When designing cell phones for its Walkman line, Sony Ericsson likes to spread the love around. While most of its music handsets are high-end models with fancy features, the company has made an effort to offer budget options as well. Though they have the full Walkman players, these basic models have scaled-down features and minimalist designs. The Sony Ericsson W350a is the latest phone in this group. Like the Sony Ericsson W200a and Sony Ericsson W300i, the W350a delivers on music, but it's not so successful on other fronts. We had quite a few issues with its design, and its photo and call quality weren't completely up to par. As such, we don't recommend it as a Walkman phone. The W350a is available with AT&T for free with service or you can buy it unlocked for about $175.
With straight lines and sharp corners, the Sony Ericsson W350a is just about a perfect rectangle, albeit a thin one at 4.7 inches by 1.7 inches by 0.4 inch. Sony Ericsson never jumped fully onto the slim phone bandwagon but the W350a certainly qualifies. It fits neatly in a pocket and it weighs just 2.8 ounces. The W350a comes in three color schemes: electric black, ice blue, and organic white. We reviewed the black model but the features are the same on both models.
The W350a has an attractive display. At 1.8 inches, it's large for phone's overall size and its 262,144-color resolution makes it easy on the eyes. Colors were bright and vibrant and the text was easy to read. The interface is intuitive and you can choose from a number of menus styles. You can adjust the brightness as well.
Unfortunately, that is the limit of the design highlights. To begin with, the W350s is covered in a plastic shell that feels rather flimsy in the hand. This is not a phone we'd want to bang around. But more importantly, we were confounded by the W350a's strange flap that covers the handset's navigation array and keypad. Since you must tilt the flap down to access the handset's controls, it makes the rectangular W350a something of a candy bar/flip phone hybrid. Also, when the flap is closed, it protects the numeric keypad while presenting a dedicated set of Walkman controls. In fact, when the handset is closed it looks like standalone MP3 player.
Though it's an interesting and unique idea, the execution isn't so great. We like the idea of dedicated Walkman controls, especially when they allow you to play/pause tunes and scroll through your playlists, but on the W350a those controls aren't real buttons. Instead, when you press the controls you're actually pushing through to the numeric keypad to make the command. What's more, the Walkman controls are flush and feel rather fragile.
The construction of the flap made us worry about its long-term durability. Not only is the hinge loose but the flap also doesn't lock into place when it's open. And considering you must open the flap to do anything besides play music, we're worried that it would wear out fast. You can remove the flap completely if you like, though we're certain that Sony Ericsson wouldn't recommend it. And on a final note, when you close the flap the Walkman player begins automatically. We found no way to change that setting, which is annoying.
The keypad buttons and navigation array were disappointing as well. Though the five-way toggle is clad in bright silver, it is completely flat and rather slippery. Indeed, we found it best to use our fingernail. The toggle doubles as a shortcut to four user-defined functions, or you can use it to control the Walkman player when the flap is open. The remaining navigation controls, which consist of two soft keys, a back button, and a clear/power key, are slightly beveled but they're also slick with a cheap plastic feel. The same goes for the keypad buttons--though they have tactile definition, they didn't feel comfortable or sturdy beneath our fingers. On the upside, the numbers on the keys are large and the backlighting is bright.
Completing the exterior of the phone are a volume rocker on the right spine and a dedicated Walkman control on the left spine. Both controls are much too thin, particularly the volume rocker. The handset-locking switch on the phone's top end is rather handy, however, since it lets you secure the phone with one touch. On the W350a's back side are its speaker and camera lens. There's no self-portrait mirror so vanity shots will be tricky. The W350a offers a Memory Stick micro slot but you must remove the battery cover and the battery to access it, which is inconvenient. The charger/headset port rests on the left spine below the Walkman control.
The W350a has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail, Web address, job title, company name, work address, birthday, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can save contacts to groups, and pair them with a photo and one of 26 polyphonic and MP3 ringtones for caller ID. Video ringtones are also available if you wish. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, a voice memo recorder, text and multimedia messaging, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a notepad, a timer, a speakerphone (usable after you make a call), a stopwatch, and a calculator.
Beyond the basics you'll also find Bluetooth with a stereo profile, e-mail, PC syncing, a file manager, USB mass storage, and a code memo for storing sensitive information. An additional two applications are included--a unit converter and Music Mate 2. The latter lets you use the W350a to play notes on a virtual guitar or keyboard, or use the phone as metronome.
The W350's music player is similar to other Walkman phones, though the feature set is not as plentiful. Settings are limited to an equalizer, playlists, and shuffle and loop modes. The interface is plain but intuitive; you can select to see album art or choose one of two color skins. There's also an airplane mode for listening to your tunes while aloft, an FM radio, and a Music ID application. The W350a doesn't offer the Sony Ericsson "shake control" feature, though. Loading music on the phone is relatively easy using the included USB cable and the Disc2Phone software, which can be clunky but works well most of the time. The W350a offers a tiny 14MB of internal memory, so we suggest getting a memory card.
The W350a's 1.3-megapixel camera shoots photos in three sizes and two quality settings. Editing options are pared down from other Walkman phones but you get a usable selection. They include three color effects, a night mode, white balance and brightness adjustments, a 4x digital zoom, a self-timer and a multishot mode, and four shutter sounds (there's no silent option). Photo quality was just average. Colors were faded and images had a lot of noise. The W350a does not offer a camcorder but it can play videos that you load onto the phone. And befitting the W350a's budget image, there's no MusicDJ application.
You can personalize the W350a with a variety of themes, wallpaper, screensavers, and alert tones. More options and ringtones are available from Sony Ericsson with the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Or for more fun, the phone comes with a Music DJ application for composing your own ringtones. Gamers can enjoy three Java (J2ME) titles: Extreme Air Snowboarding, Guitar Rock Tour, and QuadraPop with additional titles available for purchase.
We tested the W350a in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was serviceable but it was far short of admirable. Voices sound natural and the volume was relatively loud, but there was a fair amount of static on our end. It occurred in a random pattern but it was prevalent enough to be a concern. Also, we occasionally heard a slight echo.
On their end callers said we sound fine, though a few said we sounded as if we were speaking through a screen. Not all our friends reported that, but everyone could tell we were using a cell phone. Automated calling systems could understand us but it was best if we were speaking in a quiet room.
Speakerphone calls were worse, unfortunately. The single speaker on the rear face isn't in the best location. The volume output was low and the speaker had a background buzz. Our callers could hear us only when we were talking close to the phone. Bluetooth headset calls were better, but not by much.
Music quality through the speaker was about the same. The output was weak and our tunes were marred by a similar background buzz. You'll get the best experience through a headset. Just remember that the W350a, like all Sony Ericsson phones, uses a proprietary headset jack. If you want to use you own headset, you'll have to use 2.5mm adapter.
The Sony Ericsson W350a has a rated battery life of seven hours talk time and 12.5 days standby time. Our tests revealed a talk time of 11 hours and 47 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the W350a has a digital SAR of 1.48 watts per kilogram, which is rather high.