By now many people will know Sharp for its line of Vodafone handsets specialising in imaging and display technology, and for their number of ‘first’ technologies in GSM phones in those fields - the GX20 with the first QVGA LCD, the GX30 with the first megapixel camera, and the 902 (also known as 902SH) with the first optical zoom capable two megapixel camera (it wasn’t released in Australia). Now, Sharp has brought us a phone with yet another first – a 3.2 megapixel camera with 2x optical zoom, called the 903. It’s a multimedia powerhouse with a wide-angle screen, large video support, an insane amount of polyphonic tone support, E-Book reader and more.
Note that while this phone is called the Sharp 903 in most countries with a Vodafone operator, it’s also known as the Vodafone 903SH in Japan, the Sharp SX833 in Hong Kong and the Sharp WX-T91 in Taiwan. While all versions of the phone share the same hardware and most of the same features, please keep in mind that this is a review of the worldwide (or European) version, as is sold in Australia (and any country with a Vodafone outlet (or Vodafone partner outlet), other than Japan. The firmware of each phone differs between versions, and some features that may exist in the version I reviewed, may not exist in others.
Got that? Let’s continue with the review then.
The Sharp 903 brings a number of new technologies to phones in Australia, particularly in the imaging field. It’s the first phone sold in Australia with a 3.2 megapixel camera, and the first to have optical zoom (2x) at that. The camera is clear and precise, and takes photos with stunning clarity. There’s also 24x digital zoom if you want to zoom in on small resolution pictures (combined with the optical zoom, you can reach a total of 48x zoom).
To assist the camera function, the flip can be rotated sideways 180 degrees and then closed so that the phone can be held like a digital camera. Buttons on the side of the phone allow you to operate the phone like a digital camera too; just press the shutter button and a picture gets taken. More on this in the physical aspects section.
The main display LCD is a stunner, thanks to Sharp’s Mobile ASV technology. It’s the same technology used in Sharp’s LCD TVs and enables horizontal and vertical viewing angles of 160 degrees, as well as a 300:1 contrast ratio. The picture is clear, colours are well displayed and simply better than I’ve ever seen on any phone screen.
The user interface is also much improved. Gone is the annoying red interface typical of Vodafone live! customised phones, and in its place is a sleek, black/red user interface with a main menu that looks far more impressive than previous models. The SMS/MMS interface is completely revised, as is the My Items menu.
The first thing that comes to mind with this phone is the size – this is a big phone. It measures 109x50x29 millimetres and weighs 148 grams. I’m sure much of this is due to the camera module itself, which with its optical zoom and number of lenses needs a fair bit of room for itself. The antenna is internal at least.
Because this phone has a swivelling flip, it can be used in three different positions – the normal position, where you open and close the flip like any other clamshell; the self-portrait position, where the flip is opened and rotated 180 degrees (so that you see the screen and the back of the phone at the same time); and the viewer position, where the phone’s flip is closed but the LCD screen is facing out. The viewer position is used when using the phone as a digital camera and when you want to watch video in full screen.
The front of the phone is polished black and shiny, with the only thing to stand out is the Vodafone logo at the bottom. There is no external screen or anything else on the front of the phone. The left side reveals the handsfree/AV out connector and miniSD card slot, as well as the left speaker, while the right side has the right speaker and five buttons for operating the phone in viewer position – two arrow buttons and three soft keys. It also has a small LED that indicates if the phone is charging. On the back of the phone is where the camera lens itself and its assist LED are located. Access to the battery is also from there = the back cover slides off to reveal it, and underneath it is the SIM card slot.
The top of the phone houses the infra-red connector and the wrist strap hole, while the bottom of the phone has the charger/data socket and two gold contacts for use with the desktop charger (an accessory not sold in Australia). Opening the phone reveals the large 2.4 inch screen, with the speaker and video-call camera above. Below is the keypad layout – you have the arrow-pad with centre confirm key, flanked with two soft keys and the dial and hang-up keys. Below these are three keys to access the shortcut menu, delete text or go back in menus and access the music menu. Underneath these ones are the 12 number keys.
All the buttons are large and easy to press, thanks to the fact that the phone itself is large and allows for a lot of space for the keys. Despite the phone being heavier than most, it didn’t feel like typing text was a difficult thing to do.
