At last, black is the new black in mobile phones, as everyone rushes to emulate the ubiquitous V3 RAZR. Panasonic's new VS6 apes the Motorola's matt black exterior, albeit with smooth ABS plastic instead of magnesium alloy for the casing and an extra-silvered stripe. It's also 20mm deep and slightly longer than most clamshells, making it very comfortable to hold.
Keep a tight grip on it though - one touch of the release button and the clamshell springs open violently in a bid for freedom. There's no exterior mini LCD for time-keeping (and self-portrait framing) but the 2.2-inch screen inside goes some way to make up for this. It's a 16-million colour display that's one of the crispest and most detailed we've found on a phone, and Panasonic makes the most of this resolution by using a truly tiny font for the main menu.
The remainder of the menus are quick and easy to navigate, and the screen really shines, even in sunlight. The number pad and main control panel are pretty easy to use, although flush buttons mean your fingers can stray to neighbouring keys a little too readily.
There's also a multi-function button on the side that doubles as a shutter release, plus a switch just below the screen that flips the VS6 into Macro mode. Watch this, as again, it's easy to knock accidentally and end up with a batch of blurred images.
In Camera (or Video) mode, the VS6 defaults to a landscape format screen, leaving plenty of room above for picture-taking information such as picture size and quality, exposure compensation and digital zoom (not available at maximum size of 1,600 x 1,200 pixels). The screen is slow to refresh, giving a wavy, blurry view if you pan around, but settles down quickly when held still and to frame shot.
Image quality is ok, although the VS6 pumps up the saturation enough to make everyone look as though they're wearing lipstick. You get good detail in the centre of the frame, but things distort and soften swiftly towards the edges. Despite this, exposure is generally good.
Shutter delay isn't too bad, but reviewing, processing and saving just one top quality image can take up to ten seconds. If you want a flurry of shots in a hurry, however, the Multi-shot takes up to 15 frames at 2fps, although only at 320 x 240 resolution. Shots are best taken in sunlight, as it lacks an LED light, possessing only a Night Mode of dubious utility.
Other features include the ability to use digital colour effects, and frames in Playback mode. This means that you can resize and trim pictures, or apply a brightness boost. Images can then be transferred by Bluetooth or infrared, but there's no memory card slot - you're limited to 32Mb of internal memory, shared with (average) video clips, ringtones and games.
It's definitely worth mentioning an almost Megadrive-perfect version of Sonic The Hedgehog. We loved this. Phone reception and call quality are both fine, rounding off a very assured and very usable budget cameraphone.