Here at iMobile.com.au we’ve had our fair share of Walkman phones to review. But the subject of today’s focus, the W950i, is the first Walkman phone we’ve played with that’s based on the Symbian operating system with the UIQ interface. This effectively makes the W950i a smartphone, with the ability to install extra applications in the phone’s 60 megabytes of user memory.
But that’s not all – the W950i completely forgoes a camera module to include a whopping four gigabytes of flash memory to support the Walkman music player. This allows for a music collection of up to 1000 songs and rivals the capacity of the iPod Nano. At the same time the W950i is a fully-featured device with 3G UMTS and GSM triband connectivity, a large 2.6 inch QVGA touch screen, Bluetooth connectivity with A2DP, Java and email messaging.
We tested the W950i using Vodafone’s 3G network to see how it performed in the areas of call quality, battery life and signal reception.
By far and large the W950i’s four gigabytes of internal flash memory is a jaw-dropper. Until recently the only devices sporting that type of memory storage were handsets with built in hard drives – Nokia’s N91 and Samsung’s i300x being typical examples.
However, flash memory is a far more desirable type of storage medium to use in phones, which are subject to more abuse than a hard drive’s typical environment, a computer. Phones are typically dropped, walked on or even kicked by the most careless of us. Hard drives are fragile devices, especially when they’re operating – one drop from even a low height can be enough to kill a hard drive for good.
Flash memory has none of these disadvantages, and also benefits from faster access and data transfer speeds. Until now the only barrier to adoption of large amounts of flash memory in a single device was cost, but Sony Ericsson seems to have overcome this issue.
In addition the W950i isn’t just any phone, but a smartphone with the Symbian operating system at its core. This allows for applications designed for UIQ version 3.0 to be loaded into the W950i, although older applications seem to be incompatible with it.
Add an FM radio, Bluetooth with music streaming, 3G UMTS networking and a fully fledged media player to take advantage of all that memory, and the W950i makes for an awesome device on paper, if not for the missing camera.
The W950i uses a candybar form factor and therefore is a large device – it measures 106 x 54 x 15 millimetres, putting it in the vicinity of the Nokia N73 and small PDAs such as the Dopod 838 Pro. It weighs 112 grams, which is respectable considering the features the W950i includes. It has an internal antenna and is clad in purple-coloured plastic with silver lining on the sides.
There really isn’t much to the exterior of the W950i. Virtually all the action is on the front of the phone, where you’ll find the 2.6 inch touch-screen LCD and the 14 button keypad – the 12 number buttons with a Walkman shortcut key and a clear key. On the phone’s left is a jog dial and back button, while on the right is a volume rocker switch and play/stop button for the Walkman player. At the top is the power switch, infra-red port and stylus housing, while the bottom of the phone houses Sony Ericsson’s fast port interface socket for charging, headsets and data cable connections. The back of the phone is rather bare without a camera, with only the Sony Ericsson logo, an antenna cable connector and the battery cover to be found. The battery cover takes up the bottom half of the phone and is firmly locked in. Removing it reveals the battery itself, while the SIM card slot, like many other recent phones, is housed beneath the top half of the phone and north of the battery.
Speaking of which, the tray mechanism for the SIM card slot has been built in such a way that it’s almost impossible to remove a SIM card after it’s been inserted. You’re meant to drag out a piece of metal above the card, which pulls the card out with it. Then you push the metal back in, which leaves the card out, and then you pull it out. It sounds simple, except that for my large fingers there’s no way to properly grip the card. It took minutes of fighting with the phone before I was able to remove a SIM card. Perhaps a click-in solution such as those used for memory card slots might have been a better idea.
Going back to the front of the phone, the keypad isn’t like other phone solutions but resembles the one the Motorola RAZR has. It’s a flat sheet of plastic with button designations drawn onto it and small indents to indicate each button’s location by touch. In terms of implementation however, the W950i’s keypad is horrible. Each button has different levels of resistance to being pushed, with some ‘clicking’ more easily than others. The clear button wouldn’t click at all. When typing messages I would always make mistakes because I didn’t know which keys were being pressed or not, and some keys were harder to press than others.
In addition, the jog dial on the left of the phone scrolls with ease, but to use it as a confirmation button (by pushing it into the phone) is a difficult feat as it’s immensely stiff. Many times I’d try to push it and end up pushing one of the volume buttons on the phone’s right side because I was trying so hard to push the jog dial in the first place.
User interface & display
The W950i’s TFT LCD has a 2.6 inch diagonal (equal to about 6.5 centimetres) with 240x320 pixels of resolution and 262,144 colour support. The screen is touch sensitive, allowing you to select menu options on screen by pointing and touching them with a stylus. The screen is more than adequately bright indoors but fades to near darkness when used in direct sunlight. Brightness can be adjusted across a large range, with separate settings available for regular and car holder usage.
