The first part of my review of the O2 Cocoon was mainly about the hardware: the look and feel of the thing you hold. This time, I'm going to look more at the phone's music features.
When it comes down to it, the Cocoon is really just a normal mobile phone. It's not a smartphone, but it will do the normal things a modern phone does. It's got Java, calculator, calendar, notepad, voice recorder, and so on. It's got a browser, which seems to be fairly functional. It's got a camera... two, in fact, as is common with 3G phones.
This is nothing new, though. We've had music-oriented mobile phones for years now, and none of them have really worked too well. As far as I'm concerned, I always end up thinking, "Hmmm... nice try, but I think I'll stick with my iPod."
Considering my personality type, I was fairly late to the game when it came to iPods. I've been a Mac user since 1999, and I've had a reasonably large MP3 collection since 1997. Even so, I didn't own an iPod until 2004, partly because I was working either at home, or living very close to work. With the lack of a long commuter journey, I never really needed anything to keep me entertained.
Nowadays, I swear by my iPod, and sometimes at my iPod. I'm onto my seventh now, thanks to AppleCare warranty and my negative aura towards hardware, plus the proximity of Apple Store Regent Street and a fully-functioning credit card.
I'm also now consigned to a lifetime of going to the gym regularly so my bad back doesn't seize up. I'm one of those people who would never exercise voluntarily, so I have to have something to listen to to keep me from getting bored. I went through a stage of listening to music at the gym, and then stand-up comedy... I have pretty much everything Audible.com has when it comes to Robin Williams, for example. Then the Ricky Gervais podcasts. Now it's "Real Time with Bill Maher", and the weekly SModcast from Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier.
So, the real test of the Cocoon was to see if it could manage to replace my iPod at the gym.
I usually have my iPod in one of those silicone cases clipped to my waist, and an Apple iPod remote snaked up under my tee-shirt with my Shure E2Cs plugged in. The Cocoon doesn't come with a proper case, and there isn't a mad rush on eBay to start churning them out. Never mind: that's what pockets are for. For the music player to work, the hands-free kit needs to be plugged in. This is a fairly basic one-button + microphone affair, all modelled in curvy rubberised plastic, with a standard stereo jack socket on the end. As mentioned last time, it comes with a matching jack splitter, which is a neat addition. However, I'd rather they'd spent the money on better earphones. They're of the in-canal kind, with three differently-sized pairs of ultra-soft sleeves. The cable is short so the headset blob including microphone sits at roughly mouth height. The problem is that the sound quality is grotty for the short time they stay in my ears before falling out. This might not be their fault, however... the insides of my ears seem to be made of teflon.
Unlike the Apple iPod remote, the headset is basically controls-free... one button for play/pause (and answering incoming calls). This means I have to reach in and get the Cocoon out to change tracks. The external controls are basic: forward, reverse, play/pause and Radio on/off. They're quite slow to react, and the external LED display is a little limiting when it comes to navigation to say the least. Instead, I flip open the phone so I can see what I'm doing.
The 'Now Playing' interface is not laid out particularly well. Many of the functions use the normal phone menus, but the actual playing interface uses the main navigation keys. Left and right on the main pad give previous/next track. Up and down control volume, which is an odd choice, since the main volume knob is less than an inch above. Centre is play/pause.
What's odd is that the tracks are listed in the display vertically, but selected using the left/right keys. I've accidentally increased/decreased the volume a few times when I meant to change track. On the other hand, the side buttons are arranged vertically and are equally accessible at this point. In other words, I'm slightly annoyed by the pointless duplication, especially since it's unintuitively implemented. This redundancy means we don't have control over track rating, shuffle, repeat, and so forth from the main interface, and have to faff around with menus instead.
The menus do contain a few bits and pieces, though. Along with the more mundane sleep timer and 7-band equaliser, there's the choice of "Solid Sound", "Super Bass", "Super Surround", "Extreme Surround" and "X-Treme Ultra Surround To The Max". Okay, I made up that last one. There's also "Stage Sound", offering "Studio", "Concert Hall" and "Stadium" modes, which translate to various levels of echo and distortion if you think your music is just a little bit too high-quality for your tastes.
