After my positive experiences with the Nova N800 GSM watch phone that I bought back in 2008, I have been regularly keeping an eye on any new models of such gadgets coming out. The most interesting thing that has happened since, was two major companies bringing out their own watch phones. However, their offerings, the LG ‘GD910’ and the Samsung ‘S9110’ were priced way too high to my taste. So I kept looking for the more reasonably priced Chinese offerings. After a few dozen new ugly and unpractical contraptions, one particular model caught my eye and I couldn't resist trying it out.
I have never had any problems with gadgets ordered from Hong Kong or China, until now. About everything that could go wrong went wrong with this shipment, with as result that two months and one week passed between me ordering the phone and actually obtaining it, and also that I paid 50% extra in taxes and fines, because the declared value was lower than the actual value. Luckily the string of misfortunes ended when I finally opened the package and the gadget proved to be in perfect working order, and also better than I expected.
When ordering rather expensive gadgets like this, you may want to ask the seller to ship it through DHL instead of regular mail, not only to speed things up but also because there's generally a lower risk of customs intercepting the package. The extra cost for DHL shipment is far less than the taxes you risk having to pay. I ordered the watch phone for about GBP 120 from a Hong Kong seller on eBay, called ‘to-be-best’. He was very helpful with tracking down the package during the whole customs ordeal, and unfortunately I haven't been able to give him the positive feedback he deserves due to the enormous delay. So instead, I'll recommend him here. Many people buy stuff from Hong Kong sellers and immediately give up and leave often unjustified negative feedback whenever something goes wrong. Many of these sellers take pride in providing good service and will be very willing to help you if you contact them.
Now, what model is this watch phone and what does it look like? Well, it is not only visually similar to Samsung's S9110, it is even sold under the same model number in many cases. If you are somewhat familiar with purely Chinese products, you should know that they have a bit of a weird commercial culture, and brand names don't really mean much there. This phone is branded with the name ‘Fashion’, but just as with ‘Nova’, I suspect there is no such thing as a Chinese company called ‘Fashion’. I have even seen variations of this phone that bore a “SVMSUNG” logo, in an obvious attempt to let it pass as a real Samsung S9110. Good thing that the one I ordered did not have this, otherwise the customs would probably have confiscated it and charged for importing counterfeit products, for which the fine is a lot higher than for incorrect declaration of value.
The phone comes in a pretty nice but also quite large and heavy box, which probably was one of the things that made it conspicuous to the customs guys. Inside the box, next to the phone itself, are:
The differences with the Nova are that this phone did not come with a microSD card (I had to provide my own, but some sellers may ship it with a card) and that the manual for this one is in pure unadulterated Engrish. According to the manual, “This cellular phone is person the machine engineering learn principle of science design with consummate craft of perfect crystallize, streamlined choiceness fuselage, hold feeling comfort.”
The first thing I noticed when powering on the phone is how similar the interface looks to the Nova N800's. Apparently it's an evolved version of the same firmware. This is not a coincidence because practically all Chinese phones run on the same kind of ‘operating system’ (Nucleus OS). As a consequence, the feature list is just a small step up from the Nova's:
Now, if you have read my review of the Nova N800, you will notice the lack of a feature that I considered a conditio sine qua non for me to buy a watch phone. This phone has no detachable wristband, and worse: the strap is a simple classic leather band that doesn't even have a quick-release clasp. Yet, the large screen, the thin body and the design won me over to buy this thing after all. I figured that I could replace the strap with a quick-release one, which would make this phone usable without having to always carry a Bluetooth headset. More about this later on…
Beware: some sellers claim that this phone has Java support. It does not, at least not mine. There is no trace of Java in the firmware. You cannot install anything, except perhaps special binaries (but nobody would bother making any). It is not impossible that there is a variation of this phone that does support Java, but it is unlikely. If a seller really claims to sell a model with Java, ask for actual photos of java apps running on the phone.
