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The race to push ever more pixels into a mobile phone handset continues, with no finishing line in sight. Sharp has edged into the lead with its 3.2-megapixel 903, which also boasts 3G capability.
The camera might attract the headlines, but there is an awful lot of other stuff going on with this phone, most of it good. This handset is an all-round update of the white Sharp 902, morphing the colour of choice to black.
You can only get this handset from Vodafone, and you'll need to be prepared to pay a fair chunk of change for it. Vodafone offer it on various tariffs, starting at £80 with a £60-per-month Anytime 700 contract and rising to £250 with a £16-per-month Anytime 75 contract.
It is not long since we were looking at the Sharp 902 and praising its 2-megapixel camera -- the first available on a 3G handset. Time marches on, and now we have Sharp's 903 in our hands, again on 3G and this time with a 3.2-megapixel camera, and, just to whet your digital imaging tastebuds even more, 2x optical zoom.
With 3G handsets getting ever smaller, the 903 feels like something of a throwback. Even its sleek, shiny blackness can't hide the fact that it is rather chunky. It is a handset of two halves, being flip-lidded, and we aren't too excited by the ski-slope at the hinge end, which means the back is a fair amount taller than the front. There's no second display on the front of this handset, so no visual alerts for incoming calls, time and date display or other stuff to detract from that shiny, black front casing.
One of the plus points of a large handset is the roomy keyboard. The 903 has generously sized, well spaced keys with good feedback, a neat navigation pad, one dedicated button for the built-in music player and another that calls up a selection of shortcuts to frequently used applications.
The screen is an absolutely astounding. Large, at 61mm (2.4 inches), its 240x320 pixels and 262K colours are bright and clear and show plenty of information. This comes to the fore when you are using Vodafone Live! on 3G, looking at photos, and even moving through the application menu on the handset, which offers a grid three icons wide and, unusually, four icons deep.
When we reviewed the 902, we were impressed with the way you could swivel the screen through 180 degrees and close it back flat, screen facing outmost like a normal digicam. This feature has been retained. It is no less impressive second time round, and Sharp has given it a boost.
As before, you can use the screen as a viewfinder for the camera and to shoot images and video. This is particularly useful when you want to shoot something in landscape format. New is the fact that the range of buttons down the left edge (volume rocker, call and end keys and a menu key) double as controls for moving through menus and making selections, so that you can access all the software and features without bothering with the keypad.
There is a second camera, sitting above the screen, which comes into play for video calls.
On the left and right of the upper section of the 903 are twin speakers, and, just as with the 902, there is a connector for video output. If your TV has RGB input jacks, you can view pics or video on it without anything more sophisticated than the provided cables.
There are plenty of features to be had on the 903, but first among them has to be that camera. We've already noted some of its features. Up to 24x digital zoom augments the 2x optical, there are different settings for shooting in a range of situations from sports to night shots, shooting into the sun, portraits or taking photos of your pets. There is a macro mode for shooting close ups, and you can choose between auto and manual focus. Opt for the former and when you hold the shutter button half down, the focus adjusts before your very eyes.
Picture quality is certainly plenty good enough for snaps, and we are pleased to report that even at the highest resolutions pictures saved quickly to our miniSD card. Videos not intended for MMS are automatically sent to the card, and also save quickly.
The music player supports AAC, AAC+ and MP3 formats, and you can play tunes copied across from a PC as well as any you download. You can manage three playlists.
There is just 8MB of internal memory, which isn't much for a handset with a 3.2-megapixel camera. In some cases, there are limitations as to how much of the memory you can use for different things, for example you can have a maximum of 300 calendar entries and 500 contacts.
The good news is that this internal memory can be boosted by a miniSD card and Sharp provides a 64MB card. This isn't overly generous, and you may well find yourself buying additional cards, but, joy of joys, you don't need to lift the battery to swap cards as the slot is on the left of the casing. It is protected by a hinged cover, which is fiddly to remove and even more fiddly to replace.
There is a lot more on offer, including a voice recorder, the ability to set up to five alarms, a stopwatch, count-down timer, a little expenses manager and even an e-book reader that can cope with plain text files. You get some software for exchanging data with your PC, but you'll have to make a wireless connection or spend more money on a USB cable.
This is a lovely handset to use, thanks to the neat design features already noted. Video calling and using Vodafone Live! were both fine with the video image of the caller remaining crisp and smooth during testing. Battery life seemed adequate too. We went for a couple of days between charges without feeling we were sailing close to the wind.
The images taken were clear and well defined. If going on a serious photography trip we'd want to carry a digital camera, but we got some very passable snapshots. We weren't so delighted with video quality, which displayed too much pixelation.
The music performance was very disappointing, and this matters more and more as music becomes a key feature for many of us when buying new handsets.
There are four tone options that let you emphasise the bass content of music and use simulated surround sound. They do make some difference to sound quality, both through the stereo speakers and Sharp's headset. The problem is that sound output in general is below par. Unfortunately, the headset's proprietary connector means you can't substitute a better one of your own.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide