Review : Sony-Ericsson K850i

Fast and featured but not a full smartphone.

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Product Manufacturer: Sony-Ericsson

Price: $300 (with contract)

The Good

  • Well-designed hardware and software interface. - Good call quality and fast Internet over 3G. - Excellent camera for a phone. - Solid music player software.

The Bad

  • Expensive for a non-smartphone device. - Web and camera still limited compared to the very high end. - Standby life shorter than expected. - No choice but to use proprietary budget earbuds.

The first observation most will make about the K850i is regarding its thickness: there's no escaping the reality that this phone is bulky. The design is not especially sharp-edged and will fit into most pockets, but it's certainly not for those who like to wear tight clothing. It's about 50 percent thicker than the W580i we reviewed before, though the technical features of the K850i at least help explain away this difference.

A more obvious but minor issue is also the glossy black finish. It gives Sony-Ericsson's phone a refined look, but rarely stays clean. Be prepared to wipe the phone clean as fingerprints and other smudges dirty the phone on a daily basis.

Having pointed out these issues, the K850i feels better-bulit and more solid than the W580i, and is also more intelligently designed. All of its buttons are small but easy to press; I rarely mistyped or hit the wrong button, even with the K850i's unusual frame-shaped directional pad. The touch-sensitive buttons just below the edge of the display are also a welcome addition to non-touchscreen phones. It effectively fits in more controls without compromising space for other buttons.

Sony-Ericsson has also refined the visuals for the phone, especially the large display. I found the large display easier to read, and the lighting that surrounds the buttons and sides of the phone is subtler than on the W580i -- if still something of a light show compared to subtler phones from other companies.

phone functions: camera

Needless to say, any phone branded as a Cyber-shot has to provide a camera better than those on most phones, or else its credibility falls flat. There's little dispute that the K850i has this aspect taken care of, as the 5-megapixel sensor, digital autofocus, and built-in flash should allow more headroom for cropping photos and the opportunity for low-light shots.

Testing does show that this largely works out in the field. While the W580i's 2-megapixel, fixed-focus camera often produced muddy shots and often fell short with less than ideal focus or in anything below average light, the K850i's images are much closer to the quality you'd expect from a dedicated compact camera. Sample shots are generally clear and produce relatively little noise.

The sizable amount of camera settings also help experienced photographers scrape out an extra amount of customization for the shot, though the settings are largely a subset of what's found on most normal Cyber-shots: besides the helpful macro mode, most settings are semi-automatic, such as the white balance (which can only be changed to certain presets). Nighttime photographers might be disappointed to know that the camera can only shoot up to ISO 400 sensitivity, though Sony-Ericsson should be credited for exposing a feature sometimes hidden on other phones.

Compared to top camera phones like the Nokia N95 (or its even more powerful N82 cousin), however, the K850i isn't quite a replacement for a full camera. There are still slight traces of the "haze" effect created by the use of plastic optics, and high-contrast outdoor shots like the example provided above will also show slight hints of purple fringing -- a chromatic distortion effect created when the lens is too small and curved for the shot. The flash is also not as powerful as on some of the more premium phones, even if it throws far enough to be useful for average portraits.

Sony-Ericsson's phone does at least show promise as a basic video capture device. Most of the settings from the still imaging section translate directly to the live video mode, and the flash can turn into an always-on light for dark scenes. Again, it's not as advanced as other phones, though the relatively affordable price of the K850i makes it a better value.

phone functions: calling and battery life

For all of its emphasis on media functions, Sony-Ericsson has lately earned a minor reputation for call quality, and the K850i seems to carry on the tradition: I held conversations in some moderately noisy situations and never encountered muffled call quality. Very little background noise filtered through; about the only flaw was needing to turn the volume up slightly from default. Speakerphone quality is good, but not as stand-out as for private calls.

Anyone familiar with UIQ (Sony-Ericsson's variant on Symbian) will be very familiar with navigating the interface for managing calls. Items are buried a level deeper than some would like, but the menu system is never especially complicated and tends to be detailed without being intimidating. Airplane mode and silent mode have no top-level shortcuts, however.

