Review: Sanyo Taho on Sprint

The internet in my pants, page 1:   backstory and features

    (Next: page 2: browser and security issues)

My old cellphone-thats-just-a-phone was finally dying; the plastic case was starting to crack at the hinge and while it still worked, it wasn't going to physically last much longer. I often have it in my front pocket, and the abuse it gets when I'm on gigs and logistics was killing it -- running around lifting heavy stuff and carrying same against my lap, crawling around nether regions running wires, or whatever. I was also beginning to see the potential value in having a long-range data link available while on the road, as I've often wanted to look up this or that and not necessarily wait until pulled into a motel or campground to jump on a wifi cloud. I decided to look into some upgrade options, while still shying away from the concept of having a full-blown smartphone. I went down to the local Sprint store to poke at some devices and ask questions and see if anyone there would deal with me on a non-bullshit basis.

It seemed that Sprint has wised up on certain modern aspects of competing in the market, and is now offering *unlimited* data capability for an extra $15 a month. Being on a relatively inexpensive plan already whose voice minutes I rarely if ever exceed, this is actually acceptable. I still have SMS blocked, though, as I don't believe that texting *should* carry any additional charges as it's a considerably lower-overhead protocol than transmitting voice, not to mention the fact that for the short time that I had such capability, *Sprint* itself was spamming my phone with affiliate advertising and then charging me a per-message rate for the privilege. I told them to F off and disable text forever, and they did. If people want to reach me, they can just bloody *call* and interact with me like a human being.

So I wanted to strike some reasonable balance between dumb and smart, and possibly get something a little more physically robust in the process. For a nominal price after rebates and longtime-customer discounts I could get something called a Sanyo Taho, a supposedly "ruggedized" model with rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers all round and can withstand immersion for several minutes. It's clearly aimed at the blue-collar crowd, with ad rhetoric suggesting all the multimedia fun that you, tough guy, can have after "the jobsite" is in the rear-view of the pickup. In playing around with it and some other phones at the store I found that they basically all conform to the same UI model, and that the little built-in web browser actually has knobs to turn off Javascript and even images if I wanted. There's a plus that helped sell the concept of having a web-enabled phone in general -- the lean, just-gimme-the-info working model I was thinking of! The Taho also has a micro-SD card on which user data such as camera pictures are stored, and as I read through its manual I saw that said data could be read and written straight through a USB mass-storage interface rather than saddling users with klunky non-solutions like having to email pictures to some account out on the net just to be able to pull them off the phone. It comes with a 1G card and can accept larger ones up to 32G. Thirty gig of your favorite, uh, baby pictures that you can easily lose into the carpet. My, how times have changed. Anyway, several of the major showstoppers where updated phones are concerned were rapidly evaporating as I learned more.


Sanyo Taho, with tape over outer screen For perspective, or if you'd rather read someone else's review instead of my opinionated neo-luddite rants about it, you can head off and find what CNet and PhoneArea said about it. Long story slightly shorter, I went for it and a few days later, walked out of the store with my new not-really-shiny black lump of rubberized flip-open fun with an upgraded plan backing it up. Technically the Internet, or at least the somewhat mollycoddled version thereof that Sprint's gateways hand out, had at that precise moment found its way into my pants. But not for long that afternoon unless I could get some more battery charge into the thing.

Most of the newer devices are going with micro-USB as a data and charging interface, and I think someone told me such standardization is *mandated* in the EU. This means that the whole sleazy racket in phone chargers with proprietary connectors will die a well-deserved and none too soon death. I walked across the parking lot from the Sprint store to the Staples conveniently located right there and picked up a USB-A to microUSB-B cable to augment the wall-outlet charger the phone came with, for about half what it would have cost in the Sprint store. That can plug into anything that provides 5V power at a USB outlet, which is damn near everything electronic nowadays. Automotive accessories are commonly including USB outlets now, and that's how many people are charging their devices on the move.

When the USB is plugged into a computer, the phone pops up a box offering a choice: to go into mass-storage mode, to go into modem mode, or do nothing [except start charging which it does anyway]. That's a nice way to handle it, instead of taking some undesireable default. Once in storage mode, the micro-SD card is presented as a typical FAT filesystem that I can freely read, write, reformat, or whatever. What I can't see is the phone's internal memory, but I'm sure there's some magic interface to read and write that area used by programming machines at the stores. The Mac creates a new serial port in response to activating modem-mode which was likely intended for data tethering as a PPP device, but there's been this huge policy fight going on about tethering and blocking thereof and all the carriers thrashing around trying to come up with ways to charge customers more for it even if they already have "unlimited" data plans. Sprint apparently officially declared that it wasn't going to support serial tethering anymore about a year ago, causing a completely expected uproar. It's ridiculous, and for my purposes remains unexplored territory so far but I'm sure there's some way around it. Google around for "PdaNet" to find much more on the subject.

