Podcast: Play in new window
The Virgin Lobster 700TV is the first Windows Mobile device from Virgin UK and is probably one of the first Windows Smartphones aimed at the “youth” and “fun” market rather than the “Business” and “Executive” market. The emphasis here is not on workflow or time-management but rather on watching digital TV, listening to Digital radio and playing about with your handset. Best of all you’ll not be paying huge chunks of money to watch the TV or radio either – it’s all provided free for 90 days on the “Pay As You Go” option (then just £5 per month) or completely free if you choose the contract option.
So will the Lobster 700TV broadcast a smile across our face and transmit joy to the CoolSmartPhone community? Let’s see eh ?
The box arrived at CoolSmartPhone HQ looking very posh. A TV test-card showed through the “700TV” lettering and the Lobster logo on the back. Inside you get a charger, battery, USB sync cable, stereo headset, manual, quick start guide, CD (with ActiveSync on) and a ClearVue CD which – obviously – has the excellent ClearVue on. This program lets you view Word, Excel and other documents on your Lobster 700TV. Neat.
The handset itself is, well. Curvy. I’ve sat here for a while trying to think of a way to describe it. In the end I’ve decided to say this. It’s curvy in a Lisa Tarbuck way, rather than a Gemma Atkinson way. OK? Got it? Good. I’ve taken a comparison shots so that you can see roughly how tall and wide it is.
Let’s start by looking at that curvy bit on the right. It’s got the large “TV” button and a button that takes you into the camera application. We’ll have a look at the TV application in more detail shortly.
This curvy right side presumably houses the DAB kit which, although the designers have worked overtime to style, looks a tad weird to me. I can only imagine that some techy at HTC (who make these phones) has been given a job sheet that says, “Add DAB reception to regular Smartphone”. He’s gone off and decided that, instead of redesigning the insides of a regular Smartphone to make space for the DAB stuff, he’d rather just shove it along the side of the existing circuit board.
It’s a love it or hate it style I think, however we’ll continue to look around the handset. On the top of the phone is a nice clicky power button. I like this power button, it’s like the one on the front of a Dell monitor and it works….. really well. You’ve also got the external speaker where your ringtone will blast out.
On the left side is the volume up / down keys. Holding these down will also do other things, like launching the audio notes or voice dial functions. More on that later though.
On the bottom is your standard miniUSB port (we mean “standard” in a good way though) and the socket for your headphones. The miniUSB port will give you a connection to your PC and charge point.
The screen itself is set back in the unit somewhat, however you can adjust the brightness of the LCD screen to combat any unwanted glare from the sun.
Wait.. Did I miss something there? Umm.. Side bits, check. Top, check. Bottom, check. Screen…. err.. check. Oh yeah. Wait, I haven’t covered the keyboard yet have I ? Well, there’s a reason for that. I have a problem with the keyboard. It’s a fairly big problem too. Let me show you….
Here’s the keyboard. Everything at the top works well, however the numeric part at the bottom is insane. Most of the keys on the silver part float and wobble around like a drunk fat man trying to stand at the urinal. The number 2, 5 and 8 seem especially bad. Look what happens if I press “2” down. A huge gap suddenly appears at the top of the key – seriously, you could lose a few supermodels down it. To make things worse sometimes it can bump into the numnber 5 and push that down too.
Check the keyboard out from a side profile. You’ll see that there’s actually two different types of keys on the numeric portion of this phone. The silver keys on the left have a slightly “tilt” on them whilst the darker keys on the right have a groove at the bottom of each key. These “grooved” keys seem to have been styled this way due to the specific functions they play in the TV / Radio application. The experienced “texter” who uses the “ABC” mode will find “double presses” can become difficult to perform because of the switching from one key type to another. That said though, I’ve just had to amend this entire review because Emily (my darling wife) picked it up a typed out a perfectly good text message using “T9″ within seconds. Doah! :)
These silver keys, as you can see, are angled “up”. You may be forgiven for thinking that this would actually match the height of the “grooves” in the darker keys.
Unfortunately the minute you touch these silver keys they become completely flat like this..
