Is This the iPod Killer?
The Good: Easy to navigate, with lots of features such as a 2-megapixel camera and built-in sound recorder
The Bad: Listening to nonstop tunes will drain the battery pretty quickly
The Bottom Line: An excellent all-around phone that doubles as a darn good music player
Something funny is happening in Europe. While Apple Computer (AAPL) is still selling iPods by the boatload, more and more young people are ditching Apple's offerings in favor of Sony Ericsson's new Walkman phones. "I always carry my phone with me, but the iPod is an extra," Rachel Slack, a 26-year-old Londoner, told one of my colleagues recently. Since buying a Sony Ericsson with enough memory for about 100 songs, she says, "it made sense to just use my phone for both."
Now, similar phones are becoming available in the U.S. For the past few weeks, I've been trying out the Sony Ericsson W810i, and I have to say that Rachel may be on to something. It's a sleek looking black candy bar (meaning it doesn't fold closed like a clamshell). It has a supersharp 176x220-pixel display that does an admirable job of showing photos taken with its 2-megapixel camera. It's available for about $100 with a two-year contract at Cingular, and around $350 from retailers.
As a phone, the W810i is simple and intuitive. The menus are clear, with one-key access to both the phone book and recently dialed numbers, though some features are accessible only by clicking through various on-screen tabs—which took some getting used to. Text messages are a snap with predictive typing. It operates on all four GSM frequency bands, so it works anywhere in the U.S. where there's a GSM signal, and I was also able to use it everywhere I went on a recent trip to Europe. Setting up the various options such as ringtones and ringer volume is a breeze. The sound is fine when you use it as a handset, though it doesn't stand out when compared with other phones in its price range.
No Fidelity Awards
The W810i really shines, though, when you plug in the headphones. It's as good as just about any MP3 player on the market (O.K. it's not quite at the level of an iPod, but it's as close as you're likely to find these days). A special orange button on the left side turns the phone into a Walkman, bringing up a menu with "artists," "tracks," "playlists," and "videos" as options. The artists menu brings up a choice of albums or tracks by a particular performer. The ringtone, meanwhile, can be any song in your playlist—so no need to pay your cellular carrier two bucks for the latest hits (as long as you own them as MP3s, at least). One smallish problem: The short ringtones that come standard with the phone show up in your playlist unless you delete them.
Turn it on and the sound is excellent. There's plenty of bass, but the high notes don't get lost. When you get a phone call while listening on the headphones, you hear an alert, and if you answer the music pauses. You can hear the call through the phones and speak into a microphone on the cord (though the person you're speaking with will hear you much better if you hold the mike up to your mouth).
If you want to share your tunes, you can also play music through the speaker. It won't win any awards for fidelity, but when I was out on a boat with some friends without any other music at hand, I turned on the speaker and it sounded …Well, at least it wasn't worse than the AM radio in my parents' old Plymouth station wagon. There's also a radio that gets surprisingly good reception, though it can't be used without the headphones since the antenna is the headphone wire.
Video on a Limited Basis
Loading songs on the machine is a snap. I simply pulled the memory stick out of the phone and plugged it into the card reader of my computer to transfer songs. You can also plug the phone into your machine via the USB port and transfer songs and playlists. My card was a bit constrained, with just 512MB of storage, but if you're willing to pay $350 extra for an 8GB memory stick, you'll have plenty of space for your songs—as well as photos and videos.
Did someone say video? The camera can take short videos, which won't likely earn anyone a reputation as the next Spielberg, but which look fine on the phone's screen. There are a couple of games that my kids enjoyed for a while. They also liked a feature called Music DJ that lets you make your own songs and use them as ringtones, and another program that can be used to doctor photos and videos. My phone even came with Music Mate, software that shows you hundreds of guitar chords. Not features you're likely to use a lot, but fun nonetheless.
Of more use to me was the recorder. I started using it instead of a microcassette recorder or digital recorder during interviews, and it worked extremely well. When I played back the interviews, everything was clear, even though the file was compressed into a format much smaller than MP3, requiring only about 5MB for an hour-long recording. My only quibble would be that I couldn't set the screen to stay on while recording, so I always had a small fear that it might not actually be recording.
One potential concern for heavy users is battery life. If you like a constant soundtrack to your life, you'd do better to stick with your iPod or another dedicated MP3 player, since listening to tunes on the phone definitely drains the battery fairly quickly. But I can use the phone normally and listen to tunes for two or three days on my 45-minute train commute without recharging.