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Multi-tasking takes on a new meaning when lying on a beach in northern Spain. With the jazz of Wynton Marsalis playing in my ears, I slide back the cover and what was an MP3 player becomes a camera for that impromptu snap.
The Nokia 6680 is also a videophone, although to spare the envy of colleagues, this feature was not tested on San Sebastian’s La Concha beach. The 6680 is one of Nokia’s latest 3G smartphones and pretty stylish it is too. But it is not the first device to squeeze multiple functions into one palm-sized unit. Fuji and Casio started the trend a few years back with digital cameras incorporating MP3 players but they were not a great success.
Undaunted, BenQ recently unveiled a camera with seven functions: still pictures, video, webcam, music player, radio, voice recorder and flash drive.
Purists argue this “Swiss Army knife” approach to digital media involves too many compromises and they are probably right. But for those who like to travel light, there is an obvious appeal in carrying just one device, not least because that means only one battery charger to remember to pack instead of three.
These days that device is increasingly likely to be a mobile phone. Technology advances mean that today’s phones can realistically double up as music players or cameras. The Nokia 6680 can even do several tasks at the same time thanks to its multi-tasking Symbian operating system.
In a nice design touch, the 6680’s camera is instantly activated by sliding the lens cover on the phone’s back. There is also a flash and, as a concession to “real” photographers, the colour balance can be adjusted manually. The images produced by the 1.5 megapixel camera are acceptable if you use the highest resolution and print only at postcard size.
The 6800’s music player is rudimentary and music lacks bass through the earphones. Nevertheless, it does the job and it is easy to transfer MP3 files from your PC using the supplied USB cable and software.
One look at its classic oblong format and you know the 6680 is first and foremost a phone rather than a camera or MP3 player.
With the Sharp 902, a clamshell phone that Vodafone sells for its Live! 3G service, you are no longer so sure. By twisting and folding the device, it transforms into a music player, a camera and back to a telephone.
With its iPod-white lid uppermost, the 902 could get mistaken for Apple’s famous music player. Sound quality is good as you can plug in your own high-quality headphones rather than, as the Nokia 6680 requires, the factory-supplied earphones. There is also a tone control for those who like to pump up the bass.
One drawback with the 902 is that Vodafone wants you to buy music from its Live! portal rather than copy it from your PC. The manual thus does not explain how to transfer MP3 files into the phone. The secret is to use the phone’s SD memory card and a card reader attached to your PC.
Flip the 902 over and it becomes a decent camera, with a 2 megapixel sensor, flash and, unusually, a 2X optical zoom. Image quality was noticeable better than for the Nokia, because of the 902’s superior sensor but the camera functions are quite fiddly to operate.
Good as they are, the current crop of 3G phones do not seriously threaten dedicated MP3 players or digital cameras. Not yet, anyway.
Waiting in the wings are phones that may tip the balance. The N90, for example, is Nokia’s first phone optimised for photography, with a twist-and-shoot design, 2 megapixel camera and Carl Zeiss optics.
While the N91 is a new Nokia model optimised for music. Its tiny 4GB hard disk can hold up to 4,000 songs. Only if you slide the cover back to reveal the keypad, do you see its a phone.