Review: Native Union POP Bluetooth Handset

Thanks to the guys at MobileZap, I’ve got my hands on the Native Union Retro Bluetooth POP Phone in Soft-Touch Black for me to thoroughly review.

Native Union Retro Bluetooth POP Phone Soft Touch Black

The POP phone is designed by David Turpin, inspired by the classic 1950’s Bakelite phone, and brings a little touch of retro to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Very much a novelty item, it definitely looks the part and is attractively priced at AU$23.49 at the time this review was written. It’s also available in Flash Red and Neon Pink, if Black is not your thing. Don’t be fooled by other imitations, the one from Native Union is the “original retro handset with Bluetooth”.

Unboxing and Inclusions

The item itself comes packed in a glossy cardboard box with a clear viewing window on the front. The rear of the box lists its various highlights and functions.

Native Union POP Box FrontNative Union Pop Box Back

POP Box Side BPOP Box Side AThe sides of the box features an interesting verification feature which allows you to check if your product is authentic and genuine. This involves a label with a scratch panel covering a validation code which can be registered at owners.nativeunion.com to verify the genuine status, receive warranty service, a free dialer app and adapters (which are not applicable for this model).

I performed the verification procedure without any hitches – this is the real deal!

The other side features the function list translated in other languages for different markets.

 

 

Inside the box, you will find the handset itself nicely packed in a folding cardboard cradle.

Native Union POP Handset

The handset measures about 21.8cm from end to end, with about 10.5cm between the two cups (the handle section). The cups are roughly 5.5-6cm diameter, and the handle is 2.6cm across by 1.8cm thick. It feels nice and solid, although it is a little longer than the desk-phone I’ve been using – as the mic is not quite at mouth level. It feels nicely weighted and doesn’t creak at all when squeezed. The plastic is finished in a matte, soft-touch finish which feels comfortable, although does pick up some oils.

POP Phone Cups

The underside of the phone shows the mic on the left, and the speaker/earpiece on the right. The cups are generously sized, and fit comfortably around my ear. On the handle, there are three buttons – the power/pair/answer/hang-up/reject button, the volume up, and the volume down button. Depending on how you choose to grip the phone, the buttons do seem to come easily to hand, although you may accidentally press them if you grip too hard with your fingers on the inside.

There is a tiny slot below the regulatory markings where the ringer audio comes from, so there is no risk of your ears being blown out by the ringer noise. Above the buttons is a two-colour indicator LED that lets you know if it’s on, pairing, charging or in standby.

POP Phone Felt Mat

The top of the handset features the Native Union logo discreetly placed on the top, and a felt mat is provided to rest the phone on. Just in case you’re mistaken, it’s not a pouch, meaning that you’ll have to provide your own protection if you intend on transporting this in your bag. It’s mainly there to stop you from scratching the finish on the phone.

POP Phone Charging Coiled Lead

The phone itself charges through a microUSB connector, and is supplied with a very appropriate-looking coiled microUSB lead.

POP Phone Manuals

Not only that, it is also supplied with a thick printed multilingual manual with clear illustrations. A quick start post-card sized card is also included which covers almost everything you’d need to know. There is a card reminding you to register and verify your product, and a Native Union sticker. No annoying mini-CD manuals here!

I suppose the only other thing which you could do to make it more authentic would be to add a hook to hang it on, or a base to “slam” the receiver upon, both of which would be somewhat old-fashionedly redundant given the whole idea of going “wireless” with Bluetooth. It’s clear that it delivers in the vintage novelty department, while providing a more modern wireless interface.

Teardown

Despite the solid feel of the handset, it can easily be taken apart for repairs or modification. The top and bottom cups twist to unlock and can be removed, thus allowing the central piece with the electronics to be removed from the shell.

POP Phone Teardown

It is clear that there is a separate circuit board (marked MODEL:MM01BT, P/N: 362-13191-600002 DATE: 12-JUL-2012(HY) FILE:1319160B) with the microUSB charging connector on the bottom. In the mic compartment is the Lithium-Polymer battery rated at 3.7v 125mAh. The microphone is an electret capsule microphone, while the speaker is a substantial, heavy unit. All solder joints have been covered with a glue/silicone mix which helps improve shock resistance.

