Review posted October 18, 2007 by Lisa Gade, Editor
In the world of high tech, you don't want your product to come out a month after your competitor's, let alone 6 months. That's the itchy-scratchy position Sony Ericsson finds themselves in with the K850i coming out a half a year after the flagship Nokia N95. In fact, just before the K850i's release, Nokia also managed to release two revisions of the original N95: the N95-3 for the US market and the N95 8 gig. Ouch. But is it really that bad?
Nokia and Sony Ericsson have been in a high end camera phone contest for the past two years-- we had the 3 megapixel autofocus wars in the summer of 2006 between the Nokia N73 and the Sony Ericsson K790i (and K800i). And now we have the 5 megapixel autofocus battle of late 2007: the N95 vs. the just-released K850i. We think the 6 month later intro isn't such a bad thing for a variety of reasons, including 1) the two phones target different users: smartphone to the max vs. elegant feature phone, 2) Nokia always needs a few months and firmware updates to iron out the imaging gremlins 3) once import prices settle, the K850i will be a significantly lower priced device than the feature-laden N95 models.
The Sony Ericsson K850i is a quad band GSM unlocked phone with US 3G, and that's a big deal: with Sony Ericsson imports, we've been lucky to get the US 850MHz band for GSM, let alone US 3G. The phone is sold by online retailers and importers, but currently isn't offered by a US carrier (there are rumors that AT&T might carry it sometime in the future). The K850i has triband UMTS/HSDPA 3G that will work anywhere in the world 3G service is available, and GSM/EDGE/GPRS that will work anywhere in the world GSM is available. The phone will work with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, though the 3G makes it particularly attractive to AT&T customers.
This is a K series Cybershot phone, and that puts the camera on center stage. The 5 megapixel camera has an autofocus lens, automatic lens cover and a Xenon flash. There's 16x digital zoom, Sony Ericsson's BestPic feature, image and video stabilization and red eye reduction. Fancy stuff for a camera phone, and in fact, the K850i, a bit more than the beloved Nokia N95, makes us want to leave our dedicated point-and-shoot camera at home.
Though not a Walkman phone (Sony Ericsson's other line of specialized phones gleaned from their joint venture with Sony), the K850i boasts strong music playback skills with stereo output through the included earbud headset and A2DP stereo Bluetooth headphones, Megabass, DRM support and an FM radio. To store music (along with those big photos and videos taken with the camera) there's 40 megs of internal memory and even better both a Memory Stick Micro M2 slot and a microSD card slot for cards up to 4 gigs in capacity.
For those considering an upgrade from the Sony Ericsson K790, K800 or K810, the K850 offers a brighter, larger QVGA display along with the significant camera bump and 3G. There's an accelerometer than senses phone orientation and switches to landscape mode when in multimedia applications and three touch sensitive keys, also new for the K850i. And overall, the K850i looks lovely and much more modern than its predecessors.
Design and Ergonomics
The K850i strikes us as lightly updated K800i that looks more modern and clean. It's still got the K series basic candy bar design, and the phone's size hasn't changed significantly. The back hump from old Cybershot phones is thankfully a thing of the past, and the K850i has a flat back with a piano black finish that looks simply lovely and camera-like though it attracts fingerprints like the plague. The K850i inherits the K810i's little number keys, but these are square rather than round and a bit rubbery for better dialing traction. Clearly, Sony Ericsson had to cut down on the keypad and d-pad real estate to avoid enlarging the phone while increasing display size. The little number keys look like misery but they're not quite that bad for dialing (texting isn't fun). It's definitely not as easy to dial or text compared to the Nokia N95 or other more normally designed phones, but it's usable and the wide berth between keys helps. The keys are labeled with western numbers and letters and no asian characters on our Hong Kong import phone.
The d-pad isn't a normal one-piece d-pad with center action button. Rather it's an oblong ring that surrounds the 2 and 5 keys. That's it, just the ring and no center action button. The context sensitive touch sensitive buttons just below the display become the action buttons, which means you must navigate with the d-pad then slide your finger to the correct soft key. That sounds like a big usability no-no, but in practice it worked quite well and I like it quite a bit.