The UIQ user interface should be familiar to anyone who’s used the Motorola A1000 or Sony Ericsson P910i. However, there have been a few changes with the upgrade from UIQ 2 to 3.0, as well as changes made by Sony Ericsson itself. The interface resembles Sony Ericsson’s typical one for its regular phones, with status icons placed in a bar at the top and softkey options listed in a bar at the bottom of the screen. Mind you, there aren’t actually any soft keys – the stylus is used to select these on-screen buttons directly.
The standby screen displays the time and date, Walkman player status information, operator name and five shortcut icons that lead to the calendar, phonebook, web browser, messaging interface and main menu in that order. There’s also a today menu that lists any items of attention such as unread mail or upcoming calendar entries.
The main menu is a square grid of nine icons leading to the phone’s most used functions. Considering the size of the screen and the number of phone functions, I was surprised there weren’t more icons, or at least text labelling between each icon. Thankfully, you can convert the main menu to list mode so it appears like sub-menus do with identifier text. In addition, you can actually convert sub-menus into icon grid format to make them look like the main menu, although list format was just fine for me. Up to 10 menu items can be displayed in list mode thanks to the small font size. While it was fine for me, people with eyesight problems will have trouble reading the font. While I’ve been told this font size is adjustable, I’ve not been able to find the setting that makes it possible.
This brings me to the main problem of this interface – menu consistency. My test W950i was originally locked down to GSM only, and I wanted to enable 3G network connectivity. I thought it would be as simple as navigating to network settings and enabling 3G mode, but it was far more complicated. I looked around the tools menu and found an option for ‘Control Panel’, so I went for that. There I found a ‘Connections’ option, and then once inside that menu, an option for mobile networks. I opened this item, but it was only related to searching for an actual network, not changing the parameters for searching (eg GSM or 3G, etc.). So I closed this menu and searched throughout the phone, failing to find the setting. In frustration, I master reset the phone, which re-enabled 3G connectivity.
So where was this setting? After reading the manual, I found it was actually in the mobile networks menu, but to access it I needed to click on a ‘More’ button in the menu bar at the bottom and sure enough, there in front of me was the setting for 3G/GSM networks and the option to change it.
There are many other menu options in the W950i that are similar – they only have a slight relation to the options at hand, so they’re stowed away in a ‘More’ menu. This makes finding an obscure setting a time-consuming task and will have you referring to the manual frequently. I believe all the settings should be presented in the one screen and the ‘More’ menu done away with, because it adds unnecessary complication to a phone already complicated due to its smartphone nature.
The keypad can be locked by one of three different methods – holding down the * key and selecting lock on the standby screen, holding the back key on the phone’s left side, or by selecting the down arrow icon in the screen’s top left corner and selecting ‘Turn on Keylock’.
Colour schemes can be added to the phone from Sony Ericsson’s website, although the W950i only ships with the default Walkman orange one. It also only ships with one language – UK English – but an expansion file listed on the website adds support for 20 more languages or variants. These are American English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Latin American Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Romanian, Greek, Czech, Canadian French, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Finnish and Turkish. Perhaps due to font requirements, there’s no language files for Asian or Middle East languages.
Making and receiving calls
The W950i is a phone first and foremost, so it’s capable of handling phone calls. Such calls can be held using the phone’s speaker and microphone, through its loudspeaker, through the included stereo earphones or using your own Bluetooth headset.
Calls were tested on Vodafone’s 3G UMTS 2100 network, and audio quality was great in areas of good reception. However the W950i seemed to have trouble tuning high levels of signal. In most areas the phone would report two or three out of five bars, despite my Sharp 903 showing full signal in the same areas. The W950i would prefer to endure low 3G signal rather than downgrade to the GSM network when on a call, and as a result of this some calls would sometimes drop audio snippets.
A very odd glitch in the W950i causes the screen to flicker like a CRT monitor when a phone call is active. If you switch to any talking method other than the regular way the flicker goes away; switch back to it and the flickering resumes. I’m not sure why the W950i does this.
Speakerphone is enabled through a disappointing series of steps through the phone’s menu system. Instead of a one button shortcut, you need to select the More menu and select ‘Speakerphone on’. It doesn’t sound too hard, but remember this is a touch-screen menu, meaning you need two hands to operate it unless it’s sitting on a table. Speakerphone also can’t be enabled until the call is active. Once you do get it working, it emits call audio at a loud, adequate volume and the DSP processing is very good as my caller could hear me clearly without background noise.