For podcast listeners, such as myself, there are a few major problems: Firstly, it's very easy to quit Music Player while paused -- for example, by closing the phone -- and thus "Pause" becomes "Stop". Secondly, if you do "Stop" the track, the Cocoon won't remember where you were. The iPod treats podcasts and audiobooks differently from music tracks, and stores your last position in the track before stopping. So, if you need to stop for a while and return later, you can pick up where you left off. Thirdly, the fast forward is sloooooow. So, if you do stop a podcast half-an-hour in, it'll take two or three minutes of holding down the button to get back to where you were. To compare, the iPod uses the click-wheel to scrub through a track, and the scrubbing speed accelerates with use. I can scrub through half an hour of SModcast in less than five seconds. With the Cocoon, I'd managed to walk home from the gym in the time it took to pick up where I was.
This is because, unlike the Cocoon, the iPod is a dedicated media player. It's also because phone firmware tends to be designed by people who aren't really thinking about how the device is actually used in real life by real people.
What we want a proper convergence device: something that manages to be a camera, a music player, a PDA and a phone, without actually compromising any of those. If you want good pictures, buy a camera instead. If you want a good GPS unit, buy a Garmin instead. If you want a good music experience, buy an iPod, a Zen, a Zune, or an Archos instead.
Every single attempt to converge these things ends up being a disappointment. The only thing that's come close seems to be the iPhone, and even that seems to be a whole slew of compromises at the moment.
The Cocoon is stuck in the same kind of mud. The music player works, but it's just not really quite right. All the boxes are ticked, but it's just not an iPod replacement.
One thing it does have over the iPod, though, is external speakers. They're pretty tinny, but they're good enough for listening to spoken voice in a quiet place. Unfortunately, not good enough for Radio 4, though: the FM radio only works when the headset's plugged in, or the Cocoon's in the Nest, for some reason. As I've mentioned before, when "nested", the phone can act as a clock radio. Unfortunately, it's fairly quiet compared to the average £10 Alba standalone unit from Argos. It would wake me up, but I can't speak for heavier sleepers than myself.
It also has removable storage: the internal 2GB of storage is supplemented by a microSD slot capable of taking another 2GB. Dumping music on the Cocoon from my iBook was okay: when you plug the Cocoon in via USB, it asks whether to connect to "Sync", "Music Player" or "Transfer Files". Both "Music Player" and "Transfer Files" work, but the upshot is that a new drive appeared called "Cocoon", on which I could dump my music files. Not as easy as the dedicated iTunes/iPod sync, but understandable, I guess. I can't say how well it works on a PC with Windows Music Player, because as you know by now, my hands start burning whenever I touch a PC.
Did it pass the gym test? Not really. It certainly didn't make me stand up and shout "Why have I been putting up with carrying two gadgets around with me all the time?!? I must leave now to dispose of my iPod in a suitable manner!"
The bottom line is that if you don't have an iPod, or you really don't want to carry around two devices, then the Cocoon will suffice as a music player / phone combo. I'm not going to say any more than that, because I don't think the features are significantly better than the other music-capable phones I've had. The Cocoon accessories are less plasticky, except for the earphones, and the external controls are sometimes useful... but it's just not quite there yet.
Since the Cocoon's firmware is nothing too special (as I'll cover later), I assume it's just a standard firmware Pantech use on their other phones, with a few tweaks mandated by O2. In my opinion, O2's tame scandinavian designers should pay just as much attention to the interface of the phone as they spent on the outside. It's this kind of HCI attention-to-detail that makes the iPhone such a big deal, and something the other phone manufacturers will have to figure out if they don't want to get thoroughly shown up by Apple. Apple doesn't need multi-touch to trounce phones like the Cocoon... they just needed common-sense.
My review might sound quite damning, but it's really just a comment on pretty much all current phones. They all suck in different ways, but when it comes to music playing, they all seem to suck in similar ways. As I mentioned last time, the Cocoon is quite a nice phone... but the software is nothing special.
Incidentally, after using it for over a week, on the whole I still prefer the Cocoon to any of the phones I've used in the past few years, including the LG Shine. I'm just not totally nuts about it. It's certainly better than the hated Nokia 6280 I bought on contract, but I must say, the 6280 still has one feature that the Cocoon (and the Shine) don't, and I'm still missing it.
More on that next time.