A replacement for the W580 with 3G and GPS that faces a tougher field. (November 17th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Sony Ericsson
Price: $130 (two years, AT&T); Rogers N/A
- Better build quality and controls.
- 3G, GPS improve speed and navigation.
- Still a good music phone in software.
- Good call quality.
- UIQ simple, effective, and improved.
- Pricing is steep for the actual feature set.
- 3G reduces practical battery life.
- Proprietary headset/data jack.
- Earbuds a step down from the W580.
- Access NetFront still a sub-par web browser at this price.
The W580 has been a staple of GSM phone carriers ever since it was released simply because it does most things well (including music) at a low-enough price. Still, there were definite limitations, and the device now has a RAZR-like overabundance that signals a time for something new. The W760 promises to check off some the remaining flaws -- including the addition of 3G -- but also faces a tougher cellphone market. Sony Ericsson's ultimate challenge may be less to improve the device and more to consider the roles of the devices themselves.
design and controls
The similarities between the W580 and the W760 are apparent almost immediately. While there are of course minor design changes, the button layout and overall choices make no mistake that the W760 is at least a spiritual successor to Sony Ericsson's favorite mid-range phone.
It's nonetheless evident that the company's engineers haven't been silent in the past year. Overall, the phone feels much more tightly built than the W580, with a more solid construction and larger buttons that are easier to hit. The keypad is particularly improved. Gone are the smaller and potentially breakable buttons in favor of a flush pad that's both more reliable and easier to hit. The dedicated Walkman button for launching the media player has thoughtfully been moved to the side, where it doesn't interfere with regular phone controls but is still close enough to be convenient.
There are still a few flawed points or even steps backwards. While the phone notably totes some GPS features, Sony Ericsson has unfortunately decided to promote it above the camera as a directional pad shortcut. Unfortunately, most users are more likely to want quick photo snapping over navigation, and it's now the case that it will take at least two or three clicks to get to the camera.
Likewise, despite fitting into the Walkman brand, the W760 is still unfortunately saddled with Sony Ericsson's proprietary side port for handling both data and charging. You're stuck if you should ever lose the bundled cables, and they undoubtedly take up unnecessary space on the phone. A 3.5mm earphone adapter is included in the box and is appreciated, but quickly creates problems for anyone using a personal pair of earbuds or headphones with a long cable. Sony Ericsson is overdue to adopt mini USB and, preferably, 3.5mm audio jacks on devices that are billed as media savvy -- an adapter is less and less acceptable when small phones like the BlackBerry Pearl find room for them.
This wouldn't be as much of a problem if it weren't for a regression in the earbuds. The W580 was graced with some in-canal earbuds that, while not quite audiophile level, sounded genuinely good and were comfortable. Sony Ericsson only packs in a set of conventional over-the-ear buds. They're both more likely to be overly loose-fitting and to sound worse as a result. A quick listen will drive you to better earbuds and partly defeats the point of getting a media phone.
The software on the W760, at least, is up to Sony Ericsson's good standards. It's not especially complicated, but it's also easy to use and effective. There are few troubles quickly starting into a song or video as well as making playlists, and support for media, photos and videos is sufficiently broad that someone used to encoding for an iPod or most recent hardware can easily put it in a phone-friendly format.
Only a few tangible changes have been made to the front end since the W580's release, though they're welcome. Like the K850 and other more recent Sony Ericsson phones, it supports podcasts and the SensMe "mood" playlists from newer dedicated Walkman devices; it curiously gives access to RSS news feeds from the media interface, which is somewhat incongruous but not necessarily unwelcome. There's also a shake-to-skip feature, but like that on Apple's fourth-generation iPod nano, it's more an incidental benefit than a must-have unless you regularly travel in frigid weather where shaking the phone will avoid frostbite.
As for loading the phone with content, the W760 largely behaves as you'd expect from the recent, excellent Walkman S730 media player: just choose to connect the phone in USB storage mode and drag music files and folders into the appropriately labeled folder on a formatted Memory Stick Micro card. Sony Ericsson does bundle a collection of software to help sync data, but we find it useful mostly for contacts. Mac users or those who simply don't depend heavily on computer-borne data are better off just dragging and dropping on a regular basis.
call quality and 3G's impact on battery life
Probably Sony Ericsson's greatest strength has been the sound of a phone call, and little has changed. While 3G is supposed to improve call quality, it actually has little effect when regular GSM calls already sounded good. Calls are clear and (with a possible tick upwards in volume) sufficiently loud in a typical environment with some background noise.
