Sony ericsson w580iMy wife has used a Samsung T809 ever since we signed a service contract a year and a half ago and she got one for free (after rebate, of course).  She really liked the phone's sleek slider profile, big, bold display, and overall cool factor.  Mind you, she's not a geek in any sense of the word - she's got style and so did her T809.

But the T809 broke a few months ago and she'd been using one of my extras until the Sony Ericsson w580i arrived at our place.  Lots and lots of handsets pass through our home office, and this is the first one that actually made her say, "Hey, lemme see that!" when I unboxed it and showed it to her.  It's a slider, it's sleek, and it's got this very hip grey with blue trim thing going on.

Lucky for us Sony Ericsson makes an unlocked version of the w580i as well as the locked AT&T version.  We tracked down an unlocked model for her to use, and I got to play with the AT&T model for this review.  And we're both happy.  The w580i combines SE’s latest Walkman music player with full HTML Web browsing, Email, and an RSS feed reader into a very slim, light slider phone.  If you can live with EDGE-only data speeds, Sony Ericsson’s latest Walkman slider packs a lot of punch into its sleek little body.

Measuring just 99 x 47 x 14mm and weighing only 94 grams, the w580i is sleek and lightweight.  Sony Ericsson sent me the Urban Grey color scheme w580i, which is finished in dark grey matte plastic with silver and blue accents and black side panels.  I really like the handset’s look - it’s slick and fun in a semi-understated way.  A white/orange 580i is also available.

A slider phone, the w580i features an angled bottom edge that makes for easy one-handed operation - you can grip the backside of the “curled” edge with one or two fingers for leverage while sliding the front panel open/shut with your thumb.  It’s a funky look that’s actually inspired by functionality.

The front of the handset shows a 2” TFT display above a control layout built around a circular array of media player buttons that’s become quite popular on musicphones as of late.  The shiny silver circle of buttons on the w580i is actually a five-way directional pad comprised by a play-pause button at the center surrounded by a ring-shaped four-way rocker switch labeled with track forward/back and camera icons.  Flanking this iPod-esque array on the left is a round Walkman button topped by a circular two-button array providing Return and soft key functionality.  This arrangement is mirrored on the right edge of the front panel with a programmable shortcut key below a Clear/soft key duo.

Sliding the front panel open reveals a standard 12-button dialing layout.  The keys are black plastic with blue labeling and two columns of silver plastic dots separate the three columns of buttons for easier navigation.  Rounded left and right edges on the dialing buttons echo the rounded edges found all over the handset, and the buttons are also slightly domed in shape, which assists in blind dialing. 

The left edge of the phone features a lone rocker switch, finished in chromed silver plastic, which controls volume.  On the right side is the charger/accessory port, which is a change from older SE handsets that place the port on the bottom edge of the device.  Along the top edge of the w580i is a plastic-capped slot for the M2 Memory Stick micro card and a power on/off button.  The back of the handset is blank save for SE and Walkman logos, but when the phone is slid open, the camera sensor is revealed along the rear of the front panel .  The design allows for lens-cover functionality when the slider is shut, and SE finished the area around the camera sensor in a reflective blue plastic with a grey pattern printed on it.

All in all I really like the design of the w580i, with a few small exceptions.  The handset is exceptionally light and sporty but still has a solid build and feel.  And while the slider mechanism and dialing keypad are solid and comfortable to use, the front panel controls are a bit on the small side.  The center-mounted control ring for the media player is particularly tricky, as the outer ring is both narrow and mounted against a raised plastic ridge that looks cool but can be a little harsh on the thumb during repeated button mashing. 


Features

Sony Ericsson packed nearly all the features of its high-end k790/800 handsets into the w580i, making it a very versatile device for entertainment and communications purposes.  The 580’s interface, Web browser, RSS reader, email cilent, and file manager will all feel very familiar to users of these devices, but as a Walkman-branded device, the 580 also gets SE’s latest music player software.  As such, this is really a feature-packed “non-smartphone.”

The w580i also features a few fun additions not found on SE’s other handsets.  A pedometer function will track your every step (so long as you carry the phone around with you all day), and the same technology that senses your footsteps also powers the Shake to Shuffle feature that lets you advance through your music randomly by literally shaking the phone in your hand.  The pedometer works pretty well - and its functionality is enhanced by Fitness applications that time and track your workouts - but I found Shake to be a bit hit or miss.

