Sometimes, we get excited about the little things. For example, when we first saw the Sony Ericsson W995a at GSMA 2009 we got excited not because it has an 8.1-megapixel camera and a Walkman player--we've seen those before--but because it had a 3.5-millimeter headset jack and kickstand. Yes, we know that those features may seem insignificant when compared with a flashy media player, but as usability goes, you can't top them. The kickstand lets you prop the phone on a table and the standard jack lets you use your own headset. Did we mention that the W995 is the first Sony Ericsson phone to give you such freedom?
Besides those high points, the W995a has other attractions, even if it's not the sexiest phone around. The display is brilliant, the media player performs well, and the feature set includes Wi-Fi, stereo Bluetooth, and GPS. It also is a full quad-band world phone that supports AT&T's 3G network. There were some things that we didn't love: the volume is low, some aspects of the design felt flimsy, and the unlocked W995a will put a serious crimp in your wallet. Without any carrier subsides, it cost about $600. You can get it in Sony Style stores and at SonyStyle.com. And as a bonus, Sony will help you hook up the phone for use with your carrier's multimedia services.
"Boxy" is the main word that comes to mind when you see the W995a. Though it's not unattractive by any means, the straight lines and sharp corners don't scale the heights of striking design. Despite its many features, the W995a manages to be rather compact (3.8 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick) and lightweight (4.0 ounces). The phone travels well and it has a solid feel, but we noticed that the slider mechanism wobbled just a bit. The W995a comes in progressive black, cosmic silver, and energetic red, though the features are the same on all models.
The W995a's real estate is dominated by a gorgeous 2.6-inch display. Supporting 16.7 million colors (320x240 pixels), it lends itself well to still graphics, photos, and simple animations. The menu interface is standard Sony Ericsson; you can choose from four styles, but we consider the list and grid options to be the most intuitive. You can adjust the brightness to your liking.
Sony Ericsson can stumble when designing navigation controls, but the W995's come off pretty well. The circular toggle and central OK button are large and pleasantly tactile. The surrounding navigation controls, which are shaped like half circles, are a bit small, but they're also raised above the surface of the phone. You'll find two soft keys, a clear button, and a control that activates a user-customizable shortcut menu. Spacious Talk and End/power keys sit on either side of its navigation array.
The keypad doesn't fare quite as well, unfortunately. The buttons are rather small and they have a slippery feel. Compared with other slider phones we could dial without looking, but it wasn't the most comfortable experience for rapid dialing or texting. Also, we're worried about long-term durability since the area that surrounds the keys "gives" just a bit when we pressed down. It's worth noting that a similar phone--the Sony Ericsson W580i--developed cracks over time.
On the left spine you'll find a Walkman player shortcut and the proprietary Sony Ericsson headset jack. We're hoping that before too long Sony Ericsson joins other manufacturers in moving to a standard Micro-USB charger connection. On the right spine are a camera shortcut, music player controls, and a volume rocker. The latter doubles as a zoom control for the camera, though it's a little too small for our tastes.
The 3.5-millimeter headset jack rests conveniently on the top of the phone between stereo speakers. You'll be able to use your own headset while carrying the phone in a pocket. On the rear side are the camera lens, flash, and kickstand. The former two are in the top-right corner so that the W995a resembles a standalone camera from behind. The camera controls are easily accessible when the phone is the horizontal position--just be sure to keep your fingers out of the way.
As we mentioned, you can use the kickstand to prop the W995 on a table without resting it against your hand or a book. It certainly makes for convenient media viewing, though the kickstand's hinge is rather loose. We'd prefer that it click into place in the open position. And for what it's worth, we'd like it even better if the display offered better video quality.
The W995's phone book accommodates a generous 1,000 contacts. Each entry stores seven phone numbers, an e-mail address, a company name and job title, two street addresses, a URL, a birthday, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can save callers to groups and you can pair them with one of 30 MP4 ringtones. If you're not happy with the selection that came on the W995a, you can use your music tracks to identify callers.
Essential features include text and multimedia messaging, a speakerphone, a vibrate mode, a task list, a notepad, a stopwatch, a notepad, a calendar, a calculator, and an alarm clock. More advanced options include Wi-Fi, USB mass storage, PC syncing, a voice recorder, instant messaging, a file manager, and a code memo for storing sensitive information.
The Bluetooth feature includes stereo and object exchange profiles. What's more, you can use it to send a personal business card or as a remote control for other Bluetooth-enabled devices. The W995 offers assisted GPS with support for Google Maps and a Web-based Wayfinder application for turn-by-turn directions. Overall, that's a decent selection of features, but on the downside, POP3 e-mail access requires a clunky Web interface.
