Sony Ericsson's P-series of business phones have long been popular in many parts of the world, though not particularly so in North America. The devices have always combined some of the best modern day technology that was available into a device that, while big, was still no larger than a typical PDA. The P1, Sony Ericsson's new flagship workhorse, is the first P-series device to cram all of that raw capability into a form factor that is only slightly larger than a typical candy bar phone.
Even though it carries a 'P' designation, the new Sony Ericsson P1 shares far more of its physical design with the Sony Ericsson M600 than it does with other P-series devices like the P990. In general, the P1 can be thought of as an M600 that was given an improved keyboard, WiFi, and an auto-focus camera on the back. Indeed, the P1's 106mm x 55mm x 17mm (4.1" x 2.2" x .7") dimensions and 129g (4.5oz) weight make it a very pocketable device in spite of its capabilities.
The front of the P1 consists solely of the 2.6" TFT display and the QWERTY keyboard. The display is reasonably bright and crisp, but seems to lack some of the visual pop that I've seen on many other recent QVGA (240x320 pixel) displays. The surface of the display sits a few millimeters below the face of the phone, as is the case with 95% of the touchscreen devices on the market today. This makes it more difficult to clean than devices such as the HTC Touch and Sony Ericsson's own W960, which use flush mounted displays. This sunken nature of the display is all the more obvious to users because of the P1's lack of hardware softkeys. Instead, the P1's Symbian OS and UIQ 3 user interface rely solely on on-screen softkeys along the bottom of the display. Other on-screen controls are mostly intended to be accessed via the scroll wheel or the included stylus The stylus itself is very thin, which some people dislike. It is, however, a respectable 95mm (3.75") in length.
The QWERTY keyboard on the P1 is unusual in that the right and left edge of each convex shaped key serves a different purpose. As such, the 'A' and 'S' letters are on the same key instead of on neighboring keys. The shift key located in the bottom left corner of the keypad works as one would expect, and the ALT key, in the lower right hand corner of the keypad, is used for accessing the numeric keypad digits and symbols. A pair of arrow keys straddle the space bar, and they offer a bit of help when navigating the P1 without using the stylus. The number keys, when used with the ALT key (which can be locked on), work like they do on regular phones in that you don't have to worry about the edges, you just press the key. The design is compact, but far from ideal. A year ago when I reviewed the M600, I adapted to its keyboard and learned to live with it. But now, after having been spoiled by many devices with fine QWERTY keyboards, I am less inclined to embrace it. Those extra few millimeters of width offered by the keyboards on devices like the Motorola Q or Palm Treos make a big difference. The P1's keyboard is certainly passable for those that value a compact form factor over ease, and speed, of use - but it is not one that I am in love with. In any event, the keyboard is faster and easier to use than the touchscreen based virtual keyboard or handwriting recognition system.
While the P1's aforementioned scroll-wheel is a fine example of how to build a scroll-wheel, I still lament the lack of a joystick or d-pad on the P1 (as I did with the M600). Just as the 4-way navigation on the BlackBerry Pearl allowed me to finally appreciate the BlackBerry UI, the lack of such a 4-way directional control on the P1 makes me resent having to scroll so much when making edits to a message or simply navigating a grid of menu icons. It slows me down too much, though not as much as whipping out a stylus would. Located directly below the scroll-wheel on the left edge of the P1 is a dedicated back button, a button that will be used very often by any P1 owner.
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