Ten months ago, Sony Ericsson made a big splash at the GSMA World Congress in Barcelona when it introduced a gallery of flashy new phones. True to its usual form, the company focused on multimedia, with new additions to the Walkman and Cybershot series. Even then, we were eager to give them a full hands-on, but we also knew that given Sony Ericsson's small presence in the United States it would be a long time before they landed on our desk. Fortunately, that time has finally come, as both the Sony Ericsson C902 and the W980a arrived this week.
Like other Walkman phones before it, the Sony Ericsson W980 promises a full media player, but it offers a unique design that we hadn't yet seen. With at least one notable exception, Sony Ericsson has done a decent job with its Walkman phones (the recent Sony Ericsson W760a won the CNET Editors' Choice Award), so we put it through its paces to see how it would fare. The design turned out to be both interesting and intuitive, and the varied feature set largely lived up to our expectations. Performance was also satisfactory, but some calls sounded a tad harsh. The W980 is not available with U.S. or Canadian carriers, so you must buy it unlocked in North America. Online retailers like Expansys.com sell it for about $550.
With so many slider and candy-bar Walkman phones, the sleek styling of the W980 is a welcome diversion. The shiny, black skin catches the light without attracting fingerprints or smudges and the clean lines give the handset an attractive edge. Another cool design touch is a quarter inch of clear plastic on the bottom of the front flap. Sure, it's slightly gimmicky, but it's also eye-catching and we like how the embedded lights flash when you get a call and when music is playing. At 3.6 inches tall by 1.8 inches wide by 0.7 inch deep and weighing 3.5 ounces, the phone travels well and fits comfortably in the hand. What's more, the hinge mechanism also feels solid. We noticed, however, that the plastic battery cover feels a bit flimsy and is rather difficult to remove.
The external display measures a generous 1.5 inches. It won't support photo caller ID, but it shows the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and numeric caller ID. None of display's options are adjustable, including the backlighting time. Below the display are the dedicated music controls, which have a design of three overlapping circles. The controls are touch-sensitive, so there is little tactile definition besides the center circle being slightly recessed. As expected, you can manipulate all aspects of the player and radio without ever opening the phone. It makes for a comfortable user experience, yet we had one complaint: When you close the W980, it goes directly into music mode with the external controls activated. It then remains in music mode until you switch to standard mode or activate the locking switch. It was a little annoying, and if there is a way to change it we couldn't find it.
The aforementioned locking switch sits on the left spine below a rather stiff volume rocker and the control that changes the handset from music mode to standard. Twin speakers sit on either spine, and the connection port sits on the right spine. Note that Sony Ericsson uses a proprietary connection for the charger, a wired headset, and a USB cable. Also, the combined port means that you can use only one peripheral at a time. The camera lens sits on the rear face, which unfortunately is the same place we wanted to rest our finger when we were holding the phone to take a picture. It's also disappointing that you don't get a flash or a self-portrait mirror for a 3.2-megapixel camera.
The internal display measures 2.25 inches and supports 262,144 colors (320x240 pixels). Like most Sony Ericsson displays, it is bright, vibrant, and colorful, with sharp graphics and photos. You can adjust the brightness and choose from a selection of menu styles. All of the styles are intuitive but the menu text might be a little small for some people.
We were apprehensive about the navigation array--typically that's where Sony Ericsson makes design missteps--but the W980 pulls through. The circular keys feature a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, Talk and End controls, a clear key, and a control that activates a user-programmable shortcut menu. Though the controls are flush, they're tactile and easy to use, even if the calling buttons are a bit cramped. You'll also find a dedicated power button and a Walkman control just below the array. The circular keypad buttons are also flat, but they have a spacious arrangement and a relatively comfortable feel beneath our finger. We could dial and text without any problems, but rapid texting felt a little awkward. The bright backlighting helps in dim situations, but dialing by feel is difficult.
The W980 has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail, Web address, job title and company name, two street addresses, a birthday, and notes. You can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 39 ringtones. Besides polyphonic melodies, you also can save MP3s as ringtones and use videos as ringtones. Just keep in mind that the video or photos won't show on the external display. You can save an additional 250 names to the SIM card.
Basic features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, an alarm clock, a speakerphone, a task list, a notepad, a timer, a stopwatch, a calculator, a unit converter, a tip calculator, and two world clocks. On the higher-end, you'll find a file manager, a voice recorder, PC syncing, USB mass storage, integrated GPS, POP3 e-mail, a code memo for storing sensitive information, and full Bluetooth with a stereo profile. You also can use the Bluetooth feature as a remote control for other Bluetooth-equipped devices. But the W980 doesn't stop there. It also includes a number of offbeat applications like WalkMate (pedometer), AccuWeather.com and Music Mate 5, which takes advantage of the W760i's motion sensor. When you're not using the phone as a metronome, you can play a variety of percussion instruments by shaking the W980 in various directions.
The W980's Walkman player is not unlike other walkman phones. Settings include an equalizer, playlists, stereo widening, and shuffle and loop modes. The interface is minimalist, but functional. You can set visualizations and light effects, but the player supports album art, as well. Just keep in mind that it won't recognize every song it plays. In music mode, the W980's display will change orientation automatically as you rotate from portrait to landscape.
You also get an airplane mode, for listening to your tunes with the phone transmitter off. Like the W760, the W980 is integrated with the "shake control" application. By holding down the Walkman button when music is playing, you can advance to the next track by flicking your wrist. It works quite well and it's an attractive feature. You also get the standard FM radio, as well as a Music ID application for identifying likable tunes you can't name. Internal memory is a full 8GB of shared space. The W980 does not have an external memory-card slot.
Loading music on the phone is relatively easy. The needed USB cable and the PC Media Manager software are included, which means you're saved the pain of shelling out more money for a music kit. The Sony Ericsson software can be a bit clunky, so we're glad that you can also drag and drop music from your PC to the phone. You also can bypass the software and sync music with Windows Media Player. The software also offers a SensMe app that will analyze the acoustics and beat of a song to see where it fits on a four-point mood scale of "fast," "slow," "sad" and" happy." You then can compose playlists based on your mood and you can see tracks displayed on a graphical representation of the scale.