If you asked us, we'd have said a 3G phone for AU$200 is a pretty good deal. Though the faster data speeds of 3G are almost ubiquitous down under, thanks to our network structure, the cost of 3G handsets has still lingered at between $200-300, until now. Virgin has partnered with Chinese OEM Huawei and delivered a 3G capable handset for AU$99. For this low price can you expect more than a cardboard box with a 3G radio inside? We take a closer look.
Your fingers must be this big to ride
Absolutely every part of the VMX is tiny; from the buttons on the keypad, to the low-res screen, to the box the handset comes in, the VMX is like a mobile phone from Gulliver's Travels. This reviewer has tiny fingers by the standard of modern men and even I move my digits cautiously over this pint-sized keypad making sure I select the right key. In terms of overall size of the handset, the VMX compares to the Skypephone 3 released at the end of 2007, though thankfully the VMX feels considerably more solid than the flimsy Skypephone.
Designed for fans of the West Tigers, the VMX sports a matte black finish with slashes of electric orange trim along the edges and on the keypad. On the back is a simple-looking 2-megapixel camera lens, while a mini-USB port and 3.5mm headphone socket line up along the top. Virgin chucks a pair of cheap-feeling headphones in the box with the VMX, though we must admit these performed better than we expected — a little light on bass, but loud and clear all the same.
The screen is the big letdown in the physical aspects of the VMX. For AU$99 we don't expect an iPhone-like touchscreen, but the VMX's QVGA resolution screen is a bit of a shocker; at its highest brightness setting the image on the screen is unusually hard to see. We put this down to the display being set back behind the glass cover, so that reflections from overhead lights or sunlight mask the screen image in glare. The display also suffers from a poor viewing angle, with the image being even harder to see unless you hold the phone directly straight on.
Anything you can do, I can do
During our time with the VMX we imagined it was a spunky, grubby-faced kid standing off against the rich private school bullies from the big companies like Nokia and Samsung. Side by side with the new Samsung Preston Icon (the cheapest of Samsung's new Icon range), the VMX looks shabbily dressed, but in terms of functionality it holds its own. The 3G data speeds ensure that when you need the web you have it, albeit viewed through an average browser on a tiny screen. Likewise, the VMX is capable of managing POP and IMAP email which is handy; we set up a Gmail account without much fuss, though again the small screen meant we used the email client more like a notification board that informed us we had mail and then logged onto Gmail from a PC to see the full HTML messages.
The music player was the stand out for us during the testing process. Like the phone's facade, the music player isn't much to look at, but it works well playing MP3 music files. For a laugh we plugged in headphones worth twice as much as the VMX and listened to tracks we had stored on a SanDisk 8GB SDHC microSD memory card. To access the memory card slot you have to take the battery cover off, but you don't have to take the battery out, however, which means you can hot-swap cards without shutting down. If your music sucks, the VMX has an FM radio and an antenna on the bundled headphones.
The VMX also has a 2-megapixel camera mounted on the back of the handset, though for the entry-level price don't expect a flash or auto-focus. We took a bunch of photos with the VMX and saw the kinds of photos you expect to see from cameras of this calibre; the colour reproduction was fine, but the images were noisy and the highlights flared. Still not bad for a camera attached to an AU$99 phone.
On its own merits the VMX is a very average phone, but its bargain-bin price overshadows most of the handset's lacklustre features. If you spent a bit extra and bought a microSD card and a comfortable pair of headphones, the VMX would make a decent phone cum music player for anyone who really only needs the basics from a phone. The real disappointment is the low quality display. For AU$99 you can't expect a much larger screen, but we do expect better visibility. The poor viewing angle makes this screen hard to see under bright lights and this could be reason enough to look to a Nokia in the same price range, even if this means sacrificing the 3G data speeds.