updated 08:00 am EDT, Sun September 9, 2007
S-E W580i Review
The W580i was launched in North America this summer as one of the first real Walkman sliders we've seen in the region. That should, in theory, make it one of the best music phones in the country to date: it has the small form factor you'd expect from a candybar phone with the large screen and extra controls of a dedicated media player. But with this layout and the newest Walkman interface, can it replace two devices in one?
Out-of-box experience and the accessories
Sony-Ericsson's packaging seems to evoke a hint of the feng shui of unboxing an iPod or a similar music player, though in our experience this falls slightly short of the goal: as you can see from the photo, some of the cables are simply tossed in the box. The documentation and the software CD are stuffed tightly at the bottom and required some effort to work loose.
Thankfully, this is more than made up for by what's actually included. Unlike the Samsung m620 we tested last month, the W580 really is ready for music from the outset. In the trim level that comes with the Canadian cell provider Rogers, the normal phone includes a 512MB Memory Stick Micro; it's only enough for a handful of albums, but it's a lot more than the skimpy 64MB microSD card from the Samsung. It was also a tremendous relief to have a USB cable (albeit with a proprietary end) rather than simply be told to find a card reader.
And there's no doubt that Sony's contribution to the phone is manifested in the earbuds. Besides tossing in a universal 3.5mm headphone adapter with an in-line mic, the company also provides a set of in-canal earbuds with multiple rubber tips. Even many dedicated music players don't come with this level of audio equipment. It's welcome to know that the stock earbuds will fit comfortably no matter what size your ears might be.
Build quality on the phone certainly feels like what you'd expect from Sony-Ericsson's handsets. While there are definite signs of cost-cutting -- the textured keypad portion is just plastic, for example -- the whole phone feels well screwed together and has a helping of appreciated design touches, like the patterned blue surface on the camera area and the ridged circular directional pad. The slider comes to its open position with a satisfying click and has a unique kink at the bottom that we appreciated for sliding the phone open one-handed.
Calling features and battery life
For a phone so focused around its non-phone features, we were almost startled at the high level of call quality from the phone. Incoming calls were easy to understand with moderately loud background noise. The microphone was sensitive enough to clearly pick up traces of ambient sounds but always provided a clear voice. Sony-Ericsson's in-line mic and headphone adapter was equally impressive and is definitely equipment you'll want to carry if you listen to music often, though it does add length to your headphone cables. Thankfully, a sturdy clip keeps the microphone close to your mouth.
On Rogers, reception for the phone was stronger than we saw with the m620 on Telus, but not flawless. There were fewer sharp drop-offs in the signal when entering large buildings and the signal in good areas was almost constantly at full strength versus the periodic dips we experienced in the previous test. The signal would still drop completely in the middle of the same buildings and didn't show significantly larger coverage, but these are problems more with cellphone technology in general than the phone in question.
The W580i's number pad isn't as generous as that from the m620, but in our experience this wasn't a significant setback to dialing numbers or entering text. There were no misdials and only one instance when we had to double-check our finger positions before hitting a key.
Entering and using contacts on the phone was easy. The address book is just short of the top level and easy to understand. This is helped in no small part by the screen; it's bright, extra-sharp, and presents a large amount of information without becoming illegible. It quickly became one of the selling points for the phone.
Battery life was a bit shorter than we had anticipated, however. Officially, Sony-Ericsson lists an impressive 9 hours of continuous calls. In reality, we found the phone tended to run out 1-2 hours sooner through a mix of calls, music, and light Internet use, and the battery life tended to drain surprisingly quickly on standby. Practically speaking, the phone should still be charged at least every two days, and earlier if the phone is used often.
Media playback and the Rogers interface
It should be no surprise that of all the companies producing music interfaces for cellphones, Sony-Ericsson is likely second only to Apple in terms of ease of use. The W580i uses the latest incarnation of the Walkman UI, which is about as well laid-out as one could expect for a conventional phone. Like other W-series phones, there's a hardware "W" button that instantly cues up the music player, which remembers your position no matter what you did to interrupt it before -- a welcome change from the Samsung, which forced you to quit your music for just about any other task. The process of selecting a track to play is as simple as can be, especially as the W580i will let you browse albums with album art intact if it's properly embedded in the song file.
Loading music was just as straightforward. Although Sony suggests that you use its bundled Disc2Phone software to rip and copy songs to the Memory Stick, which we found worked as easily as promised, any modern Mac or Windows PC user can simply browse the memory stick and drag-and-drop their music to a handy "music" folder, even over Bluetooth. The Walkman player automatically recognizes tracks and is smart enough to recognize sub-folders.
