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Panasonic P-04D (Eluga) review: from Japan with love

Can the storied manufacturer break through in the international Android phone market?

Panasonic's Eluga — the thin phone with the bizarre name — is the company's first shot at cracking into the colossal (and crowded) international smartphone market. In Japan, its Android phones (including its Lumix brand) are consistently top sellers, but idiosyncrasies like infrared and 1seg TV tuners make them a hard sell abroad. The solution? Creating a pared-down Android experience for the international market, without most of the bells and whistles we're used to seeing on Japanese devices like the company's P-02D.

The Eluga is just now being released in Europe, but the P-04D (on NTT Docomo) and the 102P (on SoftBank) are already widely available in Japan, and are exactly the same phone, aside from some very minor differences. I took a look at the P-04D to gauge whether its distinctive slim body, water- and dust-proofing, and one of the biggest screen-to-face ratios in the business are enough to set it apart from what's already out there, and if its 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4430 processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8-megapixel camera have what it takes to compete with the new breed of 2012 smartphones. How does the P-04D fare? Let’s take a look.

Hardware

Hardware

4.3 inches never felt so small

The P-04D is incredibly slim and smooth; it's almost like it was designed for the express purpose of sliding easily in and out of pockets. One of the first things you notice when you pick the device up is how tiny the bezel is — particularly the top, which measures a miniscule 0.3 inches. It feels noticeably smaller than other 4.3-inch devices on the market like the Droid RAZR. While the Droid RAZR is a tiny bit thinner, the P-04D is noticeably smaller (seven millimeters) both in height and width. It's also seven millimeters shorter than HTC's new One S, although only slightly narrower, and the same thickness.

Thickness Height Width Weight
Motorola Droid RAZR 7.1mm 130.7mm 68.9mm 127g
HTC One S 7.8mm 130.9mm 65mm 119.5g
Panasonic P-04D 7.8mm 123mm 62mm 103g

It’s a cliché, but the P-04D really feels like it’s nothing more than a huge display, with the capacitive buttons and carrier branding at the bottom of the device breaking the illusion just the tiniest bit. The P-04D is already one of the thinner phones on the market at 7.8 millimeters, but it actually feels much thinner in hand due to the gentle D-shaped curve of the device's back. At its left and right edges the phone is only three millimeters thick, which is how thick it feels to your fingertips. It’s quite a trick — when you hold the P-04D in your hand it almost feels like you’re just holding the thin glass display. Starting from the edges the D-shape curves outward over the course of half an inch until it flattens out at its maximum thickness of 7.8 millimeters everywhere else (save for the slight bump in the middle where the camera module is located). On the downside, the back of NTT Docomo's P–04D is made with a cheap-feeling glossy plastic that can best be described as a smear factory. In comparison, the 102P version on competing Japanese carrier SoftBank has the same matte finish that will be found on the European release. The matte version is quite a bit nicer to handle — not only is it less slippery, but it handles fingerprint grease much better, so that's a plus for European buyers.

At 103 grams (3.63 ounces) the P-04D is extraordinarily light, but not cheap-feeling — the plastic body is very well constructed, without a hint of flex. The Micro USB and SIM ports are located on the top of the device, on either side of the 3.5mm headphone jack in the center. The rubber seals on the port doors give a satisfying smoosh when closed, not only making the phone feel really well put-together, but also allowing it to secure an IP57 dust and water resistance rating (more below). The fit and finish add to the phone's curved design resulting in a sleek, minimalist package that’s quite distinctive.

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A great design — if you're left-handed

With the good stuff out of the way, it’s a perfect time to talk about the P-04D's sleep/wake button (hint: it’s bad). Perhaps it was necessitated by the curved back, or maybe the designers just wanted to avoid visible buttons when looking at the P-04D head-on, but the sleep/wake button and volume rocker are located on the sloping part of the phone’s rear. This isn’t a problem when you’re holding the phone in your left hand — you can click sleep/wake comfortably with your left index finger. If you’re holding the P-04D in your right, though, the curve makes it impossible to press the button with your thumb, meaning you either have to wrap your hand around the device like a remote control or use an eagle claw grip and press the button with the very tip of your index finger. You can’t even use the fleshy pad of your fingertip because of the button’s small diameter, minimal protrusion from the phone’s body, and closeness to the volume rocker.

While I was more or less used to the new grip by the end of the review period (I went eagle claw), the amount of precision you needed in order to perform such a simple operation was irritating and unnecessary. To make matters worse, the placement also means you can’t press sleep/wake while the phone is lying on its back — you have to pick it up and fumble for the invisible button every time you want to check for SMS at your desk.

