Hands On With the Else Emblaze Smartphone: Welcome to the RetrofutureS

It's a left-field product: a touchscreen smartphone with totally new software, which will have to fend for itself among well-established giants. Conventional wisdom would say it's doomed, and conventional wisdom may be right. But damnit, I really like the Emblaze.

The software's the star here, but here's a quick refresher on the hardware, built by Sharp:

The Else Emblaze, aside from being one of the first phones to use Access' Linux Platform v3.0 OS, is a 3.47-inch 480x854 slab of handset, with an OMAP 3430 processor, 16GB of internal memory, a five-megapixel camera, A-GPS, and 3.5mm headphone jack.

It's immediately more striking than your typical touchscreen smartphone slab on account of its blue illuminated side buttons and touchscreen icon tray, which some might find superfluous, but I found proudly nerdy. If you carried this this around, people would ask about it.

But today, a smartphone is only as good as its software, and that's where the Else's greatest strengths—and potential weaknesses—lie. The "menu" system, though Else would rather not use that word, is a series of concentric levels and sublevels, which you can theoretically navigate with one thumb. I say theoretically out of instinctive skepticism, but I have tried it, and it does work—the learning curve is actually very slight, and finding your way around the phone's basic functions is something I could do instantly. It makes sense, it's smart, and the concept is applied evenly throughout the OS.

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Newness counts for a lot in the phone world, and the Else Emblaze is nothing if not new. But freshness carries its own burdens, like a total lack of apps—there will be an SDK, evidently—and rough edges, as evidenced by the phone's sometimes choppy video performance, and the occasional awkward interface concept—issues any new OS has. But the concept is solid, the on-screen keyboard is smart, and aesthetic is wonderfully retrofuturistic, and the device works. So far, so good.

Else won't go any further than to say they're "optimistic" about US carrier prospects, but that could mean a lot of things. And it's hard to imagine a little upstart like this standing much of a chance against giants like Google and Apple, who don't just have the basics nailed down, but an entire ecosystem of apps to lean on. But maybe calling this thing a smartphone is a misnomer: in a way, it's like the ultimate featurephone; one that can do most of the stuff an app-ified smartphone can do, in a genuinely new way. If it costs as much as a smartphone—which is probably will—it'll have to lean on its novelty. But tech folks are jaded, so that's good currency.

So, good luck, I guess.