Why I Still Use A Ten-Year Old Sony Ericsson P900 [Review]


The P900 Isn't so much big as fat -- seen here with an iPod Touch

Take one look at my cellphone and you’ll either laugh at me, pity me or envy me. It’s a Sony Ericsson P900, a brick of a smartphone introduced in 2003, and I got it when my P800 was stolen from my bag in London’s Soho (at that time, Orange in the UK gave you free insurance for your phones — go figure).

And after a few years of struggling with various dumbphones and the execrable Samsung Behold, I’m back to the P900 and I love it. Why? Because it was designed to be used like the iPhone, not crippled by carriers like everything else these days.

P900 3

But first, why not an iPhone? Simple: I don’t want a contract when I almost never make a call. My iPad 3G takes care of everything except SMS and calls, and the P900, despite its size, is way better than anything else I have used in the last ten years. I’ll probably cave and get an iPhone eventually, but as I have avoided signing up since 2007, I might hold out for a while longer.

The Good

P900 1

The phone is built like a brick, and dead easy to use. I’d argue that unlocking it and opening an app (yes, it runs apps using a mix of Symbian and UIQ) is even faster and easier than on the iPhone. Example: To unlock it, you flip the side scroll wheel toward you with your thumb (it has five directions — roll up and down, flip back and forward and click inward) and them click it in. You’re unlocked. Locking is done the same way.

Once unlocked you scroll the wheel to pick from any of the five (user-configurable) apps on the screen. If you open the keypad flip to go fullscreen, the wheel scrolls down the full list of apps. Click the wheel to open. Congratulations: you just fired up an app with a few twitches of one thumb.

Calling is easy thanks to equally clever shortcuts, which remain memorized by my hands despite the years the phone spent in the back of a closet, and you can also install third-party apps. Since I’m using my iPad for that, I don’t bother. Besides, these apps are mostly terrible anyway. Can you remember how bad things were before the App Store? No? Well, that’s probably for the best.

Finally, texting. You can tap out texts old-style on the numerical keypad, or use the (long-lost) stylus to peck at a fairly decent on-screen keyboard. Or you can use your finger and handwriting recognition to write them.

Maybe it’s just suited to my handwriting, but the accuracy of this recognition is close to 100%. Plus, it’s clever: write on the top half of the screen for numbers, and the bottom half for lower-case letters. For caps, let your letters overlap the halfway line. Punctuation and other extended characters can be gotten to by making an upward line and then drawing them (the line serves as a way to tell the phone to give you a few seconds and let you use more than one stroke). A carriage return is a down-and-left gesture, delete is a leftward swipe, and a space is a rightward one.

Oh, and did I mention the battery life — even after ten years — is still almost a week?

P900 2

The Bad

It’s big. The camera is VGA. And after ten years the flip-open keypad has cracked the screen bezel and damaged the screen. This last means you can’t see many important buttons, but I don’t care, because I remember where they all are anyway. It uses Sony MemorySticks for storage (the one I have is 32MB!) and a non-standard headphone jack. Its web browser is terrible.

The Verdict

All of this is to say that there’s really nothing wrong with this phone for my purposes. Could I pick up a cheap-o, pre-pay Android phone? Sure, but the battery would last a day and I’d probably toss it against a wall the first time I tried to use the virtual keyboard.

Could I buy an old, used iPhone and pop in my SIM card? Sure, but why bother when I have the iPad? And could I use a smaller dumb phone just for texts and calls? Sure, if I hated myself. Have you tried to text with those things recently? It’s like being forced to speak in pig latin. Backwards. And the sound quality of any new phone, even (arguably) the iPhone for voice calls is terrible compared to the P900.

I’m no luddite, but I know a great piece of hardware when I see one, and re-using is way better than recycling. I’m sticking with this phone until it finally dies. Which will probably be quite a long time yet.