With the included audio gear, audio was excellent for a cellphone. The stock earbuds produce enough bass without drowning out the treble. There was no mistaking these for a premium set given occasionally muddy-sounding beats and highs that weren't as clear as they could be -- but if we had no choice but to use Sony-Ericsson's pack-in models, we would hardly complain. The only real concern was the thin wires and cheap-feeling earpieces, which we suspect will fray and break in the long run. Think about getting replacement sets (whether official or otherwise) in the future.
Having FM radio was a decided bonus for the phone. It was somewhat cumbersome to access (it's buried in the "entertainment" section of the main menu, which itself is hidden) and requires the in-line mic adapter to function, but it provided a refreshing break when our AAC and MP3 songs inevitably ran out. The radio app supports RDS tags and auto-seeking, so it was easy to spot most stations with a quick glance.
One glaring omission, however, may ruin the experience for those who like to listen for the entire stretch of an album. It's the track order. For some reason, the Walkman interface simply refuses to obey the track numbering in the ID3 tags of a given song and will list your songs only by their copy order. Not only does this jumble tracks and hurt albums with continuous mixes such as the Beatles' Abbey Road or DJ sets, but even Sony's own software won't do this properly with our existing catalog. The only solution was to manually drag files over a song at a time, which isn't really an effective solution for a phone that can potentially store hundreds of songs. While we didn't consider this fatal to our experience, it's frustrating to need this level of micro-management.
Rogers did little to help the experience; as with many other carriers, it tries to offer a custom-branded experience through a Java-based media player installed on top of the phone OS but doesn't really contribute much. It was harder to navigate tracks with the Rogers player, and only the live search feature seemed to offer anything that Sony-Ericsson hadn't already provided. As far as we're concerned, the Rogers interface is only really useful for browsing the carrier's pop-oriented online music store.
Camera use, Internet access, and the overall interface
As much as Sony likes to promote its Cyber-shot cameras and even some Cyber-shot cameraphones, it's evident that the camera was a largely secondary concern on this particular Walkman. Shots still produced the glow and haze effects of the Samsung and were noisy outside of bright light due to the lack of flash. The 2-megapixel resolution is by now merely average for a mid-range phone but is still better than the m620 for cropping part of the image. The PhotoDJ software on the camera was helpful in cleaning up the image with auto-leveling the image and adjusting balance, though we wouldn't quite call it a replacement for a full computer editing tool.
Internet services were about as plain. Messaging and the web browser were simple in themselves, but Rogers' relatively pedestrian EDGE access means that large content tends to load slowly. To no one's surprise, the mobile browser is also incapable of rendering normal websites properly. Mobile-specific pages loaded perfectly and were crisp on the LCD, but most pages weren't handled elegantly at all. And while this won't be an issue for subscribers to AT&T in the US, Rogers' restrictive data plans tend to discourage any more than a very small amount of Internet use.
In other areas, the interface was also wonderfully simplified compared to our last tests. Everything was laid out in simple, hierarchical menus with logical controls. If there was a primary fault, it was that much of the interface was almost too hierarchical, requiring you to hit a button and scroll through a list just to find the main menu before accessing mail, settings, or other features we'd like to use quickly. Switching between open programs was easier, however, as was downloading and installing them from a computer or Rogers. In our brief time we installed and ran Salling Clicker and Rogers' MySpace Mobile without much trouble.
The W580i strikes us as a very balanced phone. Both music and phone service seem to work well in equal measure. We'd be happy if this were the only device we were allowed to use for either role, although as a camera or a data device it's merely passable compared to other devices in its class. That the cost of the phone was actually lower than the m620 despite better features, costing about $300 Canadian ($285 US) versus the $350 ($332) for the Samsung, also makes it a much better value. We'd go so far as to say it's a great device for the money spent.
At the same time, we're not quite ready to say that it's an ideal choice in absolute terms. The song ordering problem is a serious blunder for a phone which is smartly designed in every other instance. Rogers' software layer also seems to hinder more than it helps. Additionally, you can easily question the wisdom of Rogers bundling a larger 2GB Memory Stick Micro with a 3-year contract; it's simply an attempt to draw unsuspecting buyers into a long-term plan. We'd rather opt for a shorter term (or none at all) and put up the extra $50 Canadian for the extra space ourselves.
Choosing this phone is made all the more difficult by the looming iPhone, which could launch on Rogers in a few months' time. Apple's handset will undoubtedly be much more expensive to use, but could also more effectively replace a portable jukebox and is certainly better for Internet access. That said, anyone whose music library isn't too heavily invested in iTunes Store purchases should definitely consider the W580i before they make any assumptions. It's much more pocketable and may well be better for those who value a physical number pad or the freedom of using any software they like to load up on music or other data. If you don't need the features of the iPhone, don't want to wait for it to arrive, or just prefer something simpler than a smartphone, this is probably one of the best phones in the Rogers lineup. It should also be one of the better choices in AT&T's phone selection for the US.