Sony Ericsson M600i review
Sam Stephens, June/July 2006
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The M600 is the first Symbian OS 9.1 / UIQ 3.0 device to be released by Sony Ericsson. It was announced on 6th February 2006 and has been commercially available from around May/June. The M600i is a new addition to Sony Ericsson's smartphone line-up and is clearly targeted as an e-mail device to compete with Blackberry-esque devices such as the Blackberry 8700, Nokia E61 and Motorola Q. Sony Ericsson have seen much success with the P-series smartphones as fully featured all-in-one devices and the addition of a new range is pleasing to see.
The M600 has a combination of business features and sleek styling. The UIQ 3.0 platform offers functionality and customisation to suit the most demanding of users with a wide range of third-party push e-mail solutions actively being developed as well as other productivity applications and games. Aesthetically the M600 moves away the concept that smartphones must be large, unwieldy and cumbersome. It is one of the thinnest devices in its class and is pleasingly tasteful and understated.
It is a tri-band (GSM 900/1800/1900 MHz) and 3G (UMTS 2100 MHz) phone allowing world-wide connectivity. However, it lacks EDGE or a GSM 850 MHz variant for North America. It also offers a host of local connectivity options including Bluetooth 2.0, Infra-red and full-speed USB 2.0 (with a compatible cable), however, it does lack Wi-Fi.
Straight-away the packaging highlights the effort Sony Ericsson have put into making this smartphone into a stylish package. The box mirrors the phone's design beautifully and awakens a sense of anticipation. In the box you will find the phone and battery (BST-33), a charger (CST-75), a data cable (DCU-60), a stereo hands free kit (very-like the HPM-20 but with a Fast-Port connector), a user-guide and software CD.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the M600 is the form-factor, gone is the sense that style and size have to be sacrificed in the name of technical specifications. It is slim (only 15 mm) and light (only 112 g) compared to its only real predecessor from Sony Ericsson, the P-series. Despite the reduction in size and weight Sony Ericsson have managed to maintain a feeling of quality and durability that surpasses the P910.
It comes in two colour variants, the no-nonsense Granite Black and the iPod-chic Crystal White. The handset has a dual-function QWERTY keyboard (and regional variants) with a number pad; it also sports a 3-way jog-dial, back button and one further customisable hardware button – all working in conjunction with the large 320x240 pixel 262K colour touch-screen.
The keypad itself has a unique layout, with two letters per button and a concave profile allowing either side of the button to be pressed easily. This lends itself equally to one-hand or two-hand operation, but does take a bit of getting used to. Although this is an unusual idea it allows the keys to be much larger than if each letter resided on a separate key. The buttons give a nice response and they are spaced far enough apart to avoid accidental presses on the neighbouring keys. In text input mode all of the standard keypad keys are available and with SHIFT and ALT function keys the most commonly used characters can be accessed quickly. The keypad automatically adjusts to the mode of use so in the standby screen the number pad is enabled without the need to press ALT. The keypad is also fully illuminated allowing use in complete darkness.
The Jog-dial has been pared down from a 5-way system seen in earlier Sony Ericsson phones to only 3-way, but with the introduction of a separate physical back-button just below the jog-dial. This is a step backward in functionality and ease of use in many ways in my opinion reduces. Sony Ericsson claim it is a decision based on user feedback as many struggled with the forward and back motions using the 5-way. This is an issue based solely on user-preference and does not result in any real loss of overall functionality when you consider the presence of the back button. On a positive note, it does feel solid and after a week of use I have adjusted well to the new functions.
The jog-dial itself is less prominent than that on the P-series, recessed behind a moulding in the case above the jog-dial. It is ideally situated for use with the thumb of the left-hand or the fore-finger of the right, approaching from the back of the phone. It provides individual clicks that can be felt when scrolling and gives a satisfying response when using it to select. Navigation in many menus also requires the use of the left and right arrows either side of the space bar, this is a little more awkward to achieve one-handed, but quite usable. The back button is easy to access but a little too smooth for my liking and is sometimes tricky to locate as it does not give a lot of physical feedback.
The screen is crisp and bright, slightly larger (in terms of resolution) than that of the P910 (240x320 compared to 208x320) but physically slightly smaller than both the P910i and P990. You may have noticed the lack of common mobile phone buttons for "Send" and "End" call buttons. These are handled by way of 3 virtual buttons using the bottom 5 mm of the screen. They are easy to access and change depending on menu and functions available, commonly comprising a "Select", "Cancel / Back" and "More" option. They provide an intuitive and adaptive interface for the use of may different applications without the constraints of physical buttons. To some it may be a concern to be touching the screen so frequently and for these people a screen-protector is a must. The rest of the screen's menus and icons are a little too small for use without the stylus. The stylus is identical in size to that of its predecessors and that is a little too small for comfortable use in my hands. The P990 has a marginally longer stylus, but this is enough to improve the ergonomics, it is a shame that Sony Ericsson could not include the extra few millimetres for the M600 also. Another small change that will take some adjusting to is that the stylus is now stored on the left side as opposed to the right for previous Sony Ericsson touch screen devices.