POP Phone PCB Top

On the left, is the ringing speaker which has been screwed into the handle segment. The PCB reveals the electronics which runs the whole phone – it is powered by a Cambridge Silicon Radio BlueCore BC6130. CSR products have been at the leading edge of Bluetooth since its inception, and this is no different, offering compatibility with Bluetooth v2.1+EDR, Head-Set Profile v1.1 and Hands-Free Profile v1.5. The antenna is a printed section towards the earpiece.

There is a second major IC which is marked WE3P085. This hasn’t been positively identified, although it may be responsible for the ringing sound (more on that later).

POP PCB Bottom

The underside of the PCB is marked with 364-13191-100002 and features the two LEDs, and three push-button switches with several test-points. All up, it appears that the product is well built and based around a high quality Bluetooth solution.

Performance Evaluation

While we have already established that the handset is solidly built and looks gorgeous, its utility lies in its performance. I’ve broken down the evaluation into a few key areas which would be important to someone buying or using this product.

Charging

The handset arrived in a fully-discharged state. Plugging it into a desktop computer’s USB port to charge, the phone took exactly 90 minutes to complete charging. The LED lights solid red for charging, and changes to blue when complete.

I paired the handset with my computer’s Bluetooth interface and played an audio file on loop at about the same volume you would hear hold music on a phone and the handset managed to survive 14 hours before going beep-beep with red-flashes to indicate low-battery. It switched off after a further five minutes (approximately). This exceeds the product specification by some margin, and is perfectly sufficient for more than a few normal days’ worth of talk.

The best part of it is that it can be used while being charged as well, and having the coiled cable attached makes it look even more “phone like”. The charging cable ends in a microUSB B connector, which is suitable for use with charging most Android smartphones today as well, and the wires for data are connected which allows it to be used to sync or transfer files to your phone as well.

Pairing and Command Buttons

Pairing was easily accomplished by having the handset in the OFF state, and holding the centre button until the LED flashes alternately red-blue. Pairing was successfully tested with a computer running Windows 7 with a CSR Bluecore2 chipset, a computer running Windows 7 with a Broadcom chipset, a Google Nexus 7 (2012), an iPad (3rd Generation) and my Samsung Galaxy S3. In all cases, the pairing completed with no difficulty, and the majority did not need me to enter the passkey (which is 0000).

The command buttons while in standby allow you to control the ringing volume. While connected, their function highly depends on the device it is paired with. In most cases, they will control the volume on the host device. The centre button can be used to initiate a call by activating voice control, or accept a ringing call or hang-up a call in progress by short-pressing. Double-pressing allows you to reject a call which is ringing. All of this performed as expected on my Samsung Galaxy S3, although its performance on tablets (Google Nexus 7, iPad) depends on the application in use.

Pairing with the computers often meant the buttons didn’t have well-defined results. It will highly depend on the software stack used (e.g. Microsoft, Bluesoleil, Widcomm) and the application in use.

In the case of CSR based Bluetooth dongles, Windows Update will obtain drivers directly from the internet.

Pop-Install-PC

Pop-Searching-WUPDATE

Pop-Searching-CSR-OK

Pop-Searching-CSR-Installing

Pop-Installed

In the case of Broadcom Bluetooth chipsets, such as those often integrated into laptops, a very similar process will allow for the POP to be installed.

Broadcom-POP-Audio-Device

Broadcom-POP

For those who are using other chipsets, such as Silicon Wave, you’re probably out of luck if you’re using the Microsoft Bluetooth Stack and might need to use an alternative one, such as IVT Bluesoleil to allow the handset to install.

Pop-Searching-NoDriverSiW

Keep in mind that these problems are not in any way specific to the Native Union POP and are applicable to all Bluetooth Hands-free sets!

Apps

Native Union seems to offer a dialer app which imitates an old rotary phone to complete the retro image. Unfortunately, it seems only to be available for iOS, and I couldn’t seem to get it either way.

Pop-Dialer-Not-In-AU Pop-Dialer-Not-In-US-Either

No matter though, as it’s compatible with all Bluetooth devices and the app isn’t strictly needed for its function. Calls through the handset performed as expected, it automatically chooses Bluetooth audio by default on the Samsung Galaxy SIII.