.. this means that they’re a different height when pressed to the darker buttons when pressed.
Around the back we’ve got a matching curvy battery cover..
Under here, if you manage to get the cover off (believe me it’s tricky) you’ll find a battery with a SIM card and a MicroSD card slot underneath it. Above it is the 1.3 megapixel camera which has actually been styled quite nicely.
Let’s cut to the most important part of this phone right now. It’s the “killer app” of this phone and it’s obviously why people are so interested in it. It’s got a TV. It’s not regular TV or the type of digital TV that you can get across the UK now. The service on this handset isn’t over 3G either – you may have heard of similar services via “Three” here in the UK but that service relies on an open 3G data connection.
So how does it work ? Put simply, the new DAB – Digital Audio Broadcasting system allows for data to be pushed across transmitters. This lets people receive loads of radio channels on their spanky new DAB radio receivers in excellent quality. The channels are fed down on frequencies which your regular desktop digital radio will scan automatically – no tuning or faffing about. On these frequencies are streams of data – up until now it’s been a 128 or 192k audio stream similar to that found on most radio websites.
The Virgin system – working on “Movio” from BT – puts streaming TV down some of these frequencies instead. These are picked up by the phone – along with a description of the programme you’re watching plus what’s coming next etc. This is all in addition to the regular radio channels you can get for your local area. Have a look at this page to check your coverage. It’s well worth plonking your postcode in here and looking for the green “ticks” on the UKDigitalRadio website to find how many DAB radio stations you’ll receive on the Lobster 700TV plus how likely you are to get the TV pictures (the more green “ticks” you get, the better!)
There’s been many questions from our forum about this handset so here’s the answers to the most popular questions….
– Yes, you’ll need a TV licence before you start – the BBC is funded entirely by the licence so you need to ensure it’s paid for.
– Yes, watching the TV on the Lobster 700TV is free for the duration of your Virgin Mobile “Pay Monthly” contract.
– If you choose the “Pay As You Go” option then the TV is free for 90 days, then you’ll need to start paying – currently £5 per month – for it. – According to Virgin the Mobile TV service (not necessarily DAB radio) is only available in UK and excludes Northern Ireland.
– Virgin do not control the content of the TV broadcasts, so if you see boobies on your phone it’s not their fault.
– There is the ability within the handset to scan other DAB frequencies (not JUST UK ones) – it’ll even scan all frequencies if you wish.
– The TV viewing in the version of the software tested only allows “portrait” screen orientation. The software powering the TV is upgradeable however so it may change.
– At the time of doing this review there are 5 TV channels available and I can get 43 DAB radio channels in my area, however there are more. The TV channels at the minute are BBC1, ITV1, Channel 4 (showing “Short cuts” – a mobile version of the channel which isn’t in line with the regular channel but doesn’t have interruptions), E4 and ITN.
So let’s get started with it. Out of the box we insert the Virgin Mobile SIM. You’ll notice that the MicroSD card is actually below the SIM card here. The battery is a standard HTC Smartphone battery that we’ve seen on a lot of the Orange SPV range and I’ll confess it does stand up rather well when watching TV.
The first power-on does all manner of configuration bits. The Virgin tweaks are added and the phone reboots into this screen …
There’s several different ways of accessing the TV functionality – you can either press the home screen plug-in (this shows you what you’re watching or listening too plus whether it’s on or off), via the menu or you could just press the sizeable “TV” button on the front of the unit.
The very first time you run the TV application a few things will happen. Firstly it’ll scan for available channels. As mentioned previously I got 43 radio stations, however if you’re fairly mobile and travel between different transmitters you may get some “greyed out” as you move to the new area. The new local channels for your new destination will then be shown alongside. For example, at home I get stations including “BRMB” – this is a Birmingham-based station. When I travel up towards Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent I’ll get new stations appear, such as “Signal One” – this is a North Staffordshire based station. BRMB is still listed, but it’s greyed out to let you know that it’s currently out of range.
