Toshiba's entry into the UK smartphone market is being headed by a high-spec 3G device equipped with high-speed HSDPA technology.
The Toshiba Portege G500, a Windows Mobile smartphone, also introduces another interesting feature to the UK mobile market for the first time - fingerprint recognition, a security feature previously seen on laptops and PDAs.
Toshiba may not have much of a reputation for mobile phones in the UK, but it has a great reputation for producing laptops, and PDAs. It's not much of a surprise then that the new range borrows the Portege name from Toshiba's tablet PCs.
The new range currently consists of two smartphones using the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system. The G500 uses a standard 12-key numeric keyboard, whilst the G900 offers a more extensive Qwerty console. Both support higher-speed 3G HSDPA connectivity.
The G500 is a chunky slider phone. At 23mm thick and weighing in at 135g this is a serious bit of kit. But although it does not have a touchscreen or typewriter keyboard, its size can be excused by its specification list. In addition to its support for 3G, it has a 2.3-inch LCD screen, and provides built-in Wi-Fi. And, unlike some smartphones, it does offer a reasonably decent 2-megapixel camera.
One of the plus points of using the Windows Mobile platform, is that the interface for the phone is usually predictable. Any PC user will be able to find their way around. You simply press the Microsoft Start key to get your list of programs and menu options.
Although there is a traditional joypad and softkey arrangement for finding your way around, Toshiba has introduced a rather novel interface. Open up the slider and behind the screen there is a touch-responsive sensor which is perfectly placed for your first finger of your left hand.
Stroke the sensor up and down or from side to side and you can control the onscreen cursor; lightly tap your finger twice, and the highlighted option is selected or opened. It may not be quite as easy to use as a thumbwheel or trackball, but it certainly does the job with the minimum of strain.
This sensor is also capable of fingerprint recognition. Interestingly, this facility can be used to allow you to allocate a shortcut command to each of your digits. More usefully, it can be used as a way of protecting certain files, databases or applications from being accessed by others. It's a biometric technology already widely used on Toshiba laptops.
The phone also premieres a new, improved version of T9 predictiive text. The xT9 system adds a word prediction system, similar to that used on Motorola phones, so you don't usually need to even enter all the characters for a word to get it onscreen. Another refinement is a spelling correction, which will suggest words even if you didn't quite type the right sequence of keys.
The pewter and black coloured phone is currently being sold SIM free by Expansys (www.expansys.com) for around £260. There is 64MB of memory on board, but to make full use of the facilities you also need to budget for a MiniSD card, which slots into position below the battery cover (although there is no need to power down to access the card). Cards of up to 2GB are supported.
Wi-Fi, as we keep saying, is probably one of the most useful features you can have on a phone. Even with 3G, it is worth having a low-cost way of getting online when at home, in the office, or in a hotel. Wi-Fi also improves coverage, and can save you money not only for data services, but for voice calls too.
Toshiba provides TIPtalk's VoIP client as part of the out of the box offering, so as you can make internet phone calls with the minimum of fuss.
However, the Wi-Fi implementation on this phone is not as great as it could be. We spent rather too long trying to get it to work in the first place. Unlike other WLAN-phones we have tested, the G500 is set up for American W-iFi networks, not European ones.
The difference is immaterial if you are using a network set to channels 1 through 11. Try to connect to a network that uses channels 12 or 13, and the G500 is incapable of seeing or connecting with them.
A smaller issue is that as soon as you turn on Wi-Fi you lose the ability to make video calls. No great shakes, perhaps, but you also don't have the ability to receive video calls as well whilst the Wi-Fi facility is switched on.
The out-of-box software package with this phone is rather good. You get ActiveSync support to ensure works in unison with your desktop Outlook system, and you can also use the phone for push email with a suitable server set-up.
Instant messaging is provided using the Pocket MSN utility. And when it comes to browsing you are spoilt for choice with both Explorer and Opera being made available to you - both of which worked well during our trials.
You don't get any document editors supplied with the handset; however you can read most common attachments using the supplied Picsel Viewer software.
Video and audio playback are provided by Windows Media Player. Videos can be blown up and rotated to fill the full screen (although we did get a black border with some files we tried this on). The speakerphone is not particularly pleasing on the ears, but the supplied headset puts in a reasonable performance.
A welcome touch is that Toshiba has fall over itself to make it easy to upgrade the earphones. The phone itself has a 2.5mm stereo jack, but comes with an adaptor cable that will allow you to use a more-standard 3.5mm plug.
The camera is not overly sophisticated; there is no autofocus for instance, or a close focusing facility. But it does turn in a decent set of pictures, and does provide a useful flash facility. Colour is pleasing and accurate, and contrast is well controlled.
Saved at the top 1200 x 1600-pixel resolution there is enough detail in the files, and the effect is not ruined by clumsy compression. There are enough overrides to keep the meddling photographer happy, and there is, of course, the option of shooting video too.
The built-in screen is rather average 65,000-colour affair, however, and the camera has a very annoying habit of losing your personal settings every time the phone is switched off - including reverting to a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels!
This is a phone that ticks a lot of the right boxes. With Wi-Fi and 3G it puts a lot of other Windows smartphones to shame. There it comes with a good onboard suitcase of software - and offers a very capable camera. There are a few issues that could be resolved by Toshiba, but it's an interesting first step into the European smartphone arena.