Adventures with Sony Ericsson

A couple of months ago I bought a new 3G mobile phone. I replaced my NEC e616 with a brand new Sony Ericsson Z800i. I was really looking forward to getting away from the problems I’d had with the e616, but the more I use the Z800i, the more I realise how great the e616 should have been, and how poorly designed most mobile phones are.

Why do I say should have been? Because it wasn’t. The NEC e616 had the potential to be great, but it was rushed out the door with a lot of problems. In this rant, I’ll talk about my thoughts on the Z800i. It’s not intended to be a direct comparison with the e616. However, after using NEC phones for two years (it was Nokia before that), my perception will be coloured by that experience.


Gripes with NEC

Why wasn’t I happy with NEC? Plenty of reasons. The e616 itself was problematic. It had buggy firmware, awful battery life, poor responsiveness and lousy connectivity. Then there was NEC themselves. They’d gone and tied themselves up with Telstra’s i-mode and left all their 3G customers out in the cold. I don’t want to be a second-rate NEC customer. I want first rate support, and a first rate product.


What’s great about Sony Ericsson?

First up, the Z800i isn’t a bad phone in every way. There are some really good things about it. First up, it’s stable and fast. You don’t have to wait for the phone to catch up with you, and you don’t have to worry about it crashing. Also, features do what they’re meant to. You don’t have to worry about something not doing what the manual says because the implementation is buggy. The reception is pretty good – better than a lot of other phones I’ve seen, although not quite as good as the NEC. And it does a good job of choosing between UMTS and GSM. That’s an area where the NEC was problematic.

Then there’s the connectivity options. You get proper Bluetooth support. No drivers needed – it just goes. I got wireless Internet, dialing and text messaging from the computer and file transfer going in no time. Synchronisation was a mixed bad. I did kind of get it working, but that’s another story in its own right.

The USB connectivity is great, too. You get two standard CDC serial ports that just show up in the terminal software as soon as you plug the handset in. And the memory stick mounts as a USB mass storage device! No mucking around with OBEX over a serial interface or even worse proprietary protocols. You just plug it in and it shows up on your desktop.

I haven’t actually tried using the IrDA interface, but I’m sure it will work just as well as USB and Bluetooth have. I fully trust that Sony Ericsson have got all that sorted out perfectly.



Displays on a phone are very important. They give us the primary means of feedback about what’s going on with the phone, and also show us all kinds of useful information like the time, details of upcoming appointments, contact details and other stuff. As such, I’d expect a lot of thought to go into the design of the displays and the content that’s displayed on them.

First of all, let’s talk about the small, external display. The e616 and Z800i are both flip phones with a small display that you can see while they’re flipped shut. You normally use this screen when you’re just glancing at the phone to find something out quickly. It’s for answering questions like, “Who’s calling?” and “What’s the time?” or “Did I miss a call while I was getting the pizza?” It should be easy to read, and use as little power as possible.

Now this is one place where Sony Ericsson have failed miserably. The Z800i has a colour external display. Colour displays can’t be read without switching the backlight on. So much for glancing at the phone to see what’s going on. You have to hit a button to switch on the external backlight, and suck some power. Why have a colour display? A monochrome one would be legible under a much wider variety of lighting conditions, have a better viewing angle, and only need the backlight in the dark.

I know it can display caller ID photos on the external screen, and use it as a camera viewfinder, but I don’t care. I don’t need photos on the external screen, and the camera isn’t any good anyway. Making the usability suffer so much for a couple of features of questionable usefulness is a really bad trade-off.

The internal display is pretty good. It’s bright enough to read in most lighting conditions, and the contrast is pretty good, too. The colour rendition is good. Too bad the design of the visuals on the phone is so poor. What is the point of themes? I have not found a single theme out there that’s actually usable. In the end, I made my own, with plain backgrounds and high contrast, just to make the phone usable.