Note 2012/12/03: I am currently having a lot of trouble connecting to the internet through GPRS. It takes a lot of attempts to obtain a GPRS connection, most often it timeouts. I highly uspect that my network provider has upgraded their hardware and configured their internet gateway to be optimal for 3G, and not considered the as-good-as-obsolete GPRS. This makes sense because I am probably one of their scarce customers who still have to rely on such antique technology. It is about time the Chinese upgrade the hardware in these watch phones, EDGE should be a bare minimum for data connectivity!
Of course, one of the first things I checked was the battery life or autonomy. The batteries of the ‘S9110’ are labeled “480 mAh”, which is 67% of the capacity of the Nova's. Given the fact that the screen is larger and the phone seems to run faster overall, I feared for the battery life. However, my first tests indicate that the phone can run for slightly longer than four full days on one charge when not used intensively (a few short calls, checking the time now and then, taking a few photos, bluetooth mostly off). That's less than the 120 hours the seller claims, but it is slightly better than 67% of the autonomy of the Nova and still OK for such a thin and small gadget. Charging the battery is done through the USB cable, which you can either plug into the wall charger or an USB port on a PC. The cable does not have a standard mini-USB plug this time, but some proprietary plug that is also used on other popular Chinese phones like the i9. However, the pin-out of the plug is different from any other phone that uses this shape of plug. The concept of ‘standardisation’ doesn't seem to have seeped through in China.
Since this phone has basically an evolved version of the same firmware as the Nova, it is pretty much the same in general use. However, the larger screen makes it easier to control. On the other hand it only has three hardware buttons where the Nova had six. Instead of dedicated buttons to scroll up and down in menus, there is only one button that scrolls down in most cases, and in other cases causes you to accidentally call the first person from your address book or does nothing. The actual function of this button changes depending on what part of the interface you're in. I wish it would just always mean ‘scroll down’, or had been a dual scroll up/down button.
The only drawback of the lack of a bezel around the screen (like on the Nova) is that there is nothing to protect it from the outside world. As a result, I already procured a large scratch after a few months because I forgot to take off the phone before rummaging through junk in the attic. Since then, it has collected some additional smaller scratches. It could be a good idea to buy a generic screen protector film and cut it to the right size, or to buy protectors for the Samsung S9110 which should fit right away. A good protective film should barely have an effect on the responsiveness of the touch screen.
The largest nuisance I encountered is the poor legibility of the on-screen keyboard. Gray letters on top of a slightly lighter gray background, what were they thinking? It is almost unreadable (see photo) and there is no way to change the colour scheme. This is another reason to use handwriting recognition, although you can still type a lot faster with a stylus if you have good eyesight or know the lay-out of the keyboard. Handwriting recognition would also be more useful if it were possible to write numbers while the keyboard is set to ABC, but unless I'm missing something it really is necessary to switch the keyboard between numbers and letters.
A smaller nuisance is that the screen is not as responsive as the Nova's. It requires more force, especially at the edges. But after a while I got used to this, and the screen also seems to become more ‘flexible’ through usage.
Unfortunately this ‘watch’ phone still is unable to display the time continuously when in stand-by, so it still is a lousy watch. However, the time display pops up almost instantaneously when pressing a button, and is very large. So it is definitely an improvement upon the Nova, which needed about two seconds to wake up from sleep, and displayed a small clock on its small screen. However, the screen is less bright than the Nova's, hard to read in bright conditions and pretty much unreadable in direct sunlight. The clock also lacks a date display (you need to unlock the screen to see the date). Another step back from the Nova is that the clock immediately stops ticking upon removal of the battery. This means if you remove the battery for two minutes, the clock will lag two minutes behind, and the date risks being reset. Not a big deal if you always remember to check the time after having removed the battery or if you enable auto updating of time&date, but an extra capacitor could have avoided this.
