The Sony Ericsson P1i is a classic example of the slowly-evolved smartphone. The kind of thing that iPhone users will look down on, and its own devotees will cling to.
It's got a touchscreen, but it doesn’t do the touchy-feely interface of the iPhone - this is an old-school PDA-style design, with a stylus, and a full, but quirky, qwerty keyboard. Launched earlier in 2007 in Europe, and currently costing £285 without a contract, it's the sequel to one of the longest running smartphone series - and has a lot to recommend it.
Sony Ericsson has a somewhat patchy history in smartphones. The P-series made a brilliant start in 2002 with the P800, a does-everything phone with a clever flipping keyboard (inherited from Ericsson phones like the R380) that won lots of fans, but it stumbled in 2005, when the P990 was delayed a whole year, till the end of 2006.
Nokia capitalised on this, with its E-series, which includes the E65 slider and the E61 qwerty phone. Sony Ericsson launched the M600, a UIQ smartphone, but that didn't gain much favour owing to its lack of a camera and Wi-Fi. The P1i is intended to redress this balance - it's a P-series phone built into the M600 style, but with camera, Wi-Fi and a built in radio.
Design and usability
If the P1i has a problem it will be convincing new users. People who have stuck with the interface will like it, but others may find it so quirky they won't pick it up. Also, post-iPhone, people are going to want really good web browsing, and a slimmed down user interface - and that's not what you have here.
It's chunky, at 55x17x106mm and 124g, but not massively so, and goes happily in a pocket. The screen is decent, at 65mm large, and 240x320 pixels.
The phone doesn't do a great job of putting key functions like the contacts list or calendar up front, however. They're on the main screen, with icons big enough to use a finger on, but if you're off doing messaging or whatever, you have to get back to the main screen first (this is easier after you find the "back" button on the side.
I couild get used to this, but I like dedicated buttons, like the Nokia E65 does. The buttons here are all in the qwerty pad.
For data entry, I'm prejudiced. I don't like qwerty phones, and I think stylus-driven phones are a mistake which will die out when the last user loses the last stylus down the back of the sofa. The P1i, therefore is asking for trouble with me, by combining stylus and keyboard, a class of device which needs three hands to use, and includes the Windows Mobile based Motorola MC35 which I loathed.
To my surprise, the P1i is friendlier. I'm more familiar with Symbian, but also on the side, as well as that Back button, it also has a scroll wheel, which moves the cursor up and down and selects when pressed, which cuts down the number of times you need to pull out the stylus.
I liked the qwerty keyboard too. It has two letters per key, so each key can be bigger than the micro-pimples of a Blackberry or Treo, and they're nicely contoured rubber and responsive.
The letter keys have a rocker action. For instance, the top left key gives Q or W, depending which side you touch. There's a shift key to get capitals, and an Alt key which gives a bunch of other characters like brackets, @ and the like, as well as numbers on the middle keys.
This isn't unheard of on smartphones, but it's the first time I've met it, and I found it weird till I got used to it. The predictive text works well.
The P1i works fine as a phone (in phone mode, the number keys are just numbers), and shows an eagerness to help - suggesting after every phone call that the number could be added to the contacts list.
Bluetooth works just as it should do, and the USB cable is fine for synching with a PC. There's also a cradle (a rare thing that harks back to PDAs) that combines Bluetooth and power, and the provided PC software synchs it easily with Outlook, Notes and other email clients.
Setting up Wi-Fi is easy, but the web browser is not as good as the Nokia or iPhone browsers. Lacking the ability to preview a small version of the page, which is useful on a small gadget. Also, obviously, with Wi-Fi on, the battery drains more quickly, so it can run out in less than a day.
With the qwerty keyboard, email is clearly a major likely use for the phone, and it is the first Sony Ericsson phone to support RIM's Blackberry Connect, software that puts Blackberry email on non-Blackberry devices.
The BlackBerry Connect software, when installed, gives clear status alerts, and works well. I used it with GoogleMail, which works all right, though it's not all that well implemented, in terms of using the
The P1i has an FM radio (not enough phones do), and media player, as well as a fairly good camera. It handles 3.2 Mpixels, and has optional autofocus, and a flash. It also has a sound recorder, which is actually useful, and not stuck with the silly one minute limit in the Nokia E65. There's a Sony MemoryStick slot for extra storage, accessible from the side of the device without taking the back off, but well protected.
This has a lot going for it, and more features than some Nokia devices we have tried, aimed at the same market. It's a clumsy package, though, but one that users could easily learn to love.
This phone could have turned into the one I would regularly use, apart from the rather poor implementation of Google Mail on it, which made it impractical for every day use.
This phone has a lot going for it, and more features than some Nokia devices we have tried, aimed at the same market. It's a clumsy package, though, but one that users could easily learn to love.