User Interface & display
The large main LCD measures 2.4 inches (6cm) diagonally and supports a resolution of 240x320 pixels at 262,144 colours. It also features Sharp’s Mobile ASV technology, meaning viewing angles of 160 degrees both vertically and horizontally and a contrast ratio of 300:1. What this means in English is that the screen can be viewed from nearly any angle without the colours reversing, as is typical with many phone LCDs at the moment, and the colours of pictures themselves are vivid and strong, much closer to what they would look like in real life.
Sharp has designed the user interface so that seven lines of text will display when browsing menus. However, depending on which application you are using (messaging, web browsing or the E-Book reader), you can view the text at the same size as in menus, or shrink it all the way to the point that you can fit an astonishing 15 lines in one screen.
The main menu is accessible through the centre key and displays in a 3x4 grid of 12 icons. The number buttons and * and # buttons can be used to shortcut to any menu displayed, and you can keep doing this up to three layers of menus (meaning, once you’ve used menu shortcuts three times in a row, you won’t be able to again). The main menu icons are, from the top left: Entertainment, Vodafone live!, Music, Messaging, Camera, My Items, Organiser & Tools, Contacts, Call Log, Connectivity, SIM Application Toolkit, Settings. The menu responds instantly and in nearly all situations it continues to do so, although in very few cases, such as accessing the messaging menu, there is a half second delay in processing.
All the menus are consistent with each other, with the left soft key and centre key usually acting as a confirm or OK key, while the right soft key lets you go back through the menus. Signal, battery and other indicators are always viewable on the top indicator line, although a clock display would have been really nice (the Japanese version of the 903 actually has a clock display, but the worldwide version does not, and I have no idea why).
Making and receiving calls
Calls are made on Vodafone’s 3G network in Australia, and on their GSM network if you’re out of their 3G coverage. On the 3G network call quality is crystal clear and reception is very good, although not excellent. This is more likely to do with Vodafone’s 3G coverage, which is still being built up at the moment. Go down to the GSM network on the 900 band, coverage is much better, but voice quality does drop down a notch. I did find that during a lot of my call testing, even though the 903 would hold a stable 3G signal, when a voice call was made on many occasions the phone would drop down to GSM and not return to 3G for the duration of the call. After the call was over, a minute later it would switch to 3G again. As the phone can’t be forced to stay on the 3G network (it can be forced on to GSM, but not 3G) it’s behaviour that can’t be avoided, although hopefully it will happen less often as Vodafone increases their 3G coverage strength.
While the phone holds good audio quality, it doesn’t produce enough volume. Particularly in noisy places, it can be hard to hear your caller. This can be helped by using the loudspeaker, but again, it’s not as loud as a speakerphone should be, in my opinion. Having said that, it is the first Sharp phone to actually feature speakerphone in the first place, so it’s a good step. Speakerphone itself works well without any communication problems, but the volume of the caller needs to be improved.
There are bundled stereo earphones included in the 903’s box that can be used for calling, and these work very well. I had no problems speaking to my caller and he had no problems conversing with me either. Bluetooth headsets can also be used, and once they are paired with the phone, it works flawlessly.
In terms of video calls the 903 performs well here too, and video calls can be made across all of Australia’s networks. I did have problems contacting a few people on the 3 network, although they could video call my phone without much trouble. The 903 has a few options for customising video calls, including the choice of which camera to use, picture quality preferences and a picture to be used for putting the other caller on hold.
There are 28 different tones preinstalled in the 903 – 10 sound effects, three alert tones, five ring patterns and ten polyphonic ringtones. Four of the ringtones have been moved over from the GX25 handset, although they sound much better when played by the 903, which is capable of a massive 128 polyphonic tones at once. All included polyphonic ringtones sound clear and detailed and are a joy to listen to. All 28 tones can set to ring depending on whether the phone receives a voice call, video call or message. MP3 and AAC/M4A ringtones are also supported, and can be copied over to the phone from a PC or downloaded from the mobile internet (although they have to be on the phone’s memory to be used as ringtones, not on the memory card). The 903 supports ring-videos too, although no preset videos are included in the phone.
