Communications, Free Range Technology

The $30 Cell Phone: Impressively Modest

The Rovan Q2/XP Moon

I recently spent a week using an ultra-cheap Chinese mobile phone I bought off eBay. I have an iPhone 4 that I normally use, and it’s truly a marvel of functionality and interface design. But unfortunately, my longtime cellular service provider is Verizon, whose phones utilize only CDMA network access. That’s a bit of meaningless technobabble if you’re in the US, but the CDMA protocol is nonexistent in Europe, which uses GSM mobile networks exclusively. So if you go overseas, a Verizon (or Sprint or Alltel) phone becomes a very handy paperweight. I spent last week in England. My options for mobile telephony on my trip were to rent a “tourist phone” for a week in the UK, rent a world phone from Verizon prior to my departure, or buy the cheapest unlocked GSM phone I could find. I went with that last option.

My iPhone supposedly cost me $149, but that was subsidized by a lucrative 2-year contract that absorbed much of the phone’s cost. The outright purchase of an unlocked 32GB iPhone 4 will land on the north side of $600. Just to calibrate, I bought the Rovan Q2 for one-twentieth of that cost. I wondered, would it have 1/20th the functionality? Would it drop calls, freeze up, or simply be DOA? It turns out I was pleasantly surprised how much I got for my money.

While preparing for my trip, I took a few spins around eBay and Amazon and settled on a particular no-name QWERTY GSM world-band phone. I watched a number of identical auctions and determined that the phone was usually going for $25-$30, with free shipping. I bid a max of $30 on my first attempt, but got sniped at the last minute. I was nervous about receiving my phone prior to my trip via the free economy shipping, so I bid a max of $50 on the next auction and ended up getting the phone for $33.99. I might have gotten it cheaper next round only to leave for the airport without it.

A bit of Googling revealed that the phone, generically referred to only as a “Q2” in the eBay ad, was in fact a product of Rovan (Shenzhen Rovan Optoelectronic, Ltd.) a fairly large mobile phone producer in China’s Guangdong provence. The phone was introduced in January of 2011 as either the Rovan Q2 or the XP Moon, depending on market, and seems to have been recently discontinued. (This might explain why scads of stock are suddenly being peddled on eBay at no-reserve prices.) These types of inexpensive phones make up a big part of the mobile phone market in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan. There, the uniquely American business model of having a phone provided as a part of your cellular service package is unheard of, so the price point of the actual hardware is vitally important and impossible to hide from the consumer.

Inside the back cover of the Rovan Q2

Sliding the back cover off and removing the separate Li-ion battery reveals two SIM slots and a Micro-SD card slot

I love the utter brilliance of SIM-based phones, and the trend overseas is equipping phones with two, three or even four SIM slots. This way, one phone can be shared among family members, or between separate business and personal numbers. Thanks to the Q2’s twin SIM capability, setting up US and UK numbers was a cinch for me. Once I got the phone I popped by a (GSM-friendly) T-Mobile dealer and bought a pre-paid SIM card for $16, which would give me enough minutes for testing the phone ahead of time, and calling home from domestic airports in route if necessary. Once I arrived at the terminal in Heathrow, I hadn’t even ventured past the baggage claim area before locating a vending machine stocked with £20 SIM cards for Britain’s O2 mobile provider (Don’t call it “cellular” over there). I’d texted my new phone number to my wife back in the States and several friends in the UK before I’d even left the terminal.

USB Connection screen reveals unexpected features

Overall, I was really impressed with the Rovan Q2. Connectivity and reception was flawless. Speaker and mic clarity was great; my wife said she couldn’t tell a difference between the Q2 and my iPhone. The Q2 runs MediaTek’s MTK operating system, which is pretty standard for low-end Asian phones. It’s a damn good OS which runs efficiently, has an admirably intuitive interface, and is remarkably feature rich. Bluetooth, speaker phone, alarms, photo-enabled address book, MP3 ringtones, music player, MP4 movie player, voice recorder, e-book (actually text file) reader, MMS messaging — it’s all there. I even spent time on my transatlantic flight playing the built-in Tetris game. The small screen and lack of any sort of touch screen complicates navigation a tiny bit, but none of the features were too clunky to use. Access to a few of the more minor features was not readily apparent, but these were features I hadn’t expected a phone like this to have anyway. I never figured out how to turn on the tiny LED flashlight, for example (although I didn’t put any effort into figuring it out). Most Asian phones even have two features not typically found on US phones: FM radio (which the Q2 has) and DTV receiver (which the Q2 lacks, but most other phones from Rovan have). The only place the OS falls on its face is web access. Despite separate MSN, Yahoo messanger, Facebook and Twitter apps, the lack of anything beyond a WAP browser makes this a non-starter for data junkies. I only had so many pre-paid minutes anyway, so I stuck with SMS texts, which worked well, both domestically within the UK and with my my wife back in Missouri.

