Last year, Sony Ericsson took a break from its typical sleek candy bar handsets to introduce its first flip phone, the Z600, and truth be told, we were disappointed by its bulkiness and lack of style. Fortunately, the company cleaned up its act with the Z500a, which sports a slimmer and more attractive design. The handset also boasts a VGA camera with video recording, a media player with support for streaming music and video, and solid call quality. But it's not without its faults. For such a multimedia-oriented phone, the Sony Ericsson Z500a could use a better screen and more memory. At $179.99, the phone is fairly priced, but you should be able to find it for less with service.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. The Sony Ericsson Z500a's look is simple at best, but it shows off a streamlined design and clean lines. The two-tone silver coloring is classic, but we were a little weary of the plastic casing, which doesn't feel particularly durable. If you care to customize your Z500a, the handset supports changeable faceplates. At 3.6 by 1.9 by 1 inches and 3.9 ounces, the mobile is just a hair smaller than the Z600, and it fits snugly in a jeans pocket. The Sony Ericsson is also noticeably longer than some flip phones we've tested, but that said, the Z500a is still comfortable to use.
On the front cover, you'll find a postage stamp-size external screen that is surrounded by a mirrored face. The 4,000-color display shows the time, date, signal strength, battery life, and caller ID (where available). If you have your phone on power-save mode, the backlighting goes completely dark after the set time. You can go into the Settings menu and change it to always stay on, but it will rapidly drain your battery. Above the screen is the camera lens. There is no flash or lens cover, but you can use the external screen as a viewfinder for self-portraits when the flip is closed.
Flip open the phone, and there lies the 1.75-inch-diagonal, 65,000-color screen. The display size is adequate for viewing Web pages and working the user-friendly menus; unfortunately, images and text appear washed out and even pale in comparison to those of mobiles with the same color support. Also, be advised that you can't change the text size, and the screen seems to disappear in direct light. The five-way navigation toggle didn't please us, either. The circular keypad is rather small and set flush with the surface of the phone, making it difficult to select the correct directional button. We often pressed the center OK button by mistake; users with large hands should especially take care. There are also two soft keys, a Back button for leaving the menu, and a Clear button. Since the Z500a is on the larger side, the numerical keypad is well spaced, and we had no problems with misdials. Plus, the orange backlight is adequate for dialing in darker environments. A shortcut key to the Web and a power-on/off button reside below the dial pad.
On the left spine is a dedicated camera button, which we always appreciate, as well as a volume rocker. One note: You must press and hold down the camera button to launch the camera. It doesn't automatically turn on with a quick punch of the key. There is a sole shortcut key on the right side that you can program to open any application.With a quick survey of the Sony Ericsson Z500a's feature set, you'll notice an entertainment and multimedia theme. Tackling the basics first, the mobile has a 510-name phone book (you can save an additional 250 contacts on your SIM card) with room in each entry for five numbers; Web, e-mail, and home addresses; and notes. In addition, you can assign each entry to a group, as well as associate them with a picture or any of 10 polyphonic (40-chord) ring tones for caller-ID purposes. Other goodies include a vibrate mode, a speakerphone, text and multimedia messaging, support for POP3 and IMAP4 e-mail and AOL instant messaging, a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, a calendar, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, tasks, and other organizer functions. Professionals will especially appreciate the EDGE support for faster data transfer, as well as the capability to make conference calls and send business card information via a text or multimedia message. However, users may be dismayed by the lack of Bluetooth and an infrared port.
The integrated VGA camera takes pictures in 640x480, 320x240, or 160x120 resolution, and you can personalize them with four effects or 21 fun frames. Other camera highlights include a brightness meter, a choice of two quality settings, a 4X zoom that works at only the lowest resolution (2X zoom available at midlevel setting), a self-timer, a night mode, and picture rotation. There are, however, no shutter-sound options. You don't get a mirror, but the phone can take pictures when the flip is closed, and the external screen acts as a viewfinder for self-portraits. Photo quality was good, with sharp, crisp images; once you've snapped your masterpiece, you can set it as a screensaver or wallpaper, send it as an e-mail or multimedia message, or save it to the phone's paltry 6MB of internal memory.
The video recorder takes MPEG-4 clips with sound in 176x144 or 128x96 resolution. You have the same choice of night mode and four effects, but the fun frames are unavailable. The quality of video wasn't great, and it certainly won't replace your standalone camcorder, but it's a nice option to have just for kicks. You can select two clip lengths: 15 seconds or whatever fits on the available memory.
For the entertainment starved, there's more. The built-in media player supports MP3, MP4, and WAV files so that you can snack on some tunes, and you can stream music and videos from the Web. We watched a video on the device and were surprised by the clarity and overall good quality of the streaming media. For the aspiring DJ, there is the MusicDJ application, which lets you create your own ring tones, complete with drum beats, guitar riffs, melodic keyboards, and blaring horns. The phone conveniently has a file manager where you can store all your multimedia files.
You can customize the Z500a with a variety of wallpaper, themes, and screensavers. The phone supports Java (J2ME)-enabled games and comes with demo versions of BlockBreaker and 3D Field Golf. Additional ring tones, games, graphics, and apps are available through Cingular's Media Mall.We tested the triband (GSM 850/1800/1900) Sony Ericsson Z500a in San Francisco on the Cingular Wireless network, and call quality was solid. Callers said they could tell we were using a mobile but that we sounded clear and volume was adequate. The speakerphone was a standout, as callers remarked they could hear no echoes or background hiss.
Battery life was admirable. We beat the promised talk time of six hours by an extra hour. We fell short of the rated standby life of 10 days, but that's still a good time. According to the FCC, the Z500a has a digital SAR rating of 1.45 watts per kilogram.