At the same time, 3G is also something of a setback to runtime. The typically high power draw cuts the phone's useful calling time to about four hours, which bore itself out in our tests. And while Sony Ericsson claims 350 hours of standby, this model would typically run low within about four days if nothing was used. Frequent users will need to plug the W760 every day in as though it were a power-hungry 3G smartphone unless they turn off the faster network in favor of GSM and EDGE alone.
In the non-smartphone class, Electronista has always been partial to the UIQ interface on most Sony Ericsson phones, and not without reason. It's not advanced, but it's very visual and organized well enough that a moderately experienced user can find a setting without the guesswork needed on some operating systems. That advantage carries over here, and it's hard to truly complain given the phone's focus.
Assisted GPS is new to this phone and is appreciated, though the options provided by most carriers will be fairly limited, The W760 carries both a bundled mobile version of Google Maps as well as the carrier's choice of navigation software. The former isn't iPhone-grade and isn't suited as a full GPS replacement, but does the trick for basic mapping.; the latter is more advanced, but requires a monthly fee. Both are still dependent on having an active Internet connection and so are useful more for local driving than replacing a stand-alone unit from Garmin or TomTom.
Runners might be pleased to know that there's a built-in app known as Tracker that uses GPS to calculate distance traveled and the exercise gained. It's more accurate than Nike+iPod and includes routes, though without the deeper online integration for long-term goals it's more handy than a central feature.
Web browsing is, unsurprisingly, still very basic. Access NetFront is pitched as a "full" browser and does support some web video, but it still renders non-mobile pages inaccurately and is more there in a pinch than as a constant tool. Adding 3G just means that pages load more quickly. Given the browser's limitations, the extra speed mainly proves a help for phone-optimized sites like Twitter's mobile page than a cure-all.
One thoughtful touch added since the last review is a new gateway screen for common web tasks, like Google searches, the browser history or RSS feeds. In the case of a strictly non-touch phone such as this, the welcome page is more a boon than a bane and results in quicker access to favorite sites. It won't overcome the inherent limitations of this class of phone, but it does smooth out the experience.
The W760 brings a much-needed sensor increase from two to 3.2 megapixels, though this gain is more for the sake of producing cleaner, more detailed small or cropped images than would be possible before. However, that ultimately represents the extent of the changes. Sony Ericsson's final output is strictly average for a phone and can be noisy in less than bright light as well as prone to a slightly hazy look with the purple fringing artifacts on edges that comes from having a very small lens. There's no flash and zoom is strictly digital.
Sony Ericsson does go slightly above and beyond others in terms of settings; it's possible to adjust white balance, to shoot in bursts, or to force a night mode to avoid an underexposed shot at the expense of some image quality. All the same, the W760's camera is strictly there for preserving an impromptu moment when a separate camera isn't available. The K850, Nokia N95 or another camera-centric phones are decidedly better if on-the-spot photography is important enough to be a selling point.
As a mid-range feature phone, the W760 is largely what the W580 hoped to be and more: it's sturdy, performs well for calls and is more than capable for media from a software perspective. At a certain point in its lifetime, the W760 could easily be the go-to phone for carriers serving the bulk of their subscribers.
Simultaneously, though, it's apparent that the company is hitting the wall in terms of what it can do without significantly revamping its strategy. The custom accessory port limits Sony Ericsson's features and options, the slider provides little room for a flash or powerful optics, and the (relatively) small screen doesn't help either. Moreover, the simpler earbuds now push anyone who's more than a casual listener to pay for a separate upgrade. That's potentially dangerous when many phones that cost the same or less now don't have this problem.
And while that isn't an issue by tiself, one gets the distinct impression that Sony Ericsson is pricing the W760 as though it were a premium item; with AT&T, it costs $130 attached to a two-year plan (Rogers will pick up the W760 but hasn't set out its pricing). That's the same price as a Samsung Instinct (more in Canada) and frequently higher than the cost of a BlackBerry Pearl or Pearl Flip. The W760 does have its advantages, including a smaller profile, but a customer who isn't tied to any one carrier or likes the AT&T and Rogers alternatives could very well be lured away, especially if they have the extra $70 to move to an iPhone 3G. Many of these phones might not have the 3.2-megapixel camera, but they have more advanced web browsers, smartphone-level apps, and full 3.5mm headphone jacks.
As such, recommendations could well depend on when, exactly, this review is read. It would be difficult to persuade an AT&T customer to rush out in November 2008 and buy a W760 when it's still carried at its full price. That could change, and may not be the case at all for Rogers when its pricing goes public. Until then, however, the W760's greatest appeal will be to UIQ fans or those who want 3G, GPS and music in the smallest possible size and are willing to accept legacy design habits.