Technology

Walkman w580i: Smooth Operator


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Editor's Rating: star rating

A cheaper alternative to the iPhone: Sony Ericsson's music phone also features FM radio, a full HTML browser, and a fitness application

I am smitten. Europeans have been raving about Sony Ericsson's Walkman music phones for several years now, but it wasn't until the past year that the first handful of the 20-plus models available overseas arrived on the U.S. market. Now, due in August, comes a sixth called the w580i, an exceptional feature-rich handset that in many ways gives the far pricier Apple (AAPL) iPhone a run for its money.

The first "slider" in the Walkman line of phones, the w580i comes with an FM radio, a two-megapixel camera, a full HTML browser for mobile Web surfing, and a fitness application. Though it suffers from the same limited built-in memory as just about every music phone but the iPhone, the w580i has a slot for Sony's Memory Stick Micro card that offers four gigabytes of storage for songs and photos.

But despite all the extras, the w580i is expected to sell for less than many less capable devices: from $50 to $100 with a two-year contract (a wireless carrier will be announced shortly), or $349 without any new service commitment. Compare that with $500 or $600 for Apple's iPhone, or roughly $100 with a two-year contract for either of the two new music phones just launched by LG: the Muziq from Sprint (S) and the new Chocolate from Verizon Wireless (VZ, VOD) (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/13/07, "The Mobile Sound of Muziq" and BusinessWeek.com, 7/20/07, "New LG Chocolate: Even Sweeter").

Objet D'Art

More than anything, it was the snazzy design that made me fall in love with the w580i. The bottom is curved, making it easy to slide the dial pad from under the main screen with a push of the thumb. And when you do slide it open, narrow strips on both sides of the handset light up with pink and green lights. Little details like these, including the splash-like icon found on all Walkman phones, made me feel I was handling an object of art, and not just a phone.

Unlike many other music players out there, this gadget isn't trying to be like—or look like—the iPod. Its round control wheel, for example, looks more like a metal-etching machine than an iPod-like sensor. That said, I had to operate the w580i's controls with a firmer touch.

The front of the device features lots of dedicated keys. One launches the music player, another takes you back one step in any screen menu, and another lets you close out applications quickly.

Direct-From-CD Recording

But the biggest selling point, as one might hope with a device that goes by the name of Walkman, was the w580i's music-playing capabilities. Even without a headset, the sound was stellar, which is not the case with most music phones. The computer software that comes with the w580i also makes it easy to load music over a USB cable from your hard drive or even directly from a CD in the optical drive.

And unlike so many other phones, this one lets you use any other application—such as Web browsing, texting, or e-mail—while you're listening to a playlist or the radio. Most other phones either run one application at a time or perhaps allow a couple of key functions while you play music.

A few words about the radio application. Sure, other phones offer radio. But in most cases, they only let you listen to Web radio stations such as Pandora. You can't listen to the live broadcast of your local hit-music station. With the w580i, you can. The radio antenna resides within the headphones that come with the phone, but you can listen to a broadcast through either the ear buds or the handset's speaker.

Fitness Freak, Dieter's Delight

Another huge feature on this device is the full HTML browser, which enables you to view any Web page as it would appear on a computer, be it a news portal or an online retailer. I loved that. With most cell phones, Web browsing is typically limited by a special browser that can only show those sites specially formatted for a mobile device, as well as carrier restrictions governing which sites are "authorized" on their networks. The freedom to roam anywhere on the Internet is a headline feature on the iPhone, and while the w580i's screen is smaller, Web pages were relatively easy to view.

I also loved the pedometer application, which records your steps and miles as you walk or run (for the most accurate results, the phone has to be placed in a special armband). The software can even count the calories you've burned after you enter your height, age, and weight. Despite all these features, the w580i offers really good battery life: nine hours of talk time and up to 20 hours of music playing.

One gripe: It took me a while to learn the controls. To get started with the phone, I had to read the manual —which has not been the case with other music phones such as the Chocolate. But once I figured out all the buttons, using the device was clear sailing.

Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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