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Monday, April 19, 2004

Sony Ericsson Z600 and HBH-200 Review

It wasnít since Lara Croft used the HBH-10 Bluetooth headset that Bluetooth slowly crept through the skepticism of tech cynics until what I would consider now as being widely adopted, to a point where I think perhaps, that it is *too* widely adopted. Ever so often now I see real tech geeks, or Ďtech savvyí, as they would like to be referred as, donning their Bluetooth headsets as they eat their BakKutTeh. Is this the case of, Ďtoo much, too soon?í

The Z600 Review

Price: RM1,499. Overall rating: Excellent. Official Site: www.sonyericsson.com/z600

Most will shun the rather gargantuan size of the Sony Ericsson Z600, however when you examine it closely, and compare that to the latest Nokias, it isnít significantly larger. Letís just take a closer look at how, and of course why, I had turned on Nokia to become an avid Sony Ericsson user. How do we love the Z600? Let me count the ways.

One of the features of the Z600 that brings back memories of my T68, was the blinking status light. That was sorely missed in my T610, which was another great phone, by the way, if only it had fancy blinking lights. I love lights as I love gauges. I like to know whatís happening all the time, if it was possible, I would like to know my exhaust temperature, RPM, speedo, boost pressure and GPS coordinates in each separate gauge on my dashboard. Such is the same case with my mobile, I like it to show me whether I have messages, or if there is no reception. Of course the logic would be, why donít you just turn on the screen? I could. But I wonít.

So the blinking status light is back. I was pleasantly surprised by that the first time I charged the phone. Hey! Light! It was the same fascination when I put my Powerbook G4 on standby. I could just stare at the white light fading in and out all night until I went to sleep, and I canít say that I never did.

Size
As I have mentioned, the Z600 is quite large, but it feels right, because the buttons are not too tiny. I have on many occasions pressed wrong buttons on my T610, sent a few blank messages and called a few wrong people. Why? Two reasons; small buttons, and candy bar phone. With a flip phone, you benefit from larger, more tactile buttons, as well as the inability to dial wrong numbers, if you close the flip properly of course. I am still trying to work out the mechanics of the Ďhowí to fit my phone in my phone holder. Currently Iím using a supplied Targus phone holder that came with my backpack, I just clip one side of it in the holder, but that has the tendency to press wrong buttons too, especially if I start leaning on things. But maybe Iím just clumsy. When opened, the phone is perfect. It feels like a proper phone, not to big, and not too small. Small phones get lost easily, slips easily, and drops easily. The Z600 opens and closes with a slight clicking sound. It feels as though you areÖwell, breaking the tendons of a chicken wing, you know, it is a little disturbing, but you do get used to it, at least it doesnít open and close without any feedback, we donít like anything thatís limp now do we? Also one of the features that you donít think about much is the interchangeable covers. For me, its likeÖok, so what? Interchangeable covers are nothing new. But it wasnít since my Nokia 8310 that I had the interchangeable cover feature. And now that I have it, I think its great. Its like having a new phone everytime, although I think the available covers do need a little work because they either look too gaudy, or too gay. And I donít like that. Nope. But since theyíre interchangeable, I might consider just designing a few of my own. Plus, if I drop the phone and it slides under the car, or across the floor, and its not like that has never happened, I can always get a new one, instead of getting a new phone.

Features
The features are pretty standard on most medium to high end Sony Ericssons, youíve got your Bluetooth, youíve got your MMS, youíve got your low resolution camera, youíve got Java games, youíve got GPRS, youíve got everything you might want in a phone. So letís just start with what we DONíT have. We donít have speakerphone, and we donít haveÖletís see. HmmÖok, thatís all I can think of that I wanted in a phone that I didnít have. I was immediately impressed with the 65 thousand color TFD screen, which was brighter and sharper than my DSTN T610 screen, which was great, but in the sunlight, was crap. This one, under the sunlight, is just as great. So get this for the screen, and the really loud polyphonic ringtones courtesy of the dedicated speaker behind the phone. I also liked the bundled V-Rally2 game, although just 2 days prior to getting this phone I found out and actually downloaded it for my T610. I got a EGB-10 Game Board accessory for the Z600, which almost immediately turns my Z600 into a mini gaming machine. In brief, it is fantastic, I am instantly cured of my boredom now.

Continuing with what you might find missing from this phone, as compared to others, is MP3 playback and FM Radio. I chose this over the flashy Nokia 7200 because, a) FM Radio. Radio is crap. Radio stations are crap. I used to like radio until they started being unable to keep up with creativity. I donít want to waste my time listening to repeats, nor do I want to listen to ads. So for me, that eventually became an accessory that I needed less and less. MP3 playback-wise, I am starting to amass devices that seem to be able to playback MP3, my DVD player, my Palm, and my iPod. Well, since I have an iPod, there is no real need to fit 12 songs into my phone and listen to it till I get sick. So at the moment, unless you make a 20GB phone capacity with 10 hour MP3 playback, anything less is actually pure novelty. Itís the same as if they made a phone that you can read your daily newspapers in. Good, but no thanks. Not something I would go all out for.

