Panasonic Eluga Review

Panasonic has been absent from the mobile phone market for more than five years – at least in Europe, having continued to produce handsets for the Asian markets. There was speculation at the end of 2011, that the company might be re-entering the European phone arena, and Panasonic’s 2012 European Convention in February proved that rumour true, when the Eluga handset was unveiled. Entering, or even re-entering the smartphone market is not easy – the competition is very fierce, and phones are as much about fashion as they are about function these days..

Setting-up the phone for the very first time is fine, if you understand a little German. Our review model was fixed to the German language setting. Even after factory restoring the mobile, it was the same. To be fair, this is a PR sample, which could well have come from Panasonic’s German office, and we have to assume that UK samples would default to English.

The set-up procedure was a very basic Android configuration, albeit in German, which involved just entering a Gmail account and very little else. After this, I was able to tweak the language support to English (United Kingdom). This in itself isn’t a big issue for an experienced Android user, but we’ll confirm with Panasonic that phones bought in the UK will have English as the default language.

Design

The design of the Panasonic Eluga is reminiscent of a phone that Sony Ericsson, now Sony Mobile, would produce. This is with the mobile’s form factor, the curved uni-body rear, sleek-black colours, sharp angular edges and the non-removable battery cover, with its matt finish. If I didn’t know any better, I would swear the Eluga is an unseen Sony Xperia design.

The Eluga almost feels like a thinner Sony Xperia S, or a device that is somewhere between that phone and the Sony Xperia Arc S. The latter handset is a doppelganger for the Panasonic phone, if only from the rear view. It has a very similar shape and the dimensions of 125 x 63 x 8.7mm; the Eluga comes in at 123 x 62 x 7.8 mm. Recently leaked reports of the sixth generation iPhone case has a similar width, although we will have to wait and see if this is genuine or not.

Panasonic’s Eluga is comfortable to hold in the hand and easy to operate, along with being one of the lightest Android devices I have ever used, at 103 grams. It is a very sleek looking mobile phone and you can tell that Panasonic has not rested on its laurels, in its European absence. But there is more to the Eluga than is first apparent to the eye.

The Eluga is both waterproof and dust proof, with an IP rating of 57. This puts the device on par with that of the Motorola Defy+ and Sony Xperia Active, for its resistance against the elements. The Motorola and Sony handsets do carry an IP rating of 67, though, which means those phones are dust tight and the Eluga is only protected against dust. The Panasonic device is also water resistant, to the depths of one metre for a duration of 30mins, as are the Defy+ and Active. However, these other phones do have the appearance of tough, arduous devices. In the Eluga’s favour – it’s one of the slimmest, lightest and sleek looking phones out there, despite its relatively rugged nature and waterproof credentials.

Both of microSIM slot and the microUSB charging ports are covered by flaps, which aid in the mobile’s waterproofness – leaving just the 3.5mm audio jack open. I tried out the water resilience of the Panasonic Eluga and I am pleased to say that it performed admirably, with no damage after long periods underwater or under the tap. Unfortunately, the screen is completely unusable while immersed in water, as are the touch-sensitive buttons. Only the physical rear, volume-rocker and power buttons operate when the device is immersed..

On the subject of the only two real buttons on the phone – they are awkwardly positioned, located on a curve, at the rear of the device. The phone either needs to be tuned over on its front to access these buttons, or always operated by left-handed person, as these aren’t easily accessible by the right-handed among us (I had no problem accessing the buttons, and I’m right handed – ed.).

Hardware

The Panasonic Eluga comes with a 4.3in screen, which is a nice size for a smartphone. The display makes up 66 per cent of the device, where the screen reaches the sides of the handset, with almost no room to spare. This type of embedded display offers easy access to a responsive touchscreen, whether you have large or small hands. I didn’t have any trouble holding the Eluga in one hand and operating the screen with just my thumb, although the menu, home screen and back buttons might be harder to reach with smaller hands.

The Japanese-based electronics giant has opted for an OLED display in the Eluga. This is instead of the Super AMOLED screens that Samsung is fond of, or the Super LCD that HTC uses. The resolution comes in at 540 x 960 pixels, which is also known as qHD. Both the OLED screen and its resolution produce sharp images and vivid colours. Sadly that resolution is looking a bit lacking these days, with many other smartphones shipping with HD 1,280 x 720 screens.

