Sony Ericsson's Z710i is a bit of an ugly duckling. Maybe "ugly duckling" is the wrong phrase -- after all, we found the phone to be just swell-looking in the flesh -- perhaps "black sheep" is a better way of putting it. Stuffed squarely between the Walkman line and Symbian-based smartphones, a handful of perfectly respectable handsets like the Z710 virtually blend into the shadows of Sony Ericsson's product range -- but often offer all the functionality of their flashier brethren in a toned down (and sometimes cheaper) package.
Putting ourselves in the mindset (if only for a moment) of a corporate suit on the lookout for a capable midrange phone, the Z710i stacks up impressively on paper for a clamshell in its class: 2-megapixel camera, Memory Stick Micro expansion, extensive media support with external controls, and dimensions that make it all but disappear in a pocket. In practice, it's just a solid device, and there's just not a lot to say about it. Then again, Sony Ericsson would probably have it no other way for its low-key clamshell.
If you can get past the missing Send and End buttons, a paradigm that Sony Ericsson's been fond of for some time, there's not much here not to like. Menus were speedy and predictably organized (and animated, but not annoyingly so), camera picture quality was decent, and the inclusion of A2DP is (in our humblest of opinions) huge for a phone in this class. We found the keypad's blue lighting to be a bit uneven, but the unit we were provided with was an engineering sample, so we're inclined to Sony Ericsson a mulligan here. Sound quality over the handset was clear and loud but had a strange quality to it, like the phone was sitting in a can; again, we're guessing (read: hoping) it's a pre-production quirk.
We found the large monochrome external display to be surprisingly pleasing, to the point where we think we'd take it over most any color one. Why? At the end of the day, a clamshell's outer screen should be all about presenting key information quickly and efficiently; if you need more, you can always flip 'er open. With 128 x 128 pixels at its disposal, not only are we getting virtually everything we need on the Z710i without opening it, but we found it far more readable in typical outdoor conditions.
Added to a T-Mobile or Cingular store shelf, the Z710 could run the risk of disappearing in a sea of similarly-priced flips, but it's saving grace could be its brand name. Samsung and LG typically lead this segment in the domestic GSM market, and Sony Ericsson brings a breath of fresh air with a different (arguably more refined) user interface and a feature list that could make even a power user crack a smile. That being said, we haven't heard any announcements to make us think this thing's going to make it onto our networks in an official capacity, but the quad-band GSM radio with EDGE make it a solid choice for our business exec alter-ego looking to try something a little different.