Camera
The camera is the same as the T610. Crappy, blurry pics. But you canít seriously think you can take professional pictures with your phone now can you? Itís a feature, and its convenient. I took photos at the construction site, sent it via email, and transferred a copy via Bluetooth to my Palm, and deleted it off my phone. Nothing fantastic about it, but its quite convenient.

Memory
On board memory is 2mb. You might think thatís not enough. Actually, it IS not enough. Thatís like how I was protecting the sanctity of my 2mb Palm III when I had it, until of course the flexibility of having a 64mb T3 showed me thatÖmore is better. If there was more memory on the Z600, I would bring it everywhere and make a custom strap for it for my arm and bathe with itÖbut theyíd have to make it waterproof too. But then with the beauty of Bluetooth, I can start transferring pictures and crap to my Palm when Iím running out of space, and deal with it. The world is full of options, and the Z600 is just trying to help.

Menu
The menu structure is the almost the same as the T610 except with a few minor tweaks. It is slightly different when sending a new message, and of course there is no Key Lock function, it doesnít seem necessary. The menu response however, seems slightly faster than the T610. How do I know? I donít accidentally send messages or select a menu option anymore. That is a welcome change, it now behaves as how a phone is supposed to behave.

Ring Tones
The 32 chord poly ring tones are fabulous. Its loud, its funky, you can move with the groove. Cynics will sayÖbut thereís no WAV or MP3 support! But thatís another thing. I was thinkingÖif you are going to use somebodyís voice as a ring tone, what will it say? I could say Ďpick up the phoneÖpick up the phoneí but I think the novelty would wear out pretty quick. One idea I had for a ring tone was to get a fax or the old modem tone. I thought thatíd be cool. But thatís another thing. I really liked the supplied, stock, ring tones. They are usable, thatís all I can say.

Screen
There are 2 screens, internal and external. As I said earlier, the internal screen is great. Great for messaging, great for browsing, and great for games. Its bright. At night, it can be a little too bright. The external screen however, is a muted down, 1 bit screen with a blue backlight. I found it to be pretty good. My initial thoughts wereÖwhat? A screen that can only display the time? What kind of crap resolution is that? (If you see the pictures of the time, you might mistake it for being able to display up to 6 characters) But I was pleasantly surprised that it can display the signal strength, battery, Bluetooth status, Message alert, missed calls, caller ID, profile, time, date, phone name. And thatís a lot of stuff for a 2 line screen! But they ought to fix the font for the time display during standby. However, after a couple of days you get used to it, because the key word is Ďpracticalí. It tells the time, I know the time, everythingís cool.

Battery
Battery seems to last me 2 days of normal usage. I talk quite a bit on the phone, and with my T610 it lasts me approx 1 and a half days. Thatís pretty ok, but the half day is the annoying part. You donít want to run out of juice in the middle of the day, right? So you have to charge it everyday. The Z600 may be new so I donít find myself charging it that often, but for now, I can safely use it for 2 days straight, under normal usage of course. If youíre the type that talks more or less than normal, these times may vary, I think that for me, my usage is normal.

Games
I donít usually play games, Iím not a gaming person. I suck at games, actually, hand me a ball, and youíll probably make a lot of money by betting that Iíll miss the target. What I can play though, are racing games, and quaint little numbers like chess, or one of them intellectual ones. And when I say play, I mean play, I didnít say win. Anyway, this phone comes bundled with 2 games that I seem to be playing a lot, V-Rally2(naturally), and HoneyCave 2. HoneyCave is this shoot them up game reminiscent of my Atari days. Did I say Ďmy Atarií? I meant my cousinís Atari. The fact that I never gotten through any games like Prince of Persia or Super Mario Bros might give you a hint at how bad I am, but that doesnít deter me from trying, and thatís really the point isnít it? Sucking at a game and trying to make yourself feel worse. Because if you can win every game then whatís there to live for eh? Eh?

But anyway my wanting to win a few games prompted me to buy a Sony Ericsson GameBoard EGB-10. Its Made in Malaysia (woo hoo), and its RM148. Available at Sony Wings. It plugs and snaps the Z600 in place for serious gaming action. It takes a while getting used to but once you get the hang of it, I was breezing through HoneyCave2 like a seasoned pro. Then of course I died in Level 2. Keep tryingÖI tell myself.

Of course you can download other cool stuff like adventure games, mazes, and thereís this Tennis game that I seem to want to get a hold of, but Iím having some problems downloading it at the moment. But you get the ideaÖcool games though, not N-Gage level games, but good enough to pass the hour by like it didnít happen.

Finally
If youíre thinking of a full featured phone with whatís important in mind. Then get the Z600. Iím happy with it, and I meanÖlike, really happy. Its something you use, and then one day, you look at it from a different angle and go, oh, thatís pretty smart. In a design-sense, it is quite a marvel. In a feature sense, it fills up the gaps left behind from other phones in terms of entertainment, ergonomics and features. If you ask me, Iíd say, get it without hesitation. You wonít regret it, and we can play a round of wireless golf, if you do. So thatís always a good thing.

