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Benq-Siemens as a company no longer exists. At the end of last year, the old Siemens factory in Germany was shut and the employees laid off. Thus, the 'Siemens' bit of Benq-Siemens ceased to exist. However, it was a bit of a shock when the 'Benq' side of things, based in Taiwan, also declared itself bankrupt a couple of months ago. I do not think that we will be seeing any more phones from the Taiwanese company with the German accent, which is quite a shame.
Attempting to establish a corporate identity was Benq's main problem, having purchased the loss-making mobile phone arm of the Siemens empire in 2005. Right up until the end, however, it was clear which phones were old Benq designs renamed, and which were simply Munich exercising their design independence. The phones even had the space key on the keypad in a different place, along with different menu icons and completely different menu systems, so no wonder customers were confused. Trying to build on the terrible reliability of the 65-series of Siemens phones did not really help either. Sales kept on decreasing, as stronger offerings from Sony Ericsson and Samsung started winning customers, and despite some really good-looking designs, and some with quite reasonable specification, it was never going to work. The creme de la creme of this new company's range was, of course, the first phone ever to have HSDPA, the EF91.
Judging by the lack of reviews of this phone on the Internet, I do not think Benq-Siemens ever sold many of these phones, and certainly not in the UK. However, I managed to get my hands on one of them for 140 GBP from someone who lives in Italy, and it arrived in all its glory a couple of weeks later. Needless to say, the Italian postal service is pretty bad, but that is another story.
I had always thought that the EF91 had been a casualty of the joint venture's failure, one of those phones which had been planned, brought onto the market with some test samples, and then was doomed never to be released, but happily I can say that this was not the case. Reading through the specifications alone, this phone sounds impressive.
The 3.2 Megapixel camera with flash and autofocus is, on paper at least, a rival for market-leading phones like the Nokia N73, Sony Ericsson K800i and Samsung D900. It actually scores above these in the fact that it has HSDPA, which has been described by many people has being '3.5G technology'. This makes video calling, browsing the Internet and downloading video clips on a phone even faster than the already fast 3G technology employed in a vast number of phones these days, including the K800i and N73. The EF91 has the added advantage of also being a good deal smaller than either of these due to the fact that it is a flip phone, albeit rather less slim than what we are used to these days. It looks rather good, however, and a lot more masculine than many other flip phones on the market. Whether or not this is an advantage, however, depends on your own point of view.
The internal QVGA (240x320 pixel) screen is large and bright, and seemingly the rival of anything of similar resolution on the market, including the K800i, D900 and N73. Like those, it too can be used as an MP3 player, but in a similar fashion to Samsung phones, it is quite a basic one and playlists are not too easy to create. Like the Samsung too, it supports Transflash/Micro-SD cards for more memory, which is necessary if one is to use the EF91's potential to the full. My trusty old Sandisk Transflash card worked immediately with the EF91, once I had removed some irritating formatting from my previous phone, an LG P7200. Irritatingly, like the market leaders (N73, D900 and K800i), there is no memory card included in the box. Even worse, however, which I would say is almost unforgiveable these days with such a high specification phone, is the lack of a USB data cable in the sales package. The lesser Benq-Siemens S88 which I had about a year ago came with a data cable and a 1GB Transflash card in the box, so the lack of extras in here is even more puzzling. There is a stereo handsfree kit, however, to make full use of the MP3 player. Most of the time it is not necessary, however, since the speaker on the EF91 is very, very loud. So loud, in fact, that at full volume the phone is nothing short of deafening. Unlike many flip phones, the EF91 has the external speaker placed on top of the flip, so it is not very easy to miss a call with the volume turned on.
Using the EF91 for basic functions such as calling and texting is remarkable easy given its high specification status. The call quality is generally very good, and there is an effective speakerphone. The phone seems to maintain quite a strong signal on 3G and normal 2.5G coverage. As I do not have an HSDPA SIM card I have not tried the 3.5G coverage yet, however. The number pad is unusually large for a modern phone, so mistakes when dialling or writing text messages are minimised. The large screen also means that numbers and characters are displayed at an acceptable size rather than the microscopic print on some phones. However, there are two problems.
The first is a general one, and concerns the speed of the phone. It is slow. Very, very slow. Frustratingly so, in fact. This means that it is easy to be one or two steps ahead of the phone in the menus and to have to wait for it to catch up with one's keypresses, which is irritating. Add this to text messaging, and one has a rather infuriating phone.
The second issue concerns the fact that every time the user wishes to write a text message of more than 160 characters (which in my case is quite often these days with all those free texts on my contract), it first gives an option to write an MMS, and goes funny if one simply tries to continue with the text message. The only way to solve this is to write goobledygook for a few characters, and then delete it subsequently before continuing with the text message. Even when this is done and the message is ready to be send, there is no indication of how many of those free texts are going to be used, just a vague countdown from a number approaching somewhere in the region of 1800. I am not quite up on my 160 times table, so this does not help that much. More often than not, the phone will also freeze for at least ten seconds when sending texts. It will usually recover, but not knowing if the text has got through can be quite annoying.
The multimedia functionality of the phone is severely hampered by its speed too. Photographs take ages to display (especially when making use of the otherwise excellent camera), and some taken on other phones simply will not display full screen at all, even after the wait. It is also not possible to zoom in on photographs at all, although a slide show is possible. Fortunately, it is possible to store photographs either on the memory card or phone directly from the camera option. The phone also has a colour external screen of small proportions, which displays all the necessary information, such as signal strength, battery level, time and network name. It also supports wallpapers different from those of the main screen.
Further comments about the EF91 are not possible to observe at the moment. I would like to tell you about the battery life and some of the games (I had a brief go on Need for Speed Most wanted which was preinstalled on the phone), but after one day of having the phone, it decided not to work properly. It started to crash randomly, and would not access the text message inbox at all, without exiting the text message application or turning itself off and restarting. In this day and age, it made itself useless, and I have had to send it back to Benq-Siemens already. I hope that their repair centre continues to exist...
As a final note, two weaknesses of the EF91 compared with the K800i and N73 are that it does not have an FM radio when both these do, and it has the old slow version of Bluetooth (v1.2), which is rather old-fashioned on something like this when a K800i will transfer a file at more than twice the speed. There is no Infra-red either.
Whilst being an interesting phone both in terms of mobile phone history and the HSDPA, one would be much better off getting a K800i or N73, both of which can be found on Ebay for about the same price as this. HSDPA has still to get off the ground in a big way, and there will probably be more reliable phones than this to use it with. Whilst it is generally easy to use, and it looks good on paper, the EF91 has several fatal flaws which prevent a full recommendation, not the least of which is the tendency to freeze and crash and the strange text messaging. More conventional phones with better service back up would be a better choice than this for the majority of consumers. I still have a soft spot for it, however.