With the stereo handsfree phone calls were even clearer thanks to its high quality construction, built to handle music playing rather than phone calls alone. Bluetooth handsets also worked fine with the W950i after being paired with the phone.
The W950i’s phonebook seems to store as many contacts as memory will allow – I couldn’t find any concrete limit for storage. Each contact can handle multiple types of details, with four tabs storing different types of data. The Links tab handles first and last names, two phone numbers, an email address and webpage, while the Address tab holds all address tabs, a birthday, a company name and job title. The notes tab lets you write anything about the person, while the audio tab lets you set a personal ringtone and a voice command to be used with voice-activated dialling. Speed dial is also supported.
Amazingly, the polyphonic synthesiser can only play 40 simultaneous tones. While this is still a large amount, 64 tone synthesisers aren’t difficult to find these days. Perhaps with the phone’s Walkman focus, Sony Ericsson doesn’t expect you to use lots of polyphonic ringtones. Nonetheless a few are included in the W950i, including Sony Ericsson’s classic tone.
I couldn’t find any form of profile support in the W950i. Perhaps the convoluted menu system was stopping me from finding it, but the manual doesn’t seem to mention anything about profile support either. The only thing I was able to use was the hash (#) button shortcut in the standby screen, which mutes all audio and turns vibration alert on. The same button will also disable vibration mode.
The W950i comes with all the messaging standards expected of a smartphone – SMS, EMS, MMS and email from POP3 or IMAP4 servers. Unfortunately, the entire messaging experience is let down by the awful keypad, which is discussed in detail in the Physical Aspects section of this review. If you do decide to use the keypad, T9 predictive text with a customisable dictionary augments character entry.
Fortunately, the W950i also features handwriting recognition, which lets you write letters onto the screen itself. Unfortunately, the system wasn’t very good at recognising my handwriting. I might be a messy writer, but I had a very hard time writing the letter ‘f’, amongst other letters. Another trip to the manual cleared this problem up, with a detailed explanation of what strokes the system recognises. You can also enter text using a virtual QWERTY keyboard – which I found easier than handwriting but still a bit clumsy at times. The bottom line is this phone disappoints for text entry.
Text messages take the form of SMS, with support for long SMS available for messages bigger than 160 characters. EMS is also included to allow the attachment of simple pictures and sounds to messages, and can be viewed on phones that support this standard. MMS can be used to add even more detailed pictures, sound and video up to a total size of 300 kilobytes. Slide support is also included.
Email can also be received and sent from the W950i. They can be downloaded from either IMAP4 or POP3 servers and feature support for attachments. Email can be set to download at certain intervals, while the option to download the entire email or just its headers is also available.
The W950i has support for 3G UMTS in the 2100 band, meaning it can be used on all 3G UMTS networks in Europe and Asia, but not the United States. It also can’t be used with Telstra’s Next G network, which runs on the 850 MHz band. However, a tri-band GSM radio supporting the 900/1800/1900 bands is present for backup and will allow connection in the US, albeit at slower speeds. Flight mode is included and can be turned on or off by selecting the network status icon in standby. When turning the phone on a prompt will appear allowing you to select flight mode before the phone’s network radio is activated.
Using 3G UMTS the phone has access to speeds up to 384Kbps (but more typically around 128Kbps). The slower GPRS standard allows downloading at up to 48Kbps in GSM networks.
As I was using Vodafone’s network, I was curious to see if the W950i supports the full Vodafone live! portal. Amazingly it does, although it displays a lot of garbled text rubbish at the bottom of each page. There was even one Java game that was available for the W950i. This suggests that Vodafone is moving to sell the W950i, even though it’s not in its catalogue at the moment.
For close range connectivity the options of USB cable, infra-red and Bluetooth are present. All three methods allow the W950i to interface with a computer, while infra-red and Bluetooth allow communication with other handheld devices too. A powered USB socket is also capable of recharging the W950i. Finally, support for the USB mass-storage profile is included, which allows the W950i’s four gigabytes of media memory to be accessible as a disk drive without using the included software.
Speaking of the software, the W950i ships with the Sony Ericsson PC Suite for Smartphones, an advanced software package that includes PIM data synchronisation. Installation of the package was problem free and fast. I inserted the CD into my computer, and the installation window popped up, asked a few questions and proceeded to install the software. Once it was done, I connected the phone to the computer via the included USB cable, and it detected it without a problem. The main menu of the software suite includes a big button that says ‘Synchronise now’, allowing for quick PIM data synchronisation. Shortcuts are also included for adding Symbian applications, language files and the Sony Disc2Phone music management program.