On the base of the phone is Sony Ericsson's new Fast-Port connector allowing the connection of many different accessories including charger, hands-free and data-cable. There is also the Memory Stick Micro (M2) slot allowing expandable storage memory, in the box you get a 64 MB card but cards up to 1 GB are currently available. Just above this is a customizable button defaulting to the e-mail client. It has nice protruding guides, if these were applied to the back button they would negate my criticism, alas, they are not. One thing to note is the relative position to the jog-dial of this button, on the M600 it is placed slightly higher, thus you avoid accidentally pressing it when trying to use the jog-dial to select an item. Finally, at the top of the phone there is the stylus silo, infra-red port and power button.
As I mentioned, the M600 is the first device available to operate on UIQ 3.0 and Symbian OS 9.1. In this section of the review I am going to try and highlight as many of the features of this new platform and also compare them with UIQ 2.1 where applicable. This is an entirely new platform with many changes from UIQ 2.1. UIQ 3.0 is not backwardly compatible with UIQ 2.x applications as a result of a new security model, new kernel and compiler. What I can tell you with some certainty is UIQ has received a major facelift in terms of appearance and also the functionality has been significantly modified.
On the left we have the "Activity Menu" and from here you can access 5 shortcut icons across the bottom of the screen (all customisable) and view your Today screen showing the day's tasks, appointments and messages. Navigation is by way of the jog-dial and back key, arrow buttons on the keyboard and the soft-keys on the screen, or obviously with the stylus direct on the screen. When in the Activity Menu the keyboard is automatically enabled as a number pad, allowing easy dialling for calls. The only element of the interface that is always visible is the system bar at the top of the screen. This displays information on the current status of the phone such as power, signal, active connections and notifications. There is also the task manager icon on the right and the start icon on the left. This is quite a change from UIQ 3.0 as this used to have 6 icons that were permanently visible. This is possibly what has taken the biggest adjustment in terms of usage for me. However, having gotten used to it now it seems logical and easy. Another adjustment is the lack of permanent icons in the system bar, so if Bluetooth is not enabled there is no icon. Time and volume were fixed in the system bar of UIQ 2.x but are now only accessible through the new "Start" icon. this also offers a host of other features such as quick access to your connections and also the option to create any new event or file supported by the OS.
Probably the most successful application for UIQ 2.x was SMan, a task manager, so it is good to see this as a standard feature in the new UIQ. The task manager is entirely new for UIQ 3.0 and allows fast application switching and management. All in all it is quite satisfactory and gives you your five most recent applications and the Activity menu and Main menu as default and there is an "Open" tab that allows you to view all your running applications and switch between them, end one or all as required.
The M600i has the standard PIM features such as e-mail, contacts, calendar, tasks, notes and packs a web browser (Opera 8.6) and throws in QuickOffice for document viewing (Word, Excel & Power Point) and creation/editing (Word & Excel) on the move.
The E-mail client supports both IMAP and POP3 accounts, with support for push-e-mail services being offered by third party applications (the only one available at the time of writing is Exchange ActiveSync that I have not tested, though I understand it is essentially a port of DataViz's RoadSync for UIQ 2.x).
There are a number of settings available to you and I am pleased to report that even googlemail is now (following the latest update) fully supported by the built in client. The settings are quick and easy to access. You can also set up a scheduled download of your e-mail at 3 set times during the day or by intervals as short as 1 minute, and this can then be limited further to only check between two times, for example 09:00 to 17:00. This is a very useful feature, particularly while the push e-mail solutions are not yet released.
So, there is the Contacts application. Things to note are the loss of a search function on any field and you are limited to search by the first item in you current sort, and you are limited to four sorting options: First name, Last name; Last name, First name; Company name, First name; Company name, Last name. This is a major reduction in functionality for many users, though I think most standard searches will be covered by these options, even if it is a bit fiddly to keep changing your sorting options. Some positive improvements since UIQ 2.x is the introduction of groups as well as folders, this mirrors the function in Microsoft Outlook and one contact can be assigned to many groups (I have yet to test this as my P910 and UIQ 2.x made me live without groups). Another small but very practical addition is that of a contacts backup and restore option, saving the contacts database to the M2 memory card. I can report that this feature works as one would hope and provides a simple and fast backup without the need for PC connectivity.
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