Smart Information Column
Issue 2, 11 December 2003
Virgin Mobile Kyocera 2119b "Party Animal" & SE47 "Slider" Review
This review covers two Kyocera cell phones sold by Virgin Mobile USA, the 2119b "Party Animal" and the SE47 "Slider" models.
The Kyocera 2119b is the older of the two designs, in both size and display, and typical in design of many bar phones from the mid-90s. Despite it's aged appearance, the 2119b is one of the most reliable, trouble-free phones ever made due to a solid construction that allows it to withstand much abuse, and has easy disassembly for repairs. It was introduced during 2001/2002 along with the new Virgin Mobile cell phone service as one of two phones you could then buy.
Nevertheless, it is a phone that drags a t-shirt pocket down due to its weight, and next to the modern, newer SE47 model introduced in late 2003, a mammoth in comparison. The SE47 is light years ahead of the 2119b in terms of design, construction feel, features, and so forth - apporpriately so since the 2119b was Virgin Mobile's lowest priced phone and the SE47 is their highest priced phone (at the end of 2003).
As you can see in these two pictures of the front and back, the SE47 is almost the same size as the 2119b when slided open. This allows for comfortable use, unlike much smaller phones, with the microphone close to the mouth in use to reduce the background noise it picks up. The huge antenna on the 2119b does it little good vs. the smaller SE47, which beats the 2119b in signal reception, albeit just slightly so.
The 2119b comes apart quickly. First, the back cover slides down, revealing the battery, after which the front cover detaches along with the replaceable keypad. What's left is the actual motherboard and LCD panel of the cell phone (here, still attached to the back cover & antenna assembly). The covers are merely cosmetic, and suprisingly, make up a lot of the bulk of the 2119b. The rear cover slides off rapidly for easy battery replacement.
After removing the cover, the simple use of a screwdriver removes the back cover completely, and reveals the actual motherboard itself - the only part of the cell phone you really need along with the battery to have everything work. Further pictures follow of the disassembled 2119b phone. (Note: the white LED I attached to the battery is not part of the phone itself.) A very simple construction that allows for rapid replacement of all components.
Because of the reliable (almost TV remote control) like construction, and durable, thick keypad material, you can abuse the 2119b to no end and it will likely work. Even components such as the microphone, speaker and so forth are not solidered to the motherboard, but rather held by spring pressure and allows for rapid replacement of broken parts. While I would worry about sitting on the 2119b, I suspect it would survive that abuse whereas the more fragile SE47 would break.
(Note: I have not disassembled the SE47 phone due to its high purchase cost and possible complexity due to the slider mechanism. (Just bought it, too!))
The SE47 is a smaller phone when closed and similar in size to most compact flip-type phones. The unique advantage is that you can always see the display due to the slide-up-to-open design. It has all of the benefits of a bar-type phone (easily laid flat, no hinge to break, can prop up while open, can lean against something on a desk for rapid status checks, etc.) in a compact, lightweight, rounded form-factor that easily fits in most pockets. A hole for a wrist strap is located at the back, top. Because of the rounded bottom on the SE47, you cannot stand it up by itself like the 2119b with it's flat bottom. A design flaw, in my opinion given that many users would like to be able to stand their phones in front of them on their desks so that they can monitor their calls at work and home. The SE47 keys feel of higher quality than the rubbery 2119b keys, and the metal highlights on the plastic keys and 4-way pad make it seem like a higher-quality phone. Click stops lock the phone in both the open and closed position, but are easy enough to disengage so that you can comfortably slide it open and closed with just one hand. Expect the phone to break if you sit on it or bend it wrong with strong force when this phone is opened. There is simply no way it can be made as strong as the mono-body construction of the 2119b.
The LCD screen on both models are readable in daylight - the 2119b by nature of its monochrome LCD, the SE47 due to the reflective color LCD that is also backlit. The 2119b is superior across a range of conditions, with wide viewing angles, excellent character crispness and legibility, and contrast. You can easily read the 2119b screen under bright daylight, an office environment, or a pitch black room. The LED adds some degree of brightness in lighted conditions as seen in this picture on the SE47, but is more evident in real-life and in low-light conditions. (The reflective illumination nature of the SE47 LCD panel is difficult to capture in a picture.)