An FM radio, Java games, organizer/PIM programs, Blogger integration, and a graphically-enhanced music sequencer program add to the handset’s functionality.  The front-mounted shortcut button features a four-tab dialogue box that allows for quick access to favorite programs, Internet destinations, running applications, and an Events log.  As on the K790a, I really appreciated having a dedicated shortcut button on the w580i - it made it much easier to access my favorite of the handset’s many functions without having to click through multiple layers of menus.

Sony Ericsson W580i cameraSony Ericsson is a bit like Nokia when it comes to cameras in their mobile phones - they seem to have a dozen or more different cameraphones with at least that many differently configured cameras.  SE brands their imaging-centric phones as the Cyber-Shot line and their music-centric phones as the Walkman line, but of course the Cyber-Shots play music and the Walkmans (Walkmen?) take pictures.  So sometimes it gets a bit confusing.

The w580i is a Walkman phone that features a two megapixel camera, much as my old w800i is a Walkman phone that features a two megapixel camera.  However, the cameras on the two phones are quite different.  While my w800i’s camera sports autofocus and an LED flash-assist light, the w580i’s shooter has neither of those features.  As such, the w580i is a pretty average picture taking cameraphone.  The camera settings and included PhotoDJ software allow for a fair amount of image correction and editing, but image quality is hurt by the lack of autofocus, and without any sort of flash shooting in low light conditions doesn’t yield very good results (though a night vision mode compensates a little).  Video recording is also limited to QCIF (176 x 144) resolution, and captured clips are pretty jittery.

Viewing saved photos using the handset’s gallery software is, on the other hand, an excellent experience.  The Camera Album is very similar to the one found on the K790a, and allows for thumbnail and full screen viewing in both landscape and portrait modes.  Album thumbnails may be viewed en masse or viewed by month in Timeline mode.  A “Blog This” function allows for easy uploading of photos to a Blogger account for Web-based sharing.


Display & Audio

Though only 2” in size, the w580i’s display is big, bold, and bright - unless it’s in direct sunlight.  Capable of QVGA (320 x 240) resolution at 262,000 colors, the 580’s screen generally looks very good - all the more so because the phone’s user interface is such a pleasure to work with.  While confusing menus and hidden features are common complaints in the world of mobile phones, SE’s UI is refined and mature - both intuitive to use and easy on the eyes.

Icons, images, and videos all looked very nice on the w580i, and the included themes show off the phone’s capacity for displaying animated backgrounds.  The newest version of SE’s Walkman music player displays album art on the w580, and video files can be downloaded from the Internet or loaded onto an M2 memory stick card for playback on the handset as well.

Using the phone in bright, direct sunlight did prove to be a bit troublesome - perhaps just a bit more so than to be expected on a phone of this caliber.  Just to be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, I asked my wife if she’s had any trouble seeing the screen on her unlocked w580i.  She furrowed her brow for a second and replied, “Yeah, just a little sometimes when I’m outside.”

Sony Ericsson W580 audioI tested the quad-band GSM w580i on AT&T’s network in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and my wife and I also tested the unlocked w850i on T-Mobile’s network in the same general locations.  While I ran into a few problems with interference and dropped calls on the AT&T version of the phone, we had no such issues with the unlocked version on T-Mobile.  So I’m pretty sure any calling problems I encountered were caused by AT&T’s network and not Sony Ericsson’s handset.

Audio quality during phone calls either good or riddled with problems.  Again, the problems seemed to stem from AT&T network coverage in specific locations (and at specific times), and not with the w580i.  When signals were solid, the handset was plenty loud and voices came through clearly with minimal interference on either end.  When problems occurred, I experienced everything from static and interference noise in the background to repeated call dropping.  The noise problems occurred whether I was using the earpiece, built-in speakerphone, wired headset or a wireless Bluetooth headset during calls.

Sony Ericsson included a Walkman music adapter and stereo canalphones in the w580i’s packaging.  The adapter snaps into the handset’s accessory port and features a 3.5mm stereo audio jack with an integrated microphone and single button for answering calls.  You can use the included earphones with the adapter, or connect your own ‘phones - while I’d prefer the headphone jack to have been built into the handset itself, at least SE includes an adapter (and better than average earphones) so you can use the Walkman features straight out of the box.  With a good pair of earphones and some tweaks to the EQ settings, the w580i sounds as good as most portable media players when playing back music.