The touch sensitive keys have caused a lot of pre-release chatter, with folks wondering exactly how they work and if they work. Happily, they work extremely well, and after 5 minutes, we'd mastered them and come to like them. The electrostatic touch sensitive keys are marked with tiny white dots, but don't try to zone in and touch them exactly, which would indeed be difficult to do. To use them, press your finger lightly over them with your finger extending onto the bottom of the display where the context sensitive labels appear (it almost feels as if the bottom of the display is in fact touch-sensitive). This comes naturally, and works with near 100% accuracy. The only drawback is that we found ourselves forgetting the rest of the display wasn't touch sensitive! The center soft key is usually the one that replaces the d-pad center action, and it's fairly easy to slide a finger up past the d-pad to press the soft key without too much extra motion (nor did we find ourselves accidentally hitting it, it does take a bit of thought and effort to activate the touch sensitive control).
The keypad numbers and d-pad ring are backlit in white, and the when the camera is on, the shutter button lights up with a thin blue LED line (there's also a blue LED ring that surrounds the lens which lights up briefly when the camera is turned on). To take photos, you hold the phone in landscape mode with the 3,6,9, and # key row up and 4 icons illuminate in blue (on per key) as these become camera settings shortcut buttons. The phone is available in two color schemes: Luminous Green which is black with green accents and Velvet Blue which is black with blue and light silver accents. The black and green model is black with a thin, shiny green line of trim running around the sides and the d-pad ring is green. The blue model has light silver sides with a blue trim line and the d-pad ring is blue.
4 keys on the number pad transform into blue backlit camera settings buttons.
The Velvet Blue Sony Ericsson K850i
On most phones, the battery lives under a door on the back. The back comprises the camera on the K850i, and is not removable. Instead, the battery loads via a door on the bottom edge, similar to slim point-and-shoot cameras-- cool!. The SIM and memory cards also load here, and you need not remove the battery to swap a memory card. Also on the bottom edge, beside the battery door you'll find the Sony Ericsson Fast Port connector for the charger and headphones (sorry, no 2.5 or 3.5mm headphone jack).
Bottom cover open to show the battery compartment along with the SIM card and memory card slots.
On the back you will find the lens with clear plastic permanent cover over the retractable lens door, the LED pre-focus flash (and flash light for wandering around in the dark), larger Xenon flash and a long slit that is the speaker grille. Within a few weeks, our phone had several specs of dust under the clear plastic cover over the lens, which annoyed us though it didn't effect image quality. The gloss black surface looks simply lovely until quickly and all too easily covered with fingerprints. Fortunately, these wipe off easily.
Phone Features, Data and Reception
The Sony Ericsson K850i is a quad band 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM phone with EDGE and 3G for data. Even more exciting is the fact it's worldwide 3G, and HSDPA at at. Sony Ericsson confirms that this is indeed triband 850/1800/1900MHz UMTS 3G and HSDPA 3.5G on all three bands. In the US, the phone is currently sold unlocked for use with any GSM carrier (if AT&T does release their version, that version would be locked to AT&T).
We found the K850i to have a bit louder earpiece than the Nokia N95, Sony Ericsson W810i and K800i. It's on par with the Sony Ericsson W580i, but with slightly better voice quality. Voice quality is noticeably better than the N95's, which sounded thinner and more digitized (we tested using the same AT&T SIM in both phones with a 3G connection that uses a higher quality voice codec than GSM). In fact, for both incoming and outgoing voice, the K850i is one of the best: voice is very full and clear with no "what was that?" on either end. Sound with the included stereo earbud headset with inline mic (HPM-62) is also clear and quite loud.