JBenchmark 1.0 performance was excellent (representing MIDP 1.0) while JB 2.0 was satisfactory. 3D performance was impressive. Two games are preinstalled in the W950i – QuadraPop, a Sony Ericsson classic game with tetris-style cascading blocks (or music notes); and Digital Chocolate’s Nightclub Empire, a simulation game that lets you manage multiple nightclubs.
The Walkman player has to be one of the most scrutinised applications in a phone such as this, but thankfully, it’s one of the best found in a phone today. The first time the application is booted it will ask to search both memory spaces for resident audio files. After this is done, the search can be initiated again manually by selecting a menu option. Music can be sorted by artist, album, track names or manually built playlists. The phone also supports M3U playlists, meaning a playlist created on a PC can be imported directly into the phone. This is very convenient. You can also rate your own songs and assign a mood to them, and then filter the music list using these attributes.
When the Walkman application is running, separate rewind, play/stop and fast forward keys light up above the 1, 2 and 3 keys respectively, and those three number keys perform these actions. There are more than 10 equaliser settings, including Sony Ericsson’s trademark Mega Bass option, which enhances bass beyond reasonable levels. Five different visualisation effects make watching the phone nearly as enjoyable as listening to the music. A sleep timer also exists that allows you to shut the Walkman player after a specified time.
Sound quality through the external speaker is above average at best – the lack of bass reproduction through such a small speaker likely can’t be helped. Thankfully, the experience using the stereo earphones is far better and very satisfactory.
Video playback is supported for a range of formats including 3GP, MP4, WMV and RealVideo. Streaming 3GP video is also supported, and I tested it using Vodafone live’s recently launched mobile TV suite. It works fine, although I couldn’t find a way to enlarge the 176x144 pixel image to fit the entire screen. Such a video is very small in a 240x320 pixel screen at its native resolution, so a size enlarger would have been welcome.
The FM radio has support for 20 channel presets and tunes the 87.5 - 108 MHz frequency range. RDS is also supported, including not only showing an FM station’s name but a text information window as well. The text information window is typically used by FM stations in Sydney to broadcast the name of the song currently playing, so it’s an excellent feature in the FM radio application. Sadly, the stereo handsfree doubles as the antenna, so it must be connected to activate the radio, even if you don’t want to listen through the earphones. Also, the radio can’t be used in flight mode.
Java support is for MIDP 2.0, and the JSR-184 3D application extension is supported as well. Using the JBenchmark testing suite, I encountered the following results:
|JBenchmark 3D Low Quality
|JBenchmark 3D High Quality
The W950i is loaded with plenty of organiser tools. The calendar supports the storage of appointments or reminders of anniversaries such as birthdays. You can even invite other people to appointments, with the phone creating an invitation email based on a calendar appointment entry. The calendar can be changed to display in month, week or day views.
A task list is available for separate to-do reminders that don’t fit into the calendar. A calculator function supports simple arithmetic calculations, while a converter application does more complex conversions for currency, distance, volume and other measurement types. An alarm program can set off a ringtone or the FM radio when the set time arrives, but the phone has to be on for it to work. The sound recorder works well for recording voice conversation and doesn’t have an artificial length limit. Timer and stopwatch functions are present for keeping track of time.
The SIM Application Toolkit is also supported.
I fail to be disappointed by the build quality of each device that crosses my desk, and the W950i is no exception. Being a bar phone there’s no moving parts, which enhances durability more than usual. The battery cover is clipped firmly into the phone and is difficult to remove, while even the keypad is just one plastic sheet and not several separated buttons (although I see this as a disadvantage for text entry). The W950i feels durable enough to last the passage of time.
The W950i comes with a surprisingly small 900 mAh battery. I say surprisingly small because smartphones usually come with battery capacities in the 1100-1400 mAh vicinity. Nonetheless, this battery enables talk time of 2.5 hours and standby of 250 hours in 3G UMTS mode. In a GSM network, talk time blows out to 7.5 hours, while standby time increases significantly to 340 hours.
The W950i was battery tested using the Vodafone 3G network. As you can see from the above figures, UMTS networks typically consume more battery power than GSM ones, but anyone who buys this phone is very likely to use it on a 3G network if one is available, so it was tested this way. It was fully charged and then left on continuously until it ran out of power. It wasn’t turned off at night. During this time I used the phone like I would my own, and ran exactly 30 minutes of calls through the phone to simulate moderate call usage. I used a combination of regular, speakerphone and Bluetooth handsfree call methods to do this. I also sent a moderate amount of SMS messages and accessed Vodafone live! throughout each day, as I regularly do.
Under this test regime, the W950i lasted for nearly two days before running out of power. This is a good result and comparable to other 3G phones available today.
The battery should take approximately two hours to recharge.