Sony Ericsson P990i review
Michal Jerz, August 2006
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Sony Ericsson P990i is the first UIQ 3 based phone, announced in October 2005. Delayed several times, it finally started shipping in August 2006, only several weeks after another UIQ 3 phone - the M600i. Being a direct successor of the P910i, the P990i brings many improvements, both software- and hardware-wise. It is not possible to mention all the changes in this article and I will only highlight the most important features, but you can find answers to hundreds of detailed questions in this thread on our UIQ 3 discussion forum.
Part I: Hardware
1. Casing, screen, keys & buttons
Have you ever owned the P900 or P910? Then you already know the size and weight of the P990i as it hasn't changed much. The P990i weighs 155 g and measures 114x57x25 mm. As opposed to the M600i's "candybar" design, the P990i preserves P910's unique removable flip and features both the touch-sensitive screen and full QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard has been moved from the inner side of the flip to the phone body, which lets you take advantage of the QWERTY keyboard even if you use your P990i with the flip detached.
P990i body is all silver and it's made mainly of plastic, with a metal frame surrounding the screen. It's well built and feels robust, maybe except for the plastic battery cover which feels slightly loose and tends to squeak.
To make space for QWERTY keyboard, the screen has been moved up. It is also slightly shorter, by about 6 mm (and some 2 mm wider), which results from its different aspect ratio (4:3) determined by its 320x240 pixels resolution (compared to P910's 320x208). Smaller pixels make the display "smoother" compared to P910i, but not as smooth as M600i (which has even smaller screen of the same resolution). The screen is of very high quality, with very good contrast and adjustable brightness. The keys of the QWERTY keyboard are quite small (they're of similiar width as in P910 but slightly shorter) and people with large fingers may find it difficult not to press two of them at the same time. However, they are very protruding and firm, with noticeable spaces between them, which all in all makes using the keyboard much easier than the one of the P910i. The keyboard is also usable at night thanks to nice blue backlight.
Changes have also been made to the keys of the phone keypad. Numeric keys now resemble P900 keys (narrow bars with a lot of space between them) which makes typing much easier than on P910's keypad which had no horizontal spaces between keys. The central part of the flip is occupied by a large 5-way controller. The P990 also has two double-function soft keys, located on both sides of the 5-way button. All keys provide very good tactile feedback.
The P990i also has several hardware buttons located all around the casing. On the right side, above the Memory Stick Pro Duo slot, there is a configurable button which can be used to launch selected system application (e.g. the Web browser) or quickly switch to the standby (Activity) screen, main menu or task manager. On the other side of the memory card slot there is a camera shutter release button: press it halfway to autofocus; press it all the way down to take a picture or start recording a video clip. This button is accompanied by a white LED diode which indicates recording in progress. On the top of the phone one can find the Power On/Off button, which can be also used to switch to/from the Flight mode. On the left side of the device there is a Media Player button which can be used to start and stop music or radio playback. It is followed by jog dial and "Back" button. The jog dial is now 3-way only (as opposed to P900's and P910's 5-way controller) but the missing jog dial outwards function has been replaced by the separate Back button. Some people will certainly miss the highly functional 5-way button but it's actually only a matter of getting used to the new controller. I've also heard that 5-way jog dials were too breakable, or maybe "not enough resistant to people with strong fingers". Finally, on the bottom of P990's left side there is a hardware Lock button which can be used to lock the keypad/keyboard and the touchscreen. Keys and screen can also be locked automatically after the predefined period of inactivity.
Good news for those who don't like blinking LEDs: unlike its predecessors, the P990i only has one diode and it's OFF by default. It's on or it blinks only when there's something that needs your attention: battery running out of power, missed calls, new messages, etc.
2. Processor and memory
The Sony Ericsson P990i comes with ARM9-based processor clocked at 208 MHz, which means clock speed increase of 52 MHz or 25% compared to the P910i (156 MHz). Video and graphics performance is further increased by P990's hardware acceleration. There is also some speed boost resulting from using NAND-Flash rather than XIP-flash memory for ROM-based applications but it also has some disadvantages, like negative impact on the size of free operating memory.
The following screenshots show P990i and P910i results of SPMarkJava06 benchmark. Only part of available tests could be run on the old P910i as it doesn't support JSR-184 and I couldn't compare JBenchmark 3D/HD results at all as these benchmarks don't even install on the old P910i (they run just fine on P990i). As you can see on the screenshots, P990i is 10%-200% faster in calculations and over 17 times faster in game tests (0.7 fps vs. 12 fps). This huge difference results from P990i hardware 2D/3D graphics acceleration.