Standard features include speed dial, smart search (when in the home screen enter the first few letters of a name to bring up matching contacts to call or text message them), voice dialing using voice tags (not true speech recognition), caller photo ID and distinctive ringtones (set a specific ringtone for a contact). You can use the included (dull) ringtones or set any MP3, video or recorded audio as a ringtone. Ringer volume is just adequate, and the phone has a very gentle vibrate mode which can be used in conjunction with a ringer or in silent mode.
We tested the phone on AT&T's HSDPA network in the US and averaged download speeds of 330kbit/sec on DSL Reports mobile speed test. That's not hugely impressive when we've seen speeds up to 950k on smartphones and the upper 500's for the N95-3. The web browser and CPU's rendering capabilities likely hamper download speeds when compared to a smartphone. Downloading videos from the web was a fast affair on the other hand, and applications likewise download very quickly.
Obviously, the 5 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and Xenon flash is the centerpiece of the Cybershot K850i. And it didn't disappoint us, in fact for the first release firmware out the door the camera was stable, and overall did an excellent job of imaging. Those of you who were hoping for a clear winner between the latest versions of the N95 and the SE K850i in our camera battle will be disappointed. It's a toss up-- with each camera winning in different categories. The K850i is the clear winner in usability, which is to say offering a more dedicated camera-like experience. The N95-3 (which runs the latest camera firmware available for the N95 line) is still too slow: it takes several seconds longer for the camera application to launch and be ready for first shot, autofocus times are improved from early N95 releases but is still slower than the SE, and file save times seem interminable compared to the K850i. The SE isn't as fast as a dedicated digital camera, but it's quite usable and you just might manage to catch a fleeting moment that the N95 will assuredly miss.
The K850i can take photos at a maximum 2592 x 1944 resolution in 5MP mode and has a variety of lesser resolutions from 3MP down to VGA. The camera can shoot video at QVGA resolution (320 x 240) at 30 fps, and the N95's superb VGA resolution video wins here. The phone has a hardware slider button that you'll use to select photo, video or playback mode. There's a tiny camera application launcher button that turns the camera on and off as well as controlling the lens cover. When the camera app is running the entire screen becomes the viewfinder and it runs in landscape orientation. The topmost number key row become camera settings buttons and light up in blue.
The camera/video/playback slider to the left, shutter button and camera on/off button.
Photo quality is excellent overall, with more usable data than the K790i and K800i's 3MP images and better exposure (no white haze or washed out effect which we sometimes noticed with the K800i). Colors are accurate, if not sometimes understated and we couldn't find a hint of color cast in outdoor shots. Indoor shots became overly warm as the camera didn't compensate well enough for incandescent lighting in auto exposure mode with the flash on (turning off the flash fixed the problem). Indoor evening shots in poor light were pleasing with good blacks, but surprisingly the N95 managed a more exposed shot (Nokia's weak spot used to be their low light image quality). The K850i's Xenon flash illuminates close subjects very well, but doesn't add much ambient lighting, which means your subject will be decently exposed but awash in a sea of near blackness. For all but dark club shots and outdoor night shots, we recommend experimenting with turning the flash off-- we consistently got brighter and more balanced shots with it off. The camera uses an LED (actually 3 tiny LEDs) to illuminate the scene for focus and fires the power-hungry Xenon flash only when snapping the photo. Should K790i owners upgrade based on the higher resolution camera? That depends on what you do with your photos: 3MP is really plenty good enough for viewing on the average monitor (if you've got a 30" LCD display, that's a different story), and you won't be able to view a 3MP image at 100%, let alone a 5MP image. But if you want to print photos, the extra pixels and sharper images are worth it. From what we can tell, the lens quality hasn't improved.
The camera has a wealth of manual settings for ISO, white balance, flash control, auto/infinity focus, metering mode and 7 scene modes. Sony Ericsson's BestPic feature shoots several shots with varied settings so you can choose the best one, and Photo fix lets you tweak photos you've taken before transferring them to a PC. The camera has 16x digital zoom, but alas no optical zoom (that's still a rarity on camera phones). Though only QVGA resolution, video quality is very good with no jerkiness or blockiness. Colors are strong and accurate, even in low light and sound is clear.