Speaking of GPS, the phone also offers a "Sprint navigation" app which uses the built-in GPS receiver to become a mapping device. Accessing this for the first time invokes a two-week trial of the "premium" version, after expiry of which a choice of three service levels is offered as continuation. The free one is a simple static-maps database interface, but the point is that data to look up places and such comes from Sprint's cloud and is presumably reasonably fresh all the time. The for-pay levels offer fancier moving maps and function more like a typical GPS, similar to apps now common on full smartphones, and it's precisely that kind of network-enabled advantage over standalone units that's got the GPS-receiver industry scrambling to compete in their established market. The navigation app comes from TeleNav, and its user-interface model conflicts in various annoying ways from that used in the rest of the phone. It clearly feels like a third-party piece of software from people who didn't talk to Sprint about the design and uniformity guidelines that the phone manufacturers themselves do. It's got a considerable number of other annoyances, best expressed in this message I sent off to their support department. If TeleNav was trying to look like a "real" GPS unit, they failed pretty hard here because even on this small platform, it could be done a whole lot better. I should qualify that by saying that I've become rather critical about GPS UIs and workflows over time.

The downside, of course, of using a cloud-based GPS is that unlike with standalone receivers, your location *is* sent up to Telenav's servers to identify the data that needs to be returned. Your "login" there is simply the mobile phone number, so obviously your whole path can be identified and tracked by third parties. And that track data doesn't seem to be available to the end user, unlike the "breadcrumb trail" one can download from a personal GPS unit. The software in general also has the annoying model of generally hiding actual lat/long *coordinates* from the user, which doesn't exactly cater to the casual geocaching enthusiast.

I'll talk about the browser in page 2, as it's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Voice-input and even some of the predictive text-typein handling seems to involve software from Nuance, rumored to also provide the engine behind Siri on the iWidgets. My colleagues who have lovingly embraced Siri aside, I'm not likely to get into fooling with the voice-recognition stuff too much as it's noisy and annoying and I far prefer physical buttons. Unfortunately, the "speaker" button on the side of the phone invokes Nuance when held down, even when the phone is closed and "key guard" is on, which can easily lead to all kinds of "your butt just called me" fun and minutes-long recordings of ambient noise unwittingly left as voicemail. The only way to disable that damn button seems to be putting the whole phone in lock mode -- which is also annoying because it needs the already-set lock code entered *again* to either lock or unlock. No quick shortcut available here.

The camera is pretty straightforward; a 2 Mp sensor certainly isn't the leading edge of what's going into the mobile market now but within one's reasonable expectations it snags acceptable pictures. I have to remember to try and hold very still, as this is *not* my real full-featured camera -- one quickly gets spoiled by the image-stabilization that's come to the majority of the modern camera market but not to the tiny units in phones. Swinging the phone sideways for shooting allows a more stable two-hand hold and yields a more normal 4x3 aspect ratio than its default portrait mode. The zoom is software-only, and I found that leaving the zoom all the way out and just shooting whatever the full-field view is yields better detail in a postprocessed crop than trying to zoom the shot itself. That's because a "zoomed" picture has simply been cropped and interpolated back up to the 2Mp size for storage, losing some detail in the process. A few options are provided for tweaking white-balance, sharpness, and a couple of other basics, but they're all software transforms that are best left until subsequent processing in a real image editor. You'll want to have a decent de-noising filter handy at that point, too.

One big downside of camera mode is that the large blue LED strip on the lid starts flashing fairly frantically, and a big icon of a camera appears on the small outer screen, making it REALLY OBVIOUS on the other side that you're trying to take a picture. Easily fixed with a strip of gaffers tape, as I've never really needed the small outer screen anyways. The lid is designed with a nice deep contour line between the center panel and the surrounding rubber body, making it easy to trim the tape to a conforming shape after application. So as with many other things I own, I've already wrapped enough tape around this phone to make it feel like it's really mine now. Another minus is that in the picture viewer, you cannot *zoom* into an image at all! That seems like a design oversight, as it's one of the very frequent things anyone wandering through pictures would naturally want to do, especially on a small screen. Regardless, the camera helped with personalization as with my finger over the lens I shot a completely black frame and straightforwardly assigned that as a nice dark screen background and got rid of the silly Sprint logo. That image data got reduced down to the 240x320 screen size and copied into the phone's own memory somewhere, since I was able to delete my image file later and still have the background remain in place.

