With its Walkman and Cybershot series of models, Sony Ericsson has become a leader in the niche categories of camera and music phones. The latest addition - the Sony Ericsson Walkman W995a - delivers the best of both worlds with an 8.1Mp camera and high-quality audio features.
The Sony Ericsson W995a hardware has some flaws, but those looking for an all-in-one device (camera, music player, game player, and phone) won't be disappointed. Just remember that it isn't a smartphone, as it lacks the connectivity of that kind of device.
The Walkman W995a has a slider body with a bright 2.6in, 320-by-240-pixel QVGA display on its front face. Aesthetically, it is attractive, if a bit on the boxy side - it lacks the soft curves and rounded edges we've seen on other phones of this class.
But given its hefty specs, the Sony Ericsson W995a is surprisingly compact: It measures 97x49x15 millimetres, and weighs 113 grammes, and that's with an 8.1Mp camera. Below the screen are a play/pause button surrounded by a circular directional toggle, two soft keys, a 'clear' button, a menu-shortcut button, and talk and end-call /power keys.
Sliding the Sony Ericsson W995a phone up reveals the numeric keypad. Although the keys were large, we found them difficult to press. They also were a bit slick, which made texting a little tedious. The keys are backlit, a convenient touch for messaging and dialing in dimly-lit environments.
The Sony Ericsson W995a's left spine houses a proprietary headset jack/charger connection as well as a shortcut key for the Walkman player. On the right spine sit the music-player controls - especially handy for navigating music via your fingers - a dedicated camera button, and a volume rocker that also works as a zoom while you're in camera mode. On top are the 3.5mm headphone jack, speakers, and a kickstand. Speakers can be found at the bottom of the phone as well.
Walkman fans will be pleased to know that the Sony Ericsson W995a's player doesn't deviate much from those of older generations, including the NWZ-SF38F Walkman. The interface is basic, but it gets the job done. You can view your collection by artist, albums, individual tracks, playlists, genre, or year.
Audiobooks and podcasts get their own folders, as well. The Sony Ericsson W995a Walkman also organises your music by Sony's SensMe playlist generator, which analyses your songs' beats-per-minute counts and assigns them moods and tempos such as Happy, Sad, Fast, or Slow. In our hands-on tests, we found SensMe pretty dead-on, though we don't know if we would ever use it ourselves.
You can shuffle your music, loop a track, and tweak the equaliser to your liking. You can also choose from five equaliser presets: Normal, Unique, Soul, Easy, and Bass. Overall, sound quality was excellent, and was among the best of the multimedia-rich phones we've tested in the past few months. Music piped out of the external speakers was decent, and having dual speakers on the top and bottom of the phone contributed to the fullness of the sound.
Digital imaging is another strength of the Sony Ericsson W995a, although the first thing we noticed about the camera was that it lacked a lens cap. This omission is unfortunate, since the camera is such an integral part of the phone's appeal, packed as it is with advanced features. Besides the 8.1Mp lens, the camera features an LED flash, a 16X digital zoom (as mentioned, you control it with the volume rocker), a self-timer, a macro setting, four white-balance options, brightness controls, spot metering, and an image stabiliser.
You can also apply your choice of four colour effects, shoot in panoramic mode, take multiple shots, invoke smile detection, and shoot at night with the night mode.
Image quality was very good, with rich colors and sharp detail. Often with camera phones, outdoor shots turn out far better than indoor shots due to a weak flash. Not so with the Sony Ericsson W995a: our indoor shots had accurate colours and very little noise. One feature that didn't work so well, however, was the image stabiliser, which didn't keep images from looking fairly blurry when we jostled the camera In my informal tests.
We were pleased with the Sony Ericsson W995a's video quality as well as its still images. Certain shots had a bit of blur and image noise, but overall we thought the quality was better than that of the iPhone 3GS's videos (video recording is one of the new features of the 3GS). You can edit your photos and videos with Photo DJ and Video DJ, respectively.
The Sony Ericsson W995a has a simple (albeit slightly gaudy) menu system that is easy to navigate. The browser is NetFront, which should be familiar to Sony Ericsson users, and is as good a browser as you can get without a robust mobile operating system like the iPhone's, Google's Android, or Palm's webOS. The built-in automatic screen rotation helps enhance Web surfing.
As for call quality, we found it somewhat unreliable when we tested this phone over T-Mobile's US 3G network. On some calls, voices sounded clear and natural, but on others, we heard a faint hiss. We also heard an echo on one call. Parties on the other end of the line said that the background noise was distracting when we stood on a busy street corner.
Battery life was below average: in our trials, the Sony Ericsson W995a had a talk time of just 4 hours and 9 minutes.
The Sony Ericsson Walkman W995a has multimedia features that surpass some of our top-ranked phones. Both the camera and the music player go above and beyond the capabilities of the current BlackBerry model, the HTC smartphones, and even the iPhone 3GS (the camera, mostly). But the fact that the W995a isn't a smartphone keeps us from praising the Sony Ericsson W995a too much - it just doesn't have the browser, keyboard, and email connectivity that the others have. And at a £379 unlocked price point, it can't compete with the less expensive subsidised phones. Compared with those of the models in our chart of unlocked phones, though, that price will appear less stratospheric.