While packed with all the now-familiar cell accoutrements – music player, email, AGPS location-based services and navigation, the Sony Ericsson C902’s main drawing card is its 5-megapixel camera. It takes great pictures, among the best we’ve seen from a camera phone, but not as good as those taken by the Kodak-equipped Motorola ZINE ZN5 from T-Mobile. Since the C902 is unlocked, though, it’s priced at $549.99, around five times as much as the ZINE.
Features and Design
Take a tour around the exterior of the HSDPA-capable C902 and you’ll find no camera lens. Instead of being situated on the outside of the phone, the camera is located inside a pullout section; hold the phone horizontal, the dial pad in your right hand, then pull the earpiece section of the phone above the screen to the left. Out pops a compartment revealing the camera lens and Xenon flash, and the camera function is automatically activated. This clever arrangement keeps the lens hidden when it’s not being used, so it can’t get smudged or scratched.
Sony has expertise not only in digital cameras, but in portable music as well. So while its 5-megapixel Cyber-shot camera instantly makes it one of the best camera phones available, it’s no surprise that the C902 is equipped with an excellent digital music player as well.
Sony also makes use of its computing competence by equipping the C902 with superb email functionality, although the Web browser is a bit clumsy. Also included are an FM radio (the included headset, which acts as an antenna, has to be plugged in), location-based services including Google maps and turn-by-turn directions, easy-to-configure messaging, and POP3/IMAP e-mail.
Other than its unusual camera hideaway, the relatively unadorned C902 resembles a great many other Sony Ericsson candy bar models. It’s thin, as you’d expect – just .4 inches thick, but at 3.8 ounces, a little heavier than we expected.
Instead of a solid black casing, the perimeter spine of the all-metal C902 is more like a silver-and-black layer cake. If you don’t like Sony’s “swift” black, you can get the C902 in “luscious” red, “cinnamon” bronze and all “titanium” silver.
The 2-inch, 240 x 320 LCD screen atop the C902’s face is smaller than it looks, because the active part of the screen is surrounded by a quarter inch black border. Even though the screen may be smaller than you expect, what it displays is crisp, clean, clear, colorful and bright, easily readable off-angle and in direct sunlight.
Below the screen is the tile dial pad. Its keys are slightly angled rather than all flat, but they’re so small and tightly packed that it’s difficult to tap without error. In between the menu and the dial pad is the menu navigation array and Talk and Send keys, again so condensed that you should expect to hit the wrong key more frequently than you’d like.
On the left side is the Sony Ericsson dual-pronged power and headphone jack (more on that in a bit). On the right side is the camera activation key/shutter release and the up/down toggle, positioned toward the bottom of the phone.
Intentionally or not, this bottom toggle placement is most convenient. When holding the phone in your right hand up to your right ear, the volume controls are right under your right thumb. In your left hand to your left ear, the toggle can be manipulated by either your pinky or ring finger.
On the rear, just beneath the easy-to-remove battery cover is the phone’s speaker.
Ports & Connectors
What Sony giveth, Sony taketh away. Instead of adapting the industry standards microSD card and microUSB jack, Sony insists on sticking with its proprietary (and increasingly hard to find) M2 Memory Stick flash memory card and the increasingly dumb and always clunky Ericsson jack.
The C902’s micro Memory Stick slot is located under the battery cover. Thankfully, you don’t have to remove the battery to get to it, which makes it easier to swap it out without turning the phone off.
The C902 includes a 1GB M2 Memory Stick card, a handy M2-USB adapter, a USB connecting jack, and the aforementioned two-piece earbud/headphone adapter arrangement. A CD with the Sony Ericsson PC Suite of syncing and content management applications is also in the box.
Can a phone serve as a workable PMP?
Because the C902 is unlocked, its video capabilities are dependent on which GSM service you tether the phone to. We did not have a compatible AT&T card to test the phone with, and T-Mobile doesn’t offer any video services.
