O2 has opted to shun the fast data access speeds of 3G and opt for an internationally renowned service that boasts over 50 million customers in 22 countries. Is it a good decision? We test the so called “internet for mobiles” and find out.
On first glance, the service just looks like any other WAP interface you'll find on any phone that's been launched over the last couple of years.
O2 customers will be able to choose from four i-mode handsets including the Samsung S500i, NEC 411i, NEC 343i, and Samsung Z320i. The two NEC handsets we used to test the service have been specifically designed to access i-mode and just like the first batch of 3G handsets they are okay, but nothing special.
Where they do score over the 3G handsets though is that they are the same size as regular GSM models and the battery life will last you longer than one call.
NEC's 411i offering is a clamshell device that bundles in Bluetooth and a 1.3 megapixel camera, while the NEC 343i is a thin candy bar model that apart from a cool white shell doesn't offer much.
Specific phones aside, O2 are keen to inform that the i-mode experience is the same no matter what the handset, making it more appealing for programmers to design cross-platform.
Press the special i-mode button on the handsets and you are taken to a menu offering access to the i-mode menu system: java applications and email access among other things. Every i-mode phone comes with an email address for sending and receiving messages (currently your phone's number although you can change this part to anything you like). Enter the i-mode menu and you are presented with a list of content, entertainment and information services.
There are over currently over 100 sites to choose from with O2 keen to add more by the day. i-mode customers can only access content that O2 has approved (no looking at Pocket-lint then) and depending on the service and the publisher you'll have to pay for the content on a monthly basis on top of your mobile phone subscription costs. Want the latest headlines from the Times Newspaper and it will cost you £1.99 a month. Want to get the latest gossip from Heat Magazine in the UK and it will cost you £3.00 a month plus data costs.
The data cost is a bit of a stealth tax here and O2 will charge you per megabyte of data you consume. This equates to about a 100 pages of text, but maybe considerably less if it is a site full of pictures.
But O2's i-mode isn't just about content, after all that would be fairly dull. Where the service shines out is the useful applications it not only currently offers, but the ones still to come.
Our current favourites are BAA's flight checker to see whether your flight is on time and Streetmap's java application that allows you to download an unlimited amount of maps for 50p per month (the minimum a partner can charge). Mrs Pocket-lint especially liked the Interflora service that will send flowers on your behalf while you are waiting for the train - cash and connection permitting.
To get people on board O2 will be offering free content subscriptions to official i-mode content sites until the New Year when customers buy or upgrade their phone to an i-mode handset (to a maximum of 10 at any one time and these can be bookmarked for easy access).
As a lifestyle technology, the service certainly shines through, making everything from checking our bank details on egg.com to seeing what's on television later via TV Times' listing guide a doddle.
We were disappointed with the handsets compared to today's 3G counterparts but then this is early days and no doubt O2 wanted to make sure it had made the right decision before rolling out the big guns. Our final grumble is O2's decision to make you pay for bandwidth on top of the subscription rates to the publishers or content providers. If the company had opted to take a bigger cut of the subscription fee then these could have been easily avoided.
There is no doubting that i-mode is a great service. Our advice would be to wait 3 months for better handsets to come along before diving in at the deep end, unless you really must have it now.