A music phone can mean one less thing to carry in your pocket. You don't have to lug a mobile phone and an MP3 player. But like many multipurpose devices, you usually have to give up a few features and top performance for the convenience of using just one gadget. Expect the same deal with Motorola's Rokr (aka the Apple iTunes phone) and Sony Ericsson's W800i Walkman, which isn't directly compatible with iTunes, but third-party developers have released applications that allow integration.
Neither phone wowed me, but they do make music transfers a little easier than with other handsets -- not counting phones that let you download music over the air, which is convenient but you have to pay for each tune. With the Rokr and the Walkman phones, you can use included software to rip and download music from your own CDs. The Rokr, which was made in collaboration with Apple, also lets you transfer songs that you've purchased from the ITunes music store. In fact, compatibility with iTunes, both the store and the media player, is the Rokr's biggest selling point.
The Rokr is available exclusively from Cingular Wireless for $249 with a two-year service contract. The W800i Walkman costs $499 without a carrier agreement; for now, there are no carrier subsidies available.
Transferring music to each of these GSM/GPRS phones is straightforward -- but very slow. You install the included software on your computer; launch the application; connect the phone to your PC via the supplied USB; and drag and drop your selected tunes from your system to the handset. Download times and the number of songs that each phone holds depend on each track's compression rate and its file size.
In my experience, both the Rokr and the W800i Walkman took 45 seconds to 1.5 minutes per track, plus or minus. These transfer times don't seem so bad when you're copying just a few songs. But when you want to fill each phone's 512MB of storage to the maximum, the download can take more than an hour. I managed to squeeze 83 tracks on the Rokr in about 1 hour and 15 minutes. It was such a drag to wait.
Motorola says the Rokr can carry up to 100 songs, and Sony Ericsson claims that the W800i Walkman can hold up to 150. The Walkman phone can hold more because its PC software lets you shrink file sizes. Yes, MP3s are already highly compressed. So why would anyone down-sample even further and degrade the sound quality? If you're listening to music on the phone, you probably won't notice -- or won't mind -- the mediocre sound quality.
The music playback interface on both phones is simple, but each interface has multiple layers. Both were very slow. There was a noticeable lag on the screen each time I made a selection: It took about a second to go from one menu item (for example, Artist) to a list of choices. And even though the phones support Bluetooth, you can't transfer music wirelessly.
If you get an incoming call while listening to music, both phones automatically pause the song. To resume playback, you select Play. The handsets are bundled with earbuds, but ones provided by Sony are way more comfortable than the earbuds that Motorola supplies. Sony's are small and have a soft, rubberized covers. The Rokr earbuds are hard, even with their foamy cover; and they were too big for my ears.
White is the new black: The W800i Walkman is white with orange around the edges, while the Rokr sports a pearly white finish with light gray edges. The Walkman phone is smaller and looks cooler than the Rokr, and at 3.6 ounces it's slightly lighter than the 3.8-ounce Rokr.
The W800i Walkman works better as a camera phone: The back side is designed like a standard digital camera with a small flash and lens. When you take a picture, ideally you hold the phone horizontally; when you do, the shutter button is at the top right, just as if you're using a standard camera. The W800i is equipped with a 2-megapixel camera, which worked fine on my informal shots. Viewing the files on my PC monitor, the pictures looked a little better than most images I've taken on lower-resolution camera phones. But some colors were off and the exposure on some images was dark. The Rokr's photo quality was worse, in part because it has a low-power VGA camera that captures less than a million pixels. Some of my shots with the Rokr were grainy and dark.
On a musical level, both phones performed well. The Rokr's iTunes compatibility is a nice bonus, especially for current iTunes users. However, the W800i Walkman phone accommodates my needs a little better: It has comfy earbuds, takes slightly better pictures, and looks good. Alas, it's too darn expensive. If Sony Ericsson could sign up a carrier that could mark down the price, I'd be a happier camper.