SonyEricsson G900 – My New Phone, a Review (updated)

I just got myself a new phone, having tired of my old P990i getting a bit unreliable. It was only about two years old, but I guess I was pretty rough on it. My new phone a the SonyEricsson G900, and I am actually very happy about it.

Edit: inserted a couple of updates after a couple of more days of use.

The G900 is a continuation of the P800-P900-P910-P990-P1 line of Symbian + UIQ phones from SonyEricsson, and it was pretty much the only choice that I found reasonable as a replacement for the P990i. The Nokia phones using S60 are very smart from a user-interface and design perspective (a colleague of mine has an N95 that is a very very impressive machine, the way it does podcasts is really nice, for example). But they cannot synchronize certain aspects of calendar data from Outlook that I have come to depend on. Some people consider the Apple iPhone 3G the crown of phones, but it has several severe drawbacks. First, it is only available on Telia, and I have no intention of changing carriers. Second, it lacks several must-haves in any real phone: MMS and the ability to use it as a 3G modem over Bluetooth, for starters. And anything with Windows mobile in it is disqualified just since they tend not to make very good phones.

So it was down to the successors to the P990. The P1 is a year old now and does not feel like a real improvement. So the only choice was really the G900. It also had the interesting property of being a mid-range phone rather than a high-end business phone, making it very cheap with an extended contract (like zero kronor).

Overall impression

I really like it.

All the old functions are there, and many new.

It feels much faster than my old P990 (which it should be, I know some of the people who worked on the phone and the hardware is faster and the memory is much bigger). It is smaller and handier, and the subtly redone user interface is really much better overall.

In many ways, it feels like the P990 ideas done right, trimmed down, and deffed.

Navigation

In these days of full-face touch screens, I must say that I think the combination of a classic phone keypad with a touch-screen interface is the best compromise. I like having physical buttons to push, and a classic 0 to 9 keypad with a marked middle key is the best for quickly typing out SMS messages or dialing numbers with a single hand (for example, while biking). A virtual keyboard does not let you do that as easily.

But where a plain keyboard falls down, the touch screen really saves the day. It makes navigation of complex things very easy, and lets the user interface be richer than what it had to be if limited to what is easily controlled with a four-way keypad. Note that most of the UI of the G900 is navigable with only the keypad, which really makes this a one-handed phone most of the time. It also gives you additional ways to type text, including handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard.

The Sony-style rocker wheel on the old P900 was really cool and useful, but the P990 dropped that flat by limiting it to up-down, and also having a four-way keypad. That made the P990 quite confused, as there were several ways to achieve the same thing, which is actually not a good idea in a phone. The simplicity of a single four-way controller as the main and always-present navigation system really works well!

I guess this is where the touch-enabled Nokias are going as well, and I think that it is a pretty good solution. The old R380/P800/P900/P990 openable “flip” kind of tried to achieve the same with a big screen, but having just a fixed keypad and a screen above it is a very good simplification that offers consistency and simplicity throughout the user interface — even if it makes the screen a bit smaller than it was on these older phones.

The main screen with its panels (quick contacts, RSS feeds, customizable quick links, most recent messages, photos, world clock, etc.) that slide by if you press left or right works really well! It offers a very convenient and visually attractive way to get to the most important functions quickly.

Connections

Just works. 3G and GSM work as they should, obviously. No HSDPA, but regular 3G is sufficient for most things a phone can do currently, seriously. The Wifi is incredibly good on this phone, though. Very very fast, and very good at picking up that it is in range of a known base station. On my P990, I had to manually connect it every time I got home. The G900 just figures it out itself, which makes a world of a difference in smoothness and ease-of-use.

The USB synchronization works. But it is a bit annoying that the Sony Media Organizer software wants the phone in “file transfer” mode while the PC Suite synchronization and backup software wants it to be in “phone” mode.  And this cannot be switched from PC, only from the phone.

Smart Phone Functions

Calendar, contacts, tasks are like on the P990. Which means: very good, and with nicely functional synchronization. These parts are what keeps me on SonyEricsson and UIQ, as they are hard to beat.

