Sony Ericsson's first Walkman phone was the W800i, which we looked at back in August. The Walkman handset marches forward with the new W550i, a smaller, more youthful take on the concept that is in many ways a more desirable handset.
We found the W550i on O2 for free on various tariffs, the cheapest being £19 per month. It's available SIM-free online for around £230, and we expect to see it on pay as you go.
This handset certainly is orange, a burnt ochre that's been darkened up a little. But it's not all fiery orange -- the edges of the handset are silver, which helps tone things down. Still, if you don't like the main colour, which Sony Ericsson calls Vibrant Orange, you can snap the spare fascia in place, downshifting to a more subtle Orchid White. This loses the rather nice non-slip rubbery feel of the orange fascia, however.
The W550i's number pad is hidden away, so it looks like a slider, but in fact, like a confused breakdancer, it actually rotates. You swivel the handset around a navigation pad that sits beneath the screen to reveal the number pad. There's no getting away from orange here even if you choose to change the fascia -- tap a key and an orange glow emanates from behind the buttons.
The number keys are a disappointment as they don't feel very tactile. We don't like the navigation button either -- it just doesn't feel comfortable under the thumb. On the other hand, the front-located softmenu rockers, single buttons for Walkman software and Internet access, and side-mounted camera launch, volume/camera zoom rocker and play/pause buttons feel fine.
Most of the buttons are below the screen, but look carefully above it and you'll see a pair disguised as design features that come into play when you're gaming.
Tap the tiny power button that sits on the top edge and the screen bursts into action, giving you more orange in the wallpaper. The screen is relatively small, but with 262K colours and 176x220 pixels, it is sharp and bright.
The W550i feels chunky in the hand. The dimensions we quote on our specifications page relate to the handset in its closed position. Swivel it open and the story is different, with the handset becoming a lanky 140mm tall. Fortunately, you can do most things apart from manually dialling calls without bothering with the number pad.
In the box along with the W550i you get a PC connector cable and software for transferring tunes and other data, that spare fascia, and a stereo headset. The headset connector to the handset is proprietary, but at least Sony Ericsson has built a 3.5mm microphone halfway up the cable, so you can use your own headphones.
The W550i is much more than just a music handset, but that feature grabs the headlines. Just like the W800i, you can set it to function either in full handset mode or in music mode only. The latter is useful in situations where you can't have the GSM radio turned on, such as on aeroplanes.
The W550i's 256MB of built-in memory is about as far as tune storage capacity goes. Our handset had more than 230MB available when we switched it on for first use. But don't get too excited -- you can't expand the on-board memory. Although this handset's predecessor, the W800i, has a mere 34MB built in, it is bundled with a 512MB Memory Stick Pro Duo -- and you can replace it with a larger one if you want more music.
Sony Ericsson provides its Disc2Phone software to get tunes onto the W550i. The software is easy enough to install, and as we noted in our review of the W800i, it can automatically reduce the bit rate of ripped tracks in order to squeeze as much music as possible into the handset. We transferred an 11-track album in a shade under 3 minutes.
As well as music playback there is an FM radio which, just like the one in the W800i, supports RDS and self-tunes its 20 presets in the blink of an eye. You have to plug the headset in to use the radio, because it acts as the antenna, but you can play it through the handset's two speakers (one on the back and one on the right edge), as well as through the earphones.
For both radio and music listening, playback quality was reasonable, but nothing terribly special. A feature called 'stereo widening' improves the tone considerably, and the equaliser has noticeable effects, with Bass and MegaBass adding oomph, and the latter some distortion in the higher volume range. The speakers perform less well than the provided earphones, and for the best sound quality we used a headset of our own.
There's much more going on with this handset. Use the provided PC Suite software and you can synchronise calendar, contacts, tasks and notes using the provided cable or Bluetooth.
The camera is similar to the ones we've already seen in the W800i and the K750i, although the resolution is only 1.3 megapixels. Interestingly, you can only use it with the number pad hidden. This makes for neat ergonomics, with the side-mounted shutter button and volume/zoom rockers falling under right and left forefingers. The self-portrait mirror on the back is truly tiny, though, at just 4mm in diameter. It's very difficult to use it to frame a shot.
There are a few games on board, and the handset drops into landscape format to play these, making for a particularly console-like gaming experience.
As a music handset the W550i does reasonably well. Its 256MB of memory is certainly more than you'll get on many handsets, but it suffers from the absence of expansion-card support. The Disc2Phone software looks rudimentary but does its job. Sound quality is so-so rather than wonderful, though, and hardened music fans won't want to ditch their dedicated players. The camera took good quality stills.
Voice calls were fine, with good volume and connectivity. Battery life was great too. We got through one working week without needing to recharge, and on one of the days of our review period we spent all day listening to various music tracks and the radio and making calls without fully depleting the battery.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide