Panasonic Eluga dL1 review

3 out of 5
£370 (SIM free price)

For

Slim, waterproof, camera and video work nicely

Against

Crashes in Panasonic's tweaked UI, tweaks don't really add much to the user experience, no memory expansion, poor battery life, quiet ear speaker

Panasonic aims to crack the European smartphone market and the Eluga dL1 is the first device to arrive with that in mind. It finds itself landing in a fiercely competitive market, pitching itself against the likes of familiar rivals Samsung and LG, a new Sony and the returned-to-form HTC.

Can Panasonic strike it lucky with its oddly named Eluga, and can the Japanese company bring anything to a market already saturated with sophisticated and elegant devices?

Design

Design is one of the Eluga's strong points and certainly it's an area you can't afford to neglect ,given the number of great-looking devices out there. The Panasonic Eluga dL1 is certainly compact. The slim body is elegant and simple in its design, which has been growing on us as we've been using the phone.

There are some oddities, however. At the edges of the screen, the back curves away but the edges feel a little sharp. It does make it easy to grip and given the size of the phone it isn't a huge problem, but sharp edges seem to be the Eluga's thing.

The body is finished in plastics, the matte black rear staying mercifully free of fingerprints and dust, but it does feel slightly abrasive. This is a little odd at first, but after a week of use it no longer bothered us.

One thing that did remain irritating was the placement of the buttons. On the right-hand side of the device is the volume rocker and the standby button. Because of that sharp edge and the way the back curves away, these controls are moved around the back, making them somewhat awkward to press.

The standby button is especially tricky, unless gripping the phone in your left hand. If you're one of those people who always uses a phone two-handed, this might be fine, but for a quick glance at the phone when hanging on to a busy train or when walking the dog, it doesn't feel right.

To achieve the slim and waterproof design, Panasonic has opted for a sealed unit with the Eluga dL1. There are two flaps on the top, one reveals the slot for your micro SIM card, the other the Micro-USB slot. Having to remove the flap daily to change the phone is irritating. There is no option for memory expansion, with no microSD card slot present.

But in return you have a body that is 7.8mm thick (123 x 62 x 7.8mm). It's impressively lightweight for a device with a 4.3-inch display, at only 103g. Set it next to a phone like the Sony Xperia S or the HTC Sensation XE and it's positively tiny, which those with smaller pockets will appreciate.

Especially if those pockets have a tendency to get wet, because the Eluga is a waterproof phone. It has a sealed body and uses gaskets and O rings to keep the water out, rather than the nano-level protection you get on the Motorola RAZR. We used the Eluga in the rain on many occasions and it didn't seem to suffer.

Hardware, display

The display offers you 4.3-inches of AMOLED display. While the blacks are nice and deep and the colours vibrant, AMOLED displays aren't the most natural looking by modern standards, with the colours overly saturated. The other downside is that as the screen dims it can look a little grubby, with whites looking untidy when you scroll pages up and down.

However, the resolution at 960 x 540 pixels is ample. It doesn't match the latest 1080 x 720 displays on devices like the Xperia S or the HTC One X, so whichever way you slice it, this isn't an Android phone at the top of the specs pile.

The same rings true of the remainder of the specs. The TI 1GHz dual core processor has plenty of power and the 1GB of RAM is welcomed, but the 8GB of internal memory is perhaps on the small side and the 1150mAh battery certainly is.

NFC is included, with a start card in the box. We found that NFC refused to work after a number of tests, so eventually we had to give up on it.

So reading from the spec sheet, the Panasonic Eluga dL1 is sub-flagship. It might have been top of the charts in 2011, but can't compete with the latest and greatest. That's not necessarily the coup de grâce of the Eluga, as it still has the power to perform pretty much all tasks with relative ease.

Software downfall

So the design has its good points and the hardware is reasonable. However, as a new entry into the Android world, the Eluga doesn't really impress when it comes to the software.

Launching on Gingerbread - ie, not the latest version of Android that you'll find on rival launch devices - is something of a problem. What you really notice is how dated the Eluga feels in everyday use. With Android 4.0 launching more than 6 months ago, some of the raw Gingerbread features lack shine, even if they are functional.

But Panasonic isn't just pitching out a raw Android device, it has made some customisations. It has changed the home pages and the lock screen, for example, but neither is especially engaging.

The lock screen offers a left or right swipe in an arcing motion to unlock the phone. That's fine, but there's a dearth of anything else. The stock music player doesn't appear there, you miss the direct access to notifications that Ice Cream Sandwich offers and there are no unlock shortcuts.