You’ll also get a listing of which TV channels it’s found. At the time of this review there’s five channels available. The very first time you click on one it’ll ask you to grab the licence needed for the TV channels. This is done via a GPRS connection to Virgin Mobile. A web page is called up on your handset and the necessary licences are grabbed down the pipe. Trying to do this on any other connection – like a pass-thru connection – fails because the request must come through the Virgin network. A few people have already asked me about this – “Can you swap the SIM and still watch TV?” Well, yes and no. The phone is of course network locked, so putting another SIM in fails and the phone won’t start. We all know of course that the network lock can be got around, but even if you do pay to get your handset network unlocked then you’ll only be able to watch TV until the licence needs renewing or the TV application is updated.
I should mention here that everything to do with the TV and the radio facilities requires you to have the headphones plugged in. This acts as your aerial for the TV and radio services, so you need it plugged in whilts using it. There is, thank goodness, an option to have “Loudspeaker” turned on. This is excellent for showing off or letting all of your mates watch the latest episode of something on E4 whilst sat on the bus.
The digital radio (DAB) service is similar to the service you see on regular DAB radios. Once you click a station you’ll get some text telling you what is currently playing, who the DJ is and perhaps some other information too. This is in addition to the excellent Radio / TV Guide and programme details (shown above) that are fed down to you (along with all the TV / Radio station logos) over the air. There’s even “Red Button” functionality too – this can be access by pressing the TV button again.
OK, OK. So enough of the chatter. Let’s see it in action shall we ? I did a quick demo by recording a video on my M600. I’ve uploaded these to YouTube which has dropped the quality a bit so you can get the original MP4 videos at the links below (warning – they’re fairly large downloads).
You can see in the videos above pretty much all of the TV functionality. Personally speaking I didn’t have any huge problems with reception. Sure, if your passenger is trying to watch TV while you’re booting it up the motorway then yes, it will probably break up. Don’t expect perfect reception everywhere as yet, however DAB is the future and – like digital TV – it’s constantly being rolled out and transmitters are being added.
The TV / DAB Radio software has been done well. The notification messages are friendly and easy to understand. For example, this is what you get if the headphones aren’t plugged in..
I like this. Sure, it’s a Smartphone but Virgin have ensured that the customers buying it will easily understand the error messages / notification messages without having to get the manual out.Inside
So that’s the TV and all is well. How though, does the rest of the phone hold up to scrutiny ? Well we’re happy to report that it’s really quite good indeed from a software perspective. Everything you’d expect from a decent Windows Smartphone is there – Pocket Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Pocket MSN, File Explorer a camera and much more. Let’s have a quick look at the top menus just to get a quick overview..
– Start Menu – Page 1
Above you can see the TV and Radio application once more. We’ve also got Internet Explorer – this is a cut-down version of the very same Internet Explorer found on your PC. The camera application is also found here plus it’s accessible via the button on the side of the unit. Windows Media Player does all your music, video and entertainment stuff whilst Messaging keeps you in touch with SMS, E-Mail, MMS and Exchange accounts.
Next up we have Calendar to let you keep tabs on your life plus access into Contacts for your friends, work-mates and family. Activesync is there to hook you up to your PC and syncronise your data (contacts, email and much more beside), plus call history to check what calls you’ve made and received. Some of these options are available from the main home screen too. Don’t forget that all these options are accessible using the keypad for quick access. For example, pressing “1” will take you into TV & Radio. “2” will open up Internet Explorer and so on.
Let’s have a look at them in a bit more detail though first…
The usual Windows Smartphone apps are here and that of course includes Internet Explorer. It comes with some Virgin favourites (actually spelt correctly too – previous Windows Smartphones have always said, “Favorites” in this list even when you’re set to UK English). These include tones, pictures, gams, downloads and Virgin Bites which can be seen below.
You can adjust the way the screen is displayed (full screen, column view, desktop etc) plus you can change the font size or add stuff to you favourites listing.
