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John's Phone review: 'the world's simplest cellphone'

John's Phone review: 'the world's simplest cellphone'
Thomas Ricker
Thomas Ricker|@trixxy|December 6, 2010 11:59 AM
It's said to be "The world's simplest cellphone." That's a bold claim from anyone let alone a previously unknown (in gadget circles anyway) Dutch team of creatives over at John Doe Amsterdam who wanted to build a basic phone -- the most basic phone ever -- that wasn't as dull and boring as other affordable phones on the market. So is it? Well, it certainly is basic. In the age of smartphones and cheap featurephones, John's phone is more clearly defined by what it lacks than what it has: no fancy color touchscreen display; no camera; no 3G radio, WiFi, Bluetooth or even GPRS data; no FM radio; no user-accessible storage; and no music player or apps of any kind. It can't even send a text message. It's just a quad-band GSM phone with an ink pen and paper notepad tucked neatly into its capacious recesses. That's right, pen and paper. So, it's definitely basic, but is it simple to use? Read on to find out.

To be honest, the John's Phone Business edition we reviewed looks and feels like a cheap child's toy. An €80 child's toy to be sure but a child's toy nonetheless. And that's ok, we guess, considering the unsophisticated audience it apparently targets including tweeners, the elderly, or twenty-somethings whose aim is to be conspicuously cynical when placing their cellphone on top of the bar. While John Doe claims that the phone is manufactured from high-quality plastic, it feels like the stuff you'd find liberally slathered around a Barbie Dream House. The rough seam that runs the circumference of the handset doesn't exactly elicit a sense of quality either. Even the trio of shiny silver switches seem to be made of the same plastic "chrome" found adorning the bumpers and headlights of Revell model car kits. The phone's also incredibly light at 3.35 ounces considering its plump 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.8 inch dimensions -- making it almost exactly the size and weight of a standard deck of playing cards.

The most notable design flare on the John's Phone is a clear plastic door on the back of the handset that hides a 32-page paper address book with a notepad and tongue-in-cheek "Games" page dedicated to tic-tac-toe. There's even an integrated ink pen that could easily be mistaken for a stylus. The company jests that it can be used even when the phone is switched off. Ha.

The black on white display at the top of the John's Phone is tall enough to present the user with two lines of recently dialed phone numbers (the volume slider controls the scrolling) or the signal strength, position of the precarious on / lock / off switch (more on that later), and the battery status. When the 1,200mAh battery is full, the display will show the word "JOHNS" along the right. The lower the battery the fewer the letters displayed. Cute. While the display location is certainly novel, it's also impractical to view when tapping out phone numbers on the keypad. So far we've only fully charged the device once... about two weeks ago! The company promises "more than three weeks" standby from the non-removable battery and we believe it.

John's Phone comes in a variety of adorable sounding colors like sweet (pink), tree (brown), business (black), snow (white), grass (green), and even a limited edition €100 "bar" (it's gold, get it?) for those looking to make the ultimate ironical statement. You'll also see variations in the begin and end call keys depending upon the model chosen. These vary between a pair of portly red (end call) or green (begin call) tots, "hello" and "bye" text, or a small dot and bomb with a lit fuse that would have made Mel Blanc proud once he overcame his confusion.

So, how did it work? Well, to make and receive calls it worked fine. The ringer was suitably loud and the vibration was strong enough to get noticed in a pocket. The audio quality during calls was also decent -- not spectacular but not awful either. There's no built in address book but you can easily assign speed dial numbers to each key on the dial pad making the phone dead simple to operate once configured. There's no speakerphone but this ultra-low-end handset surprisingly ships with an earphone / mic that plugs into the micro-USB jack for hands-free calling.

Now for the bad stuff. Along the left-hand side you'll find three switches. At the top is a volume switch for adjusting the earpiece sound and for navigating your recent calls list. It's not so much a switch as it is a spring-loaded dial that rotates about 90-degrees up and 90-degrees down by grabbing a small (very small) nub on the top of the arc. In practice adjusting the in-call volume or navigating through the call log is a needlessly difficult operation since the dial works best by grabbing the nub with a fingernail. That's ok (but far from ideal) when pulling the switch down as you can hook a fingernail over the nub. Moving it up one-handed, however, requires a frustrating push on the very smooth plastic dial with the pad of your finger or thumb. More often than not, the dial slips beneath the finger necessitating a repeat action. Ugh.

Moving down from the volume rocker you'll find a three-way switch to control the ringer (loud / normal / silent -- vibrate is always on) and a second matching three-way below that for on / lock / off. Both these switches deserve a special place in Gadget Hell for the very worst in industrial design. Not only do they require a fingernail to operate, they also don't work most of the time.

Here's the issue: the phone won't register moving either switch from the top position directly to the bottom position. The phone simply stares back at you in inanimate bemusement if you switch from loud to silent (skipping over normal) ringer operation, or from on to off (skipping lock). You have to deliberately move from the top position, to the middle, and then to the bottom. No problem you say? Well, to make matters worse, the switch consistently overshoots the middle position when moving from the top position. As such, you have to nudge the switch up gently so that the middle position registers and then slide it to the bottom. While this is annoying for the ringer volume, the fact that it affects the on / lock / off settings makes the phone nearly unusable in practice. See, the phone has to be in the lock position in order to carry it around in a pocket or bag due to those easy-hitting bulbous keys on the face of the phone. But because of the switch issue and our inability to reliably lock the keys, several times we found ourselves inadvertently dialing previously called numbers because the call button had been hit while walking around. Not good. Unfortunately, we're told by the company that the issue affects all John's Phones, not just our evaluation unit. It's supposed to be improved "in the next batches," whenever that might be.

Wrap up
So is the John's Phone "The world's simplest cellphone." No. The fact that all three of the device's switches are so frustrating to use is simply unforgivable on such a basic cellphone that's supposedly rooted in "great design." We wish that the company had spent as much time on the phone's industrial design as it did on its slick promotional materials and cutesy graphics. Even then, you'd better be sure that the simplicity is worth the €70 - €100 price tag (depending upon model) -- for that you could take home a fully-loaded 3G featurephone from Nokia. A nod, perhaps, as to why the John's Phone exists.