Like the Motorola Defy+, the P-04D has an IP57 dust- and water-resistance rating. Standing for "ingress protection," the rating is a standard that determines the amount of solid particle and liquid resistance an electronic device offers. IP57 means that the P-04D can be submerged in water up to a meter deep for up to 30 minutes, and is more or less dustproof — whatever dust may get in doesn't interfere with the device's operation. Unlike the Defy+, though, Panasonic's phone doesn’t have a separate battery cover, getting rid of one of the biggest points of entry for fluids. During testing, I didn’t have any issues with water getting into the P-04D, and it happily took a charge after its 30-minute bath. I also tried burying the phone in a nearby garden to see if I could get some dirt stuck in it somewhere, but whatever little dirt was left behind in the nooks and crannies came right off with a quick rinse.


Display

Display

If you liked the Droid RAZR's display, you'll like the Eluga's
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The 4.3-inch qHD (960 x 540) Super AMOLED display on the P-04D is big and bright, with very saturated colors. Having a PenTile pixel arrangement, it suffers from the same issues as phones like the Droid RAZR and the HTC One S — notably whites look muddled, and some jagginess is visible on text and other sharp edges. It's not something that bothers everyone, but once you see it, it's hard not to notice. While games look great on the contrasty, high-saturation AMOLED display, it can make already saturated colors like the orange elements on our site look jarring, particularly at higher brightness settings. Unfortunately, unlike the Galaxy Note, the P-04D lacks a saturation adjustment to change this, meaning users are stuck with the bold colors, like it or not.

The reason Panasonic went with OLED in the P-04D is obvious; thinness is paramount, and since OLED doesn't require a backlight Panasonic was really able to trim the fat — although newer LCD phones like the HTC One X are getting awfully close to parity. Overall, the screen looks crisp, with only a slight gap noticeable between the glass and the display underneath. Just like Vlad noted in his review of the HTC One S, I noticed a serious blue color shift when looking at the phone at extreme angles, but that goes with the Super AMOLED territory. In closing, if you don't mind the PenTile pixel arrangement found in Super AMOLED displays (and a lot of people don't), the big screen/small package offered by the P-04D makes an attractive proposition.

Camera

Camera

The images from the P-04D's 8-megapixel camera rear-facing camera are par for the course — sharp, with good color rendition in daylight, and noisy at night time. Compared with the camera on the iPhone 4S (another 8-megapixel shooter), low-light images taken from the P-04D are considerably less sharp, with bigger, blotchier noise artifacts (click on the comparison shots to the right to see 100 percent crops). Otherwise, the camera works well — while it doesn't have the super-fast autofocus and minimal shutter delay of the Galaxy Nexus, it does focus quickly and accurately, and thankfully isn’t affected by the pink-center bug that’s been victimizing cellphone cameras recently. There is some serious flaring and ghosting happening in the gallery images, but it's hard to say the P-04D is particularly bad in this regard. The phone shoots 720p video as well, which looks decent, but I noticed some stuttering and dropped frames on playback. Without any image stabilization, video taken on the P-04D looks shaky to begin with, and the narrow edges I praised earlier make it a little difficult to hold the phone securely when you're recording.

It's better than a lot of cellphone cameras
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The camera software is hit and miss. Photography is one of Panasonic’s strong suits, and you can tell it went out of its way to provide a good assortment of shooting and autofocus modes (including a speedy and accurate tap-to-focus), along with white balance adjustment and exposure compensation.

That said, I had the image size on the P-04D reset to small (two megapixels) a dozen or so times during a week of testing — a fraction of its 8-megapixel maximum. This happened sometimes after powering off, and sometimes for no apparent reason. Luckily, when shooting, the current resolution is always marked in the top-left corner of the frame, so it’s easy enough to spot if your device goes rogue.

While it isn’t unique in this regard, the P-04D doesn’t come with a front-facing camera, which seems like kind of a strange thing to leave out in 2012, but could be one of the ways Panasonic was able to achieve such a slim top bezel. Living away from home I use Skype to video chat with family and friends on my phone often enough that I found myself missing the feature during my time with the device.

To sum up, while the P-04D camera is decent enough for snapshots — it's certainly better than a lot of other cellphone cameras we've seen — it probably won't replace a point and shoot for you if you do any great amount of video recording.

Performance

Performance

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The P-04D's combination of a 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4430 processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of onboard storage are found in other mid-range Android phones like the Motorola Atrix 2 and LG Prada Phone 3.0, and the P-04D performs similarly, if not a little worse. I experienced some lagginess during normal use with the phone occasionally failing to recognize touch inputs, particularly in the browser, sometimes requiring two or three swipes to get things moving. Scrolling certainly didn’t feel as smooth as phones with faster processors like the Galaxy Note, but when the browser recognized my input the experience was acceptable. The planned update to Android 4.0 this summer should hopefully make things snappier as well.

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
HTC One S 5,141 2,420 57fps 29fps 7,107
LG Prada 2,114 825 28fps 14fps 5,335
Panasonic P-04D 1,833 703.75 20fps 11fps 5,326

Gaming performance was OK, but not great. My game of choice was Shadowgun, a very graphically intensive third-person shooter. While it was certainly playable, I noticed quite a few dropped frames when the action got hairy, and would hesitate to recommend the phone to someone for whom gaming is a priority. It's worth pointing out that the Quadrant test made it appear the phone was only using one core — the company didn't respond to our questions about that.

