Slipping the stylishly slim W890i music mobile phone into its Walkman phone line-up, Sony Ericsson is aiming to repeat the W880i’s feat of combining classy minimalist design with crowd-pleasing functionality.

And with this successor boasting an upgraded feature set, enhanced 3G HSDPA high-speed data connectivity, and a smattering of well-judged design refinements, the Sony Ericsson W890i is a refresh that could well have even broader appeal than the super-slim original.

The latest and greatest Walkman

Naturally, with any Walkman phone, the music player takes centre stage. Sony Ericsson has loaded up the Sony Ericsson W890i with the latest Walkman 3.0 software, and supplies the phone with a 2GB Memory Stick Micro (M2) card in-box. An FM radio is included in the spec too. But the W890i isn’t just about tune-playing.

Camera quality has been boosted, with a 3.2-megapixel shooter squeezed into the back panel (albeit still without a flash). 

The Sony Ericsson W890i’s 3G HSDPA data speeds promise faster downloading of content and an improved web browsing experience, while video calling is possible using its secondary front camera.

Interestingly too, Sony Ericsson has pre-loaded a Google Maps mobile application which delivers a handy location mapping, satellite imaging and navigation service without onboard GPS.

Slim but sturdy

Sony Ericsson hasn’t tinkered too much with the fine-looking W880i’s design, although it has toned down some of the bolder elements. Its dimensions are comparable to the W880i – 104(h) x 47(w) x 10(d) mm and weighing a satisfyingly slight 78g.

Despite its thinness, the Sony Ericsson W890i’s casing is all classy brushed metal, which gives both a luxury-crafted air and a robust feel to the phone.

There’s been a subtle smoothing of the design, with more curves where there was previously sharp angles, and the colour scheme is more restrained – it’s available in espresso black, sparkling silver or mocha brown - without the vibrant orange that’s something of a Walkman phone trademark.

A more practical mobile phone

Pleasingly, Sony Ericsson has reworked the Sony Ericsson W890i’s numberpad, replacing the W880i’s ultra-thin and admittedly funky keys with a set of larger, less cutting-edge - but more user-practical - number buttons.

These make button tapping much easier, and the keys are nice and responsive to press.

This general smoothing off, toning down and refinement of the W880i’s more radical design touches gives the impression that the Sony Ericsson W890i is being targeted at a more mainstream consumer.

A simple layout

Similarly, the control key set-up below the 2-inch 262K-colour QVGA display has been given a functional makeover too. The round central navigation D-pad still doubles up for menu control and music player operation (there are music controls etched on to them).

The keys surrounding them, though, have been simplified, giving a more conventional and intuitive feel to the buttonry, with regular Call and End buttons added.

As well as softkeys flanking the D-pad, there’s an Active menu shortcut key (taking you into a handy menu of shortcuts to most-used or useful functions and applications), plus a standard clear key. It’s a small but tidy change that again will make the user experience for a newcomer to Sony Ericssons that little bit better

The D-pad can be used for additional shortcuts, or you can simply hit the menu button to enter the straightforward icon-led grid-style main menu.

Negotiating the apps and functionality onboard is straightforward. There is also an onboard wizard for initially setting up email, and help to find your way around apps easily.

Bundles of memory

On the side of the phone, there’s a fast-access camera button and a dedicated Walkman key to initiate the music player.

The phone’s M2 memory card slot has been hidden away for safe keeping under the rear panel rather than behind a plastic bung on the side (as used on the W880i).

It may be a hassle if you’re constantly switching cards, but realistically for most users it’ll be no big deal; you don’t have to take out the battery to swap cards, and the 2GB card supplied in-box will carry up to 1800 tracks before you have to start swapping for more tunes.

Great earphones supplied

One not-so-good design element remains the same though - the side connector slot for the charger, data lead and headphones. Using Sony Ericsson’s relatively chunky connector, it makes for a pocket-unfriendly arrangement for listening to tunes when the headphones are in place. A top or bottom of the phone socket would be far more practical.

As usual with Sony Ericsson Walkman mobiles, the stereo headset supplied with the Sony Ericsson W890i is of much higher quality than most bundled music mobile earphones., coming with a selection of rubber earbuds for a snug sound-isolating fit.

They’re also a two-part set, with an adapter for a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the cable that plugs into the phone. This means you can improve your music listening experience simply by plugging in better ‘phones.

This though isn’t as essential as on some lesser-equipped mobiles. The Walkman player on the Sony Ericsson W890i delivers a top class music performance, and the supplied earphones support it pretty well too.

Excellent music player

The player is capable of producing a very detailed performance, and you can adjust equaliser settings – and add Mega Bass, if you want to boost lower frequencies. Naturally, plugging in quality headphones will add much more to the quality level, but the in-box ear-gear is certainly well above average.

The loudspeaker, on the other hand, is not so good – it’s particularly tinny.

The impressive overall music player performance is complemented by a polished user interface that’s efficient, easy to use and graphically attractive.

You can sync your music from a PC using supplied Sony Ericsson’s PC Suite Media Manager software and the supplied USB cable, or copy files by dragging and dropping tracks with the phone in mass storage mode, or send files via Bluetooth.

Download music with ease

With HSDPA, getting tracks downloaded over the air is quick and easy – just a matter of a few seconds – either from a mobile network’s music service or via Sony Ericsson’s (currently quite limited) PlayNow and m-buzz music portals.

The Walkman Player 3.0 software lists tracks under artists, albums, playlists, genre, year, audiobooks, podcasts and SensMe – Sony Ericsson’s mood-and-tempo categorisation option.

