Sony Ericsson P990i

30th Sep 2006 | 23:00

Sony Ericsson P990i

Has the p900 upgrade been worth the wait?

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

An excellent smartphone

Like:

<p>Full web browsing with 3G and Wi-Fi</p><p>Close-up capability of AF camera</p><p>Full-feature 3G stylus-driven smartphone</p>

Dislike:

<p>Not compatible with previous UIQ software</p><p>Size and weight</p><p>Pocketability</p>

To say that we'd been waiting for the P990i would be something of an understatement. It's been a good two years since the last in Sony Ericsson's series of prize-winning touchscreen smartphones was launched - and the P910i, despite its talents, has begun to look a bit dated in several key areas.

This fourth model in the family was originally scheduled for release at the beginning of the year, so there's been a bit of heel-kicking on our part.

Despite the wait, we have already been given an in-depth glimpse of much of the handset's new software and improved operating system. A couple of months ago a lighter-specced Sony Ericsson smartphone, the M600i, was unveiled.

That model lacks the Wi-Fi capability and camera of the P990i but through its diminutive size is winning a new audience for the Symbian UIQ operating system that has proved such a hit on Sony Ericsson's P-Series of smartphones.

Compared to the M600i, the P990i is a hefty handset. Certainly, the new phone is as bulky and weighty as the P910i it replaces. Given the much-improved camera, slightly larger touchscreen LCD, and the 3G radio hardware onboard this is somewhat excusable. But there is no escaping the fact that it needs to be housed in a big pocket.

Although the P990i and P910i look remarkably similar, there have been some important changes to the design. Most significantly, the Qwerty keypad is now below the main LCD screen, rather than being on the back of the fold-down flip device.

You have always been able to choose whether to use the flip, which provides a numberpad on the outside for regular phone use. But taking it off meant losing the letter keys and forcing you to use a virtual on-screen keyboard or handwriting recognition.

Now if you take off the flip you lose the numberpad but arguably gain a much simpler handset (and a slightly smaller, lighter one to boot). A blanking panel and mini screwdriver are even provided to encourage you to take this route.

Another reason in favour of the flip-less option is that some of the software can only be used with the flip open (or off). The web browser and video player, for instance, require the whole of the 240x320-pixel screen to be in view.

It remains to be seen whether third party developers will produce software that will work in both flip-open and flip-closed modes. A web browser is already available to allow you to surf with the flip closed.

Although existing P-Series users may be eager to get their hands on this upgrade, the use of the new v9.1 Symbian operating system and the v3 of the UIQ platform means that their old software will be incompatible. For the moment, at least, there is not the huge catalogue of programs you would hope for.

The fact that programs that work on the M600i will also work on the P990i should mean that developers should fill the gap quickly. Fortunately, Sony Ericsson provides free trials on the supplied 64MB smartcard of much that is available, including a chess game, a Sat Nav application, an antivirus utility, and an eBook reader.

To get the most out of the device, you do need to use the supplied stylus, or a similar pointer. As with any complex operating system rooting out where everything is hidden can take some time. Ringtones settings, for instance are hidden within a Device folder inside the Control Panels.

It is worth persisting with the familiarisation process. We love the fact that you can blow-up a video to full-screen mode with a single tap on the picture, for instance, or can find other facilities that would otherwise be hidden deep in the menu structure with a well-aimed prod of the pen.

Similarly keeping the stylus to hand when inputting text using the keyboard (or any other input method, for that matter) allows you to save masses of time by using the phone's excellent predictive system -- which will make guesses as to the whole word as soon as you start typing.

Navigation is greatly eased however with Sony's famous jog-dial wheel, which acts not only as a fast scroll option, but also allows you to activate selections. Fast buttons are also supplied for firing up the camera, media player and web browser, and the there is an excellent single-button keylock.

Bigger, better

Under the skin, it is not just the software that has been upgraded. The processor is also faster, with a clock speed of around 208MHz. RAM stays at just 64MB, which effectively means that there is less for the user to play with as the operating system demands a larger cut than before.

Onboard memory is also tight, with only 60MB on board. Thankfully you can use the provided slot to store up to 8GB on a single Memory Stick (note this model uses the PRO Duo form, not the new Micro cards used by the M600i).

Graphics handling has been improved, which will be particularly welcomed by serious gamers. A 3D engine is used, which is best exemplified by the VJ Singh Pro Golf game that comes with the phone. The game looks sumptuous, although you can't help thinking that the excessive lifelike animation actually gets in the way of the enjoyment of the game.

With a pixel count of two million, the camera does not set any records, or even equal that of some other recent smartphones (and Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot phones). However, thanks to a fast and accurate autofocus system which can focus down as close as 120mm, it can produce some stunning pictures.

Colour and exposure are excellent, and there is an admirable lack of noise, even when shooting in dingy conditions. Annoyingly, however, the large 2.8in LCD screen, and the need to use the pen to access creative features, makes the camera difficult to use well in bright light.

Video quality is limited to quarter VGA resolution, but at least it is capable of shooting movie clips at the full 30 frames per second needed for smooth video action.

The camera also gets pressed into action for one of the phone's more bizarre free programs. A business card reader activates camera and macro facility to take a picture of someone's details, then uses OCR technology to turn the image into an addressbook entry. Clever stuff.

Other full applications that are welcome include the QuickOffice suite for reading, editing and writing word processing and spreadsheet documents, and a PDF viewer.

Business users will also be pleased to see that the phone offers extensive support for a variety of push email solutions - including BlackBerry Connect.

The phone provides full access to 3G services, including video conferencing that the camera-less M600i had to make do without. The extra speed is particularly useful for making the most of the supplied Opera web browser.

And if you're out of 3G coverage or indoors, you can still get broadband-like connection by hooking into any WLAN system. This Wi-Fi facility allows you to save money and improve wireless coverage.

And if you can't find what you want on the web, you can also listen in to the radio. This handset has one of the best built-in FM tuners we have seen (and heard) on a mobile, using the RDS data channel to provide automatic news and weather reports, as well as simplifying the tuning process.

There is also an MP3 player, and support for other popular digital audio and video formats, with the supplied media player. Audio quality from the speakerphone is first class, with excellent sound and adequate volume.

The supplied headset is, in comparison, not particularly stunning - but although there is no out-of-box support for 3.5mm headsets, you have the ideal excuse to invest in a pair of wireless headphones, as this model does have the requisite A2DP Bluetooth support for wire-free stereo.

For a 3G handset with such a large screen we were pleasantly surprised by the battery life. With extensive use of the camera, browser and other features, the pack kept the handset running for some 86 hours during a single charge during which we made some 20 minutes of voice and video calls.

This is a big handset but it is its user interface and extensive feature list that makes the weight worthwhile. This handset offers a specification that is hard to beat, and once a full library of software has been introduced it is going to be hard to beat - particularly if you simplify the design by banishing that fiddly flip back into the box. Fans of the P910i will be pleased at this latest upgrade. Chris George

SonyEricssonPortable audioMobile phones
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