Short, compact, and screaming orange, the Firefox OS-based Geeksphone Keon is equal parts intriguing, frustrating, and perplexing. But it isn’t your typical smartphone.
Instead, the Keon is a developer preview device that’s been created to fulfill a specific need as a testing bed for the nascent Firefox mobile operating system, itself in deep development.
Reviewers rarely get a chance to become so intimate with a preproduction handset running experimental software — the thought of exposing unfinished products in states of vulnerable development tends to make phone-makers and software smiths squeamish. But this is Mozilla, the champion of open-source code, and Geeksphone, a Spanish-based manufacturer that’s knowingly putting its hardware out there for the greater crowd-sourced good.
Still and all, it’s fun to see a Firefox OS product that we can use in the real world, one that gives us an idea of how the more feature-rich future phones — like the Alcatel One Touch Fire and Geeksphone’s own Peak — might look and act.
The right frame of mind
Before diving into this evaluation of the Keon, let’s keep a few things in mind:
- The Keon is developer hardware, not intended for general consumers.
- Firefox OS only took its first official breath in late February and is admittedly still in production (read: unfinished).
- Fun fact: Firefox OS is a Web-based OS built predominantly on HTML 5.
- Commercial Firefox OS phones will have basic specs, low price tags, and target emerging markets. In other words, an entry-level device.
- The Keon costs $150 all in, without a contract.
- Firefox OS phones like the Keon and others are expected to go on sale in summer 2013.
Got it? Good, now let’s dig in.
Design and build
The most notable thing about the Keon is its traffic-cone-orange color, a nod to Geeksphone’s Firefox partnership. I like it, personally, and I also really like the soft-touch finish that wraps around the spines and back cover. That, along with its solid heft (4.2 ounces,) shorter frame (5.5 inches tall by 3.4 inches wide by 0.4-inch thick,) and rounded back edges help it ease into your hand.
However, sharper corners on the face blunt the soft effect, making it a little less comfortable overall. The screen also juts out past the soft orange spines. This design gives the phone a bolder posture and makes it easy to pull back the battery cover, but also somewhat diminishes the in-hand feel over extended periods. With its smaller size, the Keon fits easily into pockets and purses.
Geeksphone keeps the Keon’s exterior simple with just a Micro-USB charging port on the right and the power/lock button on the left spine, just above an ergonomically curvy volume rocker. The 3.5-millimeter headset jack sit up top, with the camera lens on the back. Both the SIM card slot and microSD card slot burrow down beneath the back cover. Our Keon came with a 2GB card already loaded up.
There’s no front-facing camera on the ubermodest Keon, but you will notice a solitary touch-sensitive home button beneath the display. Tapt this once to wake the screen. Long-press it to pull up the multitasking ticker.
Glance up from the home button, and the first thing you’ll take in is the screen’s small, 3.5-inch footprint and thick black bezel. By now you’re prepared to encounter entry-level specs, so you won’t be surprised by the Keon’s HVGA 480×320-pixel resolution and low pixel density (165 ppi.) It won’t shock you that screen colors look dull and muted, or that images, icons, and text lack the razor-sharp edges seen on todays’ top phones.
Firefox OS and apps
The Keon runs version 1.0.1 of Firefox’s new browser-based operating system, which we first perused in its entirety at Mobile World Congress this past February.
Getting to know a new OS has its high points, and after spending quality time with the Keon, I’d describe the icon-rich mobile operating system as a mix of Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Like Android, it has a pull-down notification shade and multiple home screens that involve an iOS-like icon grid. You can tap and hold icons to delete them or drag them around, and tap and hold the screen to swap wallpapers.
Settings are also more reminiscent of Android’s tableau, but multitasking maneuvers (task-switching, really) are more akin to Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS.
You’ll swipe left to see thematic groupings of apps by type that looks like Android 4.0 folders for social networks, communication, and so on. Kudos to Mozilla for lassoing a wide variety of most-wanted apps and functionality at the ready. That’s one main advantage of only lightly reskinning mobile-optimized Web interfaces. A search bar lets you type to find apps as well.
The only downside to this modified apps tray is that a lot of the Web apps aren’t optimized enough for the tiny mobile screen. Developers will really need to craft easily-used programs that look great in mobile view, especially if they’re making their home on a smaller-than-average display like the Keon’s, where typing in passwords and zooming in to read minuscule font sizes quickly becomes a chore.
Interestingly, you can press and hold any app to choose to “add it to the home screen,” which doesn’t actually mean what you think. Instead of seeing the icon tack onto the center screen — the one that’s blank except for the time — it populates on the “home screens” to the right. You can pull down the notifications shade up top for a list of missed items and captured screenshots (simultaneously press the home and power buttons to snap the screen).
Long-pressing the home button brings up a sliding stream of recent apps that you can either tap to get back in or “x” out of to close and dump the system’s memory cache. This behavior works a lot like Windows Phone, but without the extra graphics.