Camera / Video Camera
The very latest camera application has been added to the Lobster 700TV. Like with most “out of the box” Smartphones it’s set as default with a fairly low resolution on the camera (why networks / handset manufacturers do this I’ll never know – surely you don’t want people taking 640×480 “medium quality” shots when the camera is capable of much better?!). There’s a zoom function, which is operated by moving up and down, and you can alter the brightness of the shot by pressing left / right. I’ve pointed the camera at our TV in a fairly dark lounge to show you the zoom function. It’s a digital zoom, so you can expect a certain amount of pixilation as you zoom in.
On the camera preview screen you’ll notice several bits of information. On the top left is the type of shot you’re taking. In this instance it’s a camera photo – it could be a movie, MMS video, contacts picture, picture theme or a sports shot. At the top it says, “M” – that’s the quality of the photo and next to it you’ll see where the photos will be stored. In this case it’s the internal memory. On the top right you can see how many photos you have left.
Down at the bottom of the preview screen you’ll see your zoom level, light meter and white balance (Auto/ Daylight / Night etc) plus whether your timer is set. There’s bags more settings to play with too. These are shown in the following screenshots..
I can change pretty much every aspect of the camera from the “Menu” options. The self-timer is always useful for fun shots that you’d like to be in, so you can set the delay above. You can also change the light balance although most will probably leave it as “Auto” which is default. The one thing you will want to change, as I already mentioned, is the quality of the pictures. This can be done from the “Capture Settings” option which allows you to tweak the resolution up to 1280×1024 (1 Megapixel). You can also change where the photos are stored. If you have a storage card it’s probably a good idea to use that as it’ll give you more internal memory space.
Above you can also see the “Quality” option. This will let you increase the image clarity still further. You’ve also got the ability to add a time stamp onto your shots too. Useful particularly if you can’t remember when and where you snapped a shot. You can also add some photo effects onto the image too. The Sepia and Grayscale options will give your photo that old-fashioned appearance.
It’s not just standard photos that are available though. You’ve also got up to 176×144 video, sports, MMS videos, contact pictures (for giving your contacts a preview image) and picture themes…
There’s only 5 picture themes on the Lobster 700TV, however they’re enough to give you a laugh with your mates and there’s always the possibility to buy more themes elsewhere.
Once you’ve taken a shot or recorded a video you also have the chance to go through the Pictures & Videos gallery. This “Pictures & Videos” application is present in a lot of Smartphones however I really think it’s a bit slower than it should be, especially when you’ve got quite a few images loaded up. It’s nothing against the Lobster 700 – it’s the fault of the people coding the app. Either way, if you choose “Pictures and Videos” from your menu option you’ll get to see everything you’ve snapped thus far. You can move around from internal to storage card memory too..
Overall the camera isn’t that bad at all. HTC seem to have a habit of putting less-than-great cameras into their phones. For those that don’t know, this is the HTC Monet handset and it has the same 1.3 megapixel camera which you’ll find in a lot of Windows Mobile phones. Whilst not brilliant the camera is good enough and I’ve included some examples below to show you. These have all been taken on the highest possible settings – click on them to get the original images.
Windows Media Player
Next up is Windows Media Player. We’ve got Windows Media Player 10 on board and it comes with a lot of the usual stuff you’d expect to see in the desktop version. There’s playlists, music libraries and libraries divided into type. This means you can listen to your own MP3’s and video files plus the onboard TV & Radio system – that’s loads more than your iPod! :)
The messaging on the Lobster 700TV is tied heavily into the contacts. Let’s not forget that you can “sync” with the contacts in your Outlook / Outlook Express so entering your contacts is a breeze (click here to learn how to do it quickly). You can then text your mates, or email them, or send them a picture message. If you’re feeling incredibly flash you can even synchronize with your Exchange server. Most people purchasing this handset however will use the Lobster 700TV as a text / MMS device. You can use T9 or old-style “abc” mode plus you can insert smiley-faces and other symbols. If you’re composing an email or MMS then you can insert pictures, audio notes, video and much more besides.