The internal address book can store up to 500 different contacts, and you can attach three phone numbers and three email addresses to each contact. Other details can be attached, including a category, address details (broken down into street & number, city, state/province, postcode and country), a note, birthday, picture and a unique ringtone. You can even mark the contact as a ‘secret’ contact – one that only shows up when ‘Secret Mode’ is turned on from the security menu, which requires the phone’s handset code to enable. Contacts can be sent as vCard data to other devices via Infra-red or Bluetooth and can be backed up to the memory card as well, or transferred to a PC through the handset manager.
The 903 supports SMS and MMS messaging, as well as POP3 email. The 903’s messaging interface is very different to Sharp’s phones of the past. SMS and MMS are combined through one main interface that details the recipient, subject and body of the message on screen at the same time. Initially you start composing an SMS, which has a limit of 755 characters (up to five linked messages are supported), but if you add anything to the message that an SMS isn’t capable of (such as a subject line or multimedia attachments) it will automatically convert to an MMS. It will also convert if more than three linked SMS messages are exceeded. If you want to force the message to be an SMS or MMS, you can do so from the Send menu.
There is T9 support for composing messages, and T9 dictionaries are present for all eleven languages included in the phone (English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Greek, Hungarian, Turkish). Japanese text displays properly as well, so you can receive Japanese messages but you can’t type them back. I should also note that the Hong Kong/Taiwanese versions have T9 support for English, Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, while the Japanese version has Japanese support only (and it’s not T9, it’s Sharp’s proprietary input software that is much more advanced). You can add new words to the T9 dictionary too, and edit them later if necessary. Up to 50 text templates of 256 characters each are supported too.
Messages can hold up to 300 kilobytes worth of slides that include text, pictures, sounds and videos, as well as ‘attached documents’ that can’t display in typical slides, such as TXT, HTML and SWF files, or contacts and appointment data. Items can be attached from the ‘media bar’ present at the bottom of the screen, and is quite convenient.
While POP email works separately from the MMS/SMS set-up and is selected from a separate menu option, messages are composed the same way. The only difference is that you can’t add slides, so multimedia files will get attached as a result. There are also ‘Voice Message’ and ‘Video Message’ options that make creating those type of MMS messages very easy.
Four megabytes of space are allocated to incoming message storage, which means hundreds of messages can be stored. The drafts, sent messages and outbox folders share one megabyte together.
The 903 is a dual/mode 3G/GSM device – it will connect to 3G networks on the 2100 band, and GSM networks on the 900, 1800 and 1900 bands. GPRS is rated at Class 10, meaning up to 48kbps data transfer, while on 3G of course transfers can work at up to 384kbps downstream. The included Openwave WAP 2.0 browser is able to access xHTML, cHTML and WML webpages, and can also look at full HTML pages on a limited basis.
Locally the phone supports USB, infra-red and Bluetooth. USB is used solely for connecting to a PC to use the phone as a modem and transfer data using the handset manager software (by Mobile Action), although no USB cable is included in the box. Infra-red is used for transferring any manner of content – multimedia, contacts and calendar data – to another device, be it a PC, PDA or mobile phone. Bluetooth can do the same, as well as be used with wireless headsets to make calls. You can also synchronise calendar and contacts data between Outlook and Outlook Express using all three connection methods (although Bluetooth may be problematic working with a PC. I certainly had trouble getting it to work).
The build quality of the 903 is second to none. Built in Japan, the 903 is sturdy, rigid and very durable, despite having so many moving parts. There are no creaks or noises when using the flip, and the swivel mechanism is as sturdy as ever, despite nearly three months of use so far.
To date, all Sharps built in Japan (and even the ones built in China, to an extent) have had a level of quality that set the benchmark for other phones to match. The 903 is no exception.
Unfortunately battery life is not the 903’s best feature. It features a 900mAh battery – slightly larger than previous Sharps – that allows it to attain official figures of 300 hours (3G)/290 hours (GSM), talk time of 2 hours 30 minutes (3G)/four hours (GSM), and video talk time of 1 hour 30 minutes (3G only). Recharge time is 2 hours 20 minutes. In practice, if you are a heavy user of the phone’s features – camera, web browsing, Java games and music player for example, the phone will run out of juice before the end of one day. If you are more moderate with your usage, you may be able to make it last for two days. But if you plan on owning the 903, you should recharge it every night, because it will need it.