The display measures an ample 2.0 inches diagonally and supports 262,000 colors. Great for viewing photos and playing games, the display shines brighter than many Motorola screens we've seen; it's even readable in direct light. You can change the backlighting time and brightness, but visually impaired users should note that you can't alter the font size. The primary tool for navigating iTunes (see Features) and the standard Motorola menu interface is a five-way joystick that you can program as a shortcut to five user-defined features. The joystick is on the small side, but even those with bigger hands shouldn't have a problem. We'd prefer an iPod mini Click Wheel, but during playback of audio files, you can press down on the joystick and pull up information such as full-screen album art and personal ratings.
In addition to the joystick, you'll find the traditional Talk and End keys below the display, two soft buttons, and a dedicated menu key. In an especially convenient touch, there's a clearly marked button that instantly open iTunes. The large keypad buttons are raised above the surface of the phone, making it easy to dial by feel. A bright backlight illuminates the keys, and you can program that light in a choice of eight color patterns that change when you receive a call or during certain actions (text messages, battery charging, and so on).
We liked that the dedicated volume controller on the left spine allows you to adjust levels for calls and music, no matter what screen you're on. The control makes the Rokr E1 sleeker and more agile, though those looking for the prowess of an iPod will be sorely disappointed.
Below the volume rocker, you'll find a "smart key" that you can set as yet another shortcut to any of the phone's features. On the right spine sits a dedicated camera button that's too thin for our tastes. On both sides of the phone, you'll find sizable 22KHz polyphonic stereo speakers that sit above rectangular LED lights, which you can set to flash in accompaniment to the keypad backlighting. It's a gimmicky but eye-catching touch. The camera-lens mirror and a surprisingly bright flash are located on the back of the phone, while the headset jack is conveniently located on the top. The included headphones are well designed and use a cell phone-friendly 2.5mm jack, though a 3.5mm adapter is included for those who want to use their own headphones. About 6 inches down from the right earbud sits a microphone for speakerphone calls that works quite well and includes a Mute button.
After looking in vain for the TransFlash card slot (a 512MB card is included), our worst fears were realized when we found it resting behind the battery. But that's not all--you must first remove the SIM card to access it. While you probably won't need to remove the TransFlash card too often, we'd prefer to see it rest in a convenient slot on the phone's spine. And by the way, prying out the battery can be tricky.It's no surprise that the music player is the Rokr's primary attraction--it's called the Rokr, after all--but we'll get to the music functionality in a minute. The rest of the Motorola Rokr E1 covers a satisfying array of features. The phone book holds 1,000 contacts, each of which can take six phone numbers, an e-mail address, a postal address, and a birth date; the SIM card holds an additional 250 names. You can assign contacts to caller groups, pair them with a picture for photo caller ID, or assign them one of eight polyphonic ring tones--somewhat sparse for a music phone. Other features include a vibrate mode; instant messaging; voice dialing; call timers; a calculator; e-mail support for POP3, IMAP4, and SMTP; a date book; an alarm clock; text and multimedia messaging; a password-protected "safe" for storing personal information; syncing for your calendar and contacts; and a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, though there's no FM radio. We're pleased to see the Rokr E1 came with Bluetooth and a speakerphone, but these extras quickly lost their luster. The Rokr's Bluetooth functionality is limited to voice calls, and you can activate the speakerphone only after you've made a call.
The iTunes experience on the Rokr is remarkably similar to the iPod's, so there is instant familiarity for iPod owners. Opening the player takes you straight to the music library, where you can organize songs by playlist, artist, album, and name. Under the Playlists option, you'll see transferred playlists, plus one called Mobile Phone, which holds the songs created by the convenient iTunes' Autofill feature. When playing music, the phone goes back into standby mode while displaying onscreen soft controls and album art. Settings include shuffle of songs or albums, as well as repeat one or all but no equalizers. Transferring between the cell phone and the music player is seamless, as music automatically stops when you receive a call. Hang up and press the dedicated iTunes key, and your song picks up again from the point you left off. There's also an airplane mode that lets you listen to your tunes in flight with the cell phone turned off.
Despite all the things the Rokr's music player can do, there are quite a few it can't. To begin with, you can download songs only through the included USB cable. There's no way to transfer iTunes music wirelessly, and since you must listen to music through the included wired headset, Bluetooth fanatics won't be pleased. There is a strict 100-song storage limit, and the iTunes tracks are stored on the 512MB TransFlash card. You can't store downloads on the phone's 5MB of integrated memory, and if you try to store 101 tracks, you'll get an error message. Though 100 songs may be perfectly fine for some users, we were miffed by the cap. For a device that's all about music, we were hoping for at least 1GB. What's worse, Apple said the 100-song limit won't change even if bigger cards come out, despite the fact that TransFlash cards are currently limited to 512MB. But wait, there are more catches. The Rokr E1 pairs with merely one computer at a time. When we tried connecting to a second computer, the Rokr E1 erased all our previously loaded songs. And lastly, you can't use iTunes tracks as ring tones.