With its Loft S2300, Kyocera once again offers Virgin Mobile customers a messaging-centric phone with a full keyboard. Sporting a simple, BlackBerry-like design, the Loft is a departure from the earlier Kyocera X-tc and Wild Card, but it manages to pack a decent number of messaging features in the minimalist body. Call quality is fine, but the cramped keyboard wasn’t the most user-friendly. The Loft is $69 for Virgin Mobile’s no-contract service.

Design
At 4.06 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.59 inches deep, the Kyocera Loft is so stocky that it’s almost square. Make no mistake that this is a phone built for messaging; it doesn’t try to hide its keyboard behind a sliding face or distract you with a curvaceous design. Honestly, it looks a bit out of place in Virgin’s style-conscious lineup, but we wouldn’t call it unattractive. The soft-touch material on the rear cover gives the phone a comfortable feel in the hand, and the lightweight build (3.49 ounces) won’t slow you down.

The 2.2-inch TFT display supports 262,000 colors. Compared with previous phones from the carrier, it has a bright resolution with decent graphics. We also like the user-friendly menu interface. You can choose from grid or list formats; you can adjust the backlight time and brightness; and you can change the wallpaper, screensaver, greeting message, and color theme.

The navigation array is spacious and we appreciate the raised buttons. You’ll find a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, Talk and End/power buttons, a speakerphone control and a Back key. We weren’t so impressed with the keyboard, unfortunately. Though the keys are raised, they felt cramped and there are few shortcuts beyond a messaging control. We got used to it eventually, but we felt like we were plunking away slowly when typing messages or dialing numbers. Users with smaller hands may have a different experience, however.

Completing the phone’s exterior are the camera lens and speaker on the rear face and the volume rocker and camera shutter on the left spine. The shutter is thin, but you can find it easily when you’re on a call. On the top of the phone are a 2.5mm headset jack (we prefer 3.5mm) and a standard micro-USB charger port.

Features
The Loft has a 500-contact phone book with six phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, two instant message handles, two URLS, two street addresses and notes for each contact. You can save contacts to groups, but only groups can be paired with a photos and one of the five polyphonic ringtones. We’d prefer to see more options on a Virgin Mobile handset, particularly one that has a camera. You can back up your contacts with the carrier’s Contact Vault for $1 per month.

Messaging, of course, is the Loft’s main focus. In addition to the standard text and multimedia messaging, the Loft offers access to POP3 e-mail services like Yahoo, AOL, Gmail and Hotmail, and instant messaging services from AOL, Google Talk, and Windows Live. Though the e-mail instant messaging services require a Web-based interface, all services are combined into a convenient “Ultimate Inbox.”

Organizer options include a voice memo recorder, a calendar, an alarm clock, a tip calculator, a world clock, a calculator, a timer, a stopwatch, and a memo pad. You’ll also find Bluetooth, an airplane mode, a contacts search, auto-answer, USB support, and speaker-independent voice dialing. The Loft also offers GPS support through Google Maps or Virgin Navigator. The latter is $9.99 per month or $2.99 for 24 hours.

With few features the Loft’s 1.3-magpixel camera seems almost like an afterthought. It takes pictures in three resolutions and you can choose from two quality settings. Other options include a self-timer, brightness and white balance settings, 10 frames, a multishot mode, three color tones, and eight shutter sounds (there’s no silent option). Photo quality is quite good, with sharp clarity, accurate color, and little image noise. The Loft does not shoot video.

Unlike other Virgin Mobile phones, the Loft doesn’t push its media or social networking features. They exist, to be sure, but you have to dig around to find them. You can get online with the Opera Mini browser, and the VM Connect service offers access to an RSS reader and services like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. The Loft also lets you download music tracks and other apps, but it lacks a dedicated music player. Gamers get demo versions of three titles: Brain Exercise, Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris.

Performance
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was decent, though not without problems. We had no issues with the volume or signal strength, though occasionally we heard static during calls. It wasn’t consistent, nor was it very loud, but it was still there nonetheless. We recommend testing the phone before purchasing.

On their end, callers reported few problems. They could tell that we were using a cell phone, which isn’t unusual. They didn’t hear static, but a few friends reported that the Loft picks up a lot of background noise. Speakerphone calls were clear even if the volume doesn’t get very loud. Bluetooth headset calls were fine.

The Loft has a rated battery life of 5.5 hours talk time and 12.5 days standby time. According to FCC radiation tests, the Loft has a digital SAR of 1.16 watts per kilogram.

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