Is it a PDA? Is it a phone? No, it’s a super-phone…

Recently I started looking around for a new mobile phone. My current phone is an i-Mate K-JAM which I’ve had for about eighteen months and while it’s suited me fine (apart from taking two minutes to boot) I was like any gadget addict looking around for the next best thing.

You wouldn’t think anyone would have trouble finding a phone to suit them but I did. Mostly because I realised that I was confusing what I wanted with what I needed.

Of course there is an argument that if you love gadgets what you need shouldn’t have to come into it but when you’re looking at the prospect of forking out large amounts of money for features that you’ll never ever use it forces you to think again.

Also I wanted to move away from the Windows Mobile platform. I don’t have anything against it but I just don’t make use of its features to warrant it. I don’t check my email on the phone (I don’t want to either!) don’t connect to Exchange don’t surf the web and don’t use the camera (in my opinion perpetually poor-quality mobile phone cameras are the most pointless feature imaginable?) The only real benefit of Windows Mobile is that it syncs flawlessly with Outlook 2007 on both XP and Vista. But ultimately I don’t life my life through my phone.

So what’s stopping me from buying a Nokia 1100 on pre-paid and getting on with my life? Because I do unfortunately need PDA functionality for my everyday work and there’s no denying the benefits of having all your calendar and contact details with you. And I like big screens. And the occasional game. And QWERTY input.

I’d buy a standard PDA if it was worthwhile but the range of PDA devices out there is getting smaller and smaller as smartphones steadily take over the market. And it makes sense to have everything in one device.

Since Apple is never going to see a cent of my money I’m not tempted by the iPhone in the slightest (or any other Apple product come to think of it).

And as much as I’m comfortable with Windows Mobile if I’m only ever going to use a fraction of the features it seems rather pointless.

So in my search for a nice balance of aesthetics and performance Sony Ericsson a mobile company that seems to focus on good user interface and phones that just work well agreed to send me a box bulging with shiny hardware (don’t you just love that “new hardware” smell?). I’ve spent a week playing with them and here’s a quick rundown on each.

Sony Ericsson W880i

This is the smallest and lightest of the four units and is definitely designed to be a phone rather than a smartphone. It’s a super-thin 3G candybar-type unit with all the refinements you’d expect from a modern mobile phone as well as a 2.0 megapixel camera.

The display does support a 240×320 resolution but the screen itself is pretty small. The “W” in the name is for Walkman and the inbuilt MP3 playback functionality is neat and well-served by the bundled 1GB memory stick micro card.

Sony Ericsson W8801

As a phone the W880i really is a lovely unit but although it’s Java-enabled it doesn’t really have enough PDA/office functionality the lack of and QWERTY input is a bit offputting (I loathe predictive text input).

Sony Ericsson K810i

Although in general I think that phone cameras are something of a waste of time if you do need one then it’s hard to pass up a Cybershot phone with 3.2 megapixel camera and a swathe of image optimising technologies.

Sony Ericsson K810i

The K810i functions perfectly well as a normal GSM/3G phone but it’s as a camera where it really excels. It comes with BestPic technology to take fast consecutive shots image stabiliser red-eye reduction autofocus 16x digital zoom flash and upload capabilities to as well as video recorder/stabiliser. The camera function is automatically turned on or off by opening or closing sliding lens cap. Still it’s no replacement for a real camera. Proper compact cameras can be ready for a shot in sub one second whereas this phone takes forever to go into camera mode and be ready to take a shot — by which time your niece or nephew will have run away and you’ll have missed the moment.

The screen is also QVGA but is a bit bigger than the W880i. Having said that the K810i isn’t quite as tactile and is physically a bigger unit although it weighs about the same.

Although I appreciate the work that’s gone into this phone focusing as strongly as it does on one of the features I really don’t need it’s not the phone for me. Also like the W880i it’s not a PDA nor could it function as one.

Sony Ericsson W950i

Like the W880i the W950i is also a Walkman unit with a bias towards media organising/playback. However the W950i design is much more like that of a PDA with a touchscreen stylus scrollwheel navigation and a Java-enabled Symbian 9.1-based operating system.

Sony Ericsson W950i

Like all the phones I was sent it’s also a 3G handset with all the usual mobile phone refinements. The Symbian OS is definitely a marked shift in how you can interact with the device however. The immediate change is that the unit takes much longer to start up than either the W880i or the K810i (but still nowhere near as long as the K-JAM). The flexibility of running Symbian does mean that you can install third-party applications although this is no different to Windows Mobile.

Using the W950i is an interesting experience. The scrollwheel is on the left side of the unit so if you’re right-handed like me you use it either with your left thumb or your right forefinger and there’s a “Back” button directly underneath. However to shift between the scrollwheel for navigation and the keypad for data input does (at least it did for me) require a slight shifting of how you hold the phone. Trying to use the phone with one hand over an extended period has the potential to become pretty uncomfortable.

However with the added options of a touchscreen and a stylus this isn’t necessarily a problem. The GUI has been designed so that you can use your finger quite effectively as a stylus for most tasks and the screen is nice and big so it’s really quite easy to get around. The W950i also has handwriting recognition which is useful for typing out SMSes (with a bit of practise of course) however I have to say that the predictive text input on this unit is far less disagreeable than it was on the other phones. This is rather let down unfortunately by keys which are flush with the faceplate so it’s quite easy to mistype.

It’s a shame that the device doesn’t come with more productivity applications but you can easily install some more. It also comes with a massive 4GB inbuilt flash memory so you could go pretty wild on the apps if you wanted. However it doesn’t have a card slot so that 4GB is all you’re going to get.

Oh and it doesn’t have a camera. It should be framed as a rare exhibit.

Sony Ericsson P1i

This unit was the only one with a QWERTY keyboard albeit an unusual one. Instead of a full keyboard with a button assigned to each letter the P1i’s keyboard has two letters per button. Each button has a left and a right hitzone so the letter you get depends on which side of the button you press. It’s a tricky interface to get your head around but I actually found that I could type quite quickly within a short space of time; probably not as fast as a full QWERTY keyboard but definitely faster than the standard keypad input method.

Sony Ericsson P1i

This interface betrays the P1i’s design which is geared towards productivity. Like the W950i It also runs Symbian 9.1 but it comes with several office-centric applications: QuickOffice PDF+ Notes Tasks and a business card scanner. The touchscreen stylus and handwriting recognition capabilities are the same as the W950i and make the unit very easy to use. Interestingly the scrollwheel is positioned a bit further down the side of the P1i than it is on the W950i and this really assists in using the device with one hand.

It does come with a camera but at least it’s a decent one – 3.2 megapixel with 3x digital zoom. It also has 160MB inbuilt memory and comes with a 1GB memory stick micro card in the card slot. It’s also the only unit in the four I looked at which has WLAN connectivity.

In many ways this unit carries the right balance between functionality and features. It’s marketed as a corporate phone so it has all the connectivity options like email integration with Exchange and Yahoo. It does seem that if you need particular productivity features then there a swathe of other features which you’re not going to avoid regardless of whether you need them or not.

But the main thing is that it doesn’t feel like you’re using a PDA which has had phone capabilities wedged into it. Rather it feels like a seriously kitted-out phone. It’s a subtle difference but an important one which is why it’s my choice to replace the K-JAM.