This third screenshot comes from Nokia E61. The E61 has similiar ARM9-based processor running at 206 MHz (2 MHz less than P990i) but it lacks graphics acceleration. As you can see, the results are similiar, with the E61 being slightly faster in math calculations and the P990i winning in graphic test (thanks to the acceleration). All in all, P990i wins this benchmark and gets a slightly higher overall score.
XIP (eXecute In Place) technology used in all pre-Symbian OS 9.x phones allowed system processes to be run directly from ROM memory, without having to be copied to RAM first. NAND-flash memory used in P990i (and all Symbian OS 9.x devices) is faster and cheaper, but it doesn't support execution "in place" so all system software has to be loaded to RAM. Because of this, even though the P990i has 64 MB of operating (RAM) memory for program execution (twice more than P910 and 4 times more than P900 and P800), only ~15.5 MB is free. It's almost 2,5 times more than in P900 (which only had 6-7 MB RAM free) but about 6 MB less than in P990's predecessor - the P910. With software properly optimized for smartphones' limited resources this reduced RAM size doesn't cause any serious problems and one can still run many (depending on size, even up to 10 or 15) applications simultaneously. However, very complex or unoptimized software may allocate a lot of free RAM and make it impossible to launch other applications at the same time. For example, running certain 3rd party software doesn't let the Messaging application run in the background and continue scheduled email downloads. It seems that developers writing software for UIQ 3 will have to learn how to use operating memory more efficiently so that not only their own software is able to run but also that it doesn't prevent other programs from running in the background. Some work to be done is also on Sony Ericsson side because current memory management is unefficient, if not just buggy (see the 'Stability' chapter on the second page for details).
The P990i comes with about 62 MB of internal storage memory (disk C:) and 64 MB Memory Stick Pro Duo card, expandable to 8 GB.
Sony Ericsson P990i is the first UIQ phone (with the exception of the Motorola M1000 available in Asiatic FOMA networks only) supporting Wireless LAN (IEEE 802.11b). Tests show that even though the P990i supports WIFI B only (up to 11 Mbit/s), real data transmission (download) speeds aren't worse than on WIFI G (54 Mbit/s) Nokia E61 or N80. Configuring and using WLAN connections is easy and simple.
The P990i supports Bluetooth v2.0 with full set of the most frequently used BT profiles, including A2DP profile (streaming stereophonic audio). The Fastport connector provides USB 2.0 Full Speed connection (up to 12 Mbps) and supports USB Mass Storage (access to phone's memory card as a drive in Windows XP). It's worth mentioning that it's the first P-series phone with real USB port; P800, P900 and P910i only have a serial port and those switching to P990i from older P-series devices will notice the speed difference. Bluetooth transfers are much faster, too.
P990i is an UMTS phone supporting packet data transmission speed of up to 384 kbps in 3G networks. Unfortunately, the phone doesn't support EDGE, which means that data transmission rate falls to poor ~40-50 kbps wherever UMTS network isn't available. Lack of EDGE support can be considered the most serious disadvantage, at least for those who live or often travel outside of 3G coverage. I'm one of them :-(
4. Camera and multimedia
The phone is equipped with 2 Megapixel camera with autofocus. The camera allows taking pictures with up to 1600x1200 pixels resolution and recording MPEG-4 video clips with up to 320x240 pixels at 15 frames per second. While 2 Megapixel sensors in mobile phones no longer make people say "Wow!", P990i camera is still one of the best in its class and deserves highlighting.
What makes the camera stand out is its picture quality, which is very high. First of all, the images are practically noiseless, even the ones taken in dim lighting. Not only there is no chromatic noise (color spots) but there's no visible luminance noise (grain), either. This results in very high clarity and detailness of pictures, supported by very good JPEG compression algorithm with no visible artefacts or distortions.
Only good words can be said about color and contrast of still images. Colors are vivid, true and correctly saturated. The only issue I have noticed is that some images' colors are slightly shifted towards cyan which makes them look too 'cool' but it's really a minor problem and it can be easily corrected in postprocessing. Compared with other camera phones, e.g. the Nokia N93, the P990 camera also features a very good dynamic range, still showing details on contrast pictures where other cameras only produce completely white (overexposed) or black (underexposed) spots.
