Review: Sony Ericsson w995a

The recipe for cooking up a sweet multimedia phone? Take one part phone, mix two parts MP3 player, throw in some cool backlit buttons to impress the kids. Blend until creamy.

Sony Ericsson appears to have whipped up a crowd pleaser with the w995a. It features everything you’d expect from a music- and video-centric phone, with a couple bonuses to round out the package. Unfortunately, usability drawbacks and a lack of memory keep this from being the perfect multimedia phone.

The elegantly designed w995a doesn’t deserve its awkward alphanumeric name. At 4 ounces, it sits comfortably in the hand, and the mechanism for sliding up the screen and exposing the keypad felt solid even after repeated use.

Because Sony conceived of the w995 as a media device, the button layout is relatively stripped-down and geared toward multimedia playback. In addition to the typical “call” and “end” buttons, the face of the handset sports four somewhat flimsy multipurpose softkeys and a decent four-directional D-pad. The right side of the phone is home to a set of playback controls, while the left side houses a puzzlingly large charging port.

In spite of the w995a’s streamlined look, most buttons are far too recessed, making them difficult to push. It’s especially irritating when the phone is in your pocket: Fiddling with ambiguous media controls means pausing a track when you intend to skip it and fast forwarding when you mean to turn the volume up.

Design quirks aside, Sony did an excellent job of cramming the w995a with features. As a quad-band GSM phone, it’s set for world travel and supports both EDGE and 3G data connections. Stereo Bluetooth and reasonably reliable GPS functionality also are included. But honestly, the true draw of this device was its affinity for music, pictures, and video.

For starters, Sony’s inclusion of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack instantly catapulted the w995a to rockstar status. It’s rare we encounter multimedia phones that really get how audiophiles intend to interact with them, so not having to fiddle with headphone jack converters — or worse, crappy proprietary headphones — made the phone feel more like a traditional MP3 player.

Unfortunately, our joy was dimmed when we found out that the device has only a little more than 100 MB of internal memory. Sony covered its bases by allowing up to 8 GB of expansion (via Memory Stick), but we were still disappointed that it didn’t give the phone enough memory to pull off the “standalone MP3 player” shtick. Other than this obvious setback, we were quite pleased with the reasonably crisp playback quality.

Rounding out the w995 is a slew of photo and video features, thanks to an integrated 8.1-MP camera with flash. Nifty features like face detection, image stabilization and 16X digital zoom make the phone slightly better than average for impromptu snapshots (suck it, iPhone 3GS!) though the results hardly rivaled our 6.1-MP pocket cam.

While we were reasonably pleased with the photo performance, the w995a’s video was dreadful. Muddy audio and visuals were the norm, and even the handset’s integrated video editing suite (dubbed VideoDJ) did little to sweeten the deal. We understand that it’ll be a long time coming before there’s an all-in-one that excels at everything, but for a phone that fancies itself a multimedia media powerhouse, we were expecting at least C-grade video.

Even with these fumbles, the w995a gets enough things right to score a passing mark. It’s clear that Sony wanted to craft a fun, functional phone, and they’ve largely succeeded in that endeavor. Off the top, we can think of a few other devices that do a better job of nailing specific features, but Sony got enough of the recipe right to produce a very capable and versatile phone.

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