Last year when Sony Ericsson introduced the W380a, we were pretty excited that Sony Ericsson introduced a Walkman phone specifically for North America. It's not that we haven't seen Walkman phones here--indeed, AT&T has offered a few--but the W380a was exciting because Sony Ericsson gave it to us first. Now, six months later, the W380a has finally arrived on our desk. It has its plusses and minuses--and it's a decent phone on the whole--but in a contest we'd prefer the W580i. The W380a is available unlocked for $249.99.
The W380a has a standard flip phone design that measures 3.6 inches by 1.9 inches by 0.6 inch and weighs 3.5 ounces. It's compact and portable, and it has a comfortable feel in the hand. Sony Ericsson was fairly late to the thin-phone craze, but we figure better late than never. The W380a is available in both purple and gray; we examined the gray handset but both models are otherwise the same.
The front face of the W380a is rather unique. Its most prominent feature is the dedicated music controls that run vertically up the left side. Though the controls are touch-sensitive, they're marked by Braille-like dots, which make them tactile and easy to use by feel. It's something we haven't seen before, and it works well. At the top of the phone are a speaker and a large camera lens. There's no flash or self-portrait mirror.
Though you might think the W380a doesn't have an external display, you just have to look a bit harder to find it. As it is hidden behind the phone's front face, the monochrome screen is visible only when the backlighting is on. Unfortunately, the effect is rather underwhelming. Not only are the characters on the display rather small, but they're also the slightest bit blurry. Users with visual impairments should test this phone before buying. The rectangular display shows the battery life, signal strength, time and numeric caller ID, but it won't show photo caller ID. But on the other hand, it will display the current music track when you're listening to tunes with the phone closed.
The only other exterior features are a headset jack on the left side and a volume rocker on the right. You also can use the volume rocker to activate the external display when the backlighting is off. On the back of the phone is a slider for locking the external controls. It's certainly convenient, but we felt that it's in an odd location. The W380a also offers a Memory Stick Micro card slot, but you must remove the battery cover to access it.
Inside the W380a you'll find a bright 262,000-color display (220x176 pixels). At 1.8 inches, it's a decent size even if we felt it could be just a tad bigger. Yet the good news is that it falls in line with other Sony Ericsson displays; colors were vibrant and graphics were detailed. What's more, the standard Sony Ericsson menus are easy to use.
Below the display is the spacious navigation array. There's a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, a back control, and a clear button. Though the controls are flush, they remain easy to use. We could use the toggle by feel, and the OK button's bright teal color helps in dim situations. A Web browser control, a dedicated power button, and a shortcut key sit between the navigation array and the keypad buttons. We're always fans of shortcuts, but this row of keys could be a bit bigger.
The flush keypad wasn't the best we've seen. Though the arrangement is spacious and the numbers on the keys are large, the plastic buttons feel the slightest bit cheap. Also, we didn't like the dim backlighting or the way the keys blend in with the color of the phone's skin. This is another area that users with visual impairments should check out first.