Ever since Sony joined forces with Ericsson, the company's cell phone lineup has consisted largely of candy bar-style models. It wasn't until last year that Sony Ericsson first broke new ground in the United States with its Z600 flip phone. And now in 2005, the company rolls out its swiveling S710a. Clad in a stylish package, the otherwise hefty handset offers an impressive list of features and admirable call quality. The interface could use some tweaks, and overall battery life was on the low side, but the Sony Ericsson S710a should appeal to cell phone junkies. At $399, the price is high, but it should be cheaper with a rate plan.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
Cell phones with swivel designs are gaining traction in the United States, thanks in part to Sony Ericsson, Samsung, and Kyocera. Dubbed the S710a and dressed in basic black, Sony Ericsson's new handset has an eye-catching form factor with a screen that rotates 180 degrees to expose the keypad. The mobile itself is relatively bulky (4.2 by 1.9 by 1.0 inches; 4.8 ounces), so it won't fit in smaller pockets. On the plus side, you're given an eye-popping 262,000-color display that measures a generous 2.25 inches diagonally. The screen is among the best we've seen on a cell phone, though it is vulnerable to smudges and hard to see in direct light. Also, on a related note, the backlighting time and text size can't be changed.
Resting just below the screen on the swivel's hinge are the main navigation controls. While the menus themselves are easy to understand, we were divided on the overall design of the controls. The silver buttons are set far enough apart, but they're slippery and not terribly tactile. A five-way navigation toggle can be set as a shortcut to four user-defined functions, but we lamented the lack of dedicated Talk and End buttons. Instead, two soft keys place and end calls; you also get a Back button and a Clear key. We were glad to see that the front face easily swivels in either direction, but to make use of the navigation buttons, the screen's orientation does not flip. As a result, you must turn the phone over in your hand when opening and closing. Once open, the keypad buttons were large enough for big hands. But as they are set flush with the surface of the phone, it's difficult to dial by feel.
The handset's backside is styled to resemble a camera--a nice touch for a megapixel camera phone. A handy sliding cover exposes the lens and a self-portrait mirror, while the flash sits to the side. Opening the cover activates the camera automatically, but the swivel must be in the closed position. When the S710a is held horizontally (the display doubles as a viewfinder), the camera shutter button on the mobile's right side instead lies on the top of the handset--just as it would on a standalone camera. Also on the right side are the Memory Stick Duo slot and a volume rocker, while the infrared port and a nifty key-lock toggle are on the left side. A rubber door on the bottom of the phone covers the ports for the headset and the charger.The Sony Ericsson S710a comes packed with features that should please more-demanding users. We're hesitant to call it a true smart phone, though, because it uses Sony Ericsson's standard OS. While that may be fine for some people, smart phone fanatics may find the interface too basic. The 582-name phone book is rather small, but it holds an impressive amount of information for each contact, and the SIM card takes an additional 250 names. In each entry, you can save five phone numbers, e-mail and Web addresses, a business title and address, and notes. You can also enter your own information on an electronic "business card," which you can then send wirelessly. Contacts can be stored with caller groups, or they can be paired with a picture and any of seven polyphonic (40-chord), one monophonic, or seven MP3 ring tones.
Organizer features are plentiful. You get a calendar, a task list, a notepad, an alarm clock, a timer, a stopwatch, a calculator, and a secure area for holding passwords. Other features also were attractive. The phone comes with a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, instant messaging, a voice recorder, support for POP3 and IMAP4 e-mail, an infrared port, Bluetooth, PC syncing, and a USB port.
The S710's 1-megapixel camera ranks as one of the most user-friendly implementations we've seen on a cell phone. In addition to the cool cameralike ergonomics, the menus are arranged horizontally on the bottom of the display. It's yet another nice touch that makes the S710a fun and simple to use. You can take pictures in four resolutions (1,280x960, 640x480, 320x240, and 160x120) and use the 8X digital zoom, a self-timer, a flash, and a multishot option. Image-editing options include a night mode, four picture effects, and four white-balance settings. You also can choose from three shutter sounds, but there's no silent option. You can take as many pictures as will fit on the 32MB of shared memory or tap into the Memory Stick Duo slot.
The camera records MPEG-4 videos with sound. Length is limited by the available memory, and clips can be shot at 176x144 or 128x96. Because editing options are similar to those in photo mode, we had much more to play with compared to other video phones. We also like that you can set the camera to turn off automatically after a few minutes of inactivity. The additional multimedia options pleased us as well. You get Music DJ for composing your own ring tones, and the handset can play MP3s.
The S710a can be personalized with a variety of wallpaper, themes, screensavers, and start-up animations. The mobile comes with two Java (J2ME)-enabled games (Darts and Super Real Tennis), but more of all the above are available for download.We tested the triband (GSM 850/1800/1900) Sony Ericsson S710a in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was very good, with plenty of volume and clarity. We had few problems maintaining a signal, but callers could tell we were using a cell phone. Sound quality for the music was fine--nothing like a standalone MP3 player, but it will do in a pinch. We were very impressed, however, by the sound quality through the included stereo headphones. Moreover, we had no problem pairing the mobile to the Logitech Mobile Freedom Bluetooth headset and enjoyed good call quality.
Battery life was mixed. Though we managed a strong six hours of continuous talk time (one hour short of the promised talk time), the battery petered out quickly when making a series of calls. Standby time was 9 days, compared with the promised time of 12.5 days. According to the FCC, the S710a has a digital SAR rating of 0.88 watts per kilogram.