First ELSE - First Look review

ELSE Ltd was born today along with their first handset, cunningly named the First ELSE. To clear things up ELSE Ltd was formerly known as Emblaze Mobile and today changed the name of the company as well as announcing their first device to the world. Pocket-lint were on hand to witness the unveiling, and have a close look at the new handset.

The company don't want you to call it a phone. They are pushing the First ELSE as a portable device capable of fulfilling a number of connected roles, but not centred around the phone. Company CEO, Amir Kupervas, called out Apple's iPhone, pointing out that it was named around the "phone" and that at all times the phone took prominence.

The differentiation perhaps doesn't go much further than marketing: it will be sold as a mobile phone, in mobile phone outlets and supported by the mobile phone network. We'll call it a mobile phone and so will everyone else.

In recent times we’ve seen a shift in mobile phone marketing to focus on applications and services, not just hardware. Windows Mobile is doing it with its giant application icons and Apple has been saying "there's an app for that" for yonks: it's fun, it's light hearted. The teaser video for the First ELSE plays out like something from a Tom Clancy movie. You expect to see Matt Damon stroking a PSG-1. It's the stuff of thrillers.

But is the handset itself thrilling?

The hardware specs are fairly typical. It measures 115.6 x 56.6 x 13mm, fairly average dimensions, if not a little on the long side. That gives you a 3.5-inch, 854 x 480 pixel resolution, display. It's a capacitive touchscreen and from what we've seen it seems responsive enough.

The widescreen aspect means that you don't get all the landscape space you might have wanted to reduce scrolling on websites, but it is sharp and the colours from sample images were certainly vivid, allowing of course for the fact that these were put in the device to do just that - show the screen at its best.

On the connectivity front you get UMTS/HSDPA (tri-band), GSM, EDGE (quad-band) as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It connects to the charger and your PC via a microUSB jack. A 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the top.

Around the back is a 5-megapixel camera, but no sign of a flash or a LED illuminator. Kupervas used the opportunity in presenting the phone to take a shot at Sony Ericsson's Satio, asking the audience when they'd choose a 12-megapixel phone over the 5-megapixel Canon camera? We didn't get to see the First ELSE's camera in action, so we don't know how it stands up. Of course you get GPS too.

You also get 32GB of memory, so the First ELSE really punches hard into the storage area. Unfortunately there is no microSD card slot, so you can't just stick your music collection in on a 16GB card, something of an oversight in our opinion.

The First ELSE isn't about the hardware though. It is about the user interface, so everything that is written above you'd be encouraged to ignore, or so the company would have us believe. With the First ELSE comes a new operating system and platform for you to discover. It is based on an Access Linux platform at its core, with a user interface called ELSE Intuition.

ELSE claims that Intuition is the end of the "main menu". In practise it doesn’t look like this really is the case, as you have a number of different styles of menu operation in ELSE. There is a diamond style menu that accesses major application groups and then there is sPlay. It is all designed to be operated by a single thumb for one-handed operation, with sPlay fanning out options for phone, diary and media, as the name suggests. You simply highlight the one you want and lift your thumb off to select that option.

Of course, that one-thumbed operation, as our pictures show, is the right thumb. If you are left-handed, you'll have to snort in derision and get on with it as us lefties so often do. ELSE told us that First ELSE is designed for right-handed folk but perfectly usable by left-handers, with a planned "flip capacity" for future versions. As it is, if you're left-handed, your thumb will cover the menu options as they splay out.

All the usual suspects are here and the interface does look a world apart from the staid menus that plague many other phones. But do you have a problem with Apple or Android's icons? The overall effect on the First ELSE is something like you'd expect to see in The Terminator's HUD. It has a raw futuristic look to it that looks sharp and technical.

There are also a number of shortcut touch buttons running down the right-hand side of the phone, giving you access to the menu, up/down navigation, back, and cross-platform search. This is a feature that we've all been calling for and ELSE claims to offer both device searching and online searching in a single integrated area.

We didn't have the opportunity in our demo to evaluate how this will be in day-to-day use, but it is interesting, futuristic and looks great. We asked Kupervas what the inspiration was behind the First ELSE and the reply was simple: The Fifth Element and Minority Report. The idea that a sci-fi look and feel could be put into a device now drove Emblaze (as it was then) and Access to design the interface that the First ELSE gives us.

We were hoping for three precogs hiding under the back cover, giving a psychic connection to the Internet, or Milla Jovovich wearing a few white straps, but it seems not. Instead the hardware sits on top of a Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 processor, the likes of which we've seen in the Palm Pre.

The First ELSE will also feature "silent communication", meaning you can turn your phone into your very own automated call centre. If you can't take the call, you can trigger a range of questions and responses for the caller, like "press * for urgent" or "press # to call back later".

The on-screen keyboard looked pretty futuristic too, boasting algorithms to workout what you are doing from your presses and predictive text entry to produce the words you meant. The switch from portrait to landscape seemed snappy too and works in most, but not all, applications.

The ethos behind the First ELSE is total integration. Rather than be a phone with a GPS, it is designed to behave like a standalone device. Kupervas named a number of companies whilst detailing the ELSE: iPod-like music system, BlackBerry-like email, TomTom-like GPS. Bold claims indeed, but as a marketing speech it sounds like the perfect device.

But then we come to the crunch, the single point which will likely define the success or failure of ELSE. All the above are supported by established systems whereas the First ELSE is starting from scratch. Almost. Looking at the supporting organisations brings out a few names that reveal what is behind ELSE. Navteq mapping, Emoze email, Alango to improve the voice communication, Nuance voice recognition, Red Bend OTA updating and so on.

ELSE told us that it has set up its own infrastructure for an easy out-of-the-box device that works straight away, but of course, we'll have to see it in action before we can pass a judgement on it. Whether that means you'll get cross-protocol IM or OTA Google Contact syncing, we don't yet know.

We were told that the SDK would be released when the phone comes out to allow third-party developers to generate apps. Given the success of the iPhone and growing success of Android, this has to be a primary concern. We were promised great things from the Palm Pre App Catalog, but that is still to put out the big guns in terms of apps.

Kupervas told us that third-party apps would be integrated to the core, so rather than a standalone app, you'd still get access to the live PIM and all the information there. Using Twitter as an example, Kupervas told us that rather than an extra Twitter layer, it would integrate fully with your existing contacts.

 

Verdict

ELSE made some bold claims with the announcement of the First ELSE. But you need to get people to take you seriously. The company is certainly pushing a different approach from a marketing angle, but ultimately it is joining a competitive marketplace full of smart devices demonstrating convergence and integration at an advanced level. There is nothing new here, per se, but the First ELSE aims to deliver the best of what everyone else is doing.

Companies like INQ Mobile have demonstrated that there is space for innovation and ELSE are certainly sending out the right messages here. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and unfortunately it looks like we'll be waiting to spring 2010 before we get our hands on it in the real world.

Check out all our hands-on pictures over in our gallery.