The circuitry might be great, but how’s the hardware? Well, it’s definitely built down to a price, but still not bad. The case is thin, hard plastic, but it held up, even though I had no case for it and treated it with all the care one normally bestows on a $30 throwaway expenditure. The upside is that the phone is small for a Blackberry/Palm-style footprint (4″ x 2¼” x ½”) and weighs a featherweight 2.6 ounces with the battery, two SIM cards and a micro SD card installed. Nothing slides or flips open, but I actually found that more convenient for one-handed use. The used-bar-of-soap shape was comfortable to hold, and the metallic blue back was attractive — though I was dismayed to see the phone described on the Rovan website as “Cute Lady Mobile Phone.” The only clearly substandard spec is the camera, which would have been lousy even by late 1990s standards. Fortunately, I took my iPhone along on the trip for its GPS and WiFi capabilities, so I had access to its 5 megapixel camera instead.

Rovan Q2 sample image

The Q2's VGA camera is barely usable at its native resolution. It can be interpolated to 1200x1600 pixels with expectedly poor results.

The “world band” label indicates that the Q2 works on all four GSM frequency bands in use worldwide: 850, 900, 1800, & 1900 MHz. In the UK only the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz capabilities were needed, but it’s nice to have the functionality to connect where ever I go in the future. If I head overseas again, or even need access to a second phone here in the states, I won’t mind dusting off my Rovan Q2 at all. But even if I never use it again, I still feel as though I’ve gotten a good return on my $33.99.

  • Mr_Biggles

    I've always wondered if there is any benefit to the CDMA system over a sim based one. Or is it just that it was a different system that carried on because it worked and people don't like change?

    My Palm Pre was a CDMA phone with Bell, so was the flip I used before and after (my biggest beef with the Pre had nothing to do with the network, it was the lack of memory card slot). Still, I'm a cheapskate, have never had a data plan, and now that I've moved to a sim card I can jump around from prepaid network to prepaid network all I want. I survive on people's cast-off phones sitting in their closets or sock drawers.

    Having said all that, I have never noticed any difference in service quality or signal between CDMA and GSM (or HDSPA or whatever). So, anyone have an opinion? Just different?

    • Deartháir

      It all goes back to the underlying technology, and the argument over which method for compressing data would prove to be able to handle the enormous quantity of data that would be transmitted through the air. GSM is an evolution of the TDMA, or Time-Division Multiple Access technology, while CDMA is the Code-Division Multiple Access. Basically, GSM and its successors use a time-stamp — somehow, I've forgotten how all this works — to identify a call and bits of data as belonging to you. CDMA assigns your phone a specific code for each call. Each has its strengths and shortcomings; largely each has become moot as the technology has advanced, and now it's just whichever kind of tower each provider put up years ago.

      As for the SIM card, that's irrelevant to the technology itself. CDMA towers recognize your phone based on the specific identifying code for your phone — I think it's the IDEN code? — and that is attached to your account until you notify your subscriber and change it. GSM uses a SIM card, which is basically a variable code that moves with you, rather than your phone. GSM just incorporated a way for you to pull your code out and move it from phone to phone if you so chose. The technology doesn't depend on it, and CDMA could easily do the same thing, they just haven't bothered.

  • TechieInHell

    This was a fantastic write-up Mr. Shanomi (or is it "Anomi"? Whatever.)

    I've got an idea what I'm going to do now whenever I have to travel to the States and don't feel like getting raped by goblins paying premium airtime rates. It floors me that the US and Canada haven't worked out a consumer friendly roaming service like the Europeans have.

    • Tell me about it. We went across the bridge to Windsor, ON a while back and I totally forgot to turn my phone off. My bill was $40 more than normal for that brain fart.

      • When we took an Alaskan cruise, they repeatedly warned us about turning data roaming off going up the coast of BC. Evidentially, some people have come home after a cruise to cell bills that were higher than the cost of the cruise.

    • Well "Tansha" is "motorcycle," so the break should probably be after that. So I suppose it would be be "Mr. Nomi."