Gadling gear review – Sony Ericsson C905a on AT&T Wireless

Every now and then I try to expand my horizon and review a phone not getting the attention it deserves. Sure, phones like the Apple iPhone and the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G may be the ones getting all the cool TV commercials, but what if you just need a good solid performing phone that won’t break the bank?

The Sony Ericsson C905a is such a phone – it looks like a phone, feels like a phone and yet it still manages to offer a good lineup of features making it worth some attention.
The basics

The basics are all there – this is a Quadband GSM phone with International 3G support. It features GPS, email, mobile music and TV services and games. One feature inside the C905a that sets it apart from most other phones is an 8.1MP “Cyber-shot” camera, with a real flash.

The entire front of the phone slides open to reveal a keypad, and on the top of the phone are some buttons to control the camera.

The Sony Ericsson C905a phone – as a phone

This is where the C905a excels – as a phone. If your idea of a phone is being able to slide the keypad open, and start dialing, then you’ll love the C905a. There is no “phone application” and no complicated array of options to reach the dialer. Just a real keypad and instant dialing. Voice quality is what you’d expect from a Sony Ericsson – crisp and clear. Volume is loud and there is virtually no static or hiss.

What I did not like was the side-mounted charging port. If you need to make a call and charge the phone at the same time, you need to get used to the charger sticking out the side.

The phone itself doesn’t look particularly special – in fact, it looks very much like most other non-smartphone devices on the market. That said, it does feel well made. The sliding mechanism is extremely smooth, and there is no “squeak”.

The user interface

The menu system in the C905a immediately felt familiar – most likely because it hasn’t changed much since the Ericsson T68 I was using back in 2001. The basics are identical. This could mean a lack of innovation, but it could just as easily mean Sony Ericsson did not want to mess with something that works. Personally, I’m leaning towards “lack of innovation”.

The “interface from 2001” is very easy to use though – menus are logical and most functions can be found without the need for the user manual.

The phone also lacks a regular headphone jack, and the box does not include the special headset you need. It does support Bluetooth streaming music.

The camera

The camera lens is hidden behind a sleek sliding cover giving the whole thing a real camera “look and feel”. In fact, it if weren’t for the AT&T logo on the back, you’d have a hard time knowing this was actually a mobile phone.

The camera in the C905a looks fantastic on paper – a Sony Cyber-shot 8.1 megapixel auto-focus camera, with a xenon flash. Sadly, “on paper” is where those specifications stay, because in real life, the performance is sloppy. Don’t get me wrong – it’ll outperform an iPhone 3G in almost any situation, but I really had expected more from a camera carrying the Sony name.

The photo I inserted above looks good – but it took me 12 photos to get something worth using. Performance of the camera is sluggish, and even when set to “auto contrast mode”, photos turn out dark. To make matters worse, the C905a only cares for the Sony M2 memory card format, which means all your SD and MicroSD cards are worthless. M2 cards cost about 2-3 times more than MicroSD.

Final thoughts

Here’s the thing with these non-smartphones (some people call them dumbphones). If you came from an iPhone, Android powered G1 or other smart device, I can pretty much assure you that the C905a won’t impress you.

If you have been able to resist the urge to spend your cash on a smartphone, and just want a phone that is, well, a phone, then you’ll love the C905a. It performs where a phone needs to perform. It delivers just what you need, as long as your idea of a phone is not a device that will let you play Guitar Hero on the bus.

Sadly, I’ve been walking around with some kind of smartphone since 2000 when I purchased the horrible Mitsubish Mondo. As a smartphone user, I don’t see myself making the step down to a dumbphone. The sacrifice is simply too high. I kept trying to press things on the (non touch) screen of the C905a, I got annoyed trying to enter stuff without an on-screen keyboard, and trying to surf the web was about as much fun as a wet fart in a spacesuit.

But if I move myself back 9 years, till the pre-smartphone era, I can vaguely remember a time when I would have loved the C905a – it was a simpler time, a time when we used our computer as a computer, and our phones as a phone. Sadly for me, there is no turning back – but I’m convinced there are still plenty of people out there who still enjoy the simpler times.

This brings me to the worst piece of news about the C905a – even though this is “just a phone”, AT&T Wireless wants $230 from you if you decide this is going to be your new phone. They’ll give you a $50 mail in rebate credit, but that still makes it about the same price as an iPhone or Blackberry Bold. Perhaps now really is the time to move on to something smarter?

PROS: Great lineup of features, GPS, several AT&T applications included on the phone (navigator, TV, music).

CONS: Price, poor camera performance, M2 memory card format, no headset included, some AT&T applications cost extra.

PRICE: $229.95 (179.95 after a $50 mail in rebate).
Available from: AT&T Wireless, online and in retail stores