Personal computers penetrated households in droves in the 1990s, after acquiring a foothold in the 1980s. In the 2000s, smartphones attempted to accomplish the same thing with people’s pockets. People had grown accustomed to document editors, spreadsheets, email, and online browsing by that time. Feature phones weren’t particularly adept at this; for example, the famed Nokia 3310 (released in late 2000) couldn’t do any of these things.
However, a new species of phone emerged soon after, phones that looked like small PCs. We’ve previously discussed the Nokia Communicator; today, we’ll focus on the Sony Ericsson P910. It was the series’ third model, released in 2004 (after the P900 in 2003 and the P800 in 2002), and it could accomplish everything on the list. It runs Symbian with a front end called UIQ, or User Interface Quartz, which some of you may be familiar with.
This was long before Nokia’s Series 60 made the ill-fated transition to touch UI; at the time, Pocket PCs running Windows Mobile were the true competition. The system had a touchscreen and could multitask, and it was simple to install apps. And there were a lot of apps, even if finding them wasn’t easy without an app store.
Okay, enough with the preamble; now that we have such a versatile item in our hands, let’s see what we can do with it.
Is it possible to utilize the P910 to write a review of itself? After all, it features a hardware QWERTY keyboard! The inside of the flip out contains a three row QWERTY keyboard, which was one of the significant advancements over the P900.
However, because the phone is only 58 mm wide (and the keyboard is even narrower), the keys feel somewhat tight. There’s also no autocomplete or even spellchecking to help you get things done faster. The fact that this is a physical keyboard means you have to press on the keys rather than just touching them is a major concern, and we started to worry that we’d snap off the thin, plastic flip-out that secures the keyboard after a time.
Nonetheless, with some practice, we were able to type at a reasonable speed. Certainly faster than we can type on the keypad, which lacks a T9 or comparable typing method. Another option is to use the touchscreen and stylus, which can recognize text in a Graffiti-like manner. Perhaps we required more patience to learn, but our (admittedly limited) experience has shown that recognition is more hit than miss. You must be quite accurate; otherwise, writing a “o” could result in a “O” or a “u.”
Even so, the P910 is a capable communicator if you rely on constant text-based communication, whether it’s SMS or email (if not quite as good as a certain Finnish phone, which has a much larger keyboard).
In a text editor, the on-screen keypad transforms into an on-screen QWERTY. However, due to the small display and imprecise nature of the resistive touchscreen, we were forced to use the stylus to peck out individual letters. It’s not possible to type with two thumbs. At the very least, if you remove the flip and use the P910 as a touch-only phone, you can use this.
Okay, new strategy: this is a cutting-edge smartphone with Bluetooth connectivity. For the early 2000s, it was cutting edge. We can connect a Bluetooth keyboard to the 2.9″ monitor and type on it. Oh, and the phone doesn’t seem to detect the keyboard.
Okay, that isn’t going to work. We’ll play a quick round of solitaire while we decide what to tackle next. Have you heard the story about how Solitaire was included with Windows so that people could practice using the mouse in a pleasant way? Early home computers used text commands, but the graphical user interface would be the catalyst for widespread use (which is tough to use with only a keyboard).
A stylus is a smartphone’s equivalent of a mouse. Using a D-pad to highlight an item is slower and less precise. It also allows you to drag items, such as in the Chess game. A touchscreen and stylus make it easy to navigate complicated menus and various shortcuts.
However, the stylus’ mouse capabilities are severely limited; it functions similarly to a single-button mouse with no scroll wheel. This means you may scroll by touching the up/down buttons in the corner or using the scrollbar on the side.
The Jog Dial, which dates back to early Sony phones, is a superior option. It’s the missing scroll wheel, and it can be used to activate the selected object by clicking it. After all these years, our unit’s dial has become a little weird, but it’s still a really convenient way to navigate the user interface without touching the screen.
While the 2.9″ display is tiny enough to reach all four corners with one hand, one-handed use isn’t ideal due to the UI’s design. When you just have one hand to spare, using the Jog Dial and some keypad shortcuts is the better alternative.
Surprisingly, the Sony Ericsson P910 has the same problem as the earlier foldable phones: what should an app do when the screen size changes suddenly? Because you opened or closed the flip keyboard in this situation.
Some apps provide separate user interfaces for both scenarios, although the majority do not. This implies that only a limited number of apps are available when using the Jog Dial to start an app with the flip closed. When the flip is closed, the display’s touch capabilities is fully disabled.
