I’ve spent the last two weeks with the Motorola Debut i856, a feature phone on the Sprint network that makes use of iDEN tech with push-to-talk. It’s the slimmest push-to-talk phone I’ve seen and has solid voice quality and a decent music player. Unfortunately, the keypad makes texting feel like a chore and with increasingly cheap smartphones, the i856 might not have enough features to keep your interest.
The i856 is definitely a good looking phone. I’ve always preferred sliders to clamshells, and again, the thin body is a nice addition to the world of iDEN devices. At 4.19 inches long by 2.0 inches wide by 0.59 thick, it’s small enough to tuck into a pocket or a small purse. The front of the phone has a ring with four navigation buttons and a selection button. The left, right, and selection buttons control the media player whenever you have music playing. The rest of the time they’re used for standard browsing. The side of the phone has your volume rocker, the push-to-talk key (which also pulls up the contacts page) and a volume toggle. You also get a 3.5mm headphone jack, allowing the use of your headset of choice.
One confusing design feature is the placement of the microSD slot. It’s inconveniently tucked under the battery cover – not a huge deal, but a pain if you like to switch out your music regularly.
The keypad design is where the i856 suffers most. It looks good, but the buttons are spongy and close together, making it almost impossible to text with two hands. The keys are raised, so it’s easy enough to dial by feel with one hand, but doing anything else is an exercise in frustration.
With any feature phone, I look for it to do one thing really well. If I wanted something that could multi-task well, I’d step up to a smartphone. The i856 actually has a great little media player. It organizes tracks by artist, album, and genre, and (my personal favorite feature) it supports podcasts. You can set the phone to play music in the background while performing other functions, and the keys that toggle on the front of the phone make it easy to control what you hear. The player supports a wide range of formats, so you shouldn’t have trouble getting what you want on the phone.
The i856 also has a 1.3MP camera. It takes pictures of about the quality you’d expect, worse in low light. There’s a 600 capacity contact list with the ability to group contacts for push-to-talk and customize caller ID photos and ringtones. Beyond that you get the basic downloads for wallpapers, ringtones, and games.
Quality and Performance
I was really impressed with the call quality on the i856. It’s crystal clear on both ends, so much so that my friend thought it was a VoIP call. Speaker phone was good enough for occasional hands-free use. Again, media features are strong and easy to control, just make sure you’re using a headset. The external speakers sound tinny and thin.
Overall, this is a decent phone if you’re really committed to push-to-talk. Beyond that, your $100 could get you a Palm Pre if you’re committed to Sprint (the i856 is also available through Boost), which is a much more flexible device.
Motorola has offered us two of these handsets for a giveaway. As soon as we have details for the contest I’ll post them here. Don’t forget to check out our other reviews at the Gadget Teaser Reviews section.