Regarding the 2 Megapixel (1600x1200) resolution, it is enough to obtain 10x15 cm photolab prints of professional quality and even 18x24 cm prints of good quality, so it's quite usable. Of course, higher resolution would allow even larger print sizes and would also enable some cropping during post-processing images on PC (e.g. to correct the frame composition) but if I had to choose larger resolution of e.g. the Nokia N93 OR higher image quality of the P990i, I'd choose the later.
The autofocus works fast and in most cases the obtained focus is correct. It's set on what's in the centre of the screen and I wish there was a small frame showing the autofocus area like in the Nokia N93 as it definitely helps, especially in case of novice users. The automatic white balance works very well, too, and in most cases there is no need to switch to one of the predefined white balance settings. More details about the Camera application can be found in the Software part of this review.
P990i camera also supports video recording. While still images are of exceptional quality as described above, video clips are just average if compared with the current video recording champion, the Nokia N93. There's actually nothing wrong with them, they are very clear and smooth, without "jerkiness", lost frames or compression artefacts, they're simply good quality MPEG-4 QVGA 15 fps videos. It's just that after playing a bit with the Nokia N93's exceptional video recording capabilities you feel insufficiency with anything of lower specs. But considering that not too many smartphones support 30 fps recording at the moment and only the N93 supports VGA at 30 fps, the P990i actually still offers quite high-end parameters, especially that video recording is not P990's primary feature.
If taking pictures and recording videos is one of the most important functions for you and you hesitate whether to buy the Nokia N93 or the P990i then it's indeed a hard choice between higher quality still images (P990i) and higher quality videos (N93).
As the P990i is an UMTS phone supporting video calls, there is a second camera located on front of the device, above the display. It's the usual low-res camera for video telephony.
The P990i is a stereo device. Stereophonic audio is available via the Fastport (wired headsets and other accessories) and Bluetooth (A2DP Bluetooth profile for stereo Bluetooth headphones and other accessories). The built-in loudspeaker is monaural. The audio via wired or wireless headset is of very good quality (but the max volume is too low for my liking, cosiderably lower than P910's) and the built-in graphic equalizer allows adjusting its parameters. It has 11 presets (including Mega Bass) but unfortunately it doesn't support custom settings so you're limited to manufacturer's preferences. In contrast to the headset (and compared to the latest Nokia S60 phones), the built-in loudspeaker's quality isn't satisfactory: only high frequency tones are reproduced, the sound is flat and the max volume is too low.
The P990i includes an FM radio with RDS. You have to connect the wired headset (serving as an antenna) to make it work, but the sound can also be transferred to the loudspeaker. It doesn't seem to be possible to transfer audio to an A2DP Bluetooth headset and recording from radio is not possible, either (at least in the current firmware version).
5. Power and accessories
The tested unit came with BST-34 Li-Polymer 1120 mAh battery. With average use (several phone calls, some web browsing, working with applications) you can expect the phone to last not less than two days, which is a very good result for such a complex device. One of the most power-hungry parts is the screen and its backlight, so setting the brightness level in Control panel to lower value can help you further extend your phone's standby time if you use it a lot and thus keep the display active most of the time. Depending on network coverage in your neighbourhood, you can also switch the phone to only use UMTS or GSM networks (as opposed to the default dual GSM/UMTS mode) which will further lower power consumption. Some units ship with smaller capacity BST-33 900 mAh battery providing slightly worse standby times. Lithium-Polymer batteries do not require initial "forming" so there is no need to charge your new P990i for 12 or 16 hours, just wait until the battery indicator in the phone shows it's full and start enjoying your new smartphone. Your battery will obtain is full performance after three normal charging cycles.
The reviewed P990i came with CST-75 travel charger. Its phone plug has a socket for attaching an accessory, like USB cable or wired headphones, so that you can still use the Fastport while charging. However, according to users' reports on our Discussion forums, some units ship with CST-60 charger lacking the accessory connector, so you may want to check this prior to placing your order. The P990i also supports USB charging via the included USB cable, but it's only recommended to use this function with a computer connected directly to a mains socket and not with a battery-powered device like e.g. a laptop.
The standard set also includes a stylish all-silver craddle/desk stand with a green LED surrounding the phone connector which is on all the time, a nice white wrist strap with silver SE logo, and a flip replacement part to be attached if you prefer to use your P990i without the flip. The box also contains PC Suite CD-ROM and printed User Guide.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Part II: Software (UIQ 3 platform and system applications)