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We don't get many Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot cell phones in the United States, which is unfortunate considering that they tend to be quality devices. We liked the Sony Ericsson K790a and the K800i so much that they both won our Editors' Choice Award. Indeed, both handsets offered a broad array of features, good call quality, and superior photos. The newest Cyber-shot model, the 5-megapixel Sony Ericsson K850i, also passes the performance test, but we had a few complaints with its design that prevented us from giving it our award. It's not a bad phone by any means; in fact there's quite a lot to like about it. But we can't discount its usability issues. The GSM K850i isn't offered by a U.S. carrier, but you can get an unlocked model for about $500.
Sony Ericsson excels at a lot of things, but cell phone design isn't always the company's strong point. It's not that its phones are ugly (most of the time they're quite pretty), but controls tend be too stylish for their own good. The K850i has the same problem; it's stylish and sharp, but we found its navigation array and camera controls not so easy to use. But before we get there, let's address the good stuff first.
Like most Sony Ericsson handsets, the K850i has a standard candy bar design. With its sleek black hue and green highlights, it's eye-catching without being ostentatious. At 4 inches by 1.9 inches by 0.7 inch, it has an average size though it's a bit weighty at 4.2 ounces. Sony Ericsson always does a good job with its displays, and the K850i is no exception. The 2.25-inch (320x240 pixels) screen supports a bright 262,144 colors. It shows everything well, from graphics to photos and text, and the menus are simple and easy to use. You can adjust the clock size and the brightness, but no other options are customizable.
Unfortunately, now we need to address the phone's not-so-finer points. At the bottom of the display are three touch controls. The center control serves as your OK button, and the controls on either side act as standard soft keys. While the physical layout of the touch controls is straightforward, where you're actually supposed to touch isn't so clear. The sensitive areas are marked only by tiny white lines that are just a sixteenth of an inch long. You don't need to press right on the line, but sometimes we had to press a couple of times before it registered our choice. Also, it's worth noting that the display isn't touch-sensitive, so touching only the display won't register your choice.
Just below the touch controls are two silver buttons that place and end calls and open the onscreen shortcut menu. There's also a back/clear control. Though the silver buttons are raised above the surface of the phone, they're somewhat small and they're crammed next to the display. Indeed we kept pressing them when we wanted to use the touch controls. The navigation toggle is unlike anything we've ever seen before. It's neither a toggle nor a joystick, but a thin green rectangle that surrounds the 2 and 5 buttons. Though it's relatively tactile, its location was confusing. We kept pressing the 2 and 5 to keys to select choices, when in fact we had to use the touch control that sits above the toggle. Granted, you'll get used to this after you have the phone for a while, but we're not huge fans just the same. The keypad buttons are raised above the surface of the phone, but they're a little smaller than we'd prefer. On the other hand, you can dial by feel and there's a bright backlighting.
On the left spine you'll find a volume rocker, which doubles as a zoom control when the phone is in camera mode. You'll also find a camera shutter and a camera power control. Though the former is quite tactile, the latter is tiny and flush with the surface of the phone. We like the idea of a camera power control, but we wish it were bigger and easier to use. On the upside, the position of the controls on the spine gives the K850i the ergonomics of a standalone camera when you tip the phone horizontally. We also liked the convenient switch for alternating between camera and camcorder modes.
The camera lens is on the rear face next to the flash. There's no self-portrait mirror, but the flash is bright and the lens has a sliding lens cover. There's a second camera lens just above the display that's used for video calls only. The charger port/headset jack is on the bottom of the phone. It sits on top of a cover for the SIM card and memory card slots. To access them you slide the cover down and then flip it toward you. It's an unusual arrangement, but it works quite well.
The K850i has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for seven phone numbers, an e-mail, a URL, a title, a company name, two street addresses, a birthday, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can save callers to groups and pair them with a photo and one of 20 polyphonic ringtones. Or, for even more choices, video ringtones are available as well.
Other basic offerings include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a speakerphone, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a notepad, a timer, a stopwatch, and a calculator. But the K850i doesn't stop there. You'll also find stereo Bluetooth, e-mail, an RSS reader, voice dialing, a voice recorder, PC syncing, USB mass storage a file manager, and a code memo for storing sensitive information. You can even use the phone as a remote control for another Bluetooth-enabled device.
