The Sony Ericsson C903 Cyber-shot camera phone takes the snapshots we've been dreaming of, and keeps the price down by forgoing fancy features like Wi-Fi. Its 16x digital zoom won't get you as close to the action as you might like -- image quality declines as you zoom in -- but, for spur-of-the-moment photo opportunities, it's spectacularly good.
The C903 is available for free on an £18-per-month contract.
The back of the C903 looks remarkably like a compact camera, albeit a tiny, phone-sized one. On one side, the C903 is a normal-looking slider phone, but, on the other side, its full-length, sliding lens cover reveals a 5-megapixel snapper with a two-LED photo light.
Sliding the lens cover open launches the camera, and that's when the fun begins. In good light, it takes sharp shots, with lush, accurate colours. Snapshots taken outside on a sunny day were good, with deep shadows, good skin tones and bright highlights. Close-ups using the macro setting were clear and detailed. In low light, the LED lights gave our shots a greenish tinge, and there was some noise, but they were still much better than average for a camera phone.
There's an excellent range of options for the camera, including face detection and smile detection, which delays taking the shot until your victim shows their teeth. We particularly like the 'best pic' feature, which takes nine shots when you depress the shutter button halfway, nine when you press the shutter button completely, and nine when you let go. It's not the fastest way of taking pictures, but it's a huge advantage if you're shooting moving subjects or you're not too steady in the hands department. You just pick the best of the bunch, and the camera saves only that one.
This is still a phone camera, though, so there are drawbacks. The 16x digital zoom, for example, causes the image quality to plummet. The camera also suffers from some shutter lag. It takes about 3 seconds to take a photo, and another 3 seconds to write it to the memory card. But you do get the advantage of the phone's built-in GPS, so you can automatically geotag your shots and pinpoint them on a map later.
Plastic's not fantastic
Compared to the C905, for example, the C903 is an inexpensive member of Sony Ericsson's camera-phone range, and the company has had to make sacrifices to achieve the lower price. The body, for instance, feels plasticky. It's not terrible -- just rather cheap and cheerful. One area that may cause problems is the flimsy back panel, because you have to pop it off to get the memory card in and out, which may be a frequent task if you prefer transferring photos using a memory-card reader rather than USB cable.
The five-way function button on the front of the C903 provides an easy way to change settings when you're using the camera. In general, we found the keys easy to press. Two exceptions are the shutter button, which, sadly, is small and wobbly, and the dialling pad, which has an almost flat surface that may not suit everyone.
Wi-Fi not included
Sony Ericsson has also saved some money by forgoing Wi-Fi support, although, happily, the C903 has HSPA for faster Web browsing over 3G. The Web browser does a decent enough job of displaying Web pages for the purposes of quickly checking the score or making a Facebook update, but the small screen and lack of Wi-Fi mean this phone won't suit Internet addicts.
The C903 has GPS, and a suite of location-savvy tools to take advantage of it. As well as Google Maps, there's a fitness application that tracks your route. There's even a pedometer. The pedometer doesn't use GPS, but replaces the wallpaper with a motivating chart of your steps for the week, compared to a goal amount.
The C903 also makes a good little music player, with support for podcasts and an FM radio, alongside its media player. There's one big drawback, though: the headphone jack. Not only is there no standard 3.5mm headphone jack, there's no adaptor included either, which means you're stuck with the cheap-feeling earbuds that came in the box.
There's a YouTube application built in, but, with no Wi-Fi connectivity, be sure your contract comes with a good chunk of data included before you get stuck into too much video. Despite the C903's decent 320x240-pixel screen and HSPA connectivity, YouTube clips look very compressed and jaggy. But, if you're desperate for entertainment, they're watchable, and the application works flawlessly. The screen flips from portrait to landscape mode automatically, so you can watch your videos in widescreen with the flick of a wrist.
The C903 has 130MB of internal memory, with room for 16GBmore, thanks to its Memory Stick Micro M2 card slot. But there's no card included, so, if you plan on taking loads of pictures or carrying tonnes of tunes, buying a card will be a good investment.
The Sony Ericsson C903 Cyber-shot has truly impressive photo powers for such an inexpensive phone. In fact, it's one of the best camera phones we've seen at any price. The case feels cheap and plasticky, and we missed having Wi-Fi connectivity, but, if you want a champagne camera phone on a beer budget, we wouldn't hesitate to recommend the C903.
Edited by Charles Kloet