Motorola SLVR combines form and function

On the heels of creating the first revolution in cell phone design in years, Motorola has finally released a follow-up to the 10-million-selling RAZR. Its new non-flipping cousin shares the thin profile, the laser-etched keypad, and the silly four-letter vowel-deficient naming scheme: meet the SLVR.

Marketed in the U.S. with Apple’s iTunes music player as the SLVR L7, the phone is an exclusive with Cingular Wireless and can be had for the price of $200 plus a two-year contract. I took the plunge and bought one; what follows is my impression of the device from spending a week with it.

The phone is an elegant device, to be sure; the slightly smaller than half-inch-thick black body is both bold and stylish. The keypad, reminiscent of the iconic RAZR keypad, is slightly smaller and has a slight bronze tint; raised rubber numbers make it easy to use. Blue backlighting on the keys make the numbers clearly visible in the dark.

A single mini-USB port provides charging, data connection, and headphone connections, eliminating the connector clutter found on so many other phones. A small slot on the right side houses the included 512-megabyte microSD card. The phone’s camera and music speaker are on the back side.

While its looks may be enough to satisfy most fashion-conscious users, the brains inside the phone are where it really begins to shine. In addition to all of the standard features you’ll find on any phone, you can sync up to 100 songs between the iTunes library on your computer with the phone. The limit, imposed regardless of how much free space there is on the phone, makes sense: Apple isn’t about to encourage people to replace their iPods with one of these phones.

It’s easy to compare the SLVR to my old phone, a Sony Ericsson T630. Reception is significantly improved, though part of that can be attributed to switching away from the T-Mobile network over to the much better Cingular network. Bluetooth works just as well from my computer; all of my contacts and calendars sync up quite well. The phone is also happy to act as a file storage device when connected via USB, potentially eliminating the need to carry around a separate keychain drive. I can also use the SLVR with my computer for Internet connection anywhere, something that will undoubtedly come in handy.

For an incredibly slick gadget, though, there are some shortcomings. First and foremost is the ridiculously slow speed of music transfers. The phone uses USB 1.1, a standard at least five years out of date, and it’s limited to 12 megabits per second. Transferring 100 songs — an already small number by most standards — takes nearly an hour, compared to two to three minutes on a real iPod. Even worse, canceling a transfer in progress takes almost a minute, so it’s easy to inadvertently unplug the phone during a transfer.

Speaking of which, you should really avoid doing this. I’ve done it twice — both times completely by accident — and I ended up needing to reformat the memory card and start the transfer over from scratch both times. No kudos to Cingular customer support, either; they were completely clueless when I called to ask about the problem.

A second shortcoming is the lack of integration between the iTunes player on the phone and the rest of the phone’s software. iTunes is, very literally, an add-on program to this phone. It only accesses music stored in a special location on the memory card, and this music isn’t accessible to the rest of the phone, so if you’ll want to use one of your favorite tunes both within iTunes and as a ringtone, you’ll have to upload it twice. Even worse, the phone can only use as ringtones songs stored in its own six megabytes of internal memory, not those on the significantly more capacious memory card.

Cingular’s branding of the phone adds a couple of other annoyances. For one, only three games are bundled, and they’re severely limited demos. Also, Cingular’s “Media Net” and “Cingular Mall” functions take up two of the nine positions on the main menu, relegating more important functions deep in the menus. Compared to Motorola’s first iTunes phone, the ROKR E1, the interface is mostly the same, and many of the complaints that came with the ROKR still apply to the SLVR with iTunes. The difference is that, compared to the ROKR, which added iTunes to an otherwise mediocre handset (the Moto E398), the SLVR puts iTunes on a much better phone.

Overall, people who are looking only for a music device should probably steer towards one of the Sony Ericsson Walkman phones, which don’t have the same 100-song limit or occasionally lacking user interface.

People who want a nice phone that can secondly play small amounts of music, however, will find it hard to go wrong with the SLVR L7. This phone, despite its shortcomings, adds very nice functionality to an almost unbeatable physical form .