Sony Ericsson W960i

To a causal observer it might seem like Sony Ericsson is hell-bent on running against accepted convention when it comes to mobile phone design at the moment. When we recently reviewed the K850i we expressed our astonishment at the somewhat unconventional D-pad, and while we were pleasantly surprised by the unorthodox design we concluded that it was something of a needless experiment on the part of the manufacturer.

Imagine the shock we had when we removed the new W960i from its protective packaging and discovered, to our horror, that SE had gone one better with this latest handset by removing the D-pad altogether.

Of course, this revelation isn't quite so heart-stopping when you consider that its predecessor, the camera-less 4GB Walkman-branded W950i, was also released 'sans D-pad'. You see, this latest mobile is primarily a smartphone and as was the case with the previous SE models in this class, the need for a D-pad is negligible when presence of a touchscreen interface is taken into account.

You might think this renders the W960i impotent as a gaming platform, but thankfully that isn't the case. Just as Nintendo's DS has revolutionized the way we play games, the touchscreen of this new handset gives developers the opportunity to create new and engaging interactive experiences which are perfectly capable of standing proud with the best mobile phone gaming can offer.

As inspiration, bundled with the W960 come QuadraPop and Vijay Singh Pro Golf 3D. The former is a fairly conservative puzzle game that looks nice on the W960's impressive 2.6-inch display but could easily have been achieved on even the most humble of handsets. The real draw here is the second game, which gives the phone an opportunity to flex its hardware-accelerated 3D muscle.

The level of graphic complexity is practically on par with many DS games and although the frame-rate isn't as smooth as we'd have liked, Vijay Singh Pro Golf 3D still looks gorgeous and is guaranteed to turn heads.

In terms of control, however, the game does sadly represent a missed opportunity – you're basically just tapping the screen to perform actions when you could, for instance, be using the stylus to draw motions that replicate swings. Still, this is a minor grievance and the game generally makes good use of the touchscreen when it comes to putting options at the player's fingertips, such as applying spin to your shots and selecting the appropriate club.

It's a testament to the quality of this captivating sports game that we spent so much time playing it during the course of this review, and it undoubtedly bodes well for future software on the W960i. The usual question remains, though: will developers support the touchscreen aspects of the phone or will they plump for the path of least resistance and simply port more traditional games to the W960i without embellishing them to make use of its innovative features? As always, time will tell, but if the latter route is taken then the phone will become next to useless as a gaming device thanks to the lack of D-pad and exceptionally awkward keypad.

Moving away from the interactive entertainment aspect of the handset for a moment, it's hard not to be impressed by what's on offer elsewhere. As you might expect from a modern smartphone the user interface is a joy to behold, with blissfully intuitive navigation and excellent accessibility.

For example, every aspect of the main standby screen can be interacted with. Fancy seeing how much battery you have left? Just tap the battery icon at the top of the screen and your remaining juice is displayed as a percentage. Want to change the time? A quick press on the clock will open up another menu that enables you to do just that, as well as setting alarms and other tasks.

Getting around the phone's menu system is a breeze thanks to the brilliant combination of the touchscreen and the good old 'Jog Wheel' – a classic interface concept that hardcore Sony fans will remember from the days before the company gleefully hopped into bed with former rival Ericsson.

When holding the phone it's possible to feather the Jog Wheel with your thumb and use your other hand to hold the stylus, enabling speedy and accurate navigation. Sure, it's a bit of a pain having to unclip the stylus all the time (using a finger is never as precise, we find) but it's a sacrifice worth making when such a fantastic degree of control is on offer.

Seeing as it's part of the now ubiquitous Walkman range, it's not surprising that the W960i showcases a wonderfully refined music player. After several years of developing and cultivating the 'Walkman phone' concept, SE has pretty much got it down to a fine art now. The player is capable of displaying album artwork, it has neat little animations that react to the music as it's being played and the 8GB of onboard storage should keep even the most avid music listener contented.

Many people lambasted the W950 for lacking a camera and SE has wisely taken this criticism on board. The W960i therefore comes replete with a 3.2-megapixel snapper. Picture quality is encouraging but with what is now arguably deemed to be an entry-level megapixel count, the W960i is hardly in a position to challenge the more dedicated photo-happy handsets currently standing at the vanguard of the market.

Given the numerous compelling features shoehorned into the W960i, it's no surprise to discover the phone is a little on the plump side, weighing in at 119g. Having said that, it's still relatively thin and the above-average width actually allows the phone to sit comfortably in the palm of your hand.

Pleasing ergonomics aside, the rather cheap-looking appearance is likely to divide opinion and the feeble stylus and thick protective layer that resides over the touchscreen are unquestionably a huge disappointment (the latter makes it hard to view the screen when used under natural light), especially when you consider the impeccable build quality of previous SE smartphones.

The W960i is certainly a tricky phone to recommend without reservations. The new user interface is one of the best we've ever seen on a phone and the potential for touchscreen gaming is immense. Sadly, we've seen such promise squandered in the past and it would be naive to expect a flood of worthy titles to appear in the near future so we must remain cautiously optimistic. Nevertheless, the W960i is off to a wonderful start; the bundled Vijay Singh Pro Golf 3D remains one of the more compelling sports titles we've yet witnessed on a mobile phone and the exceptional features housed within the phone's admittedly clunky exterior are likely to please even the most discerning mobile user.

Sony Ericsson W960i

A successful fusion of smartphone and Walkman, the W960i certainly has plenty of latent potential as a gaming device, but it remains to be seen if developers will take up the challenge
Damien  McFerran
Damien McFerran
Damien's mum hoped he would grow out of playing silly video games and gain respectable employment. Perhaps become a teacher or a scientist, that kind of thing. Needless to say she now weeps openly whenever anyone asks how her son's getting on these days.