The strap is quite stiff and not easy to open and close. It seems to be real leather as indicated (at least the underside), but it doesn't look as if it will really last long. However, replacing the strap is problematic to say the least as you can read in the ‘Hacking’ section. As with the Nova, a tiny telescopic stylus is built into the band, and this one is slightly longer when fully extended.
Coming back to the issue of making and answering calls: when looking at the photos, you may wonder if it is at all possible to make a phone call without any kind of headset due to the apparent lack of a loudspeaker and microphone. I also was unsure about this, and ordering it was a bit of a gamble given my reluctance to have to rely on a headset. But no (immediate) worries: there is an actual loudspeaker on the left side, and a microphone at the bottom where the strap connects to the phone. The loudspeaker is not very loud in normal mode, but can be switched to ‘hands-free’ which makes it more than loud enough to use the watch as a normal phone in a noisy environment. This means that initiating calls yourself is not problematic despite the cumbersome strap, because you have ample time to open it carefully and slowly, and then use the watch as an (admittedly funny looking) hand-held phone.
However, answering calls is a different story. What are your options? First, opening the strap so you can use it as a regular phone is problematic because I am certain that no caller will be patient enough to wait until you are done fumbling with the clasp and stiff strap. Next, holding your wrist against your ear will cause cramp in your arm in no time and will get you very weird looks from bystanders, so nobody will want to do this. Next, the hands-free setting does allow to hear the caller without making funny movements, but is only feasible in silent environments with no people around you that you don't want to annoy or share your entire conversation with. There is also the option to use the wired headset, but it will require as much time as opening the strap to fumble open the tiny I/O port on the phone, untangle the headset's wires and plug it in. The only practical option is a Bluetooth headset and always enabling BT, which will eat away from the battery life. There is another option as discussed in the ‘hacking’ section, but it is not for everyone.
There is no doubt about it: the internet capabilities of this device are very limited and are similar to mobile phones from around 2004, from the WAP-era. In my country, WAP was never popular at all. Data costs were prohibitive at that time and only few content providers cared to make a WAP-friendly version of their website.
Nevertheless, the S9110 can offer a quite usable internet experience. There is a little-known feature of Google called the Google Wireless Transcoder, which will transform any webpage to a WAP-friendly format. Surfing to Google on a mobile phone will automatically invoke it. (You can explicitly request to transcode an url through “http://www.google.com/gwt/x?u=URL”.) For this to work, the phone must identify itself as being a widely known cell phone model by providing the correct HTTP_USER_AGENT header. By default, the S9110 will identify itself as the obscure “MAUI_WAP_Browser”. It is possible however to make it identify itself as a SonyEricsson K700i or W800i, which are pretty good matches for the capabilities of the browser (although some pages will still not fit in memory). The S9110 will also provide a UAProf header but this is ignored by most sites. The bottom line is that with some care, the S9110 can become a tiny gateway to the internet on your wrist, although there is still an enormous amount of room for improvement.
When merely looking at the batteries, it is obvious that not too much is to be expected from them. They are flimsy and low-capacity — I will get back to this in a moment. Low capacity means they need to be charged often, which will make them wear out faster. I suspect that they are charged at a very high rate as well to save time, but this again reduces long-term lifetime. After two years of usage the batteries started noticeably losing their capacity: autonomy had dropped to at most three days in stand-by. At this point, when the battery indicator showed the empty bar, taking calls or surfing the web was almost a guarantee to make the phone shut down. After three years it was much worse: I would be lucky to reach two days of standby, and making calls with the indicator at less than ‘full’ was risky. In other words, do not expect more than two years of intense usage out of a set of two batteries.
Something that seems to put very high stress on the battery is when using the phone for tethering, i.e. connecting it to a PC through the USB cable (or worse, Bluetooth) to use it as a data modem. Not only is this enormously slow due to the primitive GPRS connection, it seems to draw so much power through the battery that it heats up. Heat is the prime enemy of Lithium-based batteries. Mind that even while the phone is getting power through USB, current will still flow through its battery because this saves the lazy engineers from designing a proper power distribution circuit. I have the impression that every time after the few times I had used my S9110 for tethering, I had permanently lost a few hours of battery capacity.
