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Sony Ericsson P990i

2007, crap, p990, review

I've been a user of the Sony Ericsson P series phones for the last few years, and they were the first venture away from Nokia phones. I saw the P800, and despite being generally impressed with the form factor, the screen was horrible and thus waited until the P900 came out.

Having been a user of Psion (also Symbian) products in the past, the phone was reasonably easy to use (not quite up to Psion standards, but hey) and worked well as a phone. They had time to work on the OS, and despite a few lock-ups, the phone was generally pretty stable.

My P900 still works today, but the plastic is a bit scratched and the keys are starting to lose their bounce, but otherwise is a perfectly fine phone to use. I can browse the internet via my laptop or Opera (the on-board web browser was crap) and on the whole I was very happy. It even worked with the Mac syncing (after a fashion) although the built-in SyncML was a waste of time with Apple providing their own Sync app.

When the P910 came out, I was tempted -- but realistically the only difference between the P900 and P910 was the processor speed; noticably faster in a side-by-side comparison, but not really relevant. The keyboard on the back of the flip looked tacky, but with the screen resolution it meant that the screen could be used for a full screen estate. Instead, I (foolishly) held on for a P990.

The P990 is a triumph of design over usability. It is the Flash-enabled, no-HTML-version, JavaScript-redirecting equivalent of those crappy websites (hello Clarks) that you spend all of two minutes trying to find out where the link to the non-Flash site is before giving up and buying it from a competitor's instead. See how menus fade into view, thus preventing quick navigation of the menus themselves! Wonder at the fact that it takes longer to wake up from a cold start than the laptop that I'm using to type this on! Laugh at the 5-way joystick that enables you to press several buttons simultaneously even when you don't want to!

If you haven't bought yourself this phone already, save yourself the bother. Wait until someone brings out something with higher usability, such as a couple of tin cans with string between them. (Update: Apple has finally launched the iPhone. Guess what my next phone will be?)

With that setting the mood of this piece quite nicely out of the way, here's how it fares up as a phone. I've split it into several sections; the review of what's good and bad on the phone itself, and also for those other P9xx users what to expect when downgrading to this phone.

  • The good. The phone certainly feels sturdily built. The existing P900 felt a bit plasticy when new, and showed its age over time. Although the P990 looks as if it's mostly metallic, in reality it's plastic too. In fact, only the keypad buttons are metallic, though since these were the things that I had problems with last time, perhaps that's a good thing. (Ironically, I'm typing this on a laptop that is predominantly metallic casing with plastic keys ... or perhaps that should be Aluminiumically).

    The screen, whilst brighter than before, is actually around the same size, if not a bit smaller than a P900. It also comes shipped with a 64mb memory card, though unlike my P900, the P990 memory card wasn't Sony branded. It is, of course, the Sony-Not-Invented-Here format; but at least you can use the P990 as an über-expensive Sony-NIH-card-reader.

    The keypad is designed for smaller thumbs than mine, but the keys are backlit and the typing isn't too bad. There's also extended predictive text input; you can type the beginning of a word, and it finds the words that begin with that prefix. Whilst it is quite useful in some cases, most of the time there's only one word that would make sense anyway, and if you're wanting to type a short word (e.g. 'go', 'to', 'of') then the predictive text really gets in the way. It can be quite impossible to type a short word and have it be correct; if you want to type 'go' then it may suggest 'homeless', and even if you do a space after typing 'g' and then 'o' it still puts the prefix of 'ho' in there for you. It can save some time, but more often than not causes pain. I'm still leaving it in the 'good' pile though, primarily because it is a bit light on the 'good' things without it.