Pros: Screen, ergonomics, keypad feel, features, games, fast menus.
Cons: Lack of speakerphone, limited memory, could benefit from thickness reduction.


Bluetooth Headset HBH-200

Price: RM599

This is new. Its funny that sometime ago I was giving a lot of flak about the HBH-20, which was a wired Bluetooth headset. That didnít do very well, though, and it wasnít because of my flak. Bluetooth headsets at that time was still at its infancy. And people wanted pizzazz, they wanted to be flashy, so the era of hook-over-the-ear-and-walk-around-like-a-universal-soldier began. Now that it has taken off, you might cringe everytime you see someone with that, doing their own thing, trying to look inconspicuous. But they canít. Why? Because to put it simply, everyone will look at you. That is a fact. If you want to look like a universal soldier, everyone will look at you. If you want to eat BakKutTeh with a headset, everyone will look at you, and they will continue to look at you as though you had a first degree burn that the plastic surgeons couldnít find a way to make you look any better so they decided to just bandage you up like a mummy. Now, of course some would relish at that kind of attention, but I have since learnt from my mistakes with my lost HBH-30, that I will not try to attract any unwanted attention whenever I buy a new gadget. No. I want to be discreet, I just want to be Önormal. And so comes the HBH-200.

New and advanced, it sports a 1 line LCD screen with a whitish, grayish backlight. Its small, light, and looks like a USB Flashdrive. And thatís good. It clips to your shirt, it hangs around your neck, it looks like an MP3 player, and nobody will stare at you. At least not unless you are holding it with one hand and pointing at it with another excitedly. People will think you are a moron then, and morons are not usually accepted at most joints.

Back to seriousness. The HBH-200 comes with a lot of stuff. The main unit, the handsfree, a lanyard, a nice carrying case, and the charger, and a whole stack of manuals in different languages. Svenska, anyone? So what puzzles me, is the nice carrying case. I donít know when I would need to hide it away, since the purpose of a Bluetooth headset was to have it near your head and hope you donít die from increased radiation exposure, but it is a really nice little bag, perhaps you have to put it in there when you run out of battery. But Iíll find a use for it.

Coming in at RM599 doesnít make this the cheapest headset available, but its discreetness and audio quality quickly makes up for it. As Chinese sayings go, you get what you pay for. I am impressed with the 1 line screen, itís a nice touch, but I wouldíve liked the entire device to be a little smaller, and the battery life to be a little longer. According to reviews, it will last 3 hours at most, so practically it will last you a day. But one of the reasons why I chose a Sony Ericsson over a better Jabra or Innovi or even a Logitech headset was because they all share the same charger. For me thatís more important Ė the ability to charge all my devices everywhere with the same charger. So for me, battery life is not an issue, I can charge it in the car or at any one of the many locations I frequently am located in.

Pairing was very simple, since there was a one line screen, at least I knew what was happening too. So that was good. And by the way, I lost my nice little supplied bag on the second day of usage. This always happens, and I never seem to learn. Oh wellÖ

What strikes me the first about the HBH-200 immediately is the crystal clear sound quality. It is generations better from the old HBH-30 that I used. That in itself justifies the rather hefty price tag. Now letís move on to usability issues that seem to have crept up.

Okay, so the one line display was cool. But I missed the blinking status light. For the 200, there is NO blinking lights, and the screen turns off its backlight after a couple of seconds, to conserve energy probably. So when it turns off you have no idea whatís happening, and to me, thatís a very bad thing. I remember when I was using the HBH-30 I always knew what was happening, and I marveled at the ingenuity of the battery status indicator, which flashes at intervals to indicate battery status. I also liked the fact that it was orange when charging, and red when there was not enough power remaining. For the new oneÖnone at all. I found that slightly disappointing.

Usability wise, its like a really huge clip, you know, and thereís the big end of the device, and thereís the smaller end of the device, where you connect the earpiece, or the charger. The screen is inclined for left hand users, I think. I would have liked to hold the device at the larger end, which was the end that you pressed on the clip? The screen is orientated in such a way that you have to either hold it with your left hand, or hold the smaller end with your right hand. I feel that itís a design flaw. Now, if only they made the device circular, like some of the MD remotes that you see, that would be much better.

Battery seriously doesnít last very long. But its okay, just keep the charger handy. The response time was also quite slow, waiting more than 10 seconds for the handsfree to send a signal to the phone to retrieve the last call list, and then sending another signal to call, would have preferred it to be done quicker.

Iím getting used to just hanging it on the lanyard around my neck, and clipping it on the inside of my shirt when I donít need it. And now, I discover what the supplied bag was for. Its to put the handsfree inside when you get out of the car, or when you are simply not using it.

Pros: Audio quality is top notch, informative one line display, comfortable to wear
Cons: Ergonomics, screen orientation, battery life, slow responses, no status indicator