Last year Sony Ericsson and Nokia went toe to toe when the Nokia N73 and the SE K800i fought for the accolade of best 3-megapixel cameraphone. Back then, the Sony shaded a hard-fought victory on points and we all looked forward to a rematch in 2007.
The 5-megapixel Nokia N95 entered the fray six months ago and we all waited for Sony Ericsson contender to leap into the ring. And waited. And waited. And waited…
Sony Ericsson did put forward the K810i but this was just a slightly polished version of its predecessor and still weighed it at a now comparatively middleweight 3 megapixels. Nokia had the 5 megapixel market to itself until Samsung recently rolled out its G600. Where was Sony Ericsson’s contender we all wondered..?
Well now the waiting is over with the arrival of the Sony Ericsson K850i. So let the big Nokia v Sony Ericsson slugfest commence!
Who needs an iPhone?
Except… it seems that Sony Ericsson’s new flagship cameraphone only has one eye on the Nokia N95 – and the other firmly set on the much-hyped, paradigm-shifting Apple iPhone.
Consider the evidence. The iPhone has a revolutionary touch-sensitive screen. So Sony Ericsson puts a check in the touch-sensitive box by grafting touch-sensitive soft menu buttons onto the K850i.
The iPhone has a built in accelerometer that detects the orientation of the phone and automatically reformats images into landscape or portrait accordingly. The K850i can do that too.
The iPhone has slick glassy smooth surfaces so, yes, the camera side of the K850i ditches its recently introduced lens cover to offer a smooth-facing surface. (This has a real down side, on which more later).
You can’t help feeling that these innovations are led more by a worried marketing department than any usability concerns or customer demands.
For instance, the two touch-sensitive buttons work well enough in practice but their presence only serves to emphasise the fact that the rest of the interface has been designed solely for key-based input.
So when you arrive at the main menu screen after having touched a virtual button, your first instinct it to touch one of the on-screen items to activate it rather than use the new-fangled direction keys. It’s like being offered the keys to a sweetshop and finding they only give you access to the porch.
However there are features where the K850i is streets ahead of the iPhone. It now offers full 3G/HSDPA internet connectivity so web surfing and downloads rattle past at up to 3.5 Mbits/second. This is especially important if you want to email photos taken at the full 2592 x 1944 resolution as they weigh in at a whopping 1.5 megabytes a shot.
The Sony Ericsson K850i’s camera also offers proper autofocus and a bright Xenon flash. There’s an upgraded camera interface that makes the operation of the camera features much more like Sony’s dedicated Cyber-shot digital cameras. All this means that – for the most part – the K850i takes exceedingly high quality photographs, about as good as those taken by a £200 digital camera a year ago.
Why the ‘most part’ caveat? Well for some strange reason the flash doesn’t always sync properly with the shutter. So an apparently brightly illuminated shot will appear as dim or even jet black on the screen.
Occasionally the flash doesn’t appear at all – resulting in much the same result. And no, there is no setting to ‘Alway use Flash’: your choices are Auto, Red-Eye Reduction or Off.
The net result is a brilliant but idiosyncratic phone. When it’s good, it’s very, very good – the best camera phone you can buy in fact. But when it’s bad it’s bloody awful. There’s no middle ground for the K850i’s camera.
On that subject we come to the new lens cover. This is the third iteration of this particular widget in 18 months and Sony still hasn’t figured it out. What we have now is a lens cover that lies beneath the exterior plastic of the K850i’s facia and which automatically opens when the camera is activated.
Now this may look cool when you’re handling the device in the shop but its limitations in practice soon become obvious. The first is simple usability – the previous manual lens cover on the K800i and K810i also doubled as a switch for the camera – open the cover and the camera turns on also. You could even do it with your eyes closed – or in the dark – by feeling for the raised slider.
With the K850i you now have to activate the camera via the onscreen menu or search for the recessed on/off switch for the camera – which requires looking, not feeling your way.
The other drawback is more basic. Placing the lens cover below the camera’s surface means that there is no protection from any smudges or specks. So if you want to ensure a perfect shot you’ll need to give the front of the camera a wipe (as well as mumbling a quick prayer to the God of Flash Consistency). This is not something you needed to do on the K800i, the K810i or even the Nokia N95.
A flawed photographic genius
So as a camera the K850i is a flawed genius. As a phone it’s pretty much standard mid-to-upmarket Sony Ericsson. Which means you get a solid, usable operating system, a well developed suite of contacts and calendaring applications and a reasonable, but non-Walkman 2.0, music player.
In other words it’s a great phone if you like the Sony Ericsson way of doing things, which we do. Apart from one thing in particular… the keypad.
For some unknown reason, the designers at Sony Ericsson keep coming up with ‘new and improved’ ways of recreating the standard mobile phone keypad. Not for them the simple 3 by 4 grid of rectangular keys with the number on top. Oh no.
This time they’ve gone even weirder than the Sony Ericsson W880i’s razor-sharp rice keys. We now have tiny – and we mean tiny – plastic squares with the labels listed to the left of them. Now this is distracting enough – though like the W880i you do eventually get used to them, if never completely comfortable.
What is even more bonkers though is the way the two rows at the top and bottom of the grid curve gently – so that the 2 is raised above the 1 and the 3 while the 0 is below the * and # keys.
Again, this is disorientating when you first encounter it – and even after two weeks of practise we found text messaging demanded your fixed attention if you wanted to avoid a succession of typos.
Of course your mileage may very – and perhaps there are some people who find tiny square keys set in misaligned rows provides a digital Nirvana. We found ourselves looking whistfully at the the simple classic keypad of somthing like the Nokia 6300 – or even the K850i’s arch rival, the N95. Sort it out Sony!
Another input innovation is rather more successful – the new main navigation key. In the past, Sony Ericsson – like most other brands – has used a four-direction rocker switch with a button in the centre. The K850i ditches this of a raised hollow oblong that surrounds the 2 and 5 keys. The central action button being replaced by a touch sensitive soft button at the bottom centre of the screen.
This allows the K850i to fit in two sets of real keys on each site of the top of the oblong. These are the Call and Shortcut keys to the left, and the Cancel and Call end keys to the right. The arrangement works well – but not so well that it justifies all the faffing about with the number keys.
The end result is that the K850i is more comfortable to use as a camera than it is as a phone. But as we’ve already indicated, it’s occasional erratic behaviour means that the handset is not a full-on replacement for a dedicated camera – yet. It may only be one shot in 10 that the flash mistimes – but that’s no compensation if the shot in question was the one you really wanted.
Overall then, the Sony Ericsson K850i – like its immediate predecessor the K810i – is something of a missed opportunity. You suspect that it was rushed out before all the rough edges had been smoothed out in order to meet the challenges of the N95 and the iPhone. It has the potential to be great but too many niggles drag it down to the crowded realms of the merely very good.
Sony Ericsson K850i info
Compare Sony Ericsson K850i deals
3G/HSDPA Internet connectivity
5 megapixel camera
Built in accelerometer
Tiny ‘rice’ keys
Verdict: A handset to rival the feature set of the N95 and iPhone despite a few missed opportunities
More info: Sony Ericsson K850i microsite
Recycle your phone: Sell Sony Ericsson K850i