In active use, the K850i's battery largely lives up to its maker's claims for active use, though standby proved somewhat different. Phone use only very gradually runs down the available power, and at 9 hours the K850i is poised to last for a very long time. When I locked the phone and let it sit at standby overnight, however, I found that it bled battery life by about a quarter. This phone may last all day in a pocket, but it will still need charging through its AC adapter or a USB port.

phone functions: media playback and the Internet

Since the K850i isn't a Walkman phone, Sony pushes its media playback software away from the top level in favor of its normal phone services. There are no shortcuts on the hardware or music playback keys. That's unfortunate: with the W580i, it made music a pleasure and took some of the complexity out of a feature that many phone makers often bury even on dedicated media phones.

Even so, the interface for Sony-Ericsson's official media software is simple. Anyone familiar with the cross media bar (XMB) from Sony's PlayStation consoles (or newer BRAVIA TVs) will recognize it, and most anyone will find it relatively easy to use with an obvious hierarchy. It's not as elaborate as the Walkman variant, however. Close observers will notice that the feature set has changed since the W580i: the K850i now supports audiobooks and podcasts separately. Sony-Ericsson supplies its Media Manager software to help load this content, though it's still not as elegant as a stand-alone jukebox program. For some users or non-Windows owners, it's better to just drag and drop content to the (already pre-made) storage folders.

For subscribers using Rogers in Canada as the provider, the phone also comes with a Rogers media player; outside of tracks purchased from Rogers' own music store, however, the software largely feels limited and simpler than what was already built-in.

Regardless of the software, the stock earbuds are also something of a letdown: they perform adequately as free pack-ins, but they fall well short of the in-canal earbuds that come with some Walkman phones. They can't easily be replaced, either, as there is no 3.5mm headphone jack adapter to let users plug their own earphones into to the in-line microphone. Music and video entertainment on this phone are secondary, even though its price puts it well above other phones (including from the company itself) that do a better job at media playback.

Internet access is thankfully more of a strong point, albeit with the usual limits. On a 3G, HSDPA-based network, the K850i is extremely fast -- enough so that downloads and page views are closer to a wired (if modest) home Internet connection. In fact, the experience is quick enough that it would be hard to go back to a 2G phone using EDGE, even if the latter phone's software were better.

On Rogers, it's also fast enough to allow two-way video calls on the carrier's VISION service, although we encountered the same problem that many customers are likely to have: without a large amount of Rogers subscribers that also have a 3G phone, using the service with others isn't really possible.

The primarily obstacle to the K850i as an ideal Internet phone is, as with most phones, its web browser. As a basic WAP browser, it's fairly flexible and easily controlled, but it just doesn't draw sites as elegantly as some smartphone-class mobile browsers, such as Opera Mini or Apple's mobile version of Safari. It's thankfully possible to turn off an auto-resize feature that adapts the content to fit the page (which usually results in a visually awkward appearance), but with this option the K850i's browser is still relegated to browsing most mobile-optimized sites -- albeit much more quickly and pleasantly than before.

wrapping up

There's little doubt that the K850i is a very capable phone. For casual photographers or just those who prefer immediacy over absolute quality, the interface and output of the phone are both good enough to stand in as replacements for a separate camera. It's also a good phone in its own right, a solid media player, and certainly an ideal fit for those who plan to make the most of its 3G linkup. Rogers (and AT&T, if it continues with plans to carry the phone) offers a low-cost unlimited browsing plan that should make heavy data use a simple proposition.

If there's a flaw, it's that the phone sits awkwardly between two extremes in the phone world. At $300 (a price likely to carry over to the US) with a three-year plan, the K850i is much more expensive than a number of other standard phones but not as full-featured as some smartphones. Newer BlackBerry Curve and Pearl models actually sell for as much or less. That makes the choice of the phone much more difficult, as the choice is between an expensive phone and unlimited data or a less expensive phone and metered data -- and a better camera versus using one's own headphones.

That decision is simply too close to call in the space of a short review; it depends on your own usage habits and whether you're willing to pay more up front or in the long term. I already miss using the K850i, however, which may say more about its quality than a strictly objective study of the phone can offer.