

April 6, 2008, 1:43

Comment by Bruce: User icon

I accidentaly locked the keypad Telcel MotoFone F3 … I found this cellular device and do not know the code … Does anybody know what to do? I cannot unlock it anymore! I do not know the 4 digit code. Can someone help?

June 9, 2008, 2:57

Comment by turley thornton: User icon

to unlock the keypad, that is easy; right on the direcftiohns it says to enter: *261*(action key or arrow facing up). the phone will say “ok” or give you a check mark on screen.

June 10, 2008, 20:26

Comment by Casey: User icon

Thanks for confirming that the top two bars on the battery and signal gauges are synchronized. Mine is setup the same way, its very annonying, and I thought I had a bad unit when I noticed this ‘feature’.

July 17, 2008, 3:44

Comment by Igor: User icon

Is there a way to keep alarm on “vibrate”? I tend to wake early and don’t want to wake up mife wife.

December 6, 2008, 18:38

Comment by ssp: User icon

@Igor:
Not that I know of.

December 8, 2008, 15:28

Comment by B: User icon

I have been looking for a headset for this phone for a while now. Any help would be appreciated.

May 26, 2009, 5:16

Comment by Kevin: User icon

I’ve just stepped down from the iPhone with unlimited voice and data to this F3 with a prepaid plan. I decided I was spending way too much money with the iPhone; about $150 US per month.

Anyway, is there a way to clear the call history on the F3. If I could clear the history daily, new calls that I’ve missed would be more obvious.

I’ve looked for the answer in the .pdf file provided my motorola.com but couldn’t find an answer to my question. The manual even mentioned that you should perform a master clear of the phone before giving it away or selling it, but then there was no record of how to do a master clear! (?)

Thanks for your help.

February 13, 2010, 18:36

Comment by Alex Bowles: User icon

This is the zombie apocalypse phone. It’s awesomeness defies description. And make no mistake, it was designed specifically for the third world.

That’s why there’s no USB charging (computers are hardly ubiquitous). It’s also why you can navigate commands with voice prompts only (basic literacy isn’t a given either). The one-piece face minimizes cracks to keep out dirt from the dirt floors which are everywhere, and the super-low power e-ink display allows for 500 hours in standby (handy when you may find yourself going - literally - for weeks without access to electricity).

Currently $22.59 via Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Motorola-Motofone-F3-Dual-Band-1900-International/dp/B0013A7KMW).

September 6, 2010, 0:55

Comment by amazed: User icon

30 Euro?. In India , you can get much better phone at that price. Seems Motorola is not learning any lesson from there India operation.

September 6, 2010, 12:13

Comment by Mojo: User icon

I am from India and I gave this phone/a very similar model to my mom nearly 3 years ago and the blessed thing has worked fine.It is a constant companion to mom in Kitchen and her travels. She has got our numbers on speed dial and thats all she uses. Speed dial buttons along with the green and red buttons.

September 6, 2010, 12:37

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