As a Cyber-shot handset, the K850i's centerpiece is its camera. In that regard, it lived up to our expectations. With a 5-megapixel resolution the K850 is as powerful as many standalone cameras. It also comes stocked with almost as many features. It takes pictures in four resolutions (from 5 megapixels down to VGA) and two quality settings. Other editing options include an image stabilizer, an autofocus, macro and infinite modes, four white-balance settings, an adjustable ISO, spot metering, four color effects, a self-timer, an autofocus light, a panoramic mode, 15 fun frames, and an autorotate feature. Sony Ericsson's BestPic feature will take nine pictures of your subject in quick succession; you then can select which shot you like best. There's also a nifty feature for selecting a "scene" setting. Choices include twilight landscape, portrait, beach/snow, sports, and document. The Xenon flash is among the brightest we've seen on a camera phone, and we like that it includes a red-eye reduction option.In case you're unsure how to use all these options, a handy PhotoMate program will show you how to best use the camera.
The camcorder shoots clips with sound. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped about 25 seconds; otherwise, you can shoot for as long as the memory permits. Editing options aren't as extensive as the still camera but they're still plentiful. You can use the flash as a steady light. You can also select night mode, a white-balance setting, and a color effect.
The K850's photo quality is one of its top attractions. Colors were natural and bright for the most part, though oranges and reds tended to be a too saturated. Subject outlines were very distinct and even smaller items weren't blurry. The camera performed well in low light thanks to the bright flash, but bright sunlight tended to wash out some shots. The shutter lag time was quite short compared with other camera phones. In short, this is a high-quality camera. It comes close to replacing a standalone camera, but it doesn't make the cut.
The K850i offers 40MB of internal memory. That's pretty substantial, but you always can add more storage with the external memory card slot. The slot accommodates Memory Stick Micro cards up to 4GB. Also, when you're taking photos a meter will keep track of how much space you have left. When you're finished, you can transfer your photos and videos off the phone with a memory card, Bluetooth, a multimedia message, or a USB cable. There's also an HP Print application for connecting directly to a photo printer. For creative types, there are Photo and Video DJs and a FaceWarp application. The phone comes with a PC Suite, which includes photo-editing software, among other things.
The K850i also comes with a music player that supports a variety of file types. It's not the fanciest player around, but it does its job well. The interface is clean and simple, and you get a few player options including playlists, shuffle and loop modes, an equalizer, and stereo widening. Loading music on the phone is as easy as transferring photos. The PC Suite software is an easy-to-use method. The player also supports audio books and podcast, and the K850i offers FM radio.
You can personalize the K850 with a variety of wallpapers, screensavers, and color themes. More options are available for download with the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. You can download more ringtones as well or you can compose your own using the MusicDJ application. Games include Marble Madness and Tennis Multiplayer, but the K850i is not an ordinary phone when it comes to gaming. The handset includes an accelerometer that lets you control the game simply by moving the phone. For example, in Marble Madness you're supposed to guide a marble along a series of ramps without falling off the edges. Rather than using the cramped and unintuitive navigation array, you simply move the marble by tipping the phone in the corresponding direction. It's a bit slow, but it's a very cool feature nonetheless. Though you may look a little ridiculous to the uninformed observer, that's the price we pay for technology.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Sony Ericsson K850i in San Francisco using T-Mobile and AT&T service. The four bands mean you can take it almost anywhere in the world, which is very convenient for globetrotters. We also like that the phone supports three UMTS/HSDPA bands (900/1900/2100). That means you can use it with both North American and European 3G networks. It also offers EDGE when you're not in a 3G area.
Call quality was quite good. We enjoyed clear audio, and the volume was sufficiently loud. Our callers' voices sounded natural, and we encountered no interference from other devices. Also, static on both networks was kept to a minimum. Our callers reported good audio quality, as well, and automated calling system could understand us without any trouble. We had no trouble hearing callers in noisy environments, but they reported that the phone picked up some background noise. They didn't say it was distracting, though. Speakerphone calls were quite loud, and callers could understand us most of the time. Our sole complaint was the speakerphone quality could be a bit harsh.
The K850i's interface could be a little pokey, particularly when turning on the phone and opening the main menu. The lag was just a second or two, but it was noticeable just the same. Fortunately, it wasn't an issue in most of the internal menus.
Music quality was up to the usual Sony Ericsson standards. The speaker on the phone's rear side has powerful output and the audio was clear. As with most music phones, the speaker has a tinny quality but a headset delivers the best experience.
The Sony Ericsson K850i has a rated battery life of 9 hours talk time and 16.6 days standby time. In our tests, we were able to get 8.83 hours of talk time from the K850i. According to FCC radiation tests the K850i has a digital SAR of 1.14 watts per kilogram.