Review of the Ericsson P800


The Sony-Ericsson P800 is a PDA/phone that uses an optional flip cover that makes the unit look and feel like a standard cell phone one minute, and a full-screen PDA the next. If you want it to be in PDA mode all of the time, the flip is removable.

Last Updated: 29-Dec-2003

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

General

I was given a chance to live the P800 for a couple weeks, courtesy of Fido. They provided me with the phone and a SIM so that I could put the phone through all of its paces. That gave me a chance to really get a feel for what the phone was capable of, and who might find it of value.

Let me begin by admitting that for first time I had to change my usual phone first point-of-view, since the P800 isnít the type of product you would buy if what you really needed was a phone. The P800 is first-and-foremost a pocket-sized computer with a permanent mobile connection to the Internet. It also provides its user with phone functionality, but that is clearly a secondary feature. For that reason I am going to review this product as data device first and a phone second.

To provide the user with the greatest amount of screen real estate the P800 has a screen that fills all the front face. That left no room for a keypad, but in order to provide one so that the device would be used like a standard cell phone it comes with a rather imaginative flip that contains a set of normal cell phone keys. These arenít real keys however, but instead just pins that press against the screen below to actuate their designated functionality. For those who donít need the keypad it is possible to remove it completely and used the P800 in full PDA mode. A virtual keypad is provided for phone use.

If it werenít for the existence of the P900 I might be a bit more charitable about the fake keypad. However, it has a distinct lack of feel, despite a concerted effort on Ericssonís part to give the keys positive click when pressed. I found it a bit mushy and indistinct, though to be fair, it worked as well as one might expect. The P900 offers a real electrical keypad built into the flip, which has much better tactile feel.

The screen is a TFT device with a resolution of 208 x 144 pixels. That isnít particularly impressive resolution, especially when you consider that the Sharp GX22 has a smaller screen boasting an astounding resolution of 320 x 240. The P800 only supports 4,096 colors, which means that graphic images (especially photographs) donít look quite right. However, for most non-graphic work it is more than enough.

The screen isnít like many of the other Ericsson color displays, in that it can be seen very clearly in bright sunlight. In fact, it looks pretty good in sunlight, and it can be seen quite readily in non-direct outdoor lighting conditions as well.

Sadly the colors look a bit washed out. The following images were photographed on the P800 and on my LCD computer monitor using the same GIF. Notice the dramatic difference between the colors on both images. Once again, a comparison to the GX22 screen is hard to avoid, as the GX22 looks remarkably close to the quality one gets on an LCD computer monitor. Granted, the GX22 is a completely different animal, but the point of the comparison is that Ericsson could have done so much better. Note however that the colors on the P900 look markedly richer.

Colors on the P800 Colors on a Computer LCD Monitor

Like any self-respecting PDA the input is provided through a touch-sensitive screen. A small stylus (that lives on the right-hand side of the phone) provides excellent accuracy. Throughout my entire time with the P800 I was always very happy with the overall accuracy and predictability of the stylus and screen combination. As for text input, that could be achieved using either handwriting recognition, or with a virtual keypad. The virtual keypad worked exceptionally well, but because of its extraordinarily small size using it required 100% of my attention.

When using the phone in phone mode, the P800 provides a terrific multi-function wheel on the left side of the phone. The wheel is rotated to move up and down through menus and lists, and it can be pressed to select items. However, it can also be flipped backward to cancel an operation or flipped forward to access the context menus. I quickly became used to it, and I found that it worked exceptionally well. The wheel also doubles as a volume control when talking on the phone, or when playing audio or video clips.

In terms of memory, the P800 comes with 16 MB of internal storage, and it supports the Sony Memory Stick (full-sized, and DUO types). My P800 came with an extra 16 MB memory stick, which I presume Fido provides with the P800 as standard. That gave my device 32 MB of memory. The memory sticks can be live swapped without powering down the phone.

The P800 is capable of displaying or executing a very wide range of files types, including sound files (MP3, WAV, AMR, and MIDI), still images (JPG, GIF, BMP, and PNG), and video (MP4 only). It also has viewers to look at Microsoft Word documentations, Microsoft eXcell files, PDFs, and many other document types. Certainly other viewers and or players could be added to the device from 3rd party vendors.

Because the P800 is a connected device, it supports all sorts of message formats, including SMS, MMS, and POP3/IMAP e-mail. Because of the phoneís wide range of supported file types it is capable of playing or displaying virtually any type of email attachment. Just like a home computer, it can detach and save email attachments to memory. You can also attach any file you can store to an outgoing email message.

Also provided is a built-in 640 x 480 camera, though I wasnít particularly pleased with its quality. One of its biggest problems (which I also noted on the P900) was that focus was only sharp in the central area of the pictures. At the fringes the focus got a little blurry. I made sure that the lens was spotless before taking the pictures, but even that didnít help. Surprisingly Ericssonís MCA-25 attachable camera (which I tested on a T300) was a better quality device.

