The number of white earphones I saw while riding on the Washington DC Metro a few days after Christmas last year was so astounding that it made me wonder whether half the population of Washington hadn’t been inducted into some sort of iPod cult.

Back home in Milan, I heralded the coming of the Next Big Thing. But nearly a year later, the iPod is barely gaining traction in Europe’s fashion capital.

Partly, this is because
Italians are uncomfortable with the idea of going about in public with something stuck in their ears – unless it is connected to a mobile phone.

So it seems natural that a cellphone that doubles as a digital music player should be a winner with European consumers, especially if they have not yet been snatched by the Podder community.

This is why leading mobile phone vendors are busy
rolling out a new breed
of mobile devices: music phones.

Cellphones with built-in MP3 players have been available for some time. But the music player tended to be just one more feature buried deep in a labyrinth of clicks and menus.

Poor usability explains why just 4 per cent of European mobile users said that they would look for an MP3-ready phone in future purchases, according to a recent survey conducted by Forrester Research.

Music phones are designed to make music listening easy.

Besides all of the standard phone features, these terminals add dedicated buttons and streamlined menus so that you can manage your music collection without fumbling.

They also feature better audio quality, expanded memory and automatically pause music playback when you are talking on the phone.

Sony Ericsson and Motorola were the first to introduce music phones at the end of this summer. Laggards Nokia and Siemens promise to be in the market by early 2006.

The most hyped release was Motorola’s ROKR, which incorporates Apple’s popular iTunes music management software.

However, iPod fans who expected a sexy design combo of an iPod and Motorola’s RAZR flip phone instead got an uninspired reissue of the E398 “candy bar” phone.

Consumers expected a
miracle but instead they
got classic Motorola. What the ROKR does offer is one-touch access to iTunes via
a button on the front of the phone.

The iTunes software offers the same simple user interface that has made the iPod so successful, although I found navigation frustratingly sluggish. A unique ROKR feature is support for protected AAC audio files bought from Apple’s online music shop.

The ROKR’s unforgivable sin is the artificial storage limit set at 100 songs, even
if there is extra space on
the 512 megabyte memory card.

By comparison, Nokia’s announced N91 will have a 4 gigabyte hard drive, giving it the capacity to store up to 3,000 CD tracks.

Another serious flaw of the ROKR is the agonisingly slow transfer of music from a computer to the phone.

The ROKR uses the USB 1.1 standard rather than the faster 2.0 version and, on occasion, it took me up to a minute to transfer an average-length CD track.

A far better music phone is Sony Ericsson’s Walkman-branded W800. Besides being more attractive, it is much easier to use.

The music interface is
fast and closely resembles iTunes. In some ways, the W800’s interface is simpler than that of the iPod and it has unique functions such as allowing you to create play lists directly on the phone.

The W800 also has one-click access to the music player as well as external buttons to play or pause music and to adjust volume. These quickly become second nature.

The W800 also comes with a handy 512 megabyte Memory Stick, which slips into a slot on the side of the phone so there is no need to remove the battery.

Buy a 2 gigabyte Memory Stick and you can store up to 500 songs – or you can wait a few months for the 4 gigabyte card.

Other classy features include a superior 2 mega-pixel camera, a cable that lets you pump music to a Hi Fi stereo and battery charging via the USB cable.

And if you run out of digital music, you can switch on the phone’s FM radio.

Where the W800 falls short is the built-in speaker used to play music without a headphone.

While it is high quality – the definition is better than on the ROKR – it lacks power.

What is more, the phone’s Mega Bass option tends
to distort playback on headphones or external speakers. The software used to transfer music to the phone is fairly rudimentary, although you are free to use other applications including iTunes.

So are these phones iPod killers? No way. Could they be? With some more tweaking, Sony Ericsson has a shot at the title.

“Music-focused phones will be very important for the coming two years,” says Peter Bodor, a Sony Ericsson spokesman.

But in the meantime, the W800 Walkman represents a decent compromise for the impatient music fanatic.

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