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AT&T gave Sony Ericsson fans a two-part surprise in July when the carrier introduced the Cyber-shot C905a and Walkman W518a. Sporting a familiar design and a music-friendly feature set, the W518a doesn't have the C905's high-end shooter, but it has its attractions. Music quality is respectable and you get a strong range of features, like stereo Bluetooth, GPS and third-party apps. On the downside, call quality was a mixed bag, the phone is sluggish, and the navigation controls and keypad are overly stylized. In short, this is a phone that you should test before buying. You can get it for just $49.99 with a two-year contract and a $50 mail-in rebate.
The Sony Ericsson W518a bears a striking resemblance to the unlocked Sony Ericsson W980. Both have a black skin, a flip phone design, and circular music controls below the external display. Yet, the W518a does show its own unique touches. To begin with, the external display is smaller and it comes in a monochrome resolution only. That means that while it still shows most essential information--the time, battery life, signal strength, and numeric caller ID--you don't get photo caller ID or the date and it won't work as a viewfinder for the external display. Also, the text size, which is not changeable, may be too small for some users.
The W518a's skin isn't quite as glossy as its predecessor's, but it still catches the light and shows fingerprints and smudges. You'll also notice that the music touch controls, while still circular, do not overlap as they do on the W980a. It makes no difference in usability, however, as the keys remain slick, with little tactile definition. And in another change, the W518a moves the camera lens from the back to the front. There is no camera or self-portrait mirror.
At 3.7 inches tall by 2 inches wide by 0.46 inch deep, the W518a is slightly taller and thinner than the W980a. The change should make no difference to the user, particularly since the W518a also weighs 3.5 ounces. Fortunately, the W518a's battery cover is much easier to remove, though we couldn't help notice that it feels wispy in the hand. It's not a huge deal, but it's one worth noting. We suggest that you try it out for yourself.
The internal display measures 2.25 inches and supports 262,144 colors (320x240 pixels). Like most Sony Ericsson displays, it's bright, with vibrant colors and sharp graphics. You can change the brightness only, but you can choose from list and icon menus styles. Both are simple and intuitive.
Unfortunately, Sony Ericsson reverts to its bad habits with the W518's navigation controls. In an effort to be stylish, the W518 skips over usability. The circular toggle and central OK button are slick and barely raised above the surface of the phone. Also, we don't like that the OK button defaults to the Web browser when in standby mode. It's a similar story with the Talk and End/power controls, the two soft keys, and the Clear button; they're designated by thin silver ridges that aren't very tactile. Indeed, navigation was tricky at times. On the upside, you can program the toggle with four shortcuts and you can customize a separate shortcuts menu.
The keypad buttons are better, but not by much. The individual keys are small and the silver border that surrounds each button is almost flush. The backlighting could also be brighter. Though we didn't have any misdials, they keys aren't very comfortable for rapid texting and dialing. The remaining controls consist of a handset locking switch and a thin volume rocker on the right spine. The proprietary headset/charger jack sits on the left spine. It's disappointing that Sony Ericsson didn't offer us a standard 3.5 millimeter headset jack, as the company did with the W995a. It's also too bad that you have to remove the battery cover to access the Memory Stick Micro slot.
The W518a has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for seven phone numbers, an e-mail, Web address, job title and company name, two street addresses, a birthday, and notes. You can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 19 ringtones. Besides polyphonic melodies, you also can save MP3s as ringtones and use videos as ringtones. Just keep in mind that the video or photos won't show on the external display. You can save an additional 250 names to the SIM card.
Basic features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, an alarm clock, a speakerphone, a task list, a notepad, a timer, a stopwatch, a calculator, a unit converter, a tip calculator, and a world clock. Higher maintenance users can access a file manager, a voice recorder, voice commands and dialing, PC syncing, USB mass storage, integrated GPS with AT&T Navigator, Web-based POP3 e-mail, instant messaging, a password saver for storing sensitive information, and full Bluetooth with a stereo profile. You also can use the Bluetooth feature as a remote control for other Bluetooth-equipped devices.
Sony Ericsson typically packs its phones with a host of native and third-party applications and the W518a is no exception. You'll find YellowPages Mobile, Facebook, JuiceCaster, Mobile Banking, MobiTV and MobiVJ, Music ID, Music DJ, MyCast weather, WikiMoibile, and an app for composing your own ringtones.