But demo videos pre-loaded into the C902 looked sharp, like little HD videos, with no sign of the usual digital flaws. Thanks to the C902’s accelerometer, videos can be watched full screen when the phone is turned sideways. This widescreen view helps a lot considering the screen’s otherwise relatively diminutive dimensions, but I’m not sure I’d want to squint for two hours trying to watch a movie that way.
The C902’s music capabilities are excellent, but the phone lacks the proper physical attributes to make it a total success. Compatible with MP3 and non-protected AAC, the C902 is easily loaded with tracks by either drag-and-dropping or via Windows Media Player (although, since WMP doesn’t handle AAC files, you’ll have to drag-and-drop your ripped-for-iPod tracks).
Once your music tracks are loaded into the phone, you’ll have to drill through menus to get to the player, since there’s no external direct-to-music button. The closest thing to it is a Media soft menu button that gives you a list of the varying multimedia content, meaning you’re three to four clicks away from grooving. Thankfully, music starts to play instantaneously once a track is chosen.
The music play screen supplies the usual song data – track name, artist, album, time elapsed and remain, and play mode (shuffle or loop). You don’t get album art, however. You can “minimize” the player, which hides the music play/data screen while you perform other phone functions. Pressing the soft Media key brings the music screen back.
The problem, of course, is that damned ancient and clunky two-pronged Sony-Ericsson jack. Rather than a standard 3.5mm jack, the C902 includes an adapter with that ridiculous plug at one end and a female 3.5mm plug with in-line microphone at the other, plus a two-piece headphone/earbud combination with a standard 3.5mm jack. Thanks, but this is still an awkward arrangement – now I have to worry about two sets of cables for private listening. Seriously, Sony, it is time to move on, jack-wise.
To enhance music sound, there’s EQ settings for bass, mega bass, voice (presumably for talking books), and treble boost, as well as a separate stereo widening setting.
The C902 shoots 3ivx MPEG-4 320 x 240 pixel video, nearly twice the resolution of the usual H.263 .gp 176 x 144 pixel videos shot by other camera phones. Thanks to their greater resolution, when blown up, videos lack the nearly
unwatchable digital artifacts that infect other tiny videos.
However, footage shot in less than ideal lighting conditions suffers from more blurriness than expected.
Not only is the C902 unique in the way it hides its camera away, it’s unique in how you control it, too. Even though the C902 doesn’t have a touch screen, the camera controls are touch sensitive. When you pull open the camera, the screen’s bezel top and bottom lights up with blue backlit touch controls. The navigation pad controls additional non-touch menu options on the right, such as the toggle between still and video capture.
These controls make it ridiculously simple to switch shooting modes and find settings such as panorama, timer, scene mode and flash, which are normally buried inconveniently in options menus.
Image Courtesy of Sony Ericsson
Like any standalone digital camera, you depress the shutter release halfway to focus, then press all the way to capture the image. Pictures snap nearly instantaneously, and its Xenon flash can brighten a scene wider and farther than cheaper LED video lights.
Images produced by the C902 are among the best we’ve seen, although not as amazingly spectacular as those produced by the Motorola ZINE ZN5, which are the best we’ve seen from a cell phone. Colors are bright, even those lit by the flash, but night scenes lit by the flash can be blurry unless you manage to hold the camera dead still.
Voice quality on T-Mobile’s New York City network was clean and consistent, if a little on the thick and muffled side.
The C902’s rear speaker pumps out impressive volume for both music and voice, with no sign of distortion at the upper end that usually plagues these cheap speakers.
As an added plus, the speaker doesn’t care if it’s face up, or face down. We’re not sure how Sony Ericsson did it, but we detected no volume difference worth mentioning, and little aural difference regardless, of whether the speaker was facing up or down. In fact, the C902’s speaker sounded a little fuller when facing down.
As a result of the excellent speaker, ring tones sound blisteringly loud at their highest settings. You can also use one of your own tracks as a ring tone, too, so the louder the track you pick, the louder the ring tone.
