Leading the line for the Walkman phone range, Sony Ericsson's flagship W980 comes with plenty of music mobile firepower.
Boasting 8GB of built in memory, the W980 is loaded with the latest Walkman player gadgetry, plus a hefty shot of multimedia functionality, boosted by high-speed HSDPA connectivity.
Presented in a slick clamshell design, the W980 is a step-up model from recent stylish Walkman phones, such as the ultra-slim W890i, rather than a direct descendent of Sony Ericsson's previous 8GB-packing Walkman phone, the W960i. The W960i was a Symbian UIQ-powered touchscreen smartphone, whereas the W980 isn't – it's a more conventional high-end Walkman handset.
Still the features onboard are good value for a music phone. It has a 3.2-megapixel camera, video calling capability with a secondary camera inside the shell, an FM radio, plus a full web browser, and Google Maps software preloaded for approximate location finding and route planning.
But the Walkman player is, of course, where W980 buyers will be most interested. In conjunction with the latest quality Walkman player software, using motion-operated Shake control to change tracks and offering a SensMe automatic tempo/mood based playlist option, the W980 has an FM transmitter built in.
This enables users to play tunes, podcasts and so on any FM radio within an approximate 10-metre radius. That means you can transmit any of your 8GB of tunes while they're playing onto a car stereo, home hi-fi or portable FM radio. It'll even work on friends' radio-equipped phones.
Sony Ericsson has made an eye-catching design feature of the W980's external Walkman controls. The glossy plastic front panel has an indented circular pattern through which touch-sensitive music player controls appear when the Walkman player or FM radio is active.
These are more functional than most, allowing you tab back through menus, select track categories and scroll through track lists – which appear on a display above the controls that's also hidden when inactive.
This 176x176 pixels 262K-colour screen and the touch buttons – which provide vibrating haptic feedback when pressed – mean you can easily operate the music player and radio with the phone flip shut. Much like a standalone music player, in fact.
Along the side, a slider lock stops pocket mis-pressing, and another buttons allows you to flick through music, radio and standby screen modes.
The front panel gives the W980 a slick look when closed – although that slab of plastic is a bit of a fingerprint magnet. The design is no svelte W890i-alike, measuring a solid 92(h) x 46(w) x 17(d)mm and weighing 100g, making it feel sturdy without being too bulky.
Flip it open and there's the main screen, a 2.2-inch QVGA 262K-colour display that looks slightly small against the large flip. The motion sensing accelerometer onboard automatically switches the screen's orientation between landscape and portrait in the media player and photo gallery.
A see-through section on the tip of the flip is not just for show – it can glow in time to the rhythm of your tunes or ringer. If that wows you as little as it does us, it can easily be switched off.
The numberpad is reasonably large and finger-friendly, with circular keys keeping that circular design motif going. The large round navigation pad is fair enough, but control keys surrounding it are a touch too squeezed together for our liking – as they're almost flush to the surface, fingers can easily stray onto adjacent buttons, particularly in low light.
Bundles of storage
With 8GB of internal storage for user to play with, there's a substantial amount of track-room for the Walkman player (up to 8,000 tracks, depending on file format used). It could have made this even heftier if it had memory card expansion – but alas, there's no Memory Stick Micro slot on the W980. A shame, particularly as cards are now a very affordable way to add extra GBs of capacity and swap around your music.
Still, if 8GB is satisfactory tune storage for your mobile, the Walkman player itself does a fine job. The media player user interface is straightforward, and intuitive to navigate. Tracks are organised into familiar music player categories, including slots too for podcasts and audio books.
The SensMe function allows you to compose playlists according to predefined tempo and mood ratings, which may appeal to some users. The Walkman Shake control is a much more tricksy bit of gadgetry, using the W980's in-built motion sensor technology to change tracks or volume while you press the external play/pause button and shake the phone in a particular direction. It's very much a gimmick, as it's far less hassle – and more reliable - to simply press the back/forward buttons.
It's nonetheless an impressive-sounding player, and is boxed with good quality ear-bud earphones to provide a good dynamic range with decent bass thump. A 2-piece set, it has a 3.5mm headphone adapter too so you can upgrade to better ear-gear if you prefer, or use stereo Bluetooth wireless headphones.
Average camera performance
Complementing this ear-pleasing music player is a decent, easy to operate FM radio and that FM transmitter – equally straightforward and effective to tune into a nearby radio. Sony Ericsson's TrackID song identification software is loaded too.
The main camera is more standard issue stuff – similar to the W890i's rather than Cyber-shot phone quality. It's an unexceptional 3.2-megapixel shooter with no flash, no autofocus, and no dedicated camera button or photographer-friendly user interface.
Frustratingly, the positioning of the lens on the back panel near the hinge means that when you're holding it in portrait shooting mode (there's no landscape snapping), your fingers naturally stray over the camera. You usually end up rebalancing the phone when framing – which should really be unnecessary.
Pictures are reasonably good for this level of camera, with a fair amount of detail present, plus bright and accurate colour rendition in good lighting conditions – but they're not the best you can get for a 3.2-megapixel cameraphone. Without any additional illumination low-light shooting isn't so good and images taken in darker situations are poor.
Video capture is average mobile phone quality – not great, shooting at 15fps in QVGA quality. Both snaps and video clips can be directly uploaded to Blogger accounts, in standard Sony Ericsson fashion.
High speed browsing
There's a standard issue NetFront web browser at work in the W980, so you can browse the internet as well as download content at HSDPA speeds (up to 3.6Mbps is supported). It works reasonably well, with a variety of viewing options, giving a typical Sony Ericsson mobile web experience. RSS feeds are supported too on what is a mostly appealing user interface.
The handy Google Maps makes an appearance too. There's no onboard GPS receiver on this phone, but using automatic cellsite triangulation and over the air mapping information, you can get your approximate position shown within a few hundred metres in seconds.
Usefully too, you can do searches, and get routing information, as well as check out satellite images of your area. It's a potentially valuable extra feature to have in your pocket.
Sony Ericsson has also equipped the W980 with a typically solid array of personal organiser tools, email support and voice apps, while motion control makes it into one of the games and a step counter application. It makes for a decent mid tier package.
Decent battery life
When it comes to the back-to-basics of voice calling, the W980 hits the mark with a reliable, top class performance, with no network issues at all.
With a Walkman player at the core of this 3G handset, battery life is important, and Sony Ericsson reckons you can get up to 16 hours of continuous music playing from a charge.
As a straightforward phone, it posts a fine-looking optimum standby time of up to 370 hours (360 hours on 3G) and talktime of 4.5 hours on 3G networks or 9 hours in GSM coverage. In our average usage tests, with some music playing mixed with other gadgetry, we reached for the charger every 2-3 days, which is acceptable.
More phone or MP3 player?
The W980 isn't a do-it-all mobile, as it's shy of some of the latest must-have high-end gadgetry such as built in GPS, Wi-Fi support and smartphone flexibility. It could do with a more Cyber-shot-esque camera too, making do with a reasonable – if poorly positioned - mid-ranger. And we'd have liked memory card expansion too.
The flagship W980 though is first and foremost a Walkman phone that flexes its music mobile muscles with its hefty 8GB of onboard memory and a high quality set of Walkman features - including the useful FM transmitter - that take it into standalone music player territory.
It may not replace your iPod just yet, but it's certainly a classy performer.
Network availability: O2, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile
Ease of use: 4/5
Call quality: 4.5/5