If you give the power/lock button a longer squeeze, various options greet you to reboot, shut down, or turn the phone to airplane mode. The camera launches from the lock screen.
The quantity and capabilities of the Firefox OS apps are understandably limited on this test device, and the operating system isn’t intended to become as powerful and complex as Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS, or Windows Phone. However, there is support for Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth 2.1, as well as for using the Keon as a mobile hotspot.
Firefox’s own browser is a central part of the experience, and the best app, too. The tabbed browser includes a few deeper controls and settings, and browsing, while slower than expected — even on Wi-Fi — was satisfying. You’ll also find an FM radio and a marketplace for eventually getting more apps, like the SoundHound music ID program. Microsoft’s Bing stands ready as the default search engine.
Firefox OS’s graphical interface is fairly skeletal for now, which carries the dubious benefit of taking less toll on system resources. Another entry in the Keon’s “plus” category is that developers should see OS updates much faster, within a day or two of release, versus weeks or months for developers on other platforms. Mozilla projects often update once a day.
Camera and video
Firefox OS phones will probably never bear costly top-flight camera components, but the phones will be able to shoot photo and video. The Keon’s 3-megapixel shooter is poor, with muddled, indistinct colors, lines, and clarity. You’ll be able to capture video as well, but in these early stages, there aren’t a lot of photo options that you see in high-end camera phones, like panorama mode and HDR (high dynamic range.)
Interestingly, though, there are quite a few post-production settings to crop and adjust your image after the fact. That’s a very good sign for future Firefox-based phones. You’re able to share photos through e-mail, but not social networks, and you can convert a picture into wallpaper.
Again, it’s good to temper your expectations. Geeksphone never promised photographic excellence, and for developers, making sure the camera works with their apps is likely more important than printing the resulting photo onto a t-shirt or mug.
Storage space needn’t be too high for a device that gets most of its content from the Web, though you will want space to keep pictures. The Keon has 4GB onboard storage and 512 MB RAM, plus it has that microSD card slot.
Performance, with caveats
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: the slow-poke Keon underperforms across the board. Its unresponsive screen makes typing a laborious process requiring painstaking precision. Every action from swiping to tapping onscreen controls takes a beat until you see results, so using the phone for a prolonged period steals minutes of your time. For a developer’s device, however, that’s part of the experience.
I admit that I’m accustomed to using lickety-split smartphones that thrum from well-muscled dual- and quad-core chipsets. Still, there’s no amount of professing the phone’s rock-bottom system demands on its 1GZ processor that can paper over this developer phone’s performance. Lag carries into the camera, which is slow to launch, snap, and reset.
Other Geeksphone and Firefox OS handsets meant for general consumers may well be faster in the end, and it’s ultimately up to customers whether the phone’s processing speed meets their expectations. For developers seeking a cheap, basic testing phone, the Keon might be just fine and dandy.
The Keon supports 3G HSPA (2100/1900/900) and 2G Edge bands (GSM 850/900/1800/1900.) Again, for this phone, the significance of calling is to give developers system access and to test that their apps correctly interact with the address book and dialer.
One area that impressed me so far is battery life. Although more intense battery drain testing is still to come, the 1,580mAh ticker only slowly drained during my period with the Keon. Of course, I’m hardly streaming videos or using the Keon as intensely as I would a more powerful device, so don’t consider this a final pronouncement.
Looking ahead to final production, though, a long-life phone would be a boon in particular for markets where electrical outlets are fewer and further between.
What still needs work
Perhaps the better question is to ask what the Keon and Firefox OS still need for whom. As I’ve noted, the Keon’s objective is to create a testing environment for Firefox OS developers. Other Geeksphone devices and Firefox OS handsets will serve as basic, ultrabudget hardware and software for people in emerging markets who are often priced out of more-expensive personal computing devices.
These phones aren’t slated to come to mature markets in Europe, Asia, and North America, so they don’t need to stand up to high-performance scrutiny on processor speeds measured in megaflops or low-light camera functions.
That said, there are some behaviors that Firefox’s Mozilla can shore up for future users of all demographics. I like the modified app tray, where programs are grouped by type, and also searchable by name, but I’m confused why Mozilla feels the need to keep the central “home screen” absolutely empty.
The OS needs some speed improvements, too. App content should load in a more sprightly manner over Wi-Fi, and if the OS is as lightweight as Mozilla claims, the Keon’s 1GHz processor should see an uptick in responsiveness regardless of the data throughput.
There are a dozen other little things here and there that I’d fix, like beefing up the sharing options, copy/paste, threaded e-mail messages, and so on. Yet in truth, we’re still in a wait-and-see phase until Firefox OS gets a little more baked in with proprietary and third-party features and apps.
Until then, the Geeksphone Keon remains an interesting little window through which to watch the rare development of an alternative mobile OS, one that’s uniquely formed around Web apps and set to help bridge the digital smartphone divide.