Running the phone is the dual-core 1GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 chipset that also features in devices such as the Motorola Razr, and Amazon Kindle fire tablet. We didn’t experience any lag using the device, but the phone’s boot-up and shutdown times leave much to be desired. These were just over 50 seconds to start up from powered off and 40 seconds, to close down completely. A higher-clocked processor wouldn’t have gone amiss, when similar phones have surpassed the dual-core 1GHz barrier. The Eluga did manage 1836 in the Quadrant benchmark tests, which is a better CPU score than the Nvidia Tegra 2, dual-core 1GHz equipped LG Optimus 2X. The Panasonic benchmarking results were an overall match for those obtained on the HTC Desire HD, and it scored higher than the Samsung Nexus S, in almost every area.

Backing the processor is 1GB of RAM, but it’s the storage space that’s the big (or not so big) issue with the Eluga. The spec sheet notes there is 8GB of internal storage, but after a factory restore, adding a Gmail account and updating all the pre-installed apps – only 4.27GB is accessible. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for pictures, video, music and other apps. There is also no microSD card slot. This results in 4.27GB being the only available storage. You can install the likes of Dropbox or Box.net apps, allowing offline storage and also stream music from the likes of Spotify. These will save space, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Eluga should either have more internal storage, or a memory card slot.

On-board is an eight-megapixel camera, whose app launched fairly fast, in just under two seconds. This offers up picture capture in various sizes: eight, five and three-megapixel in 4:3; six, 3.7 and two-megapixel in 16:9, also qHD and VGA. Missing from the camera is an LED flash. This will inhibit the types of images that can be captured and where. There’s almost no lag in camera to screen movement, while picture quality is very sharp, with vibrant colours (see below).

The call quality wasn't as sharp as the photos though, in fact, it was quite bad indeed. The audio heard, in the regular way of making calls, sounded as if the other person was somewhere in the distance. This is with a good HSPA signal and with calls placed to landlines, other mobile phones and even a voicemail-greeting message. These calls were compared with a Samsung Galaxy S II and a Nokia Lumia 800, all using the same network and calling the same numbers. This poor audio quality was replicated on the Eluga speakerphone too, in hands free mode. We’re hoping this might be addressed in a firmware update that we hear is imminent.

Just beneath the camera are the words NFC, indicating that this functionality is built in to the Eluga and that it’s accessible from this area of the phone. There is a preinstalled app, called ‘NFC starter’, which walks the owner through various aspects of Near Field Communication technology. This app can also be launched from just touching an NFC card, against the back of the phone. Panasonic has bundled in an NFC card to be used with the phone. This can be set up to unlock the device, like a company security card, launch an app or go straight to a website – when touched on the handset’s rear.

Operating System

Panasonic has deployed the Android Gingerbread 2.3 operating system on the Eluga, with a basic overlay that could really just be called a theme. This offers all the features of that version of the OS that we've seen since December 2010. The five home screens are populated with the expected array of widgets and application shortcuts, such as access to Google Play store, Gmail, Camera and Google Maps.

There are some unexpected widgets and app shortcuts that are useful and welcome additions. These are a DNLA media sharing app, the NFC Starter and a task viewer. The latter is useful for quick access to apps that are burdening the system - these apps can then be closed down, from inside of the task view. This won't be needed soon, as we are promised and upgrade to Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, this summertime. The inclusion of that platform should allow better access to multi-tasking, while bringing in a host of other features.

The overlay to the OS has quick-access icons for the browser, phone, messaging and app list - present on all of the home screens. Selecting app list does what it says on the tin and heads straight to the application list on the phone, which produces some confusing results. Here, there are four options, replacing the home screen static quick-access icons: preinstall, downloaded, update and home. The first shows all of the preinstalled applications, the next, any downloaded and then, any updated apps. Only all of the applications cannot be seen together, inside one section. They can only be viewed inside their separate segregated app folders.

This is an awkward inclusion in the platform and one I do not completely understand, as it would have been better to show all of the apps together. If a preinstalled app gets updated, it leaves the first folder and appears in updated. The last icon 'home' sends the phone user to the main home screen, which the home screen button (just under the screen) does anyway. That icon should have been used to list all of the applications, but there isn't an easy way to change it.

The on-board virtual keyboard is very fast and easy to use in portrait mode, and with near perfect auto completion, too. This is thanks to the Swype-esque overlay called FlexT9, by Nuance. FlexT9 lends itself to very fast and accurate text entry, from text messaging to using the web. However, this doesn't work on the Google search widget and the overlay isn't as accurate in landscape mode, as it is in portrait. I found that entering text in landscape worked better with the default Android keyboard, as it was much more accurate in interpreting key presses.