You’ve got a colour screen, so why not take advantage of it. This is one area where NEC really did well: high contrast colour scheme, general information messages in green, warnings in yellow and errors in red. That’s effective use of colour. The colour gives you a cue as to what you’re dealing with. Now the Sony Ericsson is the opposite. It pulls images from the theme for all the UI elements. Every message box looks the same. Something telling you that it can’t find a server looks the same as a message asking if you want to delete all your data. That shows a total lack of thought.

And how about choice of fonts? When you’re editing what could potentially be a lot of text, why use the same big font used for UI elements? You’re actually concentrating on what you’re doing, so the text doesn’t have to be the same size as for elements that you need to be able to read at a glance. Speaking of editing text, the Z800i wastes a lot of the screen with icons and borders. They may as well just put a smaller screen on the phone to reduce the price and power consumption. They’re not taking advantage of the big one



Before I got a camera phone, I thought cameras in phones were completely useless. After a couple of years of owning camera phones, I now think they’re useless most of the time. They are occasionally useful. Video calls are great sometimes. Like when you’re shopping and you want to ask your wife (or husband), “Honey, should I buy this shirt?” Another good application for camera phones is to shoot a video of a crime as it happens, then e-mail the video to the police (yes, I’ve actually done that).

Now the cameras in modern 3G phones are plenty good enough for video calls. The resolution you get is pretty low, so the camera doesn’t need to be spectacular. But they definitely aren’t good enough for taking photos that you plan on displaying anywhere other than on phone screens. So why, oh why, do they keep bumping up the resolution? The Z800i has a 1.3 megapixel camera. But the sensor area is tiny, and the fixed focus plastic lens is no good either. The limiting factor is not the resolution. They should work on improving lenses and reducing noise, blooming and bleeding in the sensor before they crank up the pixel count.

And while we’re at it, what’s with the positioning of the camera on the Z800i? It’s really hard to hold the phone at the right angle to get a decent picture of yourself in a video call. Above the screen is so much more sensible.


User interface

Now this is an area where, I’m sorry to say, the NEC really shines and the Sony Ericsson falls flat on its face. The NEC user interface has been thought through very well. It’s very consistent, and once you get used to it, very easy. The Sony Ericsson user interface is thought out very poorly, and although you get used to it, you feel like you’re fighting it.

Whether you like it or not, mobile phones are becoming more and more like small computers. They run applications and process data. They store information in file systems and/or databases. They’re a long way from the simple voice-only phones like the old Motorola MicroTAC. The design of the user interfaces should be changing to reflect this. Techniques for managing the simple tasks you could perform with those old limited-feature devices are simply not up to managing all the tasks you might want to perform with todays feature-rich 3G phones.

Now the NEC handles this very well. You work with tasks. They’re roughly equivalent to applications on a computer. You can open several of them at once, and switch between them. There’s a limit to the number you can have open at once, though, and some can’t be run at the same time as each other.

You have a dedicated key to close the current task, and a dedicated key to pull up the main menu any time you want. The enter button (in the centre of the navigation ring) always activates the selected item. The two softkeys perform various tasks. They’re always labeled, and they do what the label says. The left-hand softkey is always a positive action, and the right-hand softkey is a negative action if applicable. There’s a dedicated options menu key, too (sort of like right-clicking under Windows).

Now take a moment to think about this. You can get consistency and safety at the same time. Here’s an example: suppose you want to delete a contact. Select the contact, bring up the options menu (by pressing the options menu key) and select Delete, then Selected data from the submenu. Now you’ve just made both those selections with the enter button. Now you get a confirmation dialog, asking if you really want to delete the contact. The left softkey is lebeled Yes and the right softkey is labeled No. They haven’t broken the convention that the left softkey is always the positive choice, and they also haven’t made it possible to accidentally delete a contact by pressing a button too many times (you selected the menu item with the enter button, but you had to move your thumb to the left softkey to confirm that you really wanted to delete data).

