Hands on: The Wristfone — dumb idea, good execution

Leave it to a company that makes watches to create a wrist cellphone you might actually want to buy.

Neutrano will start selling two Nutec-branded WristFones come June: the 97020, which has a black phone with a physical dialpad, and the 97030, a metallic model which uses an on-screen dialpad, for around $400 each. Each is equipped with a color touchscreen LCD, a music player, a 1.3-megapixel camera and Bluetooth, along with e-mail and messaging capabilities.

Great stuff, except watch phones are just dumb. It may have been cool when Dick Tracy wore one, but that was 80 fragging years ago. There've been a couple of technological advancements since then that obviate the need to wear a manacle-sized phone on your wrist.

So why would anyone want to buy one of these WristFones? I got a chance to play with a prototype of the 97020 last night and found a couple of reasons. Hit the jump for my hands-on review.




Face/Off

Neutrano's Nutec WristFone doesn't solve the bulky problem of a wrist phone, although it is surprisingly light. It also seems to have addressed all those other problems that make a watch phone dumb.

For starters, the watch part of the 97020 detaches from the band and works like any other cellphone. It may be bulky and clunky as a watch, but it's a real tiny cellphone.

Next, even though it's only a GPRS (not even EDGE must less 3G) GSM phone, it actually sounds pretty good with plenty of value (it's an unlocked phone and we used it on T-Mobile's network). You can use it as a speakerphone, but the room needs to be tomb quiet. When it is, you can easily hear what's being spoken and the mic can pick up your end of the conversation with the phone dangling from your wrist, leaving both hands conveniently free for other activities.

On the prototype, the face slides off the band base from right-to-left (toward your elbow), which just feels wrong unless you're left-handed and you wear your watch on your right wrist. Neutrano's president, our demonstrator, indicated this counter-intuitive slide off might be corrected so it slides off to the right toward your wrist for the production model. But the slide off was quick and easy, and it's way faster than fishing your phone out of your pocket.

But it's better than the 97030, which you have to hold up to your ear and makes you look as if you're checking to see if it's ticking.

Since both models include Bluetooth 2.0 you can avoid the whole slide-off/hold-it-to-your-ear issue. But I actually liked sliding the face on and off to answer a call. Wearing the phone: dumb. Sliding off the face: cool.


Touch Semi-Sensitive

The touchscreen requires pinpoint touches, eased when you use the telescoping stylus, inserted into the right side of the face behind the dialpad. Using a pen with the ink point retracted worked just as well.

Oft-used functions can be accessed by touching the buttons on the clock face: 3 (messages), 6 (camera), 9 (menu) and 12 (phonebook). On either side of the screen are six touch control icons: talk, menu/okay, end on the left, volume/navigate up, back, volume/navigate down on the right. A USB jack for power and for the included stereo earbuds and a microSD slot is on the left side, the power button on the right side. The microSD slot can handle only a 1 or 2GB card.

The interface could use a bit of touching up. It took around 10 minutes to figure out how to send an MMS picture message, for instance. Even the company's president was flummoxed until we accidentally stumbled on the solution. But text composing was kind of fun — both phones have letter-by-letter handwriting recognition, with no special characters to memorize. It wasn't perfect, but it was easier and faster than multi-tapping text on the tiny dialpad, which is fine for number dialing.


Higher Tech than You Think

Both models contain surprising high-tech successes: the 1.3-inch, 240 x 320-pixel, 262k-color LCD screen is pretty bright and readable (the 97030 has a 1.5-inch screen. The camera, mounted perpendicular to the "12" on the clock face, is pretty full-featured — 2x digital zoom, self-timer, continuous shooting mode — and has a quicker shutter than a lot of cellcams I've used; it's got a decent music player and an FM radio with on-screen touch controls. Music plays in the background when you use other apps and, as noted, USB earbuds are included… unusual these days.

My lone complaint is the 97020, with a mostly plastic casing (which does keep it light) and a faux leather band, felt cheap. If Neutrano replaces the band, which is under consideration, it would help make the phone feel worth its price. The 97030 is metallic and felt more manly and valuable.

Yes, I'd actually buy it. Maybe not for $400, but that's because I'm only a poor writer.