The black portion is hidden behind the flip.
This gives the P910 the feel of two phones in one: a traditional Symbian smartphone with a keypad and a touch-driven smartphone with a lot of rough edges.
For starters, the phone’s Symbian 7.0 operating system isn’t great at multitasking. You may add five shortcuts to the top row and utilize them to quickly navigate between those five programs.
All of the rest, though, must be found in the app drawer. It’s a list by default, with a small font suited for usage with the stylus. You can change to a 2×3 icon grid mode, which is much more finger-friendly, but those stupid up/down buttons in the corner remain small and barely functional if you manage to hit them with your fingertip.
On the bottom row, there are some icons that allow you to toggle some phone controls without leaving the current app. It’s not quite a notification area, but it’s a step in the right direction. There are also several quick toggles in this section.
These controls (as well as the shortcuts on the top row) are small and difficult to reach with a finger. Although this isn’t a story about the iOS, the clumsy Symbian UIQ interface helped us appreciate how well-designed the iOS interface was for finger-only control.
Anyway, how about we listen to some music? The P910 comes with a 32MB MemoryStick Duo and 64MB of internal memory. That’s one of the improvements over the P900’s 16MB internal storage (and the same memory card).
The phone could play MP3s, however the phone’s unique connector limited the types of headphones you could use. The Jog Dial reappears, this time to control the volume. The phone can also play MP4 videos, which looked great on the 4.6:9 screen (remember, this was back in 2004, so wide-screen adoption was only just starting).
Although the 208 × 320 px resolution isn’t the sharpest, it’s adequate given the limited storage available (even if you are willing to spend extra the MemoryStick Duo format topped out at 128MB). While Sony had a vast music studio, the user was responsible for handling multimedia on the phone; there was no iTunes alternative.
The Sony Ericsson P800 has a VGA camera with a resolution of 640 × 480 pixels, or about one third of a megapixel. The P900 and P910 used the same camera module. We didn’t expect much because we were nearly two decades old at the time, and that’s exactly what we got.
The camera is designed to be used in portrait mode, and there is a dedicated button on the side for that purpose. To use the camera app, press it once to open it and then again to capture a photo. You can also use the controls on the screen.
The camera features a variety of modes (Auto, Outdoors, Indoors, and so on) as well as presets for taking photographs and videos for MMS. Because MMS messages are limited to a few tens of kilobytes, images and movies must be compressed.
One issue we encountered was that the screen was dark and the plastic touch layer was highly shiny. It was difficult to frame outside pictures because of this. Even when the flip is open, the viewfinder occupies only a small portion of the screen.
Anyway, here are some of the camera samples we shot; just keep your expectations in check before you click.
There is a custom button in addition to the designated camera key (which is a simple button with no half press, in case you were curious). You can program it to run an app of your choice, which is quite useful.
We reasoned that we could do some Internet investigation. When we tried to do it over the phone, we rapidly ran into a problem. The Sony Ericsson P910 (and preceding variants) is a two-gigabit-per-second phone. Even if your location still has 2G coverage, there’s a bigger problem: most websites now serve pages over HTTPS for security reasons, but the P910 couldn’t handle the newer protocols. We were only able to connect to a few websites, and the GPRS connection was painfully slow, taking up to 30 seconds to load even the most basic pages.
The Sony Ericsson P910 was a Swiss army knife in its heyday, with capabilities for messaging, office work, web browsing, photography, and the flexibility to simply add new tools by installing applications, which is what makes smartphones superior than feature phones.
In 2021, it’s clearly showing its age, although to be fair, the Internet was a digital Wild West in its early days, and digital cameras advanced in leaps and bounds. This gives the P910 the appearance of being older than it is.
And it’s ancient; it was released in 2004 and is now almost old enough to vote. Unfortunately, it is more of a veteran of a lost war than a youngster – all of its Symbian comrades have died, particularly the UIQ squad.
For its age, the hardware is surprisingly capable, but the software is truly of its time. The aesthetic style, with its grayish faux 3D parts and little icons, brought back memories of CRTs.
It’s easy to critique the UI now, but designing a good user interface is a major undertaking. Microsoft is still tinkering with the notion after more than three decades. It was also intriguing to see hints of future operating systems – smartphones have come a long way, and the P910 is a significant step forward.