Sample photos and N95 Comparisons
Photos taken at 5MP auto settings with the K850i. Click on an image to see the original full-size version (bandwidth warning: each is ~1.4 megs).
Color balance in auto mode is too warm. The Netsuke was in a room on a white (not yellow) shelf with good natural lighting. No complaints for the other two images to the right, which are excellent.
K850i (left) vs. N95 (right)
Photos taken at 5MP auto settings with the K850i and Nokia N95-3. Click on an image to see the original full-size version (bandwidth warning: each is ~1.4 megs).
Though the N95 tends to over-enhance colors, the K850i's are more vibrant in this photo.
Colors are a bit too warm and muted.
Absolutely perfect shot! Good depth of field with strong detail on the lilly and no washing out of highlights.
A bit washed out, not much depth of field. The N95 losses here.
Not good with auto settings and Xenon flash on a very dark day indoors that looks more like the dead of night in this photo. The camera did a better job of this shot with the flash turned off.
Though not a great capture, the N95 wins here for getting ambient light right and exposing the scene more accurately and with more light.
For proper white balance and exposure, the K850i wins.
Too warm and white fur is over exposed, fur shows the N95's tenancy to oversharpening.
Horsepower, Applications and Syncing
The phone has 40 megs of free internal memory for storage and a memory card slot that accepts Memory Stick Micro M2 and microSD cards (microSD card support is rare from Sony Ericsson thanks to Sony's interest in the Memory Stick format). Sony Ericsson does not disclose the CPU used in their phones. The phone has J2ME (Java Micro Edition) with support for Java Platform 8 and is one of the first Sony Ericsson phones to support the Nokia UI API for compatibility with Java apps targeting the Nokia platform. It supports Java 3D, and gaming is a strong focus for Sony Ericsson. The phone ships with 2 games pre-installed, 3D Marble Madness and Tennis. Marble Madness is very cool and a great deal of fun since it uses the phone's motion sensor, which means you tilt and turn the phone to guide the marble through the maze. Tennis supports multiplayer over Bluetooth.
The K850i comes with a PIM suite (contacts, calendar, tasks and notes). These are fairly powerful by feature phone standards, with most Outlook fields supported included home and work address, email address, URL, birthday and more. In addition the contacts app can copy contacts to and from the SIM and backup the address book to a memory card. The calendar application has day, week and month views and has alarms and repeat even support.
Also included is the Netfront web browser, which is far superior to most feature phone browsers, though it can't compete with the excellent Nokia S60 3rd Edition smartphone web browser (even other smartphones come up short against Nokia's browser). Netfront on the K850i works with WAP and HTML sites and can render a page in best fit mode (single column view) or in desktop browser mode with reasonable fidelity. Complex page layouts and dynamically generated pages (i.e.: PHP) work fine with no crashes or memory errors. An RSS reader is integrated, and there's support for SSL, downloads over the web, cookies, caching and landscape mode. The messaging client supports POP3 and IMAP email along with SMS (text messages) and MMS. The phone also supports push email and syncing with MS Exchange server.
The phone comes with Windows XP/Vista desktop syncing and music management software. These are Sony Ericsson PC Suite and Media Manager, and PC Suite works over USB and Bluetooth. There's no Mac OS X iSync plugin from Sony Ericsson or Apple yet, but I had no problem creating one from the SE K800i iSync plugin. You can download it for free from our site. This is an iSync 2.4 plugin for Mac OS X and it syncs with the Apple Address Book (caller photo IDs don't sync) and iCal's calendar and tasks.
Though this is a Cybershot and not a Walkman phone, the K850i is one of Sony Ericsson's flagship phones, and the K850i's music-oriented feature set is identical to most Sony Ericsson Walkman phones. Auto-rotate of the display works in the Media suite of applications, and it's generally fairly responsive, though a little slow to rotate back to portrait mode compared to the initial quick rotate to landscape when the phone's turned sideways. Video playback performance is better when auto-rotate is turned off. The display is one of the best we've seen on a mobile phone: extremely bright, sharp and saturated. Colors pop from the 2.2" 262k color display, and it's much brighter and more vivid than the N95's.
