Like Nokia, Sony Ericsson isn't quick to jump on the latest design trend, so the company did catch us somewhat off guard when it chose a slider design phone for the W850i. Overall, the sliding mechanism is solidly constructed, and we had no trouble moving it up and down with one hand. Yet it wasn't so loose that it slid up when we didn't want it to. As with other slider designs, the W850i doesn't cradle your head when positioned against the ear, but it's still comfortable to hold while talking. It's not very compact either at 3.8x1.8x0.8 inches and 4.1 ounces, but its bulk is not bothersome.
Despite being a tad boxy, the W850i is still attractive and sporty. We also like that it comes in white and black (we reviewed the black version). Dominating the front face is a sizable two-inch (24x320 pixels) display. Like most Sony Ericsson displays, the 262,144-color screen is easy on the eyes and displays everything from photos to games to the user-friendly menus beautifully. You can change the brightness and the clock size but nothing else.
Below the display are the navigation controls, which threw us for quite a loop when we first started using the phones. Sony Ericsson has a mixed record on controls and buttons, and we're disappointed the company is slipping back to old habits. First the good points: Though they blend in with the surface of the phone, the black soft keys are large and quite tactile. In standby mode, they open the calls list and main menu.
Now, the bad points: Between the soft keys is a dedicated Walkman control that's used to activate the music player. Though it's easy to identify because of its bright orange color, the Walkman button has a long thin shape and is squashed next to a raised silver bar. Unfortunately, those two features make the control very difficult to press unless you have nails. The main navigation array that sits below the display has such an unintuitive design, we can't imagine what Sony Ericsson was thinking when it rolled this one out of the design lab. Instead of a traditional toggle or a joystick, the W850i has a recessed OK button surrounded by four pressure points for each direction (up, down, left, right). Since the pressure points are completely flat with the surface of the handset, we had difficulty knowing where to put our finger. We got used to it eventually, but even then the pressure points had a cheap plastic feel. And because the backlighting on the pressure points is so dim, dialing in the dark wasn't easy. The OK button has a more tactile "push" feel, but our finger kept sliding off it because it's recessed. A raised OK button would have been a much better arrangement.
The keypad buttons behind the sliding face are better than on most slider phones. Though they're flush with the handset, they have a beveled design that makes them quite tactile. They also are big enough and are spaced far enough apart. Other controls consist of a dedicated clear button, a Web browser shortcut, and a key that opens a user-programmable shortcuts menu. Though all the keys are useful, they could have been much bigger. The navigation pressure points double as user-defined shortcuts as well, and the OK button acts as a play/pause control when the music player is open.
A volume rocker, a camera shutter, and the infrared port are located on the right spine of the phone. The toggle, while a bit slippery, is easy to find when on a call. It also acts as the zoom control for the camera. The camera lens, flash, and self-portrait mirror sit on the back of the phone, which like on most Sony Ericsson Walkman phones, is designed to look like a real camera. A dedicated power button and the Memory Stick Duo slot sit on the top of the phone, and a single port for the charger and the headset sits on the phone's bottom end.
The W850i offers an attractive feature set that's comparable with other Walkman phones', particularly the i810. But first, the basics. The phone book holds an impressive 1,000 contacts with room in each entry for five phone numbers; work title and company name; a birth date; additional notes; and e-mail, Web, work, and home addresses. You can save 250 more names to the SIM card. You can assign contacts to a caller group and pair them with a picture or one of 23 polyphonic (40-chord) ring tones for caller ID purposes. A vibrate mode, conference calling, voice dialing, and a speakerphone (usable only after you make a call) round out the calling options. Organizer features include an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a notepad, a calculator, a timer, a stopwatch, and a code memo for storing passwords and other secure information. Finally, the camera flash doubles as a tiny flashlight. Though it's not suitable for finding your way through the woods at night, it's bright enough to help you find your keys in a dark room. Alternatively, you can set it to blink rapidly in SOS mode.