Sony Ericsson seems determined to cover all bases with its Walkman phone range, with the budget Sony Ericsson W380i its latest attempt to corner the low-cost music mobile market.

Hot on the heels of the up-market ultra-slim W890i and multi-gigabyte packing W960i, the clamshell W380i delivers a more modest line-up of features at a considerably more wallet-friendly price – initially around £80 on pre-pay or free on contracts.

Even at this price, you get the familiar Walkman phone basics of a good quality music player, decent earphones, and a respectable 512MB Memory Stick Micro card to store your tunes. There are compromises on the cameraphone front though, with a basic 1.3-megapixel snapper included that doesn’t do video shooting – a feature some target younger users may miss.

Eye-catching new designs

Sony Ericsson has added a dash of individuality to its looks without going all garish; it’s stylishly eye-catching, coming in a range of colours - electric purple, magnetic grey and champagne black.

It’s quite compact, at 92(h) x 49(w) x 16(d) mm and light in the hand at 100g. A few design twists and novel gadgetry make it stand out from the budget crowd too.

Music controls are subtly moulded on the front of the shell, made from a Braille-like pattern of raised dots on the outside of the phone.

These are lined up under a concealed external display that glows out of the shell with track details in landscape orientation when the music player’s active, or with caller ID info when calls come in. A smart looking extra, it’s something we’ve seen before but it’s nicely implemented here.

A mobile phone with plenty of gadgets

Another new bit of gadgetry is Gesture Control - an option you can switch on to mute incoming calls or switch alarm ringers to snooze by swiping your hand back and forth above the phone’s camera. While far from essential (apart from first thing in the morning, perhaps), it’s one more gimmick other budget phones don’t have.

The shell of the phone is attractive, with a Walkman-family look to the angled bottom of the phone, and pimpled detailing next to the camera and the prominent loudspeaker, plus some contrasting colour detailing on a couple of buttons. These include a sliding key lock on the back to disable the music keys when the phone’s playing tunes in your pocket.

The keypad inside is unexcitingly straightforward – large keys that are reasonably responsive and a set of D-pad based navigation and control keys. The button arrangement isn’t the improved version used on some recent Sony Ericsson handsets (such as the W890i), but it’s easy to use none the less.

In addition to the D-pad, flanking softkeys, back and clear keys, there are quick access buttons for the web browser and the Activty Menu – Sony Ericsson’s useful speedy way to get to most used and useful functions.

Walkman takes centre stage

The display is an average 1.9-inch 176x220 pixel 262k-colour screen – not as detailed as some Walkmans, and graphics aren’t presented as slickly as some models higher up the range.

The external display is a rather small 36x128 pixels OLED panel, with enough room to present caller ID, standby status info, or music information from the Walkman player or RDS-equipped FM radio.

Naturally, the Walkman player is the main act here. One of the pre-loaded D-pad shortcuts is Walkman-logoed, providing a quick route to switching on and tuning in. The user interface has a familiar white-and-orange-on-black Walkman look.

Music  categories and options are more limited than on the pricier Walkmans, as you’d expect, but you still get an impressive user experience and all the essentials are well executed. It’s intuitive and well signposted as you move through the options, so you know where you are.

Intuitive interface

Tracks are arranged in regular MP3 player categories – artists, albums, tracks and playlists  - and you can display album cover art (if available) as well as track details when playing. Tunes keep playing when the clamshell is shut; you can employ the gently glowing music keys to skip through tracks, play or pause.

They do require a firm press rather than gentle dabbing, but there is a bit of haptic vibrating feedback to let you know the command button’s been pressed. The mini front display appears to let you know what’s playing then fades back behind the plastic until you touch buttons again.

The phone’s musical performance is excellent, and particularly impressive at this price point. The supplied earphones are better than the music phone norm, and you get clear precise sound with a pleasing dynamic range including a well-balanced amount of bass. You can adjust equaliser settings too, or bump up bass with Sony’s Mega Bass software in the settings.

Mixed sound quality

The classy sound can be enhanced further by adding your own higher quality headphones. Sony Ericsson has chosen again to put an all-purpose charger/data/headphone socket on the side with no additional standard 3.5mm headphone socket.

While this is an awkward and socket positioning when you have the phone in-pocket, at least Sony includes a 3.5mm jack adapter in its two-piece earphone set, so you can plug in your own Sennheisers etc. should you choose to.

Plugging in the supplied headphones also allow you to listen to the FM radio – frequency info is listed on the external display, and you can scroll through frequencies or stored stations with the external controls.

That loudspeaker on the front of the shell a bit of a let-down; it’s sound quality is tinny and poor, so unless you absolutely must share your tunes (without discernible bass), keep the headphones in.

Synch with your PC

The 512MB Memory Stick Micro card supplied can be loaded up with tracks in-phone in the regular Walkman way, using the supplied Sony Walkman Media Manager software and USB cable connected to a PC. Alternatively, you can drag and drop tracks onto the card’s memory in file transfer mode.

You can also search for details of tracks your around you or on the radio quickly and easily using Sony Ericsson’s neat TrackID user-friendly song identification application.

While music gets a big thumbs-up, the same can’t be said of the W380i’s disappointing camera. With an entry-level1.3-megapixel resolution, you’re limited with picture capture quality, and as you’d expect, there’s no autofocus system or flash to improve matters. Results aren’t great, though you can take reasonable snaps if you’re not intending to print them out.

Disappointing camera

Low light performance, however, is very poor. You do need good light to get the best out of the lens. The user interface is basic too – you have to hold the phone in portrait mode and frame shots in a central strip of the display.

Sony Ericsson does include a selection of settings tweaks and effects you can use, plus a zoom option. And you can upload images straight to a Blogger blog account. But this isn’t a phone for someone who has imaging as a buying priority.

An attractive feature set

For a budget phone, the W380i offers an attractive set of stock features. Although it doesn’t capture video, you can play back video clips you’ve downloaded or received as messages.

Stereo Bluetooth is included, there’s email support, plus an xHTML browser, with support too for RSS feeds, so you can get web-based info updates from your favourite sites and blogs without having to spend time browsing using the GPRS-speed browser.

There’s a voice recorder here, plus a standard set of Sony Ericsson organiser apps (calendar, tasks, notes, timer, stopwatch, calculator and a code memo app to store PINs and passwords). 

Strong battery life

The music playing ability extends too to a Music Mate 2 app – a chord guide for guitar and piano. Three playable games are included too, Extreme Air Snowboarding, QuadraPop and SIMs 2.

As a non-3G phone with limited power-sapping multimedia applications –the music player excepted – the W380i delivers a decent power performance. Sony Ericsson quotes best-scenario figures of up to 300 hours in standby or 7 hours of talktime.

Our average usage trials gave us around three days of calls and moderate feature play between charges, though users playing the Walkman regularly will certainly have to power-up more frequently. Call quality was reliable too with a no-nonsense performance.

Sony Ericsson does good on a budget

This budget Walkman phone package offers plenty for someone looking for a decent music mobile on a very tight budget – provided they’re not too concerned with fine imaging quality.

Despite the low cost, Sony Ericsson has managed to come up with a fresh and distinctive design that also includes a few talking-point features to grab its target younger audience.

The camera here is disappointing for a mobile maker that also boasts Cyber-shot branded camera-centric phones, and some users may recoil at the lack of video capture and other missing frills. Elsewhere, however, standard features are reasonably well represented.

It may not have it all – you’d expect compromises at this sort of price - but the W380i still manages to deliver where it counts as a Walkman music mobile, with a fine quality audio performance that’s astonishingly good for such an affordable handset.