    The wireless works. OK, so it's only 802.11b, but you're unlikely to get faster speeds over a broadband connection to the phone anyway (and the rendering engine would take the time) so anything faster isn't really necessary; however, an 802.11g would be better for two reasons: the power requirements could actually be reduced (because it transmits for a shorter bursts) and any other 802.11g devices don't get clobbered. If an 802.11g network detects an 802.11b device talking to it, everyone gets 802.11b. (Update: Macs now come with 802.11(pre)n. I'm getting me one of those :-)

    There's a 'lock/unlock keys' spring-loaded switch on the side. Granted, that was a necessary addition since the 5-way dial provided that feature before, but it's actually pretty handy. It's probably the one novel feature of this phone that other manufacturers might like to pay notice to.

  • The bad. Where to begin? Well, the UI is diabolical; there's too much focus on making it look pretty (i.e. people who design things but never use them) with fading menus, blobby UIs and the like. The P900 and P910 were much, much better than this pile of crap.

    There's a dock-like bar down the side (fixed, you can't change it) with some icons in, and although there's a web browser there, you can't open it up to an 'empty' page -- it insists on giving you some options (e.g. Orange home, Orange crap, More Orange crap) and you can't even add your own fast links to it.

    Oh, and although the screen is smaller, there's about a 2px difference between when you've got the flip open and the flip closed, with the result that some apps don't work when the flip is closed or the flip is open. It's not even as if the flip being closed makes any real difference; they could have made the screen a bit smaller still, or had the flip a bit smaller, and done away with this flip-open-flip-closed mode. And -- this is the funny bit -- the calculator app only works in flip open mode. You know, when the numbers are on the other side of the phone. Where they are inaccessible. You wouldn't want to make it easy for people using a calculator to type in numbers, would you?

    The GMail app doesn't work. It works fine on a sister Sony Ericsson K800, so it's not like the app itself is to blame; it's just that after several years of delays, they can't get the firmware right on the P990. To be honest, you can imagine the conversations in the board room: "We've spent years of money developing this phone; we might as well recuperate some of our costs by flogging it to unsuspecting buyers whilst we ditch the range." There will never be another Sony P series phone -- this has killed the experience for pretty much anyone who used to like the range. Only Windows Mobile and the Apple iPhone are in the market now for smart phones.

  • The Ugly. The original 5-way scroll wheel on the side has been replaced with a more hobbled 3-way scroll wheel, which means that you can't do as much with it than the old phone. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for this, although there might be arguments for reducing failures; the jog wheel on my older P900 was starting to get a bit ropey. What's worse, though, is that there's a large plastic protuberance which damages the visual aesthetics of the phone and actually makes it pretty difficult to use the wheel anyway. It almost looks like a plastic cancerous growth on the left side of the phone near the middle of the screen (see picture); I've considered taking a file to it to get rid of it.

    The multi-purpose jog-wheel has been superseded by a 5-way jog dial on the keypad itself; therefore, if you're the kind of person who used it without a keypad before, you're screwed. There's also a little protuberance that is the middle button, but unless you happen to have the fingers of a 5 year old, pressing the centre button is pretty much guaranteed to result in one of the up/down/left/right buttons at the same time.

    And speaking of buttons, the two 'action' buttons on the left/right side of the navigator are actually four buttons; pressing the top-half is a different button from pressing the bottom-half. Not only is this crazy, but the weirdos who designed the UI actually decided to screw with the end user; when a call comes in, the left button is 'accept call' whilst the right button is 'reject call'. Now, that wouldn't be so bad, but the bottom half of the left button is actually the 'back' button, which doubles as a 'reject' when an incoming call comes in. And, much like the navigator, these buttons are in fact really easy to mis-press, especially seeing as the button is contoured to lead your thumb to press the centre of the two.

    Yes, that's right ladies and gentlemen; Sony have actually managed to make a phone which is far easier to accidentally reject calls than it is to answer them. Mind you, if people are phoning up Sony to complain about this phone, maybe it's all part of the plan. But don't you think someone, somewhere would have noticed that if you had put the 'reject' on the left, and 'accept' on the right, then this would never have happened? (Go on. Guess which way they were round on the P900/P910. I'll give you a clue; they weren't the same way around as the P990.)