Update: We've heard from Panasonic that the P-04D takes advantage of both cores, but that the processor responds dynamically to load. Aurora Softworks, the makers of Quadrant, let us know that a fix for the issue should be included in the next update.

One of the phone's bigger issues was mapping performance. Even with Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS enabled, the test unit frequently located me tens to hundreds of yards away from my actual position. It once insisted that I was in Kyoto (where I had recently visited with the phone) when I was actually in Tokyo (about 300 miles away), requiring me to kill the app to set things straight.

Battery performance on the P-04D was very good — I always got more than a full day of light to moderate use with the screen set to auto brightness. A typical day for me included listening to MP3s, an hour or two of web browsing, a few calls, light Twitter and e-mail, and half an hour each of video playback and Shadowgun. It's worth noting that the latter can be a real battery hog; in the P-04D's case running down 10 percent of the battery in less than twenty minutes.

Reception was great — I never lost a call on the P-04D and had great signal all over Tokyo and Kyoto. I can sometimes have serious problems getting a connection indoors on my SoftBank phone and the difference was noticeable. Data speeds were a different matter — the average 1.8Mbps down I got was considerably slower than the 3Mbps I get on my iPhone 4 on SoftBank, but upload speeds were right around 400kbps on both devices. Audio quality was good — the P-04D's single speaker isn't ideal for listening to music, but it's loud enough to function as a decent speakerphone, or to hear clearly in a loud environment like a busy city street.

It's worth noting here that the European Eluga variant includes built-in NFC for things like contactless wireless payments, which the Japanese P-04D does not, so I can't comment on that feature of the device. Also, while the P-04D on Docomo does include support for IC-based contactless payments with FeliCa, I wasn't able to try the feature out on my demo unit.

The P-04D isn't exactly a powerhouse
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Software

Software

Gingerbread is a disappointment, but at least you get options
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Panasonic launched the P-04D (and is launching the Eluga in Europe) with Android 2.3.5, saddling the phone’s already mid-range hardware with all of the inefficiencies of last year’s operating system. The device is a big deal for the company, its first return to the European market since 2006, which makes its inability to pull together an Android 4.0 release for the launch a big missed opportunity. Panasonic says it has an Ice Cream Sandwich update planned for the summer, but there’s no reason for a cellphone maker to be launching a new flagship phone with Gingerbread this late in the game.

Thankfully there’s a good side — Panasonic's skin is minimal, and it gives you the option to use the stock launcher. On NTT Docomo users get a choice of three other pre-installed launchers with which to dress up their P–04D. NTT Docomo offers its "Palette UI," and Panasonic adds two of its own, Fit Home and Touch Speed Selector. Of the four, Docomo's Palette UI is definitely the most unique, adding a half a dozen outsized widgets to your home screens, including Contents Headline — a quick way for you to buy Docomo’s recommended books and movies, and Map Navi — a small map widget with information about local spots. The skin also has a small sheep character (male or female, your choice) who walks around your screen waiting for new mail to arrive so he or she can present it to you. Needless to say, this stuff isn’t coming to the European release.

In contrast, Panasonic’s own skin offerings are much more utilitarian. Fit Home is very basic, with minimal skinning of app icons (no borders), and a relatively unobtrusive, transluscent box to mark off a four-icon dock. The app drawer (pictured above) is split up into separate preinstalled, downloaded, and updated app panes, which could conceivably be a handy way to find things, only the ordering of apps within the panes seems completely arbitrary. There’s also a big "home" button in case you misplace the capacitive home button on the front of your phone. Touch Speed Selector is exactly the same as Fit Home, but adds a rotating dial containing all of the apps on your home screens, which I could see being handy, although I found it just as easy to launch apps the old fashioned way.

In terms of bundled software, Panasonic offers a PicMate app for its photo sharing service, a DLNA app, its own photo gallery (essentially the same as the stock one), and Eco Mode, which helps you to get more out of a battery charge by doing things like reducing the screen timeout to 10 seconds and disabling screen rotation. Users can then choose to leave "eco mode" on full-time, or set it to kick in at some predefined point, like when the battery falls to 40 percent. While I don't doubt the feature has a measurable effect on battery performance, the 10-second timeouts were too much for me to bear, so I disabled it.

Panasonic set out to make a big impact with its return to the international market, and while the device's distinctive slim design succeeds for the most part, the phone is held back by lackluster performance both in terms of benchmarks and real-world use. The performance issues are made worse by Panasonic's decision to launch the phone with Android 2.3.5, an outdated operating system that makes the P-04D feel clunkier than it ought to.

If you're looking for a waterproof phone that doesn't scream "rugged" in your face, or a design that's a little more subdued than what's out there, the Eluga is a good choice, particularly if you don't mind putting up with Gingerbread for the next few months. In the end though, if you need to get a lot of work done on your phone, or if you're looking for something to game on, it's hard to recommend the Eluga over phones like the iPhone 4S or the HTC One S.

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