On the other hand, the SE47 has a LCD screen with a more narrow viewing angle, going dark at 45 degrees off center with the backlight on, and at even more narrow viewing angles with only the reflective backpanel in use (whatever is the proper angle to act as a mirror in reflecting available light). However, due to the bright LED backlight, it is brighter and easy to read once the LED is on from afar; the green backlight on the 2119b pales in comparison at low light levels when the LCD panel is viewed from afar. While the 2119b backlight does not need a lower level, even when used at night with eyes fully adjusted for night vision (ie. bright lights hurt), the SE47 has a power saving mode that kindly reduces the LED backlight brightness for comfortable nighttime use. Of course, a more limited viewing angle also prevents others from spying on you when you use the phone in a crowded train or location. However, on a desk, you can read the 2119b at almost any angle without picking up the phone, but you must always pick up the SE47 and either press a button to light up the display or angle the phone to reflect light like a mirror to read the display. Here, the use of an OLED display with a more limited color range would be preferable in my opinion due to the much higher contrast and viewing angle - similar to that one Motorola Timeport phone that had a OLED display released a few years ago. Then again, the SE47 is cute with the colorful monkey background.
That said, the 2119b is just barely usable for reading a book when held just above the page at night in complete darkness; the SE47 will comfortably light a radius of several feet around you to let you walk around in the dark, and read that book. (In the picture, the SE47 is so bright, it has caused the camera to overexpose the screen. In real life, both screens are very legible and clear.) You can use the power saving backlight mode on the SE47 to cut the brightness down by about half.
The 2119b LCD panel is a low-resolution, monochrome model which is very legible. The SE47 panel has a higher-resolution and can display multiple colors. A side-by-side, close-up view can be seen in this picture. The 2119b has no selectable or programmable background or screensaver graphics; the SE47 comes with a decent selection of both to choose from in addition to just a plain background if you don't want any.
As you can see, the 2119b is currently searching for a signal. The performance of the SE47 for signal reception is slightly better, however, both phones display the same number of signal bars in the same areas of use (0 to 4 bars indicating signal strength). In locations far away from a cell phone tower, or in buildings the block cell signals inside, both phones will operate almost identically, with the SE47 performing slightly better by not cutting off parts of words as often in zero bar areas. In a busy metropolitan area with good cell tower coverage, you should have full coverage wherever you go. However, those in remote locations with spotty cell tower coverage and locations with varied terrain should consider other phones with better signal reception (eg. on the SprintPCS system, the Sanyo SCP-4900 bar-phone is highly praise for its ability to find a signal in some of the worst reception conditions. Not to mention its amazing 8+ hour continuous talk time & 20+ day standby lifespan when using the extended battery.)
The 2119b LCD screen window is set depressed from the body, so it gets less smudging from your face and ear during use. The SE47 LCD screen is set flush, and picks up smudges easily from your face and fingers as you use the phone or slide it open and closed. A good solution to protect the screens from scratches is to use the Fellowes-brand WriteRight micro-thin screen protectors for PDAs, cut to size. You should buy them in the largest available sizes since they all cost the same so that you can make as many screen protectors as you need, or if you make a mistake in the application. Of course, you can also use ClingWrap cut to size and stretched flat across the screen - here, the 2119b application would last longer since it can be sandwiched in place between the screen edge and front cover; the SE47 would rub or peel off after short use due to the flush design. ClingWrap would be a temporary or cheap method of screen protection vs. the Fellowes screen protectors. I would recommend the latter.
Both chargers are identical in specifications - only their tips differ. The SE47 connection feels more fragile, although both will break and/or damage the cell phone if the AC adapter tip is abused. Upon insertion, both phones exit silent mode (if they're in silent mode) and all calls ring. They automatically revert to silent mode (if that was their prior state) when unplugged, unless they were in ring mode in which case they remain in ring mode at all times. This is a possible annoyance for some users because they would rather have a phone that is silent regardless of whether it is on batteries or AC adapter power.