The w580i’s built-in speaker is also quite loud.  Music, ringtones, and calls on speakerphone all rang out noticeably louder than they do on most handsets I’ve reviewed recently.  Stereo Bluetooth is also supported by the w580i, and music can be played and controlled via AD2P-compatible wireless headsets.  Certain SE Walkman-line Bluetooth headsets also support caller ID and music library browsing on the w580i via remote displays.

 


Messaging, Internet & Connectivity

For a consumer phone that doesn’t have a QWERTY board, the w580i’s messaging features are fairly robust.  The phone supports SMS and MMS messaging and POP/IMAP email via pre-installed software. 

Messaging setup is fairly easy, and text, MMS, and Email messages are stored in separate mailboxes. The phone’s camera software makes it easy to take a photo and include it in an MMS or Email message, and video clips may also be attached to messages. 

As always, I really liked SE’s implementation of predictive text input on the w580i.  The software itself works well and allows for adding custom words to the standard dictionary, and SE’s user interface makes it easy to choose from word suggestions via a pop-up menu.

W580i angleSony Ericsson feature phones generally include full HTML Web browsers, which is still something of a rarity in the marketplace these days.  The w580i features the latest revision of their browser, which can handle all but the most complex of Web sites with commendable grace, even constrained by relatively slow speeds of AT&T’s EDGE network. 

Standard Web pages are reformatted into a single column for easier viewing, and both landscape and portrait display modes are available during browsing.  The browser of course also can handle mobile format WAP pages, and the toolbar-esque integrated Google search feature was also quite handy.

Even more handy, however, was the RSS feed reader.  Web browsing via EDGE isn’t as horrible as some 3G-aholics might have you believe, but it’s not particuarly well suited to quick checks of image-heavy sites and blogs, either.  RSS is a great solution for mobile browsing over EDGE - I set up the phone’s RSS reader to track feeds from a handful of sites, and was able to get news updates much quicker this way than by checking and rechecking the sites themselves.  The RSS reader shows feeds as headlines with collapsible teaser bodies capable of displaying images and inline links to the original articles.

Connectivity
The Sony Ericsson w580i is a quad-band GSM phone locked to AT&T in the United States.  An unlocked quad-band GSM version is also available.  The phone is compatible with EDGE networks for data transfer and does not have a WiFi radio.

Bluetooth implementation on the w580i includes support for file transfer, data synching and mono and stereo (A2DP) audio.  I had no trouble pairing the phone with headsets or my computer, and I was able to move files between the phone and my computer easily.  The included software allows for PC syncing and music management, though music can also be dragged and dropped directly to the phone or via the included M2 Memory Stick card.  I was also able to sync the phone’s address book and calendar data with my Mac via a free plug-in for Apple’s iSync software.

Sony Ericsson has migrated away from the Memory Stick memory card format to the newer, smaller Memory Stick M2 Micro format.  The w580i includes a 512MB M2 card and an adapter for use with flash memory readers made for the older, larger Memory Stick format.  Music and video files, applications, and other data can be copied between cards and the handset’s 12MB of internal memory via the integrated File Manager software.

The w580i may also be connected to a computer via the included USB cable that connects to the phone’s accessory port.  Data transfer, synching, and charging are all supported over USB.


Conclusion

Sony Ericsson continues to make some of my favorite music and cameraphones, and the w580i brings a sense of style to their US market offerings.  This Walkman line handset offers one of the most complete out-of-the-box music phone experiences available this side of top of the line handsets costing hundreds of dollars more.  Between the refined user interface, included music adapter and stereo earphones, and 512 MB memory card, the w580i is ready to be loaded up with tunes and used on your daily commute as soon as it’s taken out of the packaging.

Seen as an upgrade from the w800/810i Walkman phone (the 810i was also offered by AT&T), the w580i is a sleeker, sexier model with a better display and user interface but, oddly enough, a weaker camera.  SE would should at least built the 580 with the same autofocus lens and LED flash assist light found in those older Walkman models - instead a very good cameraphone is reduced to an average one.

Still, if you like the way it looks and feels, the w580i is a great choice in a handset that does just about everything a cell phone can do this side of full smartphone functionality.  The lack of 3G data is a sore spot, but between the Walkman features, the HTML and RSS browsers, Email, and even the pedometer functionality, the w580i is a small slider with a lot going for it.  Definitely check it out if you want something more than the average cell phone that won’t break your bank. 

Sony Ericsson W580i


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