Monday, July 10, 2006

Review: Sony Ericsson P900

I have owned and used a Sony Ericsson P900 for over two years now, so I feel that it is more than time to do a long-term review.

The plastic case is rather robust and wears well. The phone dropped to the floor several times and all that it has to show for this abuse is a paint scratch (the silver is only painted on) in the front top left corner. I finally managed to crack the plastic molding over the screen right where the flip rests, but I feel that this was due to an abusive fall and should not be held against SE.

The phone feels quite to me it is small enough to slip into a pocket and big enough that I can hold it comfortably in my hand for an extended conversation. The keys on the flip give just the right amount of tactile feedback when pressed to allow me to use them without looking at the phone. If I do want to look at the keys, the backlighting allows me to see them even when it is dark.

The screen is bright and easy to read. The colors are nicely saturated and the contrast is pleasant. The phone is harder to read in bright sunlight, but it is still useable. I have not managed to scratch the screen at all. Unfortunately, there are constantly smears on the top half of the screen after I hold the phone to my ear.

When I use the P900 as a phone, I usually keep the flip closed (opening the flip will turn on the speaker phone). Ever since I figured out how to enable T9 input I also use the flip for the occasional SMS entry. Everything else I usually do with the flip open. I still would not want to take the flip off, as many people do - I find the keyboard nicer than putting fingerprints all over the screen.

I use the P900 as my main calendar and address book. This works very well since the address book is easy to use and will take a seemingly endless number of phone numbers, fax numbers, and email addresses per entry. It is easy to find entries from all the different phone applications (SMS, Email, etc.) because the phone cleverly displays only entries that contain the data it needs. In other words, if I am trying to send an email, I will not see any entries without an email address.

The calendar is basic, but it gets the job done. I like the ability to color code entries by placing them into different categories. This is just what I do in iCal. Now why won't the categories synchronize with iCal? I can assign categories on the P900 and/or iCal, but I can not keep the categories in sync. Keeping the entries in sync works, however.

That brings me to one of the flaws of this phone: bluetooth. Yes, the phone has bluetooth. And yes, bluetooth does work ... most of the time. I can pair the phone with my Mac. I can then sync it. Great. A few days later, the phone and the Mac simply refuse to talk to one another, pretending they don't know of each other or don't see each other. I then delete the pairing in the phone and the Mac, set the Mac to "discoverable" and initiate pairing from the phone. I can then sync for a while before amnesia hits the two ... Admittedly, this is much better than the P800, where you had to catch the right phase of the moon and carry a lucky rabbit's foot to get syncing to work, but still for a device in this price class I expect better.

Lest anyone blame Apple for this one: I also used a Plantronics M105 headset with exactly the same problem when paired to the P900. For some reason the headset never lost pairing with the same Mac.

When the phome is paired to the Mac syncing contact and calendar information works very well. Other than the calendar categories mentioned above everything has worked for the entire two years now without a hitch or data loss. There are some issues with syncing to .mac, but that is a different topic.

The email client is basic but it works to read and send messages. It even understands IMAP, which is good because I have only a single POP3 account, all the others are IMAP. Unfortunately, the IMAP client will only speak TLS by sending a STARTLS command to the default port. On mail servers that expect a different port for IMAP+SSL this is not acceptable. So I never managed to even connect to my main email account.

Now we get to the really ugly: when I receive a phone call that I do not pick up, the call is redirected to my cell phone provider's voice mail. The provider then sends an SMS announcing that either a call arrived without a mesage or that a message was left for me.

Unfortunately, for reasons known only to SE, this SMS is not actually received by the phone until I place the next call. It still carries a timestamp that shows it was sent right after the call. Putting the SIM card in another phone shows that the SMS is received by the other phone immediately after it is sent, so it is not the cell phone provider's fault.

Warning: technical geekery
The SMS is actually received by the SIM card. The phone then picks it up from the card to display it to the user. So it could be the SIM's fault. But, as I explained above, I've eliminated that possibility.

But it gets better: there is a list of missed calls maintained by the phone. The missed call that was redirected to voice mail is not actually listed until after I make the next call.

So I effectively have to place a call just to be notified of any calls that I may have missed. This is a serious problem.

While we're at it: I'm in the middle of the just mentioned call and the SMS arrives. A window pops up asking me whether I want to read the SMS or not. I then get to press either 1 or 2 depending on what I want to do. Pressing the "OK" button defaults to reading the message.

Unfortunately, to end the call I also have to press the "OK" button. Guess what? Instead of ending the call, I now get to read the SMS, press another button to make the SMS go away, press another button "back" to exit the SMS application, and then finally I may end the call. By this time the other party has usually hung up. Very, very annoying.

Last problem: it is possible to lock the keyboard against inadvertend presses while the phone is not in use. This is a useful feature because it prevents accidental calls and saves on battery power (switching on the backlight of the LCD is a major drain on the cell phone battery).

It is also possible to lock the phone so that you need a PIN to access the phone itself (there is a separate PIN for the SIM). This is a useful feature to me on a device with so much personal information on it.

However, when you activate both features, the keyboard lock disables itself the instant the phone lock kicks in, which is after a few minutes (configurable). This means that you still have to enter a code to access the phone (good) but any keypress will light up the backlight and drain your battery dry (bad). It is not uncommon for 5-10% of the battery charge to be drained during a 1 hour commute while in flight mode (i.e. radio transceiver off).

To add insult to injury, this has been a problem ever since the first P800 and SE is aware of the problem but does not see any reason to fix the software, according to SE technical support staff.

The camera is not worth discussing, it is so bad even for a VGA camera.

I do not use the built-in web browser since Opera for Symbian is so much better. I usually use the PDA versions of websites because GPRS data service is usually quite slow, but in a pinch even complex sites like or will work. You just have to scroll about a bit.

The media player is nice but I find myself using an iPod instead. I don't mind carrying the extra device, so why put up with tiny and expensive MemorySticks?

I originally bought the P800 and then the P900 to replace a Palm and a cell phone (the Treo 270 failed to meet expectations, but that is another story). The P900 is a good choice as a smart phone and I've never looked back at Palm.

However, there are some serious usability issues with the phone. The call notification issue is a real killer if you miss a lot of calls. I spend a lot of time at meetings nowadays where cell phones are not welcome so this is getting to be a real issue.

I think that SE could have produced a killer product if they had opted to fix the obvious software problems. Unfortunately, the P910 (successor to the P900) seems to have these and some new flaws in the software. My next phone will be a 3G (UMTS) phone to allow faster data service, but it will not be a P990 or a M600i unless SE can convince me that they are taking their software quality more seriously.

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