Advantages Fantastic walkman, easy to use, great screen and plenty of features
Disadvantages Awkward control pad, poor internal memory, not 'tiny'
|Look & Feel|
|Durability & Robustness|
|Battery standby time|
|Value for money|
|Range of features|
Reviewing a mobile phone is a difficult game because you have to tread a very fine line between assuming too little knowledge on the part of the reader and so going overboard with detail, and assuming too much knowledge and skimping on important issues, simply because they're obvious to you.Therefore I'm going to try and talk about the things that make this phone unique from other mobile phones, and where appropriate about features which are unique to Sony Ericsson (SE) phones which users of other brands may not have encountered before. So if you really want to know the exact sequence of buttons you have to press to send a text message and how many missed calls you can store - you're gonna be disappointed, if on the other hand you want an informative review highlighting the phones key strengths and weaknesses, I hope you'll be in for a treat.
I've had a long history with mobiles phones, owning my first mobile at the tender age of 18 (over 11 years ago!) I bought a BT brick which actually made most real bricks look streamline and lightweight. This was before the days of digital reception, so the phone had a pull-out aerial and the signal faded in and out constantly regardless of my location. Of course back then all this was fields, a 'text' was something they set you for an English exam, 'Mp3' was a newly proposed motorway extension linking Basingstoke and Winchester, and 'Orange' was just a colour (and even then it was more like a lighter shade of grey, not the bright, vibrant orange you see today).Four mobile phones later I bought my first Sony phone, followed by an Ericsson, this was all back before the two companies merged in 2001, I then moved from the T610 to the W800i before finally making the recent leap to the W850i. So my judgements on this phone are based mostly on those previous experiences with some general observations on the direction in which SE seems to be headed, for better or worse.
First - a quick overview of the phones key features:* 3G enabled (meaning you can make video calls as well as voice calls and enjoy faster internet surfing)
* Walkman version 2.0 - enhanced music player with TrackID music recognition software (will find a track on the internet after playing a few seconds from the radio or other source)* 2MP camera - although no autofocus unlike it's predecessors the W800 and W810 and no xenon flash like the K800 Cybershot series.
* 2" clear screen - (262.144 colour TFT, 240x320 pixel if you're really interested)* 16MB internal memory with Sony Duo Pro memory slot, complete with 1GB memory card, expandable up to 8GB (potentially)
If you really want to know all the technical specs, visit the SE website at http://www.sonyericsson.comAnd by the way, if you're sitting there thinking 'I'm sure that phone looks familiar' then it may well be, as this was the phone used in 'The Da Vinci Code' by the heros as they tried to find out some information, nicking it off a guy on a bus!
Why not just buy an iPod? Well, what's the point of carrying two separate devices around in my pocket, when one will do the same job? (And although you could make the same case about the camera/phone debate, like I said there's a huge difference in quality when it comes to the camera, but there isn't when it comes to music, and besides, I listen to music whenever I'm out and about but only occasionally want to take pictures). And the W850 really knows how to spin out a good tune, anyone who's not convinced should compare an SE W-series phone with any other stand alone Mp3 player before casting judgement.And so I should be clear right from the start, although this is an excellent all round phone, it's designed as a music player phone, and should be judged on that basis. There are other phones out there that make calls and send text messages and are smaller and simpler to use - but they don't play music (or don't do it well) and so this phone lives or dies by its ability to play music. It's not just a 'nice feature' it's what makes it breathe...
I've divided the rest of the review into easy to read sections, so you can read up on the bits you're interested in, and skip the bits you're not (or read the whole thing if you're feeling particularly thorough)
As mentioned earlier the design of this phone breaks new ground for SE marking their first outing into the world of mobile sliders. The slider is an excellent concept in general when it comes to phones, allowing you to get a good sized screen AND a good sized keypad in one phone. Flip phones do this but can be annoying to use (and require opening for most functions) and 'candybar' form phones are beginning to suffer from small screens and tiny keypads in comparison to their slip-sliding cousins.There was a lot to go wrong with this venture - slider phones introduce a whole new layer of mechanisms which are prone to faults and even long established companies like Nokia still struggle to get this mechanism right. And so it was a great relief to find that SE have done well with their first sliding effort. The slide action is smooth, yet springs into place (meaning it can't be left half-open), stopping it from accidentally sliding open in your pocket. There is an 'open to answer' feature for the slider, but no 'close to end call' option which would have been very useful - also the phone will lock when you close the slider and unlocks when you open it (I've yet to discover how to lock it without using the slider though).
Because sliders are technically two pieces of phone stuck together, there is a tendancy for the upper half of the phone to 'wobble' ever so slightly as it pivots on the point of contact with the lower half. This is evident in the W850, and although it's not necessarily a mark of poor quality, (SE's are generally very well made, albeit in China) it could become a problem if it gets worse over time.