Surfing the web was fast with the default Android web browser, on both Wi-Fi and on over HSPA, offering up a good experience with no noticeable lag. Text rendering and pinch to zoom worked well too. There was a slight issue that plagued web browsing with the phone. The browser always started up dimmed, with an almost greyed out background. This occasionally changed to a bright version, but never in a consistent way.

There are two preinstalled games; these appear as icons in the application menu, but they might as well not be there at all. The first of these is named 'GL live', where pressing the icon boots the web browser, which then accesses a number of web domains. This presumably, is trying to find an app to download. I say presumably, as all this web searching results in a message saying 'Sorry, but there are no available games for your mobile'. The other application isn't any better, where accessing the preinstalled 'We Rule' game, by Mobage, produces this message: 'The game isn't fully tested on this device yet. If you run into any trouble, let us know.'

The other notable preinstalled application is McAfee Mobile Security. Running this app took me to the settings menu on the phone, within a section asking to allow apps to be installed by 'unknown sources'. All these Panasonic Eluga preinstalled app experiences were not great, and the last one would have had an inexperienced user running for the hills with worry.

Panasonic has preinstalled an eco application, for better management of the battery. By default, this implements an auto eco mode that comes into operation when the battery hit 40 per cent. At this setting, the brightness is reduced to low, the display is turned off after ten seconds and windows animations are disabled. Other selectable options are: turn off Wi-Fi, turn off Bluetooth, cancelling auto-sync and background data, contrast adjustment off and reducing NFC to power-saving mode. This is a good feature and will undoubtedly aid in conserving the battery.

Battery

The phone has a non-removable 1150mAh battery, sealed within the rear of the chassis. This low-powered battery gives the phone a thin design and a light-weight that will be a notable selling point. I did expect a larger battery in the handset, as the last time I saw anything this small was in the BlackBerry Curve 8520, from 2009. In our testing, we drained the battery while calling another mobile. We subjected the handset to real-world use over a working day, at the same time.

We had two Gmail accounts running on the phone, with both Facebook and Twitter running in the background. These pulled in status updates from 650 people and 1650 followers, with over 100 emails received. This is all while sending the occasional text message, email and status update.

The Panasonic Eluga was able to make five hours, six minutes and ten seconds worth of calls, before the phone shut itself down with no remaining power. On another day of testing, we only managed to obtain four hours, twenty-eight minutes worth of calling, before the phone died. As a caveat, we did receive more emails, text messages and social networking activity on that second day.

These battery tests surprised me, as we would have expected more with the OLED screen and with the phone's eco mode in use. However, in my estimation, the Panasonic Eluga would just about last a working day, before needing to recharge, on heavy use. A day and a half, on mild use and possibly two days or longer, on infrequent use.

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Verdict

I expected more from the Eluga, as a first entry back into the European mobile phone market, knowing what Panasonic is capable of elsewhere in the world. There is a high cost attached to the device of £335, which seems quite steep considering the feature set. This is when it is stacked up against the likes of the Sony Xperia S, with a price of £370 and 32GB of internal storage, plus an HD 720 screen.

The cost of the Eluga seems even more steep when you consider the Orange San Diego, with its superior feature set (waterproof sealing aside) and sub-£200 price point.

Despite its minor faults, though, this is a well-designed phone by Panasonic. This is coupled with being both waterproof and dust resistant, when it doesn't look like it should be. Unfortunately the price is just too high in light of the stiff competition in the market.

Pros: Waterproof and dust protected; good screen and design.

Cons: lack of internal storage; low battery life; poor call quality; cost of phone; redundant apps; odd layout to application folder.

Score: 7/10

Manufacturer: Panasonic

Price: £335 SIM Free

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Panasonic Eluga DL1

Network

GSM 850/900/1800/1900 HSDPA 900/2100

Processor

Dual-core 1GHz Texas Instruments

Memory

8GB

Memory expansion

None

Display

4.3in, 960 x 540 pixels

Main camera

8-megapixel

Front camera

None

Wi-Fi

Yes

GPS

Yes

NFC

Yes

Battery

1150mAh

Size

123 x 62 x 7.8 mm

Weight

103g

OS

Android ‘Gingerbread’ 2.3.5