Having said that however, I do recognize that the purpose of a camera on such a phone is to provide small pictures to use with internal features. For example, you would use it to take photographs of your callers to use the Picture ID feature. It can also be used to take quick photos of something prior to emailing those photos to someone else. Iíve provided photos at the end of this review that compare the P800 with a Nikon Coolpix 990 (set to 640 x 480).

GPRS connectivity is only 4 + 1, which means that uplink speeds will not be especially great. This can be an issue if you send a lot of emails with big attachments. Downlink speeds should be markedly better (and certainly as fast) as any other GPRS phone presently on the market.

However, the biggest drawback to doing a lot of data transfer isnít really a fault of the phone per se. Both GPRS and CDMAís 1X are both saddled with a rather nasty limitation. Phones cannot transfer data and carry on voice conversations at the same time. This means that all incoming calls will go directly to voicemail when a data session is taking place. If you do a lot of data work, you will either need a second phone to receive calls, or youíll have to put up with calling people back a lot. The P800 warns you of this by displaying an icon on the screen that looks like a telephone headset with a cross through it. When this icon is display, no incoming calls can be received.

The phone comes with a 1000 mAh Lithium-Ion battery, which in terms of pure standby (no use of the phone, just leaving it sitting around waiting for a call) you can easily get between 3 and 6 days of use. However, if you start doing some heavy-duty PDA use, you can run the battery down in as little as 4 hours. The enemy is likely that large and bright backlight.

The phone comes loaded with many of the popular applications youíd commonly use, such an audio player, video player, HTML web browser, contacts manager, calendar, tasks, voice memo recorder, calculator, etc. You can also upload your own applications, either in Symbian O/S format, or Java applets. You are limited only to the amount of memory you put in your P800.

The HTML web browser allows you to surf to the same web pages you go to on your home computer. The screen is a little skinny for comfortably navigating standard web pages and it makes one wonder why Ericsson didnít provide a landscape mode for browsing. It is often better to have a screen that is wider than it is tall. Possibly 3rd party browsers are available to address this oversight.

But what about PC connectivity? Well, aside from both infrared and Bluetooth, you can also put the P800 on the Sync Stand that comes with the phone. However, donít let the USB connector fool you, the speed of the connection isnít anywhere near the approximately 12 megabits per second that USB 1.1 is capable of. I measured the transfer rate to be approximately 80 kilobits (which is barely twice the speed of GPRS). Itís ridiculous that Ericsson couldnít do better than that.

With the PC Suite loaded into your computer you can access the various files in the P800 as a device in the left pane of Windows Explorer. This allows you to easily drag-and-drop files to and from the phone. That makes it easy to download your photographs or upload MP3s and other files you want to take with you on the road. However, not all files in the phone are accessible. For example, all of the text/image files created by the Jotter application donít appear in any of the phoneís directories.

RF Performance and Audio Quality

Now that weíve covered all of the great data-centric things that P800 can do, how does it stack up as a phone? Iím happy to say that it does quite well in this regard, but there are a few sour notes that make it a poor choice for someone who demands excellence.

RF sensitivity is very good, and much better that weíve been seeing from Ericsson over the past few years. While not quite as capable as my Nokia 6310i at pulling in fringe signals, the difference isnít all that big. Over-the-road performance and handoff handling are both excellent, and so I have to give the P800 very high marks for RF capability. This is just as important when using GPRS as it is when taking phone calls.

Audio quality isnít quite up to the task however. Overall reproduction is decidedly unpolished and scratchy, with a sound that is reminiscent of a cheap piezo-electric speaker. Fortunately the tonal balance is quite good, and the earpiece volume is generally more than adequate. Another thing that bothered me about the sound of the phone was the presence of Sidetone. This is a sample of the microphone input fed to the earpiece. In quiet environments it isnít noticeable, but in noisy environments it can be downright annoying. It isnít as bad as other phones Iíve recently tested, such as the Nokia 3595. Outgoing sound quality is quite good by comparison.

So as a phone the P800 is a bit of mixed bag. It has almost faultless RF performance, but lackluster audio quality. Still, it sounds better than a lot of phones Iíve tested, and since the phone functionality is really only a secondary feature of this model, Iím not sure that itís really bad enough to put anyone off buying a P800. If you are going to be doing a lot of data-centric things, and only a bit of talking, then the P800 is a great phone. However, the P900 improves the audio in a number of key ways, and so if you also need a stellar phone to go along with your data-centric device, you might want to invest the extra money and effort and get a P900.

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Note the focus problems in the corners of the pictures. These problems were not caused by dirty lens, as the lens was thoroughly cleaned before hand. The same focus problem can be seen on the sample picture I took with the P900.

Photo taken with the P800
Same view taken with a Nikon Coolpix 990 in 640x480 mode

Now look at a blown-up section of the above photos. Notice the weird pixilation and lack of detail in the P800 photograph, despite coming from a picture with the same 640x480 resolution:

P800 Coolpix 990

 

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