We've seen Walkman phones in candy bar, clamshell and even swivel varieties, but never a slider. Until now. Sony Ericsson's W850i is the latest of the music-focused models, and the first to feature a slide-out keypad design.
With dimensions of 47mm by 21mm by 98mm, the W850i is almost identical to Nokia's 6280 in the pocket protrusion stakes. Weight-wise, it's just one gram heavier, tipping the scales at 116g. Sony Ericsson has long been hip to the cool kids' jive, and this model is no exception, with a funky-looking geometric texture adorning the back, and decorative circles and swirls giving a modern appearance.
Sony Ericsson certainly isn't big on the slider form factor, with most of its phones belonging to the candy bar or clamshell categories. The lack of experience with the slider design doesn't seem to have hampered the springy W850i though -- the top half glides up smoothly and settles into place with a satisfying click.
Where the W850i runs into problems is in the button layout. The navigation keys aren't so much keys as sections of the phone's surface, meaning moving around the menus requires a surprising amount of finger effort. The central selection key is recessed from the surface -- like a large dimple, but, without the accompanying smile. Two circular keys on each side of the navigation section are small and squished against the edges. The orange Walkman shortcut key is positioned as a thin horizontal strip between two rounded soft keys. Perhaps the Sony Ericsson designers feel they have to constantly reinvent keypad shapes in order to stay trendy, but when new shapes affect usability, it's time to get back to tried and tested configurations.
Turn the phone on its side, and it becomes a 2-megapixel camera with 4x digital zoom, photo light and a dedicated shutter key. For those into making video calls, a VGA camera lens is cannily integrated into the speaker on the front of the W850i.
The headphones/hands-free combo has the same impressive properties as that of previous Walkman phones -- the rubber-coated buds snuggle into your ear canal, sealing off the sounds of the outside world. A 3.5mm stereo socket on the microphone section of the headset allows you to plug in your own headphones if you fancy earcans instead.
Like the others in the Walkman series, the W850i is all about the music. Colour and movement has been added to the music player interface, with visualisations and a "heartbeat illumination" feature that makes sections of the keypad glow orange in a rhythm matching your music.
A big selling point for the W850i is the inclusion of TrackID: a song recognition service powered by Gracenote Mobile MusicID. This music identification app allows you to record an excerpt (up to five seconds) from a song, send the file to a database, and receive information on the artist and track name. It's a nifty little feature, especially if you use your phone to listen to FM radio.
The 3G W850i has also been built for generation Web, with an Access NetFront browser, RSS reader and POP3/IMAP e-mail support. Connectivity options abound, with support for USB mass storage, infrared, GPRS and A2DP-enabled Bluetooth (allowing you to stream those tunes to a wireless stereo headset).
Internal memory is 16MB, which isn't exactly spacious for a music phone. However, a Memory Stick PRO Duo is bundled into the mix -- and it's decently sized, too, at 1GB.
Music sounded clear and full-bodied, and the bass line will have you feeling fine, even without the Bass or Mega Bass settings engaged. Song transfer using the bundled Disc2Phone software is a lengthy process, but the wait is worth it when you see how nicely your tunes are organised in the phone.
The light effects during music playback were fun for a while, if a mite gratuitous -- will (sober) people really stare mesmerised at their glowing handsets while cranking their tunes? Perhaps it will impress in a "can your phone do this?" kind of way.
It's a shame that the first 3G slider from Sony Ericsson suffers from a case of the nav button nasties. Besides the key design issues, we can find few faults with this model.