For those who haven’t seen or used a Smartphone like the Virgin Lobster 700TV before you can set up a POP email box to collect your email when you’re out and about – this will grab a COPY of messages from your POP3 mail account so you can keep in touch via email too. Also, in the example above I’ve just typed in a number to text, however by pressing the “action” button it’ll call up a list of my contacts so I can choose the person to text or email. I can also use the predictive dial feature (where you type in the persons name as if you were typing a message in T9) and it’ll quickly locate the correct person.
The built-in calendar app has always been a favourite of mine. I can plan a meeting in Outlook and then sync it to my phone use the supplied Activesync cable. At least, that’s what Microsoft tend to think people do. Personally I use it as an alarm, a reminder facility, and all manner of other things – even to remind me to.. err.. get some beer!
Using the calendar function it’ll remind me via an alarm just before 12 – then I’ll know that I have to go and grab some beer. :) This syncs’ with your PC, so you’ll get an alert in Outlook too. Excellent.
Your contacts are all synchronized with your Outlook / Outlook Express address book. This, as we mentioned earlier, makes it really easy to add people in (see how here).
You can also add numbers in via the phone too of course. Here we can add a name, number, home number, work, mobile, email address, postal address, fax number, custom ring tone, IM (instant message) details, website, job title, department, company or even “friendly” things like their birthday, anniversary, nickname, the name of their spuse, children plus they can have their very own picture (which you can add via the camera we mentioned earlier or a pre-stored photo). I’ve added a couple of test numbers in..
On the right you can see the contact card for this person. Just moving up or down and then pressing select will initiate the action. It’s simple, quick and clear. You can also choose to beam your contacts, copy or delete them. You can also send a vCard or filter the list of contacts down if it gets quite large. To send an MMS when you’re in “Contacts” you’ll have to choose it from the listings as there’s no option to do it within the actual contact card.
The Virgin Lobster 700TV is the first of it’s kind – a phone that not only receives digital radio but digital TV too. Deep inside it’s a Windows Mobile Smartphone with all the latest bits thrown in. Everything, including MSN, is included and we’re glad to see it all working flawlessly – including the additional TV / Radio software which is integrated well. This, though, starts us off with things we would’ve wished for. Firstly, a landscape TV format is needed with so many widescreen channels and it’s a shame that at launch the option isn’t available. Secondly, the handset itself is rather rotund and may pose a problem for phone holders and jeans pockets. Both of these aren’t major issues, however the keyboard is one problem we feel may annoy some users. It’s difficult to type text messages quickly and the movement of the keys combined with the differing key types (slightly raised with a groove on the darker keys contrasting with tilted silver keys) make speedy data tricky indeed. You should probably contrast these comments with my wife though, as she’s just picked up the phone and sent three perfectly typed text messages using “T9″, which appears to work much better, and she also stated that, “This is one of the best phones you’ve ever reviewed. I can just go out shopping or walking the dog now without having to worry about loading up lots of MP3’s or taking an iPod.” … doah!
I unpackaged this phone thinking that the TV wouldn’t come up to scratch. I figured that it’d suck battery life and the reception would be rubbish, however I’m pleasantly surprised by it and it’s pretty damned fantastic. I’d think about buying it just for the range of radio channels you get. There’s plans to expand the TV channels too and I must confess it was really quite pleasing to be able to watch a bit of TV whilst waiting for Emily to come out of the shops. Sure, I could “just buy a regular portable TV” but then I’d have to charge it and carry that around with me too. So yes, I am impressed with the Virgin Lobster 700 TV when it comes to it’s functionality (Windows Mobile Smartphone) and it’s extra “killer app” (the live TV / DAB Radio / TV Guide etc), however I’m not at all enamored with the keyboard.
This is a damned good phone which has been implemented well. It’s also a really cheap way of getting Digital Radio into your car – just plug the output into this Audio X FM transmitter and you’re away. If it wasn’t for the minor keyboard issues then we’d love it to bits, although Emily says, “It’s you big fingers, I can use it fine. Can I keep it?”
If you’re considering purchasing one then do please look at this page to check how good your local DAB coverage is first. Also, we’d love to see your comments if you have the Lobster 700TV, just hit “add a comment” below.
Links – Virgin Mobile