Sony Ericsson, on the other hand, is a nightmare. You can only be doing one thing at a time. If you’re browsing the web, and you want to look something up from your contacts or notes, you can’t. You have to close the browser to get to anything else.

The button functions are all messed up, too. The enter button usually does the same thing as the left softkey, except in the few places where it doesn’t. That’s really bad design. To avoid having situations where you can accidentally do something that will cause loss of data by tapping a key too many times, the left softkey is the usually the positive choice, except when it isn’t. Sometimes the left softkey brings up a submenu and sometimes the right softkey does. You never know what a key might do. It just isn’t sane.

And far too much of the UI is on rails. Why do I have to write an e-mail by first writing the subject, then writing the body, addressing it and finally adding attachments? The NEC had a great message composer, where you could edit the subject, recipients and attachments in any order. You could also change the type of message part way through if you decided another message type would be more suitable. Too much of the Z800i’s UI is like this, and things like this make a difference.

I’ve already mentioned that I don’t appreciate the way they waste screen space with thick borders, big icons and big fonts. Why not take advantage of the big screen with lots of content? I brought up the way they don’t take advantage of colour as well, so I won’t go into that here.


Silly limitations

There are a few things I think this phone should really be able to do which it can’t. These are silly limitations. They wouldn’t be hard to implement, and most of them are implemented on at least some other phones.

Why can’t I browse an IMAP server properly? All I can see is the inbox. And I’m confused as to why it doesn’t always show the state of the server properly. It often shows messages that have been deleted off the server, and doesn’t always get new messages when it should. If you’re not going to do IMAP properly, stick with POP3.

Why aren’t company names for contacts displayed when the contact has no person name? When I synchronised, all the entries for companies showed up as . . in the contacts list. I had to go and fix it by hand.

How about a more complete implementation of the Unicode character set? The Z800i displays most Western European languages, and a subset of Japanese and Chinese. How about supporting more of the Unicode character set? A lot of my (Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese) contacts came across as a bunch of squares when I synchronised because the characters can’t be displayed by the phone. Come on, ROM isn’t that expensive!

When you close the flip, you come back at the home screen, and lose whatever you were doing. Why is that necessary? What if I need to put my phone in my pocket while I attend to something, then get back to that web site? I can’t with the Z800i. On the NEC, you could close it and everything would stay exactly how you left it. On some Motorolas this is tied up with the “open to answer” setting. But you just can’t do it with Sony Ericsson.

On the topic of closing the flip, if I switch on the speakerphone feature, why can’t I keep talking when I close the flip? The speaker is on the outside. You could put an additional microphone on the outside, too. And on the topic of speakerphone, why can’t I activate speakerphone before dialling or answering. Why do I have to dial or answer, then once connected pull up the options menu and switch the speakerphone from there?

Where’s the fast backward and forward navigation in the browser using the cache? I can’t believe every time you go back a page, it needs to reload stuff. This slows browsing down, reduces battery life and may cost you more if you’re charged for data transfer.

Another thing that really gets to me is the inability to copy and paste text on the Z800i. Want to get something from a note and paste it into a web form? Sorry, but you’re out of luck. Want to create a contact from information on a web page or in a text message? No joy there either (besides the fact that you can’t have two tasks going at once). Come on, guys. Your phone plays Flash movies, but I can’t even copy and paste text!



So overall, what am I trying to say? I want a phone that’s designed to be used. I want it to be simple, flexible and powerful all at once. The Z800i has a lot of things worked out really well. It’s stable and quick, the battery life is adequate and the connectivity is great. But the UI design is terrible, and there are things about the phone that are just silly. The NEC had the UI done really well, but it was buggy and had poor connectivity. Why doesn’t someone make a phone that does both? It can’t be that hard, and I’m sure there’s a market for it. Hey, I’ll buy it.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, 20 July, 2005 at 9:27 pm and is filed under Phones. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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