What exactly does $600 buy you these days? If you're looking at Sony Ericsson and you live in the States, the answer is now this, the Walkman-branded W995a, which we've had a chance to play with in advance of its July 6 date with destiny. Charging $600 for any phone -- much less a non-smartphone -- is a tough proposition to be making (particularly in a not-so-hot economy), but the company seems to be very cognizant of the fact that it's putting this out there strictly for the niche enthusiasts who like their hardware totally uncrippled and without a trace of carrier branding inside or out. We'd even go so far as to say that this'll be a loss leader for them -- it's not designed to make money so much as it's designed to keep Sony Ericsson in the hearts and minds of shoppers, keep folks aware that they've got hot hardware available, and take advantage of those who do buy it to evangelize the brand. Read on!
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Sony Ericsson W995a hands-on

Enough philosophy, though -- what of the phone? Historically, so-called music phones have gotten a bad rap as poor substitutes for their dedicated PMP cousins; Sony Ericsson is positioning the W995a as its flagship Walkman handset, and surprisingly, we came away with the impression that it's a totally appropriate way to brand it. The sound through the 3.5mm jack was simply stellar, perhaps thanks in part to the phone's Clear Stereo and Clear Bass gizmos for improving stereo separation and a great kick in the pants on the low end. Granted, we conducted our testing on a pair of exquisite Shure SE530 buds equipped triple-flange sleeves, but we use these on virtually every music phone we test -- and we can say without hesitation that the W995a provides the best sound we've ever heard from a phone. Sound was rich and well-balanced, but perhaps more importantly, there was virtually zero hiss or other unwanted electronic interference. In fact, we'd go so far to say it's among the best sound we've heard from any portable media player.

Enhancing the phone's multimedia-centric image are stereo speakers that are creatively positioned at either end, top and bottom. Stereo speakers in a device this small are gimmicky by nature, but Sony Ericsson's done the best it could by separating the two by as much distance as they could possibly be -- and they're clear enough to rival some notebook PCs. Notebooks aren't renowned for audio quality by any stretch, true, but for a phone, we thought that was a fairly impressive observation. We could've used another notch or two of volume, but it was acceptable for casual listening and speakerphone duty.

The jury's still out on the camera. Because the W995a isn't quite as camera-centric as the C905 Cyber-shot (which also has an 8.1 megapixel sensor), it lacks the C905's automatic lens cover, but that's not our real concern -- we found that the cam had trouble focusing, particularly in macro mode. It'd frequently tell us it had focused with a reassuring "beep" and a green AF box, but you could clearly see in the viewfinder that everything was fuzzy. We were using a pre-production unit so we're hopeful this'll be resolved -- camera problems often are -- by the time phones find their way to shelves.

Anyone familiar with modern Sony Ericsson feature phones will feel right at home with the W995a's user interface; there's nothing wild, wacky, or new here, and the well-respected NetFront browser appears to make a return in this model. It's among the best browsers you can find outside of a smartphone; it'll never top S60, Android, or an iPhone for raw browsing power or speed, but it does a commendable job with desktop-grade websites, and the W995a's automatic screen rotation is a nice touch.

The browser actually serves as a nice segue into our complaints with the phone, of which there are two biggies: one, the screen's just not high-res enough. For a phone in this class and with this spec sheet, there's no good excuse for it to ship with a QVGA display; had they bundled a VGA or WVGA screen at, say, 3 inches instead of 2.6, it would've made for an entirely different experience, particularly when trying to use the internet. Secondly, we found the numeric keypad and the volume controls to be a little fiddly for our liking. The keypad doesn't have much feel and the left side required particularly hard presses -- another issue will chalk up to the pre-production wrinkles -- and the volume rocker is ridiculously small, wedged between the music controls and the camera shutter on the right side.

All being said, the W995a is a hell of a device that does its job as a non-smartphone multimedia powerhouse with aplomb. Problem is, the "non-smartphone multimedia powerhouse" target demographic is getting smaller by the day, encroached on by ever-cheaper models from Nokia, HTC, Apple, and others that make the W995a and its contemporaries an endangered species. Sony Ericsson seems to understand that this phone is for a very unique, very hardcore group of people -- but they've also got to take to heart that the real action going forward is going to be up in the trails being blazed by the Satio and the Aino, and we'd be thrilled to see similar efforts to bring those kinds of models to the US. Seriously, Sony Ericsson, we appreciate your effort in bringing the W995a to market for those who want it -- and for the sake of the future of unlocked handsets in this part of the world, we hope the effort doesn't go unnoticed at the register.

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