Media uses the Sony PSP interface which is both intuitive and cool looking. The app handles photos, video and music. The FM radio with RDS that has better reception than most Nokia phones. The FM radio app can save favorite channels and play the radio in the background and through the speaker, though the headset must remain attached since it functions as the antenna. The K850i has Sony Ericsson's free TrackID service that identifies songs playing on the radio or in the environment, and this feature works quite well (it requires a data connection since the track info is downloaded over the Internet using the phone's browser). The phone has flight mode so you can use the multimedia features with the phone's cell radio turned off. Bluetooth is available in flight mode, so you can use a stereo Bluetooth headset.
The phone supports a wide variety of audio formats including MP3, Podcasts, Audiobooks, MP4, AAC, RealAudio (.ra, .rm), WMA, XMF, M4A, WAV and midi. Video formats include MPEG4 (MP4 with AAC or AMR audio), 3GPP, WMV (.asf, .wmv) and RealVideo 8 (.rv, .rm). The K850i supports OMA DRM 1.0 and 2.0 for copy protected music, video and Java applications. Audi quality through stereo earbuds and even stereo Bluetooth headsets is excellent, with good stereo separation, strong bass (even stronger if you turn on Megabass) and clear highs. The phone definitely makes a good iPod substitute when used with a 2 or 4 gig card. We loaded a 4 gig microSD card with songs and ran the player for 6 hours with plenty of battery left to spare.
To transfer songs and other media to the phone you can use a card reader or put the phone in USB 2.0 mass storage mode and mount it as an external drive on your computer. The phone also supports Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) to transfer media files and sync playlists over USB in phone or mass storage mode. This works with Windows Media Player 10 and 11 under Windows XP and is supported natively under Vista.
The K850i has Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR with a class 1 radio. It supports most every commonly available profile including the beloved A2DP and AVRC profiles for Bluetooth stereo headsets and headphones (a nice companion to the Walkman-like music features). We tested the phone with the Motorola S9 Bluetooth stereo headset and got some of the best sound we've ever heard come out of those headphones whose bass otherwise seems a little weak (earbuds just don't deliver a lot of bass oomph) and we heard less white hiss than usual (the S9 tends to have background hiss with most phones). The Plantronics Pulsar 590 stereo headphones likewise sounded excellent, with range approaching 30 feet.
Standard mono headsets using the headset and handsfree profiles likewise offered good audio for calls with excellent voice clarity and better than average range. We tested the Plantronics Discovery 655 which has a great DSP but generally poor range (5-10 feet with most phones) and got 25 feet of range. The Jawbone worked well with good volume (it can be a bit quiet on incoming voice with some phones) and 15 feet of range.
Other profiles include both DUN and PAN for using the phone as a high speed wireless modem for a notebook, HID, Bluetooth remote (control a PC using the phone), serial port, FTP, Bluetooth printing and sync. The phone has Bluetooth power-saving mode, which reduces Bluetooth power consumption but can only be used when you wish the phone to connect to only one Bluetooth device at a time.
The Sony Ericsson has great battery life that beats the N95-3 hands down when both phones are in 3G mode. The N95 does better in GSM mode, but the K850i still wins hands down. Of course, the N95 does have WiFi and a GPS, but of which can consume a great deal of power, but we're basing our comparison with those features not used. We're very impressed with the number of hours SE got out of the 930 mAh Lithium Ion battery in 3G mode (3G uses more power than GSM), and our phone lasted 2 to 3 days with average use including 30 minutes of talk time/day, 2 hours music playback/day, looking up PIM information several times throughout each day, surfing the web over HSDPA for 30 minutes/day and taking 40 photos/day.