As noted, the biggest problem with the C902 is its tightly-packed dial pad keys. Anyone with less than dainty fingers will have problems punching digits with any degree of consistent accuracy. Plus, with such small keys, numbers and especially alpha characters, are not easy to read, especially for farsighted users, even with the white backlighting. By increasing the on-screen font size to “large,” it’s easy to double-check your number pressing.
These tiny keys with their tiny characters may not present huge problems for “dialing” phone numbers, but text input becomes a challenge for those with chubbier fingers and less than perfect vision.
At 4.3 inches long, the phone comfortably stretches from ear to your mouth’s corner, so you’ll feel as if you’re taking into the phone.
You’ll want to change the C902’s default white-on-black display theme, since menus and lists are far easier to discern in one of the dark-on-light themes.
Sony Ericsson delineates the new contact entry form into five components: name and number on one screen, then tabs for email and Web address, one for personalization – picture, ring tone, message alert, voice command, snail mail info for home and office, and personal information such as birthday. This actually makes data entry much easier since you’re not continually scrolling down a long page.
Web and E-Mail
We had plenty of problems provisioning the phone for varying data duties such as Web access and email, an inherent problem with DIY unlocked phones. In the end, we were able to load Web and email settings into the phone using T-Mobile’s handy provisioning page – settings are transmitted to the phone via text.
Even though the C902 is HSDPA capable, and even though T-Mobile has a 3G network in New York City, we could only pick up EDGE service on our test C902. As such, pages loaded in around 12-15 seconds, which is actually pretty quick considering all the graphics on most of the HTML sites we visited.
Oddly, the C902 refused to display CNN.com, or any mobile variation therein. We had no trouble with any other site.
The C902 is equipped with an HTML browser that, while good-looking, is awkward to navigate without a touch screen or the usual numbered WAP link lists. You get an arrow to indicate position, and finger-pointing cursor to indicate clickable links, then move around a page using the directional pad, which slows surfing considerably.
While text wraps to the screen, the font on most pages ranges from miniscule to unreadable. You can zoom text in 10 percent increments up to 200 percent, and your zoom setting holds as you surf from one page to another and from one site to another. While the accelerometer auto-rotates the page view to landscape, the text size and text wrap don’t change, but you will see more of whatever graphics that are on the page.
Email is far better executed. While the C902 lacks pre-configured account settings, we were able to set up Gmail and AOL accounts using only usernames and email address. We assume most of the common email domains are just as easy to set up, even though they’re not listed.
The phone also can automatically check for mail from every 24 hours to every 5 minutes, or you can turn on “push” email. You can also assign different settings to different accounts.
In our tests – just letting the music play until the battery died – we got 19.5 hours of continuous music play, about 50 percent more than most music-enabled phones not made by Apple.
We also got 7.5 hours of talk time, but that’s on T-Mobile’s EDGE network, and is actually about an hour and a half less than the rated nine-hour EDGE talk time. Sony Ericsson says you’ll get around four hours of talk time on a 3G network. If its 3G performance parallels our EDGE talk-time results, figure more like 3.5 hours.
Because the C902 is unlocked, its price is a firm $549.99 – no carrier subsidy. For some, this steep tag will be a deal breaker, especially considering other phones with as much to recommend them (i.e. the Motorola ZINE ZN5, $99 from T-Mobile) are substantially cheaper, if you commit to a multi-year service contract. Judged without the price consideration, the C902 is probably best suited to DIY types with small fingers who need/want a little of everything a modern cell phone offers, but don’t want to be saddled with a long-term service contract. Its camera is nearly the best available, but all its other high-tech functions are plagued by enough annoying little drawbacks to make it hard to justify its price.
• Unlocked 3G/HSDPA
• High-quality Cyber-shot 5-megapixel camera with Xenon flash
• Excellent music player
• Easy to set up email accounts
• HTML Web browser
• Small, tightly-packed dial pad keys
• No 3.5mm headphone jack
• Uses hard-to-find M2 Memory Sticks