- Strong range of smartphone software
- push email support
- very good handwriting recognition
- 3G video calling
- business card scanner.
- some serious user interface issues
Sony Ericsson’s P990i was announced in October last year, and we have been waiting to see it ever since. The handset has finally surfaced, although as we wrote this review no UK network operators had confirmed a price. It was listed, SIM-free, by the supplier of our review handset, Expansys, for £549.95 (inc VAT).
The P990i bears a strong resemblance to earlier devices in the same series, the most recent of these being the P910i. The most obvious similarities are its bulk and the small flip section that contains a number pad. This flip section covers a little under half of the front main body of the P990i, obscuring about a fifth of the screen and completely covering a small QWERTY keypad.
When the flip section is pulled down, the P990i is more than 150mm tall. With it pushed tight to the main body of the smartphone it measures a more acceptable but still tall 114mm. It is 57mm wide and 25mm deep (including the flip). At 150g the P990i is weighty as well as large.
You can remove the flip section, and Sony Ericsson provides a small screwdriver, printed instructions, and a cover for the section of casing that's exposed when you take the flip away. Without a hardware-based numberpad, the P990i’s touch screen is used for number dialing calls.
The QWERTY keyboard is backlit pale blue and looks rather pretty against the silver of the P990i’s casing, but that does not distract from the fact that it is small. Individual keys are for the most part about 4mm wide and 5mm tall, spaced about 1mm apart. The bottom row, which includes the space bar, is made up of wider, but not taller keys. Compared to the keys on Sony Ericsson’s clever M600i or HTC’s TyTN they are miniscule, and if you find the keys on a BlackBerry device a little small for comfort, these may be impractical for you.
An Alt key on the bottom row of keys provides access to embedded numbers and characters. Unfortunately these are coloured only a slightly darker shade of blue than the keys themselves, making them quite difficult to pick out.
P-series handsets have always had jog dial wheels, and the P990i is no exception. It sits on the upper left edge of the device, with a back button rather a long way beneath it: a little thumb contortion is required to get to the button. Lower down on this edge is a slider that locks (and unlocks) both the touch screen and keys, while above the wheel is a media player button for controlling the built-in music player and FM radio.
The lens for the main 2 megapixel camera is on the back of the device, protected by a circular cap that you twist round to expose it and nudge the P990i’s screen into becoming a viewfinder.
On the bottom of the right edge is a button that, when depressed half way, invokes autofocus. A shot is taken when you depress this button fully. Towards the top of the right edge is the ‘Internet Button’. By default this launches the built-in Web browser, but you can change it to activate a finite number of other applications.
Internal memory can be expanded with Sony Memory Stick Duo and PRO Duo cards, and a covered card slot is on the right edge.
Sony Ericsson provides the PC Suite software for local synchronisation with a PC, and also includes a docking cradle. These days cradles are rarely shipped with smartphones or handhelds, and anyone wanting to view the screen of their device while it sits on a desk will find this welcome.
The P990i is well catered-for as far as communications is concerned, although it could do better. It has tri-band rather than quad-band GSM, and while the handset supports 3G and GPRS, it's not HSDPA-ready. This means that as this faster standard starts to roll out this year and next, the P990i won’t have access to its ‘mobile broadband’ data speeds (currently up to 1.8Mbps).
Bluetooth, infrared and Wi-Fi are all present, but the latter is only 11Mbps 802.11b rather than 54Mbps 802.11g. Bluetooth support includes A2DP, which means it can send music in stereo to a headset that conforms to the standard.
The headline figure of 60MB of internal memory is misleading. Our review unit had just 16MB free out of the box. This can be expanded with Sony Memory Stick and Memory Stick Duo cards. One was supplied with our review unit, but at just 64MB it is paltry compared to the size of cards that regularly ship with smartphones these days.
A front facing camera caters for video calls, and during testing we found these to be clear and glitch-free. RSS feeds are supported, and the Web browser is very good, with a number of useful features. You can, for example, open URLs in separate pages, flicking between them by tapping on screen icons.
Also, using a Windows Mobile Pocket PC style ‘tap and hold’ menu, you can both remove extraneous icons from the display so that you can see more of a Web page, and flick the screen in and out of landscape mode, thereby (in theory) minimising the amount of horizontal scrolling required when viewing pages. You can zoom in and out of pages to get an overview of them or see some important detail, but we couldn’t find a way of reducing the on-screen text size to help with overall display on the small (230 x 320 pixel, 42mm x 55mm) display.
One feature the professional user might find handy is the business card scanner. This employs the main 2 megapixel camera to photograph business cards, then converts text from the photo into a contact book entry. During testing it made a pretty good job of this, even when working with cards with coloured backgrounds that even dedicated business card scanners can find difficult to manage.
The camera itself impressed too. With a macro mode and autofocus as well as a flash and a decent range of filters, it offers a reasonable amount of flexibility. The shots it produced were of fairly good quality, if a little dark on the automatic setting.
Business users may also benefit from the PDF reader and QuickOffice reader and editor for Microsoft Word and Excel documents. Importantly, you can use the P990i with its GSM module turned off, so that these features are accessible in situations where phones are not allowed.
The P990i supports push email and can handle POP mail; it gathers email, MMS and SMS messages in a single screen along with a shortcut to voicemail.
This is just a smattering of the huge array of applications and features built into the P990i. The remainder includes (and this is not an exhaustive list) calendar, contacts and to do list managers that can be synchronised with a host computer, media players for digital music and video, FM radio, calculator, unit converter, stopwatch and timer. A couple of games are included too.
Battery life impressed greatly, with a little over 15 hours of continuous music delivered through the loudspeaker when played from a memory card. The screen turned off after a short while, which helped to prolong battery life, but nonetheless this is an impressive result. In everyday use we found three days between battery charges was perfectly achievable.
Despite the impressive feature set and battery life, there are some major issues with the Sony Ericsson P990i, and these relate to usability.
Some of the most significant of these relate to the flip. If you want to use this smartphone you are going to need to spend a fair amount of time getting used to two different ways of operating it.
With the flip up, for example, the touchscreen is inactive, so you have to use the trio of softmenus, and side control buttons such as the jog dial. You also have access to a reduced application set and a reduced set of features within some applications.
For example, the handset includes a Task Manager, designed to allow you both to switch between opened applications and close applications that are either running or commanding some system memory. The former option returns you to a previously used application in precisely the position at which you left it. These are both useful features, but with the flip up only the application switcher is available.
Coupled with the fact that flip-up mode covers about a fifth of the screen and therefore requires a different screen layout, this could make for a steeper than usual learning curve for new users.
There are other issues that annoy. Scrolling through lists with the jog wheel, such as when choosing an application to open, is unsatisfactory because of the way highlights seem to glide through lists with a momentum of their own, continuing to move after you’ve stopped scrolling. We missed a number of menu selections until we learned to slow down and double check that what we wanted was actually highlighted. This can be mitigated by working in touch-screen mode, with the flip down or removed, and on balance we’d suggest the latter.
And a final grumble. The user interface employs a number of very small tappable icons, sometimes located in corners of the screen. These are not the easiest to tap at with a finger, and some users may find they need to resort to the stylus when, in the real world, we all know that finger tapping is usually the fastest, easiest and therefore most often employed way of interacting with touch screens.
These are all annoying points in their own right, but doubly so because the P990i has such great heritage and shows such promise in its feature set.