Land on the home screen and Panasonic's launcher seems rather basic. You can choose three shortcuts to drop into the launch bar, but you can't pile up folders effectively like you can on the Sony Xperia S, also running on Gingerbread. Arguably, stock Ice Cream Sandwich would make this more dynamic, with better handling of folders, so long as Panasonic sticks with the standard launch bar.

Panasonic has also included an “eco mode” app. This aims to prolong the battery life by taking various steps to reduce power-hungry features. It isn't a new idea, HTC among others, has a similar set of options. One thing to watch out for, if you do use the eco settings, is the point at which some of your connections turn off, for example Wi-Fi.

In terms of social networking, Panasonic hasn't bundled in the sorts of SNS apps that others do, so you're left to regular Android apps, which is no bad thing. One nice app they have included is called Picture Album. Much of this duplicates the regular gallery app, but press and hold a photo and you'll get the option to favourite or send to Facebook or Twitter, which is a nice touch.

Panasonic has also tweaked the stock keyboard. This offers trace, a la Swype, as well as predictive text entry. Trace can be switched off, although it's fast if you master it. The keyboard is intuitive enough and we've been happy to use it, but as we say with most Android phones, you can easily change it for a third-party keyboard if you prefer.

Overall, the worrying thing is that Panasonic has gone to the effort of changing some things, like the apps tray, but none of these changes really adds to the experience. We also found it felt slow in use and crashes were relatively frequent. Crashes are something that Android users have had to deal with, but it adds to the feeling that the Eluga isn't quite up there with the best.

Media

As a company known for AV, you might expect a tweaked music or video player, but Panasonic has left both as stock Android. There are a couple of additions that Panasonic has made however, including a DLNA client. We found it to be lightening fast to find content on our Cisco home media server, however the format support seems limited, refusing to play video or music. It also acts as the server for sharing content to compatible devices. The stock music player is reasonable and it isn't too hard to find better options on Google Play. We found the Eluga to be a little on the quiet side, constantly having to push the volume up. The same is true of the external speaker, which isn't hugely loud.

As an Android device, the Eluga will handle flash video you find online or via apps, with services like BBC iPlayer working nicely. As we said, the Eluga doesn't have the widest range of file format support out of the box, so you might have to scrabble around and find a better app.

Cameras

When it comes to the camera, the Eluga offers an 8-megapixel sensor around the back. There is no flash and there is no forward-facing camera, again marking up a few omissions on the spec sheet.

Panasonic has lavished some attention on the camera interface and we actually quite like it. It isn't as simple as the latest effort from HTC, but it packs in a number of useful options.

There's a range of focusing modes, including touch focusing, and various effects that can be applied to add interest to your shots.

The camera isn’t the fastest in use and we found it consistently switched down to 2MP, most likely a software bug. The results, however, are pretty good. Like all camera phones, shots get noisy as the light dips and it quickly blows out highlights in high contrast shots.

Video comes in at 720p and the results are impressive. The video capture offers continuous autofocus, which is smooth and fast, so you don't really notice it's doing it.

Calling, battery

We found that the ear speaker was rather quiet on the Eluga, so we had to turn it up all the way and calling in busy places, like a train station, was more difficult than it should be. Callers never reported a problem hearing us, however.

As we've mooted, the battery life is something of a problem for the Eluga. This isn't the most powerful phone out there, it doesn't have the largest display, but the sacrifice for that slim design is one of the smallest batteries.

In reality, the trade-off isn't worth it. As Motorola has proven with the Motorola RAZR Maxx, Android users will take a hit on the thickness, if they'll get better battery life. In the case of the Eluga, we had to charge it before the end of everyday. This is the phone that needed to be plugged in early evening if it was to survive through use till bedtime.

Verdict

Panasonic is a company that has a great range of products from televisions to cameras. Perhaps that raised our expectations of what the Eluga would offer, but it doesn't feel quite as mature as some of the company's other products.

Certainly there are some highlights. The slim design is eye-catching and some might love that it isn't a huge lump in your pocket. The waterproofing takes away the worry of whipping it out in the street in a downpour and there is enough power to do the things that you expect a smartphone to do.

This is set in the context of a user experience that lacks the refinement of HTC Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz, or just plain old Android 4. This isn't an insurmountable problem because much of this can be addressed by updates, changing the launcher or careful selection of apps.

As it is, the out-of-the-box experience isn't compelling enough for us to set Panasonic above its rivals.