The phone measures 98 x 47 x 21mm and weighs 116g - so although it's far from the tiniest phone on the market, it'll slip snuggly enough into your pocket to allow you to almost forget it's there. Compare those figures to Nokia's musically minded N91, 113 x 55 x 22mm and 160g - and you realise that this phone aint no heavyweight monster in the music player market.As for looks, this phone is available in two colours, 'precious black' (which is actually more like graphite) and 'Golden White' (which has a pearlescent shimmer and a 24k gold plated 'W' logo on the back!). Personally I favoured the more descrete styling of the black phone, although both will stand out in a crowd and look equally attractive from an asthetic perspective. Ok, so it's not an LG Chocolate, but then we're talking style AND substance here, this phone aint no bimbo...
It's not a touch screen and would be considered on the small side by today's standards, but it's clear and functional and does everything it needs to, so there are no real complaints.
In essence this is a very easy to phone to use for all the basic functions you might require. Making and receiving calls is simple and intuitive, as is writing and reading texts. Entering contact details is also a straight forward process, and the phone allows you to store numerous pieces of information for each contact, including their date of birth, which will be sent to the calendar and trigger an automatic reminder alert, which is handy. The text messaging features have been slightly improved, enabling you to add all sorts of attachments such as photos and sounds, but oddly not contact details. You can forward a contact, or cut and paste a phone number from your contact list into a text message, but SE are still catch up with the simple concept of 'insert contact' - I live in hope.There is also a dedicated menu option for video calling, which gives you a wide variety of options, and allows you to see yourself as well as the other person during a video call.
After a few hours of frustrated use I found myself asking 'Why oh why did they loose the thumb joystick'? My own thoughts are that it took them so long to get it right, (the W800i is the only version that ever really worked well partly due to that neat little orange bit of rubber which made it easy to grip) that there was a massive backlash against the joystick and SE decided that a new design (the slider) needed a new navigation system. Admittedly it's not as bad as it could have been, or even as difficult to use as it looks, and it does get easier to use with time, but it's far from perfect. The main problem is that it's not raised in any way and is surrounded by other small buttons that are. So it can be quite difficult to press left or right without pressing either of the 2 small round buttons which seem to sit on the same section of the D-pad. It's difficult to describe, but suffice to say I'd expect to see radically improvements if they ever use this design again. Even repositioning the small buttons could go a long way to improving it.The keypad, accessed by sliding up the phone, scores quick points for having larger keys than previous W series phones and most candybar form phones, which does make it easier to use. It's good, but it could have been better. They've taken what could have been a perfect keypad, and done a few odd things. Firstly they've decided to 'round off' the top and bottom keys of each row, making them less easy to press than the other keys, and secondly they've recessed each of the three rows and put raised plastic dividers between them. This makes no sense to me and makes it difficult to 'slide' across the keys quickly when you're texting. I'm frustrated because this could have been such a good feature of the phone and they've done something which appears to have no reason, other than making it less easy to use! Another keypad gripe (which is generic for all SE phones) is the fact that they dedicate the hash key in the bottom right of the pad (#) as the 'space' key when you're texting, meaning that the key you use most often when texting is the hardest key to press when you're using one hand to hold the phone. I have to contort my hand into a very odd shape, risking dropping the phone to text with one hand - it would have made MUCH more sense to dedicate the * key or the 0 key as other, sensible, manufacturers do. My suspicion is that whoever designed this either never writes text messages, or is left handed! They should make it optional to allocate this key depending on whether you're left or right handed, now there's a potential USP!
There are also 2 small buttons on the top of the phone, either side of the small camera which can be used when the phone is in landscape mode (especially useful in games) and when in standby they take you directly to your photo album, and when in camera they can be used to brighten the picture or select the 'shoot' mode (of which you can chose 'normal' 'panoramic' 'burst' or 'frame').
The phone takes Sony's Memory Stick Duo cards (MSD) which slot into the top of the phone which makes it readily accessible and the cover seems a bit 'stiffer' than the old W800i one which got pretty mangled after a lot of use. The MSD cards are an excellent invention, and theoretically this phone can handle up to an 8GB card (although the most you can currently buy is 4GB). That's a lot of tracks, and when you consider that the current going rate is about £15 per GB of memory, I reckon you're getting a lot of music storage for your money, even at lower compression rates. SE is now moving towards a new, even smaller card format called 'M2' which is rumoured to have a much higher potential storage capacity (double figures at least) but is currently about twice as expensive (they've been used in the new 'K' range of Cybershot camera phones). The good news is that a converter will be available so that you can use M2 cards in the W850 in future. The advantage of using external memory instead of a fixed capacity internal hard drive (like the iPod or the new 4GB W950i) is that your storage is limited only by how many cards you own. And considering that you can now fit up to 100 albums on something smaller than a 50p piece, it really is a portable music solution.On the downside, SE has only seen fit to include a measly 16MB of internal memory in this phone, a needless and highly frustrating move, meaning that you'll end up storing most of your info on the MSD card, which isn't helpful if you intend to change between several cards.