The batteries on both phones can be replaced in seconds, and you can buy cheap spares on eBay. The SE47 has the potential for an extended battery that is thicker than the current one unlike the 2119b, which is limited by the back case. One could imagine a 2x or 3x extended life battery for the SE47 that would allow for talk time and standby times much longer than the 4 hour talk, 4 day standby time standard battery specifications. The SE47 has a 1100mAh battery; the 2119b is about the same size with 4 hour talk, 6 day standby times (although in reality, the talk time of the 2119b is shorter than the SE47 in real-life - about 1 1/2 - 2 hours continuous talk time on the 2119b before the phone shuts down).
The batteries on both charge to full in a few short hours (one to two). However, the SE47 seems to be more efficient and a continous one hour conversation call in a zero signal bar reception area reduces the battery indicator by only one bar. The 2119b would be down two or three bars after an hour's talk in a zero bar reception area. This efficiency is reflected in the SE47's slightly lower Signal Absorption Rate (ie. how much radiation your body is absorbing which could eventually lead to cancer in your brain). The SE47 has these values: CDMA mode 1.22 W/kg (phone next to head), 0.56 W/kg (in hip holster); PCS/CDMA mode 0.71 W/kg (by head), 0.57 W/kg (in hip holster). The 2119b has these values: 1.39 W/kg (head), 0.649 W/kg (hip). Phones that require a lower signal output to operate on usually suggests a more efficient and sensitive receiver/transmitter unit in the phone, and always better for you.
The menu system on both phones, and across almost all Kyocera phones, are nearly identical in layout and options. Both phones can display the main menu items as small icons, or in a text list. You can read their comprehensive manuals online to see what is included in either phone.
(Note: ignore the poor appearance of the SE47 display in these images. The moire patterns do not appear in real-life and are created in the digital camera used to take these pictures.)
The 2119b has the additional option of displaying large icons, one-per-screen, which allows for easy identification and navigation when you have only a moment to glance at the phone to see where you are in the menus. This is a sadly missed feature on the SE47, which does not have it. The second fastest option to navigate the menus is the text list mode. While you cannot type a number to jump directly to a particular menu item like on other phones, you eventually come to learn how many key presses required in order to navigate to the menu item of choice when working the phone blind. Naturally, the small text prevents rapid checks of your location in the menu system when you're driving or have a limited time to look at the phone itself, so this is not as efficient as a full-screen, one-icon-per-screen display. You navigate the menus using the 4-direction button on the keypad.
One of the advantages of the slightly taller, higher-resolution LCD panel on the SE47 is the increase in what you see on-screen. In the picture above, you can see that the 2119b shows 3 menu items at once versus 5 on the SE47. Here, in the SMS text messaging composition screen, you can see see that the SE47 display shows almost twice as much text vs. the 2119b - 4 lines vs. 2. (Note: it could show 5 lines of text if the character count indicator was placed at top next to the word "Message:" like the 2119b.)
The older T9 predictive text input system has been replaced with the better, newer eZi system. The eZi system displays complete word choices before all letters have been entered, whereas the T9 system only displays word choices when all characters have been entered. Thus, the eZi system is faster because it reduces the number of keypresses required to enter most words.
Unfortunately, they changed how you navigate throughout the message. Here, the 2119b is more efficient because you can use all four directions on the 4-way pad to move the cursor both left and right as well as up and down. The SE47 removes the ability to move directly up and down, forcing you to move very slowly left and right to edit prior text in your message. You cannot simply jump up a few lines in the SE47 as you could in the 2119b, and correcting past mistakes is tedious. A poor design choice by Kyocera for those who edit text messages frequently.