I had no trouble using the handset under Skype under Windows provided the correct audio device is selected in Windows. Under Android, as long as the handset is paired and detected, Skype will use it automatically, sometimes after a short glitch. Under iOS, Skype automatically uses the handset. The echo test was performed successfully, with the audio intelligible in both directions.

Audio Quality

The handset has a very special ring – one that sounds like a good old fashioned telephone. The loudness is adjustable in three steps and off, and is sufficiently loud.

A quick check of the range seems to suggest it meets the 10m stated range with room to spare in some cases. I was able to roam throughout my small upstairs area up to about 10m away without any significant audio impairments.

The audio quality output is very good, and reaches sufficiently loud volumes, if not a little too loud by default in many devices. The audio is clear, and clean, with no background burbling or hiss, although there is an occasional blip when the Bluetooth is interfered with (as is common to all headsets).

The quality of microphone is acceptable, but a little different to what I’ve been used to. The audio comes through loudly, and a little bit treble-focused without that much low end (which seems to roll off at 200hz). It is a little sensitive to breath-noise, so it’s likely to be better if you held the device with the mic pointed towards your chin rather than the corner of your mouth.

Here’s a sample of the POP Audio from a Windows 7 Laptop with the Broadcom chipset. As with all Bluetooth HSP/HFP devices, the audio quality is 8khz mono only. Users which are accustomed to HD Voice on 3G or over Skype will note that it sounds a little muffled in comparison.

The comparison contender is the Jabra BT-135, a low-cost value device, which is the only other Bluetooth hands-free device I use.

DSC_2080DSC_2081

In order to fairly compare the two in a real life scenario, I decided to use them both paired to my Samsung Galaxy SIII in a real call to my VoIP service to which I have intercepted the packet audio and reconstructed exactly what the recipient would hear. This is actual “over-the-air” audio, using a real life phone.

As you can tell, the audio is quieter from the Jabra, but with more bass focus (as it rolls off about 50Hz). The audio is louder and sharper with the Native Union POP and both are fully intelligible. It’s up to you to decide if it suits your needs.

Problems with Certain Chipsets

While testing the POP with as many of my devices as I could, I discovered an unusual problem with the audio quality when paired with my oldest dongle – a CSR Bluecore2 based Bluetooth v1.1/1.2 device. The specific versions of the HCI and LMP are provided for reference below.

BlueCore02 CSR-Version

The audio from the handset would crackle – compare the Jabra BT-135 with the POP both with my CSR Bluecore2-based dongle. Note that in all cases, the audio from the computer to the handset was generally flawless.

As this problem doesn’t manifest with any other device, it is likely due to a compatibility or driver issue with the older Bluetooth v1.1/1.2 stack within these dongles. If you are experiencing this, using a newer Broadcom based Bluetooth adapter will solve your problems. Interestingly, the Jabra has no problems with any of the chipsets tested – not all hands-free sets are the same!

Conclusion

This isn’t your average hands-free Bluetooth earpiece. It’s not even hands-free. It’s a quality built novelty retro Bluetooth handset that performs quite well (in general). It seems there might be compatibility issues with old USB Bluetooth dongles, however, it has worked flawlessly with modern tablets and phones. The audio from it is quite on the loud side, and at times is a little tinny, but perfectly intelligible.

It’s priced attractively, is the genuine product and would make a nice gift for the nostalgic retro-enthusiast, or someone who doesn’t like the in ear earpieces (say for reasons of irritation) while still providing the ability to roam short distances away from the phone. This could be extremely useful where there’s a “good signal spot” in the house, and you want to leave your phone there while still being able to talk. It also allows users to reduce their exposure to radiation by having the high powered cellular transmitter positioned remotely from the body, instead using a very low-power Bluetooth link to convey the voice.

It really ticks the boxes when it comes to aesthetics – if you’re interested in this product, that’s probably the most relevant factor of all. It rings convincingly like an old fashioned phone and it’s available in three colours to suit all tastes. I definitely like it.

Thanks very much to MobileZap for providing the product for review.

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About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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