Now, back to the battery capacity issue. The reason why I wrote “are labeled 480mAh” above, is that opening one of the batteries reveals that the LiPo package inside actually only has 350mAh, a good quarter less than stated. This proves to be a common occurrence with cheap Chinese phones, most likely the batteries of the N800 were also less than the stated 720mAh. I have no idea why the Chinese believe it is a good idea to lie about these ratings, nobody knows the relation between mAh and battery life for these phones anyway. At some point customers will learn about this kind of fraud and it will hurt the general public's trust in Chinese products.
Like the Nova, this phone looks well-built. The seller claimed that the body is stainless steel, but I doubt it. Judging from the weight it does seem to be some kind of metal with a dark glossy coating. At any rate it sure does look a lot better than the Nova's plastic case. The overall finish of this gadget is very nice. The only thing that bothers me is the small charge port connector cover (see photo), which seems flimsy and prone to breakage in the not-so-far future.
Note 2011/10/20: the dark coating is starting to show some wear, most of which appears due to exposure to sweat. I recommend taking off the watch when performing sports, and regularly cleaning it. The port cover is still intact though :)
As for the software, given that it is an evolved version of the Nova's soft-/firmware which was already pretty good, it is even better in most aspects. The most annoying bugs that were present in the Nova are fixed, and the number of bugs I discovered is small. One particularly annoying bug is that the phone randomly forgets paired Bluetooth devices between reboots, therefore if you turn off the phone you may need to re-pair with e.g. your BT headset.
The WAP browser is a lot better than on the Nova, even though it is still primitive. By default it identifies itself as “MAUI_WAP_Browser”. Next to finally being able to display Google's WAP pages, it is much faster, allows arbitrary scrolling both vertically and horizontally, supports animated GIF, PNG, and basic CSS. The only problems are that regardless of the phone's language setting, it prefers the Chinese version of websites when available (even though the Chinese font is not installed), and that error messages are cut off (“Connection…”).
The image viewer has also improved: it now allows zooming, panning, and viewing photos in full screen by rotating them.
Some things have stayed the same, like the impossibility to route the audio to a Bluetooth headset during video playback. A few other things went backwards however: the camera doesn't store any EXIF information in the images anymore, so you can't see when you took a picture unless you rely on the volatile file modification date. When replying to an SMS, it no longer seems possible to save your reply. Also, the sent SMS messages that can be saved still don't have a date stamp, why not? It's not like a date requires a huge amount of memory. I like to see what I sent to people and also when I sent it. I don't want to waste neurons on things for which mankind has invented computers.
I did have one case where the phone appeared to have ‘crashed’ and prompted me to ‘recover’, which caused many of the settings to revert to defaults. Luckily my address book and messages were unaffected but the WAP bookmarks were gone, so I hope this won't happen again. Several months have passed since then without problems. I guess it was just a fluke.
If you have read my other articles, you should know that I'm not the kind of guy that just buys and uses stuff. I'm an engineer. If something bothers me about a product of which warranty has expired or is hard to exploit anyway, I try to fix it myself.
When buying this phone, I kind of counted on being able to replace the cumbersome (and to my opinion slightly ugly) strap. If I could fit a strap with a quick-release clasp mechanism, it would be the next best thing to having a detachable wristband like on the Nova. So I ordered a nice rubber 24mm strap from ZRC with a fancy ‘tyre’ pattern and folding clasp. Once it arrived, I started replacing the strap. This seemed easy at first: just unscrew the four little screws, shift the mounting tubes out of the leather strap and into the new strap, screw everything back in and then shorten the rubber strap. However, when I unscrewed the upper part of the strap (voiding any chance of warranty because this required breaking a seal), I suddenly discovered why this phone has such good signal reception. The antennas for both the GSM signal and Bluetooth are cleverly routed into the strap through the hollow mounting bar (see photo). In other words, the strap is the antenna. This is neat, but it surely makes replacing the strap seemingly impossible.