In my experience the phone battery lasts for several days with average, mixed use. I normally leave it on charge over night every other day and if I have to go three days in a row I can squeeze enough juice out of it to make it last. Battery life is no longer the issue it used to be back in the days when it was measured in hours and minutes rather than days and unless you're planning to take the phone into remote parts of the world on perilous trips into uncharted territory for extended periods of time, I think you'll be fine.
The camera isn't bad at all, if you think of this as a music phone, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Some people have lamented the lack of auto focus, but I find that auto focus is only really useful in close range situations and I enjoy the fact that this camera takes a picture almost instantly, instead of spending a few seconds focussing before every shot. Bare in mind however that close ups will tend to be out of focus. The 'video' recording quality is woefully poor, so if you're into happy-slapping I suggest you invest in a Nokia N93 (and then go see a psychologist).The phone has a single LED flash light, unlike the new K800 series which has a proper Xenon flash, the difference between the two is startling, so don't rely on this flash for anything other than finding your keys in a tent, or navigating your way home from the pub down a very dark alley (not recommended, especially with a brand new phone!).
SE have made a very clear marketing decision to develop one line of camera phone (the new K series, which uses Sony's well established 'Cybershot' lenses) and the Walkman (W series) music phones. And although it would be nice to combine a 3MP camera with a Walkman it would split SE market in half, so it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.(See an example photo at the bottom of this review, taken by yours truly.)
You can also customise the look of the phone with a number of predefined 'flash themes' which set themed animations running in the background, and incorporate track information and change colour when the walkman is activated. Not and essential feature, but a nice one nonetheless.
Finally the games engine has been updated to allow for a new level of 3D gaming, and, whilst not quite PSP standards yet, it is certainly an impressive leap from previous gaming attempts, and I can honestly say that it's the first time I've tried a driving game on a mobile phone which has been not just playable but highly enjoyable!One of the best gaming features is the fact that you can use the two keys situated above the screen in addition to the normal keys, this gives you a much more natural gaming experience, closer to the handling of something like a PSP or Nintendo DS, although it should be restated that this is not a gaming phone and so the quality of the graphics may dissapoint.
Walkman 2.0 really is a big leap forward in terms of the interface, usability and function. From my initial investigations it appears to have every feature I'd ever need in an Mp3 player (never having been on for using 'genres' or 'moods' on systems that have it). The walkman is accessed by the big orange button on the front of the phone, or through the menu system. When the walkman is activated the buttons on the D-pad glow orange (normally they're white) which is a nice touch. You can also set the buttons to flash in time with the music, which is a tad more gimmicky for my tastes, but the kids will love it. When opened you choose between a number of roots to select the song you want 'artist' 'album' 'individual track' or 'playlist'. Navigating through these menus is easy, if a times a tad sluggish, and v2.0 now enables album art so you can get pictures next to your albums to help you make your choice (assuming you load the album art up correctly).The phone comes with music software for converting CD's to Mp3s or AAC files, and then transferring them to the phone via the USB/hot-sync cable, also provided. But in my experience this process is more complicated and problematic than it ought to be, so I simply use other software such as Media player or MusicMatch to convert my CD's to Mp3 then insert the MSD stick into a card reader in my computer and drag and drop the files directly onto it, which works a treat and takes a fraction of the time.
The music quality is excellent, on par, if not superior to, the iPod, which is not a claim I make lightly (knowing just how many people I'm likely to offend if I get myself on the wrong side of the iPosse). It's worth bearing in mind that not all Mp3 players are created equal. Despite being a purely digital format there's still a lot that can go wrong in converting the sound from a series of 1s and 0s into a blistering romping stomping soundtrack filling your ears. And as we all know Mp3 players are two a penny these days, seriously, they'll be giving them away in packets of walkers soon - so if you want genuinely good audio quality you have to do some searching. A good Mp3 player is all about the software they use to convert the digital file back into sound - the better the software, the better the sound. (Ok - compression rate also has a lot to do with it, but see below for more on that). So even though a phone says it's an Mp3 player (and which phones don't these days?) it doesn't mean it's an equal to the W850. SE are very careful about how they market their phones, and the new K800 actually has different Mp3 software, and therefore doesn't sound as good as the W850.A quick note on music quality and capacity. Most of the blurb states that a 1GB memory stick can hold 'up to 1000 tracks' which is a bit of porky pie to be honest. This is basically a scam by the Mp3 industry trying to convince people that they can squeeze far more on their memory cards or hard drives than they really can. It's like saying you can get 'up to 18 people in a mini' - it's technically true, but neither safe nor particularly advisable! To get 1000 tracks into 1GB you need each track to be less than 1MB in size, requiring a conversion rate of less than 128kbps, but the fact that most people don't even know what compression rate they're using to create Mp3's is indicative of an industry obsessed with 'storage capacity' and not audio quality.