Nevertheless, both phones allow for rapid entry of text messages, with the 2119b being more friendly and a faster phone to text messsage on blind (ie. without looking). Here, the wide-spaced keys along with the easy-to-press buttons allow you to text message while driving, running, or distracted without having to look at the screen to confirm entries often. The SE47 is slower due to the flat-set buttons that are flush with the face of the keypad, and closer spaced keys. Using both hands, the text entry speed increases on both phones, with the 2119b being slightly faster due to the more responsive system.
All Virgin Mobile cell phones come with an email address in the form of ##########@vmobl.com (Please verify with Virgin Mobile before use! This may change at any time in the future!). This allows you to receive short emails of a hundred characters or so from anyone in the world, as well as email notifications and updates. If you have access to a standard UNIX/LINUX account, you can easily setup an email forwarding system that will let you preview all of your mailbox messages on your phone. With additional programming and scripting, you can completely control and receive almost any kind of information by email, from server status to web pages and more.
Naturally, the bigger screen on the SE47 allows for a better experience when viewing items on the web with the built-in WAP browser. You can easily navigate faster on the SE47 through WAP sites, and more conveniently. Still, these are not fully-featured regular Web browsers, so you can not view graphics, videos, and so forth.
One thing you will notice in comparing the Kyocera phones to other cell phones is that in navigating through the menus, you will sometimes encounter the situation where the system pauses for a brief fraction of a second before continuing to respond to your keypresses. Keypresses made during this pause are merely queued up. Oddly, other cell phones do not usually have this problem, so it must be inherent to the operating system of the Kyocera phones.
The side-effect of this means that when you are rapidly typing in a text message, deleting a text message, or simply navigating through the menus, you will encounter pauses at times for no good reason. While this does not occur often enough to be a problem, it does occur often enough that you do notice. You won't lose any text you've already entered before and during the pause - you simply won't see the updates on the screen until the phone has finished processing and pausing.
In any case, the addition of color on the SE47 has also slowed down the response of the menu system a touch. While you can rapidly menu through the 2119b in real-time; the SE47 often has delays that make it a bit slower than real-time. Not so slow you'd want to toss the phone away, and probably not noticable for most, slower phone users, but certainly slow to a person trying to click super-fast through the system and not wanting to wait for the system to catch up. A faster processor or rewritten operating system would be the fix here.
(Note: we're talking about click speeds fast enough to play video games at a furious speed - the SE47 easily keeps up near these speeds but is a touch slower than the 2119b. I don't believe most typical users will ever notice or worry about this lag on either phone with their slower click speeds.)
Due to the more compact size, maximum audio levels suffer in the SE47 when your using the regular ear speaker (not the rear speakerphone) in comparison to the louder 2119b. Differences in the case design (the 2119b is concave, the SE47 is convex around the ear) contribute to sound loss and interference from external noise in the SE47. The 2119b can sometimes be so loud, you instinctively pull away; the SE47 never gets that loud. In a noisy street environment, you can still hear the 2119b when pressed against your ear tightly; the SE47 must be positioned just right, and even then you'll lose more of the conversation due to background noise (not background noise on the connection, background noise from around you) in the noisiest environments. Interestingly, switching to the louder speakerphone on the SE47 and listening close to that in a noisy situation is a good solution.
The concave design of the 2119b around the ear is not as comfortable as with flip-phones or the SE47, but it does a good job - letting you hear the conversation in noisy environments. The speaker holes are also well designed, and putting the phone against your ear does not require any further adjustments most of the time to hear correctly. The convex design of the SE47 makes you actively search for the best location for the phone, and the range where it should go is more narrow than with the 2119b. Just a few centimeters off and the sound level drops appreciably.
Both phones have 2.5mm headphone jacks - the 2119b uncovered, the SE47 comes with a rubber cover (a pointless thing to do given the uncovered bottom power connectors - why cover only a few of the ports?). Both have independently selectable headphone sound levels vs. the main speaker. The SE47 has three independently selectable volumes for the ear speaker, headset, and speakerphone. You can adjust the sound levels during a conversation or through the Settings Menu. The 2119b ear speaker is just loud enough that you can use it as if it had a speakerphone in a moderately quite environment; the SE47 speakerphone is good for louder environments, although not the very loudest.