SensMe allows you to select tracks for a playlist by choosing songs with a similar mood and tempo, defined by the user in Media Manager.

Simple interface

Album art is supported on the Sony Ericsson W890i, and the functional music controls on the D-pad are a breeze to work. The addition of the FM radio here is welcome too, as is Sony Ericsson’s excellent TrackID song identification application that samples tracks and gets detailed info back in seconds.

The general look and feel of the media folder is similar to the Walkman interface, so accessing videos, images albums as well as music seems similarly slick.

The 3.2-megapixel camera is an improvement on the W880i’s 2-megapixel snapper, but it’s far from Sony Ericsson’s best effort, lacking a flash and autofocus system. Sony Ericsson still reserves its best cameras for its Cyber-shot-branded phones.

You can still get some impressive shots with the camera, despite its limitations, with colour rendition particularly good and a responsive automatic metering system.

Plenty of image editing options

Darker lighting conditions though affect picture quality significantly; without any extra onboard illumination picture quality deteriorates in low light, and images taken in moodily dark environments, such as bars are full of picture noise.

There are some settings adjustments to override the auto system, and a few picture and colourisations effects, plus a multi-shot mode. And Sony Ericsson has included auto image correction software, plus its PhotoDJ image tweakery app.

For more serious photo editing, it has included Adobe Photoshop Album Starter Edition PC software on the packaged software CD.

In addition, shots can be uploaded directly to a Blogger online account from the handset.

Web browsing on your mobile

The video capture performance of the Sony Ericsson W890i is a step up from its predecessor, shooting footage at QVGA (320x240 pixels) resolution at 30 frames per second.

It looks fine on the phone’s display, but is limited in quality for playback on a PC- fairly average for a mid-market mobile, in fact.

With high speed 3G, the browsing experience is pretty good. The Sony Ericsson W890i’s Access NetFront browser is smartly configured to make web browsing a straightforward experience; a Google search bar tops the list of browser options, under which is an address bar for typing in URLs.

This is a familiar and user -riendly implementation that should encourage people to use it. You can view pages landscape as well as portrait, and select a mobile optimised page view option as well as regular full web pages.

You can select RSS feeds and view bookmarked or recently visited sites quickly and easily too. RSS web feeds can be accessed within the messaging folder too, and displayed as a ticker on the standby screen, if you want.

Find yourself with Google Maps

Adding Google Maps as a pre-loaded application is a smart move. It can be accessed quickly from the Activity menu, using the control button shortcut, or is hidden away as an app within a Location services sub-section of the Entertainment folder.

There’s no built in GPS receiver inside the Sony Ericsson W890i, but Google Maps can use information from your mobile network to triangulate your approximate location from cellsite positions.

You can view maps or satellite images, zoom in or out, do local or general searches and get directions too.

Not as accurate as GPS

Accuracy is, of course, limited compared to a GPS system. Nonetheless, you can get a rough location within a few hundred metres with a map of the area, which you can zoom in on and scroll around.

This can be very useful if you’re somewhere you don’t know and need to get your bearings or directions. You can use it with an optional Bluetooth GPS receiver module too, if you want to get precise location finding with your Sony Ericsson W890i. 

Good array of features

The Sony Ericsson W890i possesses the usual rundown of Sony Ericsson organiser and tool applications – calendar, tasks, notes, alarm, stopwatch, timer and calculator – and voice memo recorder.

A PIN code memory app, Music Mate 4 software for musicians, and Bluetooth remote control functions are included too.

Sony Ericsson ha pre-loaded three decent games for mobile gamers too – Lumines Block Challenge, The SIMs 2 and Tennis Multiplay.

Great battery life

The variety of features to engage you on the Sony Ericsson W890i would normally mean keeping an eye on battery power consumption. As a 3G phone with a Walkman music player as a key feature, the Sony Ericsson W890i puts in a creditable power performance.

Sony Ericsson quotes standby time on 3G networks as 310 hours, or 360 hours on regular GSM networks. Optimum talktime is 4.5 hours on 3G or 9.5 hours using GSM. The music player itself will keep on for up to 20 hours.

The Sony Ericsson W890i’s best-scenario figures pan out in real life as delivering two to three days on standby with average use, without heavy use of the Walkman player – which would increase charging frequency.

A pleasing user experience

Using the Sony Ericsson W890i for its primary calling purposes is a pleasing experience, with consistently crisp, natural audio and dependable network connections making for a top class performance.

Which is in line with our overall impressions of the W890i. Sony Ericsson has managed to refine what was already an attractive and well-regarded phone with some smart and subtle changes that add to both its feature run down and user-friendly appeal.

It’s not got all the high-end gadgetry some users may desire from a multimedia mobile – Wi-Fi, GPS and smartphone functionality are absent, for instance.

A star is born for Sony Ericsson

But Sony Ericsson has refreshed this mid-tier Walkman phone with some highly attractive upgraded features – such as more in-box memory, an improved (if not perfect) 3.2-megapixel camera and a fabulous music player - while online capabilities have been boosted by 3G HSDPA connectivity.

Crucially, the Sony Ericsson W890i has also maintained the essence of the W880i’s slim, stylish design, high quality finishing and overall desirability.

There’s no doubt that Sony Ericsson has created a cracking handset that’s sure to be a star performer in its Walkman range.

Network availability: Orange, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile, O2
Looks: 4.5/5
Ease of use: 4.5/5
Features: 4/5
Call quality: 4.5/5
Value: 4/5