The notes application has been redesigned, and you can now put drawing on top of text — but we have lost the ability to change the pen color, which my three-and-a-half-year-old son sorely misses. Changing the color of the note paper is not as much fun as putting a red tongue on a drawing of a monkey.

There is an active sync client that can make the phone itself synchronize to our office Exchange server. However, the usefulness was limited by the idiosynchratic way that I have my personal data setup: some things are stored locally on my computer, which means that I need to do a local sync with my PC anyway. But it did work well when I tried it, and had I set up things differently, not having to connect USB to my computer to synchronize data could be pretty handy.

The Alternate Universes

One aspect of the phone that is either very cool or pretty inconsistent, depending on your point of view, is the fact that two major components of it have their own special user interfaces.

The media player functionality is lifted from the Walkman Symbian phones, and looks very much like what you would find on the W900 walkman phone or a Sony PSP. It is pretty cool. But completely different from the main phone applications and UIQ user interface. I have also tried it with some podcasts, and it works very well and is definitely not noticeably inferior to my stand-alone iPod. If only it could synch with iTunes… where I have myself to blame for locking myself into the convenience of the Apple software-hardware system.

Update 2: Below paragraph rewritten after some more use and experiments.

The camera functionality is also completely new compared to the P990, and works much better. But it is also done in its more camera-like style, and looks more like the regular SonyEricsson camera UI found in their feature phones. It has nothing in common with the main UI, except that it uses touch in a fairly neat way. I have not tested any Cybershot phones, so I don’t know just how similar they are, or if they have similar capabilities. Sufficient to say that it is way better than the camera interface on my old P990. The five-megapixel camera itself is actually pretty good, at least out-doors. An interesting use of the touch screen is that you can use it to point to a point on the screen to use as the focus point for the camera. Not sure that I can use it for much, but it is nice to see the abilitlies of a touch screen being taken advantage of. I really think 10-key-keypad plus touch is a solution for the future.

Update: here is an example photo taken with the camera, click for full resolution.

One could complain about this lack of consistency, but the net result is pretty good. And in some way, it might make sense: if this thing is trying to be a phone, a PDA, an MP3 player, and a camera all in one — why not specialize the subinterfaces for each particular function? That might actually make it work better, compared to trying to keep the same style across these very dissimilar functions.

The Huh? Things

As with all modern feature-packed phones (and other devices), some things are just plain weird. On this one, the strangest is the presence of a special key on the keypad that can only bring up the notes application. WHY? I have not found any way so far to reprogram it to something a bit more useful — like RSS feeds or the web browser, for example.

Update: I still think that having a non-reprogrammable key for notes is a strange priority. But the notes app is actually pretty good. It worked very well for me when I needed to jot down some thoughts while strolling a baby-stroller through town with a sleeping child in it. I used to carry a note-it pad and pen, but the phone is actually a useful replacement. Especially with predictive T9 input that does Swedish and English at the same time — very simple, very useful, quite impressive that it works as well as it does.

One odd thing though is that the text layer of the note can scroll up and down and be longer than the screen, while the scribbled graphical notes are on a fixed-size layer that does not scroll. So it is hard to combine text and drawings. It seems to be either-or in practice. Even the old Palm could let you draw images larger than its screen!

Last of its Kind?

A final solemn note is that there seems to be some risk that the G900 is the last of its kind… rumors are abound that SonyEricsson will not make any more UIQ phones. This could be because of Nokia buying all of Symbian, and killing UIQ to keep development focused on their own S60 platform.  Alternatively, SE will not want to use a software stack so much under the control of a competitor. Or, SE simply decides that it does not have the resources to keep developing this line of phones, in addition to the OSE-based feature phones and the windows mobile-based Xperia X1 and its follow-ons. The Kista office that has done most of the Symbian UIQ phones is definitely being shut down — so there are a bunch of experienced smartphone developers out there if anyone needs some! Too bad that times are tough right now, never fun to see good engineers out of work simply because of general bad times.

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