(Stop me if I'm loosing you). Basically Mp3 files are created by compressing digital audio tracks, eliminating as much of the high and low end sound that we can't detect (human hearing is 'bandwith specific, meaning we only register sound that falls within certain frequencies, namely 20Hz - 20kHz), and so the greater the rate of compression, the smaller the files will be, but also, the lower the quality of the sound. The 'industry' has set the standard at 128kbps (kilobytes per second) even though it means a great reduction in audio quality and clarity. By decreasing the compression rate to 192kbps (so each track is less compressed) you get a noticeable increase in quality, for a relatively small increase in file size. A good trade off if you like music and care about sound quality. At this rate an average song is about 4MB, and I get about 250 songs per GB of memory.Anyway - moving on!
The walkman screen shows you all the info you need such as track number, artist, title, album, track progress etc, and even album art if you loaded it correctly. You can pause and start the track using the large dedicated button in the centre of the D-pad, and the volume is controlled by two small buttons on the right hand side of the phone and you can carry out all the normal fast forward, rewind and skip track functions using the D-pad. It's worth noting though, that unlike the previous W800/810 phones this phone doesn't have a dedicated 'pause/play' button on the left hand edge of the phone. This was an extremely useful feature meaning you could easily pause or restart your music whilst the phone was locked, a function you can no longer do with the W850.Mitigating your frustration slightly is the fact that you can now create playlists by queuing whole albums or individual tracks, meaning that you could queue several albums to play back to back and never have to take the phone out of your pocket. The album art is a great idea (although I've yet to try and get it to work) and will make choosing music much more interesting and the whole look and feel of the walkman rivals anything I've seen on stand alone Mp3 players, so top marks so far SE! The speaker is also excellent with a loud, clear sound. I'd say it's slightly louder than the W800 and W810 phones at full volume (but again, I think people get a bit too hung up using their phone as a hi-fi, it it's that important to you, buy some speakers!). The phone comes bundled with a pair of SE's now standard HMP-70 headphones (in stylish black of course) which do a very decent job of both fitting comfortably (they use flexible silicone buds to form a snug in-ear fit and block out external noise) and delivering a worthy sound. Although the phone doesn't have a 3.5mm socket, there is one on the MHP-70 cable (which also acts as the radio antenna and microphone for handsfree telephony) meaning you can plug in any headphones you like.
SE are also bringing out an updated version of the MHP-70, the HMP-82 (original huh? Who chooses these numbers?). This version has a very hand in-line remote control, enabling you to carry out all the usual Mp3 controls while you phone is in your pocket. But if that's not cool enough for you, then just wait until you hear about the new HBH-DS970 stereo Bluetooth remote control headphones. Yes you heard me right, stereo Bluetooth (known as A2DP) is a revolutionary new technology which allows devices to stream music, in stereo, to headphones and other devices. Essentially you place the headphones round your neck, turn on Bluetooth, put your phone in your pocket (or car glove compartment) pair the devices and away you go! You can listen to music, select tracks, pause, fast-forward and even make and receive calls all using the slim line, lightweight display.I'm convinced that this feature will set SE apart not just from other mp3/phones on the market, but also stand alone players. Why am I so excited? Well, I'll be honest, trying to use the phone to control the walkman isn't easy especially if you're phone is in your pocket and you're wandering around town. So to make it fully functional as a portable mp3 player this phone needs a remote - but a wireless remote which you can control not only your tracks but make and receive calls from!? This is almost too good to be true. It means that, nice lookin though this beast may be, when I'm out and about i can leave it in my pocket and use the headphones for nearly everything I need (ok texting, game playing and web-browsing aside).
This isn't perfect, but it's flaws are forgivable, and it's features are impressive. But at the end of the day this phone lives or dies by it's music - and the final verdict is two thumbs up for all round aural delights. A sophisticated music system tucked into a neat little slider, SE might just have struck gold with the W850.
As with all new phones, upgrade costs will depend on your existing talk plan and contract status, although you can normally find this phone for free if you're starting a new contract.
© Tom West 2006
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Sony Ericsson W850i Walkman Phone (Black, UK)
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