I Have Seen the Future

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I have seen the future, and it is convergent. It is the Sony Ericsson W810 “phone”. It is small, light weight, and does 90% of what I want a mobile device to do. Is it perfect? No. But it shows that such a convergent device is possible without too many compromises. I recently picked one of these up after both my iPod and my beloved older Sony Ericsson T610 went belly-up. After a fair bit of research I settled on the W810, getting one unlocked from Amazon. I plopped my old SIM card in and I was in business. A download off the T-Mobile site for data settings (I had to still enter email data settings manually), and a $5.99 upgrade to my phone plan and I also had some pretty spiffy data access (more on that in a sec). (Note that Cingular is now carrying the W810 locked at a big discount from what I paid, but if the other Sony Ericsson I have on Cingular is any indication of what Cingular lards up your interface with, I’ll pass.)

phone front.jpgHere’s what the W810 has replaced:

Palm T3 PDA: The W810 syncs with my calendar flawlessly, and while missing some of the nicer features of the Palm it does just fine for basic calendar checking and the occasional new entry done on the phone. That’s all I need - if I want more chances are I’ve got my laptop with me. The W810 also does a better job audio-wise of voice recordings, which I do a lot, which was the main reason I plumped for the T3 over less expensive Palms.

iPod: Sorry Apple, but after 2 dead ones I wanted to try something else. With a 2GB Memory Stick the W810 holds all the songs I realistically care about listening to. The W810 can be used in music-only mode when on a plane.

Minolta camera: I love my trusty Minolta XT, but for off-the-cuff snaps where I’m more worried about immediacy than quality, the W810 is just more convenient. If I want a significant step up in quaity I’ll take my digital SLR.

Oh, and I also don’t have to carry around the power bricks for any of these (absolutely gigantic for the T3 unless I just got by with a USB charger, not so big for the iPod, and an awkward charging base for the Minolta) so it has also made both the physical and cognitive loads of packing for a trip much lighter. Down from 4 power adaptors to one, and only one thing to remember to charge.

And the W810 has several things that none of these devices or my previous phone had: 

Google maps: What can I say? For someone who’s as bad with directions as I am, this is a God send. Incredibly well implemented. Great turn by turn directions. Even has satellite view, which is cool to show off though it’s sort of pointless. And for you T-Mobile users, it seems you can have unlimited Google maps and web surfing for the $5.99/month flat rate.

Radio: I really missed not having an FM radio on my iPod, so this is great.

2 megapixel autofocus camera with flash: Takes surprisingly good photos and the “flash” (actually bright white LEDs) is actually useful. Autofocus, with good shutter response. No zoom of course - in the next couple of years hopefully we’ll see cameraphones with real (not fake digital) zooms.

Emergency light: A side benefit of the flash - you can turn this on independently for lighting in the dark and it works well

Non-stupid ringtones: You can use any mp3 or AAC file you’ve put onto the phone as your ringtone, which is good as it comes with relatively few

Speakerphone: Haven’t really used it, but they come in handy and this one goes quite loud with decent sound

No protective case: Sony knows how to make portable products that you can carry without getting dinged up (unlike, cough, a certain fruit company). A plastic screen cover and you’re done. I just put it in my pocket or bag, no need to worry about it.

It behaves like a camera: At first when I took a picture I was befuddled - how do I save it? Then I realized - it’s working like a camera, not a phone. It just saves it. Done. Most phones make you go through a saving step or they toss the photo. It’s also dreamily easy to send photos by Bluetooth to my laptop. The one thing I don’t think you can do is zoom in on photos on the screen, which would be nice.

Overall the interface on the W810 is remarkably good, with some exceptions noted below. I have always found the Sony Ericssons to have the best phone UI’s outside of Treos, and the familiarity from my old phone was a large part of staying in the family. On the W810 the menus are fast and animated, and it’s easy to whip through things. There are play/pause and volume buttons on the sides of the phone, and if you receive a call or a message while listening it just pauses the music/radio, you take the call, hang up, and the music/radio resumes instantly.

Now for the gripes:

Headphone jack: Just give me a standard headphone jack. Don’t make me use your special adaptor so I can have my preferred headphones. I was able to find a small one rather than the big one that Sony provides, but still.

Camera lens: The lens does get greasy, which smears the picture quality. It’s easy enough to clean, but it spoils the spontaneity. Sony’s Cybershot line of phones has fancy covers over the lenses, whereas this phone is biased toward music playing, so it doesn’t. The high-end Cybershots have amazing picture quality.

Using blind: The W810 is actually a lot easier to use blind (eg in pocket) than an iPod, as you can tell easily which way it’s facing, and it has buttons for things rather than a flat pad. However, I wish that Sony didn’t require me to poke the 4-way nav control in the center before using it to skip/back once the screen has gone to sleep. I know why they are doing this: It keeps it consistent with the rest of the UI where if the screen as blacked out due to inactivity, then the next key press just wakes the screen up and does create an input. This is good. On my old Samsung 50% of circumstances it would consistently do one thing and 50% of other circumstances it would do another, and it drove me nuts. But in this particular case I think Sony should have varied to make music playing a little smoother.

Finding voice recordings: It was easy to set a shortcut for one-button press access to start a voice recording. Finding that recording again later is a tortuous trip through the folder system, however.

FM mono: Every time I turn off the radio and then turn it back on again, it resorts to stereo. Often I listen in mono as I don’t necessarily get great reception in stereo (not the W810’s fault, it’s my location). So I have to manually go through a (short) menu to switch it to mono again.

Shortcuts: It’s very easy to make shortcuts for functions, but in some cases Sony has decided to arbitrarily (it seems) limit the depth to which one can drill down into a menu to make shortcuts to. The voice recordings are an example. I can make a short cut to the file folder at the top level, but it seems I can’t do a shortcut to folders or specific items within it.

Music transfer, no iTunes, audiobooks: Probably the biggest turn-off for most people will be that transferring music lags behind the iPod (but what doesn’t?). I’m on a Mac, so this is compounded by the fact that Sony’s software is PC-only. There are a couple of Mac solutions (one, two), but both are temperamental for me, and to make the process decently fast you need a USB-adaptor for the memory stick. But I’ve got the music on there now, and I don’t update that often, so I’ll persevere.

Having said all that, the W810 clearly has some limitations, but it makes no pretense to overcome them. It does not pretend to be a Smartphone. It does not make any attempt to let you edit your Powerpoint files. So it has loaded on as much complexity into its little case as it can, but stopped short of going that whole other next step, which I think is smart. IMHO it’s also quite a handsome little bugger. Not quite as nice as the Chocolate I’ll grant you, but a heck of a lot better and easier to use, and it gets its fair share of people wanting to look at. Not that that matters to me. At all.

But the W810’s strengths clearly outweigh its negatives for me. As recently as a year ago I wouldn’t have credited that so much functionality could have been usefully and usably crammed into such a small package, and I foresaw myself continuing to juggle multiple devices. Now it is clearly possible to have one device that can satisfy almost all of what you need, almost all of the time. When you need that extra bit of capability on those infrequent occasions, yes, a dedicated device is going to do a better job. But the W810 far surpasses the Swiss Army Knife metaphor and is a convergent device that doesn’t just do in a pinch, but does well in the every day.