The W518's Walkman player offers the usual assortment of features, like an equalizer, playlists, stereo widening, an airplane mode, podcasts and audio books, and shuffle and loop modes. The interface is minimalist, but functional. You can set visualizations, but the player supports album art, as well. Just keep in mind that it won't recognize every song it plays. Like with the W980's, the W518a's display will change orientation automatically as you rotate from portrait to landscape. Loading music on the phone is relatively easy using a USB cable (not included). If radio is your thing, you'll find an XM Radio app and a standard FM radio.
Media mavens can access AT&T's Cellular Video service, which offers tons of streaming-video content, and AT&T Mobile Music, which brings wireless song downloads through a variety of partners. The experience on the two applications is similar to that on other AT&T phones--minimalist but intuitive.
The handset's 3.2-megapixel camera is similar to the W980's. Options include four picture sizes, two quality settings, three color effects, a night mode, four white balance modes, a self-timer, adjustable brightness, a digital zoom (usable only at the VGA resolution), and four shutter sounds, plus a silent option. It also offers 15 fun frames, a multishot mode, and an option for taking panoramic shots.
The camcorder takes clips with sound and offers a set of editing options similar to the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 47 seconds; otherwise you can shoot for as long as the memory permits. The W518a has PhotoDJ and VideoDJ applications, and you tag photos with a location. Photo quality was quite good, with sharp colors and little image noise. Just keep in mind that you'll need adequate light, given that the W518a has no flash. The W518a has about 82MB of user-accessible memory, with additional storage space available on a memory card.
The W518a supports both shake control and gesture control. The former allows you to shuffle music tracks by pressing the external play control and shaking the phone with your wrist. You can control the volume level with a similar motion. Though you may look a bit silly doing it in public, the features work well. We'll leave it up to you to decide just how useful it is. Gesture control allows you to silence music or ringtones by waving your hand about 3 inches in front of the camera lens. It's a little temperamental, but it works most of the time.
You can personalize the W518a with a variety of themes, wallpaper, screensavers, and clock styles. As always, you can purchase more options and ringtones from Sony Ericsson or AT&T's Media Net via the WAP 2.0 Web browser. Gamers can enjoy four Java (J2ME) titles: Guitar Hero World Tour, i-play Bowling, Monopoly Here and Now, and Wheel of Fortune, with additional titles available for purchase.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) W518a in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was pretty good overall. The signal was strong and free of static and we suffered no interference from other devices. Voice quality wasn't quite as sharp, unfortunately. Though callers sounded relatively natural, the audio sounded slightly fuzzy. We could hear our friends plainly, though there was an audible hiss during most calls. It didn't distract from our experience completely, and you might not hear it at all, but we recommend that you test this phone before buying. If AT&T doesn't have working display models in the store that you visit, ask the salesperson to test an actual handset. The volume was a tad low as well, but we could hear in most environments.
On their end, callers said we sounded fine. They could tell that we were using a cell phone, which isn't unusual, but most could hear us plainly. Some of our friends mentioned the audible hiss, but a few didn't notice it at all. Speakerphone calls were about average: the external speaker has weak output and the voice quality is tinny. Also, we had to speak close to the phone if we wanted to be heard.
Music quality over the Walkman player was up to the usual Sony Ericsson standards, provided you use headphones. The experience won't quite rival a standalone MP3 player, but it's perfectly fine for many occasions. The external speaker is decent, but not great. Though our tunes did get pretty loud--louder than speakerphone calls--the audio is distorted at the highest volumes.
At the time of this writing we were unable to test streaming-video quality. We could connect to the service, but we weren't able to play video. Similarly, the 3G connection (UMTS/HSDPA) was shaky at best. The Cellular Video service, and many Web sites, took a long time to load. The phone does drop back to GSM and EDGE if 3G is unavailable, but that's annoying when you're in a 3G area.
We also found the W518a to be rather sluggish when navigating menus and opening applications. At times, the W518a even froze for a few seconds. That's not a good sign.
The W518a has a rated battery life of 10 hours talk time and 4 hours 3G talk time. The promised standby time is 14.6 days. It has an impressive talk time of 12 hours and 29 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the W518a has a digital SAR rating of 0.73 watts per kilogram.