It feels like Sony Ericsson has been churning out Walkmans at a terrific rate recently, in all shapes, sizes and formats - sliders, candybars, cheap 'n' cheerful music players and fancy touchscreen smartphones. And if something's not broke, why fix it?
The latest approach is thin. Very thin. So thin in fact, that it's thinner than a CD case, something Sony Ericsson has made much of in its marketing - it can hold up to 900 music tracks on a device that's thinner than a standard CD case. But in this age where thin is only as slim as a RAZR, that doesn't really sound like anything special. Until you hold it in your hand that is.
It's a candybar shape, so without a hinge it seems even more slimline than those Motorola style icons that once seemed so anorexic. It nestles very comfortably in the hand and needless to say, in the pocket - the only worry is that you might forget it's there.
It's lightweight, too, at just 71g and its stainless steel finish cuts a fine dash if you set it down on pub table or desk - either in black or silver, with the trademark Walkman orange on the back. The keypad buttons are distinctive too - little orange metal slivers that feel more functional than they look. They proved to be perfectly fine for normal use, though they got a bit fiddly when we tried playing games.
It's easily the best looking item in the Walkman range so far, and stands up very well against the other catwalk phones out there. But of course it's not just a pretty face, and Sony Ericsson has packed in plenty of functionality, and comes with 3G built in too.
The Walkman music player, accessed via a dedicated button on the side, has been rightly praised. It looks good, tracks are organised into intuitive sections making them easy to find, plus it sounds better than most through the decent quality supplied headphones.
Although the headphones connect via a dedicated Sony Ericsson plug, there is also a standard 3.5mm mini-jack socket on the microphone attached to the cable, which allows you to upgrade the headphones if you prefer.
The music player also has those useful little extras such as PlayNow - Sony Ericsson's quick route to buying tracks online, and TrackID, a Shazam-like feature that allows you to identify a song off the radio or you hear playing around you.
The phone samples a few seconds of a track and then sends it off to be identified via a GPRS data link to the Gracenote-powered service. The advantage it has over the dial-up Shazam track ID service is that it works via the internet, so you only pay for data charges, rather than the cost of a phone call.
The strange thing with the W880i however is that there is no FM radio on board, which is a shame. It certainly cuts a swathe through the phone's music-playing abilities, but that's the price you pay for thin. Happily, you can use Track ID with any sound source, and it gets quite addictive after a while.
The Walkman's other tricks include a five-band graphic equalizer, which can be set manually or using presets, plus an additional 'MegaBass' low-end booster. There's also a 'stereo widening' effect which does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, giving the impression of widening the stereo image - not to any great extent but it's generally preferable to the standard image. It will display album art too, if you've got it, or a selection of animated visual effects (squiggly lines mostly).
Besides the music, the W880i has another major trick up its sleeve - a 2-megapixel camera with 2.5x digital zoom (though the zoom is only available at VGA resolution - if you want a full-size 2-megapixel shot, you'll just have to move closer). Pics are pretty good for this sort of resolution, although what once seemed like a professional-class camera is already sounding pretty standard now that 3-megapixel plus cameraphones like Sony Ericsson's own K800i are already here.
The camera is designed to be used on its side, with the screen in landscape mode and the shutter button on top (it's on the right-hand side in normal phone use). The tiny zoom button is on the same side, and also doubles as your phone volume control. The screen is slightly smaller than previous Walkmans, by the way, at 27x37mm, but it's sharp and bright and shows off its 262,000 colours to good effect.
There's no flash, but there are options for editing your pics including a fairly crude red eye remover, as well as brightness, contrast and light adjustments, plus you can add effects and clip art. You can also upload your pics instantly to the internet thanks to Sony Ericsson's deal with Google's Blogger service - another addictive feature once you've set it up, which only takes a few seconds. Incidentally, there's a full HTML internet browser on board, which can subscribe to RSS feeds to keep you abreast of your favourite news items.
With 3G connectivity onboard, downloads of video or audio files is far speedier than on a standard GPRS handset, while web browsing becomes a good experience too. A full range of video streaming and download playback options are covered. A tiny front facing camera above the display is included for video calling, should you wish to go face-to-face with a friend.
As for gaming, advanced 3D gaming is supported on the W880i. The phone though comes with just one game, aging Tetris-clone Quadrapop, which probably won't detain you too long.
The W880i also has Music Mate, a useful little tool for musicians which offers a metronome, tuner and guitar chord dictionary. But if none of these ring your chimes, it's fully Java'd up for other downloads. A range of good quality 3D games are available to play on the W880i.
There's plenty of room for downloads too, since it augments its 16MB of onboard memory with a 1GB Memory Stick Micro card which slides neatly into a covered slot on the side, next to the power and headphones port. Battery life is pretty decent, quoted at 6.5hrs talk time and 17 days standby, although we found ourselves charging up after around four days of fairly modest use.
To sum up, this is a beautiful little phone that goes a step or two beyond the fashion phone template by adding an above average music player, not to mention a perfectly decent if not ground-breaking camera.
It's a pity about the lack of FM radio, and those buttons may not be the best if gaming's on your mind, but otherwise, it's a fantastic little phone.