However, I really like this watch phone and I really disliked the prospect of having to ensure that I always have a charged Bluetooth headset handy to be able to answer calls. Hence I made the impossible possible by building my own antennas into my replacement strap. This involved the following operations:
The operation was a success: I can now remove the phone from my wrist quite quickly and signal reception is at least as good as with the original strap. The only disadvantage is that it is harder to open the bottom cover to swap the battery or microSD card. Anyhow, if it isn't clear enough from this description: replacing the strap on this watch phone while maintaining good signal reception is not trivial. The antennas cannot be omitted or you will have virtually no signal. And no, I will not build antennas into your custom strap and mount it on your watch phone, so please don't ask.
A possible alternative is to keep the original strap, and install a butterfly or folding clasp that can be mounted on regular straps (they do exist, but I never tried it).
One of the biggest problems with this phone, the nearly unreadable keyboard (see above), can be solved by hacking the firmware. Completely disassembling the phone had as advantage that I could see what makes it ‘tick’: the CPU is a MTK MT6225A. I found instructions on the web on how to download the firmware from other Chinese phones with similar CPUs, and they also apply to this phone. The firmware is also 16MiB in size, therefore you should set the download length to “0x01000000”. The only problem is that nobody sells a firmware cable for the Chinese ‘S9110’, therefore the only option was to make my own. I bought a cable for an i9 phone from IPMart and modified it after figuring out the correct pin-out, which you can find below. For a firmware cable you only need to connect pins 2, 7 and 8.
If you can obtain the correct 12-pin plug with resolderable pins, you can make your own firmware cable with any USB→TTL adaptor. This has a good chance of being much better than the ho-hum cable from IPMart, which was unable to work reliably at more than 57.6 kbps. With my own adaptor I can download and upload at a whopping 921.6 kbps!
Fixing things like the WAP browser's preference for Chinese is trivial (replace the string “
zh-tw,zh-cn,en”), but the keyboard problem proved to be more difficult. I had hoped that the keyboards would be stored as simple GIF or BMP images, but I found nothing keyboard-like when extracting all known formats from the firmware dump. After randomly scrolling in a hex editor I finally stumbled upon the bitmaps for the keyboard backgrounds, and I managed to make them white. I also would like to make the letters black, but that seems to be extremely non-trivial. Anyway, dark gray on white is already a huge improvement.
If you want to perform this hack yourself, you can download the updated firmware chunk here. Instructions are included. Make sure to back up your phone's firmware before attempting this.
The code to get in Engineer Mode (on my firmware) is
*#36466336#. Needless to say you should only use this if you know what you're doing, and preferably have a back-up of your firmware. Make sure not to activate ‘High Speed SIM’, which is rumoured to instantly brick your phone. There is one thing that is very useful though: in the ‘Misc.’ → ‘WAP’ menu, you should change the User Agent to ‘SE W800i’ and ‘Accept Header’ to HTML, which will both reduce the risk of getting the “Memory full” error and allow to open more webpages.
As I'm currently learning Chinese, I was disappointed that my S9110 did not have any Chinese language support (简体中文). I could cheaply order the plastic ‘F6’ twin of this phone though, with Chinese firmware. So I did, and I copied the firmware to my S9110 with success. Of course I had to repeat the keyboard hack but now I can learn and practice Chinese on my wristwatch, how cool is that?
As usual, let's stack up the pros versus the cons for the Chinese ‘S9110’ watch phone.
