Last year when Sony Ericsson introduced the W380a, we were pretty excited that Sony Ericsson introduced a Walkman phone specifically for North America. It's not that we haven't seen Walkman phones here--indeed, AT&T has offered a few--but the W380a was exciting because Sony Ericsson gave it to us first. Now, six months later, the W380a has finally arrived on our desk. It has its plusses and minuses--and it's a decent phone on the whole--but in a contest we'd prefer the W580i. The W380a is available unlocked for $249.99.
The W380a has a standard flip phone design that measures 3.6 inches by 1.9 inches by 0.6 inch and weighs 3.5 ounces. It's compact and portable, and it has a comfortable feel in the hand. Sony Ericsson was fairly late to the thin-phone craze, but we figure better late than never. The W380a is available in both purple and gray; we examined the gray handset but both models are otherwise the same.
The front face of the W380a is rather unique. Its most prominent feature is the dedicated music controls that run vertically up the left side. Though the controls are touch-sensitive, they're marked by Braille-like dots, which make them tactile and easy to use by feel. It's something we haven't seen before, and it works well. At the top of the phone are a speaker and a large camera lens. There's no flash or self-portrait mirror.
Though you might think the W380a doesn't have an external display, you just have to look a bit harder to find it. As it is hidden behind the phone's front face, the monochrome screen is visible only when the backlighting is on. Unfortunately, the effect is rather underwhelming. Not only are the characters on the display rather small, but they're also the slightest bit blurry. Users with visual impairments should test this phone before buying. The rectangular display shows the battery life, signal strength, time and numeric caller ID, but it won't show photo caller ID. But on the other hand, it will display the current music track when you're listening to tunes with the phone closed.
The only other exterior features are a headset jack on the left side and a volume rocker on the right. You also can use the volume rocker to activate the external display when the backlighting is off. On the back of the phone is a slider for locking the external controls. It's certainly convenient, but we felt that it's in an odd location. The W380a also offers a Memory Stick Micro card slot, but you must remove the battery cover to access it.
Inside the W380a you'll find a bright 262,000-color display (220x176 pixels). At 1.8 inches, it's a decent size even if we felt it could be just a tad bigger. Yet the good news is that it falls in line with other Sony Ericsson displays; colors were vibrant and graphics were detailed. What's more, the standard Sony Ericsson menus are easy to use.
Below the display is the spacious navigation array. There's a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, a back control, and a clear button. Though the controls are flush, they remain easy to use. We could use the toggle by feel, and the OK button's bright teal color helps in dim situations. A Web browser control, a dedicated power button, and a shortcut key sit between the navigation array and the keypad buttons. We're always fans of shortcuts, but this row of keys could be a bit bigger.
The flush keypad wasn't the best we've seen. Though the arrangement is spacious and the numbers on the keys are large, the plastic buttons feel the slightest bit cheap. Also, we didn't like the dim backlighting or the way the keys blend in with the color of the phone's skin. This is another area that users with visual impairments should check out first.
The W380a has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, both an e-mail and a Web address, a job title, a company name and work address, a home address, a birthday, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can save contacts to groups and pair them with a photo and any of 14 polyphonic ringtones for caller ID. 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 stopwatch, and a calculator. More demanding users will find Bluetooth, PC syncing, a speakerphone (usable after you make a call), USB mass storage, and a code memo for storing sensitive information.
The music player on the W380a is similar to other Walkman handsets. Unlike the W580i, it offers no visualizations or album art, but the interface is simple and easy to use. Settings include playlists, an equalizer with four settings as well as Sony's Mega Bass, and shuffle and loop modes. You'll also a Music ID application and an FM radio.
To load music, you use the included USB cable and the Disc2Phone software. The software is improved over the previous clunky version; we like the slicker interface and the easier phone navigation. Internal memory is 14MB, which is far too small. We recommend using a Memory Stick Micro card for additional storage space. The W380a has an airplane mode for listening to your tunes while in the air.
The W380a's 1.3-megapixel camera shoots photos in three sizes (1-megapixel, standard VGA, and QVGA). Other options include two quality settings, three color effects, a night mode, white-balance and brightness adjustments, multishot options, a self-timer, a 4x digital zoom (unusable at the highest resolution), and four shutter sounds (however, there's no silent option). Photo quality was acceptable. Colors looked natural but the lighting was dim and smaller objects were blurry. Oddly, the W380a has a video player but it lacks a video recorder.
You can personalize the W380a with a variety of color themes, wallpaper, and screensavers. If the options included on the phone aren't enough, you can purchase more with the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. You also can download more ringtones or create your own using the MusicDJ application. Extreme Air Snowboarding, QuadraPop, and The Sims 2 are the included Java (J2ME) games, but you can buy more.
We tested the triband (GSM 850/1800/1900) Sony Ericsson W380a in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was respectable, on the whole. The audio clarity was fine and voices sounded natural, but we noticed that the volume could be somewhat louder. We didn't have any issues most of the time, but when we were using the phone in a noisy place, we had to make sure the volume was high. If you have hearing impairments, this may not be the phone for you. On the network side, we had no troubles getting a signal in the city.
On their end, callers said we sounded fine. Like us, they didn't encounter clarity or static problems, but they also said they had trouble hearing us at times. In particular, a few reported that the W380a picked up a fair amount of background noise. Callers could tell we were using a cell phone, but that's not unusual. Speakerphone calls were mostly clear, but the volume on our end was rather weak.
The Walkman music player offers the best performance through headphones. The W380a's external speaker gives only moderate output, and our music sounded rather tinny.
The W380a has a rated battery life of seven hours talk time and 15.5 days standby time. In our tests, the W380a had a talk time of 8 hours and 57 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the W380a has a digital digital SAR rating of 0.69 watts per kilogram.