Closing Thoughts on the K850i vs. the N95
The Nokia N95 and the Sony Ericsson K850i are both unlocked GSM phones with 3G, a music player and a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus lens. The close similarities end there. The question is: do you want a smartphone? Do you need WiFi or a GPS? If the answer to these questions is yes, the N95 is your animal. If these aren't important to you, then the K850i is in the running. We expect that the K850i will sell for $200 less than the N95-3 in the US once prices have settled down, an important factor if price is important to you. The K850i is arguably more attractive and is bit smaller, has better voice quality and a much better music player. The N95 is stronger on the video playback and video recording (VGA on the N95 vs. QVGA on the K850i). Both do equally well on reception and both have good build quality (those obsessed with wobbly sliders will probably feel better about the SE's solid candy bar design).
The K850i improves significantly on the Cybershot K790i it replaces. Though on the surface it looks like a face-lifted version of the K790i and K800i, inside there's a lot of good new stuff going on: the 5MP camera with improved still images and much improved video, quad band phone rather than triband, worldwide 3G with HSDPA, the new media player (we love the interface), improved music player, Bluetooth A2DP and a much brighter and a bit bigger display. This is a phone it's hard not to like.
Pro: Great camera with faster camera performance than the N95, fantastic display, excellent Bluetooth with a large selection of profiles and good range, has both M2 and microSD card slots. Good battery life for a 3G phone with a Xenon flash. Finally, standard call send and end buttons on a Sony Ericsson phone!! Phone is responsive and stable, good HTML browser by feature phone standards. Supports MS Exchange and push email.
Con: Keypad isn't good for heavy texters. Great touch controls, but funky d-pad. Nighttime and dim scene imaging on automatic setting is not good. Fast port connector instead of 2.5 or 3.5mm stereo jack (why do we still have to buy a high-end Walkman phone to get this??). HSDPA speeds could be better. Dust specs come and go under the clear plastic that protects the lens cover and lens.
Price: currently around $565 US. Estimated $475 to $500 once prices settle down in the US
TFT color LCD. Screen size diagonally: 2.2". Resolution:
240 x 320, supports both portrait and landscape modes and has an accelerometer than automatically rotates the display in media applications.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
930 mAh, model BST-38. Charges to 90% within 2 hours and fully within 2.5 hours according to SE. Claimed talk time: up to 9 hours on GSM, 3.5 hours on 3G. Claimed standby 16.6 days.
Phone:Quad band 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM with GPRS and EDGE. UMTS/HSDPA (3G): 850/1900/2100MHz bands. Supports circuit switched data connection as well.
Camera:5 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and Xenon flash. 16x digital zoom. Front facing video conferencing camera (not supported by US carrier services).
in speaker, mic and Sony Ericsson Fast Port stereo headphone
jack. Stereo earbud headset with inline mic included (HPM-62). Has speakerphone, vibrate mode, speed dial and voice dialing (voice tags). Music Player 3.0 included, supports MTP (Music Transport Protocol) and reads ID3 tags.
Networking:Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR with A2DP Bluetooth stereo, AVRC, headset, handsfree, Object push, Bluetooth remote, DUN, PAN, BIP, HID, serial port, Sync/SyncML, phonebook access, Bluetooth remote control of PCs and FTP profiles. Class 1 radio with low power setting option.
Software:Media (music player 3.0, video player and photo viewer), PIM applications (contacts, calendar, tasks and notes), web browser (Access Netfront) with RSS reader, messaging (POP3 and IMAP email, SMS and MMS), alarm clock, code memo (password keeper), TrackID, PhotoDJ, MusicDJ, PlayNow (link to download music and other things, generally for a fee), PictBridge, T9 predictive text input, smart search (for calling and sending messages), sound recorder, stopwatch, calculator, flash light (uses LED on back of phone). Sony Ericsson PC Suite, Media Manager for Windows included.
microSD slot, 1 Memory Stick Micro M2 slot (1 slot handles both types of media). Compatible with cards up to 4 gigs (supports SDHC microSD cards). A 512 meg M2 card is included with the phone (but no M2 to Memory Stick adapter for use with a card reader is included).