As a Walkman phone, the W995a has a full service digital music player. It's not unlike other Walkman phones that came before it, but that's a good thing considering Sony Ericsson's respectable track record with music handsets. Settings include an airplane mode, an equalizer, playlists, stereo widening, and shuffle and loop modes. The interface is minimalist, but functional. You can set visualizations and the player supports album art, as well. Just keep in mind that it won't recognize every song it plays. The dedicated controls make for an ergonomic experience and we again thank Sony Ericsson for including the 3.5-millimeter headset jack.
As with a few of its Sony Ericsson siblings, the W995 is integrated with the "shake control" application. By holding down the Walkman button when music is playing, you can advance to the next track by flicking your wrist. It works quite well, though we didn't use it much. You also get the standard FM radio, though you will need a wired antenna to act as an antenna.
Loading music on the phone is relatively easy. The needed USB cable and the PC Media Go software are included, which means you're saved the pain of shelling out more money for a music kit. The Sony Ericsson software can be a bit clunky, so we're glad that you can also drag and drop music from your PC to the phone. You also can bypass the software and sync music with Windows Media Player. Internal memory isn't excessive--you're limited to 118MB of shared space. The W995a's Memory Stick Micro slot will accommodate cards up to 8GB, but you'll need to remove the battery cover to access it.
The 8.1-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions and two quality settings. Editing options are quite extensive. You'll find four color effects, a self-timer, a macro setting, four white balance choices, a brightness adjustment, an infinite mode (disables the autofocus for pictures taken at a distance), spot metering, a 16x digital zoom, an image stabilizer, 12 frames, multishot and night modes, an option for taking panoramic shots, and four shutter sounds. You can turn off the flash or you can keep it on and use it as a flashlight. An auto-rotate feature changes the orientation of the display as you tilt from portrait to landscape.
Sony Ericsson also added a couple of unique options. With face detection, the camera will shoot automatically when it detects a subject's face in the frame. On a similar vein, the smile detection feature shoots automatically when it finds a smile. Rounding out the selections are settings for twilight landscape, landscape, portrait, beach/snow, sports, and document 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 20 seconds, but you can shoot for much longer in normal mode. Photo quality is quite good with bright colors and little image noise. On the other hand, video quality was just average. Photo DJ and Video DJ applications give you a bit of freedom for editing your work. If you're not the creative type, you can watch videos with the integrated YouTube application.
The W995a comes with a solid assortment of applications, many of which center on music. Track ID will find the names of unfamiliar songs: MusicDJ lets you compose ringtones; Music Quiz will grill you on trivia; and the silly Rock Bobblehead app lets you control a cartoon Elvis-like figure by shaking the phone. Music Mate 5 is an interactive music app that plays guitar and piano chords and background beats. You also can use the phone's motion sensor to play various drum sounds.
We also found some thoroughly offbeat selections. The Sound Sensor app measures sound with visualization graphics; Voice Transformer takes voice recordings and warps them with a selection of effects like robot or high-pitch; Walk Mate turns the phone into a pedometer; and Comeks Strips transforms a selection of photos into a comic strip. The Voice Transformer was the most fun, but we can't imagine using the others more than once.
You can personalize the W995a with a variety of screensavers, clock sizes, themes, and wallpaper. More options, and additional ringtones, are available with the WAP 2.0 Web browser. Gamers get a nice selection of options. Game titles include Bowling, Bubble Town, Diamond Island, Guitar Rock Tour, NitroStreet Racing, Playman Extreme, and Real Football 2.
We tested the quad-band GSM (850/900/1800/1900) world phone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was fine, but it could be variable. Though voices sounded natural, the signal seemed to waver, particularly in buildings, and we noticed some occasional static and "GSM buzz." The volume level was also lower than we'd prefer. We had to turn up the phone to the highest level if we wanted to hear in noisy environments.
On their end, callers said we sounded fine, though most could tell that we were using a cell phone. Our friends didn't mention the static that we heard, but a few reported background noise when were talking on the street. Automated-calling systems could understand us as long as we were calling from a relatively quiet location. Speakerphone calls were just OK. The volume was much too quiet and we heard an echoed effect. On the upside, call quality over Bluetooth headsets was satisfactory.
The W995a supports EDGE and 3G services. It's a tri-band (UMTS; HSDPA 850/1800/1900) phone, so it is compatible with wireless broadband networks in Europe and North America. In places where carriers support the service, the W995a has video calling. The Web browser was zippy, but YouTube videos were average.
Music quality rated favorable with other Walkman phones. The external speakers have decent output, but as is usually the case with a music phone, our tunes lacked warmth. Also, music was tinny at the highest levels. A headset will provide the best experience. During transfers, music loaded on the phone relatively quickly.
The W995a has a rated talk time of nine hours with GSM and four hours with 3G. The W995a has a tested talk time of 9 hours and 45 minutes. Its promised standby battery life is 15.4 days with GSM and 15 days with 3G.