    I actually held out for a 3G phone, and this was one of the reasons why I didn't get a P910. What a stupid idea that was. I work in London, where you'd expect there to be reasonable 3G coverage, but unless you work outside, forget it. 3G just fails dismally in this regard. And it's not like 3G is used for just video calls or whatever; if you're on a 3G phone, the voice runs over 3G too (makes sense, I suppose). But the net result was that when I first had my phone, I virtually could not get a signal unless I was standing on one foot with my head on my side, plastered to a window. I was about to send the phone back when I realised the problem -- the phone was trying to use the 3G network for voice calls, and the signal for 3G was virtually non-existant. Fortunately, it's possible to switch the connected network from 3G+GSM to just GSM (or, if you don't want to be disturbed, 3G only :-). Once I'd done that, I actually could receive phone calls (fairly handy for a phone, wouldn't you say?) OK, so the 3G worked slightly faster for an internet connection than the GPRS does, but the coverage is so patchy that given a choice between slightly faster pages and no phone calls, it's fairly clear what a phone should do. In any case, unlike the P900 which you can use as a bluetooth modem for your computer, it doesn't seem possible to do this with the P990, though that might be a firmware issue (but as I said, this is the last of a dying breed; don't expect Sony to update this firmware. It's dead and buried).

    It now actually takes more clicks to do general operations. Whereas before you could send a message with just a couple of clicks, now every time you want to send a message another little menu fades into view asking whether you mean SMS or MMS. And given the fade-in, it actually adds a small but noticeable amount of time to do this. Why they couldn't have had two menu items (Send message as SMS/Send message as MMS) I don't know.

    There's no speakerphone. Well, there is, but by the time you get to it the other person has either hung up or you've disconnected them accidentally. Before, on the P900, you could press 'Menu/Speakerphone', or if that was too difficult, just open the flip. That was great for hands free operation, say, in the car. Now, you have to wait until the person answers (you can't do it whilst the call is being made because the menu says 'Cancel', which is gibberish for 'hang up') and then shout at them to say that you're just putting them on speakerphone. You then have to navigate to 'Menu/Transfer sound/Speaker/Select' (of course). And, just to make sure that the P990 is never a success, they put the 'Menu' on one button, and the 'Transfer sound' a menu item that you have to select with the rocker. I've used the speakerphone maybe twice in the three months that I've had it, and co-incidentally it takes about a month and a half to navigate through the menu items to turn the speakerphone on. I shall therefore no doubt enjoy using the speakerphone at least ten more times in the remaining 15 months of my contract.

If you were an existing P9xx user, the P990 is a definite downgrade. Not only has Sony replaced all their connectors on the phones (so none of the chargers that you have will work with it), the on-board processor/OS is different, so none of your apps will work with it either. There's also a lot of minor niggles; the 5-way jog dial is the most obvious: but minor things like the fact that the stylus is now on the other side of the phone; they've swapped the answer/reject calls to be on opposite sides to make it easier for you to accidentally reject calls; the fact that the speakerphone doesn't; the reorganising of the menus to make it more difficult to select what you want to do are just some of the things that you'll find when moving over.

So, the P990 is basically Sony's attempt to recuperate some of their costs before getting out of the smartphone market. They've basically lost to Blackberry for corporate users and Microsoft's Windows Mobile devices (which, after several false starts, are actually starting to look good now; you know, like not losing all your contacts if the battery runs out). UIQ3 is dead; none of the other operators went with it (smart move) and any sentimental attachment to the Symbian platform is long over. The fact that applications need to be rebuilt for the P990, so you can't take any of your applications with you, means that if you've got an existing P9xx series, you're better off without it. You're going to have to buy the software again; so whether you're buying it for a Sony or a Windows Mobile device isn't particularly relevant. Or, you could start saving now for an Apple iPhone. I know I will.