The 2119b is easy to attach to a belt or belt loop cheaply. Simply wrap a thick rubber band twice around the body above the keypad, below the screen. Wrap a 1/2" or thicker piece of Velcro around a belt loop, adjust just tight enough to wrap around the 2119b, but loose enough so you can pull it out straight up and secure. This is a very secure method of attaching the 2119b to you cheap, and you can easily run and work with it secured by the rubber band this way (the rubber band prevents it from falling through the Velcro loop onto the ground, which is why it needs to be a thick one). On the SE47, you will need to attach a short string to a carabiner to do the same. Either way, you will then have a cheap, secure way of keeping your phone at your side.
As a side-note, even though the 2119b battery is behind the slide-open back cover, dropping the phone usually results in the case popping apart. A rubber band keeps the 2119b together in falls. I haven't dropped the SE47, but given the weaker looking latch and no rear cover, I would suspect the battery to pop out as well when the SE47 is dropped. The 2119b does have replaceable front and back cover plates, and keypad, so you can easily customize the color of the phone and replace a broken cover. The SE47 has no replacable covers or keys.
The 2119b ringers are very basic and not polyphonic. A simple, loud ringer is the best choice for this phone. The SE47 ringers are polyphonic, but the choice of ringers is trickier - some that sound nice simply do not ring loud enough to hear while walking in a mall or down the street. Both have a set of ringers included, and you can always download more. There is no way to compose ringers in the phone itself. Both have silent modes which make the phone shake when an incoming call arrives, and unfortunately, both change into Ring mode when attached to an AC adapter in Slient mode - annoying when you want to charge your phone in silence (you can do it, but you have to turn the phone off). Another limitation of Kyocera phones. Nevertheless, the SE47 has much nicer ringtones to pick from and ones that are less harsh to listen with an incoming phone call.
On incoming phone calls, both phones display the phone number of the caller if it has not been blocked, and the SE47 also displays the assigned, cartoon-like picture icon for that person, if assigned from the built-in list of icons. The icons are cartoonish and the selection is limited. The 2119b has no such feature. The phone book is expanded in the SE47 to include more fields than the 2119b, and you can assign any phone number to either a one number or two number value between 0 and 99. This is quite useful and allows you to access many phone numbers quickly from the main keypad without scrolling to find a person in the contacts list. A good tip here is to assign a one-digit number (such as 3) to a friend's primary number (let's say cell phone), then assign the two-digital number pair (such as 33) to that friend's secondary number (let's say home phone). You can then quickly reach your friends and family quickly whether they're at home or on their cell phone.
Thankfully, even if you have not assigned a keypad number to a contact, you can find them quickly by pressing the first letter in their name on the keypad and jumping to that section of the contacts list. You can still navigate through the other contacts starting with different first name letters (a good thing - some phones limit you to browsing just those contacts after pressing that first letter to narrow the search). You can quickly cycle through their available phone numbers once you've found their name by pressing the 4-way pad, so you don't have to open their entry to search through their entire listing, and make the call by simply pressing the call button.
The tools included on both are: Tip Calcuator, calculator, alarm clock, stop watch, and the countdown timer. The SE47 adds the scheduler and voice memo features. Sadly, there's no way to make the daily/monthly/weekly calendar with days/times scheduled appear on the main menu unlike other phones. You must make at least 7 keypresses (with the main menu set in list mode) to access the daily calendar, 8 to view the calendar. Clearly the scheduling feature was added without careful consideration of the opportunities to make it much more useful. The voice memo feature works, but is 6 keypresses away from the main menu. Replacing one of the main menu buttons, or having a user-programmable custom button feature would have been nice to see on the SE47. I would have assigned it to the 4-way keypad for rapid notetaking. (Sadly, they assigned the contacts list to two main buttons when one could have been used for another purpose. Would have assigned Text Messaging to one of the main buttons as well, if not Lock Phone - a feature I frequently use that is sadly 18 keypresses from the main menu on the SE47.) The 2119b has no user assignable buttons and the number of keypresses to navigate most items are similar due to their similar menus.