The bottom line is that this can be a great watch phone under certain strict conditions. Those conditions are that you're either a hacker who is handy with tools and tiny electronics, or that you are willing to always carry a Bluetooth headset to make and answer calls, and take great care of the strap such as to prevent it from wearing quickly. In other words, I cannot recommend this model to people who just want to buy something that will work well out-of-the-box.
In some ways it is an improvement upon the Nova N800 (in others it is worse), but it is still far away from my ideal view of a watch phone, in the sense that it:
Also, I hope 3G or at least EDGE will soon find its way into the realm of watch phones. GPRS is just ancient and horribly slow. Even for loading relatively small webpages, GPRS can be frustratingly sluggish and it is unusable for even low-quality live audio streams. I wonder why some watch phones have a front-facing camera because GPRS is nearly useless for video conferencing. It only allows a postage stamp-sized slide show. A faster connection would also be much more useful for tethering.
At first sight the antennas embedded into the strap seem a good idea, because this brings them outside the cramped confines of the watch body, allowing the body to be made out of metal and theoretically allowing for better signal reception. In practice though, this brings the antennas very close to the wearer's wrist. The wrist acts as a barrier for the cell phone signal. This is very noticeable with the S9110: taking it off the wrist will often add three bars to the indicator. With some innovation, it must be possible to combine detachability with a good antenna. If you are a designer of watch phones and decide on a fixed strap, make it a type that is durable and can be opened quickly and easily.
I have moved this entire section to its own page.
The ‘S9120’ appears to be identical to the S9110, except that it has a brown textile strap.
Recently I found another model of the same ‘Fashion’ brand, named the ‘F6’. I actually bought one to obtain firmware with Chinese language support for my S9110 (and then resold it). The F6 looks less stylish because it's all plastic, but the hardware, batteries and firmware are otherwise identical (including the annoyingly unreadable keyboard). In case you're wondering: the big red ‘button’ below the screen is purely decorational. Next to the obvious difference in appearance with the S9110, there are differences in some small but not unimportant details.
First of all, the F6 is much lighter than the S9110 because it is all plastic. It is slightly thicker though, about 14mm. The strap is rubber but still a classic type: no quick-release. There is no way the strap can be replaced, not even with the best hacking skillz. The USB/charger and headset plugs for the F6 are identical to the S9110 except for the fact that they are slightly longer. This is necessary because the socket is deeper. In other words, the F6 cables will also work on the S9110, but not the other way round. Something peculiar is that on the F6 the ‘Display’ menu is missing, even if the S9110's firmware is copied onto it! This does not allow changing the ‘Themes’, but the wallpaper and power on/off animations can still be changed by browsing to the desired image in the ‘Gallery’ and using the ‘Forward’ item in the ‘Options’ menu.
Another evolution in the watch phone market has arrived: Wi-Fi on your wrist! There is a new model called the “X8” which has both Wi-Fi and Java support. It has a keypad built into the strap, and the strap is a metal quick-release type. The only big drawback about this model seems to be that it is… well, big. It is 17mm thick which makes it a bit of a brick. That's probably the price to pay for having so much technology on your wrist, but I hope that further miniaturisation will in the near future produce slimmer watch phones with WLAN as well as EDGE/3G. Check out a review of the X8 on Joe's Tech Review.
This is an interesting new addition. What makes this watch phone stand out is that it has a very nice design combined with good branding. It has a cool name and a logo obviously inspired by Assassin's Creed. The eBay page I found for this model has perfect English and despite the fact that the description tries to set the phone's features apart from the others while it is still the same hardware, the list of features is honest. All this could make me seriously consider buying it if I needed a new watch phone. What puts me off however is that it is obviously still the same basic hardware packaged in a new beautiful shell. Also, it is bulky with a screen that only covers a relatively small proportion of the entire surface. And it has poor battery life.
Someone made an overview of all the menus in the S9120 (which is almost identical to the S9110), with some critical remarks.
A good place for information on the latest new watch phone models and good deals for buying them, is Joe's Tech Review.