Sony Ericsson T610 Cellphone
Date introduced: 2003 Design by: Erik Ahlgren Words and pictures: Adam Richardson
Back at a time when Nokia dominated the world cellphone market with a blizzard of product offerings, the recently-merged Sony and Ericsson needed to come out with a strong product statement that would put them on the map. The T610 was the result, the first really new phone from the combined company. In fact, it proved to be a pivotal product that allowed the joint venture to have its first profitable quarter, thereby making a business case for good design, years ahead of the iPhone.
In contrast to the frumpy Ericsson legacy models, and the increasingly weird and whacky Nokias (such as this and this), Sony Ericsson's designer, Erik Ahlgren, chose a clean aesthetic that seamlessly blended Scandinavian design and the best of Sony's design language.
Before we get to looking at the design, let's get a few of the T610's impressive specs out of the way:
- A whopping 128 by 160 pixel screen, about 1/10 typical of today's smartphone screens. To be fair, at the time this was considered large for a color screen.
- 0.1 megapixel (not a typo) camera, which was small even by the standards of the day, somewhat belying Sony Ericsson's claim for the phone to be a multimedia device. Today's phones' sensors are typically more than 100x larger.
- On the other hand, here's a spec today's phones can only dream about: 315 hours of standby time - that's almost two weeks between charges!
(Click any image to enlarge)
For my money, the T610 is the ideal size and shape for a mobile phone: Highly pocketable, comfortable to hold, easy to pick up. Today's smartphones emphasize large screens and thin bodies, which makes them unwieldy to hold and operate. By contrast, the T610's compact size and relatively thick body make the phone very easy to use one-handed, and the subtly scalloped side surfaces give extra security of grip. It's fairly light at 95g (3.4oz).
Ahlgren, who is Swedish, paid great attention to detail, with the result that the phone is deceptively simple looking but has nuances around its whole form. If you look carefully, you'll notice that every single element of the phone is either a rectangle, circle, or pill shape (a rectangle with full rounds at either end). A great example of creating a clean, cohesive look without being overly simplistic.
"Actually the T610 doesn't have a single straight line. Even though the total effect isn't curved at all." - Erik Ahlgren, designer
The phone looks like a plain rectangular block, but it has subtle curves all over. The top and bottom edges are the more obvious, but look closely and you'll notice that even the sides bulge outward ever so slightly. Like the columns of the Parthenon, the T610 is curved in order to look straight. The total effect is to make to the phone inviting to pick up and hold.
Rather than the torturously curved button shapes that were in vogue at the time, Ahlgren went with simple pill shapes. These are arranged in curved rows to avoid being too rigidly grid-like. The buttons are backlit. A neat UI shortcut was that the 12 buttons corresponded to 12 icons on the homescreen, giving 1-click access to core functions.
The mini joystick was adapted from some earlier models, and in the days prior to touchscreens it was a rapid way to navigate the UI. In addition to the up-down-left-right, the joystick could also be clicked down to select something. The small square at the center of the joystick was lit in green. The joystick sits in a hemispherical pocket, and is surround by four keys in a pill shape: Two soft keys for commands on the screen, and Back and Clear (or Escape) buttons.
On the side, the camera button is where a shutter button normally would be (top right corner) when holding phone in horizontal mode to take a photo.
The shell is a combination of anodized aluminum and piano-black gloss plastic. It has a nice coolness to the touch, though over time the case gets quite creaky, which robs it of a real high-end feel. And as you can see in the photos, the aluminum gets a bit banged up with use.
Unfortunately the T610 uses Ericsson's legacy power charging port. The power connector is a plasticky affair that you're never sure is seated properly.
The T610 was one of the first phones to use Sony Ericsson's new logo mark, the green and silver stylized "S" and "e". This was designed by Takuya Kawagoi, who at the time was Art Director at Sony Ericsson, and who I've been friends with since his early days at Sony in the 1990's (he's now General Manager of Sony Creative Center in Tokyo after stints heading Sony Design Centers in UK and Singapore).
Starting a Family
The T610 kicked off a family look for Sony Ericsson with a strong consistency of the user interface, and a core design language that evolved in various flavors. Gathered in the image below are three variants: the original T610, a W810 Walkman phone (which I wrote effervescently about on my other blog), and the T650i from 2007 that is a direct descendent of the T610.
What gives it soul?
The stream of phones announced each year back in 2003 was enormous, driven by complicated segmentation and minor feature differentiation (these were known as "feature phones" for a reason). Driven to differentiate, designs became more a more baroque: swooping curves, and crazy button layouts that got harder to use with each generation.
Into this bewildering sea of bling stepped the T610, a breath of fresh air with its clean and sensible design that was simultaneously striking and familiar, modern and comfortable. Like many of the products we feature here on Mass Made Soul, it shows a clear personality that can be traced back to the individual designer (Ahlgren) and the company behind it. And it stands out from the crowd without being aggressively in-your-face about it.