In these credit-crunched times, not everyone is looking out for the latest do-everything mobile. A functional, straight-down-the-line phone that's easy on the wallet is no bad thing. And if it's easy on the eye, too, that's even better.
At the budget end of its own-brand phone range, Vodafone has been getting busy, with several new models announced at Mobile World Congress. These include a Catwalk Collection makeover for its value 533 sliderphone. Produced by French mobile maker Sagem, the revamped Vodafone 533 ditches drabness for a selection of bright and breezy colours, including gold, candy (pink), ice (white), violet, and petrol (blue).
Cheap and cheerful is the order of the day. The 533 is pitched at a recession-dodging £30 on Vodafone pre-pay. At that basement price, the features list is unsurprisingly modest – it's a tri-band GSM handset, without 3G connectivity, but it does have a 1.3-megapixel camera with video shooting option, a music player, FM radio, and MicroSD memory card support.
Vodafone offers good value on the design front for the budget-squeezed. The 533 has a serviceable, curved edge sliderphone construction that feels solid enough in-hand. Its casing is plastic and it has a one-piece slider numberpad, but it feels smooth and the control panel around the navigation D-pad is tidily designed, with bits of chrome trim worked in.
The Catwalk Collection may not be destined for supermodel handbags, but we can see the eye-catching paintjobs appealing particularly to younger cash-strapped mobile buyers. On the back too, a bit of individual patterning prettifies them further.
The phone measures a pocket-friendly 97(h) x 46(w) x 13.7(d)mm, weighing a reasonable 90g. Its display is a 2-inch 256k-colour, 176x220 pixels TFT, a bright screen, which is fine for this class of handset. The user interface is fairly conventional stuff, based initially around a grid of main menu option icons, and subsequent tabbed sub-menu lists as you drill in to the options. The graphics aren't the most sophisticated, but they do the job, and the user interface is mostly no-nonsense and straightforward to operate. The D-pad offers the usual type of shortcut options, and there's a typical softkey link to the Vodafone live! content portal.
The basic controls are easy to operate although it can feel a tad pedestrian tapping your way through the menus. The one-piece keypad, which has numbers separated by ridges, is adequate for reasonable-paced texting.
With just 8MB of internal memory, you'll need to spend a little on a MicroSD card if you want to give it a go as a music player. The MicroSD card slot is accessible under the back cover, though there's no need to remove the battery or power down to swap it. The music player interface is easy enough to use without being particularly sophisticated.
The sound quality is actually surprisingly decent for a budget handset; it comes supplied with a set of earphones that portray more depth and range than we'd expect at this price point. The limitations of the music player interface mean it won't be an MP3 player replacement any time soon, but it sounds fine if you want to carry a bundle of tunes around to listen to on your phone.
Unsurprisingly, there's no standard 3.5mm headphone socket to upgrade ear wear – but that's unlikely to put off this phone's target buyer.
As well as the music player, an FM radio is included, offering another straightforward audio entertainment option. Like the music player, this can be played through the loud speaker, if you're not fussed about sound quality.
Imaging isn't a particularly strong suit for the 533, as you'd expect with a basic 1.3-megapixel camera doing snapping duties. It has got a side camera button to fire it up (long press starts up camera, short press hotkeys the radio), and it does have a few typical cameraphone control options – including exposure, effects and timer – but it really it isn't up to much.
Shots are basically up to snap'n'send quality rather than anything more refined, with limited levels of detail. Good light helps image reproduction but with no flash, in low light levels, performance is typically poor. Some basic editing software allows you to tweak images and add effects.
Although it can shoot video, footage is poor quality; recording in low resolution 176x144 pixels resolution, it is very jerky and low-grade even by pre-pay phone standards.
But the bottom line on this handset is of course the price, and what you get is still reasonable for the cash. Bluetooth connectivity is supported, and the 533 has a fairly standard set of mobile organiser apps and tools included too. Calendar, timer, to do lists, stopwatch, alarm, calculator and unit convertor functions are present.
It has a basic Openwave Wap browser too, with embedded links to the Vodafone live! service. A Vodafone Messenger/Windows Live Messenger instant messaging client is pre-loaded, plus online links for the online Vodafone Mail email service. A selection of half a dozen demo Java games are included, which you can choose to buy via Vodafone live!
Getting the basics right on a low-budget phone is essential, and the voice calling performance of the 533 is suitably spot-on. We had no problems with call clarity or audio reliability during our trials. Battery performance is reasonable; Vodafone estimates that it can achieve up to 250 hours of standby time, or 150 minutes of talktime, which is modest for a non-3G handset nowadays. In our normal-use, tests took the phone managed around 2 days on average between charges.
Sure, it'd be easy to point out what the 533 lacks, and the weak points in its specifications. But at this sort of wallet-friendly rock-bottom price level, the Vodafone 533 Catwalk Collection model offers a good deal that's hard to be harsh about, with a bit more than just the basics in a bright and breezy, eye-catchingly styled sliderphone design.