Interestingly, one of the main menu buttons (green call button) on the SE47 is assigned to active the voice dial function. Interestingly, if you hold the phone in front of you as some expect, the voice prompt only goes through the ear speaker, not the speakerphone until you activate the speakerphone with another keypress. I would have made it a settable feature to assign which speaker the voice command would come out of so that you can start speaking to the phone if it was in front of me or on a desk thorugh the speakerphone with just a press of the call button.
Also, placement of the speakerphone speaker on the back of the phone, with the microphone on the front of the phone is rather dumb, but dictated by the layout of the SE47. It makes one wonder if you should keep flipping the phone to talk and then to listen to a conversation by speakerphone. No speakerphone option is available on the 2119b.
Unfortunately, you cannot access any feature on the SE47 while it is closed - a big error on Kyocera's part. One would expect to be able to bring up the contacts list using the currently assigned main button - either to view the phone number for other uses such as to give it to another person, look up a person's email or address to enter into the web, etc - then be able to press the call button to make the call in speakerphone mode. Or if the main buttons could have been reassigned, a one-touch button to bring up the scheduler and calendar would have been a smart way to design this phone. You can access all features at any time on the 2119b when unlocked or the keypad guard is not on.
Sadly, Kyocera doesn't release their operating system code for modifications to outside parties, so there's no way for us to correct these mistakes and/or add new features. An open-source cell phone would certainly be the way to go!
This is a version 1.0 software SE47 phone, so one wonders if there will be further updates released in the future.
In the end, the SE47 "Slider" is an excellent replacement for the 2119b "Party Animal" and is current the best phone in Virgin Mobile USA's lineup (which consists of the Kyocera 2119b "Party Animal", the "Super Model", the K-7 "Rave", the Audiovox, and the SE47 "Slider"). It's combination of light weight, compactness, color, polyphonic tones, sturdy construction, and features make this phone a winner despite the drawbacks of somewhat slower text messaging, more limited LCD viewing angles, and tigher keypad layout. The SE47 is certainly not the best cell phone on the market, but very good indeed and currently, the only color pre-paid phone on the market. Those who want to save money at all costs should buy the 2119b cheap on eBay for $10-20 instead as it will serve as a reliable cell phone and text messaging device rather well.
A brief comparison to the "Super Model", K7 Rave and Audiovox Vox. The "Super Model" is basically identical to the 2119b with the addition of a few slight features - see manual - in an otherwise smaller package with blue backlighting instead of green. The keys feel odd - rubbery and slick - and are harder to text message or press rapidly than on the 2119b. In my opinion, a worse choice due to the slicker keys and night-vision killing blue backlighting. The K7 Rave introduces grayscale graphics, with selectable wallpapers and backgrounds, but even brighter blue backlighting that actually makes your depth perception wobble in both night and day - it's bright enough to hurt your eyes! It adds the rather nice white LED light on top so you can use the phone in the dark as a flashlight, but the main 4-way pad is even smaller than the other phones and is hard to press - here, you must use your fingernails to accurately press them. The keypad buttons are flush, and very hard to press, so you cannot rapidly text message on them. The plastic case is matte and rough, so you feel like you're picking up an industrial tool. The grayscale display makes the screen harder to see in all viewing conditions due to the softer contrast and more limited viewing angle. The K7 Rave is smaller, but hardly a big improvement over the 2119b in terms of size or features, and honestly, even with the polyphonic ring tones on the K7, I would rather use the 2119b instead of either the K7 or the Super Model phones. The Audiovox Vox is the smallest phone offered by Virgin Mobile, and if you're not interested in the Kyocera phones, the only other choice available. A standard grayscale flipphone in design and features, and you get the bonus of being able to navigate quickly through menus by pressing assigned menu numbers. A choice at the higher price end of Virgin Mobile phones will depend on whether you prefer the flip-phone style or the slider-style - otherwise, most features on both phones are available on both (see manual).