For most, the thought of spending $500 or more on a phone conjures one of two images: a high-end, do-it-all smartphone, or for 98 percent of the populace, insanity. There's a rare breed out there, though, that'll gladly shell out serious dough to get that ultimate, well executed, gorgeous, glossy phone delivered from the furthest reaches of the globe. Notice we said "phone" -- not smartphone -- and that's a key distinction here. The Sony Ericsson K850i blurs that line in some respects, but at the end of the day, you're paying some serious dinero for a powerful piece of kit that's still fundamentally tied down by its closed, proprietary platform. Yep, that's right, the K850i's a dumbphone -- albeit one of the hottest dumbphones we've ever seen or used, complete with triband HSDPA. So is the price justified? Does Sony Ericsson have any business stuffing this much power into a non-UIQ handset to begin with? We're pretty sure it's "yes" on both counts; read on to find out why.
At the onset, we knew we were playing with a very special phone. Put simply, the K850i feels like a next-generation device put up against virtually any other phone we've ever used -- and we're not even talking about its impressive feature set, just pure, gut feel. The build quality is typical Sony Ericsson (that is to say, darned near perfect) and the keypad manages to innovate in some pretty extreme ways without being difficult or annoying to use. It's heavy, but we'd argue it's a "pleasant" heavy, if there is such a thing -- a reminder of what a solid and well-built piece of machinery you're toting around. At 17mm thick it's a little meaty by modern standards, but let's not forget that you're basically toting a true midrange point-and-shoot cam with you at the same time.
Just looking from the pictures, we admit that the keypad looks like a nightmare. Seriously, though, it isn't. We were as quick on the numbers as we are with any standard numeric keypad -- maybe even quicker since they're so well spread out here -- and the style of backlighting that Sony Ericsson uses here leads to a very cool visual effect. Three soft keys along the top aren't actually keys at all -- they're touch sensitive areas along the very bottom of the screen. The screen's wide enough that they're well spaced; mistypes weren't an issue, we didn't really miss the tactile feedback, and having three soft keys over the typical two turns out to be a nice productivity bonus in some cases. The directional control is nothing more than a thin ring circling the 2 and 5 keys. It sounds problematic, but the sides are raised enough so that you're able to feel it out in a hurry. Our biggest complaint is actually that it's not a perfect square; it just feels kinda weird for your thumb to need to travel further vertically than horizontally to accomplish the same function.
Like the K850i's glossy surface, its camera simply shines. The 5 megapixel sensor is backed up by the software and hardware to match -- goodies like a xenon flash, autofocus optics, an automatic lens cover, and numeric keys that are reidentified as camera controls with blue lighting (see the picture to get an idea of what we mean here; awesome effect). We found that the flash didn't quite have the firepower to evenly light up a dark room, but the same could be said about pretty much any built-in camera flash on the market, so we can't harsh on a poor little cameraphone for that shortcoming too much -- and on the upside, the xenon's color temperature seemed to be much more natural than the typical LED flash. The viewfinder's refresh rate was a bit on the low side compared to the 5 megapixel Nokia N95 -- maybe 5fps at best -- and saving pics to memory takes a few seconds, too. But again, we'll try to keep things in perspective here and remember that we can pull RSS feeds and make calls with this thing.
Anyone familiar with Sony Ericsson's modern dumbphone UI cues will feel right at home with the K850i -- and as you might expect, this particular phone stretches the platform to its limits. The animated home screen is smooth, beautiful, and frankly, a little hypnotizing. The software bundle includes a couple pretty advanced games, a capable media player, integrated RSS reader, and a NetFront-based web browser that's particularly welcome thanks to support for North American HSDPA (have we said "thank you" for that yet, Sony Ericsson?). It seems capable enough considering the screen size and limited capability to download and run stuff you come across, though it'll never hold a candle to S60's integrated browser or the iPhone's build of Safari. Chalk one up for the smartphones here.
So where does that leave us? It's a weird package, we admit -- you've got a phone here that pushes the very limits of what it means to be a dumbphone while happily shattering into the realm of smartphone pricing. It's not for everyone and it's certainly not for hackers, mobile email warriors or those on a tight budget, but if you're tired of toting a phone and a cam every where you go and you just happen to have a few hundred bucks burning a hole in your pocket, the K850i fits the bill swimmingly.