My old phone had the ability to turn voice-memos into ringers, and spent most of its useful existence with the "star trek bridge hailer" sound I whistled into it as its main alert. The Taho seems to allow doing this but with a *video* instead, but I haven't recreated my old sound yet as some of the phone's built-in ringers are sufficiently piercing to punch through noisy environments. Still, I can't understand why a straightforward model of simply using a user-supplied *sound* file as a ringer isn't more prevalent, other than because of the stranglehold the downloadable-ringers market wants to maintain on that aspect. I summarily ignore that entire scam, especially if I can make my own ringers in some fashion. But I know the phone *could* handle such things. It has a media player too, not only to handle videos shot with the phone itself but if you transfer valid media onto the card from outside, they'll play sound on the phone's speaker or through the earphone jack [which has a stereo/mono setting]. On a lark I trasferred one of my favorite MP3s onto the SD, and was mildly astounded when playing it from the file browser Just Worked. But I still can't assign such a thing as a ringer. Whatever. In considering this one must also ask how robust said player is against mangled input data, as that's been a frequent source of security problems in many applications.

Videos are written as .3G2 files, which are some sort of MPEG container format. I haven't tested other formats against the player. Video recording uses the regular mouth microphone as sound input, which is of course on the other side of the phone from the camera ... so in theory, sound won't be picked up very well from the side toward the enemy. In practice, it actually doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference. Someone probably assumed that the phone user would be mumbling their own boring narrative of what they're videoing anyway, thus for typical uses the microphone may be on the correct side after all.

In general, the amount of add-on fluff for this phone seems to be held to a bare minimum. Some apps are better-integrated than others. It's still in high contrast to many smartphones that come pre-loaded with a bunch of useless junk apps and games that often can't even be deleted to make room. The camera handler, nav, voice-command recognition, media player, and web browser seem to be the parts that "start up" alongside the base OS, which is a purpose-built embedded system called Brew MP [aka Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless] from Qualcomm which so far doesn't seem to have suffered any major security issues [but give it time]. Brew MP is central to an effort to bring less expensive but still somewhat "smart" devices to market in general, since as popular as the full-blown smart-toys have become they still aren't cheap.

All well and good, but what about the phone itself?? Pretty typical UI, storage for something like 600 phonebook entries [which can be dumped out and reloaded as an ascii .VCF file on the card], a bunch of ringers, etc. The audio in both directions seems slightly better than my previous phone, but it's still got that annoying transmission lag typical of Sprint's CDMA and backend infrastructure. Fairly straightforward interface for messaging, although it and anything else that needs text entered is necessarily encumbered with having to enter it via the numeric keypad. I don't mind that as I don't anticipate doing it very often. Alarm-clock, countdown timer, calendar, calculator, etc. One thing this has is a stopwatch with five lap or split slots, which I've actually wanted to have on occasion.

While I have SMS disabled I can still evidently send *out* to email addresses, and a quick test of sending a picture to an external address got through with some interesting revelations. First, that even with SMS disabled they'll let a mail message be sent. Second, that Sprint backends through a third-party provider called for such functions. Third, that the picture data isn't actually attached with the message, it's held at Sprint's site and just an image tag is placed in the mail, in the form
or some such. So Sprint hangs onto your sent picture for some indeterminate length of time, a clear privacy violation. In the inevitable HTML half of the message, they also embellish what a recipient sees with all kinds of extra logos, tracking pixels, and advertising. There is a token plain text message part with a link to the picture but the relay handler even gets that a little wrong, starting off said part with [literally, this is not a typo] "New Picture Mail from {SENDER_ADDRESS}!" without the intended substution being done. But the mail itself comes from your "Sprint PCS username", which the guys at the store swore up and down is something just used internally and never escapes out into the public eye. Wrong, it's visible right there in the mail. So if you sign up with Sprint, make sure to have them set the "username" to something you are actually okay with, or at least maybe a random string that isn't your subscriber number.

Naturally, heavy use of the extra hardware such as the camera and GPS receiver sucks the life out of the battery much faster than if the phone is just used as a phone, but the user is given the options to turn them off, disable data-transmission, etc. A day or less of heavy "toy mode" usage can probably turn into close to a week of standby phone mode especially if actual calling is kept to a minimum. [Spec claim is 6.5 hours of talk time, but that obviously depends on tower proximity.] When the phone is showing its "red battery" icon at the very end of available charge, it actually won't let extra apps start up but calls can still be placed -- this sort of reflects a high disparity in power needed by the apps and ancillary hardware vs. just being a phone. After putting it through a couple of cycles, a charge from "dead empty" with the phone powered off takes on the order of 4 hours.


Prius vs Taho: a study in green and black

It's kind of ironic that I, being a Prius driver, got a phone called a Taho which in the vehicle world implies a hulking, gas-sucking monster. What's even more funny is that after the